AMITIAE - Wednesday 18 January 2012

Modernisation of Teaching Delivery: Apple's Ebook Event

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Apart from a worldwide shortage of hard disks, one of the results of the flooding in central Thailand at the end of last year, was the stark realisation that it could happen again. While the subject had been discussed (and shelved) many times before, the possibility of a shutdown lasting several weeks is prompting the university I work at urgently to re-examine its teaching delivery methods. Rumours concerning Apple's ebooks initiative suggest this may be timely.


The plan here is a remote system that would allow students to connect via a browser and study at home with online access and downloaded files. While paper (or the digital alternatives) are part of any teaching strategy, a whole product approach requires other media for the teachers to get their message across effectively and (hopefully) for the students to receive, although an advantage of such remote delivery systems is the ability to repeat, should a student so desire.


While text is a medium that many teachers are comfortable with, sound and movie formats are less widely accepted by some. A teacher may be in total control in a room full of 100 or more students, but the idea of cameras recording while teaching, or of preparing a special unit for video output, raises some red flags in the more traditional members of the faculty, even though most have evolved from using basic projectors to presentation software now.

I do not object to being filmed while teaching, but as each lesson -- even when using the same materials with different groups -- is different, something may be lost in that canned unit. When I was working for a London-based news distribution company in the 1960s, I was sent to Leeds to train as a trainer. As a final test, we were to produce a brief unit of instruction. The catch was that this was to be filmed. As the video camera was in its infancy at that time (this was only black and white) several members of the group were unable to deal with the novel idea of being recorded. I simply ignored the camera and did the job, but one talented young man was so nervous that he could not continue.

With modern software, teachers can demonstrate without needing to appear on camera themselves. Screen capture video shows the actions on the screen as they are carried out. A quick (non-definitive) search reveals several examples: Camtasia (Mac and PC); CamStudio (PC - Open Source); Hyperionics (PC - HyperSnap and Hypercam); Easy Screen Capture (PC); SnapzProX (Mac OS X). Presentation files made in Keynote or PowerPoint can also be exported as movie files.

ebooks and sound The sound file has the advantage of not displaying the person making the recording, so nervousness concerning the idea of being on camera would diminish. An advantage is that files are much smaller than a video of an equivalent length; but of course, in most cases the student would still need some visual input: either by screen shot, images or text.

Text and Evolution to the Ebook

A colleague who teaches electrical engineering subjects has prepared a text book with a mix of English, Thai and images created in Visicalc. He works on a PC and writes using Word for Windows, exporting the finished texts into PDF formats. These are then printed and distributed to students, but could be made available online. With a PDF he is able also to export to ebook and thus make the information available on a wider range of display media.

ebooks My own experiments with software for creating ebooks, including the current version of Pages (4.1), shows that there are some shortcomings, especially if working with many images or text that uses non-Roman characters (like Thai or other South-east Asian languages). Export to PDF, as is done by my colleague, may be a solution for some, but this also loses some of the advantages of the ebook format, like the ability to copy sections of text.

Another problem I came across with Pages was that using a multi-column layout would not export to an ebook. This is a minor adjustment for someone creating such a work. However, if a writer is investing the many hours into writing a textbook, part of the approach includes a design consideration -- what it looks like on the page -- especially when parts of a text may have been (legitimately) copied from a multi-column journal article. These are minor problems in the face of the massive task of writing a text book and may be circumvented by some careful planning.

Pages is part of Apple's productivity suite, iWork which has been rumoured to be in the final stages of an upgrade since before the arrival of the Mac App Store just over a year ago. If Apple is to make writing of textbooks in ebook format -- as has been rumoured ever since the news of the 19 January Education event was announced -- then an easier to use writing and export application would be welcome so that the ebook can be incorporated into a wider strategy for delivering materials to students.

Next year, we may be able to continue teaching and ignore that the waters around us have grown.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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