Dyspraxia is a serious learning disability for 250.000 children in elementary schools in France. Not that French children are particularly disadvantaged. It just happens that it seems to be a very wide spread kind of disability and the proportion of dyspraxic children should roughly be the same from country to country. In order to overcome this obstacle, the nonprofit organization I currently work for is leading the way toward adapting the ergonomy of existing paper textbooks and helping textbook editors creating the accessible (and digital) textbook of the future. Maybe you’ve heard of any similar initiatives ?
Their first attemps were made using a French e-learning authoring tool called Didapages. Up to version 1.1 it was free for non-commerciale uses. Version 2 is much more commercially oriented. And closed-source. And only runs on Windows. And despite its ease of use for educators and non-IT specialists, it has several drawbacks and limitations, partly due to the technology it uses, Flash, and partly because its developer does not think he can build a sustainable business model using free software licensing. Too bad. I am looking for an alternative solution, as some part of its user community does.
Free software packages such as Xerte, eXe, Scenari, Docebo and others look attractive. But none is the ideal solution : either they are also based on Flash, or their community is almost non-existant and their development may have stopped some time ago. Educators are not developers. And the crowd of educators might be missing a critical mass of developers in order for a very striving free software community to have developped around any elearning authoring tool. The bells and whistles of proprietary products have much more appeal to the average teacher.
From a technology perspective, I had a look at open standards for acessible, animated and interactive contents. W3C, please show me the way. The relevant standards seem to be :
- SMIL for animated documents and for limited interactivity, possibly also combined/extended with Ecmascript for more interactivity ;
- SVG for graphics : there is such a thing as SVG Animation, and Ecmascript can be embedded in a SVG file in order to provide more interactivity and to overcome some current interactivity limitation of SMIL ; SVG is for vector graphics but could also embed (and animate) bitmap graphics (used as sprites).
The advantage of SMIL and SMIL-animated SVG over Flash seems to be that SMIL is a declarative technology. This “document” model allows less dependency on scripting and more flexibility through earlier or further transformations (with templating, XSLT or content management engines). This allows the animation and, to a lesser extent, interactivity aspects of educational content to be a native part of the content itself and not to be an afterthought. It facilitate later and looser coupling with further technologies. It allows more ReSTfullness (restafari !). It does not cause cancer. Well, I don’t know. It tastes good. (note to myself : consider discarding this whole paragraph) :)
Flash applets, on the other hand, can be made somewhat accessible but this may not be an easy task for the average Flash developer, and SMIL sounds like a much more accessibility-friendly technology. There even is a DAISY profile for SMIL documents. I should have a deeper look into these profiles.
But interactivity with specific application logic seems to require a bit of scripting anyway, doesn’t it ? Here comes Ecmascript with SMIL, which should probably be limited to a minimum. Can you always provide accessibility-safe fallback mechanisms for a SMIL document if you introduce scripting for interactivity ? I am not sure. I will have to figure this out. Maybe the DAISY SMIL profile tells me more about this.
After a first glance at these standards and being an non-expert in animated contents, it seems to me that there ARE available and mature open standards which cover most of the accessible and digital textbook related concerns. There should be no need to develop any addiction for Flash authoring systems.
The main problem is not in web browser support, though. The main problem is that there is almost no (free software) authoring tools for such animation and interactivity technologies. Limsee2 is a code editor/development environment for SMIL (does it support SVG animation ?) but its INRIA authors stopped working on it some time ago. And there seems to be no real community behind it. Limsee3 is not a further version of Limsee 2 (despite the name). It is a WYSIWYG SMIL authoring tool but it does not seem to support SVG animation (does it ?). And it may also probably stop being developed as soon as the governmental subsidies behind the corresponding research project end. Yet another research package soon to be dying on the labs shelves ?
This sends me back to my above observation about the non-existence of a sufficiently-big or proficient-enough community of educators who can use AND develop such advanced authoring tools with accessibility in mind. Too bad…
Madswatter and Ajax animator are very early prototypes for animation authoring environments. There are other free software attempts currently aiming at proposing a proper animation editor: clash/geesas (which is a fork of pencil) and moing… Maybe you’ve heard of other projects ? Inkscape has some plan for introducing SMIL authoring capabilities. There even is a mockup of the user interface for the timeline-based authoring of animations. This is work in progress. Well, maybe this is more than just a work on blueprints : the Inkscape roadmap mentions simple and limited animation authoring as a feature for their next release (version 0.48) ! The 0.49 version should focus on much more support for animated SVG. Exciting ! This topic is hot right now. Itches are starting to be scratched a lot !
That being said, I realize I already have a tool for authoring animations. It’s Open Office Impress. And the Impress wiki tells me that its animation are based on SMIL ! When I have a look at the xml file saved by Impress (inside its ODP zipped archive), I can indeed see SMIL element names and attribute names mixed with Open Office specific elements and attributes, even though the resulting document may not be SMIL compliant, strictly speaking. A limited effort (XLST or a custom extension) may allow to produce real SMIL documents.
At the moment, I feel like the ideal authoring chain of tools for educational content / textbooks would be as follows :
- Inkscape in order to create the graphism, layout and animation of individual educational “applets” : cross words, coloring books, simulations, geometry tools, … the result being saved as an animated (and partial SMIL-interactivity) SVG file with event-hooks being defined so that we can go to the next step
- an ECMAscript code editor (I am not into this emacs thing… Eclipse anyone ?) in order to transform this animated SVG file into an animated AND interactive SVG piece of content
- Open Office Impress in order to create the layout, structure and general content of your course/manual/textbook chapter/whatever, inserting the SVG file and adding further animations as well as individual multimedia items (sound clips, videos, hyperlinks), the result being saved as a SMIL/HTML document
- More scripting edition of this document if needed (but would it be needed at this stage ? I can’t tell)
- CSS styling would be made ready for the document at this stage or earlier (can Open Office make any use of existing CSS stylesheets or would it always mix them into its own content format ?)
- a SCORM packager such as Reload Editor would import this content and allow the author to specify the SCORM relevant bits of information, the result being saved as a Moodle-ready package
- Your favority Moodle-like LMS platform would serve the content to users, possibly running on their laptop in an offline fashion
This whole chain of tools would probably benefit from being powered by a web content management system (Plone ? Drupal ?) so that the assembly line is smoother and allows widespread collaboration, with workflows, access control and so on. No need to get stuck back to the Dreamweaver era of the I-am-waiting-for-the-Dreamweaver-guy-to-update-my-textbook.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think ?