Resurgence of the scroll

Having found a liking for the Kindle reader on my Android smartphone, and with BDRA’s interest in e-books, it was quite a surprise this morning to have a washing machine repair man present me with what was basically, thanks to a turn-of-the-century suitcase of kit, a scroll.

Not parchment, and printed or the wrong side, but a scroll nonetheless

My first thought was some kind of reverse-medieval helpdesk comedy, but then it occurred to me that actually, we use the scroll as a presentation format every day. We just don’t notice, because we call them “pages”. Web pages. Except, they are not pages of a website really, because most people don’t find them by going to the “home page” and navigating hyperlinks, as was originally envisaged. No, they go straight to one “page” from Google. So really, each “web page” is a discrete document, and since these documents are usually longer than a screen-full, one has to “scroll” through them. So, they are scrolls.

Why, then, did the medieval scroll give way to the book? Well, according to Wikipedia, for “compactness, sturdiness, ease of reference (a codex is random access, as opposed to a scroll, which is sequential access), and especially economy; unlike the scroll, both recto and verso could be used for writing”, None of these matter in electronic format, especially “random access”, a problem solved by the browser’s “search” facility. In fact,  “search”, not hyperlinking,  is the key technology that has allowed what would have been books to become multiple small documents. In this brave new world, hiding part of the document on separate pages becomes a disadvantage. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you… The Scroll.

“Old” technology is often disparaged simply because it “wasn’t invented here” (i.e. by the current generation), but “old” technology may well be cheaper (analogue vs digital radio), easier to use (clockwork vs digital egg timer) and more appropriate (birthday card vs text message). When designing any new system – I’m thinking of learning design in particular – it’s important to use the most appropriate technologies from all those available, and not be seduced by newness.

Paul Rudman
BDRA

Kindling

Some years ago, I was surprised to discover that anyone could resell their books on Amazon. (Until then, I assumed Amazon was only available to businesses.) Two things happened as a result of this revelation:

1)      I became much more sceptical about buying books not sold by Amazon itself
2)      I started selling my own second hand books

Then came eBooks, and the Amazon Kindle store. My first assumption went along the lines of “well, you can’t sell second-hand eBooks, so everything here must by sold by Amazon”. Right? Of course not. I soon discovered that anyone can sell any text on the Amazon Kindle store.

So again, my perception of the store’s reliability dropped, albeit for a different reason.

It strikes me that virtual worlds suffer from the same kind of problem, only in reverse. When the first contemporary public virtual world (Second Life) was launched, anyone could create their view of a desirable world. And thousands did. Some creations were beautiful, some were downright weird. The press, obviously, couldn’t resist poking fun at some of the public spectacles.

Given time, the virtual world “publishers” came along and created spaces intended to be useful to large numbers of people (rather than being one personal idea of a useful world), and using evidence-based design. There are many such places now; in our case, it’a a laboratory for teaching and learning laboratory skills in genetics.

Now that stories of weird goings-on in virtual worlds are yesterday’s news, virtual worlds appear to have “had their day”, but this is not so, they have merely “had their 15 minutes of fame“. Many virtual worlds are now available, some now a good alternative to Second Life, and many organisations are developing successful educational and other professional spaces.

If the Kindle was meant as kindling for eBooks, Second Life has done the same for virtual worlds. I’m looking forward to seeing both become the roaring success they deserve.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

E-Books: Permeating and Complementing

Beyond Distance first began to research the use of e-book readers in higher education back in 2008 at the beginning of the DUCKLING project. From our research, distance students overwhelmingly reported that accessing course materials on the e-reader was a very flexible, convenient study method which helped them target the most relevant readings, well suiting their busy, on-the-go lifestyles. Yet, especially in the earlier stages of the project, I wondered about the long-term viability of e-books and e-book readers. E-book reader prices were not terribly far off from the price of netbooks, and publishers did not seem to be in a rush to make books available as e-books.

Photo courtesy of ceslava on Flickr

Today, especially since the UK launch of the iPad in May and Amazon dropping the price of the Kindle in June, the scene looks very different. But it isn’t just the low price of the Kindle or the cool tech of the iPad. It’s the fact that huge players like Apple and Amazon are managing to persuade publishers to make books, even textbooks, available as e-books. It’s also the fact that Amazon wisely made its Kindle App (the programme which nicely displays the e-book) freely available for iPad, iPhone, Android, and both Mac and Windows computers (and it seems to be do-able in Linux as well).

So now, students can take their reading list, check titles on a growing list of online e-book vendor websites including those of W H Smith and Waterstones, and download the e-book right now and likely for a lower price than the paper version. If they are lucky enough to have a reading list filled with the old classics such as Plato’s Republic or Huckleberry Finn, the e-books are free. Some good sites for free e-books are Project Gutenberg, Manybooks.net, and feedbooks.com, and most of the e-book sales sites also feature free e-books.

E-books won’t be pushing paper books out of the picture anytime soon. However, with their mobility, convenience, instantaneous delivery, and (usually) lower prices, they have managed to permeate the marketplace and complement the use of traditional books. They are here to stay, and their presence and use will only grow.

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist and Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo

An Initial Reaction to the iPad

Steve Jobs’ 27 January unveiling of the Apple iPad has drawn reactions running the gamut from adoration to ridicule.  Most comments in the latter category take aim at the device’s name. Other negative opinions focus on the iPad’s inability to multitask, lack of a camera, or the fact that it isn’t more like a netbook.

I for one agree with Jobs’ quip in his keynote: “The problem is, netbooks aren’t better at anything.” He goes on to show how the iPad is designed to do chosen tasks better — the chosen tasks being email, displaying photos, watching videos, playing music, browsing the web, playing games, and, yes, reading e-books. In addition, one can create Keynote presentations, spreadsheets, and word-processed documents using iPad versions of these apps, features which look quite impressive and set the iPad notably ahead of both the iPhone and arguably netbooks.

Those who have test-run the iPad testify to its clever usability and speed, courtesy of the new custom-silicon A4 chip. The iPad’s price tag is very reasonable, and its 3G data plan with AT&T is surprisingly low-priced and flexible, with no contract to sign. This alone well positions the iPad for all kinds of users — businesspeople, artists, students, academics, everyone. And since, in many parts of the developing world, 3G is the most common method of internet access, the iPad is in this respect well-positioned for new inroads into international markets.

For me, the most interesting, even revolutionary, news about the iPad was not only that e-books would now be available for purchase through Apple just as music and films have been, but also that Apple has been negotiating with textbook publishers to this end. In the UK we have had Sony e-readers and Waterstones, while the e-books scene in the States has been dominated by the Kindle and Amazon, but neither Waterstones nor Amazon has been offering very much in the way of textbooks for e-readers. We at Beyond Distance have been evaluating the use of e-readers by masters-level distance students as part of our DUCKLING project. As a part of this project, publishers Routledge made a special deal to allow us to include their textbook on the e-readers supplied to students, and we will be sharing with Routledge the results of our research. Now that Apple has taken the major step of promising textbooks on iPads, we should begin to see textbook publishers not only provide their materials for e-readers but hopefully benefit from Apple’s consistent “cool factor” with students.

Vive la revolution!

Terese Bird

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