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Why videos?

In the Cathy Davidson “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC, I’m really intrigued by her decision (or maybe Coursera’s decision?) to have so much of the content delivered by means of video. Particularly I’m intrigued (or even concerned) by the use of video that takes so little advantage of the affordances of the video medium.

In every one of the videos (all of which are much longer than I would recommend for any online video) I’ve found myself wondering “why does this need to be a video? Why not just text?”

There are so many great examples of educational video which uses what video can do. From the RSA Animate work, to the California Academy of Sciences series on biodiversity (for example). Or of course Khan Academy in general and Smarthistory in particular.

We know so many great ways to make educational video, and we already have text (even with illustrations). Why make videos that just translate text (or even lectures) into video?

I’ve written about this before. And I’m far from the only one. So I’m wondering what was the thinking behind doing things in the Coursera course the way that (at least so far) they’re being done.

In my own course (see particularly the mini-lectures)–not a MOOC, since it was far from massive, but generally open and certainly online, that I taught twice, 3 and 4 years ago, I thought about this a lot and chose to have text with hyperlinks and illustration (and broken down into much smaller pieces, and more readable), rather than me talking to the camera. And we (as a class) discussed that choice and discussed what video can and can’t do (as well as voicethread, discussion forums, audiobooks, traditional textbooks, etc). (And of course, the class used plenty of video, when that was appropriate. Just not video of me talking to the camera).

I really wonder what are the advantages (or at least differences) in having mini-lectures that are like mine (in the “Introductions and Foundations” section or “What is Learning and What is Literature” or any of the others), vs. having me say that same information (maybe with pictures on the side or subtitles) to the camera from a couch with a cup of coffee in my hand.

Creativity vs. Organization

I’m enrolled in Cathy Davidson’s “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC.

I’ve got some comments about the course in general in another post, but I thought that I might as well share, here, my first assignment for the course. No guarantees that I will keep up with these assignments, but at least I did complete the first one!

The Assignment:
What is one thing–a pattern, habit, behavior–you have had to “unlearn” in your life in order to be able to learn something new? Please write a 500-word essay about what it was you had to unlearn, any challenges you encountered, and any successes you experienced.

My effort:
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As a teacher, I started as a camp counselor and tutor, beginning in 6th grade (my own 6th grade, when I was 12). I did lots of one-on-one work, lots of work about supporting and coaching students, lots of “guide on the side” and almost no “sage on the stage.” I made close connections with students and helped them to come to active learning on their own. I valued creativity (mine and theirs) and flexiblity–meeting students where they were, letting them guide the learning, enjoying a process with them without much emphasis or concern for product.

When I was first hired (almost 30 years ago) as a high school teacher, one of the first major adjustments or “unlearnings” I had to face was the insistence (by the NYC Board of Education) on organization, structure and rigid format. Every lesson, every class, every day needed a lesson plan that had to fit a very clearly-defined template. There was a “Do Now” and an “Aim” (both of which had to be on the board, visible to anyone who came in the room, in every class. When I started as a student teacher, I was told that the principal or a supervising teacher could come into the room at any time and ask to see my lesson plan. If I didn’t have it on paper, in the proper format, or if anything was going on in the class that was not explicitly mentioned in the lesson plan, I could be immediately dismissed…or at least “written up” with a poor evaluation.

As an English teacher, working with students on literature (from SE Hinton to William Shakespeare), on poetry and expression and creative writing, I felt stifled. I felt that I was being asked to kill language, murder learning, torture free thinking, in the ways that I had hated as a student and that I had seen as being useless to my own students. But I needed the job, needed the credential, so I continued. I learned to write plans and state clear objectives and to work backwards from the freedom that I really wanted for students and find ways to create that freedom within the required framework. I even found, eventually, that there were times and there were students for whom that structure was comfortable and encouraging. It turned out that a clear organization and structure could actually be a place where exploration could begin (and through some tricky writing, the written lesson plan could even contain openings, loopholes, where the exploration could be seen to fit).

I didn’t last too long as a high school teacher (seeing copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, brand-new and untouched, in the bookroom and being told that they were off-limits because they “stirred students up” was the final straw). And when I went from there to teaching college, I went much more back to my freedom-loving, digression-valuing style (some would say “chaotic”). But when I started teaching online, I found again that organization could be the ally of creativity, and that an online class particularly required a clear organization and a carefully-designed structure…or else there couldn’t be as many of the productive advantages of digression and serendipity.

These days I balance (or struggle to balance) creativity vs. organization, trying to make sure that we have, in every class, the right ratio of both. I like to think that I didn’t “unlearn” creativity, or “learn” organization, either. I unlearned the dichotomy and learned the balance.
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Reverse Midterm

This exercise is one that I invented (pretty much on the spur of the moment) last year, when students asked me if we were having a midterm and I hadn’t planned on it.  I told them no, then thought it over a bit.  The next class I came in and put on a grave and serious face.  I started the class by telling them that I realized that we did not have a midterm scheduled, but we still had to have one, so today was the midterm.  After letting the moment of panic sink in I told them we would do a different kind of midterm.  We talked about the purpose of midterms generally, about questions being more important than answers in a class like this (this is a first-year honors seminar “The Arts in New York City,” but of course I believe the same holds true in all classes).  We discussed how a midterm was (could be) a chance to check in and see where the learning was happening and how it was going, but it was also a chance to reinforce and tie together the themes of the course.  It seemed that in most cases, they hadn’t really thought of a midterm as something that had a purpose–something connected to learning. It was just something you had to do to get your grades.  (in fact, this seems to be true for tests in general.  Students–and probably many teachers–don’t use or understand tests as learning tools, only as assessment tools…if that.  It’s fun and illuminating to hand students the power to step outside their educational process and and critique the tools and activities to which they’re being subjected.  Ultimately, ideally, that leads them to stop being subjected).

So I told them we were going to have a midterm, but it would be my midterm.  They write the questions, I have to answer.  I told them they could grade me, too.  (this led to some moments of real joy).

I started with a brief presentation (about 20 minutes), telling them this was part of my midterm assignment.  Sort of an essay question (last year I actually made a Keynote slideshow with pictures of the class activities and screenshots of their own work on the class site.  This year I didn’t have time for that, but it didn’t seem like a major loss).  I summarized what we had done up to that point in the semester, and gave a little preview of what was coming.  This let me sneak in an opportunity to be sure that the students could see and know the through-line of the semester, at least understand that I’m trying to build one and see it develop.  Using the presentation for looking back and looking forward let me highlight  some of the themes and questions that had been developing (and refer to specific students and specific assignments/discussions “remember when P- was so upset about that photograph?” “Remember when M- showed us the snowy scene outside her house?” “This was when we saw the jazz performance that surprised you all so much.”).

Then I asked them to each write five questions for me.  Last year I had each and every student write five questions and it was too many…I couldn’t possibly answer them all.  This year I put them in groups and had each group write five questions.  I told them they should be questions about the class, either what we had done or would be doing, what they wanted to know or themes they were curious about, and that it was really up to them–it was my midterm exam so I had to answer. I gave them about 7 minutes to write questions.  Most groups easily came up with five, although one group only got three, and another wrote ten but told me that they really were most interested in the second five.

After they finished with the questions I asked them to think for a minute about what it would be like if every midterm was like this? They liked the idea…and we talked about how writing a good question means you really have to know and think about the subject (they had just done it in their groups so they knew exactly what I meant).  They said “if we could give all our professors midterms like this, we would really know if they know their stuff and we could ask them why we were doing things the way we were.  Why we spent so much time on some things and so little on others.”

Then I sat down and read the questions aloud and answered them.  I tried to be really honest and think about them as if I was really taking a test (it felt like a job interview, which I guess is the closest I come to taking a midterm these days).  I tried to give my best answers, relating to what we had done in class, making connections and modeling how to use a test as an opportunity instead of an obstacle. Part of what I was doing was the “think-aloud” method (widely used and described, but introduced to me by Sam Wineburg) of showing how to approach a question or unfamiliar material. Of course some questions were a little silly, some were impossible to answer, some had premises that I had to question first, so I did all that with real seriousness.  I told them how hard it was for me to reverse my usual teacher impulse…which is to throw a question right back at them.  I told them (of course they had noticed) that I would usually work hard not to push my own response but to make room for their response.  But in this case, since it was a midterm, I wasn’t allowed to do that (several times I caught myself and chided myself and asked them not to “take off points.”)

What happens from this activity right in the middle of the semester is that it ties the class together and engages all of us in the enterprise of the class.  We already have a pretty good team vibe by this point, an understanding that the class is something we’re doing together, and this makes it even stronger.  (Of course I’m leading the team, I don’t pretend otherwise.  But it’s active and inquiry based all the time.  The class is not something that’s happening to them or being done to them…it’s not even something they’re “taking.” It’s something we’re making).  When students get to think explicitly and critique carefully what’s going on this class, it creates exactly the dynamic I’m looking for in any class. So that’s the purpose of this reverse midterm.

Here (lightly edited) are most of the questions they asked this year.  Some were repeated so I won’t type them twice. (you can see that they have definitely absorbed “exam language!” and we talked about that, too).

  • How do we find out what are the things we can’t not make (this is a reference to the Adam Savage video we watched which has become a long-standing theme in the class http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/ugoretz13/steam/ also related to the Sol Lewitt “Learn to say Fuck You to the World” video)?
  • Why can’t everything be considered art? Why do we have to divide things between art and not art?
  •  Is there a difference in aesthetic quality between art that is confined to an “art place” and art that is all around us in the world? Elaborate
  • What is the best form of art?
  • In what ways is oral performance considered art and in what ways not art?
  • What’s your favorite poem? Why?
  • How do you distinguish what makes good photography?
  • Which art form do you think is the most honest? Least honest? Elaborate.
  • Extra credit: what is your shoe size?
  • How can you find art in your everyday encounters?
  • Every photograph manipulates/exploits its subjects.  True or False? Explain.
  • What form of art is the most expressive (Don’t worry, you will get all 20 points for this).
  • Is art inspiration or perspiration?
  • If you had the power to choose one of your senses to give up, which would it be?
  • Draw parallels between a museum, a space for religious prayer, and a playground.
  • Is nature independent from art? Why might someone consider nature to be art?
  • Is there any art form that you would like to entirely wipe out? Remove from existence?
  • Would passionately reading a love letter be a form of oral performance art?
  • Why or why not is music the most primitive art form?
  • Do you feel that arguing over artistic merit has a constructive purpose? Is arguing about art something that moves art forward or holds it back?
  • What is your perception of video games? Are they a form of art?
  • Do you believe art and love are related? How so?
  • Is grafitti art or vandalism? Defend your position.

I think this “reverse midterm” could work in all kinds of different ways–they could make the questions for other students to answer, instead of me (this year’s students did want me to use these same questions for next year’s class), or we could revisit some or all of the questions as a final which they answer.  There are all kinds of tweaks and modifications I want to experiment with.  I freely “release” 🙂 the exercise to any and all who want to use or modify or transform.

If all tests were given to teachers, by students…what would that mean for schools? I think often of how we could more closely approach Harmonica High.

Classroom Manifesto

In no particular order, I propose these two dozen….

Questions are more important than answers.

Cooperating is more important than competing.

Thinking is more important than knowing.

Searching is more important than finding.

Making is more important than having.

Opportunities are more important than rules.

Understanding is more important than achieving.

Learning is more important than teaching.

Conversation is more important than studying.

Reactions are more important than rubrics.

Student-student interaction is more important than student-teacher interaction.

Active not passive.

Never ask a question if you already know the answer.

Silence is powerful. Let it go on.

Watch faces.

Don’t repeat what was just said.

Learn ALL the names of EVERY student on the FIRST day.

STEM without Arts is useless and dangerous.  STEAM not STEM.

Feelings are always relevant.

Learning is joyous.

Be a person first.

Laugh at yourself.

Care.

The universe is the classroom, the classroom is not the universe.

The Emerging Doitocracy

A meritocracy is not enough, when it requires someone, somewhere, to recognize that merit as an abstract concept.  We live in a world where, increasingly, the reliability of credentialing is suspect.  Where the proof of merit is not a degree or a position or a title.  In that situation, when it’s tough to trust a credential as being proof of anything other than the fact of the credential, then it makes sense that recognition, authority, prestige, rewards…all come to the people who are actually creating, not waiting.

This is what I think of as the doitocracy (do-it-ocracy).  It’s not a phrase I coined originally (although I don’t remember where I heard it), but it’s a concept I’ve been thinking and writing about in various ways for some time.  I think the doitocracy probably starts in the Open Source Software movement, where if you want something new, you go right ahead and fork, and we can trace it through wikipedia, where if something is wrong, you go ahead and edit, or if there’s no entry, you go ahead and write one.  And of course it’s a concept that has to have much older roots, too.

VOC Duit from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VOC_duit.jpg

In a doitocracy, whoever does the most, gets the most credit, and the doing comes before the credit.  In teaching and learning I see this everywhere these days.  I see the most effective teaching and learning of physics and engineering (optics, electronics, electromagnetic theory) going on in places like CandlePowerForums.  Biology, chemistry and genetics

are being studied at length, in international communities, at Cichlid-forum.  For philosophy, literary criticism and performance studies one could begin at TV Club.  And I haven’t even begun to touch political science, history, gender studies, and on and on.  People want to learn, they want to think, they want to critique, and the best instances of where that is happening is where people (enabled by digital tools) are just coming together to do it.  They’re not enrolling in classes or programs of study (or even MOOCs).  The best learning examples are these self-built learning spaces (my colleague Patrick Masson said this beautifully early on in the current MOOC-mania: “I’ve been in this really good MOOC for the past 20 years.  It’s called ‘The Internet'”).

And it’s more than ideas.  People are making things, creating practical, beautiful, complicated and enriching…and new things.  And they’re explaining how they did it and letting others improve on their designs, and yes, selling their things, too. At instructables and at Maker Faires and for sale on etsy.  Of course some of the things are virtual, digital things–video and reporting and photography and animated gifs and stories and guidebooks and more.

And then there are places where both of these moves are happening together–where people want to teach something, so they make a virtual digital thing that teaches it.  The example of this most famililar to me, of course, is smarthistory.org, where a couple of teachers wanted to do a better job of teaching their own students.  So they sat down with $5/month shared hosting, $200 or so worth of hardware and software, and they built a learning space which today reaches three quarters of a million learners every semester, rather than a hundred or so.  (And is now part of the Khan Academy, which of course is also an exemplary participant in the doitocracy.  Sal Khan didn’t wait for a credential or permission–he just started making videos, posting and sharing them).  Or there’s our own CUNY Academic Commons, right here where Prestidigitation lives.  Instead of asking for CUNY community, or waiting for someone to package it for us or build it for us (or sell it to us!) we just built it. (“If you build it, they will fund,” my colleague George Otte has often said of this).

VOC Duit from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VOC_duit.jpgWhere this becomes a doitocracy, rather than just doing it, where the -ocracy comes in, is in that “they will fund” part of the equation. Like Corey Doctorow’s concept of “whuffie,” the currency of prestige in the doitocracy, the recipe for recognition, is from the quality of the work itself.  The doitocracy is more than a meritocracy, but it’s a meritocracy, too, because when you do it, and do it well, that’s when people recognize you as the expert, that’s when they give you attention and links and retweets and yes, real currency, funding, too.  Sometimes this reputation is actually codified in thumbs-ups or likes or karma points, other times it’s just having your name ring out (or your username and avatar. Real names not required).  When Fogelhund talks about spawning Tanganyikan cichlids, I listen, because from the posts he’s shared I know what he’s tried, when he’s succeeded and why he’s failed.  When Jamie describes a new technique for anodizing titanium, I know from the quality of what he makes and sells that it’s a technique worth trying (assuming I ever want to anodize my own titanium!)

It would be a mistake not to mention that there is plenty of hard work involved in getting ahead in the doitocracy.  It’s not just by magic or wishing that something great gets built (remember what makes a wizard!).  Lots of people, lots of time, lots of energy, and heart and soul and spirit are behind that attitude of just doing it or just making it or just learning it.  But it’s that old “where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes” idea.  It’s the kind of work that is real work, and the fact that it is hard is just part of what makes it real.

It’s the new tools for communicating, creating, connecting that make the doitocracy work.  And I think the challenge, especially in a school system that has relied too long on the “because I said so” model of motivation, is to give students the access to those tools in ways that will push them to the pleasure and the dedication, the engagement and the effort, that the doitocracy rewards and requires.  We need students who will and can learn independently, finding and doing and making and sharing.  Because those are the leaders in the doitocracy.

(one last note of thanks–my early thinking on this subject was confirmed and influenced by Alan Levine’s post “Your Work Speaks for Itself.” In the doitocracy, your work is your badge.)

STEAM

Thanks to Michael Branson Smith for the great tip to listen to Adam Savage’s talk “Why We Make” at the 2012 San Francisco Maker Fair.

Savage explains with some brilliance how art is always part of STEM (art is where it all begins), and how learning works best when it comes through “making what you can’t not make.”

This is just an excerpt from the end of the talk, the part most relevant to teaching and learning. The entire talk is well worth a listen, but for those with limited time, this clip is the heart of it.

On Wizards and Learning

gandalf-libraryThere are many things to like about Gandalf, but one that especially appeals to me is that he isn’t a wizard just because he was stolen away and adopted by wizards when he was a baby, or because another wizard bit him and sucked his blood, or some woman in a lake chucked a sword at him.  He didn’t find a wizard-making charm.  He’s a wizard because he learned to be a wizard.  He studied.

And one of his most powerful wizardly talents is…he’s really, really good at archival research.  When faced with a very difficult quandary, where does he go? The library!  It’s a theme I’ve mentioned a few times over the years, both on my personal blog and even in a unit of the Alternate Worlds Course.  To be a wizard, in a world where the massive collective brain is at your disposal, a key skill is knowing how to ask.  You don’t need to know everything, you just need to know how to learn what you want to know (and to identify what you really do need to know, and what feeds you when you learn it).  Sometimes that’s a lot tougher than just knowing would be.

(We can’t leave out the part about Gandalf’s teacher turning out to be totally obnoxious and evil, and Gandalf defeating him in the end.  Doesn’t the student always have to defeat the teacher?)

(My first-ever animated gif made from “scratch.”  I have to admit it was fun to fiddle with.)

The first MIT.x course

MIT has opened enrollment for the first of the new MIT.x courses, “Circuits and Electronics.” The course is free, and in this first pilot instance, even the certificate gained for completing the course successfully will be free (MIT expects to start charging for those some time soon).

6.002x (Circuits and Electronics) is designed to serve as a first course in an undergraduate electrical engineering (EE), or electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) curriculum. At MIT, 6.002 is in the core of department subjects required for all undergraduates in EECS.

The course introduces engineering in the context of the lumped circuit abstraction. Topics covered include: resistive elements and networks; independent and dependent sources; switches and MOS transistors; digital abstraction; amplifiers; energy storage elements; dynamics of first- and second-order networks; design in the time and frequency domains; and analog and digital circuits and applications. Design and lab exercises are also significant components of the course. You should expect to spend approximately 10 hours per week on the course.

“Great!” I thought.  “I can do that! I will try it! Sounds like a fascinating subject, and way back in high school I did think that I might become an engineer. And it will give me a chance to try out and blog about the new MIT.x platform.”

But…no.

In order to succeed in this course, you must have taken an AP level physics course in electricity and magnetism. You must know basic calculus and linear algebra and have some background in differential equations. Since more advanced mathematics will not show up until the second half of the course, the first half of the course will include an optional remedial differential equations component for those who need it.

That rules me out, I’m afraid!  For about six different reasons.  And, I think, it should rule out some of the complaints/skepticism about these courses.  We can (we should, we will) make learning more open and more accessible.  But in some very important ways, there really aren’t any shortcuts.  Engineering is engineering, and it can be open to everyone…but it’s still engineering, and without the physics and the math, it just isn’t going to be understandable.

Still, I hope someone reading this who does have those basic qualifications will give it a try and blog about the experience!  You can enroll here 6002x.mitx.mit.edu.

 

Of iBooks and textbooks. And Authoring. By Students.

So there’s been a lot of excited posts–positive and negative–in a lot of different places about Apple’s announcement last week that they were ready to “revolutionize” the world of textbooks.  Some of the best of those that I’ve seen are from Audrey Watters at Hack Education and Kathleen Fitzpatrick at ProfHacker (both of these are mainly critical). (And just as I’m writing this post, I see that Michael Feldstein at e-literate has weighed in with his usual sharp brilliance!) And there have been some other good ones, too.  I think a lot of the criticism has been warranted.  And a lot of the excitement has been justified.

But I think that even the best of these have missed some important points, and misunderstood some others, so I wanted to give my own take.

A couple of opening premises:  I have felt for quite a while now that the “textbook” as an entity (a genre, a medium, a format, whatever it is) is long past its expiration date.  The extremely expensive physical book, which all students are required to purchase, which digests the critical information on a given academic subject, is something that was ever only of very limited value, and whatever value that was is pretty much long gone. (And “digest” is really the right word there–what these books do is take subjects and chew them up and pre-process them, so that they can be metabolized without effort…and without flavor or pleasure, either.  A textbook is to learning what Ensure® is to fine dining.)  The monopoly aspect, the new editions every year without any real content, but mostly the deadening effect on the learning, made me stop using textbooks in all my classes years ago.  I use books, not textbooks (and sometimes not even books, but that’s a separate topic).  Of course this is easier to do when teaching English…but I don’t think it’s impossible in any subject.

So I’m no fan of textbooks, but I have known and do see that they’re not exactly an escapable dinosaur right now.  Teachers with little time to innovate resources, or teachers mandated by a centrally-determined curriculum, or teachers who have found textbooks they really do like and find engaging and useful are still going to need to have those textbooks be as good as they can be–and as affordable and usable as they can be.

It seemed right from the start that Apple had knocked out a couple of the big problems with textbooks.  A cap of $15 is a big savings.  The ability to include video, 3-d objects, interactive charts and graphs, in-line review quizzes and hyperlinks adds a lot of new ways to engage with content.  And of course the reduced schlep-factor is an advantage.

And an easy and convenient (like iTunes) distribution method (cutting out the gouging of many campus bookstores) could help, too.

Miller and Levine's Biology
Miller and Levine's Biology text

So I tried this for myself.  I updated my iBooks on my iPad. I installed iBooks Author and started messing around with creating a textbook.  I downloaded the free (and beautiful) sample of E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth.  And I spent the $15 on Miller and Levine’s Pearson textbook Biology.  They definitely are beautiful.  And they definitely have the advantages that an iPad can give.  The video is terrific and plays smoothly and is integrated well.  The interactive demonstrations and graphs helped me to understand the concepts.  The photography in brilliant color, swiping to change photos and pinching to zoom, and the rotating and manipulable 3-d objects are terrific.  I took some quizzes and checked my answers and found out why I was missing what I was missing.  That was all great.  But what was still disappointing to me was that these are still textbooks.  They still have that same bulleted, condensed, digested approach to the content.  I got to read about what Darwin thought, but I didn’t get to read Darwin.  I got to see examples of what the book said I should know, but not look at examples and determine for myself what they told me.

EO Wilson's Life on Earth
EO Wilson's Life on Earth

I have been having a problem with almost all the ebook initiatives for schools that I have been reading and hearing about.  I can’t really support them, because they almost all see text as being something that can be just seamlessly translated into an electronic version and then left there.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.  A textbook on a screen that is just text, without all the advantages that a screen can give (media, links, and so on), just seemed like a big waste to me.  And now I’ve found that even a beautiful multimedia textbook on a screen, taking advantage of what a screen can do, if it’s still a textbook…it’s better, but it’s still not good enough.

Now, there are also the disadvantages that are described in the posts I linked above.  There isn’t a means for interaction among students.  There isn’t as much of a savings for school districts where they have always purchased one set of books per class, to be re-used each year.  iPads are expensive and breakable.  And so forth.  Those are real.  But they aren’t to me the real disadvantages.

However.  And this is a big however and the main point I wanted to make.  There’s something else going on with this announcement, with this offering.  And that something seems to be missed in almost every post or reference I’ve seen. In addition to iBooks and the publisher-created textbooks for sale, Apple is also offering, as a free download, iBooks Author.  And that’s where things get really interesting.  Nobody has really missed that this product lets teachers create their own textbooks. And then offer them to their students (or anyone else).  Like any Apple product, iBooks Author has some incredibly beautiful ease of use features.  Like any Apple product, if you want to go outside the bounds of what Apple has predicted you will want to do, it’s frustrating.  And like any first-generation product of any kind, there are some bugs and issues (particularly with previewing and exporting) which will be resolved in future updates, to be sure.

It’s a giant time vampire, too–in a good way, though.  It’s very easy to get involved in adding this, arranging that, moving things, aligning things, thinking about where a picture would help or video or a hyperlink would be good or a glossary entry is necessary.  But some of this is actually very good thinking work, making decisions consciously about how to arrange and present content.

And that, right there, is what might be the real value in this product.  Not in having teachers create textbooks which they will then push out to students who are required to use them.  Like iMovie, like GarageBand (and yes, with their frustrations and problems), iBooks has the potential to put the creation into the hands of students.  That’s where we can have some exciting results, some really gorgeous and useful products.  Even better than that, it’s where we can have some vital and powerful processes.  When students create content, when they actively and critically think about what should be in their “textbook,” when each student (or small group of students) can create their own “textbook” and share it easily and actually get an audience who will be critical and responsive…that has the potential to be actually revolutionary.  They get the experience of doing the chewing, the swallowing, and the savoring (and even the creating the recipe and the cooking, if I’m not pushing the metaphor too far).

I will certainly make a textbook (more than one).  But I will also use the tool to think through how students can create something (some things) that aren’t really textbooks at all (although for convenience we might call them that.  Or maybe call them “untextbooks”).  A tool that lets students interact with course content in a way that is creative, expressive, and distributable, is a tool that I can use, that I’m excited about using, and that can really benefit students.

I’ve seen (everywhere!) the strong criticism that these textbooks, whoever creates them, are really only usable on iPads.  That’s true (although I’m not sure how permanently true that is.  I remember when music bought from iTunes could only be played on an iPod, and that’s not true anymore).  Even if it’s only temporarily true, it’s a valid criticism.

I’ve also seen (also everywhere, and even more angrily) the stronger criticism that Apple’s EULA on iBooks Author is too too restrictive.  That you can only sell the content you create through the iBooks store.  Only.  That’s true, too…but I care a whole lot less about that one.  Because Apple has also included, very explicitly, the condition that if you make your content free of charge, you can distribute it any way you want.  No limitations.  We need a bigger universe of free content, and this model could (will, I think) help to promote that.  If you want to sell, sell through Apple.  But better yet…don’t sell.  Give it away.  Let Pearson and McGraw Hill continue to sell their books for $15 or whatever they want.  We (we including our students) can make better content–things that are not just textbooks, but new kinds of representations in multimedia, for free, and we can give them away for free.  And we can use Apple’s distribution channel…or not.

We do have to find ways to make these new things (untextbooks) useful on more than just the one kind of device.  I doubt that will be far off.  An online iBooks format emulator? A translator to HTML 5? There will be a way, I’m sure.

Look for my untextbook Quacks, Yokels and Everyday Folk, coming soon!

Early thoughts on Pearson’s OpenClass

This was a major topic of conversation at Educause last week, and I had the chance to chat briefly with Adrian Sannier of Pearson on the exhibit floor–and also to try it out myself.

A few quick facts/impressions. A lot of the early buzz was about “Google’s new free and open source LMS” or similar. Almost none of that is accurate. It’s not a Google product, it’s a Pearson product. It’s available (for now) through the Google Apps marketplace, and integrates (or will–this week, they’re promising) with an existing Google Apps for Education database if you have one. But everyone I talked to from Google was very quick to point out that they didn’t develop this, aren’t offering it, don’t really have much of anything to do with it. They marched me straight over to the Pearson folks if I even tried to ask a question.

It’s also not at all Open Source. Pearson uses the term “open” very very loosely–so far I haven’t seen anything at all open about it. Adrian Sannier says that that is coming–some way for teachers to identify parts of their courses that could be shared with a wider network, multiple campuses or maybe all users of the system or maybe the whole world. But that’s not available yet. And the source code is definitely not open or available. There aren’t even API’s yet (although again, Adrian promises that there will be).

What is, however, is free of charge. That’s the main “selling” point, and when asked if that’s the distinguishing feature he would most want to claim, Adrian was very clear (both to me and to my friend Michael Feldstein. Michael has a very good blog post about OpenClass here ). This is not going to cost anyone money–free as in free beer, not as in free speech–and that’s what they’re proud of and what they’re promoting.

For now (and this should change sometime early in 2012), OpenClass is only available to Google Apps for Education campuses. Since we at Macaulay do use Google Apps for education, I (like hundreds of others) went immediately after the announcement and installed OpenClass to check it out right away.

I could talk at some length about what I discovered in testing–and we’ll be doing a lot more testing and trying (maybe for some spring classes, perhaps) as time goes by. It’s still very much in beta, with some features that aren’t quite working yet–some of them essential–and some little bugs that they’re still working on. The Pearson people seem to be extremely committed to fixing those bugs–they are responsive on twitter and by email, and in fact, when I pointed out a bug to their folks at Educause at about 3 in the afternoon, they called me back with more questions within 45 minutes, and then had the problem fixed by dinnertime that same day. That’s impressive, and not something that most LMS vendors would ever dream of doing for an end-user. That kind of response is reserved for high-level “escalated” tickets. Will that last? Who knows. But it did leave a good taste in my mouth.

As for the product itself, even given that it’s in beta, I have to say and somewhat hate to say that I’m not all that impressed. It’s an LMS. A fairly ordinary LMS. It’s not got revolutionary features, and the so-called social networking integration (mostly just an activity wall pulling together everything that is happening throughout the LMS for a given user as a main front page) is pretty much a big meh. The discussion board is not particularly attractive or navigable, and the general features (gradebook, announcements, submission/dropbox, assignments, documents) are just standard. Functional, but nothing interesting. The design is fine, but not very elegant and hardly customizable at all.

This is a standard LMS for a class (not a fully online class, Pearson is trying to make that distinction very clear) where a teacher and students want to do the basic LMS stuff–post a few things, assign and submit a few things, check grades, have a little bit of discussion–mainly just for asking and answering questions, not what I call a “real” online discussion (wide-ranging, digressive, engaging, critical, multi-media). Multi-media capabilities are limited. Sharing with the world outside the classroom, or escaping the silos of course and semester that the LMS is so married to, are both just about non-existent.

But all of that could come. At least for now, the promise or potential for most of that seems pretty strong. And one thing that Adrian also pointed out–with a free LMS, upgrades and new features can come much more quickly and easily. Most of the time, they will come fairly transparently. Nothing at all like an “enterprise” LMS upgrade. So that all remains to be seen.

I’m really interested to see how this will open beyond Google Apps for Education. When (and again, it could be just a few months) this opens up more widely, will that be to all Google customers? So that if I’m not affiliated with any institution, but I want to (for free) set up a class where I could teach and/or learn about birding or reef aquaria or the history of haberdashery, can I do that? And can I do it in a way that will make sense for learners–not just for a traditional class/semester-based type of education? Open questions!

I will also say that OpenClass is still a long, long, way from being even a bit close to the kinds of features and functionality, and from the kind of “disruptive” innovation that we are already seeing and demonstrating and doing at Macaulay (and elsewhere, of course) with WordPress. It’s like some of us are already working with refining a very low-cost and efficient warp drive technology, while Pearson has just introduced a fairly nice three-speed bicycle which they will give away for free.

But…when the overwhelming majority of classes in this country are riding around right now on a ten-speed bicycle, for which they are paying $100k a year (or whatever), a nice shiny three-speed for free is going to sound like a pretty good deal. If possible, though, I’m always going to want to do the deeper exploration that a cruising speed of warp 6 or 7 can allow.

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