Sprinting to embed assessments and learning objectives with MIT, Lumen Learning, and OpenAssessment

Shows a quiz in a textbook page too small to see

Idea: Wouldn’t it be cool to have a really easy way to embed interactive assessments in textbooks, epubs, and courses?

People: The folks I have just been meeting with thought so and we got together to explore a few prototypes. I have been in Salt Lake City working in the Marriott Library at University of Utah, hosted by David Wiley of Lumen Learning, and joined by Brandon Muramatsu and Cole Shaw of MIT’s Office of Education Innovation and Technology (OEIT), Justin Ball and colleague James from Atomic Jolt consulting, and Tom Woodward of OERPUB via Daft Labs.

Scenario: The following scenario sets up our first exploration. Lumen Learning is adapting a biology textbook from Open Stax College. They are creating courseware for college faculty that takes each section and adds interactive, formative assessments, and discussions and analytics and other cool stuff. They are creating completely open banks of questions to go along with the books and these will live at openassessments.org. Open Assessments is building a quiz player that works like a youtube video player. You find a quiz you like and use a simple embed code to include that anywhere you want.

Exploration: So what we wanted to explore was including the ability to find and add a quiz from Open Assessments in the OERPUB editor. So, imagine you are creating a textbook section, or a learning activity for college biology and you have just written the section on parts of the cell, and you want to help students retain what they have learned. So you click on the ‘quiz’ button in the editor, and search for quizzes about cells, preview the quiz, and pop it in. This is what we put together yesterday. Keep in mind this is code written quickly to see how to do this kind of thing while we had all the experts together. It isn’t polished and beautiful. But the impressive thing is that we got this done in a couple of hours. The following screen shots show what we did.

After clicking on the quiz widget in the editor, search
for “cells”.

The search uses openassessments.org’s API,
and returns one result. Click on “select” to preview it.
Preview the assessment to make sure it is what you want. The
preview is live, so you can check the answers and all the
questions in the quiz.

The quiz is embedded in the content and will play in the editor
and also in the textbook as long as there is an internet
connection. The quiz is being played by openassessments.org.
The actual quiz is stored as a qti file at openassessments.

Technical notes and links:

Upcoming posts

Once upon a time textbooks were hard to create …

My Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow colleague, Arthur Atwell, sent an intriguing challenge out to our gang of fellows. The challenge was to come up with a pitch for our projects that follows the Pixar style of pitch, as described in Daniel Pink’s book, To Sell is Human (see full reference at the bottom of the blog entry). The beauty of the style is that it really emphasizes story, which of course is at the heart of movies, and really is at the heart of all human endeavor. But it isn’t always easy to articulate the importance and vision of a technical software project. At least not for those of us who regularly geek out and focus deeply on technical things.

The pixar style has the following components:

Once upon a time, …
Every day, …
One day …
Because of that, …
Because of that, …

Until finally…

So here goes. Here is my story of the vision behind the work I have done as a Shuttleworth Fellow. 

OERPUB Movie-Pitch

Once upon a time, textbooks were hard to create, expensive to buy, and out of date within a short time.

Every day, college students paid $150 for an algebra book containing information that is hundreds of years old. High school students learned from ten year old Biology textbooks, authors struggled to make everything look good and cursed while they tried to edit math.  Nobody could use the content in the textbooks to create interactive flashcards or quizzes.

One day we created a textbook editor that is easy to use and saves books to github (a place for freely storing books and software). We made sure the hard stuff, like editing mathematics, formatting the books, and delivering them to students was actually easy. And we made sure that things like definitions and homework problems were easy to reuse.

Because of that, authors can collaborate to build textbooks, deliver them to students online, on mobile devices or in print. They can make updates immediately, and share textbooks with others for translation and adaptation. Software developers can create interactive flashcards and study tools that use the content from the textbooks.

Because of that, textbooks are a pleasure to create, cheap or free to buy, always up to date, and part of a much more interactive and engaging experience.

Until finally we’ve transformed textbooks into true engines of learning.

Reference: Pink, Daniel H (2013-02-07). To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Persuading, Convincing, and Influencing Others (pp. 172-173). Canongate Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Recent talks about creating, editing, and remixing textbooks with the OERPUB editor

Normally I would create a post after each talk, but I got behind so I am going to link in my talks from “The New Publishing” W3C workshop, Books in Browsers, and Open Ed, all in fall/winter 2013. 

First up in September was the W3C Workshop, The New Publishing and the Open Web Platform. The title for my paper is practically its own abstract, “Semantic HTML5 is the Future of Textbook Publishing and Non-technical Authors Can Participate using Customized Web Editors that Support Accessible Authoring“.  In the paper, I argue that we should be writing textbooks in HTML5 using a clean, open, and semantic format, so that books can be read online, on the web, and in print, and more importantly are easy to keep up to date, combine, translate, and make accessible to learners with disabilities.

Next up in October was Books in Browsers,
My talk, “Textbooks in Browsers: An Editor for Creating, Adapting, and Sharing“, covered our open-source editor for textbook authoring that lets authors create, adapt, and remix textbooks that display well in the browser, on mobile devices, and in print. Since the editor itself runs in a browser, and the book can be read on your browser, it was a perfect fit for the conference. The slides (linked above) show how the editor supports mathematics, accessible images and tables, and structured features like definitions and exercises, using a constrained subset of HTML5. At the end, the slides give links to use the editor and for developers to get involved. You can see me giving the talk, here (minute 8:40 to 28:17). My favorite tweet during the talk: “Github-Bookeditor!? Yes, it’s a thing. A very awesome idea brought to life by @oerpub #bib13 oerpub.org/tools/”

In November, I spoke at Open Ed 13, on “Write to share; Real remix realized”. Remix is the gold-standard of OER effectiveness, but technical barriers have made it hard to do, even when author-educators want to share their content and reuse and adapt high quality open resources. OERPUB’s open-source editor solves this problem by making it easy for authors to create rich open textbooks that can be remixed and shared. The editor supports editing mathematics, embedding multimedia (coming soon), and is supportive of creating content that is accessible to learners with special needs. I reported on Adrian Garcia’s research on best practices for motivating author-educators to create semantically rich OER that is easy to share and remix. He found that K-12 teachers were especially interested in content that will work for learners wtih disabilities. I also reported on our textbook creation sprint in South African with St. John’s College teachers (see more in this blog entry). We got great feedback from the teacher, enthusiastic support for the collaboration and drag and drop features, and plans for custom Physics and Chemistry textbooks for 11th and 12th grades coming out over the next year. They are using Siyavula textbooks, Open Stax College textbooks, and their own materials. ( You can see the video of me giving the Open Ed talk here).

Video plugin prototype (from last year) and upcoming implementation plans

Apparently, I never blogged about the prototype video plugin that two OERPUB interns created for the Aloha-Editor last year. We are getting ready to add multimedia capability to the github-bookeditor and so I was looking for that blog entry without success. So better late than never, here is a link to see how the prototype worked.

the editor with the video chooser dialog open
Screen capture from a screencast of the video plugin in action.
Click on the image to run a video of the process, or click here

I like how the prototype lets authors search for videos and pick them from a list that includes a thumbnail and description. There is always a URL backup, but the search means that authors don’t have to leave and find the video and cut and paste in a link.

The student developer interns, Max Grossman, and Gbenga Badipe, worked together to create this prototype and explored the possibilities using the Youtube, Vimeo, and Slideshare APIs. They have long since graduated and started computer science careers, but their work lives on.

We are planning to add a plugin soon to the editor so that authors can include video and slides. We will be working with our friends in the accessibility community to make sure that we make it easy for authors to include information about audio and transcripts so learners find content appropriate to their needs. More coming on this topic.

More about the Textbook Editor

In my last post I talked about a textbook sprint with teachers in South Africa, remixing their own content with Siyavula and Connexions textbooks. The teachers worked with our textbook editor that automatically creates EPUBs (for mobile viewing), saves textbooks to github for sharing and repurposing, and supports mathematics and textbook features like notes, examples, equations, and homework problems.

Now I am including some links in case you would like to play with the editor, work with the source code, and see the user interface designs we are working toward.

  • Textbook Editor Demo (Chrome only): Brand new! Pre-Alpha! Some nifty features are hard to find, but we have UI designs to fix that coming up. You must have a github account and log in with your credentials. They get saved in a cookie locally in your browser and passed to Github. OAuth is also supported, and should work in a couple days.  You won’t be able to save your edits on the demo book since you don’t have permissions. Use the chrome browser for now until we get bugs worked out for other modern browsers.
  • Code for the editor on github. Feel free to fork the code and start developing. We even have a bunch of bugs you could work on. : – )
  • Latest designs we are working toward

Textbook writing sprint with K12 teachers in South Africa

Although I have much more to share about this sprint and what we learned, I wanted to let people know about an exciting first outing of OERPUB’s textbook editor.

Table of contents, and book section from the sprint
Screenshot of the editor (books stored in github)

In August, Siyavula, OERPUB, and St. Johns College K-12 college preparatory school collaborated on a textbook sprint to develop custom textbooks for Physics and Chemistry to serve in 11th and 12th grades. Six teachers, three in physics and three in chemistry, participated. We started with source books from Siyavula and OpenStaxCollege. The teachers also brought their own source materials. We use the brand new (pre-alpha) version of the textbook editor, based on the github-book editor started by Phil Schatz of Connexions. We started with all the source books preloaded, and with a skeleton book loaded with curriculum guidelines.

Teachers used the editor to edit from scratch and to copy modules (chapters and sections) from the source books, and to copy smaller parts like images or worked examples from the source books. We had the developer team present to fix bugs as they were encountered and to design features as needs arose. A fair number of issues were found (low load times and problems with collaborative editing of the table of contents), which we are addressing now. Despite that, the group made significant progress on chapters in the books and more importantly were convinced that we have finally hit upon the right solution for authoring and remixing textbooks. The team is now putting better bug fixes in place and the authors will return to work on the books soon. They plan to use the Physics textbook in January. Siyavula will create PDF’s for the books using a variation on their standard PDF generation.

Next Steps from the Accessibility Sprint

A lot of why we got folks together for a sprint on accessibility when creating and using web-based scholarly and educational materials was to make sure that the different participants got to know each other, had a good feel for the kinds of expertise and tools that each organization (see list below) specializes in, and could put faces to names. I think we accomplished those goals, and we also made some concrete plans for next steps. We spent the third half-day of the sprint looking at next steps for some realizable opportunities arising from the sprint although some teams kept coding (see note below).

In case you missed my earlier posts on this sprint, here are some quick links to those and links to other posts about the sprint. one from Adrian Garcia, UI intern with OERPUB):

A Service Using MathJax and ChromeVox to generate MathML, SVG, and text-descriptions of math.

Benetech is eager to move forward with support for more accessible mathematics in a tangible way, because this fits into an existing project. So a group of us spent the last morning of the sprint determining which of our ideas and prototypes around accessible mathematics could be implemented relatively quickly and efficiently. The group working on server-side mathjax for taking MathML and producing images and descriptive text for voicing math, had created a prototype quickly. Making it really work could be done fairly straight-forwardly, by building on the work of people at the sprint. It would need the following:

  • The prototype server-side code that builds on Phil Schatz’ code.
  • MathJax running server-side via PhantomJS.
  • ChromeVox’s mathematics description generation made into a separate service called by the code and running via PhantomJS.

Why building this server-side tool would be immediately useful

  • It could make EPUB books with mathematics accessible for learners using screen readers. EPUB3 calls for supporting MathML directly, but support for that is not available in most readers. Currently, publishers must produce images instead, which aren’t helpful for visually-impaired scholars and learners. With this server-side component, publishers can use MathML as the source, and deliver images with descriptions for reading the math aloud.
  • Pre-converting mathematics allows publishers more control over the generated mathematics and could make the reading experience faster for learners. Connexions, for instance, would like to ensure that their EPUBs and PDFs have mathematics that looks the same across devices. They would like to be able to generate both using MathJax.

Benetech, MathJax, and ChromeVox are working together to move this project forward. If you would like to help or keep up with the progess, please email Anh Bui, anhb at benetech.org, to be added to the mailing list.

Aside about sprint lengths

A few of the teams building prototypes really wanted to continue their work and kept coding. I am sure they would have used at least a full day more coding. My friend Adam Hyde always recommends a week-long sprint. He organizes book sprints where a group writes a book in a week. Last summer, my team participated in a coding sprint with Adam’s Booktype project and about five other organizations. That sprint lasted a week. It was fabulous. We picked the editor that we based ours on, determined what approach we would take for mathematics editing, and explored options for real-time collaboration. You can read about it in earlier blog posts on that sprint.)  

Participating organizations at the accessibility sprint

This sprint was supported by generous funding and in-kind support from