Category Archives: iPad

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OU ebook

Are ebooks better than virtual learning environments?

Category : Content , iPad , Mobile Learning

OU ebookOk I’m not exactly comparing like with like here but I am very interested in the potential of ebooks as an alternative way of structuring learning experiences – particularly where there is a large amount of reading involved.

With the growing penetration of tablet devices (ownership in the US doubled to 19% over last Christmas) ebooks now have enormous potential for providing learning opportunities. And with nearly a third of UK citizens already owning a smartphone, many of them may be prepared to study extensively from ebooks on smaller screens. Due to my deteriorating eyesight I’m not one of them; tablets are clearly more comfortable devices for extended periods of study so this post relates mainly to tablets.

While the information delivered through an ebook may be identical to that provided on a website, there are several attributes of ebooks which may make them more appealing to learners than accessing content in a VLE:

Learners can own an ebook – they can’t own their institution’s VLE
An ebook is a digital version of a familiar physical product that people have grown up with. Physical books cost money and the transition to paying for a digital copy may not be too painful but people don’t like to pay for access to websites, showing that they value ebooks more. This sense of ownership may encourage learners to engage more with the content of an ebook than a website.

Ebooks can be viewed offline
Once you’ve taken possession of your ebook onto your device you’re free to view it whenever you like which is particularly useful when travelling or away from internet access.

Ebooks are self-contained
The web is a confusing place with an overwhelming number of sites and pages. It’s easy to get distracted when using the web by hyperlinks and other applications.

Ebook readers on tablets take up the whole screen
A web browser has all sorts of tool bars, menus and icons which may distract the reader and provide a less immersive experience than reading an ebook on a tablet.

You know how much you’ve read and how much there is to go
By default an ebook clearly signposts how far through its content you are. Websites may not make this clear – and indeed can’t normally do this as precisely as ebooks due to the variable page lengths of the web.

Automatic pagination makes reading easier
Due to the variety of devices, browsers and configurations, the designer of a web page cannot produce content that will consistently fill the entire screen. Users have a more complex navigational process which may involve vertical scrolling as well as page turning. One of the key features of ebook reader software is the automatic repagination to suit the platform and user preferences such as font size.

Page turning is physically easier with an ebook on a tablet
The touch screen of a tablet or smartphone allows the user to move forwards and backwards between pages with a touch or swipe – a simpler and faster process than turning the page of a physical book and also much easier than using a mouse to navigate to and click on a particular part of a web page.

Far be it from me to suggest that the VLE is dead but given all the affordances of ebooks accessed on tablets it looks like much of the learning activity currently taking place in VLEs is heading to the ebook instead.

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ibook example

First impressions of iBooks 2

Category : iPad , Mobile Learning

I’ve finally managed to install iBooks 2 and the example book “Life on Earth”. This was a frustrating process that took two and a half hours of upgrades and downloads, requiring the right versions of iOS and iTunes with various reboots of both the PC and the iPad. Arguably I should have upgraded to iOS5 long ago but I didn’t when it was released because of allegations that it wasn’t robust.

On the first attempt to “read” the Life on Earth iBook the app hung and I had to reboot the iPad – again. On the second attempt it crashed during one of the interactives requiring me to start at the beginning.

When it worked it was an enjoyable experience with beautiful images, useful videos and informative interactives – and you can envisage the transformational effects this kind of experience will have for millions of learners in the very near future. There’s nothing that isn’t already done through applications on PCs or via web browsers but a few things make it inherently better on a tablet: portability, use of the touch screen for interaction and page turning, the book metaphor itself rather than the browser metaphor which frequently requires vertical scrolling, the feeling of immersiveness you get because it’s not within a browser window, and no need for internet connectivity once it’s downloaded.

My inclination was however to “play”, looking for the next fun thing to do rather than to read the text. Presumably many learners, particularly those who’ve grown up without reading much, would act in the same way.

To be really useful in education on a massive scale a few things need to be sorted out with iBooks 2:

1. The bugs need to be fixed so the app actually works – or the entire slickness of the user experience is wrecked. It’s surprising that Apple released an app with such fanfare which falls over so easily (at least on my iPad).
2. Players need to be developed for web browsers, android tablets etc.
3. Authoring tools need to be developed for other platforms too so you’re not forced to buy a Mac.
4. You must be able to get hold of the books without going through the iTunes Store.
5. The iBooks 2 format needs to be as open as ePub. Fellow tweeters assure me that it is based on HTML5 and JavaScript but I’d be very surprised if these books work seamlessly as they don’t even work properly on Apple’s own app.

Given the incredible commercial success of tying in the iPad so closely to the iTunes store numbers 2 to 5 aren’t going to happen any time soon which leads me to think that an enhanced ePub-type competitor format which runs on and can be developed on all platforms, and distributed freely, is necessary.

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Mock-up of new mobile interface for OU course websites

Can technology significantly impact learning before it has been commoditised?

I’ve just had some interesting conversations at an event for new OU module chairs at Cranfield University after presenting on some of the possibilities of elearning for our students.

One academic wondered how he could be expected to design courses for smartphones and tablets when the University was not prepared to buy him these devices – and wouldn’t even upgrade his operating system to Windows 2010 from Windows 2003. Well he clearly had an axe to grind on the latter issue, justifiably perhaps, but he may be missing the point: the tools are primarily server side and all he needs to access them both for authoring and consuming is a web browser. Also if he develops content using our XML-based structured content system the module websites that he creates should automatically look good on a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop – without him having to do anything different for each platform.

Mock-up of new mobile interface for OU course websites

Mock-up of new mobile interface for OU course websites

Some of these devices do of course have clear affordances which may facilitate learning experiences only possible on that device – and necessitate alternative designs for different platforms. Thus writing an essay on a smartphone doesn’t make a lot of sense but learning applications involving geo-spatial awareness may well do. Similarly the touch-screen interface of an iPad makes it much easier to manipulate images than using a mouse with your desktop PC. So a visual learning activity designed for a tablet might not work on a desktop.

There is a very good argument that this lecturer will never be able to see the pedagogic potential of these devices unless he not only gets them to play about with but takes personal ownership of them and uses them in his daily life.

However another argument that occurred to me this week is that we only ever see significant adoption of technologies for teaching and learning when these are already commoditised. Thus while early adopters pioneered the use of the web browser for teaching in the mid ‘90s it was only a few years later when most people were googling for information and shopping online that the web really began to take off in education.

Similarly we’re now getting 10% of our students accessing our online systems from mobile devices on a regular basis. The number is growing rapidly but probably more because smartphones are taking off in society than because we’re providing useful podcasts and websites optimised for small screens.

I’ve seen a big change in attitudes over the past few years. As the internet encroaches on many aspects of life, and people become ever more used to googling, social networking etc, there are few people who don’t recognise that there must be at least some benefits of studying online. No longer do people say “Why is the OU moving online?” though there are reasonable objections of course to studying online exclusively. The innovators and early adopters need to keep pushing the limits but should we accept that most of our innovations will have minimal impact on learners until similar devices and applications are mainstreamed in society?

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Pile of papers

Paperless. Done.

Category : iPad

Pile of papers

The filing cabinet may have to be nex

I’ve finally bitten the bullet and gone paperless.  I hardly ever look at any of the junk I accumulate in my filing cabinet anyway so it’s all gone in the bin or the shredder.  Everything I need (except a few things which will be scanned) is now in digital format.  So why did I keep all this stuff anyway?

  • I didn’t review what I kept on a regular basis to see if it was worth holding onto
  • For absurd sentimental reasons e.g. offprints of papers I’d written (which are digitally preserved anyway)
  • Some items I had only on paper – e.g. papers people had given me, reports I’d picked up etc
  • Until I got an iPad I felt it was easier to read long documents on paper than on the screen

To preserve the near empty state of my filing cabinet I have a cunning plan:

  • Ask people to send me digitally anything they hand me on paper to which I think I might wish to refer again
  • Instead of printing out articles read them on the iPad and bookmark them with Delicious
  • Scan in anything worth keeping which is not already digital and ditch the original

I have a slight confession to make at this point.  I’m not really paperless yet – I still have bookshelves.  This is mainly because books look nice and I like to be surrounded by them not because I refer to them very often.  Ditching my books, as recommended by Alexander Halavais, is a step too far for me at this point.  But I’m thinking about it.

Nearly empty filing cabinet

The entire contents of my filing cabinet. Even this will be gone soon.

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Google sidewiki

Annotation – the missing element in iPad-based learning

I’ve been getting a bit obsessed recently about the importance of annotation functionality, as a number of my long-suffering colleagues will testify.  Here’s my logic:

  1. iPads and other ebook readers will increasingly replace paper
  2. Some learners, particularly children, will make the transition away from paper now very quickly and be happy to study considerable amounts of textual content from iPads (and a whole range of even better devices under development)
  3. When reading educational content most learners will want to take notes in order to help them concentrate, reflect, and for future revision
  4. The success of social networking, social bookmarking etc suggests that many learners may wish to share their annotations and view the annotations of others

Trying out various systems and in conversations with people here including Anna de Liddo, Louise Olney, Jason Platts and Colin Chambers, I’ve been clarifying my thoughts on the features an ideal annotation system for learning in a social context should comprise:

While I’ve been talking primarily about an iPad app so far, working offline, the system would ideally work with content viewed on any web browser as well.  Google sidewiki is an example of a basic system which allows you to annotate any web page.  Cohere is a much more sophisticated system which also allows you to build up concept maps collaboratively.

An issue with both systems is that they require adaptations to the web browser – a plug-in for Firefox or IE for example.  We could potentially build similar functionality into Moodle so that it works on any browser – but then you’d only be able to annotate content presented in Moodle.  I like the idea of the system sitting outside the LMS/VLE so that you can annotate anything found on the web.

Google sidewiki

Making an annotation
While viewing content in a web page or ebook you can select some text you wish to annotate.  That text is then placed into an area at the side of the document or superimposed on it temporarily.  You can edit the text and add comments and tags.

Sharing annotations
You can opt to keep the annotation private or to share it with various groups (this is where the annotation system could link to the LMS/VLE for greater usefulness) e.g. tutor group, course, the University, the world or a user-defined group.

Viewing annotations
A web page shows all the annotations you have made, organisable by document name, date of annotation, tags etc.  When browsing documents you’ve annotated the relevant text is highlighted, and you can see the annotation if you want to.  In addition you can see the annotations of people in the groups you belong to or your friends.

Friends, rating and reputation
As with Facebook, Twitter etc you can choose to follow people whose annotations you like.  You’re prompted in some way when they’ve made a new annotation.  You can choose to rate their annotations and this leads to reputations for some people as great annotators.  That may prove motivational for some people and also allow others to identify the best annotators.

Social bookmarking
As well as annotating text you can annotate an entire document or webpage, tag it and share it in the same way as other annotations.  This amounts to the same kind of thing as a social bookmarking system.

Good annotation software should help many learners to study online or offline in the future using a computer or iPad-type device. We have a project at the Open University aiming to develop such functionality over the next year and are currently looking at whether Cohere can be adapted.  I’d love to hear any ideas for further functionality.

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Paperless chairing

Category : iPad , Mobile Learning

This post is nothing to do with elearning but I thought I’d log my experience today of chairing my first meeting using just an iPad.

For years I’ve taken a laptop along to meetings and increasingly I’m not the only person to do so.  This has the advantage of having everything accessible, together with access to the Internet and other relevant documents which may help with the business of the meeting.

For committee meetings you’re often forced to read and bring with you a collection of papers, easily amounting to fifty pages or more.  For most people, having these on paper makes it easier to read them and write comments on them than working from a laptop or desktop computer.  The more senior people tend to come to meetings with wonderfully neat files of papers prepared by their secretaries in advance.  I’m sure many have rigorous paper filing systems for these documents but for me the whole lot simply ends up in the recycling bin.  I’ve always been uneasy about the cost and the environmental impact of this.  If I need subsequent access to the documents I have them digitally anyway.

Suddenly the iPad arrives and turns out to provide a reading experience arguably as good as paper so the main reason to print out meeting papers vanishes.  I’d been planning to attend meetings with the papers on my iPad but having to chair one today certainly concentrated the mind and made me think through some of the issues.

How to get the documents onto your iPad
The first challenge was to transfer the meeting papers to the iPad. I created a folder in the Dropbox application on my computer where I placed all the papers for the meeting.  This is then accessible over the University’s wifi network on my iPad.  I’ve also installed this application on my secretary’s computer so she can set up relevant meeting notes in the future.

Folder structure
I’ve settled on the following folder structure:  Groups:Name of Group:Date of Meeting e.g. Groups:LISG:2010-09-07.  This means I can instantly find any group alphabetically and any meeting chronologically.

File naming
It’s vital to have files listed in the order in which you’re going to encounter them in the agenda.  The files I had for the meeting, while named logically, did not appear in the right order when listed alphabetically.  This was partly due to the inconsistent use of spaces, underscores and hyphens between words.  I thus renamed them with unique names incorporating the group and the date.  During the meeting however I realised that the names were so long I couldn’t read them properly.  As the files are stored within a unique folder structure I’ve decided that calling them by simple names will suffice e.g. 00-Agenda.doc, 01-Performance-Report.doc etc.

Note taking
This is one thing I didn’t manage.  Dropbox doesn’t allow documents to be annotated so I need to find something which does – and which makes it easy.

Handling multiple documents
The lack of multitasking (or windows) on the iPad didn’t prove too much of a problem.  I was able to move back and forth between the agenda and other items easily from the pull-down menu.  There was a slight delay as each document was opened and there is no doubt it’s less convenient than being able to take a quick glance at the agenda on a bit of paper in front of you while you’re scanning through another document.

I displayed all the documents in portrait mode and found it easier to read from the screen with it tilted at an angle towards me than with it simply lying flat on the table.  The standard iPad case allows you only to tilt it towards you in landscape mode.  I found an upturned coffee cup tilted it at the perfect angle, though my administrator just about jumped out of her skin when the cup shifted at one point and clattered onto the saucer.

Overall the experiment was a success and I’m aiming to try to do this for future meetings I’m both chairing and attending.  Bye bye paper.

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Laptop, Smartphone and iPad – do learners need all three?

Category : iPad , Mobile Learning

People have been blogging about the ipad and its potential for education ever since the thing was announced.  I got my hands on one last night and here are my first impressions.

I have a laptop and I have an iPhone.  I’ve not had a desktop computer for many years – nor do most students.  For me, the laptop is a workhorse used heavily for email, calendaring, note taking, browsing websites, and reading and creating documents.   The iPhone is primarily for social and leisure purposes, used for texting, phone calls, weather forecasts, maps (with the GPS) and listening to music.  There’s crossover in my usage of the two devices of course – I’ll often check my email or calendar on the iPhone, and I use Twitter and Facebook on both, depending on which machine I’m using at the time.  So is there space in my life for another device which is basically just a giant version of the iPhone (but without being able to use it as a phone)?

The iPad is a lot more portable than my laptop which already looks like a dinosaur in comparison.  There are probably many occasions when I would consider taking the iPad but would think twice about carting my laptop along.  It is less portable though than the iPhone which is always in my pocket.  As a learner on a university campus or a whole range of other situations I’d be happy to carry around an iPad all day – it weighs less than a textbook and is much thinner.

The iPad gets the thumbs up on portability, but how usable is it for note taking or writing essays?  I’ve become adept at typing with one finger on the pop-up keyboard of the iPhone.  I also touch type on my laptop.  I’ve found touch typing on the iPad’s pop-up keyboard difficult but I might perhaps get used to it.  With the keyboard dock, however, the thing is transformed into a mini laptop which I could imagine using for writing lengthy reports as well as emails.  Typing is therefore much faster than with an iPhone and the same as with a laptop.  If you use a couple of fingers to type, the keyboard dock, which seems to weigh as much as the iPad itself, may not help you much.

The quality of the images and videos is superb, though you’d find it difficult to use outdoors on a sunny day (as you would with all three devices).  It’s a better tool for face to face discussions than a laptop because the thing can be placed flat on a table and you could have more than one person touching the screen.  I might also feel more comfortable using this in meetings as flipping the screen of a laptop up puts a barrier between you and everyone else (who may suspect you are checking your email rather than fully participating in the meeting).

The touch screen of course is one of the killer design aspects of the device – as it is for the iPhone.  It’s faster, more intuitive and simply more pleasurable to touch icons and move things with your finger than it is to use a keyboard, mouse or touchpad to navigate around a screen.  The downside is the constant smears left from greasy fingers which need to be wiped off on a regular basis.

There are good reasons why an iPad doesn’t have a USB port but it would be so nice to be able to plug it into a laptop or hard drive and simply drag music files, photos and other documents between devices.  Instead you have this ridiculous situation of having to use a third party application such as Dropbox to transfer files onto your iPad which doesn’t even have a file system you can access properly.  Plus of course you can’t actually junk your laptop because the iPad is designed to be synched on a regular basis with another computer.

The iPad connects beautifully to wifi at work but I have become so used to near ubiquitous internet access on my iPhone (via the phone networks) that not having similar network access on the iPad would make it seem crippled in comparison.

One reason I’m not yet ready to junk my laptop running Windows is the lack of applications I’ve become dependent on.  I take notes with OneNote and can do things like selecting a sentence and turning it instantly into an item in my MS Office todo list.  The standard Notes app on the iPad is totally basic in comparison.  Of course there are thousands of apps for the iPad under development and many already available but the sophistication of standard Mac and PC apps is not yet there.  I’m sure that’s only a question of time.

A colleague last week showed me a fantastic application where you point the iPad at a particular section of the sky and it shows you what the stars and constellations are in that spot.  The educational potential of this device which combines raw computing power, great graphics, adequate screen size, portability, touch screen, internet access and GPS is extraordinary.

The killer educational app I think for this device and our students will be for reading texts.  While I attempted to convince myself that I could read a book on my iPhone, it wasn’t exactly pleasurable and I never finished it.  However I think we might have finally got somewhere with this device and that people will be prepared to read large amounts of text from its screen in a way many have not been prepared to on laptops or desktop machines.  The printer is therefore set to become increasingly unnecessary and this confirms my view that the rows of books on my shelves will soon be as moribund as my LP collection.

I’ve downloaded some classic books for free and I think these are probably as easy to read as on paper and certainly a lot easier to get hold of.  I also downloaded the Financial Times app which makes the paper very readable and incorporates video clips.  The broadsheet and tabloid newspaper on paper is surely not long for this world.

Add hyperlinking,  annotation facilities which allow you to store and share your comments on the texts, interactive quizzes, the environmental benefits etc and it becomes ever harder to justify printing and sending out reams of paper to our students.  There are of course a few downsides not to lose sight of such as the necessity for a network connection and dependence on an electricity supply to keep the battery topped up.

I feel I could “love” the iPad in the way that I do my iPhone but have never before felt about any other electronic device.  It’s a thing of beauty.  It is also appallingly proprietary and locked down and will force me to go to the iTunes store continuously, making me part from time to time with relatively small amounts of cash.  The device is designed to work as an adjunct to my computer so I can’t yet get rid of that and I’m certainly not dumping my iPhone because it’s even more portable (and has a phone).  Steve Jobs is a genius because in less than 24 hours he seems to have created a need in me for a third electronic device, which I didn’t need before.  Millions of learners are going to find they enjoy the experience of learning on the iPad more than they do from their laptops or smartphones.  I hope others are going to give Apple some serious competition here but that doesn’t look likely in the short term.