Fragment: On Reproducible Open Educational Resources

Via O’Reilly’s daily Four Short Links feed, I notice the Open Logic Project, “a collection of teaching materials on mathematical logic aimed at a non-mathematical audience, intended for use in advanced logic courses as taught in many philosophy departments”. In particular, “it is open-source: you can download the LaTeX code [from Github]”.


the TeX source does mean you need a (La)TeX environment to run it (and the project does bundle some of the custom .sty style files you need in the repo, which is handy).

Compare this with the Simple Maths Equations and Notation notebook I’ve started sketching as part of a self-started, informal “reproducible OERs with Jupyter notebooks” project I’m dabbling with:

Here, a Jupyter notebook contains LaTeX code can then be rendered (in part?) through the notebook previewer – at least in so far as expressions are written in Mathjax parseable code – and also within a live / running Jupyter notebook. Not only do I share the reproducible source code (as a notebook), I also share a link to at least one environment capable of running it, and that allows it to be reused with modification. (Okay, in this case, not openly so because you have to have an Azure Notebooks account. But the notebook could equally run on Binderhub or a local install, perhaps with one or two additional requirements if you don’t already run a scientific Python environment.)

In short, for a reproducible OER that supports reuse with modification, sharing the means of production also means sharing the machinery of production.

To simplify the user experience, the notebook environment can be preinstalled with packages needed to render a wider range of TeX code, such as drawings rendered using TikZ. Alternatively, code cells can be populated with package installation commands to custom a more vanilla environment, as I do in several demo notebooks:

What the Open Logic Project highlights is that reproducible OERs not only provide ready access to the “source code” of a resource so that it can be easily reused with modification, but that access to an open environment capable of processing that source code and rendering the output document also needs to be provided. (Open / reproducible science researchers have known this for some time…)

Getting a Tex/LateX environment up and running can be a faff – and can also take up a lot of disk space – so the runtime environment requirements are not negligible.

In the case of Jupyter notebooks, LateX support is available, and container images capable of running on Binderhub, for example, relatively easily defined (see for example the Binder LateX example). (I’m not sure how rich Stencila support for LaTeX is too, and/or whether it requires an external LaTeX environment when running the Stencila desktop app?)

It also strikes me that another thing we should be doing is export a copy of the finished work, eg as a PDF or complete, self-standing HTML archive, in case the machinery does break. This is also important where third party services are called. It may actually make sense to use something like requests for all third party URL requests, and save a cached version of all requests (using requests-cache) to provide a local copy of whatever it was that was called when originally flowing the document.

See also: OER Methods – Generative Designs for Reuse-With-Modification

Author: Tony Hirst

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

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