Much of the playing around with ideas that I do relies on visual thinking and drawing diagrams and just sketching an extremely important tool for me. So important that I wish I had taken formal art classes. Paper and pencil are great, but for standing or collaborating with others in a room I can think at a whiteboard, but a quality slate blackboard and good chalk “feels” better to me.
In the mid 90s AT&T split into AT&T and Lucent. I had been working at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ but my move to AT&T Research meant a move to Florham Park, NJ. The new location was a nice building in a very nice setting and a lot of attention was given to making us comfortable. We had a lot of choice when it came to our office furnishings and - to me - the most important choice was slate vs whiteboard.1
My first office had a great view and an even better piece of slate on the wall. Bliss. All was well with the world, but and all was well with the world but a year later I moved to a different office with - shudder - a white board. A bit of after-hours reconnaissance turned up a few slightly damaged slate boards in the basement and a Ben Franklin slipped to the head maintenance guy with my help at 6 am caused the white board to disappear and be replaced by the slate. The chalk wasn’t great, but I knew where to buy the good stuff.
Sadly I’m no longer there - a loss of several fine minds and that big piece of slate. As it happens one of the readers of this blog is now occupies that room enjoying “my” old slate. Tom, I hope it is as good for you as it was for me.
I use computers for sketching ideas, but the interface is not just as nice as the physical world I use a Wacom tablet and SketchBook Pro on my Mac - good enough, but not great. Better yet is Procreate on an iPad. A third party pressure sensitive pen will be out in a few months and, if the iPad 3 appears, I may cave and make the purchase.
But for working something out nothing comes close to pencil and paper. I constantly doodle and sketch as part of thinking and manipulate a lot of equations by hand. Pencils and paper are a wonderful technology for this purpose.2 But they begin to fall apart when you start to worry about authoring and making work, probably more polished work, available to others.
In many settings - particularly education - books still rule although many of them are appearing on ebook readers of one form or another. I’m of the opinion that technology can be used as a supporting tool that can be used to help revolutionize education. It should not be central and arguably a revolution can take place without technology - my path was reasonably computer-free until I was in college and might be considered revolutionary by today’s standards. But I think it is important to rethink the interaction between teacher and student as well as among students and rethink what a book is. Augmented books show a lot of promise and may fit into some rethinking of education, although it will take decades to really sort out what works and what doesn’t - but for the time being there is a large authoring problem.
ebook authoring tools basically suck and there are a variety of standards. Without waking up that dragon I note that Apple’s iBook Author and iTunes U announcement represents the first easy to use authoring tool for next generation ebooks. There are any number of issues and the program is in its infancy. Hopefully others will compete and hopefully they’ll create human usable tools. I do worry that it may take a for profit company to play this game as the open source community has a poor track record when usability is involved.
I spent the morning playing with Apple’s program and sent this note to some folks who are interested in education. Any comments about this class of learning are appreciated - if anyone wants to talk about such things. This was a quickly written email that was just capturing my immediate thoughts. They’ve advanced a bit since then, but this captures what struck me at the time
I like playing with tools and product rather than reading reports, so when I found myself with three spare hours this morning I decided to spend it with iBooks Author - the free iBook authoring tool Apple announced yesterday along with the expansion of iTunes U and iBooks 2. It gave a few answers and opened many more questions.
To first order Author is a mixture of Pages and Keynote - since I don't use MS Office I'm reasonably skilled in both of these and my learning curve was small. For test content I tried a few chapters of the energy book I had been writing with my volleyball friend Colleen as well as a couple of chapters I had contributed to a technical book (astrophysics) a few years ago.
There is a huge need for a good ePub3 authoring tool and I was hoping for just that. It is not a generic tool for any sort of publication. The EULA restricts you to selling through Apple if you want money - you can put it up for free and (presumably) publish in other places. Of course Amazon (unlike everyone else) doesn't support ePub3, so that is another issue.
Author can't handle technical formatting. Equations are mostly laid out in LaTeX these days and it just doesn't work with that. In theory you can use a third party app that allows you to render and put LaTeX into Pages and then import, but those tools are not very good and the one that sort of works costs about $60 for an academic license. This is a big hole for any middle school or beyond science text or any math book. I tried to import a Pages document that had embedded LaTeX, but there were issues with the rendering and it was not possible to make changes in Author. A big lose for me…
If you are adding multimedia, photos, slide presentations - etc - the process borders on being trivial. The tool seems to be set up for fairly complex books - textbooks - with chapters, sections, subsections, appendices, glossaries and so on. You could, in principle, create simpler books using it, but there is way too much stuff getting in your way. I was hoping for something that I could just important a Pages document and use it for adding bits and pieces rather than getting involved in a major project. This isn't it. This is so much easier to use than Adobe or other standard authoring tools that there just isn't any comparison. It is also $0 vs $a lot. Of course you don't have many options if you want to make money.
It seems very well suited for largish projects that a textbook maker might do. It also seems excellent for the sort of publications that some teachers might produce as their Summer projects - it is almost tailor made for that.
Well - almost well suited I should add. There are no provisions for collaboration and none for automation - both seriously important if you have more than one person involved and if you plan on regular updates or perhaps a serialization. Of course this is 1.0 and *every* 1.0 Apple product has been an outline of what eventually rolls out. Perhaps Apple wants to get people used to the simple tool rather than overwhelming them (how un-MS and un-Adobe!)
The iBooks 2 app, and I didn't get to play with it much as Sukie owns the family iPad, in conjunction with iTunes U strikes me more as a course syllabus tool rather than a simple book reader. You can, in theory, do a lot with it and it is much cheaper (free) than Blackboard which is a somewhat ugly and expensive, but nearly ubiquitous tool at many Universities. Apple may have something here for HSs and Universities - but I would wait for comments from the edu crowd before commenting more than I have.
Apple tends to start small and then grow products. There is a huge need for a simpler tool (yes - Pages can output ePub, but it isn't a real authoring tool for a book). It would probably be too much for Apple to just announce something like that now - plus the people who would benefit are those who are motivated to sell on Amazon. I suspect something will happen - perhaps it will be Pages '12 when that is finally announced. It isn't a great leap to see Apple doing this.
They need to add bits and pieces that would make this a better technical tool. That means LaTeX or similar support. They might also do something with Wolfram (a trusted source told me they have recently looked at buying Wolfram, but I have no idea what the status of that is - it certainly makes sense as it links in with Siri)
In the end Apple wants to sell hardware. I can't see many k12 schools jumping with the current book selection and shoes have to drop for that to improve. Maybe a year from now. I can imagine a boatload of teachers creating content for it this Summer though and that may be important. If I was making ebook textbook content I would certainly consider a branch and the basic port would be easy … making it dance much more difficult.
The iTunes U part is potentially big and college students would be the ones buying the iPads rather than school districts. There is a chance for some disruption here and the price of college texts is high enough that an iPad would pay for itself if you could get half of your books this way. The openness of iTunes U and the universities offering free courseware is such that it would be very attractive for lifelong learners - I will certainly be using this part of it.
The K12 piece requires a cheaper iPad. It appears that the iPad2 will continue to be sold - and that would be Apples standard pattern - iPods and iOS devices traditionally see version 2 models sold at a lower price point when version 3 is announced. If history is a guide I would expect a $349 price.. Apple may also add a stripper with limited memory (the additional memory isn't expensive, but it is an easy way to create a bump) or possible not having the camera - for $249 or $299. If it was featureless enough - say 8 GB RAM and no camera, the $349 regular iPad 2 would still sell well along with the $499 iPad 3 (picking arbitrary numbers). Of course pure speculation - but Apple needs to announce a cheap edu model and the announcement has to fit the k12 procurement cycle.
It strikes me this could be a powerful tool for eMagazines. Not what currently exists, but the basic bits and pieces are there.
There is a lot of promise, but there are some big holes that need filling before it is a real offering. My guess is the holes are not there out of cluelessness….
I welcome what Apple has done. They are doing it primarily to make money, but it may ignite a competition to come up with something - one of the basic cogs of education - that better. That is exciting.
And if you want to make a difference in your own visual thinking as well as that of your kids or students I strongly recommend learning a bit of art - just basic sketching. Mine is self taught and crude, but has proven to be enormously powerful. I frequently use it as a repeatable entry point for achieving “flow”. It is a shame that art and music (also very important for thinking - more on that in a post to come) are not taught much these days. These are important tools for learning how to “connect the dots”.
1 I talked to the guy who runs the company that made the slate boards. The last of the breed in the US and most of their business came from math and physics departments. I assume if I hadn’t discovered the feel of a good piece of slate as an undergrad I would have come to love white boards and the smell of magic markers.
2 Paper and pencils are a very personal thing. Mostly I use art sketchpads, but I also love bound notebooks from Field Notes. They have fine pencils too, but you need some sharpening technique. pencilrevolution is good resource for all things pencil.