Alexandria Online

Friday, March 12, 2010

Handouts + Podcasts + Animations + Powerpoints = what? Cloudbooks?

I had a whirl-wind tour of the Harvard-Westlake School today in Los Angeles. Everywhere I went I saw the beginnings of Cloudbooks. Yes: I just made up that word. What else do you call it when a bunch of teachers begins to gather all their resources in digital form -- in The Cloud -- so that everyone can store, organize, share, review and edit them?

Deb Dowling, Physics teacher and Director of Studies, created podcasts -- simple recordings of lectures -- and coupled them with animations using CamTasia to produce complete online classes that the kids listen to for homework. The lecture is the homework! And when they come to class they work on problems together. The homework is the class! So the course is taught backwards.

Innovative enough, but in the wake of this innovation Deb and her colleagues have amassed all this digitized educational material that they can use again next year. Is it a cloudbook yet? Will it become one?

There are three Physics teachers and all of them use this method and these materials. This is the beginning -- the strands of protein in the primordial muck that leads to the formation of DNA that spawns life as we know it in schools: a book.

Of course it is very different from a bound, paper book. It does a lot of the same things, but more. It's alive: changing every year, growing. And the school is no longer at the mercy of publishers. Just today, the Texas school board announced that it wanted to inject more religion into some of its social studies texts. Schools in Massachussetts won't be very happy to hear that, since they may well have to use the same textbooks. But if they had their own cloudbooks, Texas would become irrelevant to Massachussetts -- and vice versa.

This is the first year that Deb and her team are using this, so I will be interested to see how much they will be able to reuse next year. The process takes longer than standard lesson preparation, and requires more collaboration. You also have to agree with your colleagues on the curriculum.

Curricular agreement is something that Episcopal shares with Harvard-Westlake. We are both big, busy, metropolitan schools that have an unspoken belief in getting and keeping systems in place. Independent schools are notorious for maverick teachers and idiosyncratic practices that are often seen as advantages over public schools. But there are also many disadvantages to such individualistic approaches to teaching, and one of them is that they will not produce textbooks or cloudbooks. The brilliant maverick seldom passes his methods on to the next generation.

Margot Riemer, Upper School Spanish teacher, was beginning to use the online version of her Spanish textbooks, just as our Spanish teacher was.

Math teacher, Mike Mori, told his kids to keep their books at home -- too heavy to carry around -- and he would project the online version up so they could do the same problems in class. One class did not have an online version, but that was no problem for Mike: he threw the paper book under the document camera and carried on. He teaches with a projector and a tablet and posts his lessons on his moodle class.

Deb Dowling uses a CD-based text from Kinetic Books. You have to install the "book" on a single computer and register that computer to the company. If your computer dies, you cannot simply reinstall: you have to call the company to get the license transferred. That's one way to slow down piracy. The kids had to use paper books to do their problems.

Ian Ulmer, Middle School history teacher, lectures -- yes lectures -- to his class, recording every class and podcasting it. He projects a powerpoint to accompany the lecture which is also posted. This may seem old-fashioned at first -- it's actually ancient. If a student has a hard time reading, he or she could do very well in this class because the story is told to them. In fact, it occurred to me that a blind student could easily thrive in this class, although the value of the powerpoints would be lost. Oral history!

David Wee, Middle School librarian, talked about teaching the kids how to read Wikipedia, acknowledging that everyone uses it and will continue to use it but many will not use it well. He and his colleagues have built out a lot of resources online -- mostly reference works -- in moodle. They expressed no special romance with moodle as a tool, referred to it as slightly clunky, but affirmed the necessity of having something like it where they could pool resources.

Both Upper and Middle School libraries now have a fleet of mp3 players loaded with all the audiobooks a kid could need at Harvard-Westlake. They faced the same problem we faced with our Kindles: how to use a consumer product in an institutional setting. Every book can be loaded onto no more than three mp3 players. Multiple accounts had to be set up and it took a long time to load. But the books are extremely popular and the units are elegantly housed in bright yellow bomb-proof plactic cases along with ear-buds and a title list.

A lot of effort and creativity was going into regenerating the curriculum at Harvard-Westlake, and the electronic tools were enabling people to store, organize, share, review and edit them for their own classes. The question I kept asking my hosts was this: can someone else use the materials you are creating? Will you be able to use them next year? If the answer is yes, and it frequently was at Harvard-Westlake, then you've got a system going and pretty soon you'll have a book in the clouds.

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