OpenLearn ebooks, for free, courtesy of OpenLearn RSS and Feedbooks…

A couple of weeks ago, I popped the Stanza ebook reader application on my iPod Touch (it’s been getting some good reviews, too: Phone Steals Lead Over Kindle ). I didn’t add any ebooks to it, but it did come with a free sample book, so when I was waiting for a boat on my way home last week, I had a little play and came away convinced that I would actually be able to read a long text from it.

So of course, of course, the next step was to have a go at converting OpenLearn courses to an ebook format and see how well they turned out…

There are a few ebook converters out there, such as the Bookglutton API that will “accept HTML documents and generates EPUB files. Post a valid HTML file or zipped HTML archive to this url to get an EPUB version as the response” for example, so it is possible to upload a download(!) of an OpenLearn unit ‘print version’ (a single HTML page version of an OpenLearn unit) or upload the zipped HTML version of a unit (although in that case you have to meddle with the page names so they are used in the correct order when generating the ebook).

The Stanza desktop app, free as a beta download at the moment, but set to be (affordable) payware later this year can also handle epub generation (in fact, it will output an ebook in all manner of formats).

The easiest way I’ve found to generate ebooks though is, of course, feed powered:-) Sign up for an account with Feedbooks, click on the news icon (err…?!) and then add a feed (err…?!)

(Okay, so the interface is a little hard to navigate at times… No big obvious way to “Add feed here”, for example, that uses a version of the feed icon as huge visual cue, but maybe that’ll come…)

Once the feed is added, it synchs and you have your ebook. So for example, here are a couple of Feedbooks powered by OpenLearn unit RSS feeds:

RSS Feedbook ebookfor the OpenLearn unit “Parliament and the law”http://feedbooks.com/feed/6906.epub
RSS Feedbook ebook for the OpenLearn unit “Introducing consciousness”http://feedbooks.com/feed/6905.epub

Getting the ebook in Stanza on the iPod Touch/iPhone is also a little clunky at the the moment, although once it’s there it works really well. Whilst there is a route directly to Feedbooks from the app (as well as feed powered ebooks, Feedbooks also acts as a repository for a reasonable selection of free ebooks taht can be pulled into the iPhione Stanza app quite easily), the only way I could find to view my RSS powered feedbooks was to enter the URL; and on the iPod, the feedbook URLs were hard to find: logging in to my account on the Feedbooks site and clicking the ebook link just gave an error as the iPod tried to open a document format it couldn’t handle – and Safari wouldn’t show me the URL in the address bar (it redirected somewhere).

Anyway, user interface issues aside, the route to ebookdom for the OpenLearn materials is essentially a straightforward one – grab a unit content RSS feed, paste it into Feedbooks to generate an ePub book, and then view it in Stanza. The Feedbooks folks are working on extending their API too, so hopefully better integration within Stanza should be coming along shortly.

Once the feedbook has been synched to the Stanza iPhod app, it stays there – no further internet connection required. One neat feature of the app is that each book in your collection is bookmarked at the place you left off reading it, so you could have several OpenLearn units on the go at the same time, accessing them all offline, and being able to click back to exactly the point where you left it.

At the moment the ebooks that Feedbooks generates don’t contain images, so it might not be appropriate to try to read every OpenLearn unit as a Feedbooks ebook. There are also issues where units refer out to additional resources – external readings in the form of linked PDFs, or audio and video assets, but for simple text dominated units, the process works really well.

(I did wonder if Feedbooks replaced images from the OpenLearn units with their alt text, or transclusion of linked to longdesc descriptions, but apparently not. No matter though, as it seems that many OpenLearn images aren’t annotated with description text…)

If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, and do nothing else this week, get Stanza installed and have a play with Feedbooks…

Continous Group Exercise Feedback via Twitter?

Yesterday I took part in a session with Martin Weller and Grainne Conole pitching SocialLearn to the Library (Martin), exploring notions of a pedagogy fit for online social learning (Grainne) and idly wodering about how the Library might fit in all this, especially if it became ‘invisible’ (my bit: The Invisible Library):

As ever, the slides are pretty meaningless without me rambling over them… but to give a flavour, I first tried to set up three ideas of ‘invisibleness’:

– invisibility in everyday life (random coffee, compared to Starbucks: if the Library services were coffee, what coffee would they be, and what relationship would, err, drinkers have with them?);

– positive action, done invisibly (the elves and the shoemaker);

– and invisible theatre (actors ‘creating a scene’ as if it were real (i.e. the audience isn’t aware it’s a performance), engaging the audience, and leaving the audience to carry on participating (for real) in the scenario that was set up).

And then I rambled a bit a some webby ways that ‘library services’, or ‘information services’ might be delivered invisibly now and in the future…

After the presentations, the Library folks went into groups for an hour or so, then reported back to the whole group in a final plenary session. This sort of exercise is pretty common, I think, but it suddenly struck me that it could be far more interesting in the ‘reporter’ on each table was actually twittering during the course of the group discussion? This would serve to act as a record for each group, might allow ‘semi-permeable’ edges to group discussions (although maybe you don’t want groups to be ‘sharing’ ideas, and would let the facilitator (my experience is that there’s usually a facilitator responsible whenever there’s a small group exercise happening!) eavesdrop on every table at the same time, and maybe use that as a prompt for wandering over to any particular group to get them back on track, or encourage them to pursue a particular issue in a little more detail?

Thoughts on Visualising the OU Twitter Network…

“Thoughts”, because I don’t have time to do this right now, (although it shouldn’t take that long to pull together? Maybe half a day, at most?) and also to give a glimpse into to the sort of thinking I’d do walking the dog, in between having an initial idea about something to hack together, and actually doing it…

So here’s the premise: what sort of network exists within the OU on Twitter?

Stuff I’d need – a list of all the usernames of people active in the OU on Twitter; Liam is aggregating some on PlanetOU, I think?, and I seem to remember I’ve linked to an IET aggregation before.

Stuff to do (“drafting the algorithm”):

– for each username, pull down the list of the people they follow (and the people who follow them?);
– clean each list so it only contains the names of OU folks (we’re gonna start with a first order knowledge flow network, only looking at links within the OU).
– for each person, p_i, with followers F_ij, create pairs username(p_i)->username(F_ij); or maybe build a matrix: M(i,j)=1 if p_j follows p_i??
– imagine two sorts of visualisation: one, an undirected network graph (using Graphviz) that only shows links where following is reciprocated (A follows B AND B follows A); secondly, a directed graph visualisation, where the link simply represents “follows”.

Why bother? Because we want to look at how people are connected, and see if there are any natural clusters (this might be most evident in the reciprocal link case?) cf. the author clusters evident in looking at ORO co-authorship stuff. Does the network diagram give an inkling as to how knowledge might flow round the OU? Are there distinct clusters/small worlds connected to other distinct clusters by one or two individuals (I’m guessing people like Martin who follows everyone who follows him?). Are there “supernodes” in the network that can be used to get a message out to different groups?

Re: the matrix view: I need to read up on matrices… maybe there’s something we can do to identify clusters in there?

Now if only I had a few hours spare…

Video Print

Sitting in a course team meeting of 6 for over 3 hours today (err, yesterday…) discussing second drafts of print material for a course unit that will be delivered for the first time in March 2010 (third drafts are due mid-December this year), it struck me that we were so missing the point as the discussion turned to how best to accommodate a reference from print material to a possible short video asset in such a way that a student reading the written print material might actually refer to the video in a timely way…

Maybe it’s because the topic was mobile telephony, but it struck me that the obvious way to get students reading print material to watch a video at the appropriate point in the text would be to use something like this:

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 have to admit the phrase “blended learning” has to date been largely meaningless to me… But this feels like the sort of thing I’d expect it to be… For example:

Jane is sitting at the table, reading a study block on whatever, her mobile phone on the table at her side. As she works through the material, she annotates the text, underlining key words and phrases, making additional notes in the margin. At a certain point in the text, she comes across a prompt to watch a short video to illustrate a point made in the previous paragraph. She had hoped not to have to use her PC in this study session – it’s such a hassle going upstairs to the study to turn it on… Maybe she’ll watch the video next time she logs in to the VLE (if she remembers…). Of course, life’s not like that now. She picks up her phone, takes a picture of the QR code in the margin, and places her phone back on the table, next to the study guide. The video starts, and she takes more notes as it plays…

Thinking about it, here’s another possibility:

Jim is in lean back mode, laying on the sofa, feet up, skimming through this week’s study guide. The course DVD is in the player. As he reads through the first section, there’s a prompt to watch an explanatory video clip. He could snap the QR code in the margin and watch the video on his phone, but as the course DVD is all cued up, it’s easy enough to select the block menu, and click on the appropriate clip’s menu item. Of course, it’d be just as easy to use the Wii connected to the TV to browse to the course’s Youtube page and watch the clips that way, but hey, the DVD video quality is much better…

This is quite an old OU delivery model – for years we expected students to record TV programmes broadcast in the early hours of the morning, or we’d send them video cassettes. But as video delivery has got easier, and the short form (2-3 minute video clip) has gained more currency, I get the feeling we’ve been moving away from the use of video media because it’s so expensive to produce and so inconvenient to watch…

iTunes in Your Pocket… Almost…

Having been tipped off about about a Netvibes page that the Library folks are pulling together about how to discover video resources (Finding and reusing video – 21st century librarianship in action, methinks? ;-) I thought I’d have a look at pulling together an OU iTunes OPML bundle that could be used to provide access to OU iTunes content in a Grazr widget (or my old RadiOBU OpenU ‘broadcast’ widget ;-) and maybe also act as a nice little container for viewing/listening to iTunes content on an iPhone/iPod Touch.

To find the RSS feed for a particular content area in iTunesU, navigate to the appropriate page (one with lists of actual downloadable content showing in the bottom panel), make sure you have the right tab selected, then right click on the “Subscribe” button and copy the feed/subscription URL (or is there an easier way? I’m not much of an iTunes user?):

You’ll notice in the above case that as well as the iPod video (mp4v format?), there is a straight video option (.mov???) and a transcript. I haven’t started to think about how to make hackable use of the transcripts yet, but in my dreams I’d imagine something like these Visual Interfaces for Audio/Visual Transcripts! ;-) In addition, some of the OU iTunesU content areas offer straight audio content.

Because finding the feeds is quite a chore (at least in the way I’ve described it above), I’ve put together an OU on iTunesU OPML file, that bundles together all the separate RSS from the OU on iTunesU area (to view this file in an OPML widget, try here: OU iTunesU content in a Grazr widget).

The Grazr widget lets you browse through all the feeds, and if you click on an actual content item link, iit should launch a player (most likely Quicktime). Although the Grazr widget has a nice embedded player for MP3 files, it doesn’t seem to offer an embedded player for iTunes content (or maybe I’m missing something?)

You can listen to the audio tracks well enough in an iPod Touch (so the same is presumably true for an iPhone?) using the Grazr iphone widget – but for some reason I can’t get the iPod videos to play? I’m wondering if this might be a mime-type issue? or maybe there’s some other reason?

(By the by, it looks like the content is being served from an Amazon S3 server… so has the OU bought into using S3 I wonder? :-)

For completeness, I also started to produce a handcrafted OPML bundle of OU Learn Youtube playlists, but then discovered I’d put together a little script ages ago that will create one of these automatically, and route each playlist feed through a feed augmentation pipe that adds a link to each video as a video enclosure:

http://ouseful.open.ac.uk/xmltools/youtubeUserPlaylistsOPML.php?user=oulearn

Why would you want to do this? Because if there’s a video payload as an enclosure, Grazr will provide an embedded player for you… as you can see in this screenshot of Portable OUlearn Youtube playlists widget (click through the image to play with the actual widget):

These videos will play in an iPod Touch, although the interaction is a bit clunky, and actually slight cleaner using the handcrafted OPML: OUlearn youtube widget for iphone.

PS it’s also worth remembering that Grazr can embed Slideshare presentations, though I’m pretty sure these won’t work on the iPhone…

eduTwitterin’

Jane’s list of “100+ (E-)Learning Professionals to follow on Twitter” (which includes yours truly, Martin and Grainne from the OpenU :-) has been doing the rounds today, so in partial response to Tony Karrer asking “is there an equivalent to OPML import for twitter for those of us who don’t want to go through the list and add people one at a time?”, I took an alternative route to achieving a similar effect (tracking those 100+ e-learning professionals’ tweets) and put together a Yahoo pipe to produce an aggregated feed – Jane’s edutwitterers pipe

Scrape the page and create a semblance of a feed of the edutwitterers:

Tidy the feed up a bit and make sure we only include items that link to valid twitter RSS feed URLs (note that the title could do with a little more tidying up…) – the regular expression for the link creates the feed URL for each edutwitterer:

Replace each item in the edutwitterers feed with the tweets from that person:

From the pipe, subscribe to the aggregated edutwitters’ feed.

Note, however, that the aggregated feed is a bit slow – it takes time to pull out tweets for each edutwitterer, and there is the potential for feeds being cached all over the place (by Yahoo pipes, by your browser, or whatever you happen to view the pipes output feed etc. etc.)

A more efficient route might be to produce an OPML feed containing links to each edutwitterer’s RSS feed, and then view this as a stream in a Grazr widget.

Creating the OPML file is left as an exercise for the reader (!) – if you do create one, please post a link as a comment or trackback… ;-) Here are three ways I can think of for creating such a file:

  1. add the feed URL for each edutwitter as a separate feed in an Grazr reading list (How to create a Grazr (OPML) reading list). If you don’t like/trust Grazr, try OPML Manager;
  2. build a screenscraper to scrape the usernames and then create an output OPML file automatically;
  3. view source of Jane’s orginal edutwitterers page, cut out the table that lists the edutwitterers, paste the text into a text editor and work some regular ecpression ‘search and replace’ magic; (if you do this, how about posting your recipe/regular expressions somewhere?!;-)

Enough – time to start reading Presentation Zen

Qualification(s), Recognition and Credible, Personal Vouchsafes

Via Downes, today, a link to a Chronicle of Higher Ed story asking: “When Professors Print Their Own Diplomas, Who Needs Universities?, and which reports on the distribution of ‘personally guaranteed’ certificates by open educator David Wiley to participants who were not formally enrolled in, but were allowed to participate in, (and were ‘unofficially’ graded on) an open course that ran last year.

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to ask David about that tomorrow. because I think this sort of ‘personal vouchsafe from a credible source’ could be a powerful ingredient in an “Open Achievements API”.

The post goes on:

But plenty of folks outside of higher education might jump in. Imagine the hosts of the TV show Myth Busters offering a course on the scientific method delivered via the Discovery Channel’s Web site. Or Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling Tipping Point, teaching an online business course on The New Yorker’s site. Or a retired Nobel Prize winner teaching via a makeshift virtual classroom set up on her personal blog.

By developing credibility or ‘authority metrics’ (“AuthorityRank”?!) that reflect the extent to which there are legitimate grounds for an agent to ‘bestow an award’ on an individual on the grounds that the individual has demonstrated some competency or understanding in a particular area, we might be able to build a trust based framework for ‘qualifying’ an individual’s capabilities in a particular area with a given degree of confidence.

An Open Achievements API would provide a structure for declaring such achievements, and different ‘qualification platforms’ could compete on the efficacy of their authority ranking mechanisms in terms of positioning themselves as ‘high worth’ qualifying engines (cf. “good universities”).

It’s late, I’m tired, and I have no idea if this will make any sense to me in the morning…