Monthly Archives: September 2011

Keep an open mind on the MOOC

Retro poster with candy red stripes, and words "Surprise inside", "Guess what's inside?"Yesterday I was sitting in the Ridgeway School staff room scanning summaries of blog posts and other excreta shared by participants in the #change11 Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). While my daughter was on a school visit I was giving the daily outpourings from MOOC participants a quick scan. I was doing this on my mobile phone.

A few of the posts touched on the topic for the first week of the course: Mobile Learning at the Open University of Malaysia. When I saw this topic was the opening salvo in a 35 week course I feigned indifference.

Yet, there I was engaging in mobile learning (of sorts). The irony wasn’t lost on me. It serves as a reminder to keep an open mind, and acknowledge that sometimes the best learning occurs when it doesn’t fit with pre-conceived ideas of what I think is relevant.

Deciding what to follow and how to get the most out of the course is a challenge I’m not the only one grappling with. A tenet of the MOOC is people will engage in learning most relevant to them – this means the course is a unique experience for everyone. Some will be transitory some will stay to the end.

Indeed, there isn’t actually a core list of participants. Who is joining is only revealed through action: as people write or share something. The majority of content is shared through blogs, twitter or other online tools. This means any content generated or connections made by participants are necessarily left behind when the course ends. This contrasts with many online courses where the teaching environment is separated from the rest of each student’s online world.

The website serves as a meeting place of sorts. Contents include a repository of generated by participants and lecturers, and discussion. The three course facilitators seek to coral things, but the sense making is left up to participants. Each weekday an email arrives bursting to the seams with new posts, discussion topics, comments, links and more. There are already other gathering places, such as a Facebook page and Diigo group.

Each week the facilitators have invited a guest to share their knowledge on a specific topic. As these are on at decidedly unfavourable time of 4am, I doubt I’ll make it to many sessions. No offence to the facilitators, but there are not many people I’d get up that early for.

Already there is a huge volume of material being generated. I’m not even pretending I can keep up. If you asked how I’m filtering what is relevant or interesting to me, I couldn’t easily put it in words. There a few layers to my filtering.

I’m starting the course because I want to extend my knowledge of approaches to shared learning outside the classroom. This relates to the work I’m engaged in supporting people to catalyse social change working inside and outside formal organisations.

A lasting residue of the course I’m hoping for is to connect with others with similar interests, preferably in the same or an adjacent time zone. This is something I’ll have a go at bringing to the surface as the course unrolls.

Another part of my filtering is pretty superficial: if the heading grabs, I’m much more likely to dig deeper. If I see the title reflections on week 2 or something similarly prosaic, I’ll read no further. Sure, writing a catchy title takes time, but in a crowded space it makes sense. I admit I’m still learning how to write the killer title so don’t have the perfect recipe. All I can is, “c’mon people, is that the best you can do?”

Now that I’m back at my desk, I might just dig into Zoraini Wati Abas’ resources on Mobile Learning at Open University Malaysia. It might just be relevant.

Photo credit:origamidon

Why I didn’t get an iPad

Sceenshot of VoiceOver accessibility features on Apple's iPadAfter I walked out of a local, specialist Apple retailer I didn’t think it was worth looking into purchasing an iPad. Unfortunately the staff member was spectacularly unsuccessful at showing me the various accessibility features of the shiny tablet computer.

I was despondent. Having been cut-off from reading papers, websites, books and more as a result of recently acquired sight impairment, I had a hunch the iPad might be ideal. Perhaps I could read or listen to books in bed, and use it for accessing documents from anywhere.

I left the store thinking the iPad is totally unsuitable for the visually challenged.

Walking down Dixon Street, I thought this couldn’t really be the case. Later in the day I finally did some research. I was relieved to learn that not only does the iPad have built-in accessibility features, but there are many apps as well. I found a slew of helpful articles (see the short resource list below).

My generous sister loaned me her iPad to test for a few weeks. “No rush to get it back. Go ahead, use my credit card account to buy apps if you want.” I didn’t need any more encouragement to begin a hanbs-on trial. Could Apple’s tablet help with my quest to actually read for pleasure? I’m setting out my opinions in this mini-review.

Initial impressions

As with virtually every Apple device, the iPad is a helluva classy gadget. Sleek and shiny, smooth edges, the pinnacle of design goodness. I felt instant techno lust at first sight.

After switching it on, I was drawn to the YouTube button and ended up lounging around watching music videos. The sound was good, images clear. Swooshing and swishing to change screens was like magic. At first glance everything seemed to work.

Turning to the Accessibility options in the Settings menu things started to come unstuck.

For starters, I couldn’t easily find help associated with the accessibility features. I’ve got used to not having to do old fashioned things like looking at the manual or searching the support website. Forgive me for thinking everything should be at my fingertips.

Using the various zoom features may work on some Apps, but I didn’t find zooming terribly helpful when using the Safari web browser. When I enlarged text to a size that I could easily read, it didn’t reflow on the page. To read an entire article involved both horizontal and vertical scrolling.

Getting the VoiceOver text-to-voice working when I wanted it took a fair amount of experimentation. If you have it switched on permanently, then the names of Apps and navigation menus are announced as well as the substance of the screen. This is good for some but I can see enough not to need this. Eventually I found a way of tapping three times, or was it tapping three fingers, to turn on the text-to-voice function on demand.

When reading web pages the text-to-speech function can be fairly clumsy. For instance, as well as reading main body of an article, the text of ads or side boxes is also announced. This interrupts the flow. It’s an irritation, albeit minor, that I know would annoy me if it was repeated on every article I listened to.

There were other minor niggles and some confution. Even though I increased the font setting to a larger one, this does not extend to labels on the App screens nor the status bar. I never did find the web rotor and now I’ve had a look at a downloaded copy the manual, I’m struggling to comprehend exactly how I might have found it useful.

When I actually sat down to read, I found it hard to avoid glare from light sources. Getting the device in a position I could both see and was comfortable to hold wasn’t always easy.

Specialist accessibility apps

Screenshot of Speak it app for iPadOf course, there are Apps for just about anything you could imagine a portable computer doing. When I tried the iPad I only wanted to do the absolute basics so I didn’t try many fun, frivolous or seriously creative apps.

Using Speak it! showed a chink in the iPad armour. I really liked what the advertising offered but I found the reality diverged somewhat (or perhaps how I perceived how Speak it! could be used). It was pretty easy to type in a word, sentence or longer, then have this text read aloud (and saved if I wanted). But I couldn’t find a way of pasting text from other applications nor even learn if this was possible. Nowhere could I see a way of finding help, and some of the options were greyed out indicating they were not available to me. It was definitely not intuitive and I gave up trying to get it working.

I tried WebReader as I sought to find a way to overcome the limitations I found with the iOS version of Safari. The voices were more personable than the default iPad ones and there were some other nifty features. However, when listening to articles the same sorts of extraneous material was included much as I found with Safari. As it was a stand-alone app, there was no obvious way of my website bookmarks list (such as importing my Xmarks list).

As I wanted to break free of the proprietary ebook formats and access ePub books I tried vBookz. It comes with a built in text-to-speech function that is activated at the click of a button. Some basic tweaking of the voice settings are available, which is convenient. It was good to have dozens of classic books preloaded, but as I’ve written elsewhere I’m hardly likely to rush to read these. vBookz is a useful app but hardly about to set my world on fire.

More general impressions

One of the things I was looking forward to trying was the Guardian newspaper’s App. No luck. It isn’t available for New Zealand iPad owners. It made me wonder how many other content sources are not available here.

It’s widely known that the iPad won’t play flash video nor is USB input provided for. There are other limitations on the connectivity front. One I found was receiving files sent from my Nokia phone using Bluetooth. I couldn’t send photos to attach to messages or embed in text.

The on-screen keyboard works very well, as long as you’re looking at where your fingers land. I soon realised that I probably wouldn’t use the iPad for a lot of input as it meant learning a new technique for typing. This is a criticism of the iPad, but more a dawning realisation of my limited interest in having to learn something new.

The longer I spent with the iPad the clearer I became about what my needs are. What I really want is to easily read or listen to content. Rather than getting a pricey device that does a lot of things, sometimes in a mediocre way, I would try to find a device that is principally designed for reading. I’ll write about what I found out in a subsequent post.

Now remember, that this min-review is from someone with a particular type of visual impairment. The folk over at the Macaccessibility website are very positive about what the iPad offers blind people. They are using the VoiceOver application to help navigate and are not concerned about what things look like on-screen.

I’m glad I got to try out an iPad for a few weeks. Rather than relying on misleading advice from a shop assistant I was able to learn for myself the pros and cons of the iPad. At the end of my informal trial, much as I liked many aspects of Apple’s tablet, it’s not for me. Right now at least.

PS: There’s a comment I neglected to make above: I reckon device is on the pricey side.

Useful resources

iPad Accessibility – My Perspective by Jonathan Avila, SSB Bart Group

The Accessibility Features of the iPad by guest blogger Amanda Johansson, on Disability Blog

In e-reader accessibility race, new Kindle, iPad in front By Jacqui Cheng, on ars technica

Macaccessibility network podcast

Audiobooks are a saviour

Two red books enclosed within black headphones

When I got a copy of Paul Theroux’s classic “The Great Railway Bazaar” in audiobook format I was pretty excited by the idea of being taken along for the ride while I reclined.

I’ve read many of the American author’s travel books over the years so the idea of sitting comfortably and hearing it read to me really appealed.

This was in about 2005. Despite repeated attempts, it’s taken me a long time to finish the audiobook. Concentrating for more than a few moments was too big a challenge. My mind wandered off track almost as soon as I sat down to hear about where Theroux was passing through.

I finally returned to the travel odyssey in June after a health setback (which I’ve written about earlier, see “An unplanned hiatus“). As I was in recovery mode I was able to clear my brain of distractions. Not having to race off and do things seemed to enhanced my powers of attentiveness. Within a few days of re-staring I was transported through Asia, along the Trans Siberian Express and back to London from the point where I left off several years earlier.

The voice of the narrator matters a lot. He or she can add a whole dimension to a book that remains disguised when reading alone. In “His illegal self” by Peter Carey the narrator uses different ‘voices’ for the main characters. Seven year old Che with a New York accent comes across as naive yet world weary and smart.

Not all audiobooks are created equal, so I’ve been fortunate to strike narrators that compel me to the end every book I’ve downloaded. This is important when it takes more than 15 hours to listen to a tome.

Of course audiobooks have actually been around for quite a long time. Our local library still has boxy cassette and cd packs. In recent months Wellington City Library has been heavily promoting their eLibrary services.

At the moment I’ve got a choice of downloading 684 English language audiobooks offered through something called Overdrive, and about 70 Australian and New Zealand ones offered by Bolinda. The range would be larger if I had a Windows computer, as many audiboos are only offered in the restrictive .wma format.

Searching is a bit cumbersome so I haven’t yet looked in depth. I recognise a few authors I’ve read in the past, including Mark Kurlansky and Michael Pollan, so I will get around to looking. I’m really grateful the library offers the service to residents so I shouldn’t quibble.

As I haven’t been in a frame of mind to compare competing commercial audiobook resellers, I’ve signed up with (a subsidiary of the giant all-purpose retailer Amazon). I was attracted to this store as they offered an staggering 80,000 audiobooks to choose from. Finding ones I want to read is a bit of a grind. The search process here is also quite cumbersome, so it takes time to find promising looking books. It would be churlish to complain about having so many choices.

It’s not surprising that there is a tendency for the big name authors to dominate the audiobook shelves. Much as you’ll notice on the travel books rack in main street booksellers like Whitcoulls, works by writers such as Michael Palin and Bill Bryson are well represented. I can understand why publishers concentrate on the mainstream, but there are gaping holes if you’re looking for more obscure titles.

As I’m actually listening to the books I’ve signed up to an deal that entitles me to a book a month for a set price (about NZ$18). It’s an easy process to transfer the hefty files to my MP3 player.

Try as I might, I can’t see myself spending hours chugging through works by the old greats (whose works are no longer protected by copyright). The librovox collection is really impressive – volunteer readers read aloud a huge range of book, poems, plays and more, which are then freely available. Ultimately all books in the public domain will be recorded if librovox achieve their dream. Now, that’s a lot of listening.

My laudable intentions to catch up on classics has failed in print, so I’m not optimistic I’ll be more successful at getting started on my list of worthy tomes in audiobook format. For now, I’ll stick to being entertained and transported to other places.

Photo credit: acastrillejo.

Mac OS X accessibility tweaks

An apple logo in grey, accessibility logo in blueA few weeks after the stroke I had in June I wanted to get some new podcasts. Listening to radio shows proved a great way of keeping myself occupied.

Up until my unexpected health setback I was an inveterate, dextrous computer user. Years of constant honing meant I’ve created an onscreen environment that’s familiar and comfortable. I was at home on my system. (Find out more about my unplanned hiatus).

To simplify things, you could say I woke up with impaired vision. This meant all of a sudden I couldn’t easily use my computer the way it was configured. Completing basic tasks like getting new podcasts was no longer something I could breezily do. The idea that I’d actually enjoy using a computer again initially seemed a ludicrous one.

Over the last two months through experimentation and research I’ve made adjustment to my computer settings and habits. I’ve also found some new tools that are making my life easier. I’m writing here about these things in the hope it’ll be of use to others who face similar challenges. Included are notes about a few of the frustrations I’ve faced along the way.

Vision impairments are not all equal so it’s important to be fairly specific about this. One label for the type of vision deficit I’ve got is homonymous hemianopia. For me this results in a blindspot in the upper right quadrant of my visual field. I’ve got a constant pulsing flicker in my eyes.

Imagine having overlapping concentric circles rippling out across your eye, much like a pond disturbed after a stone hits still water.

Not only do I tire when reading on screen or paper, but I have particular trouble scanning. Ironically, I found this really pronounced when visiting one of my favourite websites. The multiple columns and cramped layout mean I avoid it nowadays, when once I was a daily visitor. I can read a page of a book, a letter or some recipes, but this tends to be limited to a single page at any one time.

This means I’ve got to adjust the way I use my computer set-up. Fortunately, Apple is seriously committed to accessibility. Built-in to the operating system of my two Macs running OS 10.6 Snow Leopard were lots of useful looking features. Working out exactly what would suit me is something I’ve be progressively working on.

Basic re-settings

View Options dialogue box showing how to change Icon and text size, from Mac OS X 10.6The first thing I did was to reduce the resolution of my screen. Rather than cramming as much as I could on my 22 inch monitor, I’ve scaled back to 1280 x 1024 pixels.

Folders in the Finder are something I use constantly, so I’ve tweaked the display of these as much as I can (using View Options). The font and icon size is now large, and there are wide spaces between lines in lists of documents or folders. Something I’d like to do, but can’t see how to, is increase the font size of the text in the Sidebar.

Using the same View Options to modify the look of folders on the Desktop has made a subtle improvement. I increased the folder size to 52 x 52 pixels and fonts now display at 14pt. It may seem a very minor change, but because it’s an area I regularly use so anything that speeds up the ease of scanning is worth it.

For applications I regularly use, including Thunderbird email client, I’ve also tweaked the display of text. This has meant tweaks to text sizes in individual applications including iPhoto, iTunes and Evernote. Within Thunderbird, I can adjust the body text in messages, but it’s not possible to increase the font sizes for navigation items nor for folder names (unless I’m missing something). This makes me wonder about using Apple’s email client, something I ditched years ago for reasons I can’t recall.

The one area I haven’t been able to adjust the font size for is the menu bar at the top of the screen. It would be good increase the font to 14pt the same as on the rest of the labels, but I can’t easily see how to do this.

I’ve made little use of Screen Magnification. All this takes to use is holding down the Option key and swiping vertically on my Mighty Mouse to increase/ decrease the size of the whole screen. Because the text often renders in a blurred way, I don’t find it something I want to use.

The wonders of full screen

Button used to enlarge to full-screenThe time eventually arrives when everything I can find where things live. It’s time to actually do some work. For me this means doing research (ie surfing the web) and typing up reports, notes, memos, articles, and the like.

The thing that makes the biggest difference to me easily completing these types of tasks is the magic phrase: Full Screen. Many applications now provide users the option of expanding a document so that all navigation and menus are hidden out of sight. The document you’re working on takes up the majority of the screen.

As I type this blog post using Microsoft Word all I can see is a white page with my pithy paragraphs, with a wide black border on the left and right. Over on the far right, out of sight, is a scroll bar. If I move the mouse to the top of the page a limited pane of navigation options is revealed. This clean, minimalist approach means I can focus on what I’m writing.

The Full Screen option is widely used in many applications. Other office productivity suites offer this feature, including Apple’s iWorks and the free, open source NeoOffice. The latest version of Firefox offers the same thing. This simple feature will no doubt take off like wild fire.

Another related find is a tool which strips out distractions on webpages (including navigation, menus, article stubs and ads). I’m using the readability add-ons for Firefox and Safari.

Whether it’s an article about The B52s or RWC2011, I can easily get down to the substance by clicking on the “Read now” button I’ve installed. Up pops a window with the article, naked, neither distracting ads nor navigation are shown. I’ve set the default font size to 14pt and made the column fairly narrow, so I can easily read articles on screen.

There are other features bundled with readability which give it the edge over other comparable tools (eg Read It Later) and the built-in Reader in Safari. I see the benefits as being worth the monthly US$5 fee. I’ll write more about this when I write about Kindle accessibility.

Hearing rather than reading text

Crowded list with 50 reasons to use VoiceOver, Mac OS 10.6When I first looked at the blurb about the Mac OS 10.6 accessibility features I was a bit overwhelmed. There was so much I could tweak and adjust I didn’t know where to start. As the image above shows, there are over 50 reasons to use something called VoiceOver. Rather than try to read the scrambled page listing all these reasons, I just dived in.

To come straight out with it, I found the process of trialling VoiceOver to be pretty confusing. This was in part because I wasn’t ready to learn about something new. It was also because there are screeds of information, lots of options, all of which are seemingly of equal importance. I couldn’t easily find a guide to switching on the things that would suit my particular needs. Sadly the Take Control series doesn’t have a guide to these features of the Mac OS.

After a few sleepless nights and fruitless searches for real life guidance (as opposed to marketing spiels) I gave up on VoiceOver. I probably could have done with some help. Nursing some frustration, I realised I was trying to do too much. By chance I remembered the KIS maxim: keep it simple. And that’s what I did.

I decided to start by setting up “text to speech”. Built-in within System Preferences on the Speech setting tab is an option to “speak selected text when the key is pressed”. (To find speech look for the for the old fashioned microphone). I ticked this option and set up a memorable keyboard short-cut.

Now, after I highlight text in virtually any programme and tapping in the shortcut then sit back to listen to a sentence, paragraph or whole article as the computer reads it aloud. This feature is brilliant. Because it’s system wide, I can use to give voice to emails, webpages, documents, PDFs and more.

My initial burst of enthusiasm soon waned. I began to tire of the metallic, synthesised tone. Even with a choice of several male and female voices the voices begin to grate. While they’re adequate for short bursts of text, they are definitely not something I could endure listening to for long.

By adding Infovox’s iVoice pack I’ve found a way to overcome this limitation. In place of computer-generated voices, iVox offers what sounds like real human beings. Although packs with New Zealand accents are not available, I could get speakers using the Queen’s English. Now, when I use the text to speech function I can choose who addresses me: Lucy, Rachel, Graham or Peter from the UK.

I paired my British iVoices with another piece of software to give me more control over the text to speech process. Amongst other things, GhostReader allows me to easily switch between the voices I’ve installed, skip paragraphs, speed up reading, and export spoken documents as MP3s to iTunes.

These two third-party extras have transformed the basic tools. I decided to spend NZ$184 on these – initially for just one of my computers – as it means I can engage with ideas so much readily.

An alternative option was to use the expanded voices available in the new Mac OS 10.7 (Lion). If these are anything like the voices available on the iPad, then they’re not much of an improvement over Alex, Bruce, Fred, Kathy, Vicki and Victoria installed with Mac OS 10.6.

I am actually using the text to speech tools almost every day as it reduces eye-strain and tiredness. Coupled with a portable ebook reader and MP3 player, I’m continue to do things I like doing (ie reading articles, browsing newspaper sites, etc) as well as getting back to work.

After initially being a bit bamboozled by the accessibility options, I’ve got my computer set up so I can actually do things. It’s a great relief that it ended up being pretty easy to do, despite a few hitches along the way.

I’m sure I’ve missed some adaptations or extras that would help with my peculiar visual impairment. I’d welcome any pointers. Better still, if you can suggest a short cut that will help others, make sure you add a link in the comments.

More on: adapting my reading and computing habits in the aftermath of a stroke

This is the first of four blog posts I’m writing about the tools I’m using so I can get do the stuff I like and need to. The other subjects I’ll cover are:

  • how audiobooks are a saviour
  • why I chose a Kindle
  • what stopped me from getting an iPad from an accessibility point of view.