Monday, May 30, 2011

Pixels or paper?

The semester has ended with most of my students improving their writing and succeeding in receiving a satisfactory grade (many with very good grades).

But there were three events from the end of the semester (and a day beyond) that I wanted to share before slipping into summer.

1. Week 14, composition students were revising for their portfolio to be submitted for external assessment. During my office hour one day, a student dropped by my office on Angel Learning Isle to ask some questions about MLA citation style on one of her works cited pages. Over the years I've had many students do so in my f2f office, and online through IM. Looking at the arcane vagaries of MLA minutiae has always been much simpler f2f--much easier to look at a page of citations over a desk than on mirror RTF files or through the small text windows of IM or chat.

But on SL with a media share screen, the student could throw the citations onto a Google Doc, we could both see it in the same space, and we could both highlight or edit till she understood how the citations should be presented. A colleague walked into my office watching us both work on the document. And she said, "This is no different than working with a student in my office!"

Many see the use of virtual worlds in education as an opportunity to do things you cannot do in the real world, and they are certainly valuable for such.  But I would suggest they are equally valuable for equipping faculty and students to do things that are difficult to do with online classes using only 2D tools, things that are easy to do f2f. Many more faculty who teach online will see the value of VWs using a Google Doc than an elaborate simulation.

2. Every semester I spend countless hours reading essays, stories and poems on paper presented in construction-paper pocket folders. Stacks of them. This semester I read my comp and creative writing students' portfolios on my iPad. After saving as PDF, I uploaded to opened on my iPad and read away, taking notes on a paper yellow pad.

The main concern I've had with reading portfolios electronically is eye fatigue, and I know such a concern to be held by many faculty in my department. I currently read and respond to my students' essays/stories/poems on my laptop using Word, marginal comments, and track changes. Then I send my response as a PDF file.

Even so, the idea of reading dozens (over a hundred each semester) of portfolios on a computer seemed wearisome. But I found that doing so on an iPad was not a problem. With its high resolution, I found it no less comfortable than reading paper. And the utter lack of pounds of folders to lug around was a great boon.

My next test would be to see how well it would work on an e-ink reader.

3. Finally, I went to (and presented at) the Computers & Writing conference in Ann Arbor the day after my last day at LCC. Besides attending a myriad of sessions on eportfolios, gamification and the nature of digital humanities, I also brought along my iPad and no paper books, for the first time--usually, I bring at least a couple books to read on the plane or bus ride, and in the evening before going to sleep. This time I instead read Bleak House from the iBook reader.

When I got home, I planned to return to the paper copy, so the next evening, in bed, I pulled down my Oxford Illustrated edition and began to read. After a couple minutes, I put it back on my head board shelf, and picked up the iPad, and finished the novel reading the free ebook from Project Gutenberg.

Why? Because I found the iPad more readable than the paper book while reading before bed. With the illumination turned down, and a sepia tone page, I could read comfortably without bothering my sleeping wife. All I needed was a single night light as backlight and the room was restfully dark, yet with plenty of light to read away.

During the C&W conference, Amazon announced that they are selling more ebooks than paper books (hardback and paperback). I'm beginning to understand why.

Does that mean I plan to abandon paper books? Absolutely not. But if booksellers want readers to buy paper books, they may want to consider including an e-copy as well.

OK, time for summer!