A Hackable Hole in BuddyPress

Mainly documenting this just so I will have it somewhere I can find it easily, but maybe it will help others, too.

On the Macaulay Eportfolio system we do not restrict account creation by email domain (since we want our students to use whatever email address they want).  Instead we use a shared codeword which only our students have.  Without that codeword, you can’t create a new account.

This completely shuts down spam blog or account creation (comment spam is a separate issue), but still makes the process easy and open enough for large numbers of students to create (legitimate) accounts whenever they want to from a wide variety of different email addresses and campuses.

But I noticed that every time I upgraded BuddyPress, within 10 or 12 minutes, spam accounts would start flooding in.

The reason is that BuddyPress contains a lurking little file which does NOT respect the codeword restriction.  And spambots seem to be scanning for and targeting that file ALL the time.

In the BuddyPress directory, in bp-templates/bp-legacy/buddypress/members there’s a file register.php .  And that file is a wide-open invitation to splogs and splusers.  Spammers. Bots.  They flock to it.

So every time I update BuddyPress, step number one right after the update is to delete that file.  I write this to myself…to remind myself to do that, and to remind myself where it is.

Thanks, self.

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.)


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.)

More of the Greatness of the WordPress Community

 I had a great time at this year’s WordCamp NYC, hanging out with the other CUNY WordPress folks, and talking WordPress in education to a (larger than expected) and very interested crowd.  We tried to pitch for broad appeal, and I think we hit it, and not have too much inside baseball (not too much) or too much CUNY-carping (not too much).  That was all enjoyable as always.  Even better, though, was a little moment towards the end of the day.

One of the folks in the audience (I didn’t catch where he was from) asked a question about how we explain to students how to use the WordPress media uploader (the many clicks required, the necessity to “insert into post” even after it might seem like they’re done).  We none of us had a great way to provide those instructions. We all agreed that it’s a bit of struggle in a world where we (especially those of us who are used to using Macs), just would like to grab an image from our desktop, drag it into a post, and plop it right in.  True, the media uploader as of 3.3 or so is better than it used to be.  True, it’s one of the oldest parts of WordPress, and not easy to modify, but it just doesn’t feel so smooth.

Well, we complained and agreed that we were right to complain, but then someone else in the audience spoke up and said she thought she remembered a plugin that made this better and she would look through her notes and find it.

Wow! Today I got an email–she didn’t find the plugin, but she did a lot better.  She figured out a relatively easy (relatively) way to make media uploading easier and better, and she wrote up this great, clear, step-by-step instruction set.  A generous, community-minded act.  A tool that we will definitely find useful.  And shared freely, and quickly, too!  Thanks, Margarete Koenen!

Smarthistory and the Google Art Project

Big news today in the world of art–and the world of teaching and learning with and about art–and the world of “jailbreaking” the museum (or access to all kinds of cultural knowledge).

Actually it’s two items of big news.

The first is Google’s announcement of version 2 of their already tremendous Google Art Project.  They’ve now got 151 museums, from 40 countries (up from only 17 when they first launched).  That’s 32,000 works of art.  But these are not just little clipart low-quality watermarked jpgs.  They’re gorgeous, high-resolution, full color, zoomable, suitable-for-study images.  For some of them there is even “museum view” which lets you simulate walking around the museum and seeing the art in the context where it currently sits.

And then there’s the other fact, which of course has a strong personal resonance for me (on many levels!). For quite a few of these works of art (over 100), there are videos made by the wonderful folks at Smarthistory.  Of course these add to the enjoyment, the understanding, the learning, the questioning of the art.  A great example, a favorite of mine, is Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Tower of Babel.  It’s fantastic, with so much to see, but it’s in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.  Except now, it’s not only there, it’s also got a version on the Google Art Project. Take a look.  Zoom in.  Pan around.  Really see what’s happening there.  And then click on the “Details” link at the top of the screen, and you won’t only see the “normal” kind of details you might expect (description, map, style, material), but you’ll also see a video.

And that video, like over 100 others on the new Google Art Project, comes from the one and only Smarthistory team.  Conversational, informal, engaging, informative and provocative…just what we want and expect and need!

As the Smarthistory team says in their announcement:

We jumped at this opportunity because the Art Project has such enormous educational potential. It is critical to gather works of art from different institutions to tell the nuanced stories of art history. The Art Project brings together works of art from 151 museums in 40 countries within a cohesive visual environment. The high resolution images, powerful zoom function, “Museum View” (an interior version of “Street View”) and the ability to collect and annotate images, are all features that are ideal for teaching and learning.

Viva the Museum without Walls!

“Rebuilding the LMS”

Campus Technology has a feature this month on “Rebuilding the LMS for the 21st Century.”  The reporter interviewed me at some length a few weeks ago, and did a pretty good job of capturing what I said.  All in all, a pretty good article. Of course, I would probably say it’s better to throw the LMS away and build something flexible and open.  But I guess that’s really what I said…

Not at all a bad interview, and if some of it is a bit aspirational, it is still, in essence, what we’ve done and are trying to do.

For the Better Review of Proposals of All Kinds

This is a fairly technical solution to a fairly limited use-challenge.  But it’s not a scenario that is completely unheard of.  It’s something that we’ve faced here on multiple occasions, so I decided to finally take a swing at a somewhat user-friendly and somewhat elegant solution.

Here’s the challenge.  There are lots of instances–applications for fellowships, submissions for awards, proposals for a conference or journal, things like that, where we have multiple submissions that have to be reviewed by multiple reviewers.  Often the applications include basic contact or demographic data, categories or selections from a limited list, and lines or paragraphs of text, as well as sometimes much longer, formatted, statements or resumés. Then those applications have to be circulated to a full committee, each member of which has to review all the material, assign a numerical rating, and usually have written comments, too.

We used to do all this with stacks of paper, asking candidates to submit five (or more) copies of their whole packages, and then we’d have big fat envelopes and boxes of paper being shlepped around the city (and later shredded).  Those were fairly easy to read and review, but a giant pain to manage and store (or destroy), and hardly environmentally friendly, if that matters.

So a couple of years ago we turned to various online form solutions–drupal webforms, google forms, and so forth.  This was an improvement in some ways–each of them led to a spreadsheet that could be more easily shared (through google docs, usually).  But when the applications to be reviewed were complicated, the spreadsheets were immense and very difficult to navigate (especially in google docs).  And when there were attached PDFs (essays or statements or resumés or whatever), those were included in the spreadsheet as a link, meaning another click, another window, or a download, and some confusion about which went where.

There was also the constant issue (everyone who works with google docs with large numbers of people deals with this, I think) of determining exactly which email address had been invited to view the doc.  Was that your personal gmail address? It was? Which one did you log in with? Are they linked? You can see but not edit? Did you accept the invitation? It went to your college address?  You don’t see it? Google has gotten better with all of this more recently…but it still can be an issue, particularly for technologically unsophisticated folks.

What we wanted (what I wanted, really, but it was based on what others were asking for) was to have a simple system–I log in, and I see the proposals I have to review.  I can go through them one by one, and see all the materials right there, and enter my rating (and comments) right there.  Attractive, easy to navigate, and easy to export the results.

So, call me strange, but this is actually the kind of thing I like to make, and after a longish Saturday afternoon and part of Sunday morning, I think I got a pretty good solution!

A demo version that anyone can see and try is here macaulay.cuny.edu/community/reviewdemo.  Of course any real production version would be private and closed–not viewable by anyone except the committee doing the reviewing.

It does pretty much everything I want it to do, with a couple of caveats (scroll down to the end).

For anyone who wants the details of how it works–it’s fairly easy to replicate, I think, and of course easy to customize and easy to improve. (This is a VERY long description, because I wanted to try to document as fully as possible.  If you want to just skip it and see the result, go right ahead! macaulay.cuny.edu/community/reviewdemo

Here’s the process:

Collecting the Entries

For this I use a WordPress site (can be a site that you reuse for each application process, or a new page on a common site.  Doesn’t really matter).  The site can be attractive, have background information and requirements, and somewhere on there you can have the application that candidates fill out.  An example would be this site macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/itfprogram, except that you can’t see the application form there because the application period is now over for that position.  The magic that makes this all possible (and most of the whole thing) is from the great Gravity Forms plugin.  This is not a free plugin. For one site it’s $39 and it goes up from there. But it’s a plugin that is worth paying for.

Gravity Forms collects all the information, with all kinds of fields that you can completely customize, including the ability to let applicants upload files (limit the filetypes, of course!) or to write long or short open-ended responses.  It then spits all that information out into a csv file (well, you have to tell it to do that, but it’s an easy couple of clicks).

Processing the Entries

This took a little bit of csv magic. The idea is that the data from that csv spit out from Gravity Forms has to be processed a bit to take and make the right format for turning it into WordPress posts.  In this process, Excel’s “concatenate” function is the big secret.  (Of course, Numbers on a Mac, or Open Office Calc on just about any platform would do the same thing.  I used Excel on a Mac, but–more about this below–I would have been better off using Numbers).  The plugin (CSV Importer) we use to turn the csv file into posts wants columns for  the post title, the post body, the post type (a post or a page–for this purpose, we really want page), and excerpt, categories, tags and date.  Any other columns become custom fields.

So if you have a spreadsheet from Gravity Forms with columns for (for example) first name, last name, academic discipline, dissertation title, personal statement, CV, teaching experience, skills (or whatever), you need to concatenate last name with first name, with a comma and a space in between, and make that a new column for post title.  Then (here’s where I got really fancy) concatenate academic discipline, dissertation title, personal statement, CV, teaching experience and skills all into the post body.  But put all your html formatting into here, too.  I inserted h2 tags  with the name of the entry (for example, <h2>Academic Discipline</h2> followed by the cell number for that entry, to make it look nice in the final post.  And…for the personal statement and CV, which were URLs pointing to PDF files, I added the shortcode [gview file=] to make the google doc embedder plugin show those PDFs right there in the page itself.

That all took a while to figure out and set up, but once you get it right once, it does the whole spreadsheet in a couple of seconds.

Importing the Entries

Now that csv is clean and ready to import, it’s very easy.  Just make a new WordPress site and install and activate the plugin CSV Importer. Once that’s activated, you go to its menu item in the dashboard, navigate to your nice clean saved csv, upload it, and bingo. You’ve got a page for each candidate, titled with her name, with all her information, including the linked PDFs, displaying nicely right on that page. (One important caution.  If you use Excel on a Mac, you’re going to find that the csv it produces is not properly formatted–you’ll get “0 Entries” when you try to import.  I’ve run into this problem before in other cases, so I knew about it, but it can drive you crazy if you’re not expecting it.  There’s something wrong–somebody more aware of these things can explain it exactly–with the way that Excel on the Mac saves csv files.  Something with the line breaks, I think.  It’s probably possible to fix it somehow in Excel settings, and that would be smart, but not being smart, I just open the csv in Numbers, and then export from Numbers to a csv again, overwriting the original.  And that’s the file I use.  Wouldn’t it be smarter to just work in Numbers from the beginning, and save that step? Yes.  But as I said, not being smart…)

You can, if you like, fiddle with your CSS to make the display of those pages even nicer and prettier.  I actually ended up using a custom theme (or a customized child of a theme, really), so I could have refinements like a “next” and “previous” link at the bottom of each page, and a dropdown list of all the candidates at the top of each page, and I used colors and font styles that I liked.  Depending on your theme, you could easily do this with custom menus, too.  I leave all that as an exercise for the reader.

For privacy’s sake, you do need to set the site to be viewable only to registered subscribers.  Then you just create accounts for only the members of the committee which will be reviewing.  All kinds of other refinements are possible.  You could use categories to make sub-committees if your reviewers are broken up that way.  You can get as fancy as you need to, since WordPress is so flexible in this kind of thing.

Reviewing the Entries

Now on our new reviewing site, we’re going to be returning to Gravity Forms again (a note about pricing here–Gravity Forms’ single user license means one install, period.  Two WordPress sites in a single multi-site install would count as two sites, not one.  So if you’re trying to go as inexpensive as possible, you’re going to have to get a little creative–in other words, your site for collecting applications will have to be the same site you use for reviewing applications.  You can’t have a new site.  You will then have to work with password protected pages, or changing the site’s privacy settings after the application period and before the review period, or something.  Totally doable.)

We use a new form for collecting the reviews.  I did fields for reviewer’s name (auto-populated from the user’s login), candidate’s name (auto-populated from the page title), comments, and numeric score (you can limit to just 1-5, or 0-10, or whatever.  There isn’t any way I could find to prohibit fractional (decimal) scores.

You can put that form in a sidebar widget (or a footer sidebar, which is what I did), so it’s right there on each page.  Or you could put it on a separate page which reviewers would then need to have open in a separate tab or window.   Gravity Forms provides the widget as part of the install, and that seems like a really efficient solution, so that’s what I did.   Reviewers look at all the candidate’s information, and enter the score and comments right there without even going to another page.  Efficient!

Some reviewers like to be able to see what other reviewers are saying or have said about candidates.  Or in other cases you might not want to allow that, preferring all reviewers to work independently.  It’s really up to you, and I know that I will be doing it each of these different ways in different instances.  If you do want to let reviewers see other reviewers responses, there’s another plugin I used.  This is a (free) plugin for a plugin.  It’s the Gravity Forms Directory add on (and it’s handy for lots of other purposes, too). This lets you take the input from any field in a Gravity Forms form and display it on a WordPress page or post. It updates live and in real time, and you choose which fields you want to be included in the directory, and lots of other options, too.  It’s a very sophisticated and effective add-on for Gravity Forms, and it is free (of course it requires Gravity Forms in order to work), but donation driven.  I recommend you make a donation, if you use it.  I did.  Well-deserved.  You can see this on my demo site macaulay.cuny.edu/community/reviewdemo/results-so-far/ and if you enter a rating on one of those demos, you’ll see your own results show up, too.

Final Steps (reviewing the reviews)

When we’re all done, when all reviewers have completed all reviews, we’ll have another csv file, which we can easily download and sort and manipulate to get the high scorers, review the comments, and so forth.  That csv file may need some more concatenation, or more likely, convert text to columns to un-concatenate (for example, I’ve got names of reviewers entered as just first name and last name in one single field.  I’m going to want to convert that to last name and first name in two separate columns, so I can sort the list alphabetically.  Same for names of candidates–I’ll want to split those up).  But that’s easy csv work, really.

Then we’re ready to start interviews, or select awardees, or whatever the final step is!

Lacks and Caveats

There is a way to let reviewers edit their responses.  I have not yet been able to make that work.  It would be good to have, but until then, I’m just asking people, when they want to make an edit, to just re-review and in the comments make a note like “USE THIS ONE–THE OTHER ONE SHOULD BE DISCARDED.”  Eventually I’ll get it working and then logged in users (the only kind of users we’ll have) will be able to just hit a button marked “edit” if they want to change one of their scores.

I haven’t tried this with more than about 60 entries.  It should still work fine, since WordPress can (usually) handle 100s of pages without an issue.  But that would need to be tested carefully first.

Sometimes the google doc embedder craps out and the nice embedded pdfs (or docs or powerpoints or whatever) don’t show up.  I’ve had especially bad luck with getting it to work for docx or pptx files.  But even if that happens, there’s still a download link so you can fall back on the less convenient downloading the file and reading it.  And you can limit filetypes to just pdfs, which is probably a good thing to do.

The field for paragraph text allows you to limit the length of entries, but only by maximum characters, not by word count.  This is often the way these forms work, and people are pretty used to it, but I wonder why word count is really so hard to do.

Check it out

So that’s about it.  It was really a lot easier to do than this sounds (in fact, describing the whole process was almost harder than doing it, but I thought it might be good to have it documented–for when I forget, as well as for others). I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few points, but nothing too critical, I hope.

That link again, to check out the demo (and I do apologize for the silly fishy content there, but it fills the pages!)




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.”


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!