Thursday, September 06, 2007

Form Factor

Yesterday I finally got around to purchasing Acrobat 8 Pro. Staff on my campus can get this through the Webstore, with purchase through department at a very good price of $40 and purchase by individuals at a price of $137 (this is still much cheaper than the list at the Adobe site). It turns out that the product comes bundled with another Adobe offering, Adobe Lifetime Designer, which is a form builder tool. It makes forms within PDF files. This was immediately intriguing to me. As regular readers will note, I’ve been fascinated with the possibility of instructors collecting data from their students and then repurposing for instructional use. For example, this post on the future of Learning Management Systems has a section specifically on data ingest and data manipulation.

Also, I’ve had some experience building dialogic presentation and self-test quizzes inside an Excel workbook, for example here and a different one here. The students really liked those (they give a good sense of how I think basic economic theory should be taught) so on content fine. But I had always wanted to collect the student responses and have those compiled into a single file. (There is some randomization in each spreadsheet based on the demographic info the students supply, so the answers will differ across students, even if they each got all of them correct.) The last time I taught I tried to do that compilation with Excel. It was a disaster. The linking required was quite unreliable. (And maybe there was fault with the person doing the linking. That would be me.) So I’ve had it in the back of my mind since then to find another way to achieve that data collection end.

I also did some work on the reverse problem. If you have a table of responses from a survey, with each row a response for a particular individual and each column a response to a particular question, can you find a convenient way to display the individual responses back inside the form in which the survey was rendered? It is hard to read the individual data in the table – much easier to read within the form. I built this spreadsheet as an example, not a systematic solution.

Given that background, I was like a kid with a new toy as I played with Acrobat Pro and Lifetime Designer. I started in on the tutorial, but after 5 or 10 minutes of that I lost patience and tried to build my own form from there. It’s always refreshing to consider how one learns to use new software. I had never tried building forms in PDF files before. I was extremely impatient at first because I didn’t know how to get stuff done and where I could make some progress I made tons of mistakes in design – the first looked very ugly. But in the “learning by futzing” manner that I favor to get familiarity with an application (my approach has to be similar if not identical to Ericcson’s effortful study) I go through a variety of creations of my own design and negotiate that with my understanding of the software and the underlying capability of the software (those are not the same but it would be nice if they converge eventually). I can’t learn software without those creations. Further, my personal sense of competence is wrapped up in being able to make something with the software that gets over my personally set bar – not bad, pretty decent, functional if not beautiful.

The first few didn’t make it. This is the fourth one I made, the first that used Tables in the layout. To view it you need version 8 or later of Acrobat or Acrobat Reader, not some other PDF viewer. While some readers of this blog might prefer non-proprietary solutions, my own view is that the functionality I’m after is pretty hard to deliver in a clean way and since Acrobat Reader is freely available, this works fine. Also, I want to make a point of comparing this solution to other possible ways of gathering the data. For that purpose it would help if the reader took a look, so the reader has some understanding for why I’m high on this approach.

Let’s consider the form first from the point of view of someone filling it out. The look is fairly clean (and with some more experience in design it could be even cleaner). The main table is 4 by 3 with a pull down menu in each cell. Those work reasonably well; when I did the analogous thing in Excel sometimes the pull downs would be “sticky.” I probably should have increased the column width since the longest response runs over, but otherwise it looks ok.

I believe these forms have to be one page and no longer. (I need to verify that.) So it is useful to put a lot of response fields in a small amount of space. This also has the benefit of convincing the person completing the form that there isn’t too much work to be done. For this particular survey, the person fills out the table, perhaps adds some comments in the paragraph box, puts in some identity information and that’s it.

The key feature is the Submit by Email button and I’m going to belabor the discussion of it because, as it turns out, using email is not the critical part though it is nice how it can integrate with the user’s email tool, if that is desired. What is critical, however, is that with that button and only Acrobat Reader, not the full Acrobat, the user can save the form with the data the user supplied filled in. This is most obvious if after clicking on the Submit by Email button the user selects the second option (Internet Email) or the third option (Other) and then clicks the button in step 1 that allows the user to save the pdf file. One can then transmit that saved pdf to the collector of the data in any manner conceivable – it doesn’t have to be by email. But for obvious reasons, email is the least common denominator and they do have a nice integration with it.

From the perspective of the survey creator it is really a snap to get those responses into the data file. If they are submitted as email attachments, double clicking on the attachment is all that is needed. But it is also possible to bring in other completed surveys simply by navigating to the folder where those surveys are located and then selecting them. Here is the view of the survey designer who has collected some data. In this case there are three entries. The first is from “Mo Better,” a fictitious character I used when I completed the form myself. The second and the third are identical, actually submitted by my colleague Norma Scagnoli. In this case I deliberately wanted to see if it would accept the ingest from the same file more than once. There is the answer.

With that basic familiarity for how it works, let’s consider the benefits of the approach. The miniscule number of instructors who design their own databases and make Web forms to collect data will find nothing new here. But for the rest, this approach should be empowering. Heretofore these instructors had to rely on programmers to make those Web forms. Now they can dispense with the Web form altogether and build the PDF form themselves.

Learning Management Systems have some ability to collect this sort of data via the survey tool. I could do something analogous in our LMS but then I wouldn’t have the ability to use pull down menus, I’d have to use radio buttons instead, and I couldn’t deliver the survey as a single table. I’d need 12 separate multiple choice questions to gather the data. Apart from the convenience in presentation I mentioned earlier, by delivering it as separate questions the person completing the survey might not see the connections across questions that become transparent in the table view. Further, at least with the WebCT Vista survey tool, which is the one I’m most familiar with, horizontal space is eaten up by the place that records whether questions have been completed and one saves the response on a question by question basis so the form is filled with buttons (if the entire survey is delivered as a single scroll), so the look is clunky not clean.

Further, from the instructors viewpoint looking at the collected data, one can look at the report as a whole and one can view the individual’s response, but that appears as a row of data, it is not visible back in the form that the student completed. The LMS approach is clearly more secure and so I would not use with grade related information. Further, the LMS approach is likely time saving for the instructor in high enrollment courses. But in smaller classes, I’d likely favor using the Adobe tools.

Also, in case it isn’t obvious, by getting away from the LMS as the distribution vehicle, one doesn’t have to restrict the population for a survey to a class roster. It can be quite other things. And, of course, it can be used in many other contexts, among the most obvious being IT training activities where paper surveys are currently administered at the end. Student groups who want to administer surveys might find it a real boon, as might committees, research groups, and perhaps even bloggers who’d like their readers to answer specific questions. (I’m not sure of that last one, but you can dream, can’t you?)

I think this is worth a try and I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who does.

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