Rob Abel, Chief Executive Officer of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, made a prescient comment to kick off the second EDUPUB workshop in Salt Lake City on February 12th and 13th: educational publishing is hard.
The challenge of moving educational publishing to digital is multifaceted. Digital textbooks need to include dynamic content, interactive tests and quizzes, and multimedia, of course, which is a challenge in its own right. But they’re also composed of discrete entities – modules, learning objects and similar – information that is often aggregated from content management systems so only the final output may appear as a cohesive unit. Add on top the need for rich metadata, not only about the title but all the components within it, and production is certainly not trivial.
And even if you have a firm grasp on the preceding aspects, you also need to be keenly aware of the accessibility of your final content as you assemble it, as access is a right in many countries.
These challenges are at the core of EDUPUB, which is an alliance of publishers, developers and various invited experts seeking to collaborate on a common suite of solutions and tools for education publishing within the open EPUB framework.
Dr. Dan Cooper of Pearson set the stage for this initiative during the first workshop in Boston last October when he stated that global competitive advantage is not gained through a fragmented ecosystem of formats and devices – moving targets that waste time and effort. Only by working together to find universal solutions will educational publishing thrive, as quality is what should differentiate content and the devices it is presented on, not format.
Where the first Boston workshop set the stage for the work that needed to be done, the recent Salt Lake City workshop was focused on progress so far, and continuing challenges ahead.
After an initial panel discussion recapping the need for EDUPUB and the challenges for adoption – such as stakeholder engagement and production ease – focus turned to the practicalities of utilizing EPUB as the delivery format for educational content, as the ultimate goal of the initiative is a tangible profile anyone can use.
The first production-related theme on the agenda dealt with assessments, outcomes and analytics. The IMS QTI subgroup is currently working on how to adapt the standard to work within the HTML5 framework of EPUB, and separate meetings were held the day before to review. Issues such as enhancing the globalization features of the standard were addressed.
The IMS Caliper Analytics Framework for collecting results and displaying grading information in real time was also previewed at this time, and discussion revolved around the interaction between the student, reading system and learning management systems – for example, how to store and synchronize when a student is working in an offline environment.
A key takeaway of the session was the important role that rich content structure and metadata plays in being able to analyze student engagement and progress. It was also the perfect segue into the next theme on metadata and content structure.
Two IDPF subgroups were initiated after the first workshop to delve into these areas, and members from both presented their status and findings. The content group is developing a markup profile of EPUB for educational publishing as part of this initiative, using submissions from Pearson and O’Reilly as the basis for discussion.
The group published an initial Editor’s Draft in advance of the workshop, and intends to progress this document to a candidate recommendation in the next couple of months. They are taking an iterative approach to development that will see the first release address the most universal structural and semantic concerns, with each subsequent releases refining and expanding on the model.
The second subgroup is looking at the distribution of discrete entities within the content, such as learning objects. Textbooks are composed of many such entities, and publishers often store or distribute them independent of any given work to be able to re-use them. The subgroup was still in a discovery phase, and discussions revolved not only around identification, but how they are packaged, how they can be transported, and even whether they match markup boundaries. The group is expecting to have a draft document soon.
The final content theme grounded the work back in accessibility. The need for accessible widgets was highlighted to avoid propagating unusable content across a broader spectrum, as was the problem for accessibility that comes from a lack of MathML support in reading systems. A demo of a program that generates math images with alt text descriptions while providing a link to cloud-based MathML markup was shown, but the message also came out that to improve native MathML support is going to require publishers to more actively engage browser engine developers to prioritize this feature.
An integration guide for using schema.org metadata for accessibility and education was also developed between the workshops. Feedback is welcome, and the document is open to comment.
The final takeaway of the conference is that while the challenges may be big, and some certainly will be hard, there is clear determination to see them met. In only slightly over three months, and with the holiday season intervening, much impressive progress has already been made, and ideas continue to gel.
Note: A specific date and location for the next EDUPUB workshop has not been decided, but with progress expected on a number of fronts in the next several months a June timeframe is anticipated. The next conference may be held outside North America to reflect the international flavor of the group. More information will be forthcoming from the IDPF when available.