Biodiversity Requests & Comments

February 23rd, 2010

We’d love to hear from you!

Use the category ‘Biodiversity’ to send suggestions for collaboration with us (the Biodiversity Consortium) as well as comments regarding our materials that you’ve downloaded from the JORUM-OPEN, including suggestions for additional items within the materials, etc.

eXe: some advantages and disadvantages.

November 5th, 2009

Personally, I find eXe fairly easy to work with, which makes a change with these things! I did use to use Dreamweaver, but realised that coding directly in html was the only way to get round Dreamweaver’s ‘IE friendly, everything else unfriendly’ coding, particularly given the rise in importance of Firefox! Basically, Dreamweaver always put in too much ‘Dreamweaver speak’ that nothing else other than IE recognised, and for Firefox you had to get rid of some of this ‘advanced coding’ in order for it to work elsewhere. eXe doesn’t do this, although, inevitably, it has its own little nuances (see below).

The following two are rather equivocal in terms of people’s judgement (with two schools of thought). Personally, I am against the first (use of SCORM) and in favour of the second (use of more advanced javascripting, where appropriate), given that most VLEs cater for these anyway.

  • It does enable the use of SCORM packaging, although that has major downsides which, for educational resources I strongly do not recommend, particularly if those resources are supposed to act independently of a VLE (for instance, SCORM produces a manifest, rather than including the menu within the materials, which is problematic if you have a number of different topics being explored as a subject entity, which is the usual case with e-learning: it can be done the other way, but it is time-consuming, and time is something no-one has these days). Therefore, our materials are not being made SCORM-ready or even SCORM-compliant at this stage (although we can provide such very easily);
  • Although a certain level of javascript can be incorporated, more advanced javascripting, for instance internal popup windows (which are compliant with accessibility) must be included once the material is published, which is fine if you have the html know-how to be able to copy and paste certain coding-phrases.

a. Advantages:-

  1. eXe is allowing rapid conversion of material from the original materials (script sheets for the scholar’s desktop, + images) into a single entity package that can have one to many learning topics, all accessible through a menu, or internal to, and as hyperlinking between,  the course material pages (SCORM won’t properly allow the latter, which is one of my major problems with it as this hyperlinking systemology is a fundamental of the WWW);
  2. Problems in layout within any of the original materials can be ‘tinkered with’ very easily within eXe once templates have been set up.
  3. eXe takes away the problem of ‘which media player do I use’, and, once you state what the original is, will automatically choose the player for you.
  4. Like Dreamweaver, eXe facilitates wysiwyg editing, including the provision of ‘automatic markup’, which can then itself be edited within the eXe editor (by clicking on ‘html’). It therefore allows for a collaborative development between a subject specialist (e.g. an ecologist, such as me) and a technically-minded coding specialist (um, like me), as well as someone who specialises in online pedagogy (sigh, like me, OK ……), with each being able to contribute directly to the material, even when not in face-to-face contact (sometimes like me, maybe!). It enables rapid editing changes to take place at a variety of levels (unlike normal Dreamweaver, although it is sort-of possible);
  5. eXe is free (unlike Dreamweaver or that other so-called ‘editor’ called Adobe Contribute, which I really do not like);
  6. Once created in eXe, it is amazingly simple to create either larger versions of material, e.g. by joining two tutorials together, or smaller versions, by packaging elements of a large tutorial into smaller ‘templates’. Every time, you do not need to worry about the menu, as this updates automatically (menu creation is a major bug-bear in any e-learning development usually);
  7. Given that all eXe creates at the end of the day is a set of web pages that are interlinked and menu-navigable, editing outside of eXe is simple – you need no proprietary software for it (except for a wysiwyg editor if you aren’t au fait with the html: not a problem in our case);
  8. Any outside source can be included in eXe. It’s the browser that becomes restrictive, not the eXe editor or its resultant webpages;
  9. In the original scholar’s desktop, we had the facility to enable tutors to add additional news to materials. It was difficult to create such a facility within Dreamweaver that would make sense, but we can do this in eXe fairly easily, although you still have some of the constraints.

b. Disadvantages:-

  1. Templates are slightly problematic. I use a ‘ready to run version’, and have created template css files which I then use to replace the css files created by the eXe publication facility. As long as I remember that the editor is using a different set of cascading style sheets to the final ones, I have absolutely no problem. I suspect this may in fact be due to my limitations in terms of creating a personalised version of an eXe ready to run. The version I am using was created inhouse from a full download of eXe, so it would be possible to create this, but with a bit more technical know-how than I have.  However, there are ways around this, as I have suggested;
  2. I have been in communication with members of the BERLIN project, who find the notification wording on the sound file tool a bit annoying (it states ‘no sourcefile available’, although this is untrue – possibly not available until you click the control, at which point it suddenly IS available). Admittedly, the person who pointed this out was an economics specialist, and none of the students or tutors I have interacted with even noticed this feature until it was pointed out to them, at which point the response was ‘well, if it’s there, I’m gonna click on it anyway’;
  3. If you want anything more advanced than the basic eXe format, then you do have to code this yourself. This may become more important as e-learning materials development matures, but then, so will the developers involved become more specialised;
  4. One particularly annoying feature I have found with eXe is that I do have to tidy up the code a little, particularly if mistakes are made in the initial wysiwyg editor: eXe doesn’t always clean out the additional coding. In a select example, we also have problem with a specialised template that we have created (i.e. an ‘information box div’), where eXe shows that it doesn’t completely differentiate between a paragraph break (a simple return press) and a line break (which is shift return). In eXe it will create separate boxes for each return, which is a bit annoying: our solution – use a double line break, or bullet point material within the box (although there is a secondary problem with bullet points if you want to space them out a bit). Although lengthy to describe, it’s a pretty trivial complaint!
  5. As yet, I haven’t worked out how to get new idevices created, although I suspect that you need the full version of eXe to do this.

We do feel that this sort of presentation is really only useful for ‘freely-offered material’.  If we were to create the fully enhanced versions, then we still need something far more advanced in its technical development abilities than anything currently out there.  We do mourn the loss of our Scholar’s Desktop!

Why OER? … and why eXe?

November 4th, 2009

Firstly, let me apologise, for I have been meaning to write this little blog since I first enrolled on this blog site!  To date, all I have done is summarise our part of the HEA Bioscience project.  However, as of today, things are going to change!  What I am intending to focus on is the use of eXe in our materials, but before I begin properly, I feel that it is important to set out where we stand both in respect of Open Education Resources and the use of wysiwyg editors, like eXe.

Why OER? Reasons and modifications specific to the Biodiversity Consortium

My main interest in terms of the OER project is in developing material that can be downloaded easily and either used as they are, or as an enticement to see the more developed – enhanced – materials that the Biodiversity Consortium holds.  Through necessity, the Biodiveristy Consortium is going to need to somehow get financial support for the continuation of its materials (be it through subscription or the normal grant-funding and sponsorship routes).  For now, we have only just been exploring these avenues, as it is of paramount importance that we keep together the people – and therefore the experience and skills – the Biodiversity Consortium has brought together in order to be as successful as it has been over the last 20 years. 

As said before, the OER project will, we hope, enable us to advertise our capabilities to a wider audience through what we are calling ‘sacrificial units’ – that is, examples of our material, which may be presented in their entirety or slimmed down.  In order to do this, we have had to find something in which we could implement rapidly some of our (pre-existing) material, but which would enable us to keep to our quality-control in place, protect the IPR of our authors and the copyright of the Biodiversity Consortium images (in reality, several thousand), but still enable the use of these materials in the institutions they were originally intended for.  You should remember through all of this that the Biodiversity Consortium is unusual in the partners within these OER in that it is an entity distinct from any particular institute, even if it is currently housed in the University of Nottingham: this was perceived as a necessary feature of the Consortium, given that we were, even in 1992, trying to break the ‘not invented here; syndrome still so prevalent in HE institutes – through the bringing together of so many HEIs and thus authors, we amassed a huge pool of expertise in biodiversity, and are still doing this.  No wonder we are careful as to how we release materials! With this in mind, we found the HEA_Biosciences OER project both a challenging prospect and one that may enable us to research some of the necessary avenues that we need to follow in order to bring back what we perceive is our former glory.

Why eXe?

Over the years, I and my colleagues have experimented with a number of different editing environments.  The Biodiversity Consortium materials were originally created in an inhouse programming development, the Scholar’s Desktop, which was delivered through CD and intranet, and which has actually stood the test of time in terms of its presentation functionality (people still comment on the advanced nature of its capabilities, and are amazed when we point out to them that it’s about 20 years old).  The SDT, as it came to be known, was adopted by the OU for its biodiversity materials and was developed into a more web-friendly delivery engine for their students.  However, it is proprietory software which, more to the point, is complicated in terms of developing material and subsequent delivery, so we needed to change.

We dabbled in the world of XML during the period of the VSB, and facilitated the development of WHURLE, primarily developed by colleagues in the School of Computer Sciences, initially with funding from the VSB.  However, this was purely an experimental phase and, although it is commented that a lot was learned from this, many actual users felt it lacked something, and put too many assumptions in terms of pedagogy into the system.  It was a good start, though!

The next set of developments revolved around how we could create materials quickly for our eChina colleagues.  We dabbled with Dreamweaver (great in terms of look, dodgy in terms of coding), we created material directly in html (sadly, my preferred route, but the only one if you know what you really want and know what you are doing!), we dabbled with the idea of flash-xml combined templates (great, until you want to do something different, or want to make sure that you have easily updatable materials and interactions, rather than straight presentation-only files with little outside integrality), we even dabbled with freeware software like NVU, and probably dropped it just as quickly!  Then, one of our number came across this NZ opensource software development package called, rather unfortunately we thought, ‘eXe’ (‘not to be confused with exe files’, we were told).  After exploring this for other in-school purposes, we came to the conclusion that, at least in the short term, it would be the most appropriate tool to use to deliver rapidly at least some of the materials that we wanted to. With a bit of technical manipulation of the underlying CSS files, we found that we could modify its look to something less chunky and less bitty than the original format.  Given that it automatically creates your menu for you, purely by how it gets you to create pages, and then publishes these inside your web pages, or as the alternative SCORM package, we felt that we were on to something here – anyone who creates web pages will now how time consuming, and even annoying, it is to ‘add in’ a highlightable menu system and remember to put in all the links, back links and the like when what you really want to do is ‘create materials’.  And thus the great OER development with eXe begins ….

Start up message

September 7th, 2009

Notes to date:-
Having joined the HEA_Biosciences Open Education Resources bid, we are now in a position to provide materials from the Biodiversity Consortium ‘World’ set, using eXe as the main presentation software, although Flash and pdfs are also involved in this set.  These we are currently preparing for release.

The ‘Worlds’ set consists of:-

  • a low level, integrated unit called ‘Microbial Field Trip’ (by K.J. Caley & J. Laybourn-Parry, University of Nottingham and University of Tasmania, respectively), which utilises eXe purely in terms of presentation of samples, and some background information, for three different lakes sites (Antartic super-haline lakes, and two temperate freshwater lakes). 
  • The set also includes two higher level materials that look at biodiversity calculations (indices, etc.) as well as providing information for specific sites. 
    • One, ‘Lichen World’ (by Brian Shorrocks, University of York), explores the biodiversity variation within a set of North Yorkshire churchyards, while the other, ‘Kruger World’ (by Martyn Gorman & David Raffaelli, University of Aberdeen & University of York, respectively), explores a more exotic location (Kruger National Park, South Africa), and focusses on the mammals and habitats of the site. 
    • Each unit looks at surveying methods and the interpretation of their results, while the Kruger World unit also provides information on the mammals being surveyed, alongside some practical exploration for the students. 
    • There is an additional fourth unit, ‘Measuring Biodiversity’ (also by David Raffaelli), which provides the theory behind the biodiversity indices and modules presented in these more advanced units (‘Microbial Field Trip’ is a standalone).
    • Teachers’ and students’ handouts are provided alongside these units.