The stats of success

23 02 2010

Some time ago I posted about the eStudyGuide website I set up to match our InDesign study guide process. To explain it again, briefly, the XML from our InDesign TOCs get’s uploaded to a webserver along with the PDFs – the webpage reads the XML files and renders a download page for the course you’re looking for.

Well!  Anyway!  Term has started finally and this is the first semester that I’ve had the pages also hooked in to Google Analytics. I had this weird moment of doubt at some point, that the eStudyGuides weren’t really being used, and that we’d not really contributed anything of use to the University.  Not sure why on earth I thought that.  The stats for the first couple of weeks of Term prove how useful it is.

  • Over 4000 page views already
  • Over 1300 hits already
  • Over 5.5 minutes average on each page

eStudyGuide stats

I love Google Analytics, it’s damn awesome.  I’m looking forward to seeing the trends from now on, how each term differs from the next.

Overall, the InDesign XML features have really proved essential in all of this.  There are some glitches though that I believe I’ve never mentioned.  Some times carriage returns get tagged in the TOC when you map styles to tags – which means you get an empty XML tag in your XML document.

You’ll need error checking to make sure you’re not rendering that empty tag as anything on your website, especially if the count of XML tags matches a document count like the eStudyGuide set up.

I wonder though, would it be worth doing an XML Schema and having InDesign validate it’s output with the schema when we export our TOC XML?

The whole process, exporting the XML and PDFs, and then uploading the files is a bit labourious too, and mistakes happen.  With a bit of perl/php mastery, one of the more technical sauvy guys in our team has done some brilliant reporting around the setup, as well as a script that handles that uploading – a must have.  It checks document counts with the XML tags to make sure they match, checks for typos even, missing files, and more.  Many thanks to Damo for his help.

Onwards and upwards, I wonder what the next lot of improvements to the eSGs could be 🙂

How to serve up print-documents on the web?

23 11 2009

In a quest for continuous improvement, we’re having a think about our study guides. Most authors have their documents online for students, be it PDFs (mostly) or word docs.. what the students do with those documents, I’m not entirely sure, and as far as I know, there’s no stats or research that might answer that question.

Even the stats for the eStudyGuide pages (discussed in earlier post – taking the xml from indesign to make a web front end for the study guides) don’t indicate any trend, the stats only show that people are looking at the front end, from where, for how long etc. Actually, there’s a possible answer there, I wonder if there’s any server stats on the PDFs, would the stats indicate how long the document is open in the browser, or would the stats just record the hit? I’ll have to find out. There’s got to be some data we can look at to know more about usage.

In the mean time, tell me what you would do with a PDF study guide if you were studying:

So, anyway, back to the point of this, what is really the best way to serve up the documents online? If students are indeed reading on screen, perhaps we should put some time into looking at a better way to present it all, Adobe Digital Editions for instance might be a winner. Like Acrobat Reader, its a free program, but it’s for managing and viewing eBooks. Students would be able to manage and read all their study guides on their computer (making them more convenient, mobile, and so on), plus, the epub format would be easy as to spit out of InDesign (what our study guides are created in).

Media-rich Learning Guide

6 11 2009

We had this little problem last year – we really wanted SOMETHING to do an online study/learning guide with.. well not just ‘something’, we wanted it to be media rich in that it is not just visually appealing but allowed all sorts of GUI features (like popups, tabs etc) so that it could have more media-rich content.

The reason at the time was because the course we were working on had SO many resources, from all over the place, and we thought it might be a good thing to bring everything together, in to context.  (and to make it look nice).

I started thinking of ideas for a GUI and realised one of my favourite interfaces would have to be iTunes!  The interface is called cover flow and it’s visually delicious to say the least.

iTunes coverflow

This is the iTunes coverflow GUI, nice hey?

As it turned out, after some searching the net for Flash resources, I found this awesome Open Source Initiative Flash-based cover flow project.  The beauty of it, like the beauty of iTunes, is it basically gets all its data from an XML file.  So that got me thinking.

What if the learning guide was entirely in XML?  Well, why not.  You could request a course code in your web browser, a php page could parse your request to Flash, which then loads the XML learning guide menu in coverflow, and voila, ajax the content in to the page with each click in the flash cover-flow!

I modified the Flash-based coverflow to suite our purpose.  I made the initial course trial static, in that the content was being loaded from html files, and the course-specific XML only contained details on the course topics and titles etc.  Now however I’m working on the full deal, the entire learning guide in XML.  It’s all coming together rather nicely.


We've nick-named it the HLG (hypertextual learning guide). You select your study module from the coverflow menu, and all the content loads below via ajax. The content sits in the course XML, and the XSL handles the rendering of all the variations in that content. This example has some readings, but there could also be videos, podcasts, all sorts of stuff.

Learning XSL has been a highlight of the last week, I’m still quite a noob at it, but so far I’ve done some awesome things – I can handle all sorts of variations in the XML (which means variations in content) and render it on the page nicely – videos come up with a video icon and use the jQuery prettyBox plugin, documents come up with a document icon, abstracts have the abstract viewable via a jQuery clueTip plugin.. its all coming together.

The setup

I have some more work to do with the XML/XSL, but I think it will all go well. At the end of it, I'll basically have a single php file, that takes course code requests.. the page will talk to a library of standard resources like the images in the cover-flow menu, the background images, css, and javascripts. It'll then talk to the requested XML (via a php transform and XSL file) to get all the details and content.

Phase 3 will be doing an administration interface, to manage the XML.. ohh fun.

Looking at InCopy for our Study Guides

16 12 2008

Given the current situation at the University, I want to see how we can continue to improve the process we started with our Study Guides. (earlier posts explain this process, including InDesign and it’s XML features to do various things).

I thought, I might as well look at InCopy.. So.. I’ve looked at it, and I’ve been thinking. It seems like a good tool for starters, I like the whole assignment based workflow idea where multiple authors can work on pieces of a document simultaneously. However. At this time I don’t see the value in adding InCopy to the study guide process and I’m going to abort my testing on it. Unless we significantly change things, it’s not going to impact or improve our workloads in any great beneficial way as far as I can see.

To get big gains on workflow we’d need to use InCopy completely instead of MS Word, and thus we would need to either:

ONE: get our real authors to use InCopy, our lecturers would then be more directly involved in their study material creation, but the downside is I’m sure they wouldn’t have time..? We would then take the designer role and manage the content and assignments – just like a real publishing house. OR;

TWO: get InDesign Server, develop a front end which lets authors edit their content without needing InCopy. This would take time, money, money and I don’t know what else! It’d be great, extensible, but we’d need to be careful and ensure that it met our real needs and improved our processes without getting carried away.

So, where to next? Who knows.

This is what I’d do if I had unlimited skills, time, and money from the University:

Look at MS Word’s XML docx format, investigate how we can effectively (automatically) transport this structured XML content in to InDesign, or generally just a more usable XML format than straight docx.

It’d be great to have a front end where the content could then be checked out for any needed updates – checked out by Authors or Designers – then at a certain date (or manually) the server does all the work.. TOCs, tagging, footers, PDFs for print and online, XML exports, web pages to display the content as well, the whole lot.

Hrm, wouldn’t that be nice.