Alexandria Online

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 Google books won't work because the texts are out of date.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.

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