Something that has troubled me for over a decade as an educator is finding the best format to publish my resources in. Three years ago it troubled me so much I even wrote a blog about it. Nowadays when I’m teaching students about creating their own resources I simply encourage them to create the resources in common, non-proprietry formats and collect those in a folder so they can easily be published anywhere.
Building music education resources in 2013
For example, my wonderful third year music education students are currently creating some really fantastic resources on Australian works of the last 25 years that will be featured in this year’s Australian Music Day. Essentially their resources fit into five categories:
- Proprietary file formats (templates or worksheets as Sibelius files, PDFs, GarageBand files, etc.)
Because this is music education, their images may contain score excerpts, photos of composers, instruments, and so on. Audio and video may be excerpts from the studied score (made by the student, not copied from commercial recordings of course), but video could be much more – a demonstration of a playing technique, a video analysis, a composition task, a how-to software tutorial. Text strings all of this together.
The Apple ecosphere and the cloud
These media can now be published quickly in a number of ways. As most of those reading this blog know, I’m an Apple Distinguished Educator and have taught in the Apple “ecosphere” for over a decade (while the University of Sydney is not an all Apple campus, the Conservatorium where I now teach is heavily Mac-biased), so I have expertise in products for the Apple platforms, and of course products in the cloud.
Therefore, I know that I can very quickly and easily create an engaging multimedia book with the wonderful iBooks Author simply by dragging and dropping the above media in (proprietary file formats can be linked-to). If I want to aim for a cross-platform audience, my offline tool of choice is currently Hype for publishing interactive Flash-like HTML5 websites, although if I’m keen for an eBook output Pages also does a pretty good job of making multimedia playback (though note: whether all media will playback depends on your eBook reading software). And naturally all of those media could be quickly put together in any number of website-building packages in the cloud (I prefer WordPress, because it powers so many websites online and so is a great tool to model for your students, but you could use something like Wix or Google Sites, or a hip new CMS or LMS like edcanvas or Schoology).
Icing metaphor 1
In other words, I don’t prepare a single solution or a single format, I prepare some engaging resources and publish them in one or more formats that seems to fit. It’s also important that the software that I use to do this, whether in the cloud or on my desktop (i.e. able to be used offline), is really easy to use. Drag n drop easy. Because the power of the resource is in the media, and the presentation is icing.
The Windows solution
Recently, while teaching the end of one course and preparing for another (Technology in Music Education – next semester), it occurred to me that I may be disadvantaging my students who use Windows OS computers, because everything I was teaching them and the models I made for them were made exclusively on my Mac or in the Cloud. They can use the (Mac) lab to get their work done, but if they want to work at home, and their home is in the estimated <8% of Australian homes that don’t have internet access (ABS 2010-11), how can they work offline?
To cut a long story short, I found many solutions for them, but none that came close to iBooks Author, Pages or Hype for making really cool, distributable content in a simple interface. The winner hands-down was Powerpoint, which when exported correctly can include its media and do some pretty app-like stuff (jumping from slide of content to slide of content based on buttons you select, playing media based on choices you make, and so on, just like Hype or Flash). It can only be played on a computer running Powerpoint, however: you can get XPS (a format Powerpoint exports) viewers that maintain clickable links and so on, but Powerpoint seems to drop the audio and video so it’s not a solution in this case.
Of course, this is hardly any less proprietary than iBooks Author’s iBooks format, which can only be read on an iPad and – soon – a Mac, but those programs are free, and when you couple this with the fact that Powerpoint’s media handling is quite limited (I can understand it not supporting Quicktime formats, but surely MP3 and MP4 should be supported out-of-the-box?) it’s just not as robust a solution. The Adobe CS solutions on Windows can do anything and a million times more than the mentioned apps for Mac OSX, but they also have too steep a learning curve for your average school teacher to start throwing resources together in that drag n drop manner.
Now I’m not making a Mac vs PC (or to be more accurate a Mac OS vs Windows) judgment here. To be honest, I’m someone who just loves good tech, and I really really want to find a solution for all of my students. I acknowledge that there may be a lot of software for Windows out there that I don’t know about, but I have spent night after night the last three weeks trawling search engines, online groups and Tweeting back and forth, and have found nothing that fits the simple criteria:
- Free or cheap software
- Drag and drop simplicity; no knowledge of HTML, CSS, or graphic design nomenclature necessary
- Handles all common media types (e.g. jpg, png, gif, bmp, mp4, mp3 – happy to add in wav, avi and mov too)
- Outputs in a non-proprietary or at least free-to-download-a-reader format
I would really welcome a discussion of this topic in the comments below, even if it means lambasting my ignorance of Windows software in education! In fact, if you can provide me with a few titles, this blog was really worth writing.
And that out of the way, excuse me, but I need to thank Apple. No really.
Thank you Apple. No really, I mean it – you listened to teachers and you delivered.
When Apple launched iBooks Author over a year ago, its reception among educators I knew was a resounding this-is-brilliant-but-please-can-we-open-these-books-on-our-Macs? There was only a thinly veiled subtext if you read or listened to what Apple said about iBooks Author: it was intended to be the clincher for putting iPads rather than other devices in students’ hands. Make it easy for teachers/departments/education boards to make amazing content, and lock it to Apple’s consuming (not consumer, in this case) device.
It made complete sense, but what about schools that had already invested heavily in Apple laptops and desktops? Were they to get rid of these, or were the students supposed to carry iPads and MacBooks in their already-heavy schoolbags? [Actually, we looked at that option at my school at the time, and if we could have made it fly financially, we’d have done it – but we couldn’t.] And if an educational-clincher was needed, there were a few of us who looked at iBooks Author and thought “bugger making stuff for the students, I want to see what they can make for me!”.
And that’s exactly how it has been in my limited experience. iBooks Author is so easy to use and enables such beautiful results that students are engaged and super-motivated. You’re less likely to make a poorly-lit, unscripted music video with terrible audio if it’s going to sit inside a beautiful multimedia book. In this case, the icing is raising the expectations of the filling, because the filling will taste even worse if it’s badly mixed, undercooked and oozing over the plate.
(That was icing metaphor 2)
And Apple listened. Heck maybe it was always part of their strategy, although it didn’t feel like it in 2012. Either way, today they announced that their next version of OSX (“Mavericks”) will include an iBooks reader and it will read iBooks Author-ed books.
Having been listened-to, or at least perceiving it that way, I can’t resist pointing out what an opportunity for Apple my latest experiences cross-platform are. If Windows doesn’t have a free easy-to-use multimedia publishing app, why not make iBooks Author for Windows? And even if that seems unlikely (and, I know, it does), what about turning this baby around? iBooks‘ main competitor Kindle still has several key advantages over iBooks, which are:
- If you publish to Kindle or shop from the Kindle store, you can read your Kindle books on practically any device (not just the hardware Kindle), because the Kindle app works on Mac OS X, Windows XP, 7 and 8, Windows Phone, iOS, Windows 8 for tablets, Android, Blackberry and even as a cloud reader (which should keep Linux users happy I guess).
- In education, the Kindle apps have one killer feature that should be easy for iBooks to include: if you highlight a section, it is copied to your user account on the Amazon website. This saves you copying citations out longhand and saves hours and hours of time even just for high school students writing essays. In iBooks you can highlight sections and you can annotate, but highlighted sections can only be seen within the book (I’m assuming this will be the same in the new version for OSX).
So, we had iBooks for iOS. Now we have iBooks for OSX. Give us iBooks for all the other popular OSes, and in iBooks Author (even if it’s only available for OSX) you have the perfect authoring tool for hundreds of thousand more educational institutions – even some schools running BYOD systems where a tablet or a laptop (rather than a smartphone or iPod) is required.
And what would the punchline be? Yep, you got it – today Apple showed they can bring their productivity suite (iWork) to the cloud, so why not bring iBooks and iBooks Author to the cloud too? I think that’s all bases covered.