Bent Not Broken–Reflections on the End

I just received word from iTunes that my third and final version of Bent Not Broken has just been approved. This marks the end of a long, long journey with the text, beginning in 2009 with the concept of the project, which was originally intended for print. After a year of writing and research, I began seeking out publishers in 2011. The next two years were spent mostly waiting for rejection letters from a host of big and small publishers, most of whom never looked at the manuscript.

And while I wouldn’t say no if,say, Scholastic came along and offered to publish the text, I have also discovered how well the book works in the digital, multimedia domain. I’ve been able to add a ton of rich content and make my own research process a little more transparent. Along the way, I also learned a ton about epublishing, and particularly the ins-and-outs of both Adobe InDesign (a good program) and the Apple store. In the future, software like Indesign will get easier to use and more accessible, much like web design software did in the late 1990s.

I am also excited to say that I just got a small GVSU grant and purchased six iPads for the Secondary English Education program at GVSU. I will be working with our newest faculty member, Bailey Herrmann, to develop iPad-based writing and reading projects beginning next semester. My hope is that students will produce ebooks somewhat like mine, taking classic, public domain literary texts such as Heart of Darkness and enriching them with images, video, and other kinds of interactivity.

There are other examples of this new, interactive classic already out there. If you have an iPad, I strongly recommend downloading the amazing Inkle version of Frankenstein which is a sort of choose-your-own adventure retelling of the classic text, this time set during the French Revolution. Inkle itself looks like a cool free tool that allows you to write interactive, reader-directed novels. I am also interested in the latest version of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchanan, which NPR recently reviewed. It too bends genre, combining some game-like features with the text from the original novel, albeit abridged.

So, can students take a classic literary text and re-situate it in a rich multimedia environment, even adding interactivity that borders on gameplay? I have really high hopes, though I know that all that talk about “new forms” of books or reading in the 1990s ended up producing, well, awful hypertext novels that no one really reads or cares about.

Going to keep thinking about this. For now, just download Bent Not Broken and tell me what you think.

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Update: Bent Not Broken, Version 1.1, Now Available Free

Photo Apr 13, 3 11 12 PMOver the past ten days or so, my interactive ebook Bent Not Broken has been downloaded at the App store over 100 times. The number of downloads increased dramatically (and not surprisingly) when I decided to make the app free.
This new version is relatively smaller than the original. I also fixed some embarrassing typos, redesigned a couple of ugly pages that had been bugging me, and increased the leading for greater readability.

In short, if you haven’t downloaded it yet, please give it a try. There’s really nothing to lose. Except just a little space (okay, 1 GB) on your iPad. But the story is unforgettable.

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Bent Not Broken Now Available at App Store

Bent Not BrokenI am very pleased to announce that my interactive ebook, Bent Not Broken, is now available for the iPad (1st or 2nd generation) at the App Store.

This interactive story follows the life of a family trying to survive a brutal war in West Africa. The war took place in in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s. All wars are cruel, but this one was particularly brutal—fought by warlords and their death squads of child soldiers, the war saw the deliberate targeting of civilians. Murder, rape, torture, and abduction were common tactics used by all factions, and the signature atrocity of the war, amputation, left thousands without hands and legs.

Through a rich multimedia presentation that includes personal testimonies, images, maps, found artifacts, video, audio, and animations, Bent Not Broken shows how one family survived the war and came to America in 2005. More than just an ebook, this highly interactive and compelling account of human endurance and cultural adaptation will appeal to young adult and adult readers who are willing to enter into the life of a family under the extreme duress of war.

Teachers

  • If you teach multigenre writing and have a iPad, this text can serve as an example of a research-based multigenre project. It contains poetry, prose testimonials, excerpts from official documents, interviews, photographs, hand-drawn maps, and more. Collectively, these genres work together to tell a highly engaging story of human survival.
  • If you are interested in composing ebooks with your students, Bent Not Broken can serve as an example of a new kind of interactive story-telling. This narrative technique will become increasingly available to your students as software such as iBooks Author makes composing multimedia books easier and easier.
  • If you teach African literature or other literature concerned with the plight of refugees, this Bent Not Broken can add to these works.
  • If you have an iPad but not the $2.99, please email me (rozemar@gvsu.edu) for a promotional code to download the text for free.
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Mightybell Looks Promising for Educators

Mightybell

Mightybell is a new social space created by Ning co-found Gina Bianchini. In my ongoing search to find a suitable replacement for the now-costly Ning, I have found few spaces that really appeal to me. Mightybell may just be one.

Think of Mightybell as a combination of Pinterest and Ning (or any other social network). You create a space, customize its look, and then invite participants via email. Participants can pin notes, documents, images, videos, or links using a dead-simple interface. Your space becomes a kind of archive of all of these posts, which can be searched or read chronologically. Users can also comment on all of the items. There is no nonsense about friending, either: all invited users have access to the same content. A mobile Mightybell app is promised soon.

For now, Mightybell is free, and seems to be designed specifically for educators looking to get outside of Blackboard or Moodle. Your Mightybell space can be public or private, easing the anxiety that some educators still feel about leaving the home server.

Check out Mightybell–while it’s still free!

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And the Winners are: Adobe InDesign CS6 and iPad 2

To update the post below, I’ve decided on both ebook hardware, software, and format. This was no easy task–there are dozens of hardware options out there, nearly as many software programs, and at least a handful of possible publishing locales, each with its own proprietary format. For converting my print manuscript to a digital format, though, I have decided that the industry standard, Adobe InDesign CS6, is the best option. A few reasons:

  • The cost is not so bad with a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud. Somewhere under $300 per year, but you get all that Adobe goodness, which includes Photoshop and Media Encoder.
  • Unlike iBooks Author, the tool that comes for free with Mountain Lion, InDesign lets you design every document from scratch. Not having to work with someone else’s pre-existing template, even if they are pretty, is a plus for me.
  • Easy audio and video integration makes this software even more appealing. So, if the print edition of my text never gets published, at least this version will have video clips, audio files, and beautiful hand-drawn maps (hat tip: artist extraordinaire Holly Hoover) that can be zoomed and panned within the digital document. No print edition can do that, right? InDesign even lets you published three-dimensional models within your digital text.
  • InDesign lets you create multiple versions of the same text with relative ease. Why would I want multiple digital versions? Simple: just as web developers struggle to make their pages look good on multiple monitors, ebook publishers need to accomodate a huge range of devices, each with its own screen size and resolution. With InDesign, I can create multiple formats, allowing the device to pick the version best for its hardware and software.

The primary device I’m publishing for is the iPad 2, since this seems to be the most popular tablet in schools. The iPad 3 has the retina display and a much larger resolution, making it a tempting choice for rich visuals, but for now, I am sticking with the 1028 x 768 pixels of the iPad 2.

I’ll be publishing the text, eventually, to the App store, not as a book per se, but as an application with a book wrapped inside of it. While I could publish a fairly interactive PDF, the app version allows me to draw on all of the interactivity of the digital medium, while marketing the text in a very popular venue.

In all of this thinking, I have been helped immensely by the work of Pariah Burke, and specifically, ePublishing with InDesign CS6: Design and produce digital publications for tablets, ereaders, smartphones, and more by Pariah S. Burke. If you are at all interesting in ePublishing, this is a terrific resource, written in very clear language. I recommend the Kindle version, of course, if you are really interesting in epublishing.

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Still Waiting for the Killer E-Book Publisher

Since the fall of 2012, I have been working on a book about a family of refugees from Sierra Leone. The book is finished and has been shipped off to at least eight or nine publishers now. No one, to date, has been interested in publishing it, though I am keeping up the effort.

With a little time on my hands over Christmas break, I am taking a big step: turning the book into an e-book and publishing it. There are a few things to consider, of course, and the first is whether or not I lose all credibility by self-publishing the work. At this point, I have to say I no longer care. That was easy enough. I don’t need the publication for my CV; tenure is behind me; and I am growing weary of rejections from print publishers.

The next big question is which e-book platform to use. A quick review of some major options:

  • Apple iBooks Author is newly updated and free for Mountain Lion users. I upgraded to ML, in fact, just for this tool, which is getting pretty good reviews. It has a series of very sharp design templates that should accomodate just about every e-author. And in true Apple fashion, the tool itself is easy-to-use and relatively intuitive. Better still, you can embed video (not Flash, of course) into your e-book. My book is based on video interviews that would fit nicely into this format. Some issues: again, like most Apple software, you have to work to get inside it. It is frustrating to be limited to the templates provided by the software, and for some reason, it is impossible to create a simple blank page. As for publishing, the software exports only to Apple’s proprietary e-book format (.iba), limiting your book to the Apple store. Hardly a surprise.
  • Adobe Creative Suite is a much more powerful design program made for professionals. I have the older version of this software (CS5). Its successors Adobe CS5.5 and 6 both support e-publication even more so than CS5. But even inn CS5, you can export to the open-source e-pub format, making your book marketable anywhere that accepts this format (such as the Google Play Store). The design possibilities are nearly endless. The software offers sophisticated tools that go well beyond anything in iBooks Author. If you can imagine it, you can probably design it in CS5. The problem is the price tag–somewhere around $1,300 for the newest Creative Suite Standard. For $29.99/month, you can subscriben to the Creative Cloud, a cloud-based version of the software that I have yet to try.
  • Create Space by Kindle isn’t really full-fledged e-publishing software. It’s more like a set of guidelines and some cloud-based tools that help you publish your e-book to Amazon. Just become a member of Create Space–it’s free–and get started. Here, the problem is that there are no robust tools like Creative Suite or built-in templates like iBooks author. You’re pretty much on your own. The advantage is that Amazon owns the e-book industry right now, and you immediately have a huge audience.
  • Google Play Store is the least proprietary of the e-book vendors: it publishes a range of formats, including the open-source e-pub format. That is good. But like Create Space, it doesn’t really assist with the design of the books, and I’m not sure it can handle an e-pub with embedded video.

To end what is becoming a long post, I am going with iBooks Author for now, hacking its templates whenever necessary. I may also use the powerful e-book manager Calibre to convert my ebook. I am excited, however, about the way the e-book format can enrich my text . . . more on this later.

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On the Other Hand . . . Man, QR Codes are Cool

So yesterday I complained a little (or a lot) about what I perceived as a thoughtless rush toward technology. Today, I’m lacing up the shoes and sprinting toward QR codes, which believe it or not, I just found out about at NCTE. Basically, a QR code is a slightly different kind of barcode that is easy to create and embed with instructions. You can use sites such as Qrafter to generate these (see example below) and add your own instructions to the image. Then, when the image is scanned by a smart phone or tablet (try the Google Goggles App), the instructions you embed will be carried out by that device.

So here’s what I am thinking: for years, my students have created really good podcasts on young adult works. They are stored here, and while I know that students return to this site from time to time, what would be really cool would be to make these podcasts a little more friendly to mobile devices. Enter the QR code.

QR Code for Feed

If you print this image (right-click, save, print) and then use a mobile device to scan it, you will be directed to the Feed Podcast. You phone or tablet should download and play it automatically. So here’s the idea: cut this QR out, stick it in the front of your classroom copy of the book. Students scan, listen, and then read. Now that is a purposeful and engaging way to use emergent technology (hat tip: Rick Beach and Sarah Kajder). Cool.

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What I learned at NCTE 2012

I have an hour or two to wait for my departure flight, and since the Las Vegas airport as free wifi and accessible outlets, I’ll spend a minute or two reflecting on NCTE 2012.

I attended mostly technology sessions–okay, I attended only technology sessions. But I had to prioritize: most of my time was spent in meetings and doing work for our department. After going to sessions led by Will Richardson, Bud Hunt, Troy Hicks, Sarah Kadjer (a who’s who of English Ed Techies), I was left with one dominant impression about the integration of technology into the English language arts: namely, that the resistance to digital technology (we like books! down with computers!) has disappeared. Completely. I know that my choice of sessions has shaped this conclusion, but when tech gurus like Will Richardson can fill a room with cheering English teachers, you know that the tide has shifted.

That makes 2012 an interesting time to teach. Tablets and smartphones are flooding into our classrooms, sometimes purchased by school districts and sometimes via a BYOD–bring your own device–policy. The widespread use of these devices has generated its own high-pitched rhetoric, not unlike the grand claims during the early years of the wireless/laptop revolution. In fact, I think we are at the peak of inflated expections of the Gartner technology hype cycle. During this stage of technology adaptation, there is lots of hyperbolic talk about the kinds of changes that a given technology can bring about. I am by nature wary of these claims, and because many of them were presented in the sessions I attended, I want to critique at least a few here:

Being Networked is Always Better than Being Alone
This idea came through loud and clear in the argument made by Will Richardson. Richardson has blogged since the beginning, and when I first started reading his stuff in the early 2000s, I was impressed by his efforts to connect purposeful instruction in his content area (English) with the emerging technologies he championed. Since then, many things have changed in the digital world, and Richardson is undeniably correct to observe that we are more networked than ever before–Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, SMS, online gaming, and other forms of social media connect us to each other, all of the time, so that many teens are sending 200-300 texts per day.

But is this really a good thing? Yes when we can draw on our networks to learn more efficiently or pool our talents. But what about reading? What of the critiques of our connectedness–Sherry Turkle’s sociological and psychological arguments, for example, or the emerging field of attention studies? What about the criticism launched by software theorists such as Jaron Lanier, who argues that our devices and their programs box in and narrow our ways of being human? Why can’t we stop for a moment to assess the real effects of these tools before we embrace them?

Production is Always Better than Consumption
Another mantra from the tech sessions I attended. Two of the sessions, for example, featured backchanneling, the practice of holding an electronic discussion during a more traditional delivery of content. So, while a the main speakers were talking, a multiuser chatroom via Today’s Meet (web), Celly (SMS) or a similar backchannel platform was opened for audience members to raise questions or summarize salient points. The result is a kind of constant chatter that goes on while the presenter is, well, trying to present. Backchanneling seems like a really cool way to get instant feedback from students, especially when you can show their thoughts onscreen. But I’m also wary of the way this kills the personal connection between the speaker and the audience. Eye contact is kind of important, after all, and you can’t make eye contact when you’re staying at your smartphone.

I liked some of the comments that were backchanneling during my talk critiquing Credit Recovery Software. But I’m also just a little proud that the transcript showed a slowdown in the chatter during my ten minutes on the stage. Egomaniacal? Maybe. But I told a good story and people were listening, not thumbing in SMS messages. And again, at least some research on the most-lauded skill attributed to the Millenial Generation–multitasking–suggests that we are most successful when we take on a single task at a time.

How is More Important than Why
Last point of what is becoming a long post. When I started advocated technology in the late 1990s, I took pains to connect new digital tools to the purposes and methods of effective English instruction. In writing about blogging, for example, I’d emphasize the way it offers students a real audience and a real purpose for writing, two things that composition theory had long claimed were critical to meaningful writing instruction. I tried to link the deep immersion of playing a video game to the experience of reading literature, using the reader response theory of Louise Rosenblatt, the semiotics of James Gee, and the research findings of Judith Langer. If I couldn’t really connect an emerging technology to what teachers were already doing, or what they wanted to do, I stayed away from it.

Because I could never quite figure out how to do this with Twitter (except to suggest it is an excellent way to watch real-time events unfold), I never really got into it. When mainstream, tradition media started quoting really superficial responses from anonymous tweeters, I even said that I hated Twitter .

I don’t hate Twitter. I just dislike it because it never gets theorized or put to the test. It’s just “cool” to tweet your classroom announcements or set up a class hashtag to allow students to tweet during their reading or homework assignments.
My guess is that students might help each other on homework by using Twitter, but the idea of students pausing during reading to Tweet their responses doesn’t make pedagogical sense to me. But many teachers are learning how to Tweet and not why they might consider doing this, and what might be compromised by their decisions to do so.

Okay, okay. Plane pulling in. This rant makes me sound like an old, old man. As Grandpa Simpson once said, “I wore an onion on my belt, as was the fashion at the time.” And it makes me feel conservative, something I never like. But maybe taking a kind of stance here isn’t so conservative, given the widespread acceptance of digital technology tools (It’s good to Tweet! Go Tweet!). Maybe that’s radical.

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Reflections on Seven Years of Videotape

About seven years ago, I started videotaping my teacher assistants in their field placements. The idea was pretty simple: let novice teachers watch themselves and learn. Carrying out the idea was not as easy, however. Initially, I purchased 2 tape-driven camcorders (Mini DV), a PC with a big harddrive, and some video editing software. I would videotape the student in the field, use the software to capture the video (a process that happened in real-time, consuming as much time as the tape was long), and burn the video to DVD, which added about 2-3 hours per DVD.

I couldn’t upload and stream the video–Youtube (founded 2005) still had the 100MB limit, long since lifted. Other streaming services were similarly limited, either by time (10 minutes) or by size. So, I resorted to the DVD. Making enough copies took hours.

Finally, a couple of years later, I started streaming via Viddler, which had a 500 MB size limit. Occasionally, I did have to split large files into two, but this worked pretty well. I was still using my PC, though by now I had upgraded to Adobe Premier Pro to edit and burn the videos. I also added a hard-drive camcorder that recorded in high def.

The size of the files was still an issue, and so I used Viddler and the now defunct Google Video to host large files. Protecting the privacy of the teachers was always a priority, so I had to use all kinds of tweaks to make sure that only my students could see the videos.

Finally, in 2012, things are where they should be. I use the same hard-drive camcorder (waiting for a wireless one) to record the video. Then, I use iMovie (on my newish Macbook Pro) to import the footage, which takes roughly 30 minutes. I export the movie to MP4, which usually takes under 1 hour, a huge improvement over the hours and hours of DVD production.

What’s the greatest about all of this technology evolution, though, is that YouTube has lifted its 100MB, 10-minute restrictions AND allowed for completely unlisted videos that can still be shared very easily. I upload the video to Youtube, which converts the file to Flash in under an hour.

So, that is progress, and a pretty good example of the way things change with digital technology.

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Why the Walking Dead is Really a Video Game, and What Video Games can Learn from It

The Walking Dead, just entering its third season on AMC, is my favorite thing on television right now. I am not a zombie or horror fan, but I do love the way WD engages contemporary issues in an entirely original way. Its central question, it seems to me, is a philosophical one: how do we live when the world has gone to hell–by sticking to our principles, like the main character Rick, or by taking a more Machiavellian approach, disregarding any moral precept that gets in the way, like Shane. I love the way the show approaches this question again and again, sometimes siding with Rick, but often showing his idealism to be out-of-touch and naive.

But that’s not what really hooked me on the show. What keeps me watching–and usually awake at least an hour afterward–is the structure of each episode. I think the show must be written by gamers who intuitively know how to balance challenges and rewards to keep us interested. In his analysis of video games, James Gee describes how balance between affordances and effectivities is critical to a game’s success. An affordance is essentially a feature of the game world that allows action to be taken–let’s say, a locked wooden door that appears impenetrable. An effectivity is the skill which allows the door to be opened–something that a character can acquire to enact or use the affordance. So, the character learns how to pick locks (effectivity) and can now open the door (affordance), which opens to another area, complete with its own embedded affordances, which in turn require new effectivities.

In the best episodes of WD, you can feel the push and pull of affordances and effectivities. To begin with, the episodes frequently feature a kind of level–in the season 3 premiere, it was a prison, a setting similar to many dungeon-based video games. The affordance here is the prison: it contains a ton of helpful supplies to the gang–medicine, weapons, beds, and a clean, dry place to rest. The effectivity here seems to be figuring out how to get in: there are zombies in the prison yard who are looking hungry. The solution taken by Rick (spoiler alert) is game-like: directing certain characters to distract the zombies and running through the yard. Figuring out how to kill the riot-gear zombies is another affordance/effectivity within the mission. RUnning out of ammo? As in a first-person shooter, not a good thing.

Once Rick and the gang are inside, there are additional affordances: the rest of the prison remains to be explored. Then again, there are lots of zombie prisoners and zombie guards all around, so the challenge is to figure out how to go undetected through the cell blocks (creepy) without getting lost or killed. If you watch the episode, you’ll see that this is not so easy: one of the gang is bitten, and Rick quickly is presented with another affordance/effectivity–how to prevent the bitten man from turning to a zombie.

And of course, when this is accomplished, the episode ends with another affordance: a surprise group of still-alive human prisoners suddenly appear, and we are left to wonder how the human gang will solve this particular puzzle.

ALl of it makes for terrific television–and ideally, for a terrific video game. If WD has learned from video games–and I think it clearly has–then game designers might also learn from WD. I wish that your average video game would present players with the kind of complex moral decisions that Rick has to make, with real consequences for you and fellow players. Ultimately, Rick does compromise his principles to survive, killing his former partner and best friend Shane to preserve the group. I have yet to encounter a video game that makes players think though these kinds of decisions. The Facebook Walking Dead game isn’t even close. Just you and a bunch of zombies to shoot.

Then again, that is kind of fun.

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