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Monday, October 7, 2013

Essential Tools for the Remote Healthcare Informatics Student

As you are probably already aware, I recently enrolled in OHSU's Clinical Informatics program.  I have two classes, the Intro to Informatics, and Practice of Healthcare classes.  Being a distance learning student has a unique set of requirements.

Ideally, I can take my textbooks with me in electronic format.  One of the classes has a required text that is 1200+ pages, which I can (and have) purchased in Kindle format.  I like even better being able to search the text electronically.  It makes it much easier to find things I know I've read that would be fairly difficult to find thumbing pages.

Access to Classroom Content
OHSU uses Sakai, which means that a good deal of class content is delivered through either Flash, or a combination of PDF and MP3.  There are at least two (and possibly more) challenges here due to the fact that I use an iPad as my primary tablet device.  Flash is of course a problem for access via the iPad.  MP3's are also a problem because most browsers don't "download", instead offering to playback the content in their own control.

Flash Browsers
There are a couple of browsers that do support Flash (via server mediated interpretation).  The one I looked at thus far was Puffin Browser, which has both a free and paid edition (you need the paid edition for long term use with Flash).  The problem with any paid stuff is that you don't know if it will work until after you've bought it, and then you are stuck.  I was pleased with Puffin's free trial and will likely purchase the full edition.  Puffin works fine with Flash, but it is missing a critical capability -- variable playback speed, which I'll mention next.

Variable Playback Speed
Recorded media, such as Flash and MP3 can be run at different speeds. I find that I can readily listen at double speed and still take good notes (pausing as needed).  This is especially useful when some of the material is review (I find myself speed adjusting depending on the content).

I've looked at a couple of tools.  One of these is Swift for the iPad (and iPhone) which is a relatively cheap application that can speed up MP3 playback and video playback.  Once you have an MP3 transferred to your iPad, you can request it be opened in Swift.  The frustrating bit is that the two browsers I already had: Chrome and Safari (because I cannot get rid of it), don't download the MP3, they play in back in their own controls.  I looked at other tools and I finally just downloaded the content to my PC and then uploaded it into Drop Box.  That's still challenging because then I have to favorite it in Drop Box on my iPad to force local download, which then allows opening it in Swift. Those gyrations aren't really all that bad, but the user experience could be a hell of a lot easier.  Swift is worthwhile but I wish there was something better because it won't let me log in right now (it appears to be a cookie problem).  It supposedly has a way to access content via the Web (so I could avoid the MP3 download to my computer, upload to DropBox, to favorite in DropBox to open in Swift steps), but that fails during the login process.  I haven't spent much time trying to debug that (it being on an iPad and over https:, that would be fairly challenging).

On my personal computer, I've also looked at Enounce, but haven't gotten past the buffering stutter issue it causes on Windows. So while I can speed up the audio, then I have to wait for it to download the next chunk, which makes it not a useful tool.  I wouldn't spend the money.

A couple of other gotcha's with the iPad and Distance Learning

  1. Editing long text without a keyboard is challenging.  Invest in a good one.  
  2. Write your text in notepad or some other tool and then upload to Sakai, because if you take too long, Sakai will time you out, and then you'll lose all the text you wrote in the browser rich text edit control.
If I hadn't already had an iPad, I'd use a different tablet computer for this class.  As it is, I'll work around these issues.