When does a book become a web platform?

During last week’s CETIS conference I ran a session to assess how ebooks can function as an educational medium beyond the paper textbook.

After reminding ourselves that etextbooks are not yet as widespread as ebook novels, and that paper books generally are still most widely read, we examined what ebook features make a good educational experience.

Though many features could have been mentioned, the majority were still about the experience itself. Top of the bill: formative assessment at the end of a chapter. Either online or offline, it needs to be interactive, and there need to be a lot of items readily available. Other notable features in the area include a desire for contextualised discussion about a text. Global is good, but chats limited to other learners in a course is better. A way of asking for clarification of a teacher by highlighting text was another notable request.

Three levels of design and innovation

An electronics company has just won a patent claim against another electronics company. It’s not relevant to this post which companies and what patent were involved, it just served to remind me once again of the different types of innovation that are subject to these patent claims–where there is a patent there is at least a claim of innovation, and that is what interests me. Specifically, I find it interesting that some of these patent claims are for antenna design, others certain user interactions, and that links to an idea I heard presented by Adam Procter a year or so ago which has stuck with me,–that there are three levels to design and innovation:

level one: the base technology. In phones this would be the physical design of antennae, the compression algorithms used for audio and video, the physics of the various sensors, and so on.

level two: the product. That is putting all the base technologies to create features of a working unit that (if it is to be successful) fulfills a need.

level three: user experience. Making the use of those features a pleasure.

I’ve found this useful in thinking about what it is that Apple gets right compared to, say, Nokia. It’s my impression (and I think the various patent claims bear this out) that Apple are very good at innovating for user experience whereas Nokia and others did a lot of the work somewhere around technologies and product.

I’ve also found it enlightening to reflect on just how hard it is to work out from the technology alone what would be a set of features that make up a successful product. I was using CCD cameras for science experiments in the early 90s, when the technology had been around twenty-odd years, and never once did it occur to me that it would be a really good idea to put one in a phone. Light sensors so that your curtains would open and close automatically, sure they were certain to come, but a camera in your phone!–why would anyone want that?

Put those together, and I think what you get is a picture of some people who are good at spotting (or just prepared to experiment with) how technologies can do something useful, and others who are good at spotting what is required in order to make those features pleasant enough to use. So Diamond and Creative and others showed that really small MP3 players were devices that people might find useful (others before them had put together advances in audio compression and storage technology to show such devices were possible), Apple made something that people wanted to use. What was it that made the difference? The integration with iTunes maybe?

Sometimes identifying the useful feature comes before the technology that makes it usable, at least to a certain extent: Palm showed how touch screen devices could be useful but Apple waited until the technology (capacitive rather than resistive sensors) was available to give the user experience they wanted. Of course that area of human endeavour which puts creation of innovative products completely ahead of technology developments is called science fiction–how’s that flying car coming along?

eTextBooks Europe

I went to a meeting for stakeholders interested in the eTernity (European textbook reusability networking and interoperability) initiative. The hope is that eTernity will be a project of the CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies with the objective of gathering requirements and proposing a framework to provide European input to ongoing work by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC36, WG6 & WG4 on eTextBooks (which is currently based around Chinese and Korean specifications). Incidentally, as part of the ISO work there is a questionnaire asking for information that will be used to help decide what that standard should include. I would encourage anyone interested to fill it in.

The stakeholders present represented many perspectives from throughout Europe: publishers, publishing industry specification bodies (e.g. IPDF who own EPUB3, and DAISY), national bodies with some sort of remit for educational technology, and elearning specification and standardisation organisations. I gave a short presentation on the OER perspective.

Many issues were raised through the course of the day, including (in no particular order)

  • Interactive and multimedia content in eTextbooks
  • Accessibility of eTextbooks
  • eTextbooks shouldn’t be monolithic and immutable chunks of content, it should be possible to link directly to specific locations or to disaggregate the content
  • The lifecycle of an eTextbook. This goes beyond initial authoring and publishing
  • Quality assurance (of content and pedagogic approach)
  • Alignment with specific curricula
  • Personalization and adaptation to individual needs and requirements
  • The ability to describe the learning pathway embodied in an eTextbook, and vary either the content used on this pathway or to provide different pathways through the same content
  • The ability to describe a range IPR and licensing arrangements of the whole and of specific components of the eTextbook
  • The ability to interact with learning systems with data flowing in both directions

If you’re thinking that sounds like a list of the educational technology issues that we have been busy with for the last decade or two, then I would agree with you. Furthermore, there is a decade or two’s worth of educational technology specs and standards that address these issues. Of course not all of those specs and standards are necessarily the right ones for now, and there are others that have more traction within digital publishing. EPUB3 was well represented in the meeting (DITA is the other publishing standard mentioned in the eTernity documentation, but no one was at the meeting to talk about that) and it doesn’t seem impossible to meet the educational requirements outlined in the meeting within the general EPUB3 framework. The question is which issues should be prioritised and how should they be addressed.

Of course a technical standard is only an enabler: it doesn’t in itself make any change to teaching and learning; change will only happen if developers create tools and authors create resources that exploit the standard. For various reasons that hasn’t happened with some of the existing specs and standards. A technical standard can facilitate change but there needs to a will or a necessity to change in the first place. One thing that made me hopeful about this was a point made by Owen White of Pearson that he did not to think of the business he is in as being centred around content creation and publishing but around education and learning and that leads away from the view of eBooks as isolated static aggregations.

For more information keep an eye on the eTernity website

Shock! Interoperability in the serious games space.

I have been speaking at the Apply serious games event occuring in London this week, this included chairing a panel addressing the technical challenges being faced by the industry (both fun and serious games).

One of the consistent themes expressed by industry representatives was the lack of interoperability that currently exisits between tools, middleware and the various development platforms.My read on this is that this is indicative of a change in mindshift in the industry, no doubt prompted by the huge costs now incurred by developers in working on new (console) platforms such as the xbox360 or Playstation 3.

I would never have predicted that this would be the case as developers have historically guarded their tools and IPR vehemently resisiting all attempts to share their technology. In the new development environment this seems to have been recognised as unsustainable.

Lets hope the industry adopts a lightwieght touch to speifications to achieve interoperability which should help smaller developers remain competitive in thsee difficult tmes or will “the big gorillas “in the room prevail.

Clive 1st June 2007

It has been some times since I ‘blogged’

Since I last ‘put fingers to keyboard’ I have been boring folk with my view that over the last year the ‘centre of gravity’ of learning technology standards developments have moved to the schools and FE sectors from HE. Driven by the e-Strategy and other governemnt schools based agendas such as ‘Every Child Matters’, Becta, MIAP and others have been obliged to deliver solutions. to strictly imposed deadlines. The focus so far has been in two areas: joining social service systems up with school administration systems and learning platforms for schools. Both have required standards based developments: the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) underpinned by the adoption of a Unique learner Number (ULN) has been adopted for the former and Becta has produced specifications (all around standards and extendability) that suppliers of learning platforms have to satisfy. Additionally, the Qualification and Curriculum Authority, in order to meet the requirements of the new vocational Specilaised Diploma will have to produce data standards by the Autumn for course details and qualification achievements.

Obviously such developments will have an impact for the JISC communities. Firstly, there will be a concentration  of minds around where standards are really needed (rather than ‘could be useful’) and there will be a requirement for JISC to focus on those areas of detail which could impede national projects if not attended to. Solutions to the problems of Identity Management and the scalability of SOA implementations are just two that need urgent attention.

So to survive , JISC has to be sufficiently engaged in influencing and engaging with learning technology based solutions in the schools and tertiary sector in order to anticpate those areas that need the efforts and expertise of our community?

So what have I been doing for my one day per week in addition to boring my colleagues at mangement meetings with the above?

Well I have been supportng Peter with ePortfolio develovepment (around assessment) and with the help of Nottingham University finding out about Lifelong Learning Networks,