Alexandria Online

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Survey on the Future of Reading

I gave my colleagues at The Episcopal Academy a survey about print and electronic teaching material. A few questions pertaining to their personal reading and teaching preferences were thrown in too. I wanted to see how they themselves were reading, how they were teaching and how they thought their practices might change in the future because of changes in reading technology.

Schools are conservative institutions -- conservators, in fact, of our culture. Private schools are more conservative than public schools, and Episcopal is more conservative than many private schools. My colleagues displayed their conservation instincts well in their responses to the question below:

If you add the "Strongly Agree" to the "Agree" segment, you can see that almost everyone wants to keep a few printed books around, including me. I will never give up reading my Oxford Classical Texts They are beautiful! See:

But then take a look at the progressive streak below. According to the faculty, our kids will miss something if we don't include electronic materials in their education:

Not so conservative after all, are we? Comfortable with new technology, but respectful of the simple, elegant technology of the codex? They want it both ways:

Only a few folks could disagree with that question. The faculty are crying out for a mixed experience for our students.

Now here's the one that surprised me the most: many of our faculty see fundamental change on the horizon:

If you add those who agree to those who strongly agree, almost half the faculty see printed books being put out on the curb like the old library card catalogs in just twenty years. Personally, I see print books and electronic books coexisting indefinitely, so I was alarmed at this revolutionary outlook.

Twenty years may seem like a long time in the world of technology, but if you read Books in the Digital Age by John B. Thompson, you will be most impressed by the disasters the publishing industry suffered almost twenty years ago, in the early '90s, when publishers tried to peddle books on CD. The technology was there but no one wanted to buy it. That disaster stifled e-book development until the advent of the Kindle, twenty years later. It took that long for e-books to improve enough to compete with printed books.

Although no one knows for sure, it is a pretty good bet that over ten million but under fifty million e-books have been sold in just the past few years. And the pace is picking up, not leveling off. Nonetheless, owners of iPads and Kindles are still buying print books too. (Wall Street Journal, 4.30/2010, "Buyers of E-Books Still Like Print Too, Survey Shows") A huge change has already occurred, but how much farther will it go?

According to my survey, our faculty are pretty bi-technological. They mostly read their newspapers online and most develop their own electronic teaching material and store it for future use. They often collaborate with colleagues to develop this material. A third of them read e-books as well as print. They are comfortable dealing with non-print resources and believe that reading will soon move away from print.

But check out their own personal preferences below:

Those teachers who think -- for now at least -- that they will always prefer print over e-text may be the same folks who think print will survive for at least twenty more years. And if they think that, then they are right. Why would publishers stop selling something that they have always sold successfully and is still preferred by a majority of its customers? Educational publishers would have to change teachers' minds and come out with e-textbooks that beat print books hands down.
Be aware, however, that we are dealing with an unusual demographic at The Academy. Most of us read more than one book a year, which puts us in a tiny minority. If e-books can change that at all, well ... it would be nice for us readers to have more company. The life of the mind is grossly undervalued.

The complete results are available to you online by clicking here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A New Law of Physics: The Conservation of Stupidity

My ten year old is a "Scratch" junkie. Scratch is a graphical programming tool that was developed at M.I.T. for kids. ( It's a great toy on its own, but the real beauty of it is that kids can upload their projects and let other kids play the games that they develop. You can see the code, figure out how the other guy did it, and learn by taking apart.

The potential for this kind of learning is incredible. The concept is very simple but it enshrines the informal way that people have always learned through the eons when formal schooling was absent or irrelevant. Even today, when programmers want to solve a problem, they look online for scraps of code, or they look through their own old files to try to remember how they fixed a bug the last time it came up. There are no rules in this kind of learning, only precedents and examples.

Over a million projects written by kids for kids have been posted to the Scratch site. Impressive, no? No. I suggest you go to the site and try playing some of these games, animations and presentations. There are a lot of very clever programs, but boy are there a lot of stupid ones. Now in kid world, stupid is not necessarily bad. Kids love stupid stuff. They love to giggle. Babies are endlessly amused by someone who looks away and then looks back at them. Sometimes that still passes for entertainment with a five year old. If I tried that with my seventeen year old he'd just shake his head.

So read this new law and see if you think it is valid:

Proposed Law of the Conservation of Stupidity: that for every bit of brilliant creativity in the universe there exists a degree of stupidity that is directly proportional to it by a constant K and that the value of K is indeterminate.
On a hot, dry Athenian afternoon in the 5th Century B.C.E., Socrates pulled aside an uneducated slave boy and led him through a simple geometric proof by scratching a diagram in the dust and asking a series of questions. He argued that the boy could not have answered his questions without existing knowledge; that since the boy was uneducated, he must have been born with the knowledge; and that the only way to be born with knowledge is to have an eternal soul that travels from life to death and back to life carrying that knowledge.

Plato recorded the event in the Socratic Dialog known as the Meno, a cultural monument to creativity, simple, elegant, and created with no budget, no technology, no studies or committees, no M.I.T and no Web 2.0. Meanwhile, K*(Meno) amount of stupid stuff was also happening.

In his book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein writes passionately about the billion empty words found on facebook walls, tweets, text messages, teen blogs and YouTube posts that aren't worth the cost of a single electron in the Internet. He is writing in the alarmist school of futurism, where everything is always coming to an end. I write from a classicist's point of view, where everything has already ended, the end of everything wasn't as bad as everyone thought it was going to be, and life seems to have gone in spite of the loss of everything.

Similarly, Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget) warns of a reduction to "grey goo" of all the activity on the Internet, where anything that was ever original and creative just gets copied, pasted, mashed up, remashed, tweeted and retweeted until everything means nothing.

To Lanier and Bauerlein, I propose what I see as the bright side of The Conservation of Stupidity: The Conservation of Creativity. No matter how stupid we get, there will still be an amount of creative brilliance equal to 1/K * (amount of stupidity).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Visit Your Own House. You Might Learn Something.

Have you ever thought that the people you work with might be just as smart or smarter than all those conference speakers, experts, consultants, and the gurus you went to meet at trend-setting schools? You might if you took the time to talk with them.

I took the day today to check out what is happening at Episcopal that relates to cloudbooks, online materials and print textbooks, treating the school where I have worked for twenty years like a stranger. It was very illuminating.

Chuck Bryant came to Episcopal in 1990, the same year that I arrived. He has been teaching History in Upper School ever since. This is a guy who loves information in both quality and quantity. He can't get enough. If you want to feel a little frisson of fear, go to his AP US History site:

There are hundreds of pages here. A whole course, almost. The detail and organization are astonishing. You ask yourself, Is this a complete course in and of itself? Does this guy really need a textbook?

Yes. He still needs a textbook. Like the history teacher at Dalton, Chuck explained that textbooks are extremely efficient in laying out a basic, authoritative framework for the history of the era. Could he create his own? Yes, but he worries about copyright infringement. How would he lay out the basic facts of history without relying on a published, authoritative text? Google books won't work because the texts are out of date. Even though the history hasn't changed, the interpretation has.

Chuck mused on the concept of a wikibook. a digital book that could be annotated by teachers over the years. It would still have the efficient, authoritative structure, but the supplementary materials and notes, everything that makes up Chuck's AP US History site, would be right there, linked with the text.

We have a problem of media at Episcopal. How and where we store things is a bit confusing. There are shared folders on a file server that I originally set up for teachers back in 1997. Images, documents, common exams, special fonts, etc. are stored there.

Some people create their own sites using a little html or with a little help from dreamweaver. Chuck Bryant went that way with his AP US History site. We host his site on our web server.

But we also use Blackboard, the classic, heavy-duty, expensive course management system. It is our official online academic resource and there is a lot of information on it. A bit clunky, but it connects to our internal school information system so that all the academic registrations appear online as if by magic. You can't beat if for convenience -- it's all set up for our teachers, kids and parents when school starts. No fuss no mess setting up accounts. In addition, everyone knows to go there which creates the critical mass of activity that you need.

Rubicon Atlas is also in the mix. We use it to map curriculum, but it has a classic problem: teachers put information in by mandate, but never use it for themselves, so they have no vested interest in it. It contains some of the information that is in Blackboard and so it is duplicative. It can't really be used to teach, so it's use is restricted to the ten year accreditation process.

In addition to this, some teachers maintain nings, voicethread channels, and google docs.

Stuff is getting very spread out. I think the most densely trafficked and meticulously organized area are still the shared folders, where many people use many files over and over. Of those many and often used files, common exams are probably the most significant.

I talked with Will Gibbs, a middle school history teacher. He inherited a wonderful piece of history teaching on the Middle East conflict from Chip Hollinger, a veteran teacher at EA. Chip personally witnessed or taught the events as they unfolded through the seventies, eighties and nineties in the Mideast. He read it in the news every morning and saw it broadcast live on TV.

The beloved textbook that Chip used for years has gone out of print and is out of copyright, so Will has begun to type in sections of the text in a "Prezi", an online graphical presentation builder. Here is Will's prezi: It was recently featured as "Prezi of the Day," and suddenly Will started getting lots of comments, some of them rather passionate, since the issue tends to inflame people.

This is the classic pattern I'm seeing for the development of cloudbooks. A great textbook goes out of print or appears in a new edition that teachers don't like and they take matters into their own hands. The process usually involves a veteran teacher who has plenty of material to add.

Lee Pearcy, a master teacher of Classics at EA and at several local colleges, has built a course on ancient medicine over many years of teaching. He and a few other professors across the world are the only people who teach such a course. There really isn't an appropriate textbook, so Lee has a great big folder - about 150 pages -- that he uses. The standard college course-pack. He is considering a number of possibilities: traditional publication in print, self-publication in print, and open-source publication online. Of course, it never hurts to be paid for one's labor, so the open-source is not as appealing as the other options. But electronic self-publication, through Lulu for example, might be just the ticket. Lulu might pay more than traditional, and it never hurts to have a little pocket money for a few good bottles of sherry.

When the Episcopal Classics Department decided to create our own textbook, we started with a text that had been out of print for a long time. We had been copying it and printing it on paper for several years, essentially making our own course-pack. At the time we wrote the textbooks, a series of three, self-publishing and electronic publishing were not an option. Now there are options as the industry continues to be buffetted by waves of change originating from innovations in hardware, the emergence of new business models, battles between publishers and content providers, shifting boundaries between all of these entities and of course the vicissitudes of the market and whimsy of taste.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are: Bigger, Stronger, Scarier Monsters

So I'm reading in various media sources about Android powered phones outselling iPhones, and Blackberries outselling iPhones and Google and Verizon working on a tablet to compete with the iPad. When I mention this to my wife, she says, "I couldn't care less about the iPad." And I say, well neither do I. But do you care about books? And she says, "Yes, I care a lot about the future of books."

The iPad is a great way to read books. The kindle is a wonderful way to read books. And the codex is also wonderful -- still the most wonderful way for millions of people. It's not like moving from vinyl to CD's or from CD's to mp3's. It's just not as clear-cut. Only a tiny minority of folks cling to their vinyl LP's; more cling to their CD's; but the vast majority of us made the switch to digital media really quickly. But the idea of digital books has been around for ten, fifteen years, and still it's a niche market.

But what if -- ah, "what if" -- what if you could suddenly get any book you wanted immediately on any device you wanted: your laptop, your phone, your TV, your e-ink reader? If you cared about books at all, you would sit up and pay attention, wouldn't you?

Loping along behind Steve Jobs is the biggest two-headed monster that ever lurked in a kid's closet: the Google-Verizon monster. Verizon has the best coverage of any network and the most access to the big pipes. Google has scanned over ten million titles and offers them for free, and is about to start its own bookstore, Google Editions, this summer. Google and Verizon are now working on a tablet device to compete with the iPad.

Apple has always thrived on being small, elegant and beautiful. But how will it fare against something as big and strong as Google-Verizon? A monstrous amount of content on a monstrous netork? If you care about books but you don't care for computers, this summer might be the time when you will finally think about reading digital books instead of printed ones.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Changing the Classroom or Not

It's amazing how strongly classroom practice resists change. Larry Cuban's book, How Teachers Taught, will convince you of that in just the introduction. There is something irresistable and safe about standing in the front of the room and establishing and maintaining authority for 40 minutes to an hour. Science labs have broken that mold; elementary school homerooms tend to have stations and small group tables; and in computer labs students often get the chance to do what they have longed to do for centuries: turn their backs on their teachers. But whole-class teacher-led instruction still dominates.

Online learning materials, cloudbooks, will not per se change the dynamic inside the classroom. But what is likely to accompany the emergence of the cloudbook is ubiquitous computing: one-to-one laptop programs for kids. And that has a shot at changing things, because it makes every room into a potential lab. When there are plenty of computers around, kids tend to create collaborative projects with them which they store on the network.

But beware: parents and students may not recognize this as teaching. It may be too noisy and chaotic for their expectations. I have gotten complaints from parents and student for teaching this way. They expected to be shown exactly how to do all the problems. They didn't want to figure them out for themselves. My class was too much like a "study hall."

So once we teachers get the courage to make the change to project-based teaching -- if indeed that is what we want to do -- we have to convince the rest of our constituency to take the leap with us.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mimeograph Machine

A Youtube video is worth a thousand words:

Remember the mimeograph machine? If you've actually used one as a teacher, you were born around 1960. The first year I taught, we had one of these in the faculty room; the next year it was gone -- replaced by a Xerox photocopier. Some teachers stored up whole courses of exercises, tests, quizes, exams, essay questions on these blue, carbon, reverse-printed sheets. They were carefully laid away in alphabetized folders. When the xerox machine appeared, they would just lay the flip side of the sheets down on the glass and photocopy the old blue carbons. They had no intention of redoing all that work.

This is where the network changes all that. Up until schools had networks, nothing much changed. Even schools that had computers didn't change much because each teacher's work was isolated -- stored on floppy disks carefully laid away in alphabetized folders.

With networks came shared storage space, an early form of google docs. Teachers could collaborate. They could use each other's work. And they could add, edit, refine and update that work.

All of this was possible before networks, but it took too much time. Textbooks and curriculum are exponentially easier to put together when you have a network and easily editable formats to work with. Teachers all over the world are posting lessons for free that you can incorporate.

Still I wish I had a spirit mimeograph machine in my basement!

By the way, I assert by my own authority that the video is accurate because I have personally used a mimeograph machine and what you are seeing is exactly how it works and looks.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Too Many Pages, Too Few Pages, Null Values.

I had to know something about the history of classroom practice, so I started reading How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms 1880-1990. In the introduction I found just the sort of gem-like, brief observation I had hoped to find:

Centuries ago, in European and American cultures, formal schooling was instituted in religious institutions with the aim of teaching students to spread the word of the particular gospel and to study its meaning. Books were rare and teaching and learning in church-related schools and colleges depended on those who were informed telling the uninformed what was important to know. Knowledge was a body of beliefs, facts, procedures, and opinions that largely went unquestioned.
I am suspicious of the idea that beliefs, facts, procedures and opinions went unquestioned. Western education has its roots in the inquisitive, combative minds of Ancient Greece and Rome. But the idea of too few books is very compelling to me.

Books were once expensive, rare, treasured by an exclusive few. And education was predominately oral. One wrote down the words of the master, creating one's own book. I have used the "listen and write" approach in my own classes from time to time, to add another dimension  that might appeal to different learning styles. It still works. Many kids respond well when it is used sparingly, to break up other learning activities. It's relaxing.

But if you don't have a book, it's just plain necessary.

Now we have too many books. Anyone with a computer has access to an almost infinite amount of information, most of which, by the way, is pornography. You can find exactly what you want, or you can find nothing of what you want. You can be confused, lost, overwhelmed, duped and ripped off. You need a guide.

Teachers, librarians, libraries, and textbooks all act as guides. They give you a frame, boundaries, a membrane that keeps you from dissolving into the Great All. They are dykes that keep the great digital river from drowning you but let some water through to irrigate the fields.

In his talk today, Alan November led us to a very amusing site: which is designed to help students learn about using the internet for research. There is a silly, patently fake biography of Sir Francis Drake . It's a great way to teach kids about internet research skills. But if you step back and consider the purpose and mission of the site you come back to the same issue of boundaries, frames, membranes, dykes. The site itself is enclosed. It was set up  by teachers specifically to teach research skills. And the person who brought me to the site was Alan November -- a well-known figure in the world of education, someone I am familiar with in a number of contexts, someone my friends and colleagues are also familiar with.

So in a world of too many books we are again dependent on a guide, a master, a trusted source, without whom we are lost in a flood of information that cannot be discerned as valid or invalid. Without a guide, all data becomes undefined, a value described in mathematics and in database design as "NULL."