Mixbook and Blio
(Note: Blio has updated its services. Keep an eye on this article for updates reflecting those changes! For now, keep in mind that descriptions and screencaps of Blio in this article may not match its current services and appearance.)
Many digital books have a downside for students, especially those with reading difficulties: the potential loss of a book’s organizational features, navigational elements, and self-contained, tangible format. Two digital tools, Mixbook and Blio, can help students read with greater comprehension by providing the beginning-to-end organization and distinctive look and feel of books. These free services also take advantage of the flexibility, fun, and low cost of new media.
Mixbook uses book metaphors in presenting shorter materials such as digital stories. Blio goes further. It supports full-length e-books and gives teachers the tools to make accessible versions of their Word, PowerPoint, and other instructional materials. Both Mixbook and Blio are free Web-based products, with Blio also available as an app on various mobile platforms.
Available on the Web, Mixbook gives teachers and students the capability to combine text and images in two-page spreads. Navigational tools allow users to move forward and backward in a completed Mixbook. Mixbooks are easily editable, and completed Mixbooks can be embedded in a blog or wiki. Users advance through pages by “flipping” them—clicking and dragging the lower-right corner of a two-page spread:
Mixbook requires free registration. After you've registered, click Create. In the next window, provide a title and description of your Mixbook, add any tags describing the planned content, choose a category (Education, most likely), and click "Create Mixbook." Each spread can consist of four elements: backgrounds and layouts, which are optional, and the text and photos (any digital image) that make up your content. Next you’ll select orientation (portrait or landscape) and theme (Blank Canvas allows more flexibility in laying out pages). Finally, you will be asked to specify a source for your illustrations. You can upload photos, maps, and illustrations from any disk, or bring them in from Flickr or Picasa.
Once created, images and text boxes can be resized and moved within and between two-page spreads as needed. More than one student can work on the same Mixbook. Clicking Invite in the upper right allows you to enter the email addresses of people you’d like to ask to contribute.
Mixbook grew out of commercial efforts to bring scrapbooks to the Web, with the transparent ability to bring in pictures and chunks of text to recreate a story or experience. As a result Mixbook is primarily a tool for consumers to create greeting cards, calendars, and scrapbooks and then purchase them in print form. Teachers attracted by Mixbook’s rich creative tools are under no obligation to purchase print versions of student work, and Mixbook’s customer support staff is well informed about the concerns of teachers.
Blio is a free e-book reading software designed by assistive technology pioneer Ray Kurzweil. Blio is a joint venture of Kurzweil Technologies and the National Federation of the Blind.
Kurzweil wanted to make an e-reader product that would be easy and elegant to use as well as accessible by individuals with learning disabilities or limited sight. Teachers will likely be especially interested in Blio’s ability to produce classy and accessible stories and presentations.
The Blio software can be downloaded and installed on a PC, while the Blio app, also free, can be added to an Apple or Android device through the respective App Store. Blio requires a free account and password. After registration, teachers can use Blio right away for presenting content. To do so, start with any content created in a Windows application, including Word and PowerPoint documents. Instead of saving your document, print it and select Microsoft XPS Document Writer as the “printer.” The document is virtually printed to a new file with the XPS format. To open XPS documents within Blio, use the Blio menu in the upper-left corner, click Open, and find the XPS document. (XPS is native to Windows 7. Free XPS converters are available for other operating systems.)
Blio can spruce up any potentially boring presentation by adding visual, auditory, and kinesthetic features. Positioning the cursor at the starting point of a presentation and clicking the Play button (lower left) invites the student to listen. The curled page (lower right) invites a student to turn the page.
Further personalizing the Blio experience are features that have become commonplace in e-books. When several words are selected (by mouse), the Text toolbar appears, as shown in the figure above. The toolbar allows a student to highlight text, add a note, or create a bookmark to the page. Notes and highlights are always available from the slide pull-tab on the left. Bookmarks can be used by clicking the Bookmark icon in the lower left.
Clicking the Plus and Minus buttons in the lower right enlarges or decreases the display. Vector rendering allows text to retain sharpness when enlarged, benefiting people with limited sight.
Adding significant value is Blio’s text-to-speech feature, available for any Blio document you create as well as speech-enabled books bought through the Blio store. Look for Blio to offer additional book sources and e-book formats in the future. In the Blio menu, you can set speech preferences such as voice, speaking rate, and mode (continuous sounds the most natural).
To see how other teachers use Mixbook, the best place to start is the education section of Mixbook’s Gallery. Most of the work there was created by children, a good indication that this tool is easy to use. Getting started requires an adult to register, but kids can quickly take it from there. One teacher had students take the role of individual immigrants and create digital scrapbooks of their voyage to America.
Blio stands out for its careful design around accessibility. Take the following simple Word document, based on a Word table showing the characteristics of belligerent nations in 1914. The text remains crisp when enlarged and can be read aloud. Designed with the specific needs of the disabled in mind, Blio is an exemplar of universal design; everyone can use it.
What do you think? Is the U.S. history classroom ready for e-books? Contribute your thoughts to our Roundtable that asks, "Digital textbooks: has their time come?."
What hardware platforms are e-books being used on today? Though students can read and create e-books on most modern computers, tablet computers allow an even more book-like reading experience. Learn more about tablet computers in Tech for Teachers.