DIY Multimedia Ebooks for Distance Students

Our colleague Phil Wood of the University of Leicester School of Education has recently launched a new distance masters program in which students are furnished with iPads. The iPads are not preinstalled with anything. (I don’t even know if it’s possible to do that). Phil wrote the course material first and released it on our university VLE Blackboard. Then he turned his attention to formatting the material for the iPad and decided to use iBooks Author. iBooks Author is for Macs only and is free if you have the latest version of the Mac OS. Phil decided to use this because it is easy to use, offers lovely templates and easily accommodates multimedia such as video and podcasts.

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Phil demonstrated his DIY ebook for delegates from the Open University of China at a session 23rd of November, 2012, at Beyond Distance, University of Leicester

Phil reported it was not very difficult to cut and paste the already written material into iBooks Author; it required about 10 hours to do 101 pages. The difficulty was that once he imported videos and podcasts, the ebook was over 500 MB in size. The problem then was how to transfer this document onto the students’ iPads in remote locations. For some reason even smaller portions of the book could not be transferred through Blackboard. I need to get to the bottom of the technical reasons for that.

In the end the best option was to use iTunes U Course Manager. This is possible to use even though our university is not yet launched our iTunes U channel. Phil created a new course using Safari on his computer; all he needed was his own Apple ID. For the Course Material, he uploaded his new ebook.

Phil emailed me the link so I could test it; I was the first to enrol on his new course. I selected the ebook to download; it took about 10 minutes to download it onto my iPad 1, while I was sitting in my kitchen at 9.30pm, using Virgin broadband. At first I could read everything but not view the multimedia; that was because I had not upgraded to the latest iBooks. So I upgraded, and everything played perfectly. Phil emailed his students with the private link to his course; when I spoke to him a day or two later, Phil reported that roughly one-third to one-half of the students had already enrolled in the course to access the ebook, and no problems had yet been reported. These students are located all around the world.

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iBooks Author saves in the formats .ibooks (for the Apple iBooks app), .pdf and text.

If and when I learn whether students experience issues, I will blog about it here.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Research Fellow, University of Leicester

 

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13 thoughts on “DIY Multimedia Ebooks for Distance Students

  1. Thanks for this Terese – as you know I have an interest in this and would love to get involved, I just have this ‘block’ when I see something this good being limited to one platform or operating system. Surely we’re in an age where we can get past that and have ‘open’ resources that enable the students to learn wherever, whenever, and on *whatever* (device) they like?

    Speak soon, David

  2. Hi David, thanks for raising this important point. In this case, it wasn’t necessary to do any other format than .ibooks because each student had been issued an iPad. Despite that, Phil had also been preparing pdf versions of this ebook as well – which of course would work on pretty much any device but I think would not view too nicely on some devices due to page size. What I personally don’t know, in addition, is if the pdf versions retained any of the multimedia.

    And this finally raises the other point which I’m just learning about and don’t claim to know the answer to — is there a single format which will present multimedia embedded within text which spans every device? If you know (or anyone else knows) any more about this, I’d sure like to know. The thing with Apple is: they make it so easy to create these kinds of documents…. and so for the moment, they have an advantage.

    • Thanks Terese. – I agree it’s not ideal, but just because Apple make it ‘easy’ to produce doesn’t make it right (and it doesn’t mean its wrong either). One way I’m sure some would say is ‘App’ – but this again is limiting to the operating system and device, even if you have the time to be a whizz and train yourself in both iOS and Android app creation techniques (and Windows, and RIM Blackberry, etc, etc), unless you partner with a development company who do this all for you.

      And what about web-app … HTML5 web pages that re-configure themselves for display based on accessing device screen size? Well, it works across all devices but then you have the difficulty in making available offline.

      No ‘one’ solution that I can see, but surely we have enough idea of what we want now and how we could get there … if only we weren’t controlled by the legal spats the likes of Apple, Goolge, Samsung, Amazon, etc are involved in, perhaps we could work it out?

      Food for thought, thanks Terese. Look forward to the continued debate and working together to fix it ;-)

      David

      • This is something I’m looking into at the moment (creating multimedia eBooks), and as far as I can see there isn’t an easy solution. The dream is for the iBooks Author tool to be available to create on any device and output to any device. but we all know that this isn’t go to happen. To be fair my requirements are pretty specific, essentially no budget, easy to use so that anyone can edit the outputs, and can do lots of whizzbangery, and as you say students can access wherever whenever. It’s looking like sacrifices will have to be made in some areas.

      • Yes I was going to mention that iBooks Author does save as pdf, which satisfies some but not all of your criteria. I suppose you could say that if the person at the other end has a copy of Adobe Acrobat Pro, then s/he can edit your pdf ebook but well that’s less than ideal:-)

      • Additionally – Terese – I am definitely interested in any follow up information. I’ll be carrying out research into the impact of the eBooks I produce on student learning and engagement, let me know if you’re interested in using any of my questionnaires (ahem, once they’ve been written).

  3. Yes it is possible to deploy iPads with all the apps/configs you want, see the blog/podcast by Fraser

    Speirs.

    Multimedia
    Ensure you optimise the video/audio for web use, this is a compromise between file/quality but don’t be

    shy to experiment.

    Often forgotton are your images. Make sure these are optimised too, for the mac try

    http://imageoptim.com/

    10mins to download…yikes. I would suggest you make a version available without the multimedia (for

    phones… those 80% in the world without broadband) with contextual replacements.

    I would also try a version which requires a web connection, so that multimedia is streamed rather than

    downloaded in advance. I know this is possible with standard HTML and PDF (last tried this in 2010).

    Seeing as you had a small bumo in the road (ibooks version) I would proactively survey students to

    catch any with problems.

    In response to David I would agree that a fragmented ecosystem makes it a challenge but this won’t go

    away and is actually getting worse (ibooks is not an epub and implements bits of the EPUB 3 spec in

    their own way). I do worry with that many staff are making ibooks now that arent sustainable and the

    content will be lost in 2-5yrs much like flash where the poor staff deleted the FLA and only have the

    SWF so have to rebuild everything.

    PDF is generally nasty on phone sized screens as it isn’t reflowable. Not ideal at all, but it is super

    widely adopted (i can’t think of the last time i was unable to open a pdf… try that with epub).

    If you want a universally supported multimedia format…. HTML to the rescue :-) i bet that HTML pages

    will be around long after ibooks!

    Interestingly according to our wifi logs, only around 15-20 percent of devices that connect to the

    network are apple devices of all kinds. Generally I would start with the 80 percent and then make

    special versions maybe for the rest.

    Personally I would get a base file (clean HTML) and then produce a web version (embed in Blackboard if

    you want security), EPUB version that works on most ereaders including the iPad (unless you use a iPad

    specific feature stick with EPUB) then a kindle version (easy to knock out from the EPUB) for those kindle reading students. Everybody then wins.. for now. Of course this isn’t as easy using ibooks author but then nobody ever said it was going to be easy to make an inclusive and quality book.

    Sounds like an interesting project so shout if I can be a testing guinea pig!

  4. Yes it is possible to deploy iPads with all the apps/configs you want, see the blog/podcast by Fraser Speirs.

    Multimedia
    Ensure you optimise the video/audio for web use, this is a compromise between file/quality but don’t be shy to experiment.

    Often forgotten are your images. Make sure these are optimised too, for the mac try

    http://imageoptim.com/

    10mins to download…yikes. I would suggest you make a version available without the multimedia (for phones… those 80% in the world without broadband) with contextual replacements.

    I would also try a version which requires a web connection, so that multimedia is streamed rather than downloaded in advance. I know this is possible with standard HTML and PDF (last tried this in 2010).

    Seeing as you had a small bump in the road (ibooks version) I would pro-actively survey students to catch any with problems.

    In response to David I would agree that a fragmented ecosystem makes it a challenge but this won’t go away and is actually getting worse (ibooks is not an epub and implements bits of the EPUB 3 spec in their own way). I do worry with that many staff are making ibooks now that arent sustainable and the content will be lost in 2-5yrs much like flash where the poor staff deleted the FLA and only have the SWF so have to rebuild everything.

    PDF is generally nasty on phone sized screens as it isn’t reflowable. Not ideal at all, but it is super widely adopted (i can’t think of the last time i was unable to open a pdf… try that with epub).

    If you want a universally supported multimedia format…. HTML to the rescue :-) i bet that HTML pages will be around long after ibooks!

    Interestingly according to our wifi logs, only around 15-20 percent of devices that connect to the network are apple devices of all kinds. Generally I would start with the 80 percent and then make special versions maybe for the rest.

    Personally I would get a base file (clean HTML) and then produce a web version (embed in Blackboard if you want security), EPUB version that works on most ereaders including the iPad (unless you use a iPad specific feature stick with EPUB) then a kindle version (easy to knock out from the EPUB) for those kindle reading students. Everybody then wins.. for now. Of course this isn’t as easy using ibooks author but then nobody ever said it was going to be easy to make an inclusive and quality book.

    Sounds like an interesting project so shout if I can be a testing guinea pig!

    • Wow, Zak… A thorough, totally-across-the-board implementation plan!

      What do you think regarding phones, tho… Would someone read a 101-page document on a phone? I think this is where some academics begin to consider furnishing a device with a larger screen.

      • People do read on their phones, just sit on any bus or train and you’ll see folks reading. I have read several books entirely on my phone by choice (HTC One x).

        If you look at this graphic by Luke you can see that it isn’t just the screen res that has an affect. http://static.lukew.com/unified_device_design.png

        The books I read were EPUB/Kindle that work from phones to Desktop. A well produced digital book will work across devices, they just may need to have optimisation at certain points. As David alluded to above, the use of RWD (responsive web design ) helps with this. For example at phone resolution size you can adjust the measure, font size and leading (line height) to suit that size and then at various larger “break” points change these again accordingly. Five break-points are common now. These techniques are being used in web design and are supported in EPUB 3 (but software/ebook readers choosing to support them is another matter) You can read more at http://www.alistapart.com/articles/responsive-web-design/

        Design the book once but use appropriate tools to ensure widest adoption and then make edge-case versions if required.

      • Sure, I read books on my iTouch on the bus etc but I was thinking more about a long textbook for which you might want to take notes and stuff. I’m sure people figure out what they’re comfortable with, what they can afford, what’s best in each situation. I still think there’s a gap in the whole ecosystem and not every institution has in-house html5 or even graphic design experience.

  5. Pingback: What else is going on in the world of eBooks? | Evaluating eBooks for learning and teaching

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