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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Top 10 Educational Technology Developments of 2011

© 2011 Brian Farrell

As the year winds down (winter break started today, yay!), and as my COETAIL grading pile ramps up, I’ve been reflecting on some of the developments in educational technology over the past year, and what this will mean for our learning communities in 2012. By no means an exhaustive list, here are 10 developments (in no particular order – in fact, I think #2 is probably the most important!) that I think will impact our classrooms, libraries, and online learning spaces in the coming year:

1. Kindle eBook Lending for Libraries

Certainly not a complete solution (it isn’t even available outside of the US yet), but definitely a step in the right direction. While Amazon is not exactly a model citizen when it comes to supporting libraries, and while publishers are already getting itchy about people borrowing their books, ebooks are a space that libraries want to be in, and librarians need vendors that will work with them in providing ebook solutions to their patrons.

2. The Online Filter Bubble and a Junk Food Information Diet

Probably the most important idea of the year, and yet probably also something that most people don’t even realize is happening. If you aren’t aware of how the internet is being fed to you, and just how tailored your online experience has become, you need to watch this TED talk by Eli Pariser. This is something that all educators need to make sure that their students are aware of.

3. Skype in the Classroom

Skype was already a great tool for educators, particularly those of us working in international settings. The formalization of their education site now means easier collaboration amongst teachers and students around the world. I can already hear Google grumbling, so I’d watch for similar developments coming from Google Voice.

4. Steve Jobs’ death

I was torn about including this one, as Steve Jobs was not exactly a model corporate citizen. Still, his penchant for innovation and revival of Apple into a company that provides outstanding and highly useable products in educational spaces will mean that he will be greatly missed. I’m not naive enough to think that the loss of Jobs will mean the demise of Apple, but I do think that there’s a limit to how quickly and how many innovations can keep coming from them. As a result, schools like mine that rely heavily on Apple devices need to keep a keen eye on the competition to make sure that we’re providing the best tools to our students.

5. Google to acquire Motorola

Google is huge and just keeps getting bigger. Their purchase of a hardware manufacturer in Motorola means that they can now better compete in the smartphone market, which should be a positive development as far as new innovations and healthy competition is concerned. I’m a big fan of open source solutions though, and despite their promises, it’s hard to say whether Google will continue to keep Android truly open now that they are directly competing in the smartphone hardware marketplace. Still, the possibilities afforded to education by mobile platforms are already fantastic (see #10 below), and I’m excited to see what a Google/Motorola partnership will bring to our schools.

6. Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)

This law makes me nervous, and really is a step far too far. Respecting copyright is one thing (and the right thing), but a total clampdown on any sort of fair use online makes the US is now looking more like China and Iran when it comes to online spaces, and I’m hopeful that the recent backlash continues to slow things down. Even as a producer and seller of online content, I realize that for creativity to continue, people need to feel free to explore and share their creations online. While the online space may be new to legislators, this is just a case of a business model needing to change – if you think this is a new problem, watch this excellent video series.

7. Internet Explorer Auto-updates

This may seem like a small story, but I feel that it is actually quite significant. By making this move, Microsoft is attempting to make their platforms more secure by forcing users to update to the newest version of their software automatically. The Orwellian in me has doubts about others controlling my software remotely, but the realist in me  acknowledges that this will greatly benefit many computer users (hi mom!) who don’t realize that they’re putting themselves at risk by running out of date software. I currently work in an all-Mac school, but I can hear the cheers already from IT support people in schools that run on Windows.

8. WebOS Open Source

The more open source platforms, the better (see #5). While most don’t believe that WebOS will be a major competitor in the marketplace, by making this platform available to the public, HP is allowing new developers to get a foothold in the mobile marketplace. Any super programming geeks in your school? Why not let them loose on WebOS?

9. The other tablets – HP Touchpad, RIM Playbook, and Kindle Fire (with apologies to Samsung)

Yes, there are other tablets out there. The iPad is a fantastic tool, but there are other (cheaper) alternatives that can do a lot of the same things quite well. Well, assuming that they are still around in 2012 – the Touchpad is already on its way out, and I’m assuming that the Playbook is not far behind it. Particularly for schools that find it hard to fully fund a fleet of iPads, the alternatives are worth looking at, and their continued development means more innovation, which is good for everyone, iPad user or not.

10. iPhone 4s & iPad2

The iPhone and iPad are already tremendous additions to the classroom, but I feel as though we’re just scratching the surface of what we could be doing with these devices. The addition of a (in the case of the iPhone 4s, much better) camera to the iPhone and iPad mean even greater flexibility in how these devices can be used in our classrooms. Our field studies micro-blogging project at my school has been ongoing for several years, and is one great example of how smart phones can be integrated seamlessly into our schools.


Thanks for reading this far. I wish you and yours a restful holiday break, and all the best in 2012.

Developing Professionally Online and Off

I’m excited to today start co-teaching the second course of a fantastic graduate-level educational technology program that we’ve been running in-house at my school. The COETAIL@YIS program gives us a chance to look at the role that technology plays in education and how we can best equip educators and learners with the skills and tools that they need to be successful in their schools.

Walking Alone © 2011 Brian Farrell

In its delivery, this program stands in direct contrast to the masters program that I’ve just completed in that it involves several face-to-face meetings for each course, where my masters was completed entirely online. While students in the COETAIL program complete their assignments largely online in the form of blogging, they also regularly get the chance to meet and discuss issues with their peers.

Having been involved with online learning as a student, teacher, and coordinator for many years, I’ve certainly grown to appreciate the flexibility that this form of instruction can provide, and definitely can’t discount its merits entirely. But I am very excited to be working with a group of learners in a more traditional classroom setting that also incorporates online components. I will get a chance to attend my masters graduation in Vancouver in a few weeks, but will be arriving without having actually ‘met’ anyone in my program. This stands in stark contrast to students in the COETAIL program, who have already had the opportunity to regularly talk and debate with their colleagues. While all of the courses in my masters program involved asynchronous discussion components of one sort or another, I’m not certain that discussion posts in a forum can ever fully replace the kind of dynamic conversations that can happen in a live classroom. Where I often felt very much alone in my journey through my masters, the classroom space of the COETAIL environment is very much a collaborative group atmosphere.

I know that whenever I walk away from any workshop or conference, I always reflect that the personal conversations and networking that occurred at the event were likely the most valuable components. There’s a reason that I just ordered a book for our elementary learning support teacher called “Whole Body Listening Larry”. Learning in more formal environments is likely very similar. At least as far as group environments are concerned, for me, it comes down to a simple notion that learning online is a matter of content, where learning offline is a matter of context.

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 !

New Ways to Search Google

Thanks to some wonderful colleagues, I recently learned about two new powerful Google search features that promise to make searching the web even easier. The first is Google Images’ ability to now search by dropping in an image file as a sort of reverse look-up a la TinEye. Here’s where to access this new feature (make sure you’re in Google Images first by choosing the ‘Images’ tab at the top of Google.com):

The second new Google search method is more interesting though for a couple of reasons. First is that as near as I can tell, it no longer exists (or at least not as I type this). And more importantly, when it was working, it only worked in Google’s Chrome browser. The new feature is called Voice Search, and it allows you to search simply by clicking on a microphone button and speaking aloud your search term.

The video linked above (and again here if you’re lazy) illustrates how the function works, and when I tried it last weekend, it did seem to work quite well, and I could see it being of great use for people who are still learning how to write in English.

I find it very interesting though that Google is actively installing features into its website that only function on their own proprietary web browser. While I can understand why Google would want to do this from a business perspective (control, control, control), this raises all sorts of questions about some of the connections that technology companies are making. While most of these synergies will ultimately benefit the users of these sorts of tools (after all, if we don’t like something, we generally take our business elsewhere), I see how they could also quickly lead to a decrease in competition (see this article about Google’s new flight search feature) by packaging together products that were previously available independently from one another.

So thanks Google for the new search functions. They do look very useful. But please, keep them open to everyone, and remember ‘Don’t be Evil’.

P.S., if Google keeps defaulting to a country specific domain on you (like google.co.jp or google.ca), you can force it to google.com by using http://www.google.com/ncr

 

Learning 2.011, Creative Commons, and Connections with Kindergarten

Learning 2.011 in Shanghai has been a whirlwind weekend of fantastic resources, networking, and thinking about the role that technology plays in education. I was fortunate to attend the conference with several of my colleagues, but have also gained tremendously from the wider network that collaborated and shared what they’re doing at their schools. The greatest benefit of Learning 2.011 (and really any other conference that I’ve been to) came from people actively collaborating and sharing tools, ideas, and strategies that have worked well for them.

© Brian Farrell  Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

© Brian Farrell Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

It’s only fitting then that I started the first Monday back by collaborating with one of my wonderful colleagues at school by sharing some of my photos of patterns with her kindergarten students. We talked about the differences between natural patterns and those created by humans, and even found some patterns that managed to be a combination of both.

I haven’t done a good job of sharing my photos in the past, as creative commons licensing is a bit of a dilemma for me. I do sell some of my photos, and so I have to actively control what’s out there and what people are using it for. If a company wants to buy one of my photos, they need to be assured that they’re paying for something that people haven’t already used elsewhere for free. Still, I always tell the teachers and students that I work with about the merits of creative commons, and so it’s time I walked the walk and started sharing, even if just a little. Creative commons does allow me to limit this sharing to properly attributed non-commercial uses, and it only feels right to start giving back to a resource that has been of benefit to me.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, and if people start looking at my creative commons licensed photos, they might just happen to see another copyrighted one that they’d like to buy (or trade for more delicious Shanghai moon cakes!).

My ePortfolio

©2011 Brian Farrell

As a culminating task for my masters program, I was required recently to create an ePortfolio illustrating my journey and progression through the program. While the forced reflection was good for reminding me of how much I’ve achieved over the past few years, it was also an eye opener in terms of how much more there is still to do and learn. Of course the ePortfolio could be an indefinite work in progress, but I did need to finalize it as much as possible for my program. The fruits of my labour should be viewable here (don’t be fooled by the similar layout to this site – you’re at the right spot!).

I’m happy to be finally done with my program, and will hopefully now use some of my newfound free time working on other things like my awful Japanese language skills and playing around with photography. Balancing the commitments of the program with full time work has been a challenge, but in the end, I’m happy to have completed it.