Alexandria Online

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Dalton School: The Dalton Plan: The Dalton Book

Dalton School sits on some of the most sought-after real estate on the planet: 89th Street between Lexington and Park on the Upper East Side of New York City. Whereas The Episcopal Academy spreads out over 123 acres of former farm land in the exurbs of Philadelphia, Dalton goes 12 stories up and is a fifteen minute walk from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim ... New York.  Two very different spaces that are home to two distinct, authentic institutions with strong identities.

Most schools have "the mission statement." For most independent schools it is the same statement, about nurturing the whole child, healthy mind in a healthy body ... high standards ... challenging ... character ... supportive environment ... banana banana banana.

Dalton has "The Dalton Plan" -- an entire book -- not a short one. It's a constitution, not a mission statement. I have read  only the short summary of the plan on the school's website, which I strongly recommend. In it you can see the seeds of Dalton's natural inclination toward using technology and you can also see an early version of a modern philosophy of education called "differentiated education," most notably articulated by Carol Ann Tomlinson.

The kids at Dalton get detailed assignments and they are taught how to take responsibility for dependably completing the assignment step-by-step independently. You could call the "assignment" a "project," which makes this "project-based learning," which is code for what schools desperately try to emulate and not infrequently fail to achieve when they implement one-to-one laptop programs. If kids don't have projects to do in the classroom, then they spend most of their time listening to the teacher, and their expensive, heavy laptops spend all of the time in their backpacks among the squashed bananas.

Dalton is doing it forward, where a lot of schools are doing it backward. Dalton is trying to fit the technology to the education, not the education to the technology.

John Neiers, Director of Technology at Dalton, is a practical guy. He asked why Episcopal was looking at a laptop program. I told him that one reason was that our program is quickly approaching a ratio of two students for every one computer. Our laptop carts and labs are in constant use. We are wondering at what point we should just give every kid a laptop and dispense with carts and labs. John's number, it turns out, is around 1.8-to-1 students-to-computers. At that point it made sense to him to enter a three-year lease on macbooks for every 6th grader and call it a pilot program.

A practical solution for a visionary type of education. That's what a good tech director can deliver. And at a certain point, when the pragmatism keeps taking a vision to the next level, the pragmatism itself is visionary. But beware: there are many false Buddhas out there, and some of them are "visionary" educational technologists who lack pragmatism.

Here's the funny thing, though: in most schools teachers resist new technologies, but at Dalton the teachers were ready. I'll give you four examples.

Example One: algebra
Aran Glancy teaches high school algebra. Yes, he distributes a standard, printed algebra textbook to his kids, but he uses a lot of problems from an out-of-print algebra textbook he found on google books and he has a tremendous amount of his own material on his moodle. He and a colleague are considering writing their own algebra text, so Aran has no lack of content. His "Dalton Assignments" are all there online for the kids to access.

And here are the two questions I always ask: "Can you do without a bound, paper textbook?" and "Can you use your online material next year?" Aran's answers are, "not quite, but soon!" and "yes."

Example Two: Spanish
Several years ago, Sol Gaitan, who teaches Spanish 6-12 at Dalton, heard a speaker from The Institute for the Future of the Book talk about creating electronic books, and she began using a little-known software package to create rich-media digital books. Video and audio clips, animations, mouse-over  call-out boxes, were coherently, tastefully -- I might even say beautifully -- integrated with text. She is now changing to another software program called Sophie being developed at USC.

At the time she started, Dalton did not have a one-to-one program, so the students had to install the software on whatever computer they had at home in order to read their homework. Many headaches were eliminated when the laptop program began and the machines were deployed with the proper software pre-installed and tested.

The course still depends on a bound, paper textbook to provide sequence and structure. Sol's ebook expands and amplifies.

Can Sol do without her bound paper textbook ("BPT")? Not yet. Can she use her own materials next year? Definitely. And one more question: does she need technology to run her class? Definitely.

Example Three: Middle School History
Jay Golon could almost do without a BPT; he feels that the bound paper text he uses just can't be beat for delivering bare-bones historical content in a clear, efficient, structured form. But if you check his pages on the Dalton moodle, you will find several books' worth of historical content stored and organized in keeping with the structure of his course. He mines the Library of Congress website along with the many subscription databases that Dalton maintains.

Jay uses a SmartBoard extensively and posts his class notes on the moodle. And while a map of Europe with a few red arrows and blue circles does not make a lesson, the potential is certainly there for reuse of those  sketches as well.

"BPT"? Still needs one. Reusable materials? You bet.

Example Four: Digital Spanish
Maria Madinaveitia wanted to solve a problem that every independent school faces. As kids advance in world languages, some go on to the advanced placement or honors level, but some don't have the natural inclination to excel in the grammar and literature of a language.

Maria felt that the school was not nurturing this group of students as well as it might. She convinced the head of school that a different approach was needed, and with her experience in curriculum development, she felt ready to take on that challenge. One thing scared her: she knew she had to use technology.

Maria claims that she is a technophobe. What a strange new category of suffering we have now in technophobia. Although thousands are killed in car accidents every year, one doesn't hear much about autophobia. And yet the thought of creating and storing one's work on an inscrutable, whimsical, sadistic little device terrifies so many. It humiliates you in front of students, peers, parents and administrators; it let's you down late at night; it makes you a novice again although you are an experienced and esteemed professional; it makes you dependent -- on electricity, on batteries, on your internet connection, on the snickering teenager in tech support ... But wait: did I mention tech support?

This is where Dalton scored big. Well before Maria started her summer project to develop a new course for conversational and cultural Spanish, she began meeting with Arlo Klinger, a curricular specialist within Dalton's technology department. Arlo knows no Spanish, but he knows how to help.

Maria also took a summer seminar with Carol Ann Tomlinson in order to integrate The Dalton Plan with some ideas borrowed from the new field of "differentiated education." She wanted her kids to take responsibility, plan their own work, identify and address their own weaknesses, assess their own strengths. All the materials would be there -- online, thanks to Arlo -- for them to work with at their own pace. Video, audio, text, animations, everything.

Maria shakes her head when she thinks about the amount of work that went into developing and implementing this curriculum, but it has clearly been tremendously engaging and stimulating for her. You need an Arlo to be able to pull it off. There are Arlos out there. We have some at Episcopal. When you've been in the tech biz long enough you can recognize them pretty fast. And their species is not exclusive to the tech world.

It's that person who doesn't necessarily volunteer first and fastest, may not even offer, doesn't want to be a hero, avoids big promises. The great support people are like entrepreneurs: they understand resources and identify opportunities. Nine parts pragmatism, one part altruism. And it helps a lot if they are nice.

And now the two big questions:
1. Reusable materials: are you kidding? After all that work?
2. Still need a BPT? Brace yourself: NO.
That's right. There is no bound paper textbook for this course. All the content is digital, stored on Dalton's moodle. A true cloudbook! The Institute for the Future of the Book calls it a "networked book." There is no copyright on the material, but you must be logged into the Dalton moodle to read it. Some of it can be printed; some cannot. You need a fully-featured computer to use it.

This cloudbook, or network book, has all the authority of it's author, Maria, and of Dalton School behind it. It is not a mash-up of other people's work and it is not anonymous. It represents a tremendous amount of work, refinement and editing, on the part of students as well as Maria and Arlo. The students' work is also posted there.

Maria's materials are published only for students at Dalton, but as materials like this accumulate on servers everywhere, teachers will begin to think about publishing more broadly. Maybe they will just try to pitch to the big publishers, or maybe they will try Lulu. Soon google will have its own publishing wing through google books. According to The New Yorker, some authors are already selling their content directly to Amazon without using traditional publishers.

Once all the work is done, the only questions that remain are how to make the work public -- and how to get paid for it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Education Versus School

In today's New York Times Education Life section, there is a long piece about online learning by Katie Hafner, called "An Open Mind." I think what the piece proves is that if you have the time, you can get a Yale, Stanford or M.I.T. education all by yourself. But you will have to do it without the following elements that you would get if you graduated from one of those institutions: a social life, real (as opposed to virtual) peers, a chance to ask questions, a grade and a diploma. You would be just as educated, but you would not be "going to school."

This is only a little better than buying all the books for the course, getting your hands on the syllabus, and working your way through the assignments on your own. It gets dismal pretty fast. After two or three courses, I would be banging my head on the keyboard.

On the other hand, I have done something similar myself. If you go into the "Computers" section of any bookstore, or search for computer training books online, you will find some of the fattest, most intimidatingly titled books you have ever encountered. I am currently working my way through Beginning ASP.NET 3.5 In C# and VB by Imar Spaanjaars and am proud to declare that I understand every acronym in that title. I have learned HyperText Markup Language (HTML), Visual Basic (VB), Active Server Pages (ASP), and, most importantly Structured Query Language (SQL) all in the same way: from big, fat books. I believe, however, that I am the exception. I like to work quietly, by myself, and at my own pace. Most people need a class.

Apparently millions of people are taking these free, online courses but no one knows why, or what affect this phenomenon is having. And millions of dollars in grant money are being spent to record lectures and assemble materials. Institutions everywhere are using online materials to augment, supplement, and remediate classwork and homework. Whether one regards the course as an "online" course, a "blended" course, or just a course, is a matter of degree, not category.

As with everything on the Internet, the amount of material in this category is almost infinite. And as with everything on the Internet, it is very difficult to find something that suit you exactly. We need boundaries -- Jaron Lanier's "membranes" again.

Behold The Episcopal Academy Online. Let's imagine it. There is a single portal, and a single login. You must pay a lot to join. You must show up and develop a relationship with your teachers and peers in person. You must participate in activities that demand your physical presense: sports, drama, music, etc. There is a space called "The Episcopal Academy" and a time called the school day.

So what has changed? All your textbooks are delivered to your computer from EA's textbook service. Your computer is licensed in some way similar to the way Amazon licenses its books. All the materials are copy-protected. Publishers get their money; authors (hopefully several of them will be teachers at EA) get theirs.

Peers use their online course areas to ask for and give help to each other. They get help from the teacher there. They can rest their eyes, put on headphones and listen to a brief, well-delivered lecture. They use interactive exercises to exercise problem-solving. They go at their own pace in a differentiated learning environment.

So what's the teacher doing? He's supervising kids in his room, because until college (and probably in college too) kids need supervision. But he's going from kid to kid asking questions or interacting one-on-one instead of engaging the whole class at once and losing 75% of the kids' attention.

Or is he? What if his assistant -- a less experienced, junior teacher -- were doing supervision and guidance for the group while the master teacher were in his office adapting and improving the curriculum to the needs of all the different sections of this class.

In this "blended" environment, parents know that their kids' education is a complete education. There is exacting quality control. There is an educational character to the all the courses that is unique to the institution. There are relationships between kids and between teachers and kids. There is community. The school is an organism with a skin around it. Ideas, materials, methods, theories and practices are gathered from everywhere, but the Academy decides what is good and right for its community and what is deleterious or beside the point.

In The Dumbest Generation, author Mark Bauerlein excoriates the young for their disinclination to read full sentences and paragraphs, choosing instead to flit from tweet to tweet. But he is careful not to blame the inherent potential of the technologies. A lot can be done with them, but nothing is. Instead, technology provides an avenue for the worst kind of malignant and aggressive mental deterioration.

Let me put this forward. As powerful as technology can be in destroying the intellect, it has the same positive potential to improve. Bauerlein is right that the status updates, taunts, flirts, porn and platitudes that comprise the vast bulk of what is stored on the world's servers will quickly make us the stupidest planet in the universe if that is our only diet. But if it can be grafted onto the sturdy structure of a school, all of its destructive power may be redirected for the good.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Anonymity is the Enemy of Authority

Let me tell you a story about anonymity

When Odysseus escaped the clutches of the man he had robbed and blinded, Polyphemos the Cyclops, he gave his name as "Outis" -- "Nobody." It was trick that bought him some time. Polyphemos bellowed to his fellow Cyclopses that "Nobody" had robbed and blinded him and they all laughed at him.

But Odysseus could not stand to be known as Nobody. If you've studied heroic narratives in any culture you have seen the importance of identity, of having a name. You show your identity in your armor, your horse, your father's name, your actions and the actions of your ancestors, and your name.

As Odysseus sailed away, he shouted his true name back at Polyphemos, who then prayed to his father, Poseidon, to destroy Odysseus. The hero's pride in his name brought on the destruction of all his comrads and great suffering for himself. But it was worth it because a hero needs a name.

I have made a point to reveal who I am, where I live and who I work for both in this blog and on my site. I have also named the people I have talked to and the schools I have visited. This news in the New York Times inspired me to revisit this issue. Newspapers are starting to request full names and email addresses when you want to comment on an article. But here is what is most interesting to me:

The debate over anonymity is entwined with the question of giving more weight to comments from some readers than others, based in part on how highly other readers regard them. Some sites already use a version of this approach; Wikipedia users can earn increasing editing rights by gaining the trust of other editors, and when reviews are posted on, those displayed most prominently are those that readers have voted “most helpful” — and they are often written under real names.
This phenomenon is the beginning of true peer review, a process that is critical to the advancement science, culture and thought. An idea is just an idea until it is reviewed and critiqued. Then it becomes authoritative. The process described above does not come close the peer review structure that is in place in academia, but it is a step in the right direction. When an experienced editor at FSG, the Paris Review, or The New Yorker is finished with your work, your ego is nothing but a smouldering field of ruin. We've all had coaches or teachers who broke us down and built us back up stronger and better. When they finish with you, you are just that much closer to being an authority, becoming a creative, unique individual.

To be an individual, you need to be separate. Jaron Lanier writes about the importance of "membranes" in his book, You Are Not a Gadget. I agree with him on the importance of membranes in keeping an entity unique and separate. An author is an intellectual organism surrounded by a membrane. Ideas flow in and out, but the flow is regulated so that the entity does not explode, disintegrate or fade into its own environment. If you are anonymous, you have no membrane. You are just part of the "grey goo" of the hive mind: mindless, infinite, incoherent chattering.

Before schools throw away books and start giving kids online content to read, they need some assurance that the content has a membrane, a brand, a name behind it, and a group of known, creative individuals with names creating the brand.

And if you're thinking of teaching them a language, how about the "Middlebury College" name brand? Can you beat that?

For decades Middlebury has run one of the most well-known language programs and summer programs for languages in the country. Now, according to the New York Times, it is teaming up with a for-profit entity, K-12 Inc. to produce complete, online courses of instruction in language. It's not free, not a wiki, not open-source, and decidedly not anonymous. It is the voice of Middlebury College and it branded programming as branded and packaged by K-12 Inc.

Branding and education? Can they really go together? Yes: Any questions?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Three Adjectives for the Future of Digital Books: Slow, Confusing, Inevitable

One colleague of mine predicted that in about one year, all our students would be carrying only an e-reader. That's just nutty and ain't gonna happen. Another suggested five years. That made me think. Now that the iPad is out, everybody is thinking about it.

Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council in New York City, wrote a compelling opinion piece in Education Week that I agree with:

Portable readers and on-screen classroom lessons are on the horizon. But printed textbooks will not disappear tomorrow. Hardbound books still dominate the $7 billion textbook market. Digital textbooks make up less than 5 percent of sales, and that includes textbooks at the college level, where for many reasons e-texts make more sense than in schools.
Even in an electronic age, books remain, when compared with plug-in and battery-operated laptops, cheap, portable, and durable. They are convenient, familiar, and easy to use. Books make a great deal of sense in the primary grades, and electronic textbooks much more sense in the upper grades and college.
Slow, confusing, inevitable. And to show just how confusing it will be, we have two very different devices, the Kindle and the iPad, to choose from. Then take a look at what's coming: socially networked reading from Copia offers lots of different e-reading devices, but more importantly it offers a software platform and social network that differes significantly from Amazon and Apple. Craig Morgan Teicher writes a review of this service in MediaBistro
He points out that the social networking service is set up perfectly to promote sharing of notes associated with reading: Blackboard or Moodle wedded to your textbooks.

Lots of different devices, lots of different ways to read, lots of books still being printed, sold and read on paper. The change will be slow, confusing and inevitable.

Oh and BTW: I predict the iPad will fall right between the Touch and iPhone in popularity. Remember that Apple is like Harley-Davidson, whose customers voluntarily tattoo the company's name on their bodies. 300,000 people were going to buy the iPad before it was even invented. People predict that some 3,000,000 kindles have been sold since it came out.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fraudulence and Authenticity on the Internet: What is Your Authentication Process?

In my last post, I wrote about a YouTube video that had been forwarded to me by an acquaintance. When did I decide that I could trust the content of that video?

The video was about disability services for students and had been sent to me by someone who researches and has a disability. It seemed unbiased, sincere and well-produced. Nothing was being sold and there did not seem to be any agenda aside from the obvious advocacy it was doing for improving access to adaptive content for the blind.

Fraud, like other crimes, requires a motive. I could not sense any motivation for posting a fraudulent video like this. Maybe if it asked for online donations, I would have worried a little. But it doesn't.

I wanted to find out who had made it. On YouTube, there was just the screen name, MollyS. No profile or other identification. Fortunately YouTube has a messaging feature that allows you to contact the creators of their videos anonymously.

I contacted MollyS and explained my interest in the video, making sure to identify myself by my full name, my blog, my website and the website of my institution. I felt that if I revealed myself, she would too. This is what she wrote back:

I am *******. I shot, edited and posted the video (with a little help from my partner.) The content is as accurate as it is real, as real as it is accurate to the best of my knowledge and ability to determine it as such.
I then searched for her and found her listed on the website of the University of ****** in the context of providing disability services to students. I have left out her name by request of the University, so now you the reader must trust me.
The process was a lot more involved than friending someone on facebook, but I now feel that this video is everything that Molly claims it is. The first time I watched it, it seemed very authentic, but I felt a strong need to follow up and make sure that I had done due diligence.

That was my authentication process in this particular case.

Each of us has multiple methods of authenticating what we see, read and hear on the Internet. It can be as subtle and instinctual as that feeling you get when you know someone is lying to you. A lot of valuable services and information are being passed back and forth on the Internet securely by honest strangers. On the other hand, a lot of people get fooled, ripped off, robbed of their financial identity, infected by viruses and spyware or have their computers made into zombies by cyber-criminals and even terrorists.

My colleague in the Classics Department at Episcopal, Greta Ham, gave a wonderful lecture on Greek pots using images that she had collected on the Internet. I asked her how she could vouch for their authenticity, and she said, "I've seen them in real life so I know what they look like." Because she is an authority herself, she can vouch for the authenicity of the images. She has a Ph.D. in Classics from a fine institution. (See my post about the Ph.D.) I know and trust her, and I would put money down on those pictures.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Publication and Protection: Copying and Copyrighting: Greed and Fear

To publish something is to make it public. People post blogs, publish web pages and instantly everyone can read them. But established print publishers need to brake the traffic of information to the public to protect their profits.

Publishers want protection: copyright protection. They want money for content. Matt Lake, a free-lance writer who has published in a variety of paid contexts, once said to me, "information wants to be free, but writers want to get paid." I would add: publishers want to post a quarterly profit too.

Sometimes the issue of copyright protection explodes. In recent episodes, Amazon surreptitiously "disappeared" a copy of 1984 from Kindles because of a copyright issue, and MacMillan products disappeared from the amazon store because of a pricing dispute. More often, the issue is simply an ever-present, but seismic pressure between protecting and publishing.

In a previous blog post, I describe how a teacher asked a publisher to continue to produce a specific edition of a textbook for him and the publisher refused. That refusal resulted in the teacher writing his own textbook and posting it for free as a "flexbook" on

An anonymous program director and consultant in disability services and an American university filmed and produced this video, in which Svetlana, a blind student, is shown going through the process of dealing with a textbook that has not been translated into braille. The spine of the book is cut off; the pages are scanned; optical character recognition software ("OCR") is run on it to convert it into text; the digital file is proofed and formatted and the braille version is then printed. So the book goes from digital to print to digital to braille. Perhaps the most chilling scene in the video is the one of the spines being lopped off the back of the books by a huge knife. Content unbound!

This administrator requested that the name of the university not be mentioned because the law is so muddy on this issue. On one hand, the institution has an obligation to fulfill under the Americans with Disabilities Act; on the other hand, it has an obligation to uphold copyright law. While publishers have materials to give universities, those materials fall short of this institution's standards for supporting blind students.

Why don't all publishers provide the digital file to the university so that they can print it on the brailler without going through the incredibly tedious and expensive process of converting it back to digital?
Is it fear or laziness?

Are publishers afraid they will lose control over the digital file containing their copyrighted content? Why not? The digitization of music overturned the old business model of that industry, taking away jobs and reducing profits significantly. Are they afraid that the digital file will be posted somewhere and everyone will download it for free? Say all the blind college students who are taking that particular course and using that particular textbook decide to email it to each other. Consider those odds. Organic Chemistry in Braille is not Justin Timberlake.

The publishers could insist that this blind student, Svetlana, buy a hardcopy of the text as a ritual acknowledgement of copyright protection -- and then get the digital file. It would involve no extra work on the part of the publisher, because the university would still print the text on their own brailler.
When publishers obstruct publication, even for a small population of individualistic physics teachers or blind students, they risk creating an environment in which competing business models may take root, thrive, grow, and eventually compete with traditional publishers.

Enter, an online self-publication company. This is not just a "vanity" press, for people who want their poems published whether the book will sell or not. John Edgar Wideman, a distinguished, established author, published his most recent collection of short stories through Lulu. (Interestingly, it is only available in print, not digital form.) If you go to buy his book on Amazon, you'll get it from Lulu. Plenty of people have done just that.

Why did Wideman go with Lulu? Tired of working with traditional publishers. And he's not the only one, according to a recent NPR piece. More money and more control are leading incentives for these authors, and traditional publishers no longer have the budgets to court writers with plush advances and generous publicity.

Then there is the open source side of the paradigm shift. Because of the needs of people like Svetlana in the video, a nonprofit organization for the visually impaired, Bookshare,, collects and distributes braille, audio and large-print copies of books. If you can prove officially that your vision is impaired, then you can have access to these texts legally, through an exception to copyright law. This includes 3,847 textbooks as of this reading of the site. Some texts are donated by people who have already digitized the content, but Bookshare also maintains a staff of volunteers who scan, proof and convert texts on demand.

The big publishers are blocking the door and demanding a cover charge for entry while others are propping open the fire escape and sneaking into the show. Free digital textbooks are appearing for the able-bodied on, and accessible, digital texts are being provided for the disabled, courtesy of MollyS and her colleagues at University of *******.

The Red River Dam diverts the Mississippi River away from its natural, shortest channel toward the Gulf of Mexico so that it continues to flow past Baton Rouge and New Orleans. If the river should someday overwhelm the dam, those cities will literally turn into backwaters, sitting on a huge, stagnant, unnavigable bayou. Some experts say it is a question of Whether; some say it is a question of When.

When or whether will the dam break between readers and writers?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Zero Authority Times a Large Enough Number is What?

A friend recently defended his dissertation, the last phase in his twenty year process of getting a Ph.D. He is now a "doctor." Nothing conveys authority like having a Ph.D. But who says that he is an authority?

As it turns out, very few but very learned people say so. Who says they are learned? Another generation of a very few, very learned people. And so forth.

I learned something that surprised me: anyone may participate in the defense of the dissertation. If I had wanted to take the time and effort, I could have gone down to Penn and thrown my own two cents in about late Roman history. I could have started a brawl, jumped up and yelled, "oh that's no such thing!"

This is also true for Wikipedia: anyone may participate. But they don't have to take the train downtown and find room 202a in Whoosy-flop Hall. Nothing impedes participation. And apparently, everybody wants to participate.

So while the Ph.D. process depends on the knowledge and review of very few, very authoritative people, producing very authoritative work, wikipedia depends on the knowledge and review of very many people who are anonymous, and therefore have zero authority. So zero authority multiplied by a large enough integer equals ninety-nine percent accuracy?