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I just wanted to highlight a great post by Denis Saulnier on Open Education. He does an excellent job of outlining the history of and basic ideas around open education.


It’s also not a head-in-the-sky puff piece. Personally I like the idea of Open Education and Open Educational Resources but in my areas of interest in particular, Multimedia and Web Design, the offerings are often out of date and lackluster. There are also technical challenges that haven’t been fully addressed. From the article:

There are some significant technology challenges associated with the sharing and re-use of learning resources.  Learning object interoperability has been a failed goal for years.  Proprietary learning management systems (LMS) and competing technical protocols and standards have contributed to the difficulty in deploying and sharing learning content in predictable and standard ways (see early blog entry on one example of this: an exploration of the SCORM and IMS standards).

Also it was good to see that I was not alone in thinking that, in the near future at least, it makes more sense to focus on smartly using existing, widely used, standards:

Some notable thinkers in the Open movement feel that rather than trying to create/herd people into any one of the competing platforms/standards, we should instead focus on adopting and using those platforms and standards that are already ubiquitous among students and educators. So use: Google instead of complicated repositories; tagging instead of complicated technical metadata standards; RSS feeds instead of complex cataloging protocols; HTML and ZIP instead of protocols like SCORM and IMS; folksonomies instead of ‘official’ ontologies; and wikis/blogs/social networks instead of LMS platforms. David Wiley makes this point (along with many other great points) in a Slideshare presentation entitled Openness and Analytics: The Future of Learning Objects.

If you’re interested in Open Education but aren’t fully versed then it’s a great read.

I just ran across Litmos. This is a fully online, hosted LMS. I haven’t had a chance to check it out (there is a 14 day free trial) but it is interesting because it seems to be mostly marketed at corporate training and for-profit providers. Every course is accessible by mobile devices and they have an API that developers can use. However the cheapest plan, $49/mo, allows only 5 users. Approaching a normal class size, 25, costs $99 per month. Clearly not something the average faculty member can just decide to pay for out of pocket.

There seems to be this kind of wall between traditional educational institutions where learning is delivered by people calling themselves professors and those institutions where learning is delivered by people calling themselves trainers.

I often feel that there isn’t enough communication and collaboration between the two sides even though we are doing much the same thing although with different budgetes, mandates, timelines and learning objectives.

Of course, I haven’t done anything to bridge the gap either.

We’re in the middle of an ereading revolution that is very prominently happening on the device front (Nook, Kindle, iPad) and happening in a much quieter way online. It’s the later revolution that’s happening under the covers I’d like to write about.

Text on the web is basically a function of two things. HTML, which defines the text content itself and provides information about what the text is (title, paragraph, list etc.), and CSS which determines how the text looks on the page (font size, color, line height, line lenght etc.). This system works pretty well as evidenced by the billions of words out there on the web. However, for people who really care about how text looks (publishers, typographers, designers) it as been inadequate to create an optimal reading experience and woefully inadequate when compared to the tools available to make a printed book.

Two new standards are changing that. HTML5 and CSS3 are the new web standards that, while more evolutionary than revolutionary as compared to their predecessors, have provided the base from which the quiet revolution in online reading has sprung. Truth be told they are not even official standards yet but they filled some needs well enough that they have been proven all but irresistable to people who put type on the web.

So, what changed? Or, even better, what pain points were addressed? One of the difficulties of marking up text (the process of putting HTML elements around sections of text) is that there aren’t that many elements to use. In fact most of the text that you read on the web is marked by HTML as one of the following: paragraph, title (there are six titles to choose from), list (two basic types), table or quote (two types). To signify something larger like say an article (which might have all of the other types of text inside of it) there was nothing to do but use a generic tag that loosely grouped the other elements and then devise a separate naming system and convention to denote articles, footers or whatever. This ad hoc system meant that it was practically impossible to write a program that could go to different web sites and find articles or whatever. In HTML5 a number of new elements have been added to allow for more semantic (meaningful) markup of text including: article, aside, details, summary, footer and header. This makes it much easier for someone mark up text in a meaningful way and for someone to write code that can aggregate or reuse HTML pages.

What does CSS3 bring to the party? One thing it brings is a much richer set of tools for styling text. Designers can now do things to text in CSS3 that were previously only possible in a tool like Photoshop. CSS3 also has a feature called media queries that allow developers to target different visual styles at different screen resolutions. This in turn has brought about a new design method called responsive design. The basic idea of responsive design is that instead of designing separate web sites for phones, tablets and computers, one site can be designed in a way that it is responsive to the devices that are accessing it. Ethan Marcotte has written the most widely read article on responsive design.

There is another big change that while not technically new to CSS3 has only just been happening since 2010. That change is web fonts. While they’ve been around for a decade or more it is only recently that ease-of-use and licensing have caught up with them. When they were first introduced it was the middle of the browser wars where Microsoft and Netscape and others were continually putting out features that were only supported by their browser. It made life hell for web developers and web fonts never really caught on.

But what are they? Web fonts are fonts that your browser can download along with all of the other files for a web page. I need to back up a bit to explain the signifigance for designers. Before web fonts were available the best a web designer could do is specify which font she would like to appear. Each user’s computer would check to see if that computer had the font installed on it and if it did would use the font, if not it would render an alternative or default font. The designer could specify some alternatives but that was about it. If a designer wanted to use a font that most people would not have the designer would make an image of the text with the desired font in Photoshop and then add that to the page. There are some other solutions and ones that made it easier for search engines to find the text (Image Replacement, sIFR, Cufon) but all had drawbacks.

With web fonts your browser will check to see if it has the font and use it if it does. If the font is not installed on your computer then the browser will download the font and display it, just as the designer intended. In addition to this technology being supported by the browsers there have also been major development in licensing for web fonts. Unless you have a specific license to use a font in this way, legally you are not allowed to serve a font to web browsers. Now there are a number of free sites that help with the process (Font Squirrel, Google Font API, The League of Movable Type) and a number of paid services that sometimes will host the font in their server for you (Typekit, Kernest, Typotheque). This means that designers can be sure that users (with modern browsers) will see the font they intended.

Adding fuel to this HTML5 and CSS3 fire is the fact that all of the new touchphones and tablet computers include browsers that can handle HTML5 and CSS3. This is another kind of stanardization that makes it much easier to design for mobile devices (at least the newer ones with capable browsers).

These new standards that allow for more precision and fidelity in how text is defined and displayed have opened up opportunities for new possibilities for text layout and text layout systems. One example of this that uses responsive design principles is the Less Framework. It’s a CSS system that helps a designer adapt how a single site will look on a phone, tablet, monitor or large monitor.

Another example of the kind of service that benefits from this is Readability. Readability is a service that allows you to save web pages and then reformats them for you for better readability. The people who made the service, Arc 90, had to write code to figure out what was the main content of a page and then save just that and not all of the ads and everything. HTML5 will make this a much easier programming task. The folks behind Readability have also innovated the publishing model. They offer a premium service, $5/month, but they give 70% of the funds they collect from this back to the people who write the content. So Readability allows you another way to make money off if your blog. Instapaper offers a similar save and read later in a new, more readable, format. It doesn’t have the same payment innovation.

Other innovations have begun to come on the level of entire publishing platforms. Treesaver is a framework for creating magazine style layout that automatically adjusts to any size screen. It uses HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript to pull this off. It’s also open source: http://treesaverjs.com/. An interesting fact is that this project is being developed by veterans of the publishing industry. Roger Black has been in the industry for over 35 years with publications like The New York Times and Rolling Stone and a recent redesign of The Washington Post. Filipe Fortes worked for Microsoft and also led the development of the Times Reader. For examples of Treesaver in action check out the publications at Nomad Editions

Bibliotype, created by Craig Mod, is focused just on tablet reading. It’s goal is to make it easy to design books for tablets with just HTML, CSS and Javascript. It does the job and looks good in a browser as well. It provides a system for setting type, footnotes, menus and more. It also simplifies the reading size issue by specifying sizes for reading at 3 different distances it names Bed, Knee and Breakfast. It is also open source.

Part of the idea behind Bibliotype is that the future of the book is HTML and CSS. Along the same lines you may not know it but the ePub digital book format is basically HTML with some XML thrown in. The new ePub3 will be based on HTML5 and CSS3 and include Web Fonts as well.

So, yet again, just as the original HTML did decades ago, simple, flexible, open standards are drivers of innovation. This is good news for reading and web experience in general. The final piece of the puzzle is that all of the latest versions of the major browsers interpret HTML5 and CSS3 in largely the same way (IE9, Firefox 4, Safari 5, Chrome 10, Opera 11) So make sure you are using the latest version of your favorite browser; now you know what you’re missing.

The future of digital reading is bright and it is based on HTML and CSS. Perhaps one day most written material, from books, to magazines to articles to term papers will be written in HTML and CSS. What I’ve described here is really the first part of the revolution. It’s the technical kinks getting ironed out. The second phase will come when tools are made that make it easy for anyone to take advantage of these technologies, much like tools such as WordPress did for blogging. Look out for more innovations in this area, I think we’re just at the beginning.

It’s been almost two years since I’ve posted on this blog. Too long, way too long. So I thought I’d start with a fairly straightforward post with a bunch of links.

SXSW 2011 Interactive: http://sxsw.com/interactive
Many people know about the music and film festivals at South by Southwest in Austin, but not everyone knows that there is also a part of the festival for web folks and tech heads. SXSW Interactive draws some of the best and brightest from the web. There are many, many presentations on topics like web typography, mobile, interactive narratives, ux, augmented reality and the list goes on.

I’ve always wanted to go. I didn’t get to go this year but someone who works about 8 feet from me did get to go. Fellow Media Arts & Technology faculty member Jody Culkin, @jodyc, got to go and you can read about it (and see some pictures) on her blog: http://www.jodyculkin.com/tag/sxsw

Slideshare is a popular place for SXSW presenters to share their slides. You can find all slides tagged as sxsw2011 here: http://www.slideshare.net/sxsw2010/tagged/sxsw2011. Unfortunately there is no audio on them. By the way, Slideshare has an AIP now: http://blog.slideshare.net/2011/01/24/its-here-our-shiny-new-javascript-api/ and a WordPress Plugin that takes advantage of it to allow you to show presentations on  a WordPress site.

There is audio on this presentation from sxsw2011: http://www.opennasa.com/2011/03/12/the-next-rocket-scientist-you/. Nick Skytland from NASA created the presentation titled “The Next Rocket Scientist: YOU.” For everyone who has wanted to be a part of space exploration in some way, or if you’re interested in how large government organizations can make themselves more open, watch this presentation.

That presentation was done with SlideRocket, a Slideshare competitor, who has an option to allow you to add voiceover to your slides. They are also the official slide sponsor for SXSW. Funny thing is I can’t find a page on their site with a links to all of the presentations made using their software. Here is another one about visualizing temporal information an interactions (there is sound in the first couple of slides, but no voiceover, so beware)


The presenter, Joanna Wiebe, posted the text of the presentation on her blog: http://onemind.com/2011/03/14/text-of-my-sxsw-presentation/

SXSW does have a YouTube channel, but most of it is on music and film and the interactive sessions are shortened. Here’s one with Matt Mullenweg talking about the future of WordPress: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETAaVZrGkog.


And I want to end with a link to the Johnny Cash Project: http://www.thejohnnycashproject.com. I came across it looking at links from sxsw and it’s pretty cool. Its a kind of massively multiplayer art project. Basically people can go to the site and be given a frame from the music video of his last studio recording. Then they can paint over that frame to create a new original image. Enough people have done this that there are multiple drawn images per frame of video. People can then watch the video with these hand drawn frames in a few ways (random frames, by style, by most liked, and a curated version). A wonderful feature is that you can pause the video and see who made the frame and play back their creation of the frame. It’s a great song and a great video with thousands of different possible permutations.



For my midterms in two classes this semester I decided to give my students visual and audio feedback by doing screencasts of me going over their projects and making comments. I’m teaching technology courses so the midterms were web sites in one class and interactive Flash ActionScript programming projects in the other class.

I had thought about this before and then I watched this presentation on “Providing Asynchronous Audio Feedback Using Adobe Acrobat” (https://admin.adobe.acrobat.com/_a227210/p32922142). The people in this presentation were online teachers but I think many of the ideas still apply.

I use rubrics to grade the projects and in the past have written comments, sometimes extensive, next to each of the rubric areas. The students then get these written comments as a PDF file. This time I gave them the PDF file with the rubric and their scores but used the screencast for the comments.

I’ll post more on this process later if there is interest and I have time but overall it took a while to get into the flow of things and figure out some technical issues. Once those were overcome I found I spent about the same amount of time with the comments as I did when they were written but that the comments were richer and more extensive.

I asked informally for feedback from the students on what they thought of it and have only received a few replies; they have generally been positive. The first response was the kind that helps make all of this worth it: “By the way ,this is the most detailed response i ever got from a professor at Bmcc. Screencast idea greatest ever!” Another student was also positive and had a suggestion: “Can we get the videos in our flash drive? It took so long for me to watch my review because I did not internet in my house, so I guess more students do not have internet.”

A good reminder for me that I have to be mindful of students’ access to technology.

I’ve recently been trying out some free screen recording/capture software called Jing. You can fint it at http://www.jingproject.com. It’s made by TechSmith which is the same company that makes Camtasia (a full-featured, and full-price, screen recording software) and Snagit (A full featured screen capture software). Before I go too much further in case your confused with the terminology:

  • Screen recording is when you record your sceen as a movie. Most software also allow you to record a microphone input simultaneously so people can see what you’re doing and hear what you’re saying. More advanced software (like Camtasia) allow you to do things lik edit this video after you’ve recorded it.
  • Screen capture is when you take a still picture of your screen. In it’s most basic form this functionality is built into both Macs and PCs. Software allow you to do more with the picture in terms of cropping, editing and annotating (adding text and arrows and things).
  • Another name for screen recording is screencast. Screencast has the added implication that not only have you recorded your screen put you have also uploaded it to the web for people to see it (like broadcast but with yoru computer screen). While I’m at it I might as well throw in vodcast or video podcast. This has a somewhat broader meaning because the content does not have to be a screen recording. Also one might expect a vodcast to be a series of web videos published using RSS or iTunes compatible feed.

So, Jing has a number of things it does that are good:

  • It does Screen recording
  • It does screen capture
  • It allows you to upload to Screencast.com and other sites like Flickr and Yahoo (more on that later)
  • You can also save your files locally
  • It’s free!
  • There are Mac and PC versions.
  • It keeps all of your captures and recordings in a “history.”

There are some things that are not so good:

  • You can only record 5 minutes of video with screen recording
  • You have to pay to save your video in high quality mp4 format ($15 per year).
  • You can’t use Jing to edit your video after it’s recorded (so also no features like zoom and highlighting mouse etc., have to use other apps to do that).
  • The default file format for the free version, flash .swf file, is not one you can easily bring into another video editor either (if you pay the $15 you do get it in a more easily editable format—mp4 with h.264 compression)
  • It uses whatever microphone the computer has set up to use so change the mic you have to go into your computer’s settings, you can’t do it from Jing. This is not obvious at first.
  • It’s relatively new so there are some kinks still to be worked out. This is offset by their quick response in customer service and posts in their support forums.

With all of that said it’s a great application for being free. It seems TechSmith wanted to put out an application that make screen recording easy and accessible without eating into their market for Camtasia and SnagIt.


After you’ve made a screen recording you often want to put it somewhere on the web. There are a number of sites that allow you to publish video (for free!) with YouTube being the most recognized name. Jing can be configured to work with you YouTube account (which you have to set up on YouTube first) and when you are done with the screen recording you can push a button and it will publish to YouTube.

Not to be outdone TechSmith has made their own site for publishing videos on the web. It is http://www.screencast.com. One of the nice things about screencast.com is taht it doesn’t compress your videos in the same way the YouTube does. When you are making a recording of screen with text on it that you want people to read this feature can be very important. However, there are of course limits. You are allowed 2GB of storage space and 2GB of bandwidth per month. The video is not streaming so every time someone clicks on one of your videos the entire size of your video is subtracted from your monthly bandwidth allowance. If you’re teaching a number of classes with a number of videos then it’s a lot easier than it seems at first to eat up this monthly bandwidth. If you run out of bandwidth then students won’t be able to watch videos until the month ends (they do things on the 5th of the month). So it’s a good idea to have a backup space.

There is an admin interface for screencast.com that allows you to do a number of different things. You can monitor how much storage space and bandwidth you are using and put metadata (description, keywords, author etc) on each of the videos you have uploaded. You can also create “Playlists” of the screencasts you’ve uploaded.

These playlists get their own RSS and iTunes compatible feeds. I’ve used this feature to create playlists for classes and then post the RSS feed on a blog. Also students can subscribe to the feed using iTunes so that they can download your videos. That is something I’m going to encourage students to do because then when they want to see a video more than once they can watch it locally without downloading it again and using up more bandwidth. Right now I’m dangerously close to using up all of my available bandwidth. This also highlights the fact that I need another option for deliving the screencasts.

Of course, as with Jing, TechSmith offers paid versions that allow more bandwidth and storage space. However the cost for this is much more painful than the $15 per year for the pro version of Jing. The charge at screencast.com starts at $9.95 per month (or $99.95 per year) which gives you 25 GB of storage space and 200 GB of bandwidth per month.

I should also point out that although screencast.com is tied to Jing and has the name it has, you can upload any video you want as long as it’s in the right file format.

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