Monday, 30 August 2010

The iPads have arrived!

A short message to you all: our iPads have arrived, on time!
For those interested, here follows a brief description on our method of deployment. Our aim is to allow the students full control over their iPad, so they will make their own iTunes account and be able to purchase any application they want.

This week, we will tag each iPad and register it in our system. At the same time we will briefly connect the iPad to iTunes and install a configuration profile. The profile is necessary for students to be able to connect to the WiFi campus network. The iPad will then be in standby mode until it is delivered to the student at the beginning of next week, where the first thing they will do is log on to the campus network with their own accounts.

After the iPad is set up by the student to connect to the network, they will be able to set-up their e-mail accounts. Also they can start downloading some apps (and if necessary set up an iTunes account) and start using the blackboard web page. Of course we'll have some instructions ready for students not so familiar with Apple devices.

Here's hoping that all will go well!

Monday, 23 August 2010

The future of electonic textbooks (?)

In my previous post I talked about creating an e-book in EPUB format. Although it is nice to have this flexible format, this flexibily requires sacrificing some layout options. Especially for electronic textbooks, which usually use a lot of heavy graphics and tables, EPUB is simply not an option.

A couple of days ago, Inkling released it's iPad app. Inkling was, I think, the first company to announce (a couple of days after the iPad launch) a new style of publishing, specifically for electronic textbooks. What they delivered is a big improvement over both .epub and PDF.

The app includes a store where you can purchase a (still very small) selection of books. Although it seems quite USA-minded, I had no trouble setting up an account and downloading a chapter on evolution from a biology textbook. The neat thing here is that one can actually download a single chapter for a couple of bucks, no need to buy the whole book. The free demo chapter in the biology book, 'The Chemical Building Blocks of Life', shows how books can be improved by for example including interactive 3D-molecules. Another nice feature is the addition of informational popups for difficult concepts, removing the need for the more traditional (and annoying) searching in the index. There is of course also highlighting, note-taking, and bookmarking. The note-taking is especially interesting, since it introduces a social element, allowing to share notes with other students in real time.

Related to this, I want to mention a local effort to revolutionize electronic reading and studying. An Amsterdam based start-up is busy setting up a platform called widescript. The beta is still to be released, but they promise some interesting note-taking features similar, if not better, compared to Inkling. Also, a big advantage is the online cross-platform set-up, which will not constrict anyone to using the iPad (as Inkling does). It will be interesting to see how this particular setup works out!

In the end, the success of these examples will rely on content. Obviously we can't wait for this content to become available for these new ways of reading and engaging in electronic textbooks. At least the first steps seem to move in the right direction!

How to make an e-book

Reading PDF documents on the iPad is in my opinion quite pleasant. That being said, it is never optimal to view A4-sized static documents on a (close to) A5-sized screen. For shorter documents, PDF is fine, but a true e-book should of course be unaffected by the shape of the device you want to read it on!

There are a lot of more flexible e-book standards, but there is only on free and open standard that is significant in the future of e-books: the EPUB format. According to wikipedia "EPUB is designed for reflowable content, meaning that the text display can be optimized for the particular display device used by the reader of the EPUB-formatted book." The combination of flexibility and openness is a key issue for the viability of the epub format (and did I mention it is also supported on the iPad?).

Since it is an open standard, there are no principle problems for creating your own e-book in EPUB format. On the other hand, it is still a very young and evolving format and unfortunately none of the major text-editors have a .epub export option at this moment. After playing around a bit with a number of options, I here present my (at this moment) preferred way of making an e-book out of a rather large Word .docx document (it concerned a booklet our faculty distributes, explaining safety rules and all that). Once you know how, it is rather easy, actually.

1) Start with a .docx document. Older .doc files should also work, but .docx seems to work better.

2) Make sure that the formatting of the document is clean and EPUB-friendly.

- Use headings consistently throughout the document (important for the Table of Contents).

- Use a consistent style throughout the document.

- Avoid tables or other complicated formatting; EPUB is not your friend in this area. Transform tables into more simple lists.

3) Save the documents as a web page. On a Mac, check the option 'save only display information in HTML'. On Windows use 'Save as Web Page, Filtered'. This makes the html code a lot cleaner and easier to work with in the next step.

4) Download and install the Sigil program (open source/multi-platform!).

5) Simple open the html file saved from Word and let Sigil convert it. You can then save the file as a .epub document and your e-book is ready!

Now the .epub file is ready, there are still some improvements that can be made:

6) Set the Meta Data. Via Tools --> Meta Editor, you can specify the name of the author, etc.

7) Sigil comes with a 'Table of Contents' editor (Tools --> TOC Editor), where you can see the chapter headers that were important from the html document. There you can deselect headers that you might not want to show up in the actual e-book. It is also possible to see which chapter headers are missing, which can be fixed by going to the appropriate part of the .epub and changing the header. Actually, missing headers means that your original Word document wasn't correctly formatted!

8) Add breaks in the .epub file. As you import the html file, Sigil creates one large document which can take a while to load on the e-reader. By setting your cursor at the appropriate places (just before chapter headings) and hitting the 'Chapter Break' button (top right in the toolbar section), Sigil splits your document into smaller pieces. The reading experience becomes much more pleasant with this small effort.

After this, you will hopefully have a perfectly usable .epub document that you can use in any way you like!

For more information and examples on e-book creation with Sigil, visit this page.

Monday, 9 August 2010

In the news / on the web!

Today I was featured succinctly in a local newspaper on our lovely mobile learning initiative!

Somewhat more elaborate is this pretty cool post on, thanks for that!

I think it's important to keep discussion open about possible applications of the ipad in chemistry education. To this end I've opened up some groups on facebook, and also on the 'dutch facebook'. If you have ideas for me about what groups / networks I can join or notify in these social networks, I'd be happy to hear about it! I would really like to open up a wide discussion on this subject.

After this rather obvious and shameless self-promotion, my next post will probably be a bit more informative.

Update: A disscusion in the comments of an article on, led to a second article, with more in-depth views on de the iPad within our chemical education. Fascinating reading material, I assure you!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Easy Survey: Go Google!

At the beginning of every year, we hand out a survey asking students a bit more info on why they exactly choose to study chemistry at our university. You read that right: 'hand out', as in, pieces of paper being distributed in the classroom. Very old-fashioned, wouldn't you think?

Turns out that Google Docs has a very nifty feature which allows you to easily set up a survey. You can let any number of people participate, and Google nicely summarizes the results for you. Now, we can simply send students a link, or point them to the approriate website, and they can fill in the survey whenever they feel like it. On their iPad, of course!

I read about this here, but only click that link when your Dutch is adequate. I'm sure if you google arround you'll find plenty examples. Although, once you know that creating a new 'form' (or 'formulier') in Google Docs will set up a survey-like document connected to a spreadsheet, you're ready to go!

Below a very simple example, showing that you can also embed the survey in any webpage you like.