Textbooks?

The arrival of iBooks Author from Apple is set to herald a new level of democratization in the publishing world. Anyone can now create and sell their own textbook using a very intuitive, yet powerful platform, and then sell their finished product directly through Apple’s iBookstore. Down with the big publishing company monopolies! Or at least, that’s how Apple would like you to see it. The actual reality is that once you create something on iBooks Author, you’re now betrothed to Apple forever. There’s some debate around these terms of use and their ultimate intent, but until Apple offers an alternative option (e.g. pay for the software), using iBooks Author means only being able to sell your book in iBookstore.

Despite this very large obstacle around authors retaining control over their works, I’m still positive about the ability to create professional looking publications using iBooks Author, and the fact that you can still distribute these publications for free outside of iBookstore holds promise. But the larger question is, why are we still so beholden to students using textbooks in the first place?

I dare you to learn how to do this by reading a textbook. Photo © Brian Farrell

I’ll admit it, the students in my class have certainly glanced at a textbook on several occasions, and they do have their time and place. Certain curricula, particularly those based upon weighty final exams, can benefit from a well-structured textbook to ensure that all of the material is adequately covered. They are an easy resource to consult in independently reviewing key material. And in learning fundamental skills or looking at rote analysis of issues, textbooks can definitely be of benefit.

But in my opinion, the majority of learning occurring in our classrooms should not be coming as the result of students reading their textbooks. There are too many other dynamic, more engaging, and just generally more authentic ways for students to learn than simply sitting them in front of a textbook. Students need to be able to express their own ideas and opinions, not just regurgitate others that they have read. They need to form connections between seemingly disparate topics, not read linearly from chapter to chapter. And they need to make decisions about what information is valid, relevant, and correct, not to just read the opinion of one author deemed worthy enough to write a textbook. In this sense, iBooks Author is a solution addressing a solution rather than fixing the fundamental problem of using textbooks in the first place.

Now, having students use iBooks Author to create their own textbooks, that’s a completely different (and much more empowering and educationally relevant) story!

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Some Good Reading

© 2011 Brian Farrell

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately getting things ready here for our school’s launch of the 2012 Sakura Medal reading program. This program sees international school students across Japan reading and sharing about a fantastic range of books, from elementary picture books through to high school fiction in both English and Japanese.

Every year I spend quite a bit of time rebuilding the Sakura Medal review site, which is always a bit of work, but always so worth it, as many of the nominated authors stumble across the site and often leave feedback and responses to our students’ comments (how’s that for authentic learning!). The site’s statistics are on a steady trajectory upwards (now up to about 17,000 views per year), and it’s great to see students from other schools engaging with one another (and about books of all things!).

I’ve managed to get through a few books already, but with our fall break on the horizon, here are the Sakura Medal books on my wishlist to read next:

High School:
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano
Annexed by Sharon Dogar

Middle School:
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
Trash by Andy Mullligan

Chapter Books:
An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpugo
Born to Fly by Michael Ferrari

Picture Books:
Here Comes the Garbage Barge! by Jonah Winters
Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown

If you happen to read these or any of this year’s Sakura Medal nominated books, please share your thoughts by adding a comment to our site !

Students sharing graphical information online

I’ve just finished a great session led by Clint Hamada with a group of science and math teachers here at YIS. This is not a group that I usually interact with a great deal in my role, aside from helping with research and summative tasks, so it was interesting to hear their perspectives when it came to using portfolios to have students share online.

Gold Tiles ©Brian Farrell

One thing that this group grapples with is the ability of students to share their work when they incorporate things like charts, graphs, and complicated sets of data, and how to share things like tests that teachers have corrected and provided feedback on. We didn’t come up with a universal one size fits all solution for this, but several strategies for sharing these did emerge:

  • Take a photo of the paper copy, and import this image into your blog
  • Use the blog more as a place to focus on reflection, and embed links to places like Google Docs where more complicated data can be stored
  • Use screenshots to import tables and charts
  • Employ different levels of sharing with linked documents (e.g. students and teachers can read and edit, parents can view only, and the public gets a dead-end link for things like tests)

These are certainly not always ideal solutions, and there was a perception in the group that these may add more workload for them. The affordances that come from sharing and reflecting online were highlighted though, and so hopefully more and more of our teachers will embrace student portfolios online.