Blog

This blog started off as a log of the eBook pilot that I began in Tower Hamlets schools. It’s expanded and I’m now using this as a general blog.

Older posts have been transferred from another blog site and so have some formatting errors that I’m slowly correcting, so please be patient!

 

I’m on the longlist!

http://www.undiscoveredvoices.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/cropped-UV12.pngNow, firstly, the important stuff. Is ‘longlist’ even a real word? Every spellchecker I use says ‘no’ (but they also say spellchecker’ isn’t a word either). It’s certainly annoying when planning the Tower Hamlets Book Award and every letter I write about the longlist or shortlist is apparently littered with spelling mistakes.

Anyway, I’m feeling rather intimidated by being chosen for the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices longlist, but with a buzzing of intense excitement.

For a start, 2 months ago I declared that after about 17 years, I was fed up with constant rejection letters and was packing in further attempts to get properly published.

I’ll be rethinking this decision. Even if I don’t make it past the longlist (long list?), I’m sure this shows that there’s the possibility that someone likes my work?

That December feeling

Well, it’s getting close to the close of 2017 and it’s been a rather interesting year. Aside from getting lots of extra duties and a big dollop of job insecurity at the library (thank you Theresa May), I finally got around to starting my Etsy store and register for self-assessment. Not that I particularly needed to, because my earnings are basically non-existent, but I didn’t want to fall foul of regulations, so there you go. Just means a bit more paperwork this time next year. I think the future of selling my prints will have to be canvas, though. I’m just not getting the orders through for posters, and they’re pretty expensive.

I’ve also updated this website a little – I’m not allowed to say why just yet, though… 😉 It was long overdue, though. I didn’t remove as much work as I’d anticipated – I’d weeded a lot of the sketchy stuff already. I did consider removing more of the …don’t let the Dragons bite work, but sentimentality got the better of me. I like the look that the silhouette work gives to the front page – the Patronus picture will be the next Etsy print (once I actually find time to get it print-ready), and I’m fairly happy with the new direction that my work is taking. I was supposed to have finished a new Pixel Art poster – a Game of Thrones piece – but after my other posters failed to really sell and received little or no interest from agencies I decided that it would be more productive to return to my drawings and develop my style a little more.

My other work is of course the sequel to Betsy Thumbslurp. I’ve got several pages of b/w art for this book which I was taking in a more commercial direction, but now that Janet has traded the series in for her YA ambitions, I’ve also got more writing to do! This leaves my picturebook ideas in limbo – including …dragons (which was way over the pb wordcount anyway). On the other hand, Inn from the cold is currently with the wonderful Tiny Owl…

Going back to pixels

Well, I took part in a portfolio intensive critique earlier this year via my SCBWI membership, and it was an eye-opener for sure that knocked me sideways for a few days. I’ve now put aside (sadly) Don’t let the Dragons Bite after being told that the style of illustration probably wouldn’t be picked up by publishers, and neither would my B/W line art in its current form. Despite all of the positive feedback, at the end of the day my work is at the mercy of the publisher’s style sheet that dictates what sells and what doesn’t.

On the other hand, I received a fair amount of positive feedback for my pixel art (which I’d only put back in the portfolio at the last minute). So I’ve returned to this to shop around in order to chase some measure of commercial success…

I’m entering Undiscovered Voices!

http://www.undiscoveredvoices.com/

Run by the SCBWI, this is a competition to showcase the work of unpublished and unagented authors and illustrators. I found out about it from Sarwat Chadda, a previous winner and now full-time writer whom I’ve worked with as a librarian. I really can’t stress enough how important these sort of showcase competitions are, just to help get your work noticed in a ridiculously crowded market.

The writing category is totally free reign, asking authors to sub an extract of a completed manuscript, though the illustrator category is more fixed, requesting a single piece of art based on one of the titles (invented for the competition) given. I was thrown a little at the launch when I was told that one entry is all you get (and since the entry is via society membership, no pen name entries). I really think that two entries should be allowed, at the very least so that the judges can assess consistancy in the work. On the other hand, the titles are good – spins on classic tales, as if with Once Upon A Time… I haven’t had my fill of alternative fairy tales this year – and my black and white pen work has never been stronger than it is at the moment. It’s also interesting that colour artwork is out – the industry is showing what the business is, e.g. colour art = too expensive outside of the picturebook world.

Though I doubt I can get anything completed to enter into the author category, I’ve just completed my entry for the illustrator category, choosing the title “Hansel and Gretel and the Great Witch Rescue” after taking into account the advice at the launch event, ‘play to your strengths’ – in this case witches, fast paced movement and quirky humour.

I had considered the title Alice of Wonderland Road – Remarkable Tales of a Runaway but decided that Tenniel’s illustrations would be just to memorable to let me get my style in – when a title has so many associations with classic artwork, your own interpretation will always be measured against it.

Best of luck…

First author/ illustrator visit!

Book selfieWell, the Mighty Thumbslurp has been printed at last! To celebrate this momentous event, Janet and myself have just completed our first afternoon of workshops at John Scurr Primary School, Tower Hamlets.

I had rather a lot of fun drawing the improvised adventures of Amadeus Lovebunch who lives in a space station, picks his nose, sings and is terrorised by (alternatively) a flesh-eating goldfish and a magical kitten with a weak bladder.

I was also given the enviable task of drawing an Iron Cat leaping from Big Ben onto the houses of parliament which I’ve added to my sketches page before handing the drawing over to the school for their display (for the school project based on The Iron Man by Ted Hughes)

 

Lack of Freedom Wars

Do you believe in Christmas miracles? I’ve started to. Blissfully unaware of the attack of the ddos lizards I downloaded Freedom Wars for the bargain price of £10 on Christmas day and immediately after I started playing was rather flummoxed by my inability to access the online features.

Anyhow, this post isn’t about the first world problem of accessing online shopping, but about narrative in videogames – because no one ever discusses that now, do they?

What do you mean it’s discussed to the point of obsessiveness by every videogame pundit around the world?

Well sod that, I’m not every videogame pundit, so here we go.

freedom wars

Ask one of these pundits to talk about a game that uses narrative to subvert gameplay conventions and you’ll get one of two answers – a blank stare or a discussion on Bioshock. Now Bioshock will forever (a quite rightly) be lauded for the “Will you kindly…” reveal that meant that the player never looked at a objective markers in the same way again, but it’s a shame that the excellent Freedom Wars is unlikely to be regarded as such a genre-breaker despite it turning conventions on their heads so effectively.

Picture playing this game, speaking and reading no Japanese, playing Freedom Wars with no subtitles or localisation. I’d have booted the game up and half thought that I was playing God Eater 2. Yep there’s the 3rd person arena battles with 3 AI support characters. There’s the switch between Monster Hunter-esque mega sword and massive chaingun. After the mission ends I’m in a grungy little post-apocalyptic bunker. Limited choice of outfits that expand after a level-up – check. Limited territory to explore – check. At first limited but gradual increase in number of NPCs – check. Gradual increase in interface, upgrade, customisation and loadout options – check. Grinding for XP and resources – check.

Until today these limitations and barriers were all standard videogame conventions. Natural laws that players take for granted. But then I play the localised version and I feel like Neo having a one-to-one with Morpheus in the desert of the real. Suddenly I, the player, once master of a digital world, am literally in a virtual reality prison. Rules that I thought were there to shepherd the player through the 60 hours of the game are actually there simply to punish and bind the player to the whims of a sadistic NPC prison warden. The XP is not an undefined currency but points from good behaviour, or years deducted from my sentence. In God Eater I’d obey the person doling out the missions because they were for my benefit – in Freedom Wars the exact same missions for the exact same rewards are done begrudgingly because in the story I am not free – I’m a prisoner – a slave.

Imagine being told that Mario can’t sidestep pits and monsters because the code of the Great Mushroom God force him to walk His straight path and never deviate left or right. You’re told to jump. You’re told to jump high.

Sim and sandbox games are the worst – offering a glimpse of pure freedom just before you walk headfirst into an invisible wall. Perhaps behind their calm Byzantine expressions and mindless repetition of stock sound-bites the people of Skyrim are silently screaming for release from brainwashing parasites?

Animal Crossing and The Sims become gulags. Forced labour camps.

As players, we can explain away the limitations of the clockwork universes that we play in until the game turns around and throws us a narrative twist that takes us out of our comfort zone. Freedom Wars does this without changing the gameplay mechanics at all. The best arts can make us look at the world with a fresh perspective. Perhaps Freedom Wars has in the simplest way thrown a curveball at all those ‘narrative in games’ and ‘are games art?’ pundits. I hope they take note.

In praise of “Melimatic Lead-Loc”

DIY? Plumbing? You’re an artist and librarian, Jake! Yes, but I also live in a house which, until a couple of days ago, had a sub-floor swimming pool (and not in a good way). Of course I didn’t fix the offending water main myself – that was down to Danny at Bexley Building Services and his friend Tom (who by coincidence works with Lake House who fixed up my library recently).

However, the repairs would not have been possible without the Lead-Loc compression valve by Melimatic, especially as the other connectors (superficially similar and occasionally more expensive) failed miserably. This does sound like a bit of a cheesy promotion, and I suppose it is, but hey, if you’ve got a worn out lead water main, you’re going to want to get it fixed properly, so there you go – make sure you’re using the best tools for the job.

And now that my house is on its way back to being habitable, I can turn my attention back to artwork.

My first interview!

Well, I’m rather chuffed that someone actually wanted to interview me!

http://www.taletrove.com/blog/illustrator-interview-with-jacob-turner/

TaleTrove looks to be on it’s way to becoming a great little online resource and I wish them the best success in their work.

Wheelers eBook Platform

This term I was very pleased to finally be able to launch the Tower Hamlets Schools Library Services eBook platform, hosted by Wheelers.

It’s something I’ve been looking at for quite some time now, not least because I needed a legal eBook service to provide to schools, and nothing else really fitted the bill. Of course, I’ve advised schools about the pros (and cons) of services such as RM eBooks and Overdrive, but at the moment, Wheelers is the most suitable platform which actually makes an active effort in supporting schools library services to host an umbrella platform serving multiple schools with varying numbers of users.

This of course makes a great deal of sense – schools are interested in eBooks but from the perspective that they’re cheap or free (see various rants in previous posts…). Our model allows us to buy a large stock of books (we’re starting off with a modest 200) and share them among schools taking their baby-steps into the world of eBooks, rather than each school having to buy 100 or so books in order to get the breadth that is required to get as many pupils as possible inspired to actually read.

While I can’t comment on borrowing figures yet – while 7 schools have logins, they’re using them for small focussed groups – there’s certainly plenty of interest and I’ll make regular posts with updates on how the pilot is faring.

The main task at the moment is to assess just how accessible the platform is. Readers have 2 options, either read online via a browser on and device that actually has a browser (no downloading or decryption required) or downloading the book offline – requiring a compatible reader, a tablet with the Bluefire app and an Adobe Digital Editions login. The latter is more complex but whether it’s a major stumbling block remains to be seen.

At the moment though I’m a lot more positive than I was at the start of this whole business. There are more publishers on board than ever, and of course You’re a pest, Betsy Thumbslurp will soon be on the Wheelers platform to buy!

Overdesigned Apple?

Hey Apple, give your users more control and we’ll all win

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/10/apple-iphone-announcement-give-users-more-control

An interesting article, though I can’t see Apple surrendering control over its hardware and software. Part of the success of the brand (any brand) is the uniformity and familiarity for the customer. Just as MacDonalds started the trend by making sure that any customer knew that they could eat a McDonalds burger in New York and be assured that it would look and taste the same as one in California (whatever you may think of the taste of a Big Mac), so Apple has followed the trand of all the big brands by making the ‘Apple Experience’.

Of course, this is unusual for many serious users of IT, who are still very much used to being able to customise their PC, or install homebrew software, and I think part of the appeal of the internet is that it is formless and anarchic and where potentially everyone is equal. But now access to the web is gaining uniformity like any consumer product, like television or games consoles, and gatekeeping is always a threat to open access. Nobody wants to walk down to their local and find a bouncer on the door – even if you know you’re getting in, the implied threat is there.

But as I said above, the success of Apple has its foundations in the fact that it makes designer gear, and designer gear has to be, well, designed. Uniform and structured. And lets face it, the majority of people are not IT literate. They want their computers to be as straight forward as televisions, just with apps instead of channels. iPad – the computer for people who can’t use computers.

A chaos of Kindles and a new player in town

Autumn term, and another term of schools still using eBooks primarily as a means to provide yet another tick on the checklist of a pushy parent, marking off the facilities as they’re shown around another prospective school.

Okay, so they’re not all following this tack, but there are enough to bring on another facepalm of frustration. Either that or it’s just another head looking for a money-saving exercise.

And on the other side are the eBook ‘gurus’. I should probably stop giving impartial advice and just start bullshitting my way through as a consultant – some of them probably make pretty good money out of it.

Anyhow, last term ended in one local school with the question “Can you photocopy from a Kindle?” and moved onto a meeting a Peters in Birmingham and a focus group with an indecisiveness of librarians who seemed incapable of seeing the big picture around the monolith of DRM and licencing legalities.

It’s always good to get an idea of how schools want to use eBooks, and how the practicalities match up to the wish list. I’m always amazed at how people above a certain point on the management scale refuse to listen when someone says “No. It doesn’t work that way.” Maybe it’s because of the plague of ‘yes’ men that have ruled the world since the 80s and who I’m sure are responsible for the general failure of governments and corporate IT systems. Not for want of trying, but because they live in a universe of perpetual denial of the truth that things don’t exist for the express purpose of their pleasure.

No. Publishers don’t want that book to be put on an eBook Lending service. No, just because it’s on the Kindle store doesn’t mean that it’s available on a lending service. No, just because it’s an eBook doesn’t mean it’s a buy one – get five free deal (which is what it really boils down to). The fact that consumers are now familiar with the convention of being able to share a download over six devices doesn’t mean that it’s all above board to do this in a classroom setting – effectively meaning that in most classrooms you only need to buy five copies to get a class set. Not that they take into account the admin issues required to manage this (juggling multiple Amazon accounts keyed to different devices at the very least), the money-saving wheeze trumps all.

It’s the legality issue that’s made me put an end to my iPod touch/ Kindle app pilot – the Schools Library Service needs to play by the rules even if the schools decide to do their own thing. I’ll let them get their speculative invoice in their own time.

But teachers are discovering that eBooks, and Kindles, may not necessarily be Technogod’s gift after all. We start with the photocopying query, and move onto OHPs and smartboards. Now, with print texts, you can legally share a chapter or significant proportion of a print text in an educational setting. However, eBooks that you conventionally buy have this right removed in their licence agreement. You can’t legally share them publicly, even under the school’s copyright licence agreement. We then looked at how class teachers have children use class set texts and discovered a few more problems, such as with dynamic page counts and variable font sizes, there’s no way to direct the class to “Read paragraph x on page y“.

So, class teaching could be problematic, how about lending for reading-for-pleasure?

When I got as far as Peters in Birmingham discussions turned to the interesting concept of Schools Library Services setting up central eBook lending services. The idea being that schools may be put off spending hundreds or thousands of pounds on a sizeable collection of eBooks, so why not let the library service take the plunge and let lots of schools all dip into a large communal collection. Economies of scale, and professional book selectors buying the books – what could go wrong?

Well, for a start, the one service that piloted this reported an underwhelming takeup. Why? Well problems included:

  • When pupils failed to understand how to install the apps or download the books they mostly just shrugged their shoulders and gave up (I could have told them that this is what happens, a couple of years ago)
  • Schools were unable to offer tech support because pupils provided their own hardware (yep, another prediction of mine)
  • Publicising the eBook service was patchy in schools

There were also other problems with the Wheelers service, such as the difficulties with age-appropriate material. If both primary and secondary pupils are browsing the same collections, it’s possible that young children will encounter ‘unsuitable’ books. Not that I’m an advocate of censorship, but I’ve have enough complaints from teachers regarding swearing, or LGBT content, to know that some people out there very much are. As a schools library service our policy is to put a varied selection of material into the hands of teachers – it’s up to them to assess the content before they let the children at them. With eBooks, the children bypass any gatekeepers and have access directly to the collection, and that means that since it’s a 24/7 library, parents could also start questioning what eBooks their kids are reading.

Technically, age-limiting books is possible, but things will always slip through the net. We can’t read every book we buy, scouring the pages for the odd expletive, and besides, offensive content is subjective. I wouldn’t age-limit Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and I’d never have guessed that certain parents would have been unhappy with the supernatural references. I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when I was ten or eleven – why should I deny this book to other 10 year-olds? My GCSE English teacher said that he once tried to get A Clockwork Orange allowed as a set text. He was denied, but I think that it should be required reading for teens.

Anyhow, no matter what your opinions on age-ratings are, an eBook lending platform can slowly develop the same problems of free access that we find with the internet, just on a smaller scale. That’s a more interesting problem then DRM, surely?

Nope. Thank you librarians, you’re just bloody talking about DRM and I need to catch my train home, and I feel as though the day’s been wasted explaining basic concepts.

The DRM discussion takes an interesting twist with RM’s entry into the eBook lending platform market. I’ve just discovered it today and spoke to a nice rep at the company. I don’t have a huge amount of experience with RM aside from seeing their branding all over school IT setups. Their platform offers rental of titles (interesting) as well as purchasing, and fiction and non-fiction/ textbooks are all covered. The rental option makes sense when you understand that are three categories of purchasing – individual, whiteboard or school library.

  • Individual allows a single-user licence (rented or purchased) to be applied to either one person’s account or one device (a novel idea). This can’t be shared.
  • Whiteboard allows a single book to be displayed to a whole class in a lesson, but it can’t be ‘loaned’ for personal reading.
  • School library means that the book can be ‘loaned’ for a period of time to a registered user. Currently it can only be read with a live internet connection over an app, or browser, but they’re looking to make downloading possible.

The latter of course will be familiar to users of Overdrive or Wheelers. The Whiteboard system, though, is very interesting in that it is in direct response to teachers’ demands that eBooks can be made available for whole-class teaching. The individual licence, until I can get clarification from a rep, just seems like a cut-down of the library licence and probably only comes into its own with the rental system whereby a school only acquires an eBook for a short period, for example the duration of a topic.

It’s the whiteboard licence that I think may be a game-changer, and the magic bullet for RM’s system. Although certain publishers are wary, especially as many textbooks are also available over (lucrative) whole-school subscription services, and they fear that single-purchase eBooks may compromise this market. It remains to be seen how this develops and whether companies like Peters/Wheelers and Overdrive develop their licence agreements in this direction. It also helps RM that setup of the platform is free, and there are plenty of free (classics) books available as tasters that they’ll hope that people move on to buying paid-for books.

I’ll add links soon.

New gallery on Deviant Art

I’ve always meant to set up a gallery here. It’s good for zoomed-in views of my pixel art pieces.

http://77shadesofawesome.deviantart.com/gallery/

Where the blog have you been?

It’s been quite a while since my last post for a number of (good) reasons. I’ve been very busy at work what with a total move of the library across town (next-door to the rather swanky suburbs of Shoreditch, something of an upgrade from Mile End), a new illustration project (working on a storybook with a gosh-darn REAL writer!), and my first Android game. Hopefully I’ll be able to update my gallery page soon.

Also, the eBooks pilot has dropped off the radar recently, not just because of the theft of the 10 iPods (yes, the other two had gone as well), but because it seems that now that eBooks have become more absorbed into the public subconscious as ‘just another thing’, they’ve lost some of the lustre and they’re becoming less of a talking point, though there have been a few interesting developments.

I’m meeting one school next week who have decided they want to buy around 50 Kindles and want some advice on the logistics of this (tells me that Kindle is still the name that first springs to mind)

Feedback from the last pilot was that the secondary school pupils were disatisfied with reading on a smartphone-sized screen and wanted tablets or ‘proper’ eReaders. This is a reversal of previous trends only a year ago when pupils voted that they vastly preferred smaller screens. Could this be just another fashion-thing now that 7″ and 10″ tablets are becoming all the rage? It’ll be something to look into when I go shopping for new hardware.

Finally, annecdotal evidence from early feedback from the “Read for my school” competition championed by the unholy alliance of Gibb and Gove says that around 50% of the books read were the free eBooks (read on computers) provided by the great octopus (tentacles all over the place), Pearsons. Now there are factors to be taken into account here, such as;

  1. Appalling statistical evidence records
  2. How many print books did pupils have access to?
  3. Short-term novelty of eBooks
  4. The need to boost subs to Pearsons platforms
  5. Does it matter that there was such a limited range of eBooks provided?
  6. Thy’re free! Free, I tell you!
  7. etc, etc

But it’s interesting to see that, as many people are pointing out, print and digital books work together rather well, and it probably doesn’t matter what the medium is, as long as kids are actually reading well. But I’ll have to dig through the research properly for work at some point.

!

Just got a surprise email returning from holiday telling me that 8 out of the 10 iPod touches on loan to a school for the pilot just became victims of the good ol’ five finger discount. ‘It never rains, but it pours’ sprang to mind.

The silver lining, of course is that I get to spend the invoice on a choice of new reading devices. Good, considering that the last feedback I got was that kids were finding the iPod screens too small. Perhaps people are starting to take tablet sized screens for granted?

When I was a lad…

…hand-me-down meant an Action Man with only one working ‘gripping hand’ and an ‘eagle eye’ that looked the wrong way, or a worn jumper that was a refugee from a 1970s wardrobe. Or it would have if I’d had older siblings.

These days hand-me-downs can mean mum’s old smartphone. When parents get an upgrade every year, chances are the sprogs get the old handset. While many of my colleagues have been debating the ‘digital divide’ we’re forgetting that this invisible economy in mobile hardware is the most likely reason why even in households in boroughs declared ‘deprived’, upwards of 60% (at least) of teens have smartphones.

Digital Disruption

http://www.digidisruption.co.uk/

Somehow I managed to find myself representing the library at a workshop hosted by Bold Creative at a rather impressive Shoreditch venue today. Rubbing shoulders with representatives from Wikimedia, Demos, Vodafone and others, the objective was planning the expansion the teaching of digital judgement, a blend of the digital literacy skills that librarians have been specialising in for some time now. Hopefully we’ll continue to be involved in this project that has it’s origins in Tower Hamlets.

Many thanks to everyone present. Official tweets can be followed #ddsummit

Meanwhile the Digital Disruption site is an excellent teaching tool. We at the Tower Hamlets Schools Library Services will also continue to expand our information literacy workshops both as in-school sessions for pupils and INSET aimed at teachers and tutors.

Over the bridge and far away

Ah, the Dartford crossing in the grip of autumn fog after a day out at the Essex Schools Library services. It was (I hope, as I haven’t seen the feedback forms yet) a rather successful workshop on eBook provision in schools and, I think, a sign that the eBook pilot is ready to evolve again.

Interestingly a rep from Micro Librarian Systems/ Overdrive eBooks had an hour’s slot in which she stated that Overdrive would likely welcome the idea of a schools library services-based consortium working with a group of schools. This follows on from a very interesting telephone conversation that I had with management at the Peters/ Wheelers eBook platform, who stated that they too would allow a schools library service to buy and manage the loans of ebooks to subscribers. Apparently only a few months ago they were not considering this, but I can imagine why they’ve changed their minds.

For a start eBooks are a costly and risky investment, especially with a provider that charges for network administration and distribution as well as the books. Should a school lose it’s funding for an eBook platform then it risks forfeiting all previous investment as the provider closes access to its servers. A slow start to borrowing by pupils who are getting used to this new method of reading could be perceived as eBooks not being popular – evidenced by the fact that MLS actually provide free publicity material to schools to raise awareness with their pupils, knowing that a strong start to borrowing may guarantee that the school continues their subscription.

Having a library split the cost of a consortium of schools to a manageable amount is a far safer means for unsure parties to dabble in eBooks and 3rd party lenders must realise that 5 schools subscribing at a discount through a SLS is better than 5 schools umming and ahhing until something better comes along. I’m fairly sure that Tower Hamlets will be ready to offer this in next year’s SLA. Here’s hoping…

Do your homework!

Have just been asked for some good places to get free e-books to put on tablets that a school have purchased.

I found the above in my inbox this evening. Along with a request to tidy my desk which caused me to lose my temper a bit. Okay – there are free eBooks. There’s the out of copyright classics for a start. Then there are publishers – particularly educational publishers – who give out free ‘tasters’. But why exactly would people expect free stuff of any real value?

When contacting publishers regarding reduced price books for our book award I was told by one the “there are so many awards that if we gave discounts to every school we’d be broke”.

And of course a school can turn to pirate eBooks, but this query from a primary school is symptomatic of the problem that also manifests itself as a room full of stupidly expensive Apple Macs and no worthwhile software or properly trained teachers.

As long as schools are magnets for IT snake oil salesmen you’ll still have the bizarre situation of senior management spending thousands on expensive computer hardware and having no budget for software/ media to put on it. Or no idea of what software/ media to put on it.

Perhaps it’s not the pupils who should be set homework…

Ebook lending review announced

Industry specialists will look at the benefits of libraries lending ebooks in a move publishers say will have ‘serious implications’ for the book trade

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/27/ebook-lending-libraries-government-review

Just like policies on eBook lending, the comments section seems to be broken at the time of writing this, but the comments posted so far betray some real ignorance about eBooks and libraries in general. If anyone wants to recommend me as one of the ‘Industry specialists’ you know where to find me…

Spam spam spam spammety spam spaaaaaam

Trawling through the spam comments on my blog and this really caught my attention. I have to hand it to the spammers, with the help of the auto-translation they’re producing more entertaining gibberish by the day. Apparently this one’s advertising watches. I think.

“Girls to normally be want to switch out to be pampered from cherished kinds previously finding married. Birds celebration will be customary occurrence by means of a single your everyday living previously tying ordinarily the knot accompanied by somebody from perpendicular having intercourse. Birds situation vogue accessories are frequently of diverse models for the goal of great glance. Normally the girl is expected to be medicated with the help of great recognition. Handcuffs not to mention eye-catching revealing fits make their glance timid not to mention contented also. Their colleagues ordinarily take charge of a celebration with the help of gals coming in excess of for enroll ordinarily the celebration. Extraordinary appears are frequently made a decision giving ordinarily the celebration outside oxygen. This special situation signifies ordinarily the girl hold planning time of day with the help of girlfriends and then the hold planning time of day from virginity. This great girl has an proper to check out in the greatest quality with the help of outstanding previous watches ornaments not to mention ingesting places, handcuffs not to mention binoculars in the direction of report heated blokes, strength wands and large attractive eyelashes, fabulous develop not to mention exciting fits. Normally the girl could be assigned a delicacy and also a driving lesson on the matter of what finding their course of action subsequent to acquiring united states accompanied by a lad.”

Yes. I’m going to buy a watch. To supplement my ‘strength wand’.

Where all the spam comes from.

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Bruce Willis vs Apple

Now I always cheered for Alan Rickman in Die Hard, but no matter what, Bruce ‘the vest’ Willis innevitably ended up chucking him off a building. Lesson to all, American brawn always beats European brains in Hollywood.

Anyhow, he’s now back to try to succeed where Samsung failed – in a courtroom deathmatch with the mighty Apple. Yes, Apple, my favourite trendy snake oil peddlars tech company.

Bruce Willis to fight Apple over right to leave iTunes library in will

Die Hard actor wants extensive music collection to be inherited by daughters instead of reverting to Apple ownership

I keep on posting about it, but it really does need emphasising, especially as people’s digital media collections (books, movies, music, games, even some home photos and videos that are stored in the cloud) expand faster that an explosion in Die Hard.

You Do Not Own Your Digital Media.

You own the right to access it as long as you are the sole user of the account, but nothing more. It’s fairly recently come to light that even if a school buys eBooks on a Kindle, that Kindle cannot be read by a pupil, because it infringes the usage retrictions in the terms and conditions. Sorry – you need to subscribe to an eBook lending service if you want to play it by the book (no pun intended and all that).

And if you close you account/ snuff it (all the same to Apple), then that’s it, all ‘bought’ items are rendered unto digital limbo.

Now my daughter’s reading Shirley Hughes books that are getting on as old as I am and this is the sort of thing that many many publishers have been waiting a long long time to eradicate. Now we all accept that publishers and artists need to make a living, but digital rights seem to be veering uncomfortably towards a ‘big brother’ world of electronic gateways designed to maximise profits at the top and make simple, human acts, such as sharing and swapping and lending effectively illegal.

I recently had the opportunity to ask a number of industry insiders and ‘content creators’ about how they intended to address the matter of schools wishing to borrow new electronic resources from organisations like schools library services – I was met with a stony silence all round. Apparently this is not an avenue that they wish to travel down or really think about when the word ‘sharing’ is inextricably linked with the words ‘illegal file’.

50 Shades of ****

Ugh. 50 Shades of Grey.

And yes, I have read that drivel. Okay, I skimmed the first two books, but that was enough. And now we have the term ‘mummy porn’ to contend with [shudders].

The reason that I have taken note of this decidedly un-erotic pile of bilge is not just that all of my wife’s colleagues are talking in reverential tones about it (which, frankly, speaks volumes about their general lack of imagination in such matters), but that the wretched title sounds just too much like my site and my blog for comfort.

 I feel more violated than any of the characters in the book, I can tell you.

77 Shades of Awesome’s domain registration expires in November, so I’ve got a few months until I either come up with a new name, or decide stick with it and hold my own (Ooooh Matron) for the inevitable film adaptation.

Under the Amazon Eye

Link Big EReader is Watching You from the Grauniad, 4th July 2012.

Your e-reader knows how long it took you to finish The Hunger Games and where you stopped reading Wolf Hall. Publishers are thrilled with the new data – but what does it mean for the rest of us?

Probably not a great deal.

Tim Coates, founder of new online ebook store Bilbary, which has launched in the US and will make its debut in the UK later this summer, is adamant that individual data should never be shared.”It would be absolutely dreadful. What people read is so private, and they have a total right to their privacy. That is rule number one and we would never ever tell anybody what anybody is reading,”

More personal than what you’re buying in the supermarket, or in Boots, registered on those loyalty cards? Admittedly, this does hark very close to the bogeyman of ‘Thoughtcrime’, and the urban legends of police interrogating library borrowing records (which is quite true in at least one case, although it was not books borrowed that the Met were interested in, but the ID of the person who had accessed ‘terror related’ websites at their local public library. Said records were apparently surrendered without question.).

The trouble is, as we consume more an more material via electronic means, we tend to forget that the internet, rather than giving us freedom, is actually putting us under more scrutiny. Every film you watch on Netflix or LoveFilm (yes, including the softcore) is logged next to your name. Every television show that you order is stored on a database. All of your purchases on iTunes, games from PSN and, of course, eBooks.ÂÂ

None of these are ‘purchased’, either, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts. You simply buy the rights to access them (rights which can be taken away). Amazon, like your supermarket with their loyalty cards, can do what it likes with your data, if you can find the sub-clause in the contract that you just ticked ‘I Agree’ to.

 At the end of the day, it does allow publishers more information than they would have if they just put the book on a shelf,” he says. “It is going to be interesting to watch how it evolves over time. It is more power to the people who are essentially telling publishers and authors what it is they want to read.”

Now that’s an interesting bit, as if we needed more over-designed books out there following the latest trends. I dread to think how many Hunger Games clones will appear over the next year. I know that publishers have got to print books that sell, but this really is a Clockwork Orange approach to crafting literature. It also reflects the evolution of the internet and search engines into echo chambers, where users are directed only to material that resembles material that they have already consumed. Do we really want to loose even more serendipity when it comes to choosing books? Do we want Amazon to dismiss book choices based on the fact that we’ll read them too slowly and take too long making our next purchase?

The only data that I’d really be interested in is comparing the reading habits of Kindle users to those of print readers. Is one more likely to be reading more books simultaniously? Is one likely to impulse-buy more? Does medium actively affect reading patterns in an adverse or positive way? Sadly, education and academic reasearch is likely to be sidelined in favour of commercial manufacturing…

On Google

Google isn’t there to provide answers. It’s there to provide more questions to put to someone who knows what they’re talking about.

News update

A few articles that caught my eye.

Ebooks VAT should be slashed to zero in 2012 budget, say publishers The Guardian

Publishers Association adds voice to 5,000-strong petition calling for VAT on ebooks to be abolished, to align with print books”

If VAT was abolished it would at least be easier for consumers to properly compare prices with printed editions. And after that, libraries can ask why they’re not getting the same discout that they get from book suppliers rather than publisher’s prices…

“Skoobe: the new word in ebook libraries The Observer

E-lenders are blooming, encouraging readers to borrow new books at cheaper prices. But do publishers and writers benefit?”

 “Munich-based startup Skoobe (read it backwards) charges users €9.99 a month to borrow up to two titles for 30 days.”

This whole article appears to be written by someone who can’t be bothered to look into how UK libraries loan eBooks for free. 9.99 for 2 eBook loans per month? That’s almost as much as it’ll cost to buy a couple of eBooks. Lazy journalism.

“Ebooks: the format of the academic future The Guardian

Steven Schwartz explains why more universities should start publishing ebooks and how they benefit students”

A bit of a self-indulgent article (pot, kettle, black), but there’s a good point buried in there about textbooks actually making proper use of the digital medium (interactive media et al) rather than just being digitised monographs.

“”Major change” predicted for French e-book market” The Bookseller

Although this “does not mean that we will no longer read printed books tomorrow”, e-books will benefit from the continuing success of reading devices and tablets

A major conclusion reached in my inset yesterday. eBooks and print books are best used in combination.

eBook provision for schools

22nd March 2012

Tower Hamlets Schools Library Services, PDC, English St.

Interest from schools is rapidly increasing in eBooks, not least because of increased marketing. Microlibrarian Systems will be present at the above workshop to demo their eBooks system run in partnership with Overdrive, who are demonstrating their commitment to UK schools by not bothering to produce UK dedicated publicity, have a UK website or contact details, or indeed return the emails of anyone who reveals themselves to be British. As is expected of an American company, though, they appear to be going for the ‘let’s monopolise the market’ strategy.

I’ll post details of the demo here, and the workshop is open to anyone – register via the SLS website.

I’ll also be using the workshop to give a proper rundown of other eBook strategies, including the costs of buying and maintaining hardware. There will also be reports from librarians who have been using eBooks in primary and secondary schools with small groups.

I’m also hoping to run demos of the products of publishers such as Pearsons Bug Club. Although with publicity copy such as…

Created to get children putting down their games consoles and reading for enjoyment, Bug Club combines rigorous pedagogy with fantastic design, kid-cred characters and cutting edge technology, resulting in a fresh and modern reading programme that your children will really love.

… I’ll have to work hard to keep a straight face. The above reads like a bizarre cross between 80s scaremongering and business turkeytalk written by Michael Gove on mushrooms.

60 years to go…

Upon resetting the iPods prior to lending them to the next school I discovered that one wannabe hacker had made 21 attempts to guess the PIN to disable the restrictions blocking YouTube.

I know this because the iPod is informing me of the fact in nice red pixel highlights.

It is also politely informing me that I’m allowed to try to enter the PIN again in just over 35,450,000 minutes time.

I can’t fault Apple’s security measures. I also can’t fault their optimism that in 60 years time I’ll still want to use their fantastic hardware. No doubt things wont have changed much, only they’ll be cerebral implants that selectively shut down higher functions of the brain when you breach T&Cs. The average Apple fanboy will have nothing to fear…

Making a pact with the devil

This one’s a late evening rant. You have been warned.

Because it doesn’t matter how many morons who think that librarians are too stuffy to design a library are recruited at huge expense to install a set of beanbags, a coffee machine and the complete works of Jacqueline Wilson in a stockroom and call it the Coolest Room in the School.

I met one of my old lecturers from my libraries MA the other day, and in discussing eBooks we reached the conclusion that actually it’s never good to get too passionate about either traditional print books or eBooks.

Printed books are (like it or not) for the most part disposable. The vast majority outside of collectible items are mass produced media with a limited lifespan – novels, textbooks, encyclopaedias – all of these I’ve thrown into the black bag of doom in my job, to the horror of teachers. We actually have an official policy of secrecy when it comes to disposing of books, simply because the reaction of certain (ignorant) people (read 95% of the population) when faced with a library THROWING OUT BOOKS would be too horrible to contemplate.

Librarians, throwing out books?! Fire them all! Replace them with volunteers who will show books true respect! B******s. Once the content is irrelevant or the paper is falling to shreds, the incinerator is the only way to go.

But it’s not the books we’re really interested in, it’s the words inside them. It’s getting the people to read them. The saddest thing I heard this week was that Soma books, a wonderful supplier of the more offbeat and hard to otherwise acquire multicultural books, will be no more from next year due customers turning away. It’s schools market had dried up as so few maintain a working library and only a few libraries were remaining but this was not enough to balance the books.

Now it doesn’t matter whether these books were written in ink, pixels, or magic faerie dust sprinkled onto slabs of silver, what matters is that less people will now read them.

It doesn’t matter how much money the Evening Standard throws at a school run by a head too stupid to employ a librarian to run a decent library.

It doesn’t matter how many reading volunteers descend onto the inner city from their ivory towers.

It doesn’t matter how many morons who think that librarians are too stuffy to design a library are recruited at ridiculous cost to install a set of beanbags, a coffee machine and the works of Jacqueline Wilson in a stockroom and call it the Coolest Room in the School.

What matters is that once people are fed up with consuming trash (and junk food is lovely for a while), they may just (good God!) want to move onto the book that’s the equivalent of a big juicy steak, cooked just over rare but with lovely bloody juices still running out of it, with a nice salad, big fuck-off chips, or a jacket potato and peppercorn sauce, or perhaps sour cream and chives on the side. The sort of thing that means more to life than a Dan Brown thriller or Jordan’s ghost-written drivel or the latest edition of the Twiglet saga – the literary equivalent of a manky cheeseburger on a 99p discount.

Trouble is, when the likes of Soma are gone, when all the Schools Library Services have closed, when librarians have been replaced by a stock selection standing order, then for most people books and literature will be like a bad day in Asda or MacDonalds. Hardly any choice and what’s left is a bit shit.

Anyway, back to eBooks, as I said above, it’s not the format that matters it’s whether the content means something to the reader. A good book will either be a window onto a new world or a mirror onto their own – no matter what this world is. For this to be possible you need people who not only care about books but who have the time and expertise to identify them, find them, and bring them to the reader who cannot do this for themselves.

To help inspire the reader to read. To help guide them through the maze of information out there.

edited for excessive swearing

Taking things for granted

Sometimes you take the simplest things for granted. Like being able to quickly navigate and move items between file systems. To understand the hierarchy of files and folders. To understand why an epub file needs to be unzipped into its component parts in order to edit it. To keep track of multiple OEBPS folders with identically named contents.

Trouble is, they’re not the simplest things to understand at all. It’s the old-school style of computing that meant that only one or two children at my school could use the BBC Micro (and one of them just used it to display “Mrs Patterson smells” all over the screen).

They’re skills that Windows and Word and iPods have made irrelevant for the majority of users, so when we want to do something a little different, it takes us out of our comfort zone and reminds us of just how intimidating technology can be.

eBooks are an absolute pain in the tender regions to create and edit. WYSIWYG editors are either non-existent or unreliable, file conversion ditto. After teaching today’s (admittedly quite successful) workshop – a crash course in creating an epub format book via notepad++ I’ve discovered that frame of mind is everything.

What doesn’t help frame of mind is one eReader refusing to display certain image files that other eReaders were happy with. What doesn’t help frame of mind is characters like ‘&’ locking up an eReader.

It takes zen-like calm to overcome such quibbles that come between creator and creation.

Note to self : When advertising a workshop in eBook publishing, emphasise technical problem solving over creative freedom. It’ll help get them into the right frame of mind, at least.

eBook D.I.Y

Well, the library has decided to trust me to run a workshop on building a working .epub eBook.

The first workshop is Wednesday 28th September and is a 3.5 hour entry level course looking at the mechanics of creating and publishing the book, including formatting text and illustrations.

If you’re interested, booking details are in the CPD section of www.towerhamlets-sls.org.uk

Evolution evolving

It’s been over two years now since I started this whole project and it’s been fascinating watching the development of the eBook medium. The latest phase of the evolution is the ability to borrow eBooks from a library on a wider variety of readers. Only the Kindle seems to be resisting this at present – an irritation, since not only is this function the most requested by schools, but the Kindle is also the most popular format adopted by them.

It’s a flexibility that is helped by the development of mobile apps, ironically in Apple’s case working against the monopoly of its own iBooks store.

All pupils are equal…

I’m desperate to find a school that will let it’s reluctant readers, it’s pupils who refuse to approach books, have a proper shot at reading in a novel way that may ensnare the and inspire them. It’s a discussion in itself why the pupils in this category also fall into the ‘we can’t trust them with the eReaders’ pile, but it’s the truth that schools are still unwilling, when it comes to rationing out technology, to provide access to the pupils who may benefit the most.

Of course, this is not unreasonable when this amount of money is involved. But I’m feeling that the pilot will be ultimately limited if it’s only the gifted and talented set who are involved. My next course of action is to find a specialist teacher to work with to see if we can plan specific, targeted activities using the eReaders to support reluctant readers or pupils with other special educational needs.

Any takers? Drop me an email.

This is more like it (project update)

One of our primary schools is the latest school to take part in my pilot and represents an interesting development in the project – in that it is no longer exclusively for secondary schools.

They have now got six iPods using the Kindle app to read books for the Tower Hamlets Book Award. Further apps may be added as the pilot progresses.

I’ve recently been quite negative about eBooks (“Really? I couldn’t guess from the tone of the last dozen posts.” I hear you cry), but at the moment I feel as though the pilot is getting back on track, and actually fulfilling the original brief.

I feel that my last participants demonstrated how schools all too frequently make poor use of new technology. They bought no books and made exclusive use of free apps. As they say, though, pay peanuts and you get monkeys. There isn’t even the analogy of buying a PC but not buying software, at least with a PC you have huge amounts of freeware to play with. App stores – as I am at pains to emphasise – are not the internet, they are shops, and there is a reason why something in a shop is free, and it’s certainly not because it’s content that’s worth buying…

It all demonstrated how untested this technology is in the classroom – we are setting our own precedents and we need to have the courage to experiment and take chances. My last school shied away, something that my current primary school is not.

For a start it’s being joint managed by their part-time librarian and their literacy coordinator. The librarian represents guidance in book buying, which is now a democratic process rather than the free-for-all before that I found helped no one. Without a good choice of books to read the pilot (like any library) becomes pointless.

The literacy coordinator is my full time contact in the school and the avenue into promoting the use of the technology as part of the school teaching strategies. Previously, working only with my librarian colleagues, we still felt isolated from the teaching community in the school, but a crucial balance now seems to have been struck.

The major change to the pilot this time is that the school will own the books (in as much as they can) at the end of the pilot. Although pupils no longer have free-reign in their buying, they learn a bit about democracy by buying books on a central account fed to all of their iPods. At the end of the pilot I pass administration of the account to the school. Certainly the schools feel that they’ll get better value for money. It also means that I’m moving back to Amazon for purchases as it is a format that, available through apps as well as the Kindle is more versatile than the iBooks format which would require the school to buy Apple hardware to continue using the books.

Finally, the shift to the primary school has made a significant impact on the pilot – the security of the participants. In a secondary school flashy gadgets are no longer a novelty, but today was the first time that none of the pupils in my group owned a mobile phone, let alone an pocket-sized multimedia player. A different approach to working with parents was the first step, a second being to emphasise the need to be careful without worrying the children. It sounds as though it’s tin-foil hat time for me, but I dread the consequences if a primary school child was mugged for an iPod that I had given them.

It all just feeds the arguments of how quickly this sort of mobile technology is integrated into education, especially at an early age. Does it put pressure on all involved? Yes, certainly. Are there real benefits? That one’s still undecided. Do Apple care? I doubt it.

The Matrix

To limit a child’s learning to the digital realm is a bit like only giving them non-fiction books, you’re immediately giving them a workplace defined by rules and limitations.

Work like this, within this area, and do as you’re told.

A school within a school.

Keeping up with the geeks (and a bit of sexism)

Bashing Microsoft has long been a popular internet sport. It’s on par with blood sports in its viciousness, although perhaps not as nasty as Apple-fanboy baiting has become. Wild-eyed, rabid, iPad waving crazies hunt in packs, congregating in their thousands on message boards, staking out swathes of the internet just waiting for someone to criticise them for stroking Steve Jobs’ tablet.

I heard a remark the other day that made sense in an odd sort of way. It was that for all of its mismanagement, for all that it has been left behind in the race for being synonymous with the tablet PC, or the smartphone, Microsoft has actually been keeping pace with the majority of people and doing rather well by this (intended or otherwise) strategy.

Apple has been chasing ahead, and while most PC owners are happily getting by with an operating system over a decade old, Mac users have had to put up with whole swathes of computer architecture abandoned at a stroke. The library iPods, updated to the latest firmware using windows XP and a PC built in 2004, are rejected by iTunes running on a Mac with Tiger OS. Lo and behold, the latest version of iTunes also refuses to work on this operating system. To add insult to injury the latest OS refuses to work on the (perfectly serviceable) computer because it’s equipped with the wrong processor.

But I accept that this is the cost of maintaining an Apple system. It’s rather like maintaining a high maintenance mistress. There’s a high price to be paid in that she needs new accessories on a fairly regular basis, and there are certain things that are just not done unless you start paying for extra services.

A PC, meanwhile, is like the missus. Despite some fuss and hassle and odd bit of unfriendliness and a few days of refusing to do anything, and despite the temptation of the flashier things out there, at the end of the day you can really depend on her for a good few years before you need to make an effort to spruce up your relationship.

Yes, most of us will look longingly at the flash git with the latest model, but we know that he’s lumbered with something very high maintenance that’s not really much more fun than what we’ve got.

And that’s at the root of the problem here.

Middle Class Angst Over Technology In The Early Years

Sue Learner
The Guardian, Tuesday 7 June 2011

Perhaps these parents can see technology in the classroom for what it often is – a marketing drive on the part of the likes of Apple? I believe that the middle class parents highlighted in the report are actually the ones who are more familiar with the technology being given to their children – familiar and more aware of not just the strengths but the limitations of the likes of tablets and smartphones. After all, these are the people who will most likely be using this technology on a day-to-day basis. They will also be continually referencing their own upbringing. On the other hand there is a perfectly valid (and, I’m sure, controversial) argument that those from disadvantaged backgrounds may find it easier to break the conventions of learning given the nature of their own education, and they may be more enthusiastic for their children to have access to benefits that were not there for them.

Whatever the reason, though, we are naturally uncomfortable when the world advances too fast for us and when our own values are torn down and replaced as outmoded.

Others, with nothing to lose, will take on new opportunities wherever they can, gambling that they will be backing a winner.

eBooks from the high seas

Yes, eBook piracy.

http://www.metro.co.uk/news/861119-ebook-piracy-is-colossal-threat

Well, if the Metro says it’s true, then it must be. But the article, although eye-catching, is rather wooly in it’s content.

So what constitutes eBook piracy, or ‘copyright infringement’ in lawyer-speak. Such an infringement could actually be as little as giving your eBook to someone else to read, or it could be using free file conversion software to convert an eBook from one format to another, so you can read it on another device.

Or it can be good ol’ filesharing and downloading me hearties.

Some people would argue that distributing eBooks for free via newsgroups, P2P, etc is no more damaging to publishers than second hand bookshops and lending libraries in terms of royalties earned per reader. However, leaving aside the politics of piracy, personal opinions and whether ‘home taping is killing music’, eBook piracy is certainly potentially more damaging to book trade than the charity shop or the Idea Store.

For example, although I’ve yet to see a charity shop without a copy of ‘Shogun’ by James Clavel, I’m unlikely to be able to pick up the latest bestseller. Nor is this guaranteed in a public library, especially now with ever more limited budgets and other borrowers to contend with. And even if you borrow or buy a second hand book, it may well encourage you to buy a new edition if you discover a liking for the author or genre.

And plenty of people just like the idea of owning a brand new book.

eBooks on the other hand have one obvious feature – there is no difference between a new eBook and a pirate book. No dog-eared corners, coffee stains or water damage from being dropped in the bath. Even when you download a pirate DVD there’s a chance you’ll get one with a compressed image resolution, or a music file ripped at a low sound quality, but text files don’t have this problem.

When there’s no appreciable difference in quality between pirate and bought copy then even the most saintly reader will probably plump for the book that has no intrusive digital rights management, can be read on any eReader any number of times, and is, of course, free.

A self fullfilling prophecy

… or “Why academics are unwittingly promoting racist propaganda.”

Part of my work involves a yearly stint teaching online information skills, usually to 6th formers or KS4. Part of the course is website evaluation – a vital task given that although most politicians and management appear to believe that there is no need for libraries because ‘everyone has the internet’, they casually ignore the simple fact that a significant majority are lacking in the ability to ‘weed out’ the bad from the good when it comes to information, something that librarians have been doing for a very long time.

An obligatory part of teaching these evaluatory processes involves demonstrating the power of the internet in distributing disinformation. A good example being the website martinlutherking.org (I shall not link to it for reasons that shall become apparent).

The site in question is managed by Stormfront – a white supremacist movement – and was intended to mimic a genuine MLK website, right down to links to classroom resources. I’ll leave you to visit the site, although you can probably guess what sort of material the site’s owners want kids to stick up around their school.

I’ve been using the site as an example for over a year now and I like to illustrate to students; 1. How genuine it appears on the surface and 2. How high it appears in the Google rankings after a basic search for Martin Luther King. Most school servers filter the content, but home access (or via bypassed security) is easy – but I’d hate to be a teacher who has this material quoted in a piece of homework.

But I’ve also noticed how it seems to be working its way slowly up the 1st page of results and I contacted web guru Phil Bradley to confirm a nasty suspicion.

Yes, it seems that as online information skills becomes more relevant, academic websites and net safety websites left right and centre are linking to martinlutherking.org and Google’s web crawlers are interpreting these link-backs as evidence that it’s a popular site that should feature highly in its rankings.

The moral of the story? Please keep hyperlinks to white supremacist propaganda to an absolute minimum, or use a URL shortening service.

Minimum required specifications

So, are eBooks and schools compatible?

I’ve been running through scenarios of how school libraries could adopt digital texts and have whittled them down to two common choices:

1. “I’ve seen the adverts so let’s buy some Kindles!”

This is the equivalent of the marketing executive demanding “Where’s our Twitter/ Facebook/ Second Life presence?” in a board meeting. Let’s face it, a school library is unlikely to have more than a dozen or so eBook readers unless it’s gone down the whole-school approach (see below).

SLA Guidelines still state that a suitable number of books per pupil in a school is 13 (at least). A school could buy 1,000 eBooks, but as soon as the number of eBooks exceeds the number of eBook readers then you’ve got dead book stock that cannot be accessed (or worse, becomes a controlled privilege to access) – the equivalent of having a class of 30 pupils but only 5 sets of eyes to go around. The other kids don’t get to read books until it’s their turn.

So, fairly pointless except from a vanity point of view, or unless the eBook readers are for a special purpose – for example encouraging reluctant readers, etc.

If eBooks are necessary to education then every pupil must have exactly the same level of access to this reading material as they would a printed book – including access to read it at home.

I’ll stick my neck out here and say that until things change, a librarian who prioritizes a copy of an eBook over a copy of a printed book without good reason is a fool.

2. The whole school approach

Every child in the school is given their own device that can read all of the eBooks in the school library. Full stop, no arguments.

As if that’s going to happen outside of the private sector any time soon.

***

Of course there is a third way broached by some librarians – why can’t pupils use their own phones and iPods to read eBooks in the school collection?

Because it’s not good business.

It would be great for school librarians, but do you really think that content providers will open up their devices to allow their users to access free stuff when it’s their business to sell it?

Apple won’t allow users to synchronise content with multiple media libraries. The fact that they only allow bulk discount on purchases for corporate hospitality gifts speaks volumes. Apple has so far given schools a big ‘f**k you’ because, frankly, they don’t care. You’re falling over yourselves to buy their product as it is, so why invest time and money in providing custom school-centric firmware? Firmware that would allow you to use their hardware how you want to (giving autonomy to consumers – blasphemy!).

And how the hell are schools going to provide electronic resources that work on all of their pupil’s phones and tablets and laptops? It’s a technical nightmare. Sure, any private or part-private school could insist that all pupils subscribe to x service provider with x handset/ tablet, but the moment none of the schools that I have worked with can get uniform software access across all of its own PCs and laptops, let alone systems on outside networks.

Oh, and one academy that I know of (that shall remain anonymous) provided eBooks (electronic textbooks) across the school network of laptops, the result? Most of the teachers didn’t bother with them and went straight back to print books because the quality was better and there were no technical hitches. When you’ve got 50 minutes to get a lesson taught, a gremlin in the systems can really ruin your day.

So…

Q. Are eBooks and schools compatible?

A. Not fully, only partially and for niche projects. End of story (until the next big technological evolution at least).

A few bits and pieces

I’ve been a bit busy this last few weeks, but I’ll be adding some more updates soon. In the meantime here are some links that may be of interest.

From the Grauniad, “Ebooks : Durability is a feature, not a bug.” concerning HarperCollins attempts to limit the number of loans of copies of eBooks from libraries to force additional purchases.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/mar/08/ebooks-harpercollins-26-times?INTCMP=SRCH

I haven’t had time to look further into the details of this, but it puts into perspective how publishers would probably frown on my own distribution of eBooks as part of the Tower Hamlets pilot. I’m sure I’ll be writing my own brand of comment in short order…

Also from the Grauniad is this article on authours raising the case of eBook piracy.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/10/authors-book-piracy-cost?INTCMP=SRCH

Yes, even more dastardly than Somali pirates are those evil filesharers. ‘Speculative invoicing‘ may have been dealt a (hopefully fatal) blow, but the issue that began with ‘home taping is killing music‘ is unlikely to end soon.

I’ve also taken the liberty of linking to this interview on the subject with Neil Gaiman.

CES Tablet PC Roundup

http://www.engadget.com/features/tablets-at-ces-2011/#

From Engadget.com

I haven’t been too fussed about tablet PCs recently since I found that the cheaper (read economical for schools) tablets such as the Elonex were garnering such lousy reviews that they just weren’t worth bothering with. Also the schools I was working with were largely happy with the iPods and were reserving iPads for staff use only, and continuing to use laptops or possibly moving to hybrids like Dell’s Inspiron Duo.

I’ve yet to speak to anyone about how easy it is to create a school network of tablet PCs (or indeed iPods) in comparison to traditional PCs, for example in regards to creating shared space for saving/ submitting work, etc, but I would think that this would be a hurdle to overcome. If anybody out there has experience of this, feel free to contact me.

Controling interests (project update)

My project has reached its fourth school, or rather it has returned to its second school.

It is telling how much an invoice for a new iPod (even discounted) can scare people into changing their plans and expectations. A year ago there was no fear about iPods being lost over the long summer hols as the students were very reliable. A week into the project and £130 vanished down the drain.

Now the school is keeping eBooks firmly within the classroom. It will be interesting to see if reading a class text is any different on screen to in print, but I can’t help feeling that it misses the point that they’ll still need a print copy to study at home.

More positive though is that the school is going to use the multimedia functions of the iPod throughout all lessons, the results of which will be interesting to see, even though they are restricting themselves to a zero budget (so free apps only).

I can’t grumble about keeping costs down, but there are implications here for any library service running a project such as this. Costs can spiral upwards, and schools will not see those costs as an investment when they are only borrowing the eReaders, and the next school in line will reap the benefits of anything purchased by previous users.

It may be necessary to take the project in a different direction. To operate as consultants setting up schools with their own eBooks and helping them manage them, or we loan additional hardware, and the schools own the accounts synchronised to them, so they do keep sole use of their investment in the software and books.

At least that would mean I could drop all of the financial wrangling…

Consuming (1)

Mobile and tablet app stores are awash with multimedia distractions costing from 99p upwards. Since novelty ringtones and wallpapers for our mobile phones to the latest single from the charts as an .mp3 this technology generation has become acclimatised to buying low priced, often disposable, content in digital format. Disposable, low priced, and digital go together conveniently, and eBooks at around £5 fit in nicely in the price range of mobile applications and games.

Digital content is quickly amassed and easily buried under menus and in hard drives. On tablet PCs and mobile phones eBooks will just be one of hundreds of distractions that are being constantly added to and mobile technology will live or die by it’s user’s spending habits. It remains to be seen how disposable books can become.

US Kindle sales ‘eclipse paperback sales’

Link to original article at Richard Adams’ blog

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/richard-adams-blog/2011/jan/28/amazon-kindle-ebook-paperback-sales?showallcomments=true#end-of-comments

Again no mention of how many of the touted eBook sales include free downloads of out-of-copyright classics, but it’s still interesting to see how 21st century consumer habits are moving to the realm of digital downloads.

Also interesting is the comment from Liam01

Since the Kindle holds so many, there’s always something to hand to match my mood

Which reflects the trend to listen to single music tracks or randomized playlists on digital music players rather than listen to whole albums. Are the next generation of readers going to surf their collection rather than ‘properly’ read it? And will this further influence dominant writing styles?

It’s not all doom and gloom

Perhaps it was the lack of sunlight last winter, coupled with the general feeling of hopelessness when confronted with the actions of the Coalition, but it has been pointed out to me that this blog has become a bit negative towards eBooks and eReading in general.

These days there are more ‘Champions’ around than in Greek and Norse myth combined, and I am supposed to be ‘championing’ eBooks (although somwhere deep inside I’d rather be slaying Hydras and vanquishing Coalition barbarian hordes), so it seems a bit odd to some that I should be so critical. This is probably why I dislike the term ‘Champion’ being suffixed to someone’s job description because champions tended to be a bit fanatical about their causes.

eLearning champions?
A real champion (image copyright Simon Bisley)

Of course, if you’re going to war against Troy or challenging a great hairy giant to fisticuffs a little fanaticism can go a long way, but if you’re dealing with a sales team at BETT then a level head and a bit of critical thinking is more useful. Sadly my day-to-day encounters with technology consist more of troubleshooting and feelings of frustration (from others) than anything else and (more tellingliy) I’ve a habit of counterbalancing any mindless commercial pressure around me.

The Good News

But spring is finally here and I saw the sun properly last weekend and no iPods were lost at the last school, so happy days are here again. In fact there was very positive feedback from the project, not least that it gathered interest from staff throughout the school if only for the reason that iPods and mobile phones are normally confiscated on sight. At the very least we have raised the profile of the school library (and by proxy our service), through use of technology – I was surprised that mine was the only handheld learning project currently running.

Initial feedback so far reinforces the emerging patterns from previous schools. Reluctant readers, including pupils with special educational needs, found eBooks to be a novel way into reading, particularly those who are confident with technology. On the other hand without ongoing support there was no improvement in reading levels, and reading is rated as a low priority for them, particularly in leisure time which I would argue is most important in fully developing reading ability. This is all common sense, though. There are no ‘magic bullets’, and a book is still a book, and words are no easier to digest whether digitally or in print. However it is encouraging that we can kindle (no pun intended) some interest.

When does it become private education?

From the Guardian

State schools left behind in iPad revolution

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jan/10/ipad-state-schools-funding-cuts

This carries on neatly from my posts The Apple School and Smile, it’s only a two tier education system. So when does requiring parents to donate money – non-compulsory, and only avoidable for families in poverty – become part privatised education? And just when does a pupil need to learn to use an iPad? And as I posted earlier, isn’t an iPad just a designer gimmick, or is it a genuine educational tool?

I’ve an arts background and was no stranger to having to buy expensive gear for my 6th form and degree education – oil paints, sketchbooks, artboard and the like swiftly add up and I probably bought a high spec Mac several times over.

However this was my own choice, and school education is not. It is compulsory and necessary. And are teachers even properly trained to make full use of this technology in the classroom – and by that I mean using it intuitively, to bring something to lessons that was truly impossibly before? In many cases I doubt it, especially when my library has been requested to again lead courses in using Google properly for pupil research.

If teachers and pupils have not mastered a tool (in an educational and professional sense, not a ‘let’s find the nearest MOT centre’ sense) that has been around for as long as Google has, then how can schools tell parents that an iPad will suddenly revolutionise their child’s education and keep a straight face?

I’m no luddite. Technology has a place in education – a big place and an important place, but the larger the picture gets, the more important perspective becomes.

Who owns your downloads?

Who owns your digital downloads? (Hint: it’s not you)

Link to the original article at zdnet.com, by Ed Bott 3/1/2011

An interesting little article that addresses a point that I’m continually at pains to point out to potential adopters of digital media.

Pretty much anything that you only reach via an end user license agreement is not owned by you. End of story. You cannot legally lend it, re-sell it, or even give it away. Although the article is mainly concerned with music, it should be understood that the same rules apply to any digital content that you did not obtain from a piece of purchased physical media. That goes for movies, television, books, games, and cloud software.

You’re using it at their convenience, often on a limited choice of hardware, and they can terminate or modify access at any time.

But does this really matter? For most people probably not. In the same way as the average user doesn’t give two hoots that they are relinquishing control of their ownership and privacy rights on files that they store online in the cloud or a social network, most people are blissfully ignorant intil circumstance turns around and gives them a slap.

Until a law firm monitoring IP traffic sends a nastygram to you for distributing a file in a way that it’s corporate parent frowns upon, or until you find that you can’t read your book on a particular device, or until Google shuts down your online database either by error or because of some breach of an obscure term or condition.

Using iTunes to aid your terror campaign may jepardise your access to your music collection.

The above example illustrates that nefarious use of an iPod not only increases the chances of orange overalls appearing in your future, but that Steve Jobs will do his best to stop you buying music to make solitary confinement and waterboarding that bit more tolerable.

Joking aside, the internet, the tool that has empowered so many with freedom, is being used more and more as a tool of control, and new generations of users risk taking this monitoring and control as the accepted norm for the sake of convenience.

If you want to read a book that you don’t own, you might as well just borrow it from a library.

Reader’s block

In a fit of facetiousness in a recent presentation on my eBook project I decided to come clean about the pros and cons of ebooks. Yes they may make some children more enthusiastic about reading, but shouldn’t technology be judged on whether it makes your life easier?

There were some sagely nods from the audience as I displayed the following images that demonstrated the steps required to get the reader to their book.

Steps between the reader and a printed book

The first is the traditional printed book, separated from the reader by the barrier of either requiring money or a library card. It has now occurred to me that I could well have added “oppressive political/ religious regime” in here as well, but we’ll assume for now that the Coalition hasn’t taken complete control ; )

The eBook meanwhile is a different beast, requiring:

Steps between the reader and the eBook

An eBook reader/ upkeep thereof
A computer
Access to the internet
A credit/ debit card OR
A library card (for those with access to a library that lends eBooks)
Software that decrypts the eBook (such as Adobe digital editions) and an account for this software OR
Software/ an app that manages the purchase, indexing and decryption of the book such as iBooks via iTunes

And at the end of that, depending on the service you use, it is up for debate how much of the book you actually ‘own’ in any traditional sense, whether you can share it, or transfer ownership to another account. Again, it all adds up to the conclusion that if you have the requirements listed above – computer, web access, credit cards, etc – then reading eBooks is just one more activity that you have access to, like downloading a movie or TV show, music track, game or ringtone. Something you download, consume, and – quite likely – leave to gather virtual dust at the back of your hard drive.

Codec moments

This isn’t really eBook related but there are parallels. Many of our schools appear to have bought flipcams for use in school projects. As an ex pat from the world of film and theatre I’m very much supportive of children having access to gear like this to make the school day that much more bearable.

The problem though is not the content creation but the content sharing, as when three schools presented me with flipcam footage as part of our annual Book Award. Not only was each video clip in a different format, but all three were unplayable on the majority of school networked PCs and all corporate networked PCs, and of course a humble librarian cannot get the admin access to install codec packs or even conversion software.

The moral of the story? Schools are generally cooperative and enjoy sharing their work. On the other hand the majority of people are not familiar with the concepts of video encoding and playback. Perhaps software and hardware targeted at schools should have a ‘save at maximum compatibility’ option (and the less said about Quicktime, the better, in my humble opinion)? Not that this is the ideal solution, as this perpetual use of wizards and automated functions is just more ‘IT Parrot Fashion‘. Indeed, another headache is the inability to understand image size and resolution, leading to 400mb PowerPoint presentations crammed full of high resolution digital camera photos.

Things could just get more complicated and frustrated if schools begin to share eBooks and apps between themselves. Once again the only solution is to take an objective look at the technology, take the time to learn its language, and don’t risk making mistakes by rushing things. Although I did not witness the incident myself, if was reported to me that pupils were angry with their teacher when their video could not be played – a reminder that expectations, standards, and reality rarely come together harmoniously, and that although it’s no excuse to throw a tantrum, having a term’s work summed up in the line “File could not be read” is a less than ideal outcome.

the Apple School

A senior member of school staff recently commented that in the future “we will have to bite the bullet” and assume that all pupils will be able to supply their own smartphones or other mobile technology in order to make use of next generation ICT based lessons in schools. This argument was backed up by the statement that “40% of my pupils already have internet enabled phones“. This in one of the poorest London boroughs (feel free to draw conclusions).

Of course, there was no implication that the remaining 60% should miss out on portions of their education, just an implication that market penetration of mobile technology among children can only increase. In a sense I cannot deny that this is inevitable to a point, but nor can I deny the truth that during my time teaching I have observed more than a fair share children in schools without pens and pencils, coats in winter, or suitable footwear amongst other more essential items than a mobile phone.

My own eBook pilot makes no assumptions of a child’s background, and in any school – inner city, rural, or private – I would not begin to plan any activity or project that requires a pupil to have access even to television at home, let alone a computer, internet or a mobile phone. All of these items I still class as luxuries for the privileged, and despite commercial and government entities insisting that they are a part of everyday life, I would never take ownership of such resources for granted.

Of course, equality is (allegedly) not at the forefront of the coalition’s designs on Britain, and Michael Gove’s continuing plans to devolve power to headteachers and private interests means that schools will inevitably begin setting their own standards. Certainly many people are beginning to question the definition of the ‘free’ in ‘free schools’, perhaps next we should ask ourselves whether there is any difference between requiring a pupil to carry their own netbook, tablet, or internet phone to lessons and requiring a pupil’s family to pay a tuition fee or take a grueling entrance exam.

The other issue is the potential for a general lack of objectivity, and an inability to see the bigger picture when it comes to technology. Too many teachers associate the pinnacle of technology with Apple. Although they may have been the best choice at the time for my project, I am now seriously considering that there are better options on the market and that I was lucky not to over-invest in iPod technology. Unfortunately others fail to look beyond the brands that shout the loudest and so get lumbered with crushingly expensive hardware. A private partnership may soak up the cost of kitting out a school with iPads and educational Apple Apps, but founding a school’s ICT infrastructure on the most expensive hardware may damn its pupils into having to buy the same expensive devices to keep up with homework or other assignments, when they could be buying cheaper tablets and mobiles such as those that run Android applications.

After seeing the feeding frenzy of schools racing to build their reputations as technology champions, I ‘m realising more and more that there comes a point when we need to check that the foundations are still in place. And I would not run an eBooks project in a school without knowing that a librarian, with a specialist knowledge of books and children’s literature was on board.

Schools and senior management need to remember that there are children who would be better off with an apple to eat before we even consider telling them that they need an Apple to learn on.

Tablet PCs. The next big thing for schools?

 

Tablet PCs for children. Screen wipes as standard.

Elonex has recently caught my eye, mainly because the 7″ touchscreen Android tablet is on sale in Toys R Us amongst other suppliers for around £89. Although I haven’t managed to get my hands on one of these little beauties yet, I will assume that while lacking some of the bells and whistles of its contemporaries such as the iPad and Galaxy mentioned below, it will be perfectly adequate for the average primary school.

I’ve already mentioned some of the benefits of the Android or Apple App tablet in this post. Buy a £90 laptop and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be impressed with its performance, but a tablet with a set of compact mobile apps running educational, curriculum based software, could well be the answer to the problem of the, frankly, rather shonky IT infrastructure that exists in schools – particularly primary schools.

Issues that the tablet could address are:

The boot/ login time for school PCs. Especially over a wireless network, I’ve had to wait 10 minutes or more for a whole class to get into Windows on a cut-price PC, let alone logged onto the web or a piece of software. A tablet OS is generally far more streamlined.

No moving parts! Screens smudged with grubby fingerprints and snot can be fixed with a wet wipe. Lost laptop keys are more of a problem.

Storage. You could stow at least three of these to one netbook, let alone a laptop.

Portability. A child can carry a tablet PC around and use it sitting at a desk, standing up, or in the playground – a versatility not really available with a keyboard/ mouse setup.

Of course Elonex also make the more traditional eBook reader, with a black and white digital ink screen. However I ‘d stake good money on these not taking off in schools other than those that buy a handful for the library. The reason? Cost and convergence and flexibility. School pupils have a tremendous variety of work in their lives, more so than the vast majority of working adults. This is evident from the despair that I see on the faces of work experience pupils presented with a task that will occupy them for their whole day. Schoolchildren buzz from one lesson to the next task like the editing on an American drama series.

A tablet PC can be cheaper than an eBook reader and yet be far more versatile in the functions available, combining web access with educational software and electronic books and periodicals. The dedicated eBook reader may have the advantage of an electronic ink screen, but a black and white display is no good for modern textbooks with colour images and photos or children’s picturebooks no matter how sharp the contrast is.

It would be a sorry situation indeed if the libraries quickly adopted the eBook reader in a rush to appear cutting edge, only for these innovations to be cut down as backward thinking and limited in use in comparison to the functions offered by tablet PCs. Elonex themselves seem to acknowledge this with their own colour screen eBook readers, abandoning eInk in favour of technology that (at the risk of sounding snobbish) actually looks as though it’s from the present day.

Survival of the fittest

It’s become apparent to me that I need to keep a close eye on individual eReader manufacturers these days. Earlier this year Interread, the manufacturer of the Cool-er eReader went into liquidation. I began drafting this post in September and at that time the Cool-er website was still functioning without any mention of the company collapse, and although the eReaders themselves were marked ‘awaiting stock’, accessories could still be purchased.

The significance of this? eBooks are a new industry, and there are always casualties when a raft of new businesses come into play. However, if I bought a television from Scumbag Industries shortly before the plug is pulled and the senior staff abscond with the petty cash and all the copper wire they can carry, I am at least guaranteed a working television for the lifespan of the hardware. Likewise, an oven from Shoestring Plc will still be cooking my dinner long after the bailiffs are called in to head office.

However, shortly after Cool-er was frozen (sorry) requests for help began to circulate on the internet. eReaders like any modern computer hardware require firmware updates. In the case of Cool-er readers, these updates fixed crucial errors, such as devices that froze (in the “it’s stopped working, guv” sense) and devices that could not read the most up-to-date eBook formats. In the 1980s I could guarantee that my Scumbag Industries VHS VCR would continue to read every movie I bought until DVDs came along or until my pirate copy of The Exorcist unravelled and clogged up the works, but electronic media formats change far more quickly – hence the reason that you keep on having to update browser plugins such as Flash, or Adobe Reader. Now that Cool-er updates were not available, the devices could not read the latest books and became little more than £180 novelty props for tables with one short leg after less than a year.

This situation favours the companies with the staying power to offer long term support. The collapse of Interread also has more significance when related to the rise of tablet PCs as eBook readers. I’ll post an eReader vs Tablet article in short order but for now it is becoming apparent that devices such as the Cool-er will be in competition against the biggest names in the mobile phone, communications and PC industries – companies that can swallow the costs of manufacturing hardware and providing free software updates over a mobile or wireless network.

The current heavyweights in the eReader market have explicit ties with content distribution, Apple’s proprietory iBooks and app store, Sony’s Reader with Waterstones, and the Amazon Kindle. Without this level of cross-market support any newcomer will be at a disadvantage. This disadvantage is becoming more apparent as digital distribution creates a symbiotic relationship between the bookstore and the eReader.

The rise (and size) of the tablet PC

Samsung Galaxy and Apple iPad
The Samsung Galaxy and Apple iPad tablets

Warning: contains significant levels of speculation

.mp3 players may be synonymous with the iPod, but Apple will have a tougher fight if it wishes to dominate the tablet PC market in the same way.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the Netbook PC, led by the likes of Acer, was the new big thing in portable computers – cutting down the laptop to its base functions and the footprint of a sheet of A4 paper. The tablet PC in many ways reverses the trend in portable electronics – it takes the hardware template (in this case the latest generation of mobile phones) and enlarges it rather than makes it more compact.

The mobile phone template is very important to the development of the tablet as a viable piece of hardware, particularly in the field of software and software distribution. Anyone using a netbook will appreciate the problems of using PC software and operating systems on what (by necessity) is a low specification machine. Windows, internet browsers, office and entertainment software has had a very lazy development process where programmers and designers have over that last 2 decades got very much used to the phenomenon of computer hardware specifications growing exponentially in power. A desktop PC – only now losing it’s place as the standard in home computers – will quite happily run ever more bloated editions of Windows, and browsers padded out with sponsored plugins through sheer power. Run the same software on a slimmed-down netbook and all this bloatware will quickly reduce your computer’s performance to unacceptable levels.

Tablets, though, will use apps that are optimised to the hardware, rather than standard PC software – Android and Apple apps that are already the standard on the latest generation of mobile ‘phones. Apps that are purchased and installed via the connectivity of the tablet for relatively small cost. It could be predicted that this streamlining of portable computers is just another upgrade to the mobile phone that you already own. Indeed your phone provider will likely be providing the bandwidth to download software, games, music, video, newspapers and books, and using social networking apps.

Of course the industry is still taking baby steps and I’d like the see what develops over the next 12 months as more hardware enters the market. Already some consumer survey feedback is being published. Cooper Murphy Copywriters recently made a poll of 1034 UK iPad users on their habits and there are some interesting patterns emerging.

Although 43% of users use their iPad for more than 10 hours per week, the majority of the use is within the home, with 62% of owners saying that they rarely or never take their iPad with them when they leave home, even though (if only by a small margin) their device was their favoured medium for reading books and periodicals and gaming.

The ‘use on the move’ factor is obviously an important factors for developers, after all if the tablet is largely used at home then it will be competing against home PCs and modern television and media hubs (and of course books). Personally I would attribute the relatively low use outside of the home to one factor – that iPad owners are likely to already use an iPod or iPhone for their portable apps use. Considering the equally low level of personal laptop use outside of the home for non-work purposes it would seem that the tablet still has a market niche to carve for itself – that of an oversized mobile phone.

Screen size and multitasking are obvious benefits, and a tablet can display a more efficient touch-screen keyboard than a phone, so my prediction is that people will buy a tablet PC that compliments the phone that they use and synchronise the content of the accounts – for example an iPhone user with a dozen books on their iBooks app would synchronise their account with their iPad. They would read their book on their commute on their iPhone and continue it at home on their iPad.

As I mentioned earlier, it is not the convention for manufacturers to enlarge their hardware, and an iPad is pretty much a larger iPod, and Apple are clearly experimenting where the optimum size for a table PC is concerned. At 24cm by 19cm the iPad is larger than the newer Samsung Galaxy at 19cm by 12cm. Samsung appear to be taking the more portable route over expansive screen size, and indeed the one constant from all of the eBook project feedback so far is that an eBook reader should be pocket-sized.

Of course, all of this may be for nought if indeed the future is for consumers to have a phone and tablet with duplicated content, and given that mobile providers will almost certainly be offering tablet PC / smartphone combo packages as standard by next year I can see this as a distinct possibility, and with office apps appearing, it’s likely that businesses will prefer this setup over issuing laptops. All of these factors will contribute to the emerging eBooks market and business models and especially to the continued viability of standalone eBook readers such as the Sony Reader and Kindle.

Financial Times – “E-books fail the classroom test”

“E-books fail the classroom test”

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/e185bce2-b76a-11df-839a-00144feabdc0.html

www.ft.comArticle written by Paul Taylor, published 5/9/10, accessed 8/9/10

There are parallels and conflicts with our own pilot project. The article covers the responses of a single US college – The University of Virginia’s Darden school of business, and the pilot involved the use of the Kindle as an academic tool with 62 students over the course of an academic year.

But while students liked some of the Kindle’s features, such as the big screen and the ability to store hundreds of case studies and books on the device, most were unhappy overall with the user experience, says Michael Koenig, Darden’s director of MBA operations.

Although the device allowed students to highlight text and make notes, many complained that it was difficult to use these features and said the Kindle was more suitable for casual reading than for the classroom.

The article states that many students had abandoned the Kindle by the second semester. What I find interesting though is that

[when the students were] asked: “Would you recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming Darden MBA student? “A total of 75-80 per cent answered ‘no’,” says Mr Koenig. Kindle-using students were then asked: “Would you recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming MBA student as a personal reading device?” A total of 90-95 per cent said “yes”.

Research and course based reading was the main emphasis of the Darden pilot, whereas the pupils in our pilot groups are using theirs for leisure time reading, although there is nothing to stop the Tower Hamlets pupils purchasing a class reader or set text for their iPod. Their generally positive reaction to reading (for pleasure) on the iPods correlates to the positive responses of the Darden students and raises the question of whether secondary school pupils can objectively measure the benefits of an eReader in an academic sense without having put it to the test in a classroom or research setting. It also raises the question of whether an observer of my own project would equate enjoyment of reading for pleasure on an eReader to greater enjoyment of studying using an eReader.

The Darden students would have been engaged far more in independent study and research than any of our pilot pupils, for example, and would likely have demanded a higher standard of flexibility from their devices, particularly in relation to note taking and reference. The likes of the Kindle were designed purely for reading and purchasing books and will lack the tools and reference software that students would have been familiar with on their PCs, and it seems that the college ran into the same problem that I had, albeit from another direction, the problem that we are using an over-designed device for a purpose that it was not designed for.

“You must be highly engaged in the classroom every day,’’ he says, adding that the Kindle is “not flexible enough … It could be clunky. You can’t move between pages, documents, charts and graphs simply or easily enough compared to the paper alternatives.”

The other point raised was that the Darden students had their readers for a longer period of time and were using it on a daily basis as part of their lessons. Therefore they would encounter and report any difficulties much more quickly than the Tower Hamlets pupils, some of whom (from the exit surveys) were only using their eReaders once per week or less.

The objective of the pilot is currently to monitor the benefits of eBooks in encouraging reading and literacy – not specific benefits to the classroom. As a next step, though, I would consider making sure that the next pilot group make one of their purchases the text that they are studying for their English Literature GCSE, and that they use this as opposed to their printed copy.

You shall not pass (sorry)

Well, the iPods came back again today along with some feedback from the pupils. The one criticism of the project caught my eye as especially problematic to solve – the password problem. This was a pupil who had logged out of her account and was unable to sign back in.

Now, I never got a chance to talk to this pupil face to face, which is a shame because I’d have liked to have asked her “Why didn’t you email either me or your teacher to ask for help?” because I could have solved her problem in less than 5 minutes.

It’s the awkward issue of using a network intended for private use for, effectively, public applications. iTunes, Kindle, Overdrive – all of them are based around the concept that only one person can have access to your account, only one person can consume this media, because sharing doesn’t (legally) exist in the brave new world of digital media. If you don’t like this, you can go and cram that eReader… no, I’ll leave the rant there.

I’ve already stated that loosing a smartphone or similar device is almost the same as loosing the credit card that is linked to it. I’m doing something very irresponsible – I’m giving a credit card to a teenager. No, correction, I’m giving part of a school budget to a pupil. Daily Mail readers will surely be gnashing their teeth at the very thought.

The problem is that both iTunes and the Kindle store, no matter what restrictions you place on their usage on the device itself can both still be accessed – bypassing any restrictions placed on the device – on a PC. Therefore even though I’d locked out installing new apps and buying anything outside of iBooks and Kindle on the iPod itself, if they were armed with the login password pupils would have free reign to buy music, games, etc, etc via iTunes and pretty much anything in the world via Amazon.

With the individual cards carrying under £30 that I have been using, this would be an annoyance rather than a disaster, but would only require an absolute guarantee that costs would be recouped from the pupil, or similar sanctions enforced – although how this would fall within school discipline policy is another matter. It could simply mean continual monitoring of transactions (more and more time consuming the more pupils are involved – and of course neither iTunes or Kindle is particularly friendly in regard of bulk monitoring, although it can be done with a bit of lateral thinking) and confiscation of the eReader – although what happens if the eReader is classes as essential school equipment?

Of course, if more than a handful of pupils were kitted out with eReaders it becomes possible that a school would throw out the idea of individual accounts (the additional admin of a credit card for every pupil would be massive) and plump for a central departmental card. Containing possibly hundreds or thousands of pounds, if a more ‘rebellious’ student had full password access to this Amazon or iTunes account they would think that Christmas had come early.

It all leads back to a single solution – that someone needs to develop an educational account system for schools to apply to eReaders and allow them to access comercial reatailers – not just educational providers. A two-tier system that would allow pupils limited access to log into their accounts only on their portable device and only with their purchase restrictions in place.

Smile, it’s only a two tier education system

If I was 7 years old today my parents would no doubt have bought me my own laptop, just as around 25 years ago we got our first home computer, the Acorn Electron. I was always the last to be picked for football, but I knew how to code in BASIC and how to pilot a Cobra MKIII into a space station without a docking computer.

These thoughts came to mind as I watched the Dell adverts currently running on TV. Consisting of scenes of middle class school children being given permanent spinal trauma by heavy rucksacks of evil books, they are saved from a lifetime of resembling Quasimodo by replacing their schoolbooks and folders with a Dell laptop, all to the tune of “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.”

Now, Dell are obviously not daft when it comes to marketing. I’m certainly not suggesting that they are predicting wholesale the replacement of schoolbooks with ebooks, indeed it’s unlikely that any child in the majority of mainstream schools would have the opportunity to use a laptop in class (or indeed anywhere else in the school before they were happy slapped and their Inspiron hurled from the nearest window to test its durability, or just filled with internet pornography). Dell have clearly decided that with financial security at an all time low and with an imminent V.A.T rise, most consumers will be holding off expensive tech purchases for themselves, but the middle class pushy/ concerned parents market is always strong – something that makers of SUVs have certainly capitalised on in recent years.

I’ve realised that from the age of about 7 I effectively received home tutoring in IT thanks to being able to spend time on my Acorn. As basic as the machine was, I was still ahead of many of my peers in computer literacy, and in many respects still am. The digital divide is still alive and well in this country and, without centralised standards for ICT in schools, computer literacy will be dependent on family income and postcode lotteries for the forseeable future.

One down?

It was innevitable, and I’m surprised they all made it this far, but plucky iPod number 5 has gone missing in action. Presumably another pupil will be thinking that Christmas has come early when they find it in the school canteen.

This does raise some important issues regarding eBook readers.

  1. I’m going to have to remotely de-register that device from both iTunes and Amazon, as only a limited number of iPods (or indeed any eReaders and PCs) can be registered to a supplier or piece of reader software like Adobe Digital Editions at any one time. This of course is to prevent a group of friends sharing their digital purchaces over a shared account. If remote de-activation of a device is tricky or impossible than your digital libraries or playlists will slowly become inaccesible as you forget to decommision your scrapped laptop or PC, or leave your iPhone on the train.
  2. These things seem to be quite ‘sticky’ in terms of remembering login details. You need to treat the loss of a device like this as you would the loss of the credit card linked to the software installed on it.
  3. Let’s face it, if eBooks go mainstream in education, replacement costs for schools will be monumental.

Edit – Perhaps I should have written that insurance payments would be monumental? But costs are not just financial – the staff time in preparing an eBook reader for use can quickly rack up, including admin of the payment and user account, not to mention security tagging and hardware/ software settings.

By all accounts the iPod ‘just wasn’t there anymore when she looked around’. Perhaps I should have plumped for the A4 cast-iron look eReader after all?

Using technology, parrot fashion

Parrot fashion was how I (somehow) scraped a C in my French GCSE. I was never literate in the language, but the ability to string together a series of sounds in the correct order appeared to do the trick. Parrots have been doing this to get crackers for years, and I’m pretty good at ordering lunch or buying a metro ticket in Paris. On the other hand, entering into a discussion on masterpieces in the Louvre in any language other than English is impossible for me.

The moral of the story? A parrot fashion approach to literacy may allow you a level of survival, but life enrichment is probably out of the question.

Parrot fashion literacy extends to all forms of literacies, and IT literacy is arguably the most common second language in the world. Do you speak Mac? Do you speak PC? Do your conversations with your computers resemble a fat sunburnt English tourist trying to order a pint of lager in Spain when their only knowledge of Spanish is to speak English at twice the volume with a slight accent?

We all know the parrot fashion IT literates, they populate our workplaces and they are our relatives. The most easily recognisable are the ones who have to write down step by step guides to performing the most basic functions of technology, or continually refer to the manual in the same way that I would use a Japanese-English phrasebook when visiting Tokyo . In doing this they bypass entirely the structure of the vocabulary, and render any meaningful ‘dialogue’ impossible.

I must not sound arrogant, because they are at the same level of IT as I am with French, but then I’m not expected to speak French on a day-to-day basis. I don’t need to know the number of the French language helpdesk when at work. I’ve no fear of various private companies and ‘French Champions‘ forcing me to read all of my books and study materials in French.

My latest eBook pioneers are encountering this hurdle. I’d never rate myself as French Literate, but I’m encountering many young people who consider using technology parrot fashion to be ‘IT Literate’. Little things like automatically logging out of the accounts that I set up for them and logging in as themselves on Amazon and on the iPods is a major headache as I then have to track the pupils down and log them back in or else the either don’t buy books, or wind up unexpectedly buying from their own bank accounts. I warned them at the start ‘Don’t log out’, but hey, the Gremlins still got fed after midnight.

I honestly don’t blame them because we’re always told to log out of accounts. However their blind adherence to the rules and the list of what to do tells me that they don’t really understand :

  • The reasons why they log out
  • What happens to the software/ hardware access when they log out
  • The (sensible) reasons why I told them not to log out
  • The correlation between my log in details and the scheme’s finance setup

There has always been a one size fits all setup within IT – uniform blocking of access to software, admin rights and websites for example. From a security point of view this is fine and dandy, but from a literacy point of view it is the equivalent of banning regional accents, slang, poetry and creative writing. It also makes users dependant on the support network of IT technicians and helpdesks because if they stray from the rules they are unable to enter into the dialogue with their technology to work out what they need to do next.

To break out from this dependency people need to follow the advice of anyone who has mastered a language – immerse yourself in it. With IT this means forcing yourself to do your own troubleshooting, reading around the subject if necessary, and understanding that buttons marked ‘self-destruct’ only exist in military institutions and James Bond’s car.

If French was to be my national language then I’d make sure I could converse in it fluently. IT is becoming the language of the workplace, of education and research, of our leisure time, and increasingly of the public sector as face-to-face or telephone contact is stripped back. It’s no longer enough to just speak ‘tourist IT’, we need wit and conversation.

The voice of a generation? “I’d rather give up my kidney than my phone”

Link to Guardian blog

As a rule I frown on Daily Mail readers but I understand their twinges of outrage whenever I too get drawn into that warm zone of “what on Earth is wrong with you?” culture shock.

I don’t think that even one of the teens I’ve worked with so far on the eBooks project did not have a mobile phone, and many of them owned ‘smart phones’ – iPhone, Blackberry and other brands that function as multimedia hubs as much as phones.

phonezombies21

“We went to Wales for a week at half term to revise. There was no mobile, no TV, no broadband. We had to drive into town just to get a signal. It was really hard, knowing people were texting you, writing on your Wall, and you couldn’t respond. Loads of my friends said they’d just never do that.”

I’m not entirely sure whether this is an extreme case as I’ve watched my niece exhibiting almost identical behaviour. At one point when visiting our house I had to use the netbook that she had spent the previous few hours absorbed in planet Facebook (after her iPhone’s battery died and I ‘forgot’ that I had a charger that she could have used).

The expression on her face was one of complete loss and zombification, as though all life support and reason to exist had been torn from her. In fact she began to exhibit classic zombie-like behaviour, hovering around me with glassy eyes and a hideous vacant expression. When I did return the netbook she took it with a feral intensity, though without the groaning cries of “Brains, brains.

Of course, social death has always been worse than physical death and slow lingering pain for the younger generations, which is undoubtedly why they are prepared to endure alcohol poisoning in order to maintain the status of party animal. Admittedly I have trouble identifying with this state of mind as I consider enforced socialising to be an incarnation of hell similar to torture by sharp implements.

The irony is that the minds behind high tech social networking sites and mobile technology may well have a higher than average incidence of Aspergers or Autism. Whether there is a connection between autistic spectrum disorders, the preference for non-face-to-face socialising, and any long term side effects of this on the general population is something to be analysed by someone more qualified by myself, but I’ve linked the article below.

Wired. The Geek Syndrome

So WTF hs ths gt t do wth lbrrs?

Because reading books is not the same as reading websites or text messages. The first thing many adults say when I explain the eBooks project to them is “Oh, they already do all of that already” or “They know more about these than I do.“.

But is it beneficial to treat a Book as just another application on a phone? We tend to judge content by its medium (correctly or incorrectly) and the iBooks or Kindle app is just another square icon next to Peggle and YouTube and the SatNav. All good quality software but none of it is intended for use beyond a handful of minutes at a time before switching to another app, or game, or a text message and Facebook and then back again.

Although many new novels appear to be deliberately written in short punchy chapters that lend themselves to easy film adaptation, books are still about sustained attention spans, especially books that my test subjects would be studying for their GCSEs.

  • IT follows concepts of ‘convergence’ – devices that combine as many functions as possible. Reading books and studying becomes just another facet of a smartphone or tablet and it becomes more difficult to dedicate time specifically to one task. The easily distracted would do well to lock out the web browser.
  • Using single function eReaders, such as the Sony Reader, potentially has no benefit over a printed book aside from having access to more than one text. An advantage of web enabled eReaders, particularly in education, is the potential to simultaneously link to learning resources on the school VLE or via library portals.
  • There is always a chance that while writing on the Facebook wall, and in the lull between messaging, a couple of paragraphs of a book may be consumed.
  • The concept of multimedia devices centres on interaction, and the act of consuming a flow of new information while not really absorbing any of it for fear of being too ‘full’ for the next helping. The act of studying a book is to (God forbid) consuming the same text over and over, picking out new details and new layers of information. This is at odds even to the most basic eReader function of storing hundreds of books, and certainly at odds with the desire to consume gossip and information from ever digital source in the world.

The moral of the story? I’m not sure. Technology is the future, but it can be diametrically opposed to our own values. We need to have the confidence to declare that we still know how best to read books, and just because social networking and iPhones are popular now, it doesn’t mean that we must translate everything over to them for the sake of fashion and business models.

eBooks project summary

THSLS logo for the ebooks project“You’re giving iPods to schoolkids?” was the reaction that I was getting used to. Admittedly it sounds to most people like a good way to lose just over £1000 and enrich the local branch of CEX.

My other fear was that we’d be asked exactly why we were putting money into this project. Perhaps it was just paranoia on my part in the midst of financial meltdown, moats and duck houses, and a general witchhunt in the public sector.

But we’d all had enough of the general perception of librarian = luddite.

The project aim was simple – objectively gather evidence of how young people react to reading electronic books. Using test groups of 10 pupils at a time we’d note their reading habits, different levels of literacy and their (perceived) computer literacy and exposure at home to technology.

Then they’d each get an eReader, a small but reasonable book budget, and a month or so of time to read. At the end of the trial period they answer a probing questionairre about the experience, we have a chat with them, and we get some real feedback that actually counts for something – how easy did they find chosing their books for example, and did their reading patterns change?

“Do you work for Apple?” was the rather intuitive question that I was asked by my first group of guinea pigs. If I’d been bag searched at Mile End tube it would look as though I’d just mugged Steve Jobs.

I’m far from being an Apple fanboy, but the iPod Touch was about the only e-reader on the market at the time that fitted the bill. We’d road-tested Sony’s Reader and despite it’s Muji stylings the technology looked like something that Nintendo left out of the original Gameboy. I did briefly consider the benefits of it putting off any potential mugger (and it was heavy enough to be used as a club), but I knew that anyone under the age of eighteen would discard it with contempt after finding that it didn’t have a touchscreen.

At this point the UK Kindle release was uncertian and another part of the brief was to address the ‘digital divide’. At no point would the pupils have to use a PC to download books. The teachers who asked why they couldn’t use the school computers to download books had clearly never wasted time trying to get Adobe Digital Editions working properly over a corporate network (even our public libraries lending eBooks can’t manage this small miracle, thank you DRM).

So the eReader had to be WiFi enabled so that books could be downloaded via a public hotspot. This also removed the issue of pupils downloading pirated books via torrent sites, at least onto my machines – I won’t name the school that thought it was a good idea to trust it’s students to supply ‘free’ books for it’s VLE, but there’s no free lunches with the next generation of DEB inspired ambulance chasers lawyers on the prowl. You never know when they’ll make the jump from PrOn and music to eBooks.

So the only option was the, admitedly very sexy, iPod touch. It was pocket sized, had several eBook apps, including Kindle with the Amazon catalogue behind it, the new iBooks app (rushed out for the iPad launch but they seem to have ironed the bugs out now) some very good comic book apps, and I could lock the access to iTunes and the app store to stop my budget going to Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Pop-cap games.

Two weeks later I would find myself being accused of money laundering and fraud by a finance company but I’ll save that for another post.