Tag Archives: oer

Book chapter: Technology Strategies for Open Educational Resource Dissemination

A book with a chapter by Lorna M Campbell and I has just been published. The book is Open Education: International Perspectives in Higher Education edited by Patrick Blessinger and TJ Bliss, published by Open Book Publishers.

There are contributions by people I know and look up to in the OER world, and some equally good chapters by folk I had not come across before. It seems to live up to its billing of offering an international perspective by not being US-centric (though it would be nice to see more from S America, Asia and Africa), and it provides a wide view of Open Education, not limited to Open Education Resources. There is a foreword by David Wiley, a chapter on a human rights theory for open education by the editors, one on whether emancipation through open education is theory or rhetoric by Andy Lane. Other people from the Open University’s Open Education team (Martin Weller, Beatriz de los Arcos, Rob Farrow, Rebecca Pitt and Patrick McAndrew) have written about identifying categories of OER users.  There are chapters on aspects such as open science, open text books, open assessment and credentials for open learning; and several case studies and reflections on open education in practice.

Open Education: International Perspectives in Higher Education is available under a CC:BY licence as a free PDF, as very cheap mobi or ePub, or reasonably priced soft and hard back editions. You should get a copy from the publishers.

Technology Strategies for OER

The chapter that Lorna and I wrote is an overview drawing on our experiences through the UKOER programme and our work on LRMI looking at managing the dissemination and discovery of open education resources. Here’s the abstract in full, and a link to the final submitted version of our chapter.

This chapter addresses issues around the discovery and use of Open Educational Resources (OER) by presenting a state of the art overview of technology strategies for the description and dissemination of content as OER. These technology strategies include institutional repositories and websites, subject specific repositories, sites for sharing specific types of content (such as video, images, ebooks) and general global repositories. There are also services that aggregate content from a range of collections, these may specialize by subject, region or resource type. A number of examples of these services are analyzed in terms of their scope, how they present resources, the technologies they use and how they promote and support a community of users. The variety of strategies for resource description taken by these platforms is also discussed. These range from formal machine-readable metadata to human readable text. It is argued that resource description should not be seen as a purely technical activity. Library and information professionals have much to contribute, however academics could also make a valuable contribution to open educational resource (OER) description if the established good practice of identifying the provenance and aims of scholarly works is applied to learning resources. The current rate of change among repositories is quite startling with several repositories and applications having either shut down or having changed radically in the year or so that the work on which this contribution is based took. With this in mind, the chapter concludes with a few words on sustainability.

Preprint of full chapter (MS Word)

XKCD or OER for critical thinking

I teach half a course on Critical Thinking to 3rd year Information Systems students. A colleague takes the first half which covers statistics. I cover how science works including the scientific method, experimental design, how to read a research papers, how to spot dodgy media reports of science and pseudoscience, and reproducibility in science; how to argue, which is mostly how to spot logical fallacies; and a little on cognitive development. One the better things about teaching on this course is that a lot of it is covered by xkcd, and that xkcd is CC licensed. Open Education Resources can be fun.

how scientists think

[source|explain]

hypothesis testing

Hell, my eighth grade science class managed to conclusively reject it just based on a classroom experiment. It's pretty sad to hear about million-dollar research teams who can't even manage that.

[source|explain]

Blind trials

[source|explain]

Interpreting statistics

[source|explain]

p hacking

[source|explain]

Confounding variables

There are also a lot of global versions of this map showing traffic to English-language websites which are indistinguishable from maps of the location of internet users who are native English speakers

[source|explain]

Extrapolation

[source|explain]

[source|explain]

Confirmation bias in information seeking

[source|explain]

[source|explain]

undistributed middle

[source|explain]

post hoc ergo propter hoc

Or correlation =/= causation.

He holds the laptop like that on purpose, to make you cringe.

[source|explain]

[source|explain]

Bandwagon Fallacy…

…and fallacy fallacy

[source|explain]

Diversity and inclusion

[source|explain]

 Licence: All xkcd are by Randall Munroe and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License. This means you’re free to copy and share these comics (but not to sell them). More details.

[Updated 15/11/2016 to add full source & licence info and some links, which I really ought to have known better than to forget.]

Sustainability and Open Education

 

Last week I was on a panel at Edinburgh University’s Repository Fringe event discussing sustainability and OER. As part of this I was asked to talk for ten minutes on some aspect of the subject. I don’t think I said anything of startling originality, but I must start posting to this blog again, so here are the notes I spoke from. The idea that I wanted to get over is that projects should be careful about what services they tried to set up, they (the services) should be suitable and sustainable, and in fact it might be best if they did the minimum that was necessary (which might mean not setting up a repository).

Between 2009 and 2012 Jisc and the HE Academy ran the UK Open Education Resources programme (UKOER), spending approximately £15M of Hefce funding in three phases. There were 65 projects, some with personal, institutional or discipline scope releasing resources openly, some with a remit of promoting dissemination or discoverability, and  there were some related activities and services providing technical, legal, policy support, & there was Jorum: there was a mandate that OERs released through the project should be deposited in the Jorum repository. This was a time when open education was booming, as well as UKOER, funding from foundations in the US, notably Hewlett and Gates, was quite well established and EU funding was beginning. UKOER also, of course, built on previous Jisc programmes such as X4L, ReProduce, and the Repositories & preservation programme.

In many ways UKOER was a great success: a great number of resources were created or released, but also it established open education as a thing that people in UK HE talked about. It showed how to remove some of the blockers to the reuse and sharing of content for teaching and learning in HE (–especially in the use of standard CC licences with global scope rather than the vague, restrictive and expensive custom variations on  “available to other UK HEIs” of previous programmes). Helped by UKOER, many UK HEIs were well placed to explore the possibilities of MOOCs. And in general showed the potential to change how HEIs engage with the wider world and to help make best use of online learning–but it’s not just about opening exciting but vague possibilities: being a means to avoid problems such as restrictive licensing, and being in position to explore new possibilities, means avoiding unnecessary costs in the future and helps to make OER financially attractive (and that’s important to sustainability). Evidence of this success: even though UKOER was largely based on HEFCE funding, there are direct connections from UKOER to the University of Edinburgh’s Open Ed initiative and (less directly) to their engagement with MOOCs.

But I am here to talk sustainability. You probably know that Jorum, the repository in to which UKOER projects were required to deposit their OERs, is closing. Also, many of the discipline-based and discovery projects were based at HE Academy subject centres, which are now gone. At the recent OER16 here, Pat Lockley suggested that OER were no longer being created. He did this based on what he sees coming in to the Solvonauts aggregator that he develops and runs. Martin Poulter showed the graph, there is a fairly dramatic drop in the number of new deposits he sees. That suggests something is not being sustained.

But what?

Let’s distinguish between sustainability and persistence: sustainability suggests to me a manageable on-going effort. The content as released may be persistent, it may still be available as released (though without some sort of sustainable effort of editing, updating, preservation it may not be much use).  What else needs sustained effort? I would suggest: 1, the release of new content; 2, interest and community; 3, the services around the content (that includes repositories). I would say that UKOER did create a community interested in OER which is still pretty active. It could be larger, and less inward looking at times but for an academic community it doing quite well. New content is being released. But the services created by UKOER (and other OER initiatives) are dying. That, I think , is why Pat Lockley isn’t seeing new resources being published.

What is the lesson we should learn? Don’t create services to manage and disseminate your OERs that that require “project” level funding. Create the right services, don’t assume that what works for research outputs will work for educational resources, make sure that there is that “edit” button (or at least a make-your-own-editable-copy button).  Make the best use of what is available. Use everything that is available. Use wikimedia services, but also use flickr, wordpress, youtube, itunes, vimeo,—and you may well want to create your own service to act as a “junction” between all the different places you’re putting your OERs, linking with them via their APIs for deposit and discovery. This is the basic idea behind POSSE: Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere.

Open, Education

This is a longish summary of a presentation I gave recently, covering why I was talking, the spectrum of openness, the ways of being open, the range of activities involved in education and how open things might apply to those activities. You may want to skim through until something catches your eye 🙂

Why I did this

When Marieke asked me to give a “general introduction to open education” for the Open Knowledge Foundation / LinkedUp Project Open Education Handbook booksprint I admit I was somewhat nervous. More so when I saw the invite list. I mean, I’ve worked on OERs for a few years, mostly specializing in technologies for managing their dissemination and discovery; I’ve even helped write a book about that, (which incidentally was the output of a booksprint, about which I have also written), but that only covers a small part of the OER endeavour, and OERs are only a small element in the Open Education movement, and I saw the list of invitees to the booksprint and could see names of people who knew much more than me.

However Martin Poulter then asked this on Twitter


and I thought why not take inspiration from that approach. I can say stuff, and if it is wrong someone will put me right; it’ll be like learning about things. I like learning things, I like Open Education and I like booksprints. So this is what I said.

I wanted to emphasize that Open Education covers a wide range of activities. It has a long history, which we can see in the name of institutions like the Open University, but has recently taken on new impetus in a new direction, not disconnected with that history, but not entirely the same. Being a bit of a reductionist, the simple way to illustrate the range of Open Education was to reflect on the extent and range of meanings of Open and the range of activities that may be involved in education.

The spectrum of openness

Shows a range of
A “map” of IP rights and freedoms to show people use and view the different “permissions” (some legal, some illegal), BY DAVID EAVES, from http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/24244/beyond-property-rights-thinking-about-moral-definitions-openness
A couple of weeks ago this discussion on the spectrum of open passed through twitter. At one extreme you have “proprietary”, i.e. the commercially licensed use of other people’s resources covered by copyright or patents. Is this open? Well not in the sense of Open in OERs, but it is more open than material which is covered by non-disclosure agreements or trade secrets, and “fair use” or “fair dealing” may sometimes offer an exemption to needing a licence. So it makes sense to start the spectrum of openness here. Then you move to more liberal licences, say Creative Commons Licenses with ND or NC restrictions, through Share Alike to the most liberal attribution-only (CC:BY) and unrestricted (CC:0) licences. And then you pass into illegal use which ignores property rights, for personal use, for sharing (piracy) or claims that something is what it isn’t (counterfeiting).

When using, sharing and repurposing resources, teachers tend to work in the part of the spectrum spanning from proprietary through to the ignoring of property rights. It is interesting to reflect that much technical effort has been spent on facilitating the former (think Athens, Shibboleth Access Management Federation, and single sign-on solutions for identification, authentication and authorisation), political effort on legitimising some of the latter (e.g. use of orphan works, exemptions for text mining) and educational effort on avoiding what is not legitimate. One of the benefits of the OER/Open Access approach is in avoiding effort.

The ways of being open

That all focusses on open access to and use of resources, but there are other ways of being open, seen in terms such as “open development” “open practice” “open university” and even “open prison” which all have something to do with who you allow to participate in what. There is much gnashing of teeth when this sense of openness gets confused with openness of access and use; for example complaints that a standard isn’t open because it costs money or that an online course isn’t open because the resources used cannot be copied. Yes you could spend the rest of your life trying to distinguish between “open” “free” and “libre”, but in real life words don’t align with nice neat categories of meaning like that.

I don’t think participation has to be open to everyone for a process to be described as open. As with openness in access and use, openness in participation can happen to various extents: towards one end of the spectrum, participation in IMS specification development is open to anyone who pays to be a member, ISO standardization processes are open to any national standardization body; wikipedia is an obvious example of a more open approach.

This form of openness is really interesting to me because I think that through sharing the development of resources we may see an improvement in their quality. I think that the OER work to date has largely missed this. And incidentally, having a hand in the development of a resource makes someone more likely to use that resource.

Activities involved in education

I think this picture does a reasonable job of showing the range of activities that may be involved in education, and I’ll stress from the outset that they don’t all have to be, some forms of education will only involve one or two of these activities.

The range of activities related to education.
The range of activities related to education.

Running down the diagonal you have the core processes of formal education (but note well: this isn’t a waterfall project plan, I’m not saying each one happens when the other is complete): policy at a national through to institutional level on how institutions are run, for example who gets to learn what and how, and who pays for it; administration, dealing with recruitment, admissions, retention, progression, graduation, timetabling, reporting, and so on; teaching, to use an old-fashioned term to include mentoring and all non-instructivist activities around the deliberate nurturing of knowledge; learning, which may be the only necessary activity here; assessment, not just summative, but also formative and diagnostic–remember, this isn’t a waterfall; and accreditation, saying who learnt what. Around these you have academic and business topics that inform or influence these processes: politics, management studies, pedagogy, psychology, philosophy, library functions, and Human Resource functions such as recruitment and staff development.

Open Education

OER interest tends to focus on the teaching, learning, assessment nexus at the middle of this picture, but Open Education should be, and is, wider. Maybe it would be useful to try to map where some of the other open endeavours fit. Open Badges, for example sit squarely on accreditation. Open Educational Practice sits somewhere around teaching and pedagogy. Open Access to research outputs sits roughly where OER does, but also with added implications to pedagogy, psychology, management and philosophy as research fields. Open research in general sits with these research fields but is also a useful way of learning. Open data is a bit tricky since it depends what you do with it, but the linked-up veni challenge submissions showed interesting ideas around library functions such as resource discovery, and around policy and administration, and learning analytics kind of comes under teaching. Similarly with Open Source Software and Open Standards, they cover pretty much everything on the main diagonal from Admin to assessment (including library). And MOOCs? well, the openness is in admission policy, so I’ve put them there. I suspect there is a missing “open learning” that sits over learning and covers informal education and much of what the original cMOOC pioneers were interested in.

How various open endeavours relate to  education to give open education.
How various open endeavours relate to education to give open education.

Useful?

ebooks 2013

Every year for the past dozen or so years the Department of Information Sciences at UCL have organised a meeting on ebooks. I’ve only been to one of them before, two or three years ago, when the big issues were around what publishers’ DRM requirements for ebooks meant for libraries. I came away from that musing on what the web would look like if it had been designed by publishers and librarians (imagine questions like: “when you lend out our web page, how will you know that the person looking at the screen is a member of your library?”…). So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to go to this year’s meeting. It turned out to be far more interesting than I had hoped, I latched on to three themes of particular interest to me: changing paradigms (what is an ebook?), eTextBooks and discovery.

Changing paradigms

With the earliest printed books, or incunabula, such as the Gutenberg Bible, printers sought to mimic the hand written manuscripts with which 15th cent scholars were familiar; in much the same way as publishers now seek to replicate printed books as ebooks.
With the earliest printed books, or incunabula, such as the Gutenberg Bible, printers sought to mimic the hand written manuscripts with which 15th cent scholars were familiar; in much the same way as publishers now seek to replicate printed books as ebooks.

In the first presentation of the day Lorraine Estelle, chief executive of Jisc Collections, focussed on access to electronic resources. Access not lending; resources not ebooks. She highlighted the problems of using yesterday’s language and thinking as being problematic in this context, like having a “horseless carriage” and buying it hay. [This is my chance to make the analogy between incunabula and ebooks again, see right.] The sort of discussions I recalled from the previous meeting I attended reflect this thinking, publishers wanting a digital copy of a book to be equivalent to the physical book, only lendable to one person at a time and to require replacing after a certain number of loans.

We need to treat digital content as offering new possibilities and requiring new ways of working. This might be uncomfortable for publishers (some more than others) and there was some discussion about how we cannot assume that all students will naturally see the advantages, especially if they have mostly encountered problematic content that presents little that could not be put on paper but is encumbered with DRM to the point that it is questionable as to whether they really own the book. But there is potential as well as resistance. Of course there can be more interesting, more interactive content–Will Russell of the Royal Society of Chemistry described how they have been publishing to mobile devices, with tools such as Chem Goggles that will recognise a chemical structure and display information about the chemical. More radically, there can also be new business models: Lorraine suggested Institutions could become publishers of their own teaching content, and later in the day Caren Milloy, also of Jisc Collections, and Brian Hole of Ubiquity Press pointed to the possibilities of open access scholarly publishing.

Caren’s work with the OAPEN Library is worth looking through for useful information relating to quality assurance in open monograms such as notifying readers of updates or errata. Caren also talked about the difficulties in advertising that a free online version of a resource is available when much of the dissemination and discovery ecosystem (you know, Amazon, Google…) is geared around selling stuff, difficulties that work with EDitEUR on the ONIX metadata scheme will hopefully address soon.

Brian described how Ubiquity Press can publish open access ebooks by driving down costs and being transparent about what they charge for. They work from XML source, created overseas, from which they can publish in various formats including print on demand, and explore economies of scale by working with university presses, resulting in a charge to the author (or their funders) of about £150 for a chapter assuming there is nothing to complex in that chapter.

eTextBooks

All through the day there were mentions of eTextBooks, starting again with Lorraine who highlighted the paperless medic and how his quest to work only with digital resources is complicated by the non-articulation of the numerous systems he has to use. When she said that what he wanted was all his content (ebooks, lecture handouts, his own notes etc.) on the same platform, integrated with knowledge about when and where he had to be for lectures and when he had exams, I really started to wonder how much functionality can you put into an eContent platform before it really becomes a single-person content-oriented VLE. And when you add in the ability to share notes with the social and communication capability of most mobile devices, what then do you have?

A couple of presentations addressed eTextBooks directly, from a commercial point of view. Jenni Evans spoke about Vital Source and Andrejs Alferovs about Kortext both of which are in the business of working with institutions distributing online textbooks to students. Both seem to have a good grasp of what students want, which I think should be useful requirements to feed into eTextBook standardization efforts such as eTernity, these include:

  • ability to print
  • offline access
  • availability across multiple devices
  • reliable access under load
  • integration with VLE
  • integration with syllabus/curriculum
  • epub3 interactive content
  • long term access
  • ability for student to highlight/annotate text and share this with chosen friends
  • ability to search text and annotations

Discovery

There was also a theme of resource discovery running through the day, and I have already mentioned in passing that this referenced Google and Amazon, but also social media. Nick Canty spoke about a survey of library use of social media, I thought it interesting that there seemed to be some sophisticated use of the immediacy of Twitter to direct people to more permanent content, e.g. to engagement on Facebook or the library website.

Both Richard Wallis of OCLC and Robert Faber of OUP emphasized that users tend to use Google to search and gave figures for how much of the access to library catalogue pages came direct from Google and other external systems, not from their own catalogue search interface. For example the Biblioteque Nationale de France found that 80% of access to their catalogue pages cam directly from web search engines not catalogue searches, and Robert gave similar figures for access to Oxford Journals. The immediate consequence of this is that if most people are trying to find content using external systems then you need to make sure that at least some (as much as possible, in fact) of your content is visible to them–this feeds in to arguments about how open access helps solve discoverability problems. But Richard went further, he spoke about how the metadata describing the resources needs to be in a language that Google/Bing/Yahoo understand, and that language is schema.org. He did a very good job distinguishing between the usefulness of specialist metadata schema for exchanging precise information between libraries or publishers, but when trying to pass general information to Google:

it’s no use using a language only you speak.

Richard went on to speak about the Google Knowledge graph and their “things not strings” approach facilitated by linked data. He urged libraries to stop copying text and to start linking, for example not to copy an author name from an authority file but to link to the entry in that file, in Eric Miller’s words to move from cataloguing to “catalinking”.

ebooks?

So was this really about ebooks? Probably not, and the point was made that over the years the name of the event has variously stressed ebooks and econtent and that over that time what is meant by “ebook” has changed. I must admit that for me there is something about the idea of a [e]book that I prefer over a “content aggregation” but if we use the term ebook, let’s use it acknowledging that the book of the future will be as different from what we have now as what we have now is from the medieval scroll.

Picture Credit
Scanned image of page of the Epistle of St Jerome in the Gutenberg bible taken from Wikipedia. No Copyright.

Book now available. Into the Wild – Technology for Open Educational Resources

Into the Wild (Book cover)
Into the Wild (Book cover)
With great pleasure and more relief I can now announce the availability of Into the wild – technology for open educational resources, a book of our reflections on the technology involved in three years of the UK OER Programmes.

From the blurb:

Between 2009 and 2012 the Higher Education Funding Council funded a series of programmes to encourage higher education institutions in the UK to release existing educational content as Open Educational Resources. The HEFCE-funded UK OER Programme was run and managed by the JISC and the Higher Education Academy. The JISC CETIS “OER Technology Support Project” provided support for technical innovation across this programme. This book synthesises and reflects on the approaches taken and lessons learnt across the Programme and by the Support Project.

This book is not intended as a beginners guide or a technical manual, instead it is an expert synthesis of the key technical issues arising from a national publicly-funded programme. It is intended for people working with technology to support the creation, management, dissemination and tracking of open educational resources, and particularly those who design digital infrastructure and services at institutional and national level.

You may remember Lorna writing back in August that Amber Thomas, Martin Hawksey, Lorna and I had written 90% of this book together in a Book Sprint. Well, the last 10% and the publication turned in to a bit of a marathon-relay, something about which I might write some time, but now the book is available in a variety of formats:

  • If you want glossy-covered paperback, then you can order it print-on-demand from Lulu (£3.36); if you’re not so fussed about the glossy cover and binding then there is a print-quality pdf you can print yourself.
  • If you have an ePub reader you can download, there is a free download of an epub2 file.
  • If you have a Kindle, you can download the .mobi file and transfer it, or if you prefer the convenience of Amazon’s distribution over whisper-net you can buy it from them (77p, they don’t seem to distribute for free unless you agree to give them exclusive rights for all electronic formats).
  • finally, if you prefer your ebook reading as PDFs, there is one of those too.

All varieties are free or at minimum cost for the distribution channel used; the content is cc-by licensed and editable versions are available if you wish to remix and fix what we’ve done.

Available via the Cetis publications site.

Brief reflections on Open Practice and OER Sustainability

Lorna and I ran a session at the CETIS conference on the topic of Open Practice and OER Sustainability, we had 10-minute presentations from ten brilliant people who have been involved in the UKOER programme each giving a view from their own perspective on the general problem of “what now that the Jisc money has gone?” It’s fruitless to try to summarise that in full, so what I will do is add links to presentations to the session page linked-to above and give my own very cursory summary of a few of the themes. Lorna has also written a summary on her own blog.

“Scratch your own itch”

One of the most telling comments on sustainability, from Julian Tenney talking about the Xerte project, was that a project would most likely be sustainable if it was about doing something that the people involved needed doing anyway. Not necessarily something that would be done anyway (though in Xerte’s case mostly it was), but definitely not something that was being done just because the money was there. I agree with a comment that was made that there is a problem with the way that Universities treat project funding in this respect (at least in research departments), always the emphasis is on chasing money, getting the next grant. There were many examples of what it might be that “needs doing anyway”, at personal, subject community, institutional, and national/sector-wide level, from the sharing of resources between humanities teachers using HumBox, extra mural studies of the Department of continuing Education at Oxford University, the institutional teaching and learning policy at Leeds Met University, FE colleges in Scotland working in ever closer union and student progression from College to University.

nickbalance(By: Nick Sheppard, Leeds Metropolitan University)

Nick Sheppard asked for a technical infrastructure to support these institutional and other policies. He (and others) asked for APIs and other links between repositories (and the rest of the web, I assume) so that the greatest advantage could be had for effort. Sarah Currier told us about the new offers from Mimas to make your OER effort “Jorum Powered” through a hosted repository, a web interface into Jorum, or by building custom applications using the new Jorum API.

But with technical infrastructure come technical requirements, David Kernohan was worried that these requirements are only bearable by an academic with help, and that once the Jisc funding goes that support will also go. Suzanne Hardy also touched on this.

davidimbalance
by David Kernohan, Jisc. The teddy bear is an academic.

The concept involved here was identified by Yvonne Howard as relative advantage, the advantage of something has to be compared to the costs and the costs have to be minimised, as can be done through clever technology such as maximum use of machine created metadata.

“It’s like MOOCs stole OER’s girlfriend”

footpathSo far I’ve mentioned advantages for many people but glossed over the fact that different people will see different advantages; they don’t and for that reason they will pursue different directions, as we have seen with MOOCs. Amber Thomas of Warwick University (but yes, the same Amber as was of JISC) described MOOCs and OERs as distant cousins who used to get on but are now no longer friendly for some reason. And it’s not like the O for Open in the two really stands for the same thing, as Pat Lockley said, their open is not necessarily our open. But, he asked, what is open? a footpath through private land or a National Park with the right to roam where you please (if you can manage to get there)?lakedistrict

(this last photo is mine and is covered by the CC-BY licence of this blog; the others aren’t and are used according to their various licences or permissions from their creators.)

Some adventures with HTML5

A couple of weeks ago I hosted an online webinar for JISC OER Rapid Innovation projects. Here I will attempt to summarise what was said about HTML5.

Rapid Innovation projects are short projects, typically only a few months long, that JISC fund to do some development; they’re not the place for open-ended explorations of new concepts, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t projects from which we can learn a lot. They are quite a good test bed for assumptions that certain developments should be quite easily achievable: you think that the state of technology X is such that a couple of months of developer effort should be enough to realise idea Y: a rapid innovation project is a way of testing this. The aim of this webinar was to collect reflections from this round of projects on a number of technologies that several projects had tried. HTML5, with associated aspects of Javascript, video and accessibility was one of those technologies.

One of the projects that had the strongest dependency on HTML5 was XENITH (Xerte Experience Now Improved: Targeting HTML5) which was predicated on converting the Xerte online toolkit (a popular wizard-based approach to creating OERs) from Flash output to HTML5. This seems even more important now than it did when the project started, as we have seen an accelerating shift away from Flash to HTML5 on mobile platforms. Tellingly, we were told that once busy Flash mailing lists now have very little traffic, a sign that developers are deserting Flash tools.

Julian Tenney, the XERTE project manager (and Flash developer by background), reported that he had initially been nervous about the feasibility of replacing the functionality of the flash player with HTML5, but he said he was “much much more comfortable with it now, it seems that [the project] haven’t really hit an awful lot of problems.” The project was running ahead of expectations, with solid core implemented with a good interface and more than half of the 75 templates for different types of page converted to HTML5. The project has used JQuery as the gernal JavaScript framework, which is a popular choice. After a fair amount of investigation into how to support audio and video playback they adopted JW Player, which did most of what the project needed to do without them trying to create anything new from scratch.

One advantage that HTML5 has over Flash, highlighted by EA Draffan of the Synote Mobile project, is that in principle it should help make resources accessible to all. XERTE has a good record for supporting access, for example it will work through the JAWS screen reader, and Julian pointed to a disadvantage of HTML5: that the accessibility was left to the browser, and not as in the case of Flash under the control of the developer. This sentiment that was echoed by Josef Baker who has been working on displaying maths in HTML5 compared to pdf for the Maxtract project, who had found that neither accessible pdf nor HTML 5 worked as well for blind and visually impaired users as plain text.

This problem seems most acute with video playback, where making resources accessible for anyone can be a problem on some devices. Several projects reported that there is a problem still getting the acceptable behaviour for video playback across different browser/platform combinations; an issue which Synote have documented. Several people voiced concern at this inconsistency concerning video, the plethora of Javascript libraries for controlling video, even at the level of there being no one video format that would work across platforms; the poor performance on small mobile screens and lack of mature development framework elements (especially compared to apps). Simon Morris of the ensemble project and associated rapid innovation project for OER data infrastructure was especially critical of the ease of developing tools for sophisticated manipulation of the video stream. While it seems possible to create HTML5 applications to do this that work for a specific target browser & device, the difficulty seems to be getting something that will work across multiple platforms. He was doubtful about whether the document centric layout engines for HTML5 would ever be as easy to use for graphics oriented purposes as those available for native mobile apps. He also pointed to the example of controlling video from YouTube, where the API functionality to do such things as tracking which part of the video was being viewed was only available in the Flash and not in HTML5. According to Simon, there are deep-seated problems associated with the file format standards with respect to pseudo-streaming, for example the information that allows one to jump in to a video at an arbitrary point is held at the end of mpeg video files, meaning the entire video has to be loaded before the viewer can jump to the bit they want to see.

It seems clear that libraries such as JQuery have helped overcome many of the inconsistencies of creating good user experiences in HTML5. HTML5 video still has a way to go, especially on mobiles. There was disagreement on whether the problems described were signs of immaturity and indicated a need to support the further development of JavaScript libraries that aim to iron over platform inconsistencies for video in a similar way to JQuery, or an obstacle to using HTML5 that would be difficult to overcome while native apps provide an alternative. The “native Vs HTML5 web app” question is one that goes far beyond the experiences of a few projects with video.