Printing Out Online Course Materials With Embedded Movie Links

Although an increasing number of OU courses include the delivery of online course materials, written for online delivery as linked HTML pages, rather than just as print documents viewable online, we know (anecdotally at least, from requests that printing options be made available to print off whole sections of a course with a single click) that many students want to be able to print off the materials… (I’m not sure we know why they want to print off the materials, though?)

Reading through a couple of posts that linked to my post on Video Print (Finding problems for QR tags to solve and Quite Resourceful?) I started to ponder a little bit more about a demonstrable use case that we could try out in a real OU course context over a short period of time, prompted by the following couple of comments. Firstly:

So, QR codes – what are they good for? There’s clearly some interest – I mentioned what I was doing on Twitter and got quite a bit of interest. But it’s still rare to come across QR codes in the wild. I see them occasionally on blogs/web-pages but I just don’t much see the point of that (except to allow people like me to experiment). I see QR codes as an interim technology, but a potentially useful one, which bridges the gap between paper-based and digital information. So long as paper documents are an important aspect of our lives (no sign of that paper-less office yet) then this would seem to be potentially useful.
[Paul Walk: Quite Resourceful?]

And secondly:

There’s a great idea in this blog post, Video Print:

By placing something like a QR code in the margin text at the point you want the reader to watch the video, you can provide an easy way of grabbing the video URL, and let the reader use a device that’s likely to be at hand to view the video with…

I would use this a lot myself – my laptop usually lives on my desk, but that’s not where I tend to read print media, so in the past I’ve ripped URLs out of articles or taken a photo on my phone to remind myself to look at them later, but I never get around to it. But since I always have my phone with me I’d happily snap a QR code (the Nokia barcode software is usually hidden a few menus down, but it’s worth digging out because it works incredibly well and makes a cool noise when it snaps onto a tag) and use the home wifi connection to view a video or an extended text online.

As a ‘call to action’ a QR tag may work better than a printed URL because it saves typing in a URL on a mobile keyboard.
[Mia Rdige: Finding problems for QR tags to solve]

And the hopefully practical idea I came up with was this: in the print option of our online courses that embed audio and/or video, design a stylesheet for the print version of the page that will add a QR code that encodes a link to the audio or video asset in the margin of the print out or alongside a holding image for each media asset. In the resources area of the course, provide an explanation of QR codes, maybe with a short video showing how they are used, and links (where possible) to QR reader tools for the most popular mobile devices.

So for example, here is a partial screenshot of material taken from T184 Robotics and the Meaning of Life (the printout looks similar):

And here’s what a trivial change to the stylesheet might produce:

The QR code was generated using the Kaywa QR-code generator – just add a URL as a variable to the generator service URL, and a QR code image appears :-)

Here’s what the image embed code looks like (the link is to the T184 page on the courses and qualifications website – in practice, it would be to the video itself):

<img src=”; alt=”qrcode” />

Now anyone familiar with OU production processes will know that many of our courses still takes years – that’s right, years – to put together, which makes ‘rapid testing’ rather difficult at times ;-)

But just making a tiny tweak to the stylesheet of the print option in an online course is low risk, and not going to jeopardise quality of course (or a student’s experience of it). But it might add utility to the print out for some students, and it’s a trivial way of starting to explore how we might “mobilise” our materials for mixed online and offline use. And any feedback we get is surely useful for going forwards?

Bung the Common Craft folk a few hundred quid for a “QR codes in Plain English” video and we’re done?

Just to pre-empt the most obvious OU internal “can’t do that because” comment – I know that not everyone prints out the course materials, and I know that not everyone has a mobile phone, and I know that of those that do, not everyone will have a phone that can cope with reading QR codes or playing back movies, and that’s exactly the point

I’m not trying to be equitable in the sense of giving everyone exactly the same experience of exactly the same stuff. Because I’m trying to find ways of providing access to the course materials in a way that’s appropriate to the different ways that students might want to consume them.

As to how we’d know whether anyone was actually using the QR codes – one way might be to add a campaign tracking code onto each QR coded URL, so that at least we’d be able to tell which of the assets were were hosting were being hit from the QR code.

So now here’s a question for OU internal readers. Which “innovation pipeline” should I use to turn the QR code for video assets idea from just an idea into an OU innovation? The CETLs? KMi? IET (maybe their CALRG?) The new Innovation office? LTS Strategic? The Mobile Learning interest group thingy? The Moodle/VLE team? Or shall I just take the normal route of an individual course team member persuading a developer to do it as a favour on a course I’m currently involved with (a non-scalable result in terms of taking the innovation OU -wide, because the unofficial route is an NIH route…!)

And as a supplementary question, how much time should I spend writing up the formal project proposal (CETLs) or business case (LTS Strategic, Innovation Office(?)) etc, and then arguing it through various committees, bearing in mind I’ve spent maybe an hour writing this blog post and the previous one (and also that there’s no more to write – the proof now is in the testing ;-), and it’d take a developer maybe 2 hours to make the stylesheet change and test it?

I just wonder what would happen if any likely candidates for the currently advertised post of e-Learning Developer, in LTS (Learning and Teaching Solutions) were to mention QR codes and how they might be used in answer to a question about how they might “demonstrate a creative but pragmatic approach to delivering the ‘right’ solution within defined project parameters”?! Crash and burn, I suspect!;-)

(NB on the jobs front, the Centre for Professional Learning and Development is also advertising at the moment, in particular for a Interactive Media Developer and a Senior Learning Developer.)

Okay, ranty ramble over, back to the weekend…

PS to link to a sequence that starts so many minutes and seconds in, use the form:

PPS for a good overview of QR codes and mobile phones, see Mobile codes – an easy way to get to the web on your mobile phone.

PPPS [5/2010] Still absolutely no interest in the OU for this sort of thing, but this approach does now appear to be in the wild… Books Come Alive with QR Codes & Data in the Cloud

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

15 thoughts on “Printing Out Online Course Materials With Embedded Movie Links”

  1. That’s a clever idea, Tony. I’d say you are covered for people lacking a QR reader device since you have the video URL in print; about all you could is run through some process that generates a shorter link.

    I saw the most QR codes in Japan, sometimes in newspaper, public signs, etc. With my limited practice, getting a good scan/snapshot takes some practice (chalk it up to user error/inexperience).

    I am future visioning something more like what I found in SnapTell on the iPhone:

    Say you could take a snapshot of the video preview image, and Google had some sort of image recognition like SanpTell to return the clip- that would be seamless (and SnapTell is not limited to iPhones…). Maybe the Googlians are already plotting a purchase.

  2. Try J.Pettit he is sending a course materials into production pipeline right now. Still will take you a while… but might be quickest.

  3. It’s a nice idea, but has very little practical benefit IMO. Tony has probably already seen my comments on this already, but I thought I’d post in public just in case anyone else reading the blog is interested. :>

    The issues are:

    1) Virtually no students have phones with built-in QR readers, meaning that nobody knows how to do this. It isn’t realistic to assume somebody would want to go to the trouble of installing a custom application (as I have, say) just to do it.

    2) Virtually no students use their phones to watch video (and many might run up excessive costs by accident if they try it, depending on contract, or use up all their PAYG credit in seconds – are they going to blame us?)

    3) Most phone cameras (including iPhone as well as cheap phones) are unbelievably awful, especially at close focus. This means you need to print QR codes large (approx 30×30) in order for them to work – that’s not exactly unobtrusive.

    4) If you want to watch videos on your phone, and you have the type of modern, high-speed phone with a nice screen that’s suitable for that (say, an iphone) it’s not exactly rocket science to bookmark your course page and pop over there.

    So in other words, for a very small proportion – perhaps 0.1%, bearing in mind that you have to add to all the above conditions ‘people who tend to print out the course material and read it that way in the first place’ – you’re going to save them maybe 20 seconds to start a video playing. Not really a great payoff. Now compare that benefit to the downside of students calling our helpdesk to ask why there’s this confusing black splotchy thing on their printout and is it a bug… ;)

    If we were in Japan it would be a no-brainer, but we’re not and it’s mostly a waste of time.

    However I am hoping Tony somehow manages to convince them that we should do this, because I would probably be doing the development work and it would be great fun to implement even though it’s patently useless! QR codes are awesome.

    (I’d be estimating this at something like probably 3 days’ work though, depending on how easy it is to install and integrate the technology we’d use to generate it, plus more if we want it in the PDF as well as the HTML printable versions. Not 2 hours.)

    Of course if QR codes do take off here (they are used in industry but I mean, frequently used for general public) and all new phones start including the technology, and presumably by that time watching videos on phones will be more generally useful, the situation would change.


  4. @sam yep, you’re right of course. And given any course that used this wouldn’t go out for at least 8 months, and would then be used largely unchanged till at least 2012, it would date and break in the OU really quickly.

    Just out of interest, could you break that 2-3 days down for me? Any other Moodle hackers out there – please feel free to chip in with a comment about how you’d quote for this job too..

    And now, I guess, the rant… ;-)

    I picked up a catch phrase earlier today, about what UK HE needs: Flexibility, Innovation, Imagination.

    So here’s my problem. The future lies around us, and some of us paddle in it. Innovation in the OU is hard to achieve – the feeling is whatever we give to our students, it has to scale and it has to be equally accessible to everyone. We often go for lowest common denominator plays, particularly with respect to assumptions about the availability of technology. The Innovator’s Dilemma rules…

    Time out:

    When I play with mashups – when I play with ideas – I’m balancing logic rocks. Sometimes they fall over, but that’s okay; if I wanted to build something a little longer lasting, I’d use concrete.

    “if QR codes do take off here (they are used in industry but I mean, frequently used for general public) and all new phones start including the technology, and presumably by that time watching videos on phones will be more generally useful, the situation would change.”

    QR codes may well not take off, but that’s as may be; something better may come along instead. But finding out how to teach effectively across multiple media at the same time is something I’d argue we don’t know how to do with contemporary devices and today’s lifestyles and expectations, assuming that the mean age of our students is less than the average age of OU staff.

    The QR code was a throw away idea that made use of stuff that’s available and is low risk – a simple stylesheet change at its simplest, maybe switched by a preference cookie.

    (Sharp intake of breath: “preference cookie – sheesh, that’ll be another week, guv…” And if that is the case, then whither the OU student personalisation project. Here, the “QR code if cookie set” is a lite, but very real, test case of using cookie based personalisation.)

    And if we can add a QR code into the print style file, we can maybe do other things – like print stylesheets that include registration patterns for augmented reality models.

    So I put it to you, Sam, that by focussing on the fact that the QR code route won’t work, you’re missing the whole point. Which is that we need to find ways of exploring how to doodle with new technology in a distance classroom setting, and we need to build flexible components that make it easier – and quicker – to do related and next step things in the future.

    The OU is probably unique in that we have a long tradition of using “blended” learning – teaching using different media – although arguably we have let those skills slide somewhat.

    The future I have seen trending over the last year – that I’m willing to bet *will* come good over the next 3-5 years – is a “dual view” interaction with media. I sit with a laptop watching the TV – dual view; I read the Sunday papers with a laptop or iPod touch to hand: dual view; I read books and dip onto the web to chase references and look things up: dual view; researchers, designers and programmers at their desks – with two screen: dual view. The near-term future is: Dual View.

    QR codes may suck – but that’s not the point. The point is looking for ways of using the technology that’s around us, and maybe the good will of some of our early adopter students, to explore how to use that technology. And also to cobble together building blocks and jisgsaw pieces. I have dozens of pipes and pipe fragments on Yahoo pipes. And it’s amazing how the old ones can come in useful…

    And I believe in evolution; and in evolution, stuff fails. All the time. And still things move on…

    Anyone who works for the OU knows it can take years to produce a course. So if we wait for the tech then learn how to use it, then write the course material to exploit it, a decade can have gone by. A decade…

    I believe that once again we’re looking at various pilots of how to use text messaging with our students? Six or seven years ago, I spent 2-3 days clock time building a mobile WAP site around a course and a programme:

    That experiment showed how to repurpose small chunks of info, and looked at some of the information design issues around “micro-sites”. I think I also built an SMS system that was architected in similar way, and explored the mapping between SMS and WAP sites. The app also provided a use case specification for what information might be usefully marked up in microformats on the OU courses and quals pages, which would have made scraping them easy (though of course an lite web service endpoint – maybe serving up a forerunner of XCRI) would have

    WAP didn’t fly, but “micro info” has – tweets, SMS, the iUI aesthetic of iPhone apps. (I gave up the Micro Info blog 3 years ago because no-one grokked it – )

    Exploring how to supplement text with video, and audio, in a dual view world, with navigation schemes that are natural to use and non-obtrusive (particularly to non-users) is something we need to explore by doing.

    Maybe we all need to listen a little to what OUr Chancellor has to say?

  5. The OUNL has already been experimenting with a 2-D barcode technology equivalent to QR Codes, particularly for tagging equipment with links to training materials.

    Oh, and a common misconception is that the QR codes need to be made bigger due to hardware or software issues. Most readers are designed to read them when really small (<1 cm), which is how they are typically printed on product labels or shipping documents. Making them bigger or putting the phone closer can often sometimes make them harder for the software to read!

    Hardly anyone uses QRCs today for consumer applications in the UK. Then again, that was true of Bluetooth a couple of years ago.



  6. I fear an institutional disease is rife amoung mainstream web developers in the OU who apparently know best and are THE voice of the student Backed by no evidence whatsoever. But it’s probably not their fault, more of their colleagues in the bubble who have been stroking their egos for far to long. A good shakeup is the order of the day.

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  8. Something I should have mentioned that a couple of other people have picked up on – rather than using a 2D barcode, how’s about if the phone app could just do OCR on a printed URL, identify it as a linking to a movie, and then resolve it appropriately?

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