OpenLearn ebooks, for free, courtesy of OpenLearn RSS and Feedbooks…

A couple of weeks ago, I popped the Stanza ebook reader application on my iPod Touch (it’s been getting some good reviews, too: Phone Steals Lead Over Kindle ). I didn’t add any ebooks to it, but it did come with a free sample book, so when I was waiting for a boat on my way home last week, I had a little play and came away convinced that I would actually be able to read a long text from it.

So of course, of course, the next step was to have a go at converting OpenLearn courses to an ebook format and see how well they turned out…

There are a few ebook converters out there, such as the Bookglutton API that will “accept HTML documents and generates EPUB files. Post a valid HTML file or zipped HTML archive to this url to get an EPUB version as the response” for example, so it is possible to upload a download(!) of an OpenLearn unit ‘print version’ (a single HTML page version of an OpenLearn unit) or upload the zipped HTML version of a unit (although in that case you have to meddle with the page names so they are used in the correct order when generating the ebook).

The Stanza desktop app, free as a beta download at the moment, but set to be (affordable) payware later this year can also handle epub generation (in fact, it will output an ebook in all manner of formats).

The easiest way I’ve found to generate ebooks though is, of course, feed powered:-) Sign up for an account with Feedbooks, click on the news icon (err…?!) and then add a feed (err…?!)

(Okay, so the interface is a little hard to navigate at times… No big obvious way to “Add feed here”, for example, that uses a version of the feed icon as huge visual cue, but maybe that’ll come…)

Once the feed is added, it synchs and you have your ebook. So for example, here are a couple of Feedbooks powered by OpenLearn unit RSS feeds:

RSS Feedbook ebookfor the OpenLearn unit “Parliament and the law”http://feedbooks.com/feed/6906.epub
RSS Feedbook ebook for the OpenLearn unit “Introducing consciousness”http://feedbooks.com/feed/6905.epub

Getting the ebook in Stanza on the iPod Touch/iPhone is also a little clunky at the the moment, although once it’s there it works really well. Whilst there is a route directly to Feedbooks from the app (as well as feed powered ebooks, Feedbooks also acts as a repository for a reasonable selection of free ebooks taht can be pulled into the iPhione Stanza app quite easily), the only way I could find to view my RSS powered feedbooks was to enter the URL; and on the iPod, the feedbook URLs were hard to find: logging in to my account on the Feedbooks site and clicking the ebook link just gave an error as the iPod tried to open a document format it couldn’t handle – and Safari wouldn’t show me the URL in the address bar (it redirected somewhere).

Anyway, user interface issues aside, the route to ebookdom for the OpenLearn materials is essentially a straightforward one – grab a unit content RSS feed, paste it into Feedbooks to generate an ePub book, and then view it in Stanza. The Feedbooks folks are working on extending their API too, so hopefully better integration within Stanza should be coming along shortly.

Once the feedbook has been synched to the Stanza iPhod app, it stays there – no further internet connection required. One neat feature of the app is that each book in your collection is bookmarked at the place you left off reading it, so you could have several OpenLearn units on the go at the same time, accessing them all offline, and being able to click back to exactly the point where you left it.

At the moment the ebooks that Feedbooks generates don’t contain images, so it might not be appropriate to try to read every OpenLearn unit as a Feedbooks ebook. There are also issues where units refer out to additional resources – external readings in the form of linked PDFs, or audio and video assets, but for simple text dominated units, the process works really well.

(I did wonder if Feedbooks replaced images from the OpenLearn units with their alt text, or transclusion of linked to longdesc descriptions, but apparently not. No matter though, as it seems that many OpenLearn images aren’t annotated with description text…)

If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, and do nothing else this week, get Stanza installed and have a play with Feedbooks…

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

7 thoughts on “OpenLearn ebooks, for free, courtesy of OpenLearn RSS and Feedbooks…”

  1. Another useful thing to know is the eBook conversion program Calibre, from http://calibre.kovidgoyal.net , for the Sony Readers.

    The program has a rather poor UI, but that’s because it’s built to the lowest common denominator for easy cross-platform compilation – and indeed, it’s available on Windows, OS X and Linux. It’s focussed primarily on Sony eBook Readers, and can convert to Sony’s proprietary format or to EPUB (the best contender for a true eBook standard format, which is supported by many readers, including Stanza) from almost all other (DRM-free) formats.

    It can also assemble eBooks on demand from RSS feeds using powerful scripting – not particularly friendly, but very flexible – and there are dozens of popular feed “recipes” already included. The clever bit is that it can do stuff like combine a feed of headings with the article pages to result in a constructed eBook with full BBC News articles in it, for example.

    It’s ugly but very impressive.

  2. Thanks for this post. I hadn’t played with Stanza on the iPhone much since finishing Little Brother. Now I’m enthralled again.

  3. @jeffrey I don’t suppose you’ve cobbled together a feed processing recipe for Calibre that will do something sensible with OpenLearn content, have you?

    Any ideas if anyone has cobbled together recipes for any of the other OER sites?

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