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

More about e-books and readers of them

My interest in e-books and their role in e-learning has stayed high, both for unexpected reasons and because of further news.

Interviewed in The Guardian, John Makinson, Penguin’s chief executive, told us that what matters is that people read, not how they choose to do it. Penguin is part of Pearson, a company dominated by educational publishing. Makinson thinks ‘the very definition of a book is up for grabs’. Penguin has just published a version of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for the iPad (in the US) with embedded scenes from the TV adaptation, plus excerpts from the soundtrack and Follett’s video diary that he kept when making the TV.

The same day, The Guardian  reported that Amazon UK had brought out a new version of the Kindle e-book reader, to hold as many as 3,500 books. Amazon UK now also has an e-book store with 400,000 titles for the Kindle.

Learning technologists cannot simply ignore this kind of news, even if their academic colleagues in faculties and departments are slow to respond to it! BDRA’s DUCKLING project showed that an early model e-book reader probably had too many disadvantages to be popular among academics and students, but, like all new technology, readers will improve – and already have.

I was surprised last week by a technophobe I know well. Her very excited response was to an e-book on the iPad. Her excitement was not just because the screen was clear, the font could be enlarged, the pages were easy to turn, or the iPad could hold thousands of books. It was because she has become allergic to book dust and cannot read paper books for long because of that. She saw the iPad as opening up boundless new opportunities for dustless reading.

Doubtless somebody somewhere is considering doing research on how e-book readers can compensate for learners’ disabilities of one kind or another. That could be a new field for BDRA.

David Hawkridge

The future’s not too far off

In 2008 as part of Beyond Distance’s annual conference we ran a session on the lines of BBC’s ‘Dragon’s Den’, where e-learning researchers and practitioners were invited to pitch ideas for funding support to an expert panel.

Conceived as a forum for bringing ideas through a process of scrutiny and providing feedback to the proposers, the ideas pitched were for real but there was no actual pot of funds available to back the ideas.

One of the proposals that was considered ‘fundable’ then was for an e-paper and the technologist who proposed it made a spirited defence of the proposal in the face of stringent questioning by the experts.

The proposed  e-paper was suggested to be a rewritable and flexible display – but not foldable – that was proposed as a significant step-forward from the tethered and portable display units that we were used to.

The logical next step to this was e-readers and tablet PCs, the current pinnacle of which is Apple’s iPad. The reason I mention the ‘futuristic’ proposal from 2008 is within two-and-half year time span ‘electronic paper’ which is bendy, able to retain an image and electronically rewriteable – is getting closer all the time.

In January 2010, LG Electronics showed off a 19in flexible e-paper, and companies such as Plastic Logic and E Ink are getting electronics that look closer to paper all the time.

So the next time an idea is pitched or you spot something interesting in a sci-fi narrative, don’t be surprised to see it in a shop window sometime soon.

Jai Mukherjee, Beyond Distance Research Alliance

On the increase: Online conferences & e-books

BDRA’s very successful annual Learning Futures Festival 2010 for a week in January was online for the first time, and I notice that the Open University’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference will also be online for the first time, June 22-23. BDRA’s was truly international. The OU one may turn out to be so too, with its title: ‘’How does openness affect learning/content/access/teaching?’

The trend to go online for conferences is likely to accelerate in the face of cost-cutting measures in many universities here and abroad. There will always be those who prefer face-to-face meetings, but there’s no doubt that online conferences offer plenty of excellent opportunities to learn and to make new contacts, besides being less costly.

E-books are on the increase too, according to the JISC national e-books observatory project. Because of research I did years ago on IT for learners with disabilities, I took a look at a new practical guide from TechDis (JISC’s agency for such matters), entitled ‘Towards accessible e-book platforms.’ It advises on matters such as magnification, colour change, keyboard access and text to speech

Research at the University of Washington has called in question the large-screen Kindle DX e-book reader. At the University of Virginia, 80% of MBA respondents said they wouldn’t recommend it.

According to Stephen Downes, that inveterate blogger, however, Sony is more optimistic.  Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading business division claims:  “Within five years there will be more digital content sold than physical content”.

It’s going to be interesting to see how students taking BDRA’s new MSc in Innovative Education and Training offered through supported distance learning, make use and take advantage of e-books and e-book readers. If you haven’t already seen the details of this new programme, have a look at

David Hawkridge

iPadding around

Last weekend I was able to spend 30 minutes with a brand-new Apple iPad. Unlike Stephen Fry and Charlie Brooker, I wasn’t asked to offer my opinion of it. Here, I shall be brief.

Frankly, I was impressed. I don’t have an iPhone or an iTouch, but I’ve been a Mac user for a long time. I was impressed because I thought I could see the iPad’s potential in higher education, both on campus and at a distance.

For example, the iPad I looked at had several formats of e-book on it. Probably all would be valuable to any learner willing and able to read onscreen. Some may well prove to be better than others for studying, but the iPad was carrying them all. Versatile.

Combine e-books with email, full and fast internet access, wordprocessing, spreadsheets, social networking and thousands (yes, thousands) of other applications, and an iPad could transform your life as a student. Multi-tasking should be easy.

BDRA will evaluate and exploit the iPad’s potential for e-learning, I’m sure. At the current prices, it won’t be in the hands of most of the university’s students for quite a while, if ever, therefore it won’t be a ‘standard vehicle’ for the university’s teaching. But it might offer great advantages, particularly if provided to distance learners on certain courses. Drawbacks? Yep, there are some, but I didn’t have it long enough to comment on those. Mobile phone? CD/DVD drive? Broadband essential?

The iPad is seductive, without doubt. Will it help teachers and learners to understand and cope with climate change, flood, famine and other great threats to our civilisation? Maybe.

David Hawkridge

Delving into DUCKLING, e-books and e-book readers

Delivering University Curricula: Knowledge, Learning and INnovation Gains (the DUCKLING project) at the University of Leicester in BDRA is investigating the use of podcasting, Sony e-book readers and Second Life by distance learners taking postgraduate courses in Occupational Psychology and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). I shall be delving into DUCKLING over the next few days and may soon have more comments on it for my next blog. It’s certainly a remarkable research project, as I heard during a recent PANTHER seminar at the university, when two staff from Occupational Psychology and one from Education (TESOL) told us about their experiences in developing and using podcasts in their teaching.

Recently I picked up from the virtual airwaves some news that may interest you about other e-books and e-book readers (none of which I’ve actually seen or used as yet). Wiley has joined Simon & Schuster, Barnes & Noble, O’Reilly and many other publishers to offer e-books in the Scribd Store, which enables you to embed and share documents in a Flash viewer.  Scribd has been working with publishers to sell downloadable digital versions of their books, available as PDFs, and excerpts can be shared through the Scribd reader. I gather that this strategy is seen as a counterweight to the closed Kindle store.

Spring Design, developer of the new dual-screen Alex eReader, has struck a deal with Google that gives users access to more than 1m Google books. The device is a Google Android-based platform with Web browser, Wi-Fi connectivity, audio and video playback and image viewing in several formats.

Ray Kurzweil is presenting a platform rather than a physical device. The Blio software is free and available for PCs, iPod Touch and iPhone. He says, “We have high-quality graphics and animated features. Other e-readers are very primitive.” One of Blio’s major advantages is that the software offers full colour as opposed to e-Ink’s monochrome, and text-to-speech is built in.

I won’t even mention use of the Apple iPad, which is not yet the subject of BDRA research. Nor is the big, thin and bendy Skiff eReader, with an 11.5” display or Philips Liquavista colour eReader that uses ‘electrowetting’ display technology, whatever that is. And Plastic Logic’s Que reader has a big screen (8.5” x 11”) but a big price (US$650).

The enTourage eDGe interactive dualbook combines an e-book reader, notepad and tablet netbook in one device. McGraw-Hill Education has announced a strategic alliance with its makers, enTourage Systems, to deliver nearly 100 top-selling McGraw-Hill HE titles to the device, spanning disciplines such as business, economics, science, mathematics, humanities, foreign languages and social sciences. Students purchasing these titles through the enTourage Systems e-book store can read the text, take and share notes online, search for phrases, listen to accompanying audio, and view images and video in full colour.

Toys for learning and teaching? We shall see.

David Hawkridge

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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