Sunday, March 28, 2010

It used to be that human communication was limited to the range of one's voice. Writing changed that and the ripples of this innovation are still expanding outward. Initially, any literate person could write to others using paper and pen. Transcending death itself, these letters could be quite persistent but were still limited in range. Gutenberg's press and its successors extended the range of human communication to potentially include all other literate persons on planet Earth. However, the ability to print words and distribute them in the form of books, magazines etc. was in the hands of only a few and subject to various limitations ranging from qualitative filtering to outright censorship. Finally, the desktop (computer) publishing and Internet revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s made it possible for anyone to print and distribute their words on a worldwide basis. The constraints upon written communication may have been minimized as much as they possibly can.

Still, the audience had to be somewhat literate. Without universal literacy, written communications may have reached their limit.

Enter video. Thanks again to the computer and internet revolutions, we have a method of communication that is not constrained by literacy. Some video doesn't even require spoken language to make a point. Where spoken language is required, the fact that video can have multiple, selectable language tracks seems a better, less costly solution than printing books in multiple languages. Not even Esperanto could save us from the Tower of Babel incident but perhaps some day we will have a universal spoken language.

So video may be seen as a more powerful and more universal medium of communication. That's the good part. The bad part is that, unlike our written and spoken languages, video may not be entirely unencumbered. I'm ignoring the fact that some font faces are encumbered by copyright because there are plenty that are not and there is no compelling reason to choose one over the other in written communications.

The composition and publishing of video necessarily entails compression and decompression and that requires software called a CODEC. Video also requires a container format examples of which include MPEG-4, Ogg, QuickTime, Flash, Silverlight and so on. Thus, all Internet video is some combination of container and CODEC(s). It's mostly the CODECs that are encumbered by patents and this is the focus of our concern about open and unfettered communication in the Internet video age.

Recognizing the fact that using video was a complicated process involving web browser plug-ins that present stability and security hazards as well as multiple lines of complex code, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) sought to make video as simple to use as including a still image. The first major upgrade to the HTML standard in more than ten years, HTML 5, presented the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Not only does the HTML 5 video element simplify including video in a web page, it also eliminates the need for video plug-in or 'helper' applications such as Flash, the QuickTime Plug-in and Silverlight. Web browser plug-ins are a continuing source of performance issues(slowdowns and even crashing) and security threats. The HTML 5 video element promised to make it possible for more people to use video to communicate and to help their audiences as well.

However, the key piece to this scheme involved web browsers standardizing on a single video CODEC and container. The two main contenders for this were and still are: a) MPEG-4/H.264 (video)/AAC (audio) and b) Ogg/Theora (video) /Vorbis (audio). Unfortunately, the W3C group working on the video element, unable to agree on one, specified neither. The unresolved issue was not about open standards. Both options are open standards. The unresolved issue was about patents. No one argues that H.264 is patent-free, not even in the face of MPEGLA's recent announcement that it would not charge royalties for Internet video that is free to end users through 2016. Proponents of Ogg claim that it is patent-free. However, there is significant skepticism surrounding that claim.

Work-arounds have been developed such as the Google code cited below but the originally intended simplicity and elegance have eluded us. Worse, there is the prospect of having to pay directly or indirectly for the privilege of communicating with video. Imagine if we faced that prospect with words in the form of text on a web page? The time for governments to review and rescind copyright and patents for software may be at hand. What do you think?

Dive Into HTML 5:
Video on the Web
Daring Fireball (John Gruber):
Why the HTML 5 'Video' Element is Effectively Unusable, Even in Browsers that Support It.
Brian Crescimanno:
Dear Mozilla, Please Don't Kill HTML 5 Video!
MPEG LAs AVC License Will Continue Not to Charge Royalties for Internet Video that is Free to End Users
HTML5 Video Element
Daring Fireball (John Gruber):
GIF, H.264 and Patents
Daring Fireball (John Gruber):
On Submarine Patents vis-a-vis H.264 and Ogg Theora
HTML Video and Audio for Everyone

Monday, March 22, 2010

There is a symbiotic relationship between use and availability, a cycle than tends up or down depending upon the inputs to both of those variables.

In higher education, we have long seen use by faculty who find educational technologies inherently interesting and are not hampered by worries about maintaing artificial scarcity of knowledge (the DeBeers model). That has spurred some increases in availability of open learning resources.

However, the problem is that these faculty are a small proportion of the cadre of instruction in higher education. What keeps the majority from getting more involved? It's a failure of leadership in higher education that is at the root of this stagnation. There are two things that HE administrators and faculty (via shared governance) should be doing that most of them are not:

1) Making sure that reaching out is not only permitted but rewarded. Here, the focus is on P&T (promotion and tenure) but there are other factors such as an institutional mindset that its survival is somehow linked to maintaining a false sense of scarcity. Credentialing is a part of this.

2) Making sure that reaching out is possible. Here, we are talking about helping faculty garner the skills necessary to developing and publishing content in an open and unfettered fashion, collaborating and cooperating with others on content projects that are beyond the abilities of solitary work.

Whether or when that will happen is well beyond my ken but I do believe that these steps are essential prerequisites.
I think that it's way too soon to evaluate the content creation capability of the iPad. Already, we've seen amazing creations from iPhone users in the arts. As for letters, I was impressed to see this video showing how one person has achieved 90 WPM with just two thumbs.

Certainly, creating content on touch-oriented devices will be different and possibly better, especially for non-professional content creators, aka the average learner. We should keep our minds open at least until these things are actually in the wild and applications for them are in use, getting reviewed, etc.

The assumption that LMS use will be tied to "native" iPhone OS apps is clearly wrong in the case of the recently announced Moodle iPhone app. That is a web app, not a native app. Native apps are good for two things: monetizing a product or service and, with native apps that are free, providing a richer feature set than is currently possible with web apps. With an LMS, lock-in has already occurred (even with free, open source LMSs) so that's not very relevant in this case.

A more accurate view is to look at the iPhone OS as having attributes that are attuned to commercial models and attributes that are or could be attuned to non-commercial models (web apps, ePub support, and podcasting). How teachers and learners mix and match these will be interesting to observe.

That Apple is just another corporation seeking to maximize profits should not be a surprise to anyone. In the underfunded world of education, we are, as we must be, pragmatically opportunistic and take advantage of what is within reach. Given that decentralized learning is unlikely to be fully funded by any mixture of learner and government payments, we must deal with the commercial world making every effort to convince them that they can "do well by doing good." Apple seems to understand that and has long offered more support to education than their low margin competitors.

Even if decentralized learning were fully funded by governments and learners themselves, we have to ask what kind of systems would that bring forth. Too bad the Soviet Union is no longer existing. They would certainly make the answer to that question quite plain to see. Just imagine a Soviet-engineered mobile learning device and supporting infrastructure
Many in the edublogosphere have dismissed the iPad as being "closed" and therefore not suitable for the pursuit of open educational objectives such as creating a Personal Learning Space (PLS) on the internet made from Open Educational Resources (OERs). Thus, the question becomes, "Is the iPhone OS so closed as to be incompatible with the ideals and goals of open education?"

The main complaint appears to be about the closed nature of the iPhoneOS ecosystem where devices such as the iPhone, iPod touch and, now, the iPad are fed by the iTunes Content Management System which includes the iTunes Store for Music and Video, the iTunes App Store and, now, the iTunes Book Store.

Since Apple is not an eleemosynary concern, we should expect an emphasis on the commercial aspects of all this. Making life and consumption safe and easy for customers is certainly consistent with that status. Equally unsurprising is that geeks who like to tinker with everything, Libertarians and other kindred spirits are rankled by all of these constraints. Which camp is the more numerous and profitable? But is that all there is to it?

Smart capitalists also understand the "economics of free" and how "doing well by doing good" can improve the bottom line. Apple gets these concepts very well and that is why Apple has maintained non-commercial avenues for content production, discovery and distribution. Hundreds of thousands of podcasts are free via the iTunes Store podcast directory. Apple supports iTunes U which is free to any higher education institution and many other public information sources. Apple has a long history of supporting educators in their work with sites such as the Apple Learning Interchange.

Thus, I expect that these kinds of things from Apple will continue and expand. It's good business for them.

Unlike the iPhone, the iPad is aimed at a new category and Apple hasn't revealed to the world everything that we need to know in order to properly assess its importance or irrelevance to teaching, learning and other things. Right now, we know more about the iPad commercial model than we know about its corresponding non-commercial model and it's the latter that will likely be more important in education.

We know that the iBooks app and iTunes Book Store will be based upon the open ePub standard. What we don't know is how much of that standard will be supported. There's a lot to ePub beyond plain text. We also don't know whether there will be free books in the iTunes Book Store or not or whether books will be reviewed by Apple, someone else or not at all. Although eTexts will probably also be done with ePub, we don't yet have confirmation of that nor do we know how eZines and eNews will be done though I suspect that these will be apps that use in-app purchasing to acquire single issues or commit to multi-issue subscriptions.

The big unknown, IMO, is what the non-commercial counterparts of eBooks, eTexts, eZines and eNews will be like. How will they be produced, discovered and consumed? The podcasting model would seem to me to be a natural fit. If they were all done as ePub documents, these would be just one more new podcast media type. There are other possibilities, especially for eZines and eNews (including newsletters) that I would like better than ePub but this is hard to discuss when we don’t know how Apple will address these things.

The fact is that we know too little about how new content for iPhoneOS devices will be created, discovered and consumed, especially the non-commercial varieties that are so important to educators. Thus, our assessments are premature and sorely lacking.

The question is whether and how the iPad might be funded by shifting the cost of things like textbooks and computer labs.

Textbooks. If eTexts were available for free or at very low cost, could the money saved be used to maintain a program that provides teachers and students with mobile devices such as the iPod touch and iPad loaded with equivalent eTexts and free eText readers such as
Stanza and iBooks? This raises a few related questions:

Where would free and very inexpensive eTexts come from? There is a standard called
ePub that is widely accepted and supported by free readers such as Stanza and iBooks. As well, there are free software apps that make authoring, converting and even serving ePub documents very easy such as Sigil and Calibre. So, could classroom teachers write eTexts that could replace the physical textbooks now in common use? What institutional support would be required? Release time? Extra compensation? Royalties?

How do we identify the classroom teachers that have the content expertise and writing skills necessary to create eTexts? Could a group of teachers collaboratively write an eText? Presumably, all experienced classroom teachers have the appropriate content expertise. As well, those same teachers are probably well grounded in the state standards that guide the curriculum throughout. So, the major variable is writing skill. Can that be taught and learned? Do we need editors and, if so, where do they come from? Are we talking about establishing a guild of teacher/writers?

Some will worry, "What about copyrights?" So, what is it about textbooks that is copyrightable? As it turns out, not much. Facts and ideas are NOT copyrightable. It's only the unique expression of an idea that is copyrightable. Illustrations, audio and video clips? There's tons of stuff in the public domain and in various open content archives under Creative Commons licensing. The
Internet Archive is but one example. However, the nagging question of whether educators are too self-censoring to venture forth may be important. If it is a factor, how can it be overcome?

Now, assuming we still want to move in this direction, what technologies might help individual and collaborative groups of teachers writing and editing eTexts? Is this a Web 2.0 opportunity?

On to computer labs. Most of the ideas behind computer labs in schools are focused on addressing economic issues having to do with the fact that not all students can afford a computer and not all schools can afford a 1:1 program issuing a laptop to every student. Is it time to rethink this? If we could provide every student with an iPad or iPod touch, would we still need as many or even any computer labs. What does the cloud computing model offer us in this quest?

Finally, what is the average annual cost of textbooks and computer labs on a per student basis? If foregoing that cost enough to support an eText project, 1:1 mobile device program and requisite professional development? Is it more than enough, just enough, almost enough? If there is an anticipated shortfall, how might the difference be made up?

Certainly, there's much more info to come on ePub for the iPad. Here are the questions that are important to me as an academic researching emerging educational technologies:

1) While it's nice to know that I can bring .epub volumes into iTunes and subsequently synch them to an iPad, I'd really like to know about all the options for getting them into the Drag and drop into a yet-to-be-seen "Books" Library in the seems minimal. So, what else? How about podcasting? I can already podcast audio, enhanced audio, video and PDF files so why not simply add .epub to the list of podcastable file types? This would make sense because podcasting is the mechanism for resource discovery and distribution used by Apple's iTunes U. An iTunes course containing eBooks or eTexts in the ePub format seems quite natural to me.

2) Will Apple enhance the ePub standard? They did this with RSS for the iTunes app and iTunes U, so why not here as well? Extensions to the ePub standard would only work on iPad and be ignored elsewhere. Extensions would add functionality such as bookmarking, marginal notes and so on. Is Apple planning to do this? It would make sense if they are as that would be a boon to self-publishing teachers and learners.

3) Yes, there's more to this than simply tapping into the Gutenberg Project and reading books in the public domain. The ePub standard makes it possible for anyone to publish without the intermediation of commercial publishers. This completes the revolution begun in the 90s with desktop publishing and laser printers. Today, anyone can create a digital novel, collection of short stories, textbook, magazine, newsletter, newspaper, etc. and publish it worldwide. The iPad and other devices capable of rendering .epub completes the circuit.