Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The question of whether eBooks, eTexts, eHandouts and so on can be published as podcasts is an important one for educators, especially if their students are using the iTunes application, if they are using iTunes U to help deliver courseware or if they are involved at all in mLearning. Of course, we are talking about eBooks that are free because there are ample means for distributing eBooks that are not free. In the case of the new iPad, there is the iBookstore although I have not yet found a school textbook for sale there surely that's just a matter of time.

The iBookstore is currently only available via the on the iPad but we will see an for the iPhone and iPod touch as soon as iPhone OS 4.0 is released this summer. Then, too, there are many titles found in the iBookstore that are in the public domain and free. It appears that Apple has taken good advantage of the work of the Gutenberg project. All of these eBooks are in the ePub format which appears to be the de facto standard.

Thus, we're not so concerned about books that are free, in the public domain and have been digitized by Project Gutenberg or books that are not free. What we are concerned with are those free, ePub-based text books, handouts, reprints, and other documents that university faculty might want to assign to their students to read on one of these mobile devices or even on a larger, not-so-mobile computer.

Right now, we can give a qualified "yes" to this question. Here's how it works. Simply include .epub files in the RSS feed that you create for a podcast channel using same conventions that you've been using for .mp3, .mp4, mov, .m4a, .m4b, .m4v and .pdf files. The only thing that will be different is the suffix on attached files. That will be .epub.

Here's what will happen. When you subscribe to this channel using 9.1.1 or newer, the .epub files will become available for download according to the prefs that you've set in Once downloaded, you will see these .epub files referenced in both the Podcast Library and the Books Library of the Synchronizing with an iPad, those .epub documents will be placed on the shelf in the iBooks app and identified as a podcast in the list view. Ditto for iPhones and iPod touch devices with iPhone OS 4.0 (summer 2010). All of the features of the iBooks application such as bookmarking will be available as your students read these ePub-based documents.

Important caveat. Currently, iTunes U does not accept the .epub suffix in an RSS feed so if you try to subscribe to a podcast channel via the iTunes U RSS Tab feature, it will fail. However, I expect that this restriction will be lifted once all Apple mobile devices have their own iBooks application. That should be this summer.

To see this in action, subscribe to my eBook Test Channel.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

With the ePub standard for eBooks rather firmly in place, the discussion has turned to what happens next. Many are curious about how interactive digital publications (eBook, eText, eMag, ePamphlet, etc.) might be implemented. Will they be implemented as iPhone OS applications that can only be experienced on Apple mobile devices (iPad, iPhone or iPod touch)? Will they be implemented with some future iteration of the ePub standard? Or will they be implemented in some other way?

The fact that the ePub standard really doesn't support interactivity leads some to settle upon applications as the way to go. Concerned with being restricted to Apple mobile devices and the much higher costs of participation of the app model, others have talked-up the possibilities of extending the ePub standard to include greater interactivity. DRM, by the way, can be applied to either of these options but experience has already shown that these protections can be defeated just as easily.

There is a third alternative that isn't getting much attention right now. I'll call it "Hyper Lit" for want of a better label. It's already here and living amongst us. We are not talking about this new alternative yet simply because we don't recognize it as a potential solution to this challenge. HyperLit is hidden in plain sight. That technology is nothing more than HTML 5 poured into new containers.

Take a look at the developer docs for iTunes LP and iTunes Extras at: It's nothing more than HTML, CSS and Javascript in a folder that has been zipped and given a new suffix, either .itlp or .ite. The evidence that anyone can create this kind of interactive experience is here: Note that .itlp and .ite files can be side-loaded into iTunes with drag & drop and that action totally circumvents the iTunes Store. No money changes hands.

Now imagine these containers holding interactive educational content. That package of content might have an identifying suffix such as .itlo (iTunes Learning Object) or .itlm (iTunes Learning Module). Further down the road, we can imagine these new media types being a part of an RSS feed (podcast channel episodes) handled by aggregators such as the iTunes application.

The application model will appeal to those who own or can rent the significant means of production required. It provides great flexibility in arranging interactive experiences and the illusion of protection from piracy. It also adds a measure of exclusivity which helps customers part with their money more easily. We can call this the monetized model for digital interactive reading experiences. Note that apps can be free to the consumer where the costs of production have been paid by some other, possibly eleemosynary, entity.

The ePub-based eBook model will appeal to those who concentrate upon providing a linear experience. Commercial interests will add DRM to "protect" the content from piracy and others will forego that option and rely instead on Creative Commons licensing or similar mechanisms. Depending upon the presence of DRM, we can call this either the monetized model for digital linear reading experiences or the open model for digital linear reading experiences. Since the cost of production using the ePub standard is very low, ePub-based models will be widely used.

The fledgeling HyperLit model will appeal to those who want to provide an open interactive reading experience. HyperLit documents will provide faculty and students with ways and means to talk about complex ideas with text, audio, video and animation, cite online sources and even initiate online dialog amongst the readers of a document. After all, a HyperLit document is basically a locally viewed web site using the file:/// scheme.

Thus, the digital reading experience will likely be available to us in several flavors, the traditional linear experience and new, interactive ways of engaging content. How these new interactive approaches to the reading experience get sorted out will be interesting to watch, especially in educational circles. There are lots of contenders. Not all will survive but it is equally likely that no one option will predominate. The need for open content on the one hand and the need for economic viability on the other are too great.

As for the reading experience itself, there are some interesting views already coming to the fore. Although focused exclusively on the novel, I found these two opinion pieces by Michael Grothaus to be interesting:

Dear John Makinson and Penguin, please don't "reinvent" books.

A tale of two mediums: Despite the iPad, traditional books aren't going anywhere.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

It can be quite difficult to talk about what happens on a computer screen using words alone. Thus, many writers will use screenshots to help make a point. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? Unfortunately, many of the things that happen on a computer screen are dynamic in nature and still images just don't capture that. Enter screencasting where we record what happens on a computer screen as a video file, often with audio narration. Thus, it has become standard practice to use screencasting as a way to talk about computer applications and share computer-based presentations. Running screencasting software on a mobile device is currently inadvisable because there simply isn't enough CPU power to do so.

Working around this limitation is possible and there are several approaches to consider. I've attempted to use most of them. Thus, the following is offered so that others won't have to start out at square one as I did.

There are many fine screencasting applications for desktop and laptop computers. I use
ScreenFlow for all of my screencasting ($99). It requires MacOS X 10.5 or later. On Windows, you can do much the same thing using Camtasia ($299). Both of these vendors offer lots of helpful info on their web sites. ScreenFlow has a dedicated site for that called The Screening Room.

With either of these products, you can record anything that appears on screen and do a lot of fancy post-processing to zoom, pan, add text and graphic elements and so on. Thus, the challenge is to get an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad to make an appearance on your screen. Here are several ways to do that, all require a MacOS X computer:

1) If all you need to do is show how the iPhone handles a web site or web application,
iPhoney is hard to beat. This application reproduces the behavior of the Safari web browser on your laptop or desktop so you can use ScreenFlow to capture all the action and go from there.

2) The iPhone simulator in the iPhone SDK will provide you with an iPad simulator as well as an iPhone simulator. The SDK is free but you have to sign up as an Apple developer (also free) at: To simulate more than what Safari does, you have to have the source code for each application and be able to use the XCode compiler. Apple doesn't provide the source code for the apps it develops so that's all beyond our reach.

3) The most flexible solution is to jailbreak your iPod touch or iPhone (difficult and bound to earn frowns from Steve Jobs). Here's where to get help in doing this: Once your iPod touch or iPhone is opened up in this way, you'll have an app called Cydia for installing other apps. Then go here: and learn how to download and use DemoGod for your Mac and ScreenSplitr for your iDevice.

This will get you the broadest, most flexible representation of your iDevice on your screen both for capture and for live demonstration. However, you'll find that the frame rate is not high enough for really smooth and realistic action. This is most noticeable when showing video playing on an iDevice.

The other thing that you won't see fully represented is an indication of the touch gestures. I am currently thinking through how best to handle this, with a literal image such as would be available with
PhoneFinger or something less obscuring but still meaningful such as animated fingerprints.

Finally, I should mention what is probably the simplest and most effective approach, use a mid to high end document camera (c. $1200) with digital output to your computer and capture that. Other than the cost, this approach has the verisimilitude required for top notch educational visualizations.

Of course you could do what Apple does and use pro hand models and videographers who really know lighting and all that stuff. It will be expensive.