Thursday, May 19, 2011

Some experience with a modular electronic text


I have been building and using a modular electronic text (etext) for an IT literacy course this term.

I recently gave a presentation on modular electronic texts and my course. You can see a link to the presentation and comments on it here.

The following is a digest of those comments and some of my reactions to them.

Cost: Several people noted that lower cost was an advantage of etexts. The etext for my course is free, but traditional publishers charge for etexts. While those charges are high today, they will eventually decline to reflect savings in printing and distribution cost.

Environmental concerns: An etext can be read from a screen, which requires power, but no printing. Many students print the module transcripts, but that is not as costly to the environment as printing and distributing a book.

Portability: My course would easily fit in a flash drive; however, there is (at present) no facility for one-click download of a module, subset of modules or the entire course. This is less important to people with Internet-connected portable devices like tablets and smart phones.

Internet connectivity: Several people pointed out that Internet connectivity is needed to access the etext. Without a simple module-download function, that is the case. On the other hand, being connected is valuable even if you have a local copy of the entire etext. If one is online while studying a module, they can search for complementary information, send messages to other students, the professor and the module content creator, follow the module resource links, etc.

Flexibility: Several people pointed out that an etext was more flexible -- new content or a new way of explaining or illustrating a point can easily be added. However, others pointed out that this caused a versioning problem -- the transcript a student printed or the presentation they studied from might not be current. Furthermore, the videos might lag behind the presentations and not reflect all changes. An explicit version history can solve that problem -- I will start recording significant changes to presentations in the topic module comment section.

Campus infrastructure: This etext can be used for self-study, but I use the presentations in a face-to-face classroom. All of today's classrooms do not have Internet-connected computers and projectors, though they are becoming common. In general, infrastructure must become ubiquitous to generate cultural change. (See this post for more on ubiquity in education).

User interface: Several people mentioned the simplicity of the user interface. The fact that each topic module and each assignment has a unique URL makes it easy for the topic modules and assignments to link to each other and for a teacher to include one or many modules in a class. The presentations also follow a uniform format.

Still, the user interface is not as simple and standardized as turning a page in a book or looking up a term in the index. Some people mentioned that an etext user interface might be confusing to a student who was not comfortable with computers. For example, one person pointed out that a newcomer might have trouble differentiating between the links comprising a topic module (on the left side of the screen) and the cloud tag and links to other documents and sites on the right side. I will add that distinction to the "About our electronic text" page.

Focused content: Several people liked the relatively narrow focus of the annotated slide presentation format. The skills and concepts covered were explicitly stated, and the students knew what to study. For enrichment, they could follow the "resource" links at the end of each presentation. Each module is the rough equivalent of a section in a textbook chapter.

Multiple learning modes: Some students prefer the video presentations, others the PowerPoint presentations or the presentation transcripts. Some prefer reading from paper to reading from a screen. The modules are flexible in that a student can go through a presentation online, watch a video or print the transcript with its slide images for offline study.

I could easily provide audio recordings of the video sound tracks for podcast listening. I plan to add audio recordings of classroom presentations next term, which will provide another option -- a more spontaneous presentation plus classroom interaction.

Marginal notes: Marginal notes can be done by printing the transcript and writing on it or by keeping a notepad window open while watching a presentation online. There is definite room for improvement here -- one can imagine writing/drawing/dictating marginal notes while using a computer or tablet. (Dictated notes should be coupled with well integrated speech recognition to convert them to text).

Instructor convenience: One person commented that a modular etext makes it easier for a professor to develop a customized course. That is true, but most faculty do not worry about customization -- they simply select a textbook and build a course around the accompanying PowerPoint slides, test banks, etc.

Professors are used to adopting a textbook and letting it structure their course. The modular etext requires that they become editors and curators, not mere textbook adopters, and that takes time and thought.

Standards: The material for this course is browser based -- no special reading program is required. The material is in widely used formats -- HTML, pptx, docx, and Flash video. But, the electronic text is in its infancy, and I suspect that other standards for file formats, collaboration, and user interfaces will emerge.

Collaboration and community: An etext allows for collaboration among students, professors, and authors of the teaching material. This collaboration is particularly easy and scalable in the case of a modular etext, in which a community can form around a single module in the same way as Wikipedia users can focus on the articles they are interested in.

I had expected that the topic module and assignment comments would be used for this sort of collaboration and interaction, but they were not. Instead, students used an email list server and face-to-face contact in the classroom to give me feedback and to help each other. (We met twice a week). The comments or other collaboration mechanisms would be more important in a distant education or self-study setting.