Friday, May 27, 2011

Textbooks -- moving beyond the "Gutenberg Bible"

Nature Education, in partnership with the California State University System (my employer), has announced a series of digital textbooks in college-level science. The first book in the series, Principles of Biology, is intended for biology majors and will be available September 1, 2011. It will be used at three CSU campuses in the fall.

Gutenberg's first books were reprints of the large handwritten bibles of the time. Today, traditional textbook publishers are offering machine readable versions of previously printed books and chapters. Nature's books promise to depart from tradition in the way they are created and distributed.

Nature's books will be "born digital" -- created from scratch by a group of scientists, instructors, artists, and interaction designers working together under the guidance of their editorial team. The first book will not be out until September, but it is undergoing extensive peer review by CSU faculty and is slated to include 175 interactive lessons and the usual supplementary material like test banks and PowerPoint presentations.

Nature's business model is also is also different. The biology book will retail for $49, which is cheap by the standards of the mainstream textbook industry. But that is not the big change. Students purchasing electronic versions of textbooks today typically gain access for a limited time, perhaps a year. Nature is proposing lifetime access to a continuously-updated book -- a textbook with an open-ended subscription.

They plan to sell direct to students through college book stores or sell site licenses to schools. But, if the subscription/books are as good as they sound in the press release, won't there be a general retail demand for them? Hey, I want one.

The textbook industry is ripe for change. There are a few dominant companies (including Nature’s parent company, MacMillan) with large sales forces, high printing and distribution costs, and bookstore markups. (Click the image above for a cost breakdown). These books from Nature may be game changers. Nature is a prestigious publisher, the CSU is a large textbook customer, and the access model and price are very attractive.

Nature is departing from the traditional textbook model by having a team of collaborators create a digital book from scratch and selling it as an ongoing subscription at a low price. If they can deliver, they may be the Aldine Press of our day. (Aldine's 15-16th century innovations included publishing small, portable books, punctuation like the period at the end of a sentence, and typography like italic text). Stay tuned for more when we get some hands-on experience with the biology book and interactive lessons.

Multimedia Learning by Richard E. Mayer

A few years ago, I was skeptical of PowerPoint, going along with the assumption that PowerPoint presentations had to be dull. I unthinkingly bought presentation guru Edward Tufte's claim that PowerPoint is evil, that "Power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely."

Well, I'm a convert -- PowerPoint presentations are at the heart of my electronic text. I believe presentations combining slides and narration can be effective teaching tools, and I just read a book of research supporting that claim.

Richard E. Mayer, a UCSB psychologist, reports on 93 controlled studies in his book Multimedia Learning. Mayer's experiments test a dozen presentation principles, which he hypothesizes to be true, and 92 of those studies confirm the hypothesis.

For example, consider his redundancy principle, which holds that people learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration and text -- the text is a redundant distraction.

To test this principle, Mayer and his colleagues ran five experiments in which one group learned from a multimedia presentation with narrated graphics and a second group saw the same presentation with text captions below the graphics. The non-caption group learned more in all five experiments.

He also gives theoretical explanations for his principles. The redundancy principle follows from visual overload in seeing captions and images simultaneously and mental effort expended in comparing spoken narration and written text. Mayer also explores the boundary conditions of his principles. Redundancy is less of a distraction if the captions are short or the text is shown after the narration finishes, not while it is playing.

Here are Mayer's twelve principles. Don't be bound by them, but use them as a checklist when going back over an old presentation or planning a new one.
  • Coherence Principle: People learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included.
  • Signaling Principle: People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.
  • Redundancy Principle: People learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration, and on-screen text.
  • Spatial Contiguity Principle: People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
  • Temporal Contiguity Principle: People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.
  • Segmenting Principle: People learn better when a multimedia lesson is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit.
  • Pre-training Principle: People learn better from a multimedia lesson when they know the names and characteristics of the main concepts.
  • Modality Principle: People learn better from graphics and narration than from animation and on-screen text.
  • Multimedia Principle: People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.
  • Personalization Principle: People learn better from multimedia lessons when words are in conversational style rather than formal style.
  • Voice Principle: People learn better when the narration in multimedia lessons is spoken in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.
  • Image Principle: People do not necessarily learn better from a multimedia lesson when the speaker’s image is added to the screen.
Let me close by suggesting two Mayer-like experiments that I would like to see run. One is a test of the effectiveness of showing images followed by the images with captions, the other a study of the effect of changing the tempo of a presentation. I'd love to hear the results if you run the experiments.

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.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The future of the (text)book

New media start by emulating old media, then evolve. Gutenberg's movable type was first used to print large bibles that, like their hand-copied predecessors, were kept in monasteries. It took about 50 years to evolve the form factor of the smaller "portable" book and still longer to settle on conventions for typography, punctuation, tables of contents, figures, indices, footnotes, and so forth. It took 80 years for early movies, shot with a relatively static camera, perhaps filming a stage play, to evolve into the fast-cutting style introduced by MTV.(Change is not always for the better :-).

The textbook is no different. A couple weeks ago, our class saw a digital book presentation by McGraw Hill. They are developing digital versions of their print books, starting with the best sellers and moving down the list. They supplement those with PowerPoint presentations, test banks, links to video, etc. geared to that textbook.

But, like the Gutenberg Bible, this is only the first step. I do not know where the textbook is headed, but I know we are not yet there. A few rough guesses as to future directions are that ...
  • There will be a place for collections of modular teaching material rather than integrated textbooks for an entire course -- the professor will become a curator or editor, assembling material as opposed to a textbook adopter, selecting a textbook.
  • Communities will form -- students, professors, and authors of learning material will be able to interact with each other, and their roles will blur.
  • We will have different user interfaces. We are beginning to see new options with touch interfaces on tablets, but will see more. For example, we should be able to use voice input with speech recognition for control and annotation.
  • Standards will evolve for formats, user interfaces, social platform interaction, etc., just as we evolved standards for book pagination, format, and punctuation. We are at version .1 today.
I could keep going on like this, but it is general and speculative. Many people are working diligently on the task of reinventing the book -- thinking about it and developing research prototypes and early standards and products. Here are some you might want to check out:

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Technology innovation and the beginning of Microsoft

We've talked about the evolution of a technology from vision to research prototype to product. We used the invention of the Web as an example, starting with the vision of Vannevar Bush, the research prototypes of Doug Engelbart, and the product developed by Tim Berners-Lee.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has written a memoir, which was excerpted in a Vanity Fair magazine article describing the founding of Microsoft. Allen writes that he and high-school classmate Bill Gates discovered and fell in love with programming in 1968, and goes on to give a snapshot of IT innovation at that time.

That year, 1968, would be a watershed in matters digital. In March, Hewlett-Packard introduced the first programmable desktop calculator. In June, Robert Dennard won a patent for a one-transistor cell of dynamic random-access memory, or DRAM, a new and cheaper method of temporary data storage. In July, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore co-founded Intel Corporation. In December, at the legendary “mother of all demos” in San Francisco, the Stanford Research Institute’s Douglas Engelbart showed off his original versions of a mouse, a word processor, e-mail, and hypertext. Of all the epochal changes in store over the next two decades, a remarkable number were seeded over those 10 months: cheap and reliable memory, a graphical user interface, a “killer” application, and more.
Engelbart gave his famous demo at the same time as products that would eventually make his prototypes practical were being invented (DRAM) and going into mass production (Intel).

What innovations are in the vision stage today? What innovations are in the research prototype stage today? Have any revolutionary new products been introduced recently? Information technology was a key field for innovation in 1968, what are the key fields today?