We’re just a few weeks removed from a major Apple announcement regarding the release of a new eTextbooks initiative. I’m keenly aware of the significance of the move to eBooks, especially as I have a 13 year old that carries 20 pounds in his backpack to school every day. However important the move from paper to digital textbooks, I’m still left with a taste for more.
I have been critical of the ways most schools still rely on text as the primary, almost solitary, medium for exchanging information. The “real world” trades information using an amalgam of different media that includes video, audio, images … and text. Of course, it’s also no secret that most students are way more comfortable watching tutorials on YouTube than reading pages from a textbook. So what’s the problem? Apple has given authors of all varieties a mechanism for creating interactive, multimedia school content … but it doesn’t feel like enough.
iBooks could have included aspects of social reading so “friends” could exchange questions and notes right within the pages of the book. It may have included a system for immediate feedback, formative assessment and corrective branching — that would have added to its value. The ability to generate summary usage reports for parents and teachers could have helped evaluate the progress of students. All things considered however, Apple has managed to establish a solid base and it’s sure to improve as additional updates are released. It doesn’t however solve the core problem of textbooks.
One of the major complaints about “20th century education” was that it centered on content delivery. We acknowledge that students need independent learning skills that enable them to enter society confident in their abilities to adjust to changing circumstances and equipped with skills to learn and relearn as new needs arise … yet many of our technology applications keep drawing education back into the model of content delivery.
While the eTextBooks initiative is a wonderful stride forward from our old paper textbooks it’s still essentially a re-constituted content delivery system that wasn’t designed or intended to change the one-way process of educational exchanges. Reliance on any type of course textbook – digital, multimedia, interactive or otherwise – only fits as a more marginal element in student-centered learning models. It’s not the nature of the textbook as much as its reverence in the classroom as “the” singular authority for learning. Lifelong learners need to be skilled in finding, filtering, collating, evaluating, collaborating, editing, analyzing and utilizing information from a multitude of sources.
Instead we could prioritize “content construction”. Textbooks are an important gateway — a starting point from which students can learn and then begin their exploration of information on any topic (although even on that point I feel we should encourage the “critical reading” of textbooks). However the days when students could responsibly rely on any textbook as a singular information source are gone. Also, the process of accessing, synthesizing and utilizing information is often as important as the product. The skills developed are an essential component of education and life today.
We have access to an exponentially growing amount of information to process and apply. There are many excellent tools we can all use to help in constructing and organizing that content. Here’s a short selection of some of the more popular ones. They can be used by individuals and also by students or teachers collaborating in groups.
Content construction starts with collecting and collating. Digital solutions for collecting resources are modeled on the old shoebox or file cabinet we used for storing paper based resources.
LiveBinders, as the name suggests, is designed to work and look like the binders we use at school. You can store content of all types in binders and then set the binder permissions to made public or keep them private within any class or group of members.
For younger students MuseumBox (requires Flash) allows storage of images, text snippets, web pages and more.
Evernote is a very popular resource that works across all platforms. It’s an invaluable tool for collecting and sharing any type of content — images, text, links or your own notes. Set up Notebooks by topic and add information by clicking on an Evernote icon or even emailing it directly to your specially designated Evernote email account. The Evernote “Clipper” is a tool that allows you to cut out any portion of your screen display and saves it as image. I’ve used Evernote effectively with classes that want to collect and share information and it’s also an extremely valuable tool for personal use. You can also sign up for premium school accounts now and then create and manage student accounts.
Instapaper is a simple service for saving web pages. It adds an icon to your toolbar. Click on the Instapaper icon and it saves a page for later reading. Instapaper is a tool that’s used primarily for saving items to read later rather than for collating and tagging items in libraries for research purposes. It is however a very effective tool for simple archiving. You can even download web pages for reading offline when you’re traveling or out of Internet range. Apple recently added a “Reading List” feature to Safari in iOS 5 but Instapaper still works across all devices and platforms.
Methodology: Don’t forget that the skills required in collecting resources require teaching and training. Searching, assessing, filtering, grouping and/or tagging – these are all skills that require guidance and repetition. It’s about process not just product.
Social bookmarking is an extremely effective method for collecting content on the web. My tool of choice is Diigo. Social bookmarking works by having you tag web pages that can then be annotated and shared. You progressively build a library of tagged links and there’s a simple search and retrieval mechanism whenever you need to find a tagged article or note. The two primary factors that distinguish social bookmarking is that it uses tagging to organize information rather than a simple linear structure and secondly, it allows you to connect with other users and share tagged information.
Open an account with Diigo and add a toolbar icon within your browser. Diigo works across all platforms including mobile devices and iPads. When you find content you want to archive simply click on the Diigo icon. Highlight any text, add notes to the page and then add some keywords that will allow you to find it easily afterwards. Click to Save it to your Diigo account and whenever you go to diigo.com (or use their iOS app) you’ll have access to the libraries of tags and links that you’ve collected and annotated.
There’s also a prominent “social” component. Share your links by saving them publically. You can start or join a wide variety of different groups with like interests and share content within your group. When searching, you’re also able to search through tags that others in the group have added.
Sign up for an educator account and each student in your class can also get an account. Now you can use Diigo to find and share content among members of your class. It’s an extremely effective way of enabling students to build an information library. They can share highlights, notes and comments. Used in that way Diigo will become an invaluable resource for your classroom.
We’re exposed to so much information that it gets a little overwhelming at times. One of the newer categories of tools for organizing information on the web is “content curation”. Curators gather information from any web based resource (news sources, web pages, rss feeds, Twitter etc). They then filter the content and add selected web pages to the library of curated content. Other users can then follow a curated library and get more select, premium content that has already been filtered. A popular content curation tool is scoop.it .
Scoop.it: When you open an account, you select a topic to curate (eg. iPads in Education) and add any number of content resources such as websites, rss feeds, Twitter accounts or hashtags and more. Scoop-it will serve up the content daily and you then decide which articles/sites to add to your curated library. You can also add an icon to your toolbar and add content on the fly as you surf sites on the web. Typically, others will follow a curated topic to get filtered content on a particular theme. Articles can be tagged and searched. Typically, this process is particularly effective in a class setting when you’re researching any theme that has a lot of current, topical information being released on a frequent basis. Your student curators need to browse and read all related resources and only add those that provide the most helpful information.
There are many additional tools and methods for building information libraries:
- Wikis have been a popular method for creating collaboratively built content and peer editing. You assign each student a login and groups will create pages. Each user can add and/or edit existing content. The wiki administrator can track all changes and roll back to prior versions. One of the better resources for starting your own wiki iswikispaces.
- YouTube is an underrated source for video based content. Open an account for your class and students can add videos to a class Favorites list. One way of using YouTube is to use your class account for collecting tutorial videos on any topic… and of course, students can and should add their own. Vimeo is another similar resource.
Some schools are uncomfortable allowing students to browse YouTube at school. If that’s the case at your school, consider using SchoolTube instead.
Lastly, it’s not just the information library you’re building that has value for students. As opposed to having them access a slice of content that someone has selected for them, the process of searching, filtering, organizing, analyzing and editing exercises valuable skills and helps develop their ability to become the independent learners we’re hoping to graduate from our schools.