Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

A Paperless Degree?

Posted by Jock Coats on 10th October 2011

One thing I am setting out to try and achieve in my studies is to get through as much of my degree as possible without producing or consuming paper.  Not out of any particular environmental concern (though not using scarce resources, for an economics student at least, must surely be a positive!) but just because in many situations electronic is now better than paper.

Unfortunately at the beginning of each module, and at various stages along the way, lecturers tend to hand out paper by the truck load, whether it be module handbooks, weekly lesson plans or question sheets for seminar work.  They also demand, generally, two paper copies of coursework, as well as one copy submitted electronically via TurnItIn, the anti-plagiarism system.

But apart from that, how well am I doing?  Well, I have two key gadgets – my iPad and my Kindle.  Sadly, most of the actual text books I need are only available in dead tree versions.  However much of the background reading is available in Kindle form.  But even with that, of the 26 books originally in my reading list before starting on the course, only ten were available on Kindle or, indeed, in any electronic format.

Brookes uses a Virtual Learning Environment called WebCT – though it will be one of my main jobs at work to move us to Moodle, linked to severa electronic resource databases like Equella and Mahara over the course of the next year.  But for now, most of the paper handed out in lectures and seminars is posted on the VLE as well.  File formats raise some issues: most are posted as MS Word documents.  I would certainly prefer PDFs, mainly because first, Word is a great big piece of bloatware that takes ages to open each time I want to refer to something and second, they are editable which I suspect is overall a recipe for some shenanigans later (maybe someone could claim the coursework deadline was different in their copy and so on).

I have worked out that if I open the Word versions, and, on my Mac at least, use the printing function to email a PDF to my address, I can get a reasonable quality of handbook etc onto my Kindle.  Some format better than others, so I ought to try and work out what works best and recommend module staff to use those techniques.  Also, if a lecturer posts a link to a web page for background reading, I have discovered I can send it to Instapaper and set up my Instapaper account to send a daily digest to my address as well.  This is great for general use to – effectively you can create your own daily newspaper from your RSS reader, say, and have it offline on your Kindle to enjoy at your leisure.

However, it’s in note taking that the gadgets score.  Instead of the ubiquitous A4 block pad, I tend to use a mind mapping program called iThoughts on my iPad to take notes.  This, I think, is far and away better than paper.  My typing is way more legible than handwriting at speed, and more especially, I can reoganise each note wherever is most appropriate on the mind map.  If there is Wifi in the lecture or classroom I tend to upload my maps to my XMind account before I leave so it’s instantly available on any other device I want to review them on later (or, since I have for now uploaded them as public mind maps, to anyone else who stumbles across that account – if staff or the university would rather I did not do that, then let me know and I will change to making them private maps).

Studying economics, though, there are lots of occasions on which I need to do little graphs – you know, supply and demand curves and so on.  So at the weekend I found a couple of pretty good apps for the iPad, thanks to this little guide.  First, OmniGraphSketcer for iPad is a freehand tool for quickly drawing exactly the sort of stuff that economists like to bamboozle the rest of us with.  I’ve used other OmniGroup products before, and it is true that this is, as apps go, quite an expensive one at ten quid, but it has already proven its worth just today in a seminar group.  Then, in readiness for having to do some more complicated maths, I picked up PocketCAS Pro for iPad which solves and graphs quite complex equations.

So, so far so good.  What would help to make all this more feasible then?

Well first, universities ought to use their economic clout in recommending text books to pressure publishers to make more of them available in e-formats.  Not only are economics and politics texts books rather expensive at anywhere between about £30 and £50, but they all weigh a ton.  The more I can get into my 350g Kindle the better.  Economics and politics are popular subjects – most of my modules have at least 150 and often 250 attendees.  Repeat that across the sector (many of the books are pretty standard) and that’s a lot of buying power that could be brought to bear by academics, and many have regular new editions.  There should be no excuse for any new edition these days not to have an e-format version.  The sooner we get e-Textbooks available in the UK the better.  And the ultimate sanction ought to be to switch to using so called Open Learning Resources wherever possible.

Second, there could be more focus on consistency and choice in the format of electronic resources generated by the university.  PDFs of module handbooks, past exam papers, seminar handouts and so on should be mandatory.  Better still, the repository such things are stored in could handle conversion to several different standard formats and the individual could perhaps set their preferences in the VLE to default to a PDF, or a .mobi or a Word document or whatever the individual wants.

And third, if we have to submit work electronically, why bother with paper versions?  Let’s start marking the electronic copies, and if academics cannot manage that, then they, not the students, can arrange to print them (and maybe to scan in marked and annotated versions for sending back to students).  On most e-reading devices you can write notes – I have PDF Expert and iAnnotate for the iPad for example to allow me to annotate PDFs and of course you can write margin notes on the Kindle too.

Finally, I would like to be able to post or annotate online resources for others to use.  Social bookmarking is an essential part of a VLE nowadays.  And I hope to be able to build that in to our implementation of Moodle for next year.

But, does any of this matter I wonder?  Last week, in my Skills for Economic Enquiry class the market we had to comment on was “e-Reader” devices.  It certainly seemed that of the thirty or so people in my seminar group I was the only one to have one.  So may be all this is still a rarity.  I hope it becomes more mainstream though.

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“Magical and revolutionary” – Does Apple’s iPad live up to its hype?

Posted by Jock Coats on 22nd November 2010

Here’s a little review I wrote for the Learning Resources Newsletter:

It appears that the now six month or so old Apple iPad has quickly become a “Marmite” device: one you will either love or hate.  Having had one of the most basic models to evaluate for a few months now I fall firmly in the “love” camp.

When Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, introduced this sleek, flat, touchscreen tablet to the world back in January, he described it as “magical and revolutionary”.  I wouldn’t go so heavy on the supernatural, but I certainly think that it is revolutionary: potentially the beginning of a whole new model of computing and information transmission and retrieval.

Some will tell you that it’s “just a big iPhone”; others that it’s “only half a laptop”: and they’d both be right, as far as it goes.  Even as an enthusiastic user of all kinds of applications on my own iPhone it is too small to be usable for anything other than short bursts; and a laptop with as large and clear a screen area as the iPad is still quite a bulky object that will likely come with a bag, power cable, a fold down the middle which makes its centre of gravity such that you really need to use it on a flat stable surface, uses multiple input devices like the mouse/trackpad and the keyboard making it difficult to use one handed even if you could hold it easily with the other.

The iPad, by contrast, is a one handed device, on which you are manipulating objects directly on the screen with your fingers – no looking out for the mouse pointer and so on.  In wide screen mode it gives an onscreen keyboard that is basically the same size as a full sized laptop keyboard that is very comfortable to touch type with while the machine is propped on one knee – where your typing maintains the balance of the machine very naturally – or perched on the edge of a lecture theatre note taking table.  Even though laptop manufacturers have been looking for this “holy grail” for years, the iPad is truly instant-on when you just need to look something up in a hurry standing up, wherever you are.

So far so good, but is it a corporate machine, or a personal toy?  Well, of course, Apple want to sell as many of these as they can.  Marketing is definitely aimed at the personal “gadgeteer” market so far.  But these are the people who will get one, and then want to see what they can do with it at work.  They’re the ones who will want to show off that they don’t need to take a paper notepad to a meeting, nor screen themselves off from other participants by furiously typing away behind their laptop screen.

And we are seeing a trickle of people within Brookes asking us to get them one:  the Vice-Chancellor is already using one; the University Alliance are going to impress in important meetings with several; and others are talking about using them to replace the mountain of university committee paperwork.  When you want to go to a meeting, or a lecture, would you take your entire collection of ring-binders, the back of a fag packet, or a convenient pad of paper and a pen.  The iPad is the latter.

But they are difficult to support, at the moment, as corporate devices.  There are, literally, hundreds of thousands of “Apps” (as in “there’s an App for that”) available for them, so you will find dozens of tools, some better than others, for doing any particular task.  And it is difficult (make that impossible at the moment other than by some kind of promise on the part of the user) to enforce a standard set of Apps for instance to ensure that everyone is reading their committee papers the same way, say.

Apps are not generally expensive – even Apple’s own cut down versions of their iWork MS-Office competitor suite are only a fiver each, and most probably come in at between 59 pence and a fiver, just as with the iPhone (indeed many Apps simply transfer from one to the other without additional cost if you already have some favourites on your iPhone).  But there’s no way, again, of making a corporate purchase and installing something on everyone’s in the same way we support desktop or laptop PCs – each owner would need an Apple AppStore account and possibly some new mechanism of claiming expenditure on your iPad back if it were for corporate use.  But I have certainly not found any task that I have wanted to do so far for which I cannot find a passable App, and if the iPhone App-store is anything to go by, the range available will only increase.

But as more and more corporate data type applications are made available through the web (Web 2.0 and beyond) these devices will come into their own.  If you don’t need to type so much to get an answer – if you literally point at a field and select some value – why carry around the additional, and redundant, keyboard of a laptop to do so?

And in an educational environment, I can see these or their near competitors (which I hope we will also get a chance to evaluate), being used for collaborative group work – rather than everyone crowding around a PC keyboard for example – for instantaneously passing learning resources around a room without people having to stop and boot up their laptops or whatever and for giving quick, easy, one handed access to knowledge from wherever you happen to be when you think of it.

So, there are considerable hurdles to contend with in making the iPad a really useful corporate device.  Questions remain for example, about data encryption, which is pretty well a deal breaker for anyone wanting to use corporate data on a machine not tied down to a desk, and the management of the machines to any kind of corporate standard.  But unlike some others, I do think this is a revolutionary type of product and that the iPad and its competitors will usher in a very different way of viewing ubiquitous, instant information in the years to come.

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