Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

PDF is Where OER’s Go to Die (#OER)

by Clint Lalonde, : PDF is where OER’s go to die

I really dislike PDF. No, really. Dislike is too measured a term. I hate it. I want to declare war on the tyranny of PDF for content that has been licensed for modification and remixing.

We WANT to reuse!

As part of the BC Open Textbook project, we want to start from the point of building on what others have done before; to realize the promise and potential of OER reuse. It only makes sense that we try to reuse what already exists in the commons and avoid recreating the wheel?  Why create a Calculus textbook when a half dozen already exist that can be modified?

There is no shortage of OER material

It doesn’t take a deep immersion into the world of OER to see that there is no lack of OER material. The OER movement has been around for over a decade and in that time, vast repositories of openly licensed content have been created and collected and sit in repositories (including BC’s own SOLR where 10 years worth of Online Program Development Fund projects are stored). Developing resources from scratch isn’t an issue. But reusing those objects or improving those resources? Um, well….

Okay, we have pretty well solved the legal issues around modification

In the early days of the web,there were very few mechanisms that would allow people to legally copy, reuse and modify material found on the web. Copyright was rigid and worked against the principle of reuse. Well, that environment has changed immensely in the past decade with the rise of licenses like Creative Commons, which allows content authors to specify up front how their content can be used. We now have a large body of work licensed in a way that allows for reuse. That legal impediment to reuse has been dealt with, and we have content that authors have legally given others the right to remix and modify. We have crossed that hurdle.

Now it is a technical hurdle

And this is a massive problem (at least for me right now), as anyone who has spent any amount of time trying to convert documents from one format to another knows. I am finding some great CC-BY licensed resources locked away in technical formats that, for all practical purposes, makes reuse near impossible (yes, I am looking squarely at you, PDF. Flash, you are not far behind).

In other words, I can legally modify and reuse this material because the license says I can, but in practical real terms, I cannot because the content is locked in an unmixable format.

Content that is made available in a legal format for modifying, but is not made technically available for modifying seems so self-defeating. Sure, go ahead and use my content, you have my permission, here is my PDF file .

It feels like we are crossing one cultural hurdle around reuse (ownership, licensing, etc) only to be faced with another in that we cannot technically modify what we have been given the legal right to.

It can be done, but…

Content can be liberated from PDF documents, but it is a difficult, expensive, nit-picky process that requires a lot of manual work by people with some tech chops. To expect an average user to be able to liberate content in a PDF and make it into a reusable format that can then be output to a number of different formats cleanly is just not going to happen.

It doesn’t have to be this way

So, I make a bit of a plea. If you are creating content and have made the decision to license with a CC license that allows others to modify (and good on ya!), please consider making that content available in technical formats that can be remixed and modified. Even Word documents are preferable to PDF. Make the source files available.

A deliverable for the open textbook project I hope to achieve

This is my own personal goal for our project. To make available open textbooks in as many remixable formats as we can so that what we create can not only be legally modified, but technically. I want to make our source files available so that other can use what we have done.

And I want to take that a step further. If we convert a locked PDF document that is released under a CC-BY license into another format for reuse, then I want to make those source files available. It seems like we should be able to do that as it will be part of our normal workflow anyway. So, hopefully, in addition to creating new content as part of this project, we will be able to make available other existing open textbook materials that are locked away in PDF documents available for others to reuse. If we could do that as a natural byproduct of our work, that would be a victory in the ongoing battle to end the tyranny of PDF.

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Note : There are useful information shared in the comments of this post.


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  1. PDF is Where OER’s Go to Die (#OER) | The...
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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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