Two hours at the museum

Here at the University of Leicester, we have a beautiful museum. It has brand new wood panelling, glass, artworks on the walls, helpful, friendly staff, computer terminals to help with interpreting the exhibits, spaces to sit and think, work, take stock.

Yes, it’s truly lovely. And in some ways, I enjoyed my two hours there this morning.

Unfortunately, in terms of productivity, a museum full of fifteenth Century technology is really not ideal. If the information in those museum pieces had been stored with twenty-first Century technology, I would have found what I wanted in two minutes, instead of two hours, and could have gotten on with something more useful.

I’m talking, of course, about the library – and the books therein. An anachronistic throw-back to the days when part of the point of academia was to limit access to knowledge.

Books are a lovely technology for reading a novel by the pool in Ibiza.

I’m trying to get some work done.

Paul Rudman

BDRA

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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

A Year Into The E-book Reader…

DUCKLING started researching the impact of e-book readers on distance work-based learners about a year ago.  I did a presentation at ALT-C 2009 about DUCKLING’s experience of using new technologies , including the e-book readers.  At the beginning of my presentation, I asked the audience a question about how many of them owned or used an e-book reader. Very few people in the room responded to my question.  At ALT-C 2010 this year, I did another presentation specifically about e-book readers, and I asked the audience the same question. To my surprise, half of the audience raised their hands!

The e-reader is one of the fast-growing and changing technologies in the past year. Changes and movements in this technology are on news every day. For example, Leeds University gives textbooks on iPhones to its medical students (but students have to give back the iPhone when they graduate).  Free e-reader software has been recently released and is set to ‘revolutionise the e-book reading experience’. You can see a screenshot of what the Blio[TM] free e-reading software looks like below.

It is amazing to see how e-books and e-readers have shaped our life, changed our relationship with traditional books and the library, and the way we learn.

Ming Nie              05 October 2010

Developing a relationship with technology

Recently I bought an e-reader, to replace some of my old habits of reading and highlighting (on the printed paper) and throwing those papers away, or after accumulating a pile of them, not knowing what to do in the limited space available.

I feel that I am going through a transitional period of getting used to reading and working with text in a different way from what I am used to.

This process reminds me of how people get used to or develop a new relationship with technology.

Developing a relationship with technology is not a straightforward process. We do not completely and passively react to what is presented to us in a box. As David Bell at Leeds University once wrote, we are active agents in shaping our relationship with technologies.

I think if we are to embrace any new technology, be it hardware like an e-reader or a web 2.0 tool like this blog platform, we need to give ourselves some time and space to reflect on how best to get the technology to do what we wanted to achieve. Who knows, after I get used to my new e-reader, I might save a tree or two, or more….

Palitha Edirisingha, 29 Sept 2010.

DUCKLING’s e-book readers

E-book readers have been tested recently by work-based Masters’ students in Education (TESOL), studying at a distance, at the University of Leicester. The trial was part of DUCKLING, one of BDRA’s projects, funded by JISC.

Last week I read a draft case study by Ming Nie on these students’ reactions to using the Sony PRS-505 e-book readers (not the latest model). She says that the readers, preloaded with module materials, a textbook and podcasts were given to 17 Education students. The devices, they said, increased the flexibility and mobility of their learning, helped them to save resources and costs on printing, enabled them to do more reading of course materials during the working day and helped them to conduct their studies more effectively .

There’s been a lot of press interest in such readers. The Guardian (July 21) carried a front-page item about Amazon selling more e-books for the Kindle reader in the past three months in the US than it had hardbacks (though US hardback sales rose by 22%, in case you think the book is doomed already). Five authors had sold more than half a million digital copies each. In the UK, though, sales of e-books last year were  worth ‘only’ £150 million.

A recent survey for The Bookseller  of 3,000 British book-buying consumers showed that only 26% of respondents had heard of a Kindle and only 41% knew what a Sony Reader was, although 60% had heard of the iPad. They said they were “unlikely” (36.8%) or would “definitely not” (32.3%) buy an e-reader in the coming year. Of course, few of those surveyed may have been students at the time.

Brian Croxall  reflects on his experience of getting students to use Web 2.0 technology such as Google Docs, Twitter, Wave, Wikis and Zotero: it was mainly positive, he said, but beware of ‘tool fatigue’.  Students may be happy to use new technologies, but there’s a limit to their enthusiasm. Mine too!

Have you heard of Kno? I hadn’t. It’s an e-reader being developed for the HE market and due in the autumn. This twin-colour-screen wi-fi device will support Flash, HTML5, PDF and ePub formats.  See the video,  but what about its price and battery life?

The World eBook Fair claims to have 3.5 million e-books that can be read or downloaded. It’s free until 4 Aug, then $8.95 per year. Although I’d guess that a few thousand of these could be valuable in some way to UK university students, I do wonder whether e-book design is going to turn out to be different from that of the paper originals. I read this week that embedded video and audio in e-books will be with us soon. What a challenge — and what an opportunity for e-learning designers!

David Hawkridge

PS If you’re looking for a journal in which to publish your research paper, take a look at: http://edtechdev.wordpress.com/journals/

Can Learning Innovations be Embedded and Sustained?

On 28 April, 2010, Gabi Witthaus and Terese Bird attended a CAMEL meeting sponsored by JISC and which took place at Middlesex University, the theme of which was to examine whether the developments of the DUCKLING project can be embedded and sustained. Once the project is over, can teaching teams continue to use the technologies, findings and deliverables?

In this meeting, Gabi and Terese looked at the sustainability of each of the three technologies implented in the DUCKLING project — ebook readers, podcasting, and Second Life — as well as the pedagogy underpinning the use of each. Since the project is a joint effort amongst the Schools of Psychology and Education, and Beyond Distance, it was helpful to consider how each of the Schools implemented each innovation.

Psychology used Second Life as a forum for role-playing and simulation, to give students a taste of the experience of living and working on an oil rig with its dangers and isolation, as preparation for their assignment to write a health and safety training manual for oil rig workers. Beyond Distance techies supported this work. However, the actual role playing and leading of the sessions was done by Psychology academics and could continue that way, with some tech support. To watch a YouTube video capturing some of the action of the students’ experience on the oil rig, click here.

Education sent their students into existing language class forums in Second Life, where students observed and could participate in the classes. This was a very flexible way of making use of Second Life — students simply went in and signed up for classes already taking place pretty much 24/7. Observing language classes in Second Life has now been embedded into themodule as an optional activity. As long as there are such forums in Second Life, this activity is sustainable.

Podcasts have been fully embedded into the Psychology curriculum for the masters programme in DUCKLING — especially as part of the dissertation-writing process. These podcasts been rolled out to all cohorts on that module. Psychology academics have been making and distributing (via the University VLE, Blackboard) podcasts without any help from Beyond Distance for months now. Education has especially recently begun to record podcasts for its Masters TESOL students, and again the work of recording and posting onto the VLE is straightforward enough to continue without difficulty after DUCKLING’s conclusion.

With the ebook readers, we learned from interviews with students that using the ebook reader is changing their study habits. To quote one student: “I now study more in my workdays using the e-reader. I’ve been putting it in my bag every day and taking it to work and after lunch reading a few pages. I’ve found that way it keeps the content fresh in my mind. Before with the paper version, I’d allocate my weekends for study.”  Another student commented, “I think that the e-book reader changed my way of keeping notes and makes my study more effective. Before, I used my laptop to write a lot of notes because I felt that I would forget the whole thing if I didn’t take them down. But taking notes is time-consuming and not that effective because I never really use the notes. With the e-book reader, it’s not very inconvenient to go back to the material on the e-reader and I can remember where the material was and go back to the module on the e-reader and look through it. As a result of that, I didn’t take a lot of notes and I don’t think it (not taking notes) makes a difference to my study.”

A further aspect of the continuing use of ebook readers can be viewed from the point of view of finance. One department saw savings over printing and shipping stacks of handouts to students, by instead shipping to the students fully-loaded ebook readers. In some cases the students themselves experienced the savings, realising that they did not have to purchase hard copies of notes and choosing instead to simply read these on their ebook readers. Converting module handouts from Word format into format suitable for ebook readers (epub format in the case of the Sony ebook readers we are using) is not a very difficult process — click here for our instructions to do this. The fact that the iPad supports epub documents, public libraries are beginning to offer ebooks for download in epub format, and students are looking for reading material compatible with smartphones, presses the point that the use of this technology will only increase in future. We predict it will be sustained by popular demand.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

eBooks and eReaders: Advancing at Warp Speed

The DUCKLING project, a collaborative effort between University of Leicester’s Beyond Distance, the School of Psychology and the School of Education has been examining the impact on distance students’ learning of three technologies: podcasts, ebook readers, and the use of Second Life. Back in autumn 2009, we loaded learning materials onto ebook readers and shipped them out to distance students around the world, in lieu of the stacks of printed material shipped in years past and at greater cost. (For  a simple guide to change Word documents to epub documents suitable for most ebook readers, click here to download from the DUCKLING website.) As one of the learning technologists working on the project, I provided subsequent support to the students, mostly by answering their questions on a Blackboard discussion board.

In March of 2010, we shipped ebook readers to a new cohort of distance students, and I have again been providing technical support by discussion on Blackboard. I observed an interesting development in the kinds of questions being asked.

The September 2009 cohort asked questions about the different software required by the ereader (Sony Reader Library, Calibre) and what platforms these run on,  whether PDF documents display on ereaders (answer: they do, but line breaks are rigid so the document does not “flow”). Students also commented that they appreciated carrying all reading material in one package especially while travelling, and the fact that their ereader was a conversation-starter on their morning commute. Some students commented that they wished their ereader had facilities for note-taking (the Sony PRS-505 used in this project does not have this facility).

The March 2010 cohort asked fewer tech-help questions. They had many more technical comments, having already gotten to grips with many of the usability issues. Comments such as “I wish I could organise the documents according to my own design” were quickly answered by other students who had already figured it out. They downloaded their own material onto ereaders and discussed how that worked. Most interestingly to me, they compared reading documents on the ereader not with reading on paper, but with reading on other devices – laptop, iPod Touch, iPhone.  I found myself scrambling to keep up with the suggestions for software to try, sites to visit, apps to purchase. One student looked forward to the ease with which ereaders could make educational material available to students: “…education is the perfect market for ebooks I think. The amount of reading is so wide-ranging, and personally there is a desire to read tonnes of material. The access we have through Leicester for journals is immense; having the same access to the reading lists would just be good for education full stop. It will change, when is the only question.”

In January 2010 the Consumer Electronics Association predicted ereader sales will double in 2010, as Amazon announced the Kindle was “the most gifted item ever from its website” according to Dan Nystedt, IDG News Service. The Apple iPad has every possibility of being a game-changer in this field. Our students’ comments illustrate the speed at which the ebooks and ereaders market is advancing. For students looking for a convenient and cost-effective way of accessing academic material, the change cannot happen too soon.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

Dear Father Christmas…..

As always I’ve been a good girl and decided that a seasonal approach to my final blog entry of the year would be appropriate.  Below is a (short) list of some technology that I’d like to find wrapped up for me on Christmas day:

  • Sony PRS-600
    This is the latest version of the Sony e-reader, we’ve been using the Sony PRS-505 as part of our DUCKLING project (http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/beyond-distance-research-alliance/projects/duckling), but this latest version features a touch screen which I think will make it more intuitive and easier to use based on how I’ve seen people try to initially use the PRS-505.  The Kindle is reported to be the ‘most wished for’ Christmas present (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/dec/02/technology-gadgets-for-christmas), we might be seeing students coming back with e-readers after the holidays ready for University produced e-books?
  • Universal Solar Phone Charger
    I’m forever running out of battery on my phone and on my iPod, very annoying when you’re expecting a phone call, listening to music on a long car journey, or tweeting during a conference.  This handy little gadget will enable me (hopefully) to keep my technology charged, or at least until I can get back home.  With our culture seemingly becoming more dependent on technology this means we never have to face the panic of being without.
  • Microsoft Surface
    Because a girl can dream that she can afford these things! Microsoft Surface lets you touch the surface of a screen which is on a horizontal surface to move files, edit video, even ripple water!  If you can afford it, this could revolutionise the way you interact and collaborate in education and business.  
  • High Definition Eyes
    This might not be on my Christmas list quite yet (I still have 20-20 vision), but I’ve included it to show the advances in technology and that advances will always be made.  This news story is about an ‘artificial lens’ made from light sensitive silicone which can be fine tuned to each individuals prescription.  Reading a brief history of cataract surgery (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cataract_surgery#History) people have always been curious and felt the need to advance, and it makes me wonder what will be next? 
  • Etre Touchy Gloves
    Why are these on the list?  Basically because they’re fun! These are gloves with the tip of the thumb and index finger missing to enable you to keep your hands warm in winter while still being able to press the buttons on your mp3 player, phone or whatever device you are using.

Hopefully you’ve seen something that you like and can see how some of these gifts would be used for education, I’ve given a brief reason how and why I think they can be used.  I used the Guardians Christmas Gift Guide for inspiration: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/gallery/2009/nov/27/christmas-gift-guide-gadgets?picture=356240049 and I hope that you all get everything you want for Christmas (if you’ve been good that is)!

One last thing to add to the list that will improve your New Year: Registration to our Learning Futures Festival Online – registration closes the 23rd December.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Mobile Learning, Handheld Learning

Whilst on the train returning from ALT-C 2009, I read John Traxler’s excellent thought piece “Students and mobile devices: choosing which dream”. John describes the conundrum of using mobile devices such as mp3 players and mobile phones for learning: so many students have them that it seems obvious that we should include them as learning technology. However, not all students have them, and students don’t all have devices with the same capability, and students may not wish to use their own mobile devices as learning tools. To quote, “Student devices unlock the dreams of agency, control, ownership and choice amongst students but put the dreams of equity, access and participation at risk. Universities cannot afford, procure, provide nor control these devices but they cannot ignore them either. Clearly such a stark choice is an over-simplification; there is no simple question and no simple answer.”

I am not so sure I agree, however, that universities cannot afford or procure these devices. Fifteen or so years ago we were discussing whether universities could afford the numbers of computers needed for students to be assured computer access. Today many universities offer students the free use of laptops, cameras and digital camcorders in addition to fixed desktop computers.

Today I discovered the website for the Handheld Learning Conference. Apple appears to be taking the lead on the conference this year, which seems only to be expected given the iPhone and iPod derivatives (as well as the rumoured iTablet). The development first of iStanford (by which Stanford students can check grades, registration, and the whereabouts of the campus shuttle bus on their iPhones), and now of MobilEdu with Blackboard elevate the handheld device to the status of a VLE. At the same time, Sony has just released its updated models of e-book reader, and new eReaders from IREX and CoolReaders will surely appeal to students looking for a way to consolidate required readings into one digital package.

The Burnt Oak Junior School in Kent recently gave out iPod Touches to 32 8-year-old students for general school use. A short film describing the project can be seen here. Whilst watching it, I was reminded that it was only a few short years ago we were first hearing about schools buying fleets of laptops for uses not unlike this school’s use of the iPod Touch — but the iPod costs a fraction of the price of a laptop. Schools and universities are indeed investing in handheld-learning hardware as well as software. Students will begin to consider an iPhone or whatever handheld of choice to be as much a required purchase as a rucksack.

Terese Bird

A New E-Book Reader from Asus to Join the Market

I’ve been doing my best to stay updated with some of the developments related to e-book readers. The BDRA blog is certainly a useful resource for this and recent entries by Emma, Terese and Ming have all been very helpful in this respect.

An article in the Times Online (from the 6th September) recently caught my attention. It focused on a new e-book reader from a company called Asus which, apparently, should be available by Christmas this year. According to this article, the Asus ‘Eee reader’ claims to be ‘cleverer’ and ‘more versatile’ than existing readers on the market. So what is it about this e-book reader that makes it different?

There are several features of this product that make me believe it may change the e-book reader market. The first, is that the Eee reader will have two screens, with a hinged spine  to make it open out like a printed book. It will also have touch-screen capabilities, enabling readers to turn the pages by moving them from one screen to the next. The pages will be shown in colour and one side of the screen may be used to browse web pages, or could act as a ‘virtual keyboard.’

These features, plus further discussion around the possibility of webcams, speakers and microphones for Skype, meant that I began to think that Asus may be justified in thinking this product will ‘shake up’ the existing market of e-book readers. They are well qualified to do so, as Asus created the Eee PC which helped to start the current Netbook craze.

On top of these innovations, Asus is aiming to make it the cheapest digital reader on the market, making it even more accessible to the general public and meaning that the use of e-book readers as a whole will grow. Asus hope to produce two versions: a budget version and a premium version, with the budget version costing somewhere in the region of £100.

At the time of writing this blog, the final details of the device are yet to be confirmed. However, with the speed at which these things develop I would not be surprised if, by Christmas, there are more features added to the list above. I will certainly be watching with interest to see how this develops!

Dr Kelly Barklamb

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