Sunday, June 5, 2011

To e or not to e?

Chances are that you have already seen many reports claiming that eBook sales have surpassed print book sales. Still, if there are doubts in your mind about the value of digital format for written content, I would suggest looking at this list of 30 benefits of eBooks.

So, creating an eBook has been a task on my to-do list for quite some time, and I'm happy to report that I finally got around to it. For my initial attempt, I converted my course syllabus from a (digital) page in Oncourse (Course Management System) to an epub document. This way, I already had the content, and I could focus on the publishing part of the process. I started with three basic questions:

1. What eBook format should I choose?

Over the last couple of years, I have acquired several eBooks; some were in PDF format but most were in epub format. Though PDF is considered an eBook format (among many others), the goal should be to make the reading experience convenient and enjoyable on a multitude of devices.

With varying screen sizes, a page is not the same on all eReaders. The best eBook format, therefore is one that redefines pages based on the device. The image on the shows what a common PDF looks like on an iPod Touch. The page shrinks to fit the screen, but then the text is too small to read.

You might say, what about zooming in?

The image below-left shows the legible text after zooming in, however, if you look at the area being shown (below-right), it is easy to see that in order to read a full line of text, the reader will have to scroll to the right and then back to the left for each line of text.

The epub format is popular on many devices. eReaders (or ebook apps) redefine epub pages based on screen size.

The image on the left shows a page from my syllabus as seen on an iPod touch using the iBooks app. Most eReaders (for epubs) provide a rich experience with animated pages (see below-left), dictionary, varying font sizes, the ability to highlight text, bookmark pages (see below-right), and more.

Since the iPod touch has a small screen, this eBook shows it has 101 pages, however, the same document viewed on an iPod 2 shows 38 pages. In either case, the reader doesn't have to scroll in order to read a line of text.

The epub format is based on XHTML, CSS, and other technologies, and is an open eBook format. For more details, please visit the International Digital Publishing Forum site.

Now, let's look at the other two questions that I started with.

2. What tools are available?

In order to accomplish all tasks like creating, viewing, and editing epubs, I used the following three software applications:

Adobe InDesign: There are many solutions available for creating epub documents, however my focus was on Adobe InDesign. It is included with the CS5 Design Premium package which is available via IU's site-license software agreement with Adobe. Sigil, mentioned below can also be used to create eBooks, however, Adobe InDesign documents can be exported in several formats. So if you intend to save a document for multiple purposes, (PDF and epub), InDesign is the best option.

Adobe Digital Editions: This application installs itself as the epub viewer. Once you export the document as an epub, Digital Editions allows you to verify the structure and layout of your publication.

Sigil: An epub publication is a collection of XHTML, CSS and other files combined into a single compressed file. There are times when it is easier to edit a particular CSS style to fix issues that cannot be solved through InDesign. Sigil allows you to view and edit individual files contained inside the epub.

3. What resources are available?

InDesign: For InDesign, I started with tutorials from (again a paid-for resource for IU faculty/staff/students), and watched a couple of tutorials on YouTube. There's nothing like diving right in with a small project; discovering your way around; learning from your mistakes. Adobe also has a list of tutorials and learning resources.

Digital Editions: There's not much to say about Digital Editions, as it gets automatically launched when you export a publication with the view option selected, and is used only to view the document.

Sigil: A tutorial for Sigil is available from the Sigil project page.

A few things I discovered about epubs.

  • It is best to keep images in-line with text.
  • Different text-segments in the document get combined into one continuous segment.
  • Tables and multi-level bullets do not format the same way as they look in the original document. This is where you may need to open the publication in Sigil and adjust the CSS to accomplish the desired results.
Well, I haven't gotten into the how-to of the process intentionally, as I feel the mentioned resources do a pretty good job of getting one started on this path. The rest is handled best by taking on a small project.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A smartphone is not a device, it's an appendage

If you attended the event "WIRED - Our Infatuation With Technology", earlier this year, you may remember that the theme of the opening remarks made by Mark Deuze (Associate Professor in Telecommunications at Indiana University) was, "we live in, rather than alongside media." His remarks were quite convincing; he didn't present a new concept, rather he just clarified our relationship with media and technology.

A Recap of Mark Deuze's remarks

"Research consistently shows how through the years more of our time gets spent using media, how multitasking our media has become a regular feature of everyday life, and that consuming media for most people randomly takes place alongside producing media. It is perhaps time we move beyond wondering whether all of this is good or bad for us, and accept it as part of our environment - like the air we breathe and the food we eat. In other words: we should think of our lives as lived in rather than with media. Ultimately, media are to us as water is to fish. The question is: how can we live a good and beautiful life in media?"

Then why not teach in the media?

First, let me clarify that I'm not talking about distance education here. What I mean is that even in the brick-and-mortar classroom based teaching, we have to revise our perspective. In the traditional methods, the classroom was at the center of education delivery, and everything else revolved around this "core". Today, "media" is at the center of a course, and classroom is one of the tools. The graphic representation below may clarify this point a little better.

The "After" version lends itself nicely to fit many other tools such as a wikis, videos, games, and animations. This perspective also encourages the use of media in the classroom.

Why is it so?

In the last year or so, I have offered office hours via brick-and-mortar as well as Adobe Connect, and the latter option was chosen more frequently. The year 201x's person has a new approach to communication. Not only is media the preferred method of communication, the new person has a much longer attention span in media than in face-to-face, so use of media even during a face-to-face interaction will get better results than the alternative.

The saying "I'm all ears" has never before been as true as it is today. We are constantly ingesting information, so there is a great opportunity to "speak".

To make a long story a little bit longer

In successful communication, the idea must be supported by three key building blocks: Content, Presentation, and Channel-of-communication. The use of appropriate channel is just as important as the other pieces.

In closing, here we are, in the media. We may have met here in the past and I certainly hope to see you here again, soon...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The point is the power of the Powerpoint Slide Master

The Slide Master: Have you ever needed to group your Powerpoint slides, where the slides within each group share some information, such as a header, footer, images, or other elements? As you can imagine, if you had to change that shared content on each individual slide in the group, it could mean a lot of repetitive work. Instead, in this post we will look at the Slide Master using a Jeopardy game presentation as an example.

What is a Slide Master: A Slide Master stores information about the theme and slide layouts of a presentation. In reality, a Slide Master is a group of layouts that contains the master layout and several slide layouts. Every presentation contains at least one Slide Master. If your presentation has 10 groups of slides, then you can create 10 Slide Masters, each one customized for the group it represents. Content that will be repeated in each group, can then be added on the Slide Master. Each slide created from this Master will already be populated with the repetitive information.

Application: For my example, I will use a Jeopardy-like game presentation. Recently, I wanted to create a game for my students, however, I wanted an easily re-usable presentation. In such a presentation, generally, there is a table containing links to slides for each category. The slides for each category share at least the title or the name of the category.

So, the slides for each column of this table belong to a group with the title that matches the category name given at the top of the column.

The other thing to note is that each group of slides also shares some properties. Every slide in each group contains an answer, a hidden response in the form of a question, and a link back to the above table. In order to share these properties across groups, Powerpoint allows you to create a Slide Master from an existing Slide Master.

The Solution: Here are the basic steps for creating the presentation:
  • Create the first two slides, introduction slide and the table, as you would normally create a presentation.
  • Edit the existing Slide Master to match the first category.
  • Rename the Slide Master to the name of the category to make it easier to distinguish between the collection of Slide Masters.
  • Add category name in a textbox.
  • Add placeholders for the answer and the question-response.
  • Add a back button to take us back to the table.
  • Animate the response, so that it isn't visible until we click.
  • Duplicate this Slide Master for each of the remaining categories.
  • Rename the new Slide Masters appropriately, and change the category name on the content layout.

Below is a short video clip that shows these steps in action. Please keep in mind that the main goal of the video clip is to show the Slide Masters, so very little attention is given to other details.

I will make my completed copy of the sample presentation available for download after March 30, 2011 via a comment on this post. In the meantime, happy Power Sliding, Master!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Teacher-Student Facebook friending

This is one of those topics that has the potential to fill a silent room with a heated discussion. No, I'm not trying to start such a discussion; I just want to share some clarifications about the Facebook environment.

Facebook provides various tools for social networking. There are personal profiles and there are pages and groups. I think that there is a tendency to overlook this fact and use the wrong tool sometimes, and that can lead to eyebrows and questions being raised or to bigger problems.

If we try to equate the Facebook environment to the offline-world environment, it may help us better understand the options and implications. The comparison would be something like this. Your personal profile is like your home, a Facebook page is like the information desk in the lobby of a building of an organization, and a group is somewhat like a conference room or a meeting place.

Personal profile:
For friends and family, we share our profiles by becoming friends, in other words invite them into our homes. They can see all the pictures on the walls, get a closer look at out hobbies, living style and other personal information that we openly display throughout our homes.

Facebook Pages:
Pages are for public figures, and Facebook treats corporate entities as these figures as well. So, for example, Tim Burton might create a personal profile for his friends and family, and a Facebook page for all his fans. Similarly, IU Schools and departments would also create pages to disseminate information to faculty, staff, and students. Anyone who "Likes" a page, sees updates from that page, on their wall.

Facebook Groups:
Facebook groups are then the perfect place for faculty and students to "meet." The group model matches up perfectly with the class model. A group provides the students a place to discuss ideas/topics with other students or ask the instructor questions, and a place where the instructor can post ideas, questions and answers. As members of this group, the instructor as well as the students see group activity on their personal wall, but their personal information is not exposed. Groups also provide more control over permissions and memberships, so you could say that these are meant for ... uhm! ... groups of people.

So, if you really are friends with your students, you may feel completely comfortable inviting them into your Facebook-home, however, you should also take a look at the Facebook FAQ for some more detailed information about these and other tools to help you make a better decision about the best way to integrate social networking into your coursework.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is there a study guide for the exam?

It is a week before the exam, and one of the most commonly asked questions is, "Is there a study guide for the exam?", or some variation of that. If the answer is yes, then chances are that you have spent good amount of time putting one together with the hope that it will not just get placed in a stack of papers.

In this post I will suggest a way to use the Oncourse Wiki for creating study guides and sharing the effort with the whole class. The right time to start preparing such a guide is during the weeks when the material for the upcoming exam is being discussed. The effort of creating a study guide can be delegated to the students. This way, they will not only have the necessary material to prepare for the exam, but having spent time compiling this resource are more likely to retain the information.

You can start a wiki with a few questions, and ask the students to add more questions as they read and research the material for the current topics. If the students don't know the answers right away, they can leave these answers blank. Since this is a collaborative effort, any student can add a question or a comment to the wiki, and any student can answer a question.

Wiki mark-up language may look confusing if you've never used it before, but it is very simple. It may help to start by looking through the knowledge base. I use a simple scheme of adding the "h1 " prefix to the heading, "h3 " prefix to all questions and "* " prefix to all answers. This uses a larger font size for the questions and a bullet/indentation for the answers, as shown in the sample on the right.

So, the wiki mark-up for this example is:

h1 Chapter 6 - The System Unit

h3 What three factors determine the power of a microcomputer?

* ?

h3 What is a binary system?

* A number system based on two digits 0 and 1 (off and on)

h3 Name three character coding schemes.

* ASCII, EBCDIC, Unicode

h3 Memory used beween a fast device and a slow device is called __________.

* Cache

By making the study guide a collaborative effort, you can turn the tables, and ask the students whether the study guide is ready. Of course, you should plan to check it frequently to find any misinformation, or to fill in any unanswered questions. The accuracy and quality of answers will also provide you with some assessment of the readiness of the class as a whole.

One of the other benefits you get from using Oncourse is that the content is backed up and archived. You can also get creative and add images and other components to the wiki, so I'm sure you will agree that the benefits far outweigh the effort.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pick a card; any card!

All through school (K-12 and beyond), we have all used flashcards for learning many concepts. Whether it was for learning "A is for apple", math facts, foreign languages, or scientific names; flashcards were always there to the rescue. I even remember dropping the deck or cards and then spending time to reassemble it in the correct order (I guess, there is a little bit of Adrian Monk in all of us).

Recently, I wanted to create flashcards for my students and started looking for somewhat of a modern solution with only a few requirements:
  • I wanted to be able to easily embed the flashcards in my course blog.
  • It had to be quick-and-easy, because the only one with free time these days is the computer.
  • It had to be inexpensive (preferably free)
The solution I found is Quizlet. The free version allows up to 8 decks (sets), and subscription for the full version is only $10/year. Once you create a set, you can use the "Link or embed" option near the top-left to get the code for embedding the flashcards in your blog/website. Most blog sites allow you to create/edit your post in HTML format. For example, the blogger has a tab labeled "Edit HTML." Once you copy the HTML code from Quizlet site, you can paste it directly into your blog post, as long as you are in the HTML view.

Below is a deck I created for my students.

NOTE: Though, I have chosen text-only cards for this example, Quizlet does allow you to add images.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Testing 1, 2, 3 ... Is this thing on?

Have you ever considered recording an audio podcast for your course, but left the idea on the back burner because you can't find the time to overcome the technology hurdles? Well, this blog post should help in getting the ball rolling. You may be wondering, why just audio and why not a video podcast or a screencast?

I'll write some helpful ideas about video-podcasts/screencasts in a future post, but audio-only podcasts have their own place in content delivery. If the content calls for an audio podcast, then go for it! Audio podcasts are easier to record and edit, and easier for students to consume. Please keep in mind that my goal was to find the shortest path from starting to publishing, so this is just one suggestion.

I use Audacity, the free and open-source software for my recordings. It is available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, and has a very intuitive interface. The installation on Mac OS is straight forward, however, on Windows be sure to also install Lame. This addition component is required for creating MP3 files.

If your computer doesn't have a built-in microphone, then I would suggest getting a headset (headphones and microphone, both in one). You can find something inexpensive, or fancy-shmancy. In my case, I use a MacBook, so it has a built-in mic and it seems to do the job well.

A few things to observe about your recording environment:
  • Find a spot away from the air handling intakes or vents. These can add unwanted noise.
  • If there are kids around while you're recording, post a sign outside your door as a reminder.
  • Remember to turn off the ringers on your phones.
Next, it is time for a sound-check. Record a few short clips while fine-tuning your audio settings and listen to find the best settings (or at least the one that you are happy with). It is also a good idea to record a few seconds of silence and then listen to it to make sure it isn't picking up any annoying hums/static. Cleaner recordings will make it easier for the students to focus on the content.

A few suggestions about the podcast structure:
  • Add a short music clip at the beginning and the end of your podcast episode.
  • Use the same clip for the beginning of each episode, as it becomes an "identifying clip".
  • If the recording is more then 10 minutes long, I would also suggest adding one or more brief breaks (no more than 10 - 15 seconds each) in the presentation by adding another music clip.
  • It is helpful to have a collection of music clips saved on your computer. You can find some free ones here.
Now, as for the actual recording process, you could take one of two approaches. You could record the whole podcast, and then listen to it and edit portions of the audio, as needed, or you could take my approach - record short clips at a time and assemble these as you go. My approach cuts down on the preparation time.

I start by opening the starting Music clip, and then I save the Audacity project immediately with the appropriate episode name. This Audacity window is the place where I assemble the complete episode, and I will refer to it as the "main window." Next, I open a second window for the actual recording process. I record 2-3 minutes of audio, verify it, and if I'm happy with it, I copy it and paste it to the end of the main window. This means that if I have to re-record, I'll repeat only the 2-3 minute segment, while all the work up to this point is safe. Speaking of safe, make sure you save the main window often.

Another advantage of using this piecemeal approach is that identifying the areas that need editing becomes easier. I can zoom into a section (ctrl-1 on Windows, command-1 on Mac), delete/reduce unwanted pauses, carry out other editing functions, and then zoom back out (ctrl-3 on Windows, command-3 on Mac).

When I need to add a music clip for the end or a break, I open it in another window and then copy-and-paste it into the main window.

Once the recording is complete, I use the "Export as MP3" option to create the final copy. At this point, I am done with the Audacity project and can archive it and move it to an external hard-drive.

If additional changes are needed, after the file has been exported, it is better to open the Audacity project than opening the MP3. Each time you open an MP3 and then export it again, there is some loss of quality.

Additional thought: In some of my podcast episodes, I add in an eight-digit code to help verify that the students have listened to the episodes. I give the code two digits at a time at various locations in the recording. Here is an example of an episode with a code. Granted that there is potential for the students to share the code, but that is just like any other challenge the educators face in regard to academic honesty.

If this post has helped you move your podcasting project from the back-burner to the dining table, I would be interested in learning about your experiences.