|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2009, 25(4), 459-470.
Development of course material in a multi-author environment
University of Bath
Software for text processing and presentation design is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Nevertheless, it is difficult to find a good solution for collaborative writing of technical course material, allowing the creation of high quality lecture notes and presentation slides from a single source. This article presents a new editing framework for the development of continuing professional development (CPD) teaching material. The courses are developed and delivered jointly by a team of academics, and comprise various engineering subjects. The described workflows, however, are equally applicable for any higher education course. The needs of authors are explored, and good teaching and learning practices are established. Based on these investigations, a catalogue of software requirements is created and compared with features of current commercial and open source applications. Despite the general trend to use graphical interfaces, it is concluded that the workflow has to be based on source files written in a markup language in order to fulfil all specifications. Although the Extensible Markup Language (XML) has become increasingly popular during the last decade, a LaTeX based solution is preferred. Reasons for that decision are discussed, and the developed editing framework is described in detail.
Courses are usually delivered in 4-day blocks during the academic term. Students who want a formal qualification can obtain a Postgraduate Certificate, Diploma, or MSc by attending multiple modules and fulfilling certain assessment criteria. Lectures are presented by various academics in the department, and tutorials, design exercises and laboratory sessions are run by research officers and technical staff. Five different courses are offered regularly at the university, and one course can be completed via distance learning. Occasionally, special courses are delivered, which are tailored to the needs of a particular company. The focus and contents of the standard modules has evolved steadily over the years. When the education requirements of the industrial customers change, or interests and backgrounds of teaching staff varies, the lecture material is adapted accordingly.
The last major review took place in the late 1990s, when all electronic documents were converted to Microsoft Office format. The notes were divided into chapters, which usually correspond to a 1-hour lecture. Appropriate presentations were created in PowerPoint. Since this review, individual members of staff have edited material for their lectures independently. Before each course, lecture note masters were updated and photocopied, and electronic presentation, if available, collected. This was a labour intensive process, as the electronic documents were scattered over multiple PCs. It is easy to imagine that the overall quality of the courses has not necessarily improved over the years, mainly because individual teaching staff did not know what the others were doing. Repetitions of material in multiple lectures, or presentation in an illogical order became increasingly common problems. Furthermore, the visual appearance of notes and presentations became unsatisfactory due to a lack of strict guidelines and software limitations.
In 2007, it was decided to revise all courses and update the lecture material taking into account the experience gained in the past. Particular focus was put on developing a new document creation and management strategy, which is suitable for a multi-author environment. The following sections explore the demands of authors and students, examine various possible solutions, and describe the developed editing framework, which is released as free software under the GNU General Public Licence (FSF, 2007).
The notes support the presentations and serve as an important reference during tutorials and design exercises. Most delegates use them to solve real problems in the workplace, too. In order to enable quick access to the required information, extensive cross-referencing and automatic generation of a document index should be supported by the typesetting system.
Feedback collected over many years suggests that most participants are sequential learners, who prefer to see direct problem solving with detailed explanation of individual steps (Felder & Silverman, 1988). They become dissatisfied if the lecture notes do not follow the slides in the exact order; a situation that commonly occurs when lecturers update presentations without changing the notes, or vice versa. It is therefore desirable, to generate all material from the same source, so that inconsistencies are avoided.
Kiewra, DuBois, Christian and McShane (1988) have shown that students perform better if they are taking notes. However, Locke (1977) observed that students fail to record a significant proportion of important information, especially if delivered verbally. Considering that CPD courses are targeted towards engineering professionals who often have little practice in note taking, it appears advantageous to hand out a complete text instead of just lecture outlines or copies of slides.
Visually attractive course material can enhance the learning experience, but does not guarantee a good lecture. Research has shown that well designed electronic presentations increase the students' performance (Lowry, 1999) and enhance their overall perception of the course (Apperson, Laws & Scepansky, 2004). Graphics and animations can support understanding, but only if they are relevant (Bartsch & Cobern, 2003; Tversky, Bauer-Morrison & Betrancourt, 2002). These findings imply that the typesetting program should produce a clean, consistent layout, and enable the inclusion of graphics and animations, but discourage authors from adding superfluous effects.
If notes contain references to slide numbers, certain passages can be located more easily. This encourages students to make annotations, and stops them searching while they should be listening. Presentation slides on the other hand, should show an outline corresponding to sections in the notes, indicating clearly what has been talked about already, and what will be addressed shortly. Outlines also help the speakers to pace themselves. Because different topics are presented by different lecturers, it is not possible to start with the next chapter if under running, or finish the lecture on the next day if time runs out.
Especially in technical subjects, short animations, which visualise mechanisms, machine operations, or graphical results, are a good way to provide respite from long mathematical derivations. Interactive simulations also encourage discussion between teacher and students, and can be used to prepare for upcoming laboratory sessions. A facility to include such material in presentations would be beneficial.
Although numerous tools for computer supported collaborative work have been developed, Noël and Robert (2004) found that groupware tools are not used in most projects due to complexity, unfamiliar working environment, installation issues, or simply because authors prefer writing in isolation. Nevertheless, most participants in their empirical study believed that collaborative writing leads to a better product. When asked what software functionality is particularly helpful, the most popular answer was being able to see changes made to a document, followed by version control, adding comments, identifying who wrote what, and synchronous access to files.
Most investigated projects were short to medium term (a few days to one year) and resulted in one final document. CPD course development, however, is a continuous process, stretching over many years and involving dozens of documents and a varying group of editors. All documents should be compatible and feature the same style, so that lectures can be moved from one course to another. These points translate into additional requirements on the editing software: long term readability and compatibility of source files, support for structured editing, and prevention of ad hoc formatting.
Adobe FrameMaker supports writing in an XML based workflow, and is the most promising of all commercial applications. It encourages structured authoring, has good support for maths, and allows single source variations of the same document for different purposes, including conditional output functionality. It was not considered further due to the proprietary file formats, lack of support for Mac OSX and Linux, and the relatively high cost.
Open source solutions based on the XML framework include Docbook (Walsh, 1999) and the eLesson Markup Language, or eLML (Fisler & Bleisch, 2006). Both are specialised markup languages defined by XML schemas (XML-Schema and Relax NG, respectively). Docbook was originally developed for writing technical documents related to computer hardware and software, whereas eLML is an environment for creating online and distance learning material. Using the Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL), source files can be transformed into a variety of output formats including (X)HTML for online viewing, PDF for printing, or LaTeX source code for high quality typesetting (Lamport, 1994). eLML allows creation of packages for integration with learning management systems (LMS) like Moodle and WebCT. Typical XML workflows are shown in Figure 1. The main shortcoming of DocBook, eLML, and similar projects is the amount of work required to create or customise XSL transformations and the handling of maths. Although equations can be included in XML documents with the Mathematical Markup Language (MathML), it is too verbose for manual editing.
Figure 1: Typical XML workflows for creating documents
in various output formats from a single source file
An interesting XML based alternative is the Integrated Content Environment, ICE (Sefton, 2006). It is a web based content management application for print and online output, which uses the OpenDocument Format (ODF) as storage format. Hence, authors can develop material with the familiar MS Word or OOo Writer applications. By providing templates, guidelines, and training for authors, as well as tools for version control and collaborative editing, some of the inherent disadvantages of standard word processors are overcome with this approach. Similar to other authoring environments for distance and e-learning, it is targeted towards publishing websites and printed notes. Presentations for face to face lectures are not supported well, mainly because XML separates content and layout completely. Creating sophisticated slides, however, involves careful page-wise layout of content, which is very difficult to automate.
Considering that there is no immediate need for online content, the proposed solution was to skip the XML stage and start with LaTeX sources. LaTeX is a page layout language, which mixes semantic and formatting tags. This allows fine tuning the design while still maintaining the advantages of structured editing. In the past, LaTeX was known for exceptional typesetting quality of printed publications only. This has changed over the last few years, when PDF started to replace the legacy DVI output format. Nowadays, all functionality offered by the PDF format can be accessed with LaTeX, including hyperlinks, interactive forms, advanced page transition effects, and embedded animations and movies, making it suitable for the creation of screen presentations.
All LaTeX sources and macros are simple text files, which guarantees long term readability. Because of the huge number of existing documents, the community generally aims to make new versions of the software backwards compatible. Furthermore, converters exist to translate source files to XML based formats with minimum losses, so LaTeX can be considered as a safe preservation format (Barnes, 2007).
Figure 2: Creation of a presentation and a chapter in the course notes for an individual lecture
Figure 3: Compilation of lecture notes for a course
Setting up a collaborative editing environment is trivial, because LaTeX source files are plain text. Therefore, standard version control applications can be used to provide advanced functionality such as synchronous editing, tracking changes, merging, tagging, and branching. Subversion is a particularly suitable revision control system, as it can handle text and binary files. It also allows renaming, and provides some advanced functionality by property metadata support. Access rights to the central repository can be assigned based on the roles of the individual project members, eg full access for authors, read only access for all staff in the department, etc.
Very strict naming conventions have been established to handle the large number of source files. All files for one lecture are stored in a directory with a name derived from the lecture title. This 8-character base name is the first part of all files corresponding to that lecture. The second part of each file name is derived from the file content. Although this strategy seems to be very restrictive, it guarantees compatibility on every modern computer platform and avoids confusion due to different file naming habits of the authors.
Occasionally, there is a trade-off between creating complex conditional output or simply writing separate segments for different output media. The general guideline is to avoid retyping equations, tables, and other complex content, while the text for notes and presentations may differ. For over 30 lectures created to date, it is estimated that approximately 5% of all content has been written separately for notes and presentations.
Two different workflows can be used to create lecture material: write the chapter and then add frame environments afterwards, or create the presentation slides first and then extend the content for the notes. The method chosen mainly depends on the existing material. In general, it is possible to transform existing files written in a word processor to LaTeX, in which case the first option is most efficient. If only transparencies or outlines are available, the second way may be preferred.
Figure 4: Styles of the printed lecture notes and
presentations for lectures and design exercises
Separate presentation styles were developed for lectures and tutorials. The former maximises the available space on each slide. It features a navigation bar at the top showing section titles and the number of slides in each section as small bullet points. The current position is highlighted, which helps to estimate the remaining time of the lecture. All navigational elements are implemented as hyperlinks, enabling jumps to different sections without scrolling. The slide design for tutorials puts even more emphasis on structure. During long mathematical derivations it is helpful to know which steps are currently being performed and which are still to follow. This is achieved by displaying a navigation bar on the right showing all section and subsection titles. No distinct title bar or footer is displayed, because calculations often flow from one slide to the next.
The feedback received from students after the first four courses with new notes and presentations was very positive. Some even asked about the authoring system and where to get it from. Comments included: "excellent visual appearance", "slide references in notes help a lot during the lectures", and "very good course material". The only complaint was that some of the slides look a bit "dry" and should be improved with more pictures. This, of course, can be rectified easily.
Currently, printed notes are handed out to students in book form at the beginning of each course, and presentations are not distributed. Due to the growing demand for e-learning, however, ways for the creation of online material need to be explored. It is possible to compile sophisticated web pages from a LaTeX source using converters, which either transform the LaTeX source file directly (e.g. LaTeX2HTML, TtH, Hevea) or derives them from a DVI file (Tex4ht). Similar to XML based solutions discussed above, mathematical equations pose problems, as they are difficult to describe in HTML. Some of the converters include bitmaps, some use regular fonts and tables, and some can produce MathML output. With increasing support of MathML by most web browsers, this will probably be the preferred option. If this approach works, distance learning courses can be developed in parallel with standard courses, and authors who are already familiar with LaTeX do not have to learn another markup language.
Flash based animations are already being used for visualising complex relations and computer based tutorials. In future it is planned to make extended use of Flash for interactive content, forms for online assessment with immediate feedback, and short quizzes during lectures.
Ultimately, course material has to benefit the students. The current system automatically produces extensive cross-references and navigation aids, including navigation bars on slides, references to slide numbers in the notes, and keyword indices. Inconsistencies between presentations and notes are avoided by the single-source strategy, while the structured editing approach with global design templates guarantees a uniform layout. The PDF output format allows graphical material and animations based on Flash technology to be included, which is helpful for visualising complex technical content.
With the central Subversion file repository, the management of the development process became a lot easier compared to the old workflow involving paper master copies of notes and scattered presentation files. Tracking and merging changes, tagging versions, and compiling the latest revision of course material with all corrections is trivial. The only drawback discovered so far is the relatively steep learning curve for new project members who are unfamiliar with the technology. However, the increased effort at the beginning is quickly compensated by the timesaving later on.
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|Author: Michael Schlotter, Technical Manager, Centre for Power Transmission and Motion Control, |
Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bath, Bath, BA2 7AY, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Schlotter, M. (2009). Development of course material in a multi-author environment. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25(4), 459-470. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet25/schlotter.html