Friday, October 15, 2010

Educational Content To Be Read On the Screen - Some Experiments

I spend a fair amount of time reading stuff on the screen, and now I'm not talking about my iPad, which I view as a dedicated reader. I mean on a desktop computer. There are reading issues based on the quality of writing. I remain sensitive to those and react strongly if the writing is opaque or ideas are poorly expressed. There are also reading issues based on how the writing is displayed. In the main I've become insensitive to those issues, in part because I've made it a habit to readjust the view so it is appealing to me, usually fairly large font so there is no eye strain. But others may stay with the default and then find the writing display difficult. I've been made more acutely aware of this issue recently, as a colleague of mine on another campus complained about how some of my content on my site, The Economics Metaphor renders, such as this essay entitled What If Analysis. In particular, he reported that in online reading of dense stuff content-wise, not only should there be large font but in addition the content should be rendered in narrow columns.

I took the criticism to heart and have been playing with alternative ways of addressing the critique. On thing I tried (and then I've repeated the experiment several times) is to record an aloud reading of the writing so that one can listen online in addition to or in lieu of reading the content. I can't say that I'm very good at reading aloud or that my writing is designed to be read that way. Some of my sentences are fairly intricate and on occasion I have parenthetic comments that read ok but stray from the original thought so are a bit hard to follow on listening. Also, the pace varies in a way that pleased me as a writer but might not work very well for a listener. This is the first of such readings, for my essay on Retail Markets. Since I chunked that essay into 8 separate bits, I recorded a clip for each bit. It is interesting how the site where the audio is housed renders that content. (Follow the link at the post to the site.)

I would give myself a "B-" for that reading. There are stumbles at various points. And, particularly when reading questions, the voice intonation doesn't sound real to me. But it certainly is audible and perhaps of some value. Interestingly for me, I wasn't discouraged by that experience. I've done more readings since.

Part of that is simply having a lot of time on my hands at present, so there is freedom to try things. Another part is thinking about the usefulness of such read content. For international students, in particular, but for other students as well, the reading aloud may help the students penetrate the writing. And it occurred to me that the podcasts could be listened to away from the computer, which might encourage the students to access the content more. This latter thought started me on thinking about doing this for other than my econ content.

So I began to fiddle with making a Best of Lanny On Learning Technology archive, starting with early posts that were shorter. I did an aloud reading for a few of those and I posted a cleaned up (typos removed, some other edits) pdf version of the original posts as well. Not having posted pdfs before to, I was interest to see how many different ways it rendered the content. Also, it matters which sort of file is posted first if multiple files are ultimately posted under the same heading. When an mp3 is posted first, it assumes the content is primarily audio and puts a player into the page. When it is a pdf, it assumes the content is primarily a book. It then gives several different forms for the content to be read. For book length stuff (my own book, Guessing Games is in temporary hibernation but wheels are spinning in my brain now about how I might promote it online when I get back to it) this is very attractive indeed. What did occur to me immediately in seeing how the content renders online, is that one needn't narrow the column. There is nothing else on the screen to make for a visual distraction. However, I'd really like to query others on this point. As I said at the outset of this post, I'm not really sensitive to the display issues.

Since I've also been posting a fair amount of content to Google Docs as of late, I tried that as an alternative for the pdfs. It has one distinct advantage over the hosting, but then is less general in other respect. The advantage is that the default rendering of the document is in pretty large font. At the site, the default rendering is to put a full page on the screen, but that makes font small enough to be unreadable (at least for me). It also occurred to me that one could link to this online document via capture of an enticing paragraph using Kwout. I've done this for an essay I just finished called the Economics of Time. I'm kind of pleased with this approach, but it is for others to determine whether it is effective. The aloud reading of this essay is in a separate post, though it would not e hard to have the Kwout cutout and the embed of the aloud reading in the same post. What is a harder is to have an embed of the pdf document and the aloud reading in the same post. One can use an iframe for this purpose, but that would limit how much the pdf font can be enlarged in the viewing, so I've not opted for this approach. If someone wants to listen and read along at the same time, then two tabs of the browser must be open at the same time to achieve this result or the document needs to be printed out. I don't believe that having two tabs open is a big deal, but again, users need to determine that.

Before closing, let me pose a different question. Would having students do such readings of their own writing be a valuable exercise for them? Technology-wise this is not that hard, so the question is about the learning benefits. I may try that when I teach next. We'll see.

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