Digital course readers

When I took over the modules I currently teach, I inherited several folders containing the course readers for each subject, which had been “developed” over many years. They consisted mainly of a selection of photocopied or typed pages, loosely related, inconsistently formatted, poorly referenced, often duplicated and impossible to search. When students needed to find a paragraph or definition, it was a case of trying to remember if it was more towards the beginning, middle or end of the reader, opening it up and flicking through it page by page until they found what they were looking for. This clearly wouldn’t do.

The readers had to be converted into a digital format. Some of the more obvious advantages of digital text over printed text are highlighted in the introduction of Michael Wesch‘s video titled “The machine is us/ing us“. While the video is actually about the semantic web and how we’re creating meaningful relationships between content through our actions (clicking links), it does illustrate that the starting point is digital text.

I’ve spent a lot of my free time over the past year or so typing, collating, editing, formatting, referencing and indexing all of the original content from those course readers, as well as adding images, and links to videos (mainly YouTube) and open access research articles (like PubMed Central, BioMed Central and IJAHSP). It’s now possible to auto-generate a table of contents, which eliminates searching in the printed version, and regularly updating the reader to better reflect the latest evidence is trivial. I’ve added self-study questions related to additional reading after each section, as well as empty space for guided reflection on the topic just covered. The text is consistently formatted, as are the headings and references, which provide a framework for an easier understanding of the work.

I’ve also provided the digital version of each course reader to the students, so that they can update it as they see fit. I hope that as they develop as physiotherapists, their digital readers might be upgraded often and possibly converted to other formats. I’ve had one student ask about installing a wiki locally on his machine and moving the content into it. Finally, I removed the generic copyright notice on the cover and added a Creative Commons license.

The next logical step is to move the “official” course reader into a shared wiki and encouraging students to make changes there. If this were to be integrated with social bookmarking and blogs, it might facilitate real engagement with the subject, which I think might be a good thing.


I first mentioned Zotero a while ago but didn’t go into very much detail in that post.  Since then, I’ve been experimenting with it a bit and am really starting to enjoy it.  It’s a Firefox extension that facilitates the research process by streamlining the collection of information accessed through the browser.  With more and more academic content becoming available online through open access journals, it’s an innovative method of aggregating and managing content for research.

Zotero has a decent set of content management features that really do a good job of making it easy to work with the information you save.  I won’t go into the specifics here because the quick start guide makes it really clear.  As well as the content management features, it’s also very good at recognising semantic content on the web and giving you options to import that content into it’s database.  For example, if you’re browsing PubMed, Zotero is able to import citation information and then to export it in many different formatting styles, including APA.

I actually don’t use Zotero for any academic content at the moment.  What I find it really useful for is annotating and working through ideas I come across in blogs.  I find that I can clarify my own thoughts around educational technology, using Zotero as a scrapbook to develop those ideas.  Which brings me to my only problem with Zotero.  I only use it for blogs right now because it’s only really useful for content you access through the browser, which is a major limitation for me.  While it’s true that most of my literature is accessed through the browser initially, I still keep local copies that I prefer to work with.

Although I think the application is great in it’s current form, I’m really hoping that the developers expand it’s scope.  Maybe make it a standalone tool that I can use to manage all my articles, no matter if they’re on- or offline and no matter what format they’re in.  I also need more space within the app because sometimes it can feel crowded (especially the right hand panel), and making it standalone will free up a lot of real estate by taking it out of the browser.  Note: you can run Zotero in a full tab, but I like to be able to read the blog while making notes.

Those things aside, this is a great browser extension that I’d definitely recommend checking out.

Screenshot of Zotero
Screenshot of Zotero

Pubmed: past, present and future

I came across this article discussing the past, present and future of the Pubmed database. I was browsing through the Medicine 2.0 blog and thought that the article may be relevant for some of us who use Pubmed.

The article doesn’t give a detailed review of all the possible tools available to more effectively use the database but it does provide a few extra ideas for those of us who probably only ever used the Search bar. It also discusses some of the more frustrating problems that I’ve certainly come across, most notably the return of abstracts completely unrelated to my search query.

Here is the direct link to the article: