R@R(D)SVS: Open Textbook Interview

Illustration of a rat and text: RatR(D)SVS

In the second of our Open Education Week 2024 open textbook interviews, Charlie Farley  talks to Dr Jill Mackay, Senior Lecturer (Veterinary Medical Education) at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. Dr Mackay is a proponent of open science, and particularly exploring how education research can adopt open science practices. She has created and published multiple OER, including the open textbook R@R(D)SVS designed to help staff and students get to grips with with R programming.


Charlie Farley   
Could you take us back to when and why you decided to create your open textbook? 

Dr Jill MacKay
It was 2020 and I had an undergraduate course where I was teaching R which itself is an open-source software. We were all teaching from home, and I was hunched over my kitchen table struggling to upload five or six video lectures a week on our poor internet connection.  

Since I already had demonstration and tutorial videos I’d created as open educational resources I thought I’d write my course as an open textbook, so that everyone had easy access to it.  

Charlie Farley  
How did you find the process of creating an open textbook, specifically in GitHub? 

Dr Jill MacKay  
Because I was using R, I was using a thing called R Markdown which is easy to create into a book form. GitHub has lots of facility in terms of workflow including notebooks that are designed to make little open resource textbooks.  

It also has branches which are very useful. A branch is where you can develop new content without affecting the main textbook. For example, I want to add a new statistics chapter and the way I will do that is to make a new branch so that I can work on it in the background and then when I’m ready that will switch forward into the main text branch that the website draws from 

You can kind of take GitHub as far as you want because you can just use it as a repository. It’s going to host these materials, or you can start to use these tools that GitHub gives you for collaborative working.  

One of the great things about being open is that other people can make it better as well. There was a part in the textbook where somebody, who I believe he’s part of the NHS, spotted a mistake. He raised the issue on GitHub, I was able to accept his correction, and he’s now logged in GitHub to show that he’s contributed to the open textbook. I think it’s great and I would love it if more of that would happen because that to me is exactly what open is meant to be. 

Charlie Farley 
Do you have any tips that you’d share for somebody if they wanted to create an open textbook in in GitHub? 

Dr Jill MacKay  
Go and have a good Google around, or your search engine of choice. People quite often have made blogs talking about their experience putting a textbook up. Sometimes GitHub’s own help can be a little bit dense I think because it is written by people who are very, very good at coding, whereas I’m not, but there’s often other people in the world who have tried it and have written it in a slightly more accessible way. 

Charlie Farley    
How was it received by your students and within your teaching? 

Dr Jill MacKay  
It was great! I had students who came to me and said, we saw you did it like this in the open textbook, and then some students have taken it further. Which is perfect. It really gave some students the ability to expand their scope, which is lovely because that’s exactly what you want. 

Other people who have found it useful are our postgraduate students, particularly our PhD research students because they’re able to dip in and out of it at their own time. Also, because they can reach out to me and talk to me about it, they’re more confident to say, I don’t really understand why this isn’t working. And sometimes I’ll read and go, oh I see why you don’t understand that. I can update the open textbook to make that clearer. 

Another thing that’s quite cool about it is having a live resource and making sure that you’re always reflecting best practice. And I think that’s something that I really like about it being an online textbook is that it’s got this ability to grow and to change.

Dogslife height and weight data - the first 7 years of the cohort

Dogslife is a longitudinal, online study of the health of pedigree UK Kennel Club registered Labrador Retrievers in the UK. CC BY 4.0 data set from Edinburgh’s DataShare

Charlie Farley   And you mentioned some of your colleagues have been interacting with it as well. 

Dr Jill MacKay   Yes, people will have a look at it if they need to check something or see how to rearrange data in R. One of the things I think is helpful about it is because the examples are, here’s a data set on dogs, and it has relevance for the vet school context. 


Charlie Farley  
Would you consider making another open textbook? 

Dr Jill MacKay  
Yes, I’m currently making a companion resource to a new MSc course, Research Methods and Data Analysis (IAWEL), which is going live in April.  There’s a whole lecture on different types of data visualizations and for every statistic or chart the companion resource will show how it was made in detail, so they can replicate it themselves. 

One of the things I think people worry about with open educational resource is if I make it and somebody else uses it, am I missing out? 

I’ve just had a traditional research textbook chapter published and I don’t think that takes away from the fact that I have this open textbook published. Those are not to conflicting things to me. To me, those are two different types of resource that are both used in my teaching. 


You can find Dr Jill Mackay’s other OER on her webpage: https://jillymackay.com/oer