Open-access educational apps

The LinkedIn article Education at All Ages might be of interest to some people. It’s focused on problems of low education and illiteracy in the United States, but the resources it’s talking about are freely available, so it fits here!

The ethos is explained towards the end, and it’s certainly in line with my own aims:

As VR and artificial intelligence converge with demonetized mobile connectivity, we are finally witnessing an era in which no one will be left behind.

Whether in pursuit of fundamental life skills, professional training, linguistic competence or specialized retooling, users of all ages, career paths, income brackets and goals are now encouraged to be students, no longer condemned to stagnancy.

Traditional constraints need no longer prevent non-native speakers from gaining an equal foothold, or specialists from pivoting into new professions, or low income parents from staking new career paths….

The article doesn’t give links to the actual software, which is a bit frustrating, but I managed to track down the following:

Rukuanyang: This is the People ForWords app, which is called Codex: Lost Worlds of Atlantis and runs on Android (which I don’t have, so I can’t comment on whether it’s any good or not!)

Learning Upgrade App: This runs on Apple IOS and Google Play. I downloaded it to my iPhone and found it’s easy to use, with a reasonably attractive interface.

Does anyone else have any favourite free educational apps they’d like to recommend?

Runs on Android, so I haven’t been able to test it yet, but looks like fun!

Let down by Google

The Fredures search engine is powered by Google Custom Search which, in principle, is a fantastic resource, making it possible to target specified websites in order to get highly focused results.

Unfortunately, however, Google has curtailed one of the most powerful features of its custom search. It used to be possible for the search engine to extract links from web pages. For various reasons, which I won’t go into, this was a fantastic feature for my purposes, and I made extensive use of it when I set up the Fredures search engine a couple of years ago.

However, Google disabled this feature last year, and this changes the whole way these search engines work. I knew the change had happened, but I have only just started to realize how badly it affects the way Fredures works (or doesn’t work)!

I am currently looking at ways round the problem. This sets me back even further than I already am. It seems as if I am taking two steps backwards for every step forwards. My initial target of getting everything running smoothly by the end of January is already impossible. Now I’m wondering whether the new target (to go fully operational sometime in February) is feasible…

The best-laid plans of mice and men…

Clearly I am not going to make my January 31 deadline for launching the Educational Hub website…

First it was technical glitches, like menus that work fine on a computer but not on a mobile phone. I’m sorting that one out, slowly, but now I’ve gone down with flu!

One day is just too short! I want to get the website up and running properly and get back to making videos, but everything seems to be receding further from my grasp even as I reach out for it. I suppose there’s a lesson in there somewhere!

Early English Books Online-Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP)

Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO=TCP)

This is another database resource, and it’s one I’ve used a lot. It’s the result of a collaboration between ProQuest, a for-profit company, and the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford, and the Council on Library and Information Resources, with the cooperation of some 150 other libraries around the world.

Why I am writing about a commercial resource when my whole purpose is to promote open-access resources? Well, it’s because 25,368 texts published before 1700 came into the public domain just a few years ago, and the story of how that happened is an interesting example of how universities and libraries have interacted with the private sector to create a database. More about that later.

What they say

” 130,000 works, microfilmed over 70 years from more than 200 libraries worldwide, were made available online by ProQuest in one collection. Early English Books Online (EEBO) is now one of the most successful research collections ProQuest has ever produced and it is used by students and scholars in over 1,000 institutions worldwide


If you’re paying attention here (and you’ll need to, because it’s complicated!) you’ll notice that they are talking about Early English Books Online (EEBO), not Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP), which is a different kettle of fish.

Here’s the point. EEBO is not open access. I consists of PDF files that have not been run through an optical character reader (OCR). If you want to see the actual pages of these early modern texts this is what you need, but there’s no way you can get access to it except through a university or some other institution. Well, I guess if you were a billionaire you could take out a subscription and not notice it, but it’s priced way beyond what the average person could afford.

So what is EEBO-TCP, and how is it connected to EEBO? Well, as you might expect, having digitized all these books as PDF files, the next thing people wanted to do with them was make them searchable. EEBO-TCP consists of (aat the time of writing) 58,531 EEBO texts converted into text-searchable plain text.

“Wait a minute!” I hear you cry. “Didn’t you say there were 23,568 texts?

Ah! So you have been paying attention. Yes, that’s right. 23,568 texts are in the public domain. But a further 34,963 texts are still only accessible if you have a log-in. Furthermore, if you have a log-in (which, you’ll remember, basically means you have to be a member of a participating institution) you can click through from the plain text version to the PDFs. This is particularly useful for those books which do not mark the page number – and many (perhaps most) early modern books do not mark page numbers. If you can see the PDF you can figure out the signature or folio, which is what was used before page numbers came into vogue, but if you can’t see the PDF you can access the text but you can’t give a proper reference for it.

Smart, huh? I mean smart from ProQuest’s point of view. The text-readable material that has come into the public domain is a fantastic resource, but it would be just that much better if you could access the PDFs, but that requires a subscription.

This is the way “freemiums” work. A “freemium” is a resource that gives you a certain amount free, but holds back features you can only get by paying for them. They offer something, but they’ve got more than they offer.

Still, something’s better than nothing, and the 25,000+ public domain texts are still a resource worth knowing about if you’re interested in the literature of that period.

So how does it work?

A couple of years ago a colleague of mine in the world of antiquarian books posted a Christmas message on Facebook featuring what he said was the earliest occurrence of the salutation “Merry Christmas” in print. That’s what the Oxford English Dictionary (another resource you have to pay for if you want it in its complete form!) says, and that’s what he was going by.

Without wanting to go into killjoy mode I felt it was worth putting his claim to the test and searched for “Merry Christmas” on EEBO-TCP. I found that the first occurrence with this spelling was in 1577, several decades earlier than the text my colleague had featured in his Facebook post.

In the same way, it has been possible to show that a fair number of the expressions credited to Shakespeare had in fact found their way into print before he used them. We can also establish patterns of usage. For example, we can check the use of the word “cruelty” in proximity to the word “Catholic” to see how closely these two things were connected in people’s minds, and we can check the frequency of such usage over time, to get some idea of whether attitudes changed, or were related to specific events, such as the Gunpowder Plot.

Of course, we can’t just go by the raw results. We need to examine each result and see the full context, but being able to isolate all the relevant texts in this way is something that people could only have dreamed about until just a few years ago.

Slowly, the database is redefining our understanding of the early modern period. It’s frustrating that the whole database isn’t open access, together with the PDFs that underlie it, but it’s still a lot better than nothing!

The Internet Archive

The Internet Archive is a massive database, probably the biggest one out there. It houses digitized versions of millions of books, journals, magazines, audiobooks, videos and much more.

It also takes “snapshots” of websites, providing a history of changes made at any given URL at any time in its history. This resource is called the Wayback Machine.

This is particularly valuable if you are looking for something that used to be available at a particular URL but is no longer there. Using the Wayback Machine you can find that information again and – invaluably if you are citing it as an academic reference or something like that – it will tell you when that information was available at that URL and when it ceased to be available. The Wayback Machine provides data on 330 billion websites!

The Internet Archive is funded by a number of bodies, among them the National Science Foundation, the Council of Library Information Resources, and the Institute of Library and Museum Services.

What they say

“The Internet Archive, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, the print disabled, and the general public. Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.”

What I say

This is one of those resources that I just keep going back to! How many times have I searched elsewhere in vain for an out-of-print book only to find it on the Internet Archive!

There may be an issue with its funding; quite a lot of it seems to come from sources linked directly or indirectly to the American government. As the Society of American Archivists points out, archiving is never entirely neutral; there are always choices to be made. However, as far as I can make out, the Internet Archive is constantly expanding the frontiers of its activities, making as much material available as possible:

“Even the Internet Archive, a repository of online content, has positioned itself as a tool of accountability through the Wayback Machine and its recent endeavor to collect the 45th president’s online statements, interviews, and sound bites.”

TLDR: Whatever the pros and cons of its archiving policy, the Internet Archive is too huge and comprehensive to ignore!

What’s next?

Once I get the coding sorted out, the next step is going to be an online form for people to create a listing on Edhub. That’s much easier and requires a lot less input than creating web pages on the site, and a listing can always be expanded into web pages later on.

But I’m only an amateur when it comes to coding, and creating a form that will do the trick is testing me to the limits. I’m probably going to have to call in some outside help on this one, but I’m hoping it’ll be ready to roll within a week or so.

Edhub goes online!

The Educational Hub went online on January 1st. I’ve been using it for my regular teaching (John Wilson’s pages) and to showcase the educational videos I’ve been working on since I retired (Ano sensei!), and now I’m opening it up to other teachers.

Essentially, it’s a free hosting site for teachers to showcase their materials. I’m starting small – just grapevining, rather than advertising – because I wouldn’t be able to handle a large influx of people wanting to use it, but the long-term aim is to attract as many users as possible.

I’m hoping to establish a nucleus of about a dozen users at this pilot stage, before moving on to advertise it more widely. Any teething difficulties should get sorted out at this stage, and I’ll be able to get a feel of how it will work. Will it be a bunch of teachers who just happen to host their materials on the same site? Or will it become a kind of community of educators, sharing their concerns and airing their views? Obviously, the latter would be more exciting, but only time will tell!

Back to blogging!

I launched the Free Educational Resources (“Fredures”) search engine back in February 2017 … and then largely forgot about it! The initial aim had been to link it with a hosting site for teachers, but I got sidetracked into another project (Ano Sensei! Educational videos).

Now, finally, I’m ready to get back to this project and the hosting site. Watch this space for exciting new developments!