Five Things

A number of recent posts on here have been about a work-related project involving digital textbooks and today's post will be along the same vein, albeit with a different angle. Last month five schools in Japan were selected to trial a digital textbook system that I had developed as an alternative resource for teachers to use in the classroom. The system they were expected to use was quite a bit different from the tools everyone has gotten accustomed to over the last few years and, as one would expect, there was quite a bit of friction as a result. My alternative was released while still very much an alpha build1 and the response was rather muted, in that there was quite literally almost no feedback unless someone was specifically asked for an opinion. The silence was incredibly atypical, given that teachers are generally very vocal about their needs and expectations to deliver quality lessons2. So, not wanting to release the software nationwide without a good bit of feedback from the people using the tool, a survey with five questions and a free-comment box was put out to collect feedback from the 5 schools. Of the 90-odd teachers at those locations, 38 responded.

This is what I learned:

People Think It's Ready

84% of respondents said that the software should be released nationwide with the expectation that there will continue to be updates and refinements every couple of days. Given what's in the development pipeline, I can certainly live up to this expectation for the next couple of months.

People Love a Feature that was Created on a Whim

Audio scripts are incredibly important for teachers, and these were built right into the textbooks of the system my software was supplanting. However, one of the concerns that people had raised was that the textbook pages were just too long. So, because the audio scripts were built into the HTML pages, I simply rolled them up to ensure they'd be invisible unless explicitly requested. Despite some of the more complicated features built into the new system that I thought people would like3, this was not one I expected anyone to comment on.

People are Not Tied to the Web

The new textbook system from HQ had one specific feature that should have made it superior to the textbook systems I've developed locally over the last few years: everything was HTML. In the LMS I had developed a few years back, the digital textbook system used a combination of Markdown-formatted text — which was rendered as HTML — for the teacher's book, and high-resolution images for the student's book. This was because the source material came in PDF, and I'll be darned before I ask teachers to load a 90MB PDF and scroll to the page they need before teaching a lesson. To get around the PDF limitation, the student book was converted to a series of 2,300-pixel-wide JPG images and called only when required. This mean that when a person opened a page, they only had to load a subset of the textbook. This resulted in an average download of about 3MB in 5 seconds when opening a textbook on a school wifi network. The system from the US, because it uses HTML, can theoretically serve the same information in a fraction of the bandwidth and, because it's mostly text-based, the data transfer could be measured in the kilobytes.

Unfortunately, this never seemed to matter to teachers. While some said they very much prefer the HTML rendering, which would make font-resizing and whatnot possible, two-thirds of respondents said they wanted the high-resolution images instead. This surprised me.

People Prefer My New System Over My Legacy System

Despite being just an alpha, respondents clearly preferred the new system over the textbooks that are built into the LMS that I invested so much time and energy into. This intrigues me, as I've heard very little feedback from the schools about the textbooks in the LMS. There were issues with pinch-to-zoom and swiping between pages reported from time to time, but that was about it. Nobody asked for new features to be added. Nobody seemed to complain. It was just something everyone quietly used. However, after seeing two newer ways to deliver digital classroom materials, the feedback is pretty clear: people weren't all that interested in the first thing I created for them, either. They just weren't particularly vocal about its shortcomings.

Which leads me to the main thing that I'm seeing across the educational industry.

Most Teacher Resources Aren't That Great

There are a couple of developers I know who work at competing schools. We generally don't share the details of our work with each other for obvious reasons, but we do tend to identify patterns and trends across the industry. Ever since the iPad was released, textbook companies like National Geographic and Pearson have worked pretty hard to put out digital versions of their books. Some companies have been toying with implementing augmented reality into their titles4 and just about everyone is talking about using some form of Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning without actually providing a sound use case for the technology. The pattern is pretty clear, though: the focus is on the students and the sale of textbooks. Everything else is secondary, including the support for teachers.

Looking at my LMS a little more critically, I can see now where the digital textbook system falls down and could be improved5. While the textbook tools that I wrote for use in the classroom back in 2014 scratched the itches of the time, they are an incomplete solution for today.

In addition to the five questions on the survey there was a free comments field where people could write whatever feedback they wanted. In order to encourage honest feedback, all responses were kept anonymous. Some people were straightforward about what they disliked about my software. Others offered suggestions on how to improve it for their specific use cases. This feedback will be absolutely invaluable in the coming weeks as new features and fixes are written to address the issues raised. More than this, though, it shows the importance of reaching out to the people who use the software more often. I've always encouraged teachers to get in touch when they find a bug or want to see a new feature added, but people will rarely do so due to the very real time constraints they face during their days in the classroom. If I really want to build better tools for schools, I need to actively reach out and make the feedback systems as painless as possible. This sounds like common sense, but how often does anyone get an invitation from a software vendor to provide meaningful feedback beyond a request for ratings in an App Store somewhere?

A lot of software targeted at teachers really isn't that great. By reaching out and including them in the process, it might be possible to change this … for my employer at the very least.

  1. An "alpha-build" is generally considered a very early version of a piece of software. So early that it's not even a beta, as beta comes after alpha in the Greek alphabet.

  2. And thank goodness for this. If my colleagues in the classrooms weren't passionate about teaching, then it would lead to the demise of the entire organisation.

  3. The feature I thought most people would like was full-library search. However, looking at the API, this feature has been used exactly 6 times in three weeks.

  4. There's an interesting history book I've seen that will show army movements through a phone or tablet when the accompanying software is installed.

  5. The system is due to be shutdown and scrapped at the end of this year, so I doubt any time or effort will be expended on improving the textbooks in the old system. The newer system, however, is a playground that can see experimental features rolled out and tested.