What is Open? History and Open Education Resources

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Sean Kheraj

For the past few months, Tom Peace and I have been writing an open education resource textbook with support from eCampus Ontario. This is a free, online textbook in Canadian history intended to complement John Belshaw’s two open textbooks, Canadian History: Pre-Confederation and Canadian History: Post-Confederation. We’ve called this textbook, Open History Seminar: Canadian History and it is a collection of primary and secondary sources for tutorials and seminars.

I started using Belshaw’s textbooks in my undergraduate Canadian history survey course in 2016. I was thoroughly pleased with it. The book reflected recent scholarship in the field, it was fully online and available in multiple formats (PDF, EPUB, MOBI, etc.), it included numerous photos, videos and other resources, and it could be easily read on a smartphone. As an open textbook, the digital versions were free and low-cost print copies were available for order on demand. The only thing missing was a complementary document reader for my tutorials.

Like many other course instructors, I like to assign a primary source reader for tutorials in my Canadian history survey course. These textbooks introduce students to critical reading of historical documents by curating the documents and accompanying them with secondary analysis and interpretations. I just needed an open textbook version to add to Belshaw’s books. When eCampus Ontario reached out to Tom and I with support to develop open education resources to complement Belshaw’s textbooks, we jumped on the opportunity and launched Open History Seminar.

Readers can already take a look at what we’re called our “beta” version of Open History Seminar: Canadian History. The textbook includes historical documents and secondary interpretations built on the PressBooks platform, an open-source e-book creation platform that itself is a layer built atop WordPress. We also added a WordPress plugin called Hypothes.is, a group annotation tool that allows students to highlight and annotate the documents as they read. Students will be able to see the annotations of their classmates as they read before class. They can post questions, highlight sections that stood out, and write critical commentary. We hope this tool will facilitate exercises in active reading.

Our process of writing chapters for this book has been relatively straight forward:

  1. Determine topics.
  2. Search for and acquire public domain and open access resources for each chapter.
  3. Transcribe those resources into PressBooks.
  4. Draft introductions and discussion questions for each chapter.

It has been the second step in this process that has proved to be the most challenging. Finding historical documents in the public domain is mostly a simple task for the period prior to the twentieth century. As we proceeded with work on the chapters covering the twentieth century, open primary sources became more difficult to find. Newspaper articles? Nope. Magazines? Nope. Many of the digitized historical documents in twentieth-century Canadian history are restricted by copyright. That left us with published government documents (public domain) and sources that creators have voluntarily made open and accessible. Our best resource has been Internet Archive.

Finding open-access secondary sources has been even more challenging. Although SSHRC and the other Tri-Council federal funding agencies in Canada have adopted an open-access policy, many journals adhering to this policy are still sorting out the often difficult aspects of open-access publishing. One of the problems we found was ambiguity around the terms of each journal’s open-access policies. SSHRC’s policy “is based on the idea that the products of research (i.e., full-text publications and research data) should be available to the user free of charge and without restrictions.” However, the terms of use for open-access journal articles are not always made clear on journal websites.

For the development of an open education resource, clarity of the terms of use is crucial. Is this article free to read? Free to copy? Free to re-publish? Free to re-mix? In order for the Hypothes.is plugin to function on Open History Seminar, we needed to transcribe all our sources in HTML directly on our website. This was, in effect, a re-printing of these sources. Do open-access journals allow for this? It wasn’t always clear.

Thankfully, this is a problem that copyright scholars and activists thought about and solved years ago. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that created a simple system for communicating copyright terms to users. Lawrence Lessig, one of the founders of Creative Commons, describes it as follows:

Its aim is to build a layer of reasonable copyright on top of the extremes that now reign. It does this by making it easy for people to build upon other people’s work, by making it simple for creators to express the freedom for others to take and build upon their work. Simple tags, tied to human-readable descriptions, tied to bulletproof licenses, make this possible.[1]

Open-access journals could more easily communicate the terms of use for their articles by adopting these simple Creative Commons tags. This website and several academic journals already use Creative Commons tags. Last February, the Network in Canadian History and Environment launched its own open-access, peer-reviewed publication that prominently displays its Creative Commons tags at the bottom of each article. Users are free to read each article, download those articles, copy those articles, and remix those articles so long as the user attributes the authors and uses the articles for non-commercial purposes. The terms are simple and clear. Users do not need to contact the publisher to request permission.

As scholarly journals move toward the full implementation of the Tri-Council open access policy, they should also consider adopting these Creative Commons tags. Clear, simple terms for the use of open-access materials will help facilitate the creation of new scholarship and the development of open education resources. This is the full potential of open-access publishing.

Sean Kheraj is an associate professor of Canadian and environmental history at York University. Find out more about his work at http://seankheraj.com.


[1] Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, (New York: Penguin, 2004) 282.

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4 thoughts on “What is Open? History and Open Education Resources

  1. Mary-Ann Shantz

    Sean, this is a great project. Are you able to use primary source footage from the CBC Digital Archives? I use CBC radio and television footage all the time in class for the 1940s on, but I’m not sure of the logistics of uploading this content to your own site.

  2. Pingback: Digital History in the Classroom (For Beginners!) – ActiveHistory.ca

  3. Sean Kheraj

    We’re able to embed video in the book. We do this with videos from NFB. We are limited, however, to video that is in the public domain or we have copyright permission to use and distribute as an open educational resource to others. This would preclude use of most CBC Digital Archive materials that are not in the public domain, unfortunately.

  4. Pingback: Making an Open Textbook in Canadian History – Sean Kheraj: Canadian History and Environment

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