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Still Blogging, And Everything Else

Dave recently returned from a year-long blog hiatus, the natural consequence of completing a doctoral program, to ask Does Anyone Still Blog?. My first response was to say, of course. There are plenty of us still working in this structure called blogging, even if the term has been largely drained of it’s original meaning.

However, after more thought and a wonderfully thought provoking talk by Jim Groom, Dave’s question becomes more complex and undeserving of a simple yes or no answer.

Jim discussed A Domain of One’s Own and DS106, two projects out of the University of Mary Washington with the goal of empowering students, faculty, and pretty much anyone else in their community, to be a web publisher and, more importantly, to control their digital identity.

It’s not about writing personal posts that are displayed in reverse chronological order. At least not ONLY about that. People Instagram, Facebook, Vine, Tube, pin, and publish their content in a variety of formats, including text-based blogs, using an ever expanding collection of tools.

Jim, and his colleagues, caution that when we add our work to those other sites, we are contributing to their content and thus ceding control of our work to those companies. Instead of, or maybe in addition to, everyone needs their own place on the web to present their digital presence in exactly the way they want the world to see them. And it needs to start before students arrive at college.

Here in the overly-large school district we’ve talked for years about the idea of student portfolios, a place for kids to keep their work from year to year, built as they progress from the elementary years to graduation. The discussion always comes back to the how: what storage system could we use that is both flexible enough to handle any format and is not dependent on location? And never forget security!

Maybe we need to start A Domain of One’s Own far earlier than freshman year of college. What if every child got their own domain when they entered Kindergarten?1 What if we started in elementary school to help kids build their digital presence in responsible ways that reflected their personalities. To learn what it means to publish to a larger audience?

As soon as I typed that last paragraph I could already hear some of my colleagues reciting the usual COPPA this and FERPA that lines. I know there are problems to be worked out but it’s a concept that needs to be addressed. Many, if not most, of our kids are already publishing in the real world, while we still live under the illusion that we can “protect” them without actually teaching them anything meaningful about the process of working in that world.

Anyway, getting back to the original question, yes Dave, people still blog. But blogging is just one part of the larger mosaic of tools for expressing yourself on the web.

Oh, Dave also asks if anyone still uses RSS. Again the answer is yes (I wouldn’t have found his post without the feed being in my aggregator), but just as many people are publishing their thoughts, creative works, and opinions to the web without calling it “blogging”, they are also using RSS without that specific acronym.

All part of the wonderfully flexible and malleable structure that goes into publishing on the web.

Going Beyond The Textbook

In a recent post at the Fischbowl, Karl asks a good question: What job would you hire a textbook to do?, as the start to providing an overview of Discovery Education’s second Beyond the Textbook event held this past week.*

It’s a topic we’ve been thinking about a lot the past couple of years (and I’ve ranted about a few times) as our overly-large school district has been experimenting with online textbooks, first in Social Studies and then in math. Our results have been far less than stellar, Textbooksprobably because we are not aiming beyond… well, anything.

The digital textbooks sold (more like rented) by the longtime publishers of the paper versions, are also little different from them. Take a pdf version of the analog content, add a few videos, some interactive quizzes, and lock everything to the company servers so nothing can be used on the devices kids have available most often.

So, what how did the group meeting at Discovery headquarters envision what’s beyond the textbook?

Six different groups came up with six different mockups and, as you would expect, there were many commonalities as well as some differences. The main commonalities were that a “techbook” should be very customizable (by both teacher and student), media rich, provoke wonder/curiosity/inquiry, stimulate mathematical thinking/habits of mind, and have a social component. I’m not sure what exactly Discovery is going to do with these results, but I’m hopeful that we contributed at least a small part into making their next techbook better.

Good list of features, although I hope we can find a better term than “techbook”.

Anyway, Karl is right that this discussion – not to mention those that occurred prior to adoption of the online materials we are using – should have started with two essential questions. First, is curriculum necessary?

The second question only arises if you answer “yes” to the first question. So if you believe that curriculum is necessary, or even if you don’t but you think that as a practical matter it’s going to exist for the foreseeable future, then perhaps this question will be more meaningful for you. This essential question is, “What’s the purpose of a text/techbook?” (Or, because I just finished this book [How Will You Measure Your Life] by Clay Christensen, perhaps rephrase that as, “What job would you hire a text/techbook to do?”)

Our instructional people regularly insist that the textbook is not the curriculum, that we have already have a program of studies designed for our students. If so, why do we pay big money for the books, digital or otherwise? As a resource for the teacher? To provide review materials for students? A source of practice problems?

There’s nothing unique about any of those functions. A few states, or even large school districts like ours, could easily assemble a better product to meet those requirements for less money using resources we already have.

But go back to that list of commonalities: customizable, media rich, stimulating, social component. None of that sounds like the textbooks we already have or, for that matter, the versions that would likely come from most educational bureaucracies.

Maybe a non-traditional publisher like Discovery, working with the kind of smart, progressive educators who participated in this event, can create something genuinely new, something beyond what we now call a textbook.

However, even if they succeed, it won’t make much difference unless the rest of our educational system is prepared to change. We also need to go all the way back to the foundation and answer the question “What job would you hire a school to do?”.


* Right around the beltway and they never sent me an invite! Wonder if that’s fallout from our system not renewing with their Discovery Streaming product. Yeah, that must be the reason. ;-)

Image: “Ebook Vs Textbook” by India.edu from Flickr, modified and used under a Creative Commons license.

The End of Publishing

Scott pointed me to an interesting interview with Clay Shirky, part of a series of posts called How We Will Read, in which he discusses the future of publishing.

I love the same section Scott highlighted in which Shirky responds to the question of how publishing is changing.

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install. [emphasis mine]

However, Shirky also has something to say about the business of digital publishing that directly reflects the textbook industry to which we in public education are so wedded.

The original promise of the e-book was not a promise to the reader, it was a promise to the publisher: “We will design something that appears on a screen, but it will be as inconvenient as if it were a physical object.” This is the promise of the portable document format, where data goes to die, as well.

Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution. Now publishers are in the business not of overcoming scarcity but of manufacturing demand. And that means that almost all innovation in creation, consumption, distribution and use of text is coming from outside the traditional publishing industry.

So far, the digital textbooks I’ve seen from the major publishers – and certainly those our overly-large school district has adopted – fit that description of inconvenience, scarcity, and lacking innovation.

Anyway, Shirky’s larger message about “social reading” is much more interesting. Go read the whole thing.

Split Decision

Unless you’re part of the ed-tech community, you might have missed the news from Apple’s product announcement last Thursday. After all, they didn’t have any new devices with i stuck in front of the name1, so most of the popular media didn’t cover it.

But since the event was focused on publishing and electronic books, I was very curious what they would have. The rumor sites had the company bringing a “revolution” to the textbook industry (is that even possible?).

Although not revolutionary, they did have some very good stuff to show, with lots of potential.  And there were also a few disturbing pieces and more than a few questions, especially regarding distribution. If you have time, watch the full presentation on Apple’s site.

Anyway, I’ve had a few days to play with everything and read reactions from parts of my network so consider this post a rambling collection of first impressions.

First the good stuff. The core of the announcement was the release of a major new software tool for creating ebooks called iBooks Author. Watching the demo, my first thought was that the interface was very similar to Pages and Keynote, Apple’s word processor and presentation software that blows away Office when it comes to power and ease of use. Not to mention being much less expensive.

Even better, Author is free and was available that same day2 so I was able to play with the software for a couple of hours this weekend. Not a long time to evaluate a piece of complex software but I’m already sold on the potential for easily building applications (it’s hard to call them books) that seamlessly combine text with images, audio, video, and interactive elements.

Of course creating any worthwhile multimedia project requires a lot of planning and what I was able to put together from disconnected pieces of media found on my computer is not worth publishing. However, the process was dirt simple, offering plenty of layout options. This is a potentially powerful application that I’d really love to get into the hands of some creative students with time to work.

Ok, that’s the good news of Author. The problems start once the project is ready for distribution.

The software allows you to send the final book directly to an iPad but other than that the only real option appears to be uploading it to the Apple iBookstore. There’s no requirement to charge for your work but if you do, the license agreement on the software says you can only sell it through Apple, who gets 30%.

While the EULA seems pretty restrictive (check this post for far more details), it actually makes sense from Apple’s perspective. They view these “books” in the same way as they do apps for their iOS devices. They give away the tools necessary to create apps but lock them into the Apple distribution system. They’re doing the same for the books created with Author.

It’s no wonder the big publishers like Pearson were on that stage in support of their new textbook model. They see an opportunity to continue the traditional school market for their materials, one that doesn’t allow for resales.

However, I think there are several larger problems than locking the documents created by one piece of software to one particular set of devices.

Start with the need for an open format for publishing interactive media.  Most reports say that Apple is using ePub3, a free and open ebook publishing format, but with some non standard markup code that would prevent the documents from opening in other epub readers.

But then there’s the whole concept of “textbook”, which was the primary motivator behind Apple’s presentation on Thursday. Do we really want to lock schools and teachers into more materials over which they have no control? And pay the big publishers far too much for the privilege?

In advance of Apple’s event, some people were writing about how the company was going to “disrupt” the textbook industry the same way they did with music. There are lots of reasons why it won’t happen soon3, although I think iBooks Author is a good start.


1 Anyone else getting tired of i-everything?

2 I know it’s only available on the Mac. I don’t care. Someone else can complain about it being restricted on one platform.

3 I won’t go so far as David Thornburg to say that Apple wants to kill education, but he does make some good points in his post.

 

No Reason To Be Surprised

This final thought from Seth Godin’s post today got stuck in my head.

We shouldn’t be surprised when someone chooses to publish their photos, their words, their art or their opinions. We should be surprised when they don’t.

Of course, that’s not true of kids.

We seem to be very surprised when they publish to the web, especially material we deem to be inappropriate (a judgement call), which seems rather silly since we do very little to help them understand how to post appropriately.

Maybe it’s different in your school district, but around here we work very hard to make sure students don’t publish anything during school and overreact when we discover they’ve done it elsewhere.

Of course, many in our system will tell you that we do provide the tools for students to learn these skills. They come in the form of various “walled gardens”, resources which kids understand are artificial and far underpowered compared those they have available in their real world.

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