August 2009 Archives

Compelling Video vs Compelling Research

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Way back on Aug 3, I wrote a piece on the technical challenges of creating an academic video that could have the same function as a written thesis. However, I think there's an even bigger challenge in that compelling video is typically NOT the same thing as a compelling research.

Compelling Video

For many classroom video projects, the goal has been to encourage students to be creative, to develop a rich narrative or even arouse the sense or emotions. Successful projects have included hip-hop videos, mini dramas, slide shows, or readings of family memoirs.

What they have NOT been are research papers. In fact, when one instructor reported that students read content over a series of bullet points, his comment was "the content of that film was actually excellent...but it was tortuous to watch".

As a culture, we generally have the expectation that a video is going to somehow engage us beyond the mere data. Either the images/music will be dynamic, or there will be some sort of "plot" or "parody" or there will be a "story" behind the history. This can be a good goal, but it's not the goal of research.

Compelling Research

There are many types of research methodologies, but most of them actually involve placing data over emotion or plot. A NASA researcher may count ring bands in Saturn, an anthropologist may observe behavior in unusual groups (maybe even watchers of reality TV) without passing judgment or a linguist may collect data from sources ranging from epic poetry to the most obscene pieces of graffiti - again without passing literary judgment.

Boring? Maybe. Critical? Yes. Because at some point, we may draw a hypothesis (maybe) on what we think is going on. But for many researchers, I think there's always a background concept that any conclusion may be overturned at any time by new data. Maybe a satellite will get closer to Saturn, or yet another piece of ancient prose will emerge from the dirt or they will find a better way of observing TV viewers. Some findings may seem definite, but really it could be reinterpreted in the context of a new finding later on. In other words, there is really no ending - only a series of ongoing chapters.

Why the emphasis on lack of judgment? Because many disciplines know the dangers that emotion and a predetermined conclusion can lead to. Archaeology is full of stories of governments using "data" (or lack thereof) in a constant game of historic one-upmanship. Similarly, linguists know that many people have used data on language origins to reinforce old ethnic tensions. We can all tell a compelling "story", but is it the right one? Is it the one we meant to tell?

I don't know, but one thing I can say is that a lot of good research it is really bad video. Interestingly, my "favorite" pieces of research are raw data points. It may be a map of data points, a chart of numbers, or a word list pulled from a dictionary. I may have an interpretation, but really, it is beneficial if multiple researchers can examine the same data and draw their own conclusions. Not only is this bad video, but it's probably bad PowerPoint too!

Back to Video

Now that I've taken a side trip to the researcher's ivory tower, I'm going to come back to earth and say I do believe that the narrative video does have a place in the academic curriculum. As much as I may love words lists, I also know that most non-linguists find it gibberish (much as I would an astronomical table).

At some point, the scientific community has to find a way to disseminate key findings to the public, and video is a great way to do that. Thus far, most academics have left it to others to do the task of dissemination - whether it be journalists, video producers, free lance writers or Star Trek writers. Now I will say that these folks have produced some fine work, but in a lot of cases, the results seem a little dubious.

Perhaps the lesson of video is that academics need to find a way to take what they have learned and repackage it in a way that is compelling to the average educated adult, yet accurate enough to be useful. Because a better informed society just makes better decisions. On on a more personal level...although this skill might not help a researcher get the next NSF grant, it may make more NSF grants possible in the future.

And Back to Rigor in Video

Before I could press the "Submit" button, I realized that there is an ethical component to consider. There are actually are academics who have mastered this skill of presenting academic information to the public, but sometimes it can be presenting disinformation to the public. I think this is where academic rigor is important in video - it just isn't the same role as in an written thesis. Maybe responsible videos will include a written component for video projects. It works for PBS.

Creating an Accessible PDF from Word on the Mac

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Developing accessible PDF from a Word File on the Mac is sort of a trick question because the tool set is different than that on Windows. It's not terribly difficult, but you DO have to purchase the full version of Acrobat (I know, accessibility shouldn't cost this much). But if you have Word and Acrobat, here's what you can do.

In Word

Some tips for creating accessible content in Word are the following:

  • Use a legible font - Times New Roman is a default, but it isn't so legible. Verdana and Arial are classic sans-serif choices, but you may want to try , but if you prefer serif text, you may want to consider Palatino or Bookman Old Style. I am also a fan of Chalkboard (versus Comic Sans) and Optima.
  • Use Heading 1, Heading 2 styles - In many contexts, these Word styles will correspond to H1,H2 tags in HTML. Even if your Word file is headed for Dreamweaver, using these styles may mean they convert to H1/H2 in a cut and paste operations.
  • Use the list tool in Word (instead of using Option+8 to manually insert bullets). Again, the list will be recognized as UL or OL lists in other documents.

Convert to PDF

I will assume that you will take the free option and print as a PDF file in the Mac print dialogue. The result is that text will be preserved as text, but it will not be "tagged" into levels according to Adobe Acrobat.

Printing to PDF is not inaccessible, but it is not as accessible as it could be.

Adding Tags in Acrobat Professional

Now comes the finicky part.

  1. Open the .pdf file you generated in Acrobat Professional 9.
  2. To see if a document is "tagged", open File >> Properties. In the pop-up, there will be a Tagged PDF field at the bottom. If it's set to "No," you have to add tags.
  3. Click OK to close Document Properties window.
  4. Now go to Advanced >> Accessibility >> Add Tags to Document. A processing slide bar will be displayed.
  5. To actually see the effects of tagging, so to Advanced >> Accessibility >> Touch Up Reading Order. You should see a pop-up window along with series of gray boxes with numbers in the upper right. The numbers indicate that the order the block will be read in.
  6. To add an ALT tag to an image, make sure the Touch Up Reading Order window is active. Then select an image and right-click (or control-click) and select the option to add an ALT tag. Note: Beware of multiple images together. Apparently the PDF conversion merged them into one big image (Sigh).

There are more accessibility tools to explore including a Tag tab and the table cell editor, but I think you get the idea....

Accessibility Developer Disconnects

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I've been exploring some accessibility issues and have noticed some disconnects in how accessibility can be implemented. It seems like that the community is making some critical assumptions such that 1) All online content is developed by professionals or that 2) everything is on a PC and 3) that developers are really going to manually disable Flash to check their content.

Online Content from "Non-Professionals"

One of the bigger challenges here at Penn State is that "online content" is actually being developed by instructors and students. In theory, we would like all "online course content" to be accessible, but if that were true literally then we would require that every podcast file be transcribed, every Office document & PDF file be tagged, every page generated by a content management system be accessible, and every image labeled with an ALT tag.

This can be done but it requires time and worse, some specific training. Yes, you can an ALT tag to an image in Word, but you have to know to right click and look for the "Alternative Text" field (and it only works on Window). Similarly, you can tag a PDF file, but you need to check the advanced menus in Acrobat (currently costing about $60) to make sure it is done right. This is much more difficult than clicking a "Convert to PDF" button (and more expensive as well).

The allure of the current online tools is that they are easy. Anyone can make a video, but right now only a few can make one with captions.

Mac Developer/PC User

An quasi disturbing accessibility trend I am noticing is lack of information/ability for Mac developers on how to make output accessible. Although most tools such as the JAWS screen reader assumes a Windows audience, it is a fact that many multimedia developers, particularly those for video or Flash are on a Macintosh.

This wouldn't be a problem except that the accessibility community seems to write many tutorials assuming everything is produced on Windows. The worst case is Microsoft Office which allows users to add ALT tags to images in Word or Powerpoint...but only in the Windows version. The only way an image in a Mac Word doc can get tagged is to export it to some other format, like HTML.

Many accessibility tools are also Windows only. There's an excellent Office Accessibility Wizard , but guess only works on Windows. Admitedly, most users are on Windows, but again NOT everyone and possibly NOT developers who might be charged with this (because they are on a Mac). There are locations where multiple platforms are available, but not everyone's budget can support both...And in any case, it is a major inconvenience to switch between two platforms.

Debugging Flash

Perhaps one of the most serious problems facing accessibility is developing and debugging accessible Flash content. The good news about Flash is that it works across platforms. Which is why it is being incorporated into so many tools from YouTube to Adobe Connect and more. Flash video is truly the wave of the future.

The bad news is that building in accessibility is complex (you need to build in keyboard alternatives, alternative text descriptions for screen readers and check color contrast...somewhere in the application). Worst of all - it's difficult to discern if the developer has done this. Unlike straight HTML which have checkers like WebAIM WAVE and Cynthia Says, there are no tools to check Flash accessibility without doing something drastic such as disabling the Flash player or testing in JAWS.

There are lots of interesting Web 2.0 tools out there, but it's very difficult to evaluate if support for screen readers, captioning or keyboarding have been built in without checking the vendor specs or running it on JAWS. If you don't have JAWS (say, in a Mac only shop) and can't find vendor specs - you have to assume it's inaccessible. Too bad.

I may think the application is the coolest thing I have seen in a while, but can I recommend it? Sure, but somewhere in the back in my mind I'm thinking "We need a backup."

Dreamweaver Model

Although I am describing three different scenarios, they are symptoms of the same problem. At the moment accessibility is treated as a fairly arcane topic requiring lots of technical knowledge and even hacking of code.

I don't think it has to be this way. One reason I keep recommending Dreamweaver is that their accessibility tools are so easy to find and use. For instance if you drag an image into Dreamweaver, a pop-up window prompts you for an ALT tag. Once you fill in that field, you are done. There are similar prompts for forms, tables and even inserting Flash movies. I suspect that this strategy could be implemented in many more tools such as Word, Flickr or PowerPoint.

Expanding to Flash, could it possible to add more visible prompts to add alt text and keyboard alternatives? It sure would help developers understand that they should be there. The great thing about the prompts is that they recognize that accessibility should be part of the workflow, not an afterthought that only happens if a problem is reported.

Wrapping this blog post, I think my other point is that developers are an important an audience to consider. Browbeating them will only get the community so far (especially if "developers" include teenagers and busy instructors). It really is important to consider how accessibility tools can be just a little more accessible.

Jakob Nielsen & Twitter Usability

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If Jakob Nielsen is writing a usability article, we know Twitter is now 100% mainstream. Interestingly, this article though only covers release of corporate news information with tips for both writing punchy copy and for timing (9:01 is better than 9:00).

A little chillingly though, he indicates that Twitter "decay" (when people stop clicking) is fast. Twitter updates so quickly that messages are very quickly lost in the shuffle. As Nielsen comments "Once [the messages] scroll off the first screen, they're essentially 6 feet under." As a result, he still recommends e-mail for messages with a relatively long life span so that users can sort through their "pile" at a later date. No argument from me.

Using Flickr to Archive Photos for a Course

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One of the grad students Teaching with Technology Certificate portfolios has a good example of using tagging in Flickr to organize photos that he's taken which can be used in a course. Jason Brooks from Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies department uses a Flickr Stream to not only post his phoots, but to organize them into sets for different themes or different museums/sites.

I don't know how the course is structured, but I can imagine that he can go to one set on a particular session to show the students the images. Having them organized by topics could also allow the students to go back and review the images by topic (presuming that they are aware of this site). Definitely a good shocase of Flickr for teaching.

Smeal Honor Code Resources

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This is the time of year when I check and update the external links for Web sites such as the Plagiarism Prevention Resources. I had a few new URLs to input, but it appears that the Smeal College of Business has been very busyt preparing a whole new site on its "Honor Code" for its students.

There are actually two sites from Smeal on their Honor Code:

The second site at the Student Exchange has a lot of information about policy, but the first includes information about ethics in the business curriculum as well as videos from business leaders, faculty and students speaking about ethics. Interestingly, a major theme is how integrity relates to trust in building business relations and reputation. Another is the comfort level workers feel in working in an environment that values integrity.

Another feature of the Honor and Integrity site is the list of courses at Smeal ranging from first year seminars to the MBA level. The news in recent months and years has featured lots of business leaders doing unethical things. It's good to see that Smeal is doing its part to show that business and integrity are good partners.

Video for Academic Purposes - A Few Challenges

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An ongoing discussion we've been having in terms of digital literacy is how video can be made to have same quality (and status) as a traditional research paper. This is an interesting question to explore for many reasons, one of which is to contemplate why the "traditional" method is what it is and compare it to video.

As I think we all know, the traditional medium for academic discourse is text with a few images included as required. One of the advantages of this system is that it's relatively cheap to create and reproduce text and images. Consider that until the invention of the late 19th century, it was virtually impossible to record and play back sound. In the modern era thought, the cost factor is being reduced due to access to cheap hardware and software.

However, there are other factors which make translating a research paper more difficult than it might appear on the surface.

This is going to be a long discussion, so let's dive right in...

Video as Artifact

First, it's important to note that video and audio in academic research has been around for several decades - but as an "artifact" embedded in a text-based document. For instance, an ethnographer may record an interview and transcribe it later. Or a lab experiment may be video taped and still images incorporated into a document (perhaps with a link to a video snippet).

However, I don't think that's the issue on the table. The challenge I think we have been discussing is how to create a video presentation that is considered as valid as a text-based research paper, master's thesis or dissertation.

Citations & Data Tables in Academic Prose

If we are to truly substitute a video file (or set of video files) for an equivalent academic piece, one challenge that will have to be overcome is how to include items such as citations, bibliographies, footnotes and data tables.

On a simplistic level we can just embedded tables and citations within a video and include footnotes and a bibliography in the final credits. In fact, several Gen Ed video projects, such as the ones done for Econ 2 already require a bibliography in the credits.

For Econ 2, this is sufficient for the assignment at hand - create a fun but informational education module. For me though this assignment, while pedagogically sound, is not the really the equivalent of a research paper but more of creating a lesson plan, textbook learning module or educational pamphlet.

A textbook may or may not include citations and a bibliography, but even if it does that bibliography is not a core component of the text. The content in a textbook is generally something that has been pre-screened and "accepted" by an academic community. Its function is basically convey that information to students (or new members of a community of practice).

Similarly, the function of an educational pamphlet is to convey information from a body of experts to a larger non-expert audience. Again, although citations and a bibliography (or further reading) may be given, it is not considered essential to the piece.

In academic prose, on the other hand, citations are critical and often carefully examined by the reader. The presumption is generally that a paper (at least by the master's thesis) is an original piece of work that must be defended to the academic community (aka the thesis committee).

Citations serve an important role here because it 1) introduces the reader to the background of the issue (and is a credential check) 2) is a chance to similar data if it exists and 3) generally shows what assumption the author is making and if they are valid. As such, they are carefully perused by the reader. When a skeptical reader wonders where that crazy idea/fact came from - the answer should be in the citations.

A similar role is served by data tables. When an author is presenting a new analysis, it is usually based on original data as well as data from other sources. Again, the reader tends to examine these pieces of data carefully and, indeed actively. It's not uncommon for key data points to be highlighted and notes scribbled in the margin.

Compare this experience to watching a video on PBS or the History Channel. Even though the videos may be based on meticulous research, the assumption is that the audience is in a more passive mode. A few key sources or researchers may be mentioned, but rarely is an extensive "bibliography" given. The important data may be presented (often graphically), but rarely an entire table. A viewer who is interested may, ironically, need to visit the text-based Web site to find the information.

Academic Prose As Hypertext?

Again, it is possible to include this information in a video in the appropriate location, but there is a bookmarking or indexing issue to consider. Suppose you want to find a particular table or topic in a textbook or academic book, what would happen? The table of contents is fine, but in a lot of cases, the reader may refer to the more detailed index.

Similarly, if research paper refers to a citation or another section of the paper, the reader will next begin flipping pages until the correct reference is reached (then flip back). In other words, most academic prose is built on a hypertext model in which the text refers to different portions within the same document (internal links) as well external documents in the bibliography (external)

The genius of hypertext with linking is that tedious page flipping is replaced by the click of a mouse button. It's no accident that Web 1.0 was invented at a major research facility (i.e. CERN). Academics have been dying for links for decades. I can very easily imagine constructing a thesis on a wiki or content management system.

What about video though? I would say that video is generally a sequential which is (currently) not easily searchable unless bookmarks are manually inserted or unless a text transcript is included.


So where are we? I would say that if if video is to replace the traditional research papers, I would ask my students for the following

  • Bookmarks for each section (not just chapter, but chapter and subsection)
  • Index for tables, and maybe even for keywords (linked to time cues naturally). A separate text transcript could also be very useful here.
  • Bibliography in the credits of course but also a way to display embedded citations and footnotes...perhaps in a separate track.

FYI - I'm not envisioning that students would need to hunt down time marks, but rather that it would become common place to annotate video at the appropriate locations.

Is this doable? I think so, but I think there is another challenge to overcome and that is differentiating academic discourse from "digital storytelling". But that will have to wait for another blog entry...