Apple for the Teacher

by Kieran Healy on January 20, 2012

Yesterday Apple launched some new applications and services aimed at the education market. They extended the iBooks app to include a textbook store; they announced some deals with major textbook publishers; and they released a free application you can use to write textbooks, and which allows you to publish them on the store. They made their iTunes U service a separate application. The app replicates what’s already available on iTunes, but also seeks to replace some or all of what’s offered by course management systems.


Something’s Always Wrong with Education

The education market is enormous and very heterogeneous. Apple’s initiative covers both grade schools and universities. Those are very different settings, which themselves vary hugely. And as anyone will tell you, the American education system has been in crisis, or facing some central challenge, or in need of some sort of fundamental reform, for a very long time now. Everyone has a scheme designed to fix it.

The alleged problem this time is that in the 21st century students and teachers are being forced to use an outmoded technology from 1950: the textbook. To be honest I was a little disappointed that the teacher in the video didn’t just go the whole hog and condemn the printed book itself as an outmoded technology from 1450. The solution involves Apple selling as many iPads as possible, and taking a cut of textbook sales as well. The demo textbooks shown at the event of course looked terrific, as one would expect. Dynamic transitions, animations, high-quality photography and video, highlighting and note-taking, all that good stuff.

Technology is Always About to Transform Education

Schools have been down the techno-salvation path before with other kinds of hardware and software. It’s worth remembering just how many technologies we already have that were supposed to transform education beyond all recognition. Radio, the television, the VCR, the personal computer, email, the Internet and the web … All of these have been trumpeted by someone as having the power to make education What It Really Ought To Be. The same goes for smaller developments within larger technological shifts. Chatrooms, MUDs, bulletin boards, blogs, FaceBook, Twitter, on and on. Sometimes things do change, in big ways. The TV and (later) the VCR helped make the Open University possible in the UK, for instance. (Which in turn helped make some good comedy possible, as well.) Of course, having a national broadcasting corporation and a state-financed system of faculty and tutors was helpful, too.

Just this week, Wikipedia’s blackout showed how much it has insinuated itself into people’s lives. Of course, the horrors uncovered by Herpderpedia showed how it’s perfectly possible for a technology to transform how students seek out and use knowledge while doing much for the basically clueless. Along with the big shifts have come mid-range changes. The availability of free, high-quality software for statistical analysis, for instance, is one of dozens of changes that are substantial or even remarkable within their domain, but which don’t pretend to transform "school" tout court.

As for the textbooks themselves, I’m skeptical that the many "dynamic" bells and whistles that can be embedded in them are all that effective or useful. I can certainly think of cases where they could be, but it’s also easy to imagine books filled with movies or demos that are watched once and then ignored. Maybe you think I fail to see the potential of these new technologies. But what Apple laid out yesterday seems rooted in the 1990s and its vision of multimedia-enhanced text. Fine as far as it goes, but don’t pretend it’s going to revolutionize schooling. School is an institution, not just a mode of instruction or a state of mind. Textbooks are not what make people hate school. iPad-based textbooks with zoomable pictures and some embedded movies will not make students love school.

Instapaper and the Persistence of the Textbook

In his presentation, Apple’s Phil Schiller heavily criticized the static, text-heavy format of the traditional texbook. Far better to present information dynamically with graphics, supporting illustrations, movies, interactive components and all the rest of it. Sure, why not? But—-consider how many of the most sophisticated computer users consume "content" online, perhaps especially the ones who use iPads. Do they seek out material that looks like this? Do they want multi-modal, multimedia formats? Do they love jazzy Infographics? No. They use Instapaper or some equivalent tool to create reading lists for themselves, and to read those articles in a format that deliberately strips out a lot of the original presentation and replaces it with simple, clean, easy-to-read, blocks of text that look a lot like a well-designed piece of outmoded 1950s technology.

Why do people like Instapaper so much? It’s because they’ve chosen to read what they save, and the app lets them keep it and read it in a straightforward, uncluttered way. Finding the good stuff is the hard part, along with the ability, motivation, and opportunity to read things: once you’re there, you don’t need the dynamic illustrations or zooming or supporting illustrations. You’ll read it because you’re already interested in it, and you’ll even seek out and pay for a way to make the reading and learning experience static and simple, because you don’t want to be distracted. A similar point applies in education. Technology by itself—-let alone Keynote transitions, animations, or what have you—-will not by themselves engage students. The promise of "technology in the classroom" has always been that it will magically "engage" students in what they have to learn. But it never does: you still need a good teacher, the opportunity to learn, and some motivation of your own. More dynamic textbooks aren’t the solution to the problem of education—-they’re not even the solution to the problem of textbooks.

It’s strange to see Apple going down this well-worn road. When the iPad was launched, a standard criticism was to say it’s a device made for consuming content rather than actively making or doing things. But developers quickly found ways to make it a lot more interesting than that. Apps like GarageBand or Star Walk or Leafsnap—-there are loads more—-take advantage of the iPad’s computing power and portability in ways that put it in a different class of activity from watching a video, reading a textbook, or just passively sitting at a computer.. It’s these sort of use-cases where a device like the iPad really shines. So it’s a pity that Apple has chosen to re-enter the education market with a pitch about Reinventing the Textbook that, frankly, sounds pretty old hat. The reason, I suppose, is that there’s potentially a lot of money to be made selling the things to schools as replacements for the books.

The College Level

I teach at one of the universities mentioned in Schiller’s talk yesterday. At the University level, the most immediate difference from the K-12 case is that faculty typically get to choose which textbook (if any) to use in their courses. So there’s essentially none of the political fighting about textbook content that bedevils public grade schools. Students also have to buy their own books rather than rent them from the school (or have the school buy them).

The most familiar pathology of the textbook market is that publishers hate used booksellers. Publishers want every student to buy a new copy of their text, but—-Phil Schiller’s claims notwithstanding—-books are annoyingly durable. To fight this, publishers (and textbook authors) produce new editions as often as possible and try to get faculty to require the most recent iteration. There are various inducements on offer to do this, starting with free copies for the instructor and any TAs. As my friend Gabriel Rossman noted the other day, textbook catalogs pitched at faculty often come with little or no information about how much the book will cost students.

Apple’s proposed model would kill the used market, dead. The presentation emphasized that once you buy a book you always own it, and you can download it to any new devices you buy. But a corollary is that once you’re done with the book you can’t give or sell it to anyone else. So, at least initially, publishers can charge much less for their textbooks and make it up on volume. That’s fine by me if students end up paying less, though I immediately wonder whether the next step will be for publishers to modularize the books. Instead of your one giant Bio or Calc or Econ book for $14.99 rather than $129.99, you can have various shorter books available for the same price, but have to buy all of them over the course of a year or semester—-like 19th century serial novels. This would likely be pitched to faculty as allowing for greater flexibility in curriculum construction, but again it’s the students who end up paying for the books.

From my point of view, both the iBooks Author and iTunes U apps are potentially very useful for taking sets of lecture notes and making them available to students easily. Many faculty already post their Keynote or PowerPoint slides so students can review them (or use them to avoid coming to class). The iBooks Author app seems like a natural extension of this, especially given its compatability with Keynote presentations. As for iTunes U, here Apple may be pushing into course-management territory currently dominated by systems like Blackboard and Sakai. This is an easy domain for Apple to take over if it wishes, as these systems range from the merely clunky to the aggressively shitty.

Finally there’s the question of getting college students to buy iPads. This is a more difficult proposition than it might appear. Most students now buy a computer when entering college. As far as I can see there is essentially no compelling reason for a freshman to buy an iPad instead of something like a Macbook Air, for the simple reason that students are required to write too much to not have a computer with a keyboard. Sure, it’s possible to set up a writing environment on an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard, or even write small amounts of text using the on-screen keyboard. But it’s hard to see it competing with an Air or similar laptop. This makes me wonder whether the iPad will get widespread traction on campuses without institutional support in the form of subsidized purchasing programs or pools of iPads available for particular classes—-Duke already has some of the latter.

Encarta is not the Future

The contrast between laptops and iPads for college students brings me back to my earlier point about textbooks. What the iPad does really well, it seems to me, is less about being a whizzy textbook-with-moving-pictures and more about being the sort of device that lets you do things that neither a regular laptop, nor a traditional textbook, nor a single-purpose bit of tech can do. There’s the GPS, the camera, the accelerometer, the touch interface—-the best iPad apps tend to take advantage of these features in some novel way, allowing you to do or make something cool, often in a participatory fashion. Ironically, the best iPad apps for reading things—-like Instapaper—-work to make the iPad more like a simple, static, easily-read book or article, not less. If the iPad is going to make new inroads in education, let along transform it, I think it will be by way of specialized apps like these, and not through an augmented-textbook model that reanimates the corpse of Microsoft Encarta.

{ 66 comments }

1

JRoth 01.20.12 at 8:52 pm

Finally there’s the question of getting college students to buy iPads. This is a more difficult proposition than it might appear.

There was a lot speculation, before and even during the presentation, that Apple would announce some sort of deal, but they didn’t. However, there’s a lot of evidence that a new iPad is coming out in a few months, and also evidence that the iPad2 will coexist with the new one as a lower cost alternative. $200 is probably unattainable right now, but $300 might not be, and at that point, you’re talking about the cost of 2 or 3 textbooks (not to mention that most literary classics are available free, not to mention that it’s a generally desirable gadget).

So there may not have been any announced plan for making the iPad more available to students, but there may be a strategy in place that will become apparent long before September.

Also, for years now, Apple has offered computer + iPod bundles to students; perhaps this will be modified to “Buy a MacBook Air plus an iPad for $100 less than list”

None of which is to say that the problem doesn’t or won’t exist; I’m just adding some data to the conversation.

2

JRoth 01.20.12 at 9:01 pm

One note on the used book market: in my experience, 20 or so years ago, it sucked. Getting the books I needed was a crapshoot, and the price I could get when I sold back was rarely half what I’d paid.

I strongly suspect that iPad + 10 $15 textbooks will cost less than the net of 10 textbooks bought and resold (in some combo of bought new and bought used). Stretch that out over 8 semesters, and the iPad probably wins handily. Unless, as you speculate, publishers figure out how to game the system.

I do think that the ability to assign chapters that can be bought cheaply will be a great boon that isn’t tech-based as such, but requires the tech to happen. IIRC, my wife had trouble assigning a chapter of her own book for a class because Kinko’s wouldn’t make copies ["We can't copy copyrighted books." "It's my copyright." etc.].

That said, it wouldn’t surprise me to see this flop: inertia, entrenched interests, first costs…. There’s a lot to overcome and, as you say, it’s not clear that they’ve gotten their side so right that it will be irresistible. The key may be just how hard they push, both in terms of throwing weight around and in terms of developing the tech side.

3

Jim Harrison 01.20.12 at 9:32 pm

Reading textbooks is not a very good way to learn because the bells and whistles that publishers put in their products do for the student what the students should do for themselves: decide what’s important and what is not and figure out the structure of the subject matter. Instead of reading textbooks, perhaps students should write ‘em. The Apple system sounds like it could make that possible.

4

Taylor 01.20.12 at 10:05 pm

Nice piece. I’m sending it to my mother, a 10th-grade English teacher whose school has required all her students to buy iPads and has therefore required her to make use of them somehow in her English class this year. No instructions or ideas were provided – just a mandate to use the new technology because its supposedly so magical. (Full disclosure: this occurred at a wealthy private prep school, not a public school).

5

paul 01.20.12 at 10:05 pm

On the notion of students buying iPads, some colleges have made computer ownership a prerequisite —

Since 1991, Dartmouth College students have had to pack up their Mac or IBM and cart it off to campus along with their belongings. “We’re required to have a computer,” says Jen Taylor, a double major at Dartmouth. “The university has mostly Macs. Now they offer both a PC and a Mac package,” she adds. — http://www.colleges.com/Umagazine/articles/campusclips/getwired.html

— and I’m sure educational pricing plus the volume buying a university can bring to bear will make easier.

What interests me most about this is the disintermediation. When publishers don’t have to edit textbooks to suit the whims of the textbook cranks [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mel_and_Norma_Gabler] perhaps we’ll see some improvement in assessments and standards. I’ve never seen any claims that bowdlerized textbooks may be contributing to declines in academic performance but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Shoddy tools make for unhappy workers and I would find it hard to teach from a textbook I knew was second rate, knowing that if I tried to work around it, it might skew assessments.

6

paul 01.20.12 at 10:11 pm

And on the topic of Encarta, Daniel Pink makes the case that Wikipedia made it obsolete [http://goo.gl/gqche]

In March 2009, Microsoft announced it was discontinuing the Encarta disc and online versions. The MSN Encarta site in all countries except Japan was closed on October 31, 2009. Japan’s Encarta site was closed on December 31, 2009.[3][4] Microsoft continued to operate the Encarta online dictionary at dictionary.msn.com until 2011.

To Jim Harrison’s point, I read something at another prof blog (The Edge of the American West, I think) about students being assigned to teach one lecture session, and it seemed to work quite well. No better way to learn something than preparing to teach someone else…

7

bemused 01.20.12 at 10:46 pm

Having just paid $250 for my son-in-law’s paperback human genetics textbook, a $300 ipad with a $15 textbook sounds great. If only I believed that the high cost science, mathematics and engineering textbooks would actually be sold for $15.

8

MDH 01.20.12 at 11:09 pm

“these systems range from the merely clunky to the aggressively shitty.”

Truer words, my friends.

9

Ginger Yellow 01.21.12 at 12:54 am

I do think that the ability to assign chapters that can be bought cheaply will be a great boon that isn’t tech-based as such, but requires the tech cooperation of publishers to happen.

10

cian 01.21.12 at 1:46 am

I don’t have time to dig it out, but there’s fairly good research showing that animations actually reduce the amount of learning over conventional diagrams. They sure are pretty though.

Thomas Landauer’s classic, the trouble with computers, is no less relevant all these years later. When you actually look at the research on the computers in education, its very hard to argue that they add anything. In the real world they may well make things worse.

11

Wax Banks 01.21.12 at 2:25 am

I’m way, way more excited about the iBooks Author app than about anything else from the Apple talk — among other things, it’s exciting to think that a small iBooks-publishing shop could compete on the merits with big slow-moving textbook publishers, putting out (say) individual chapters rather than thousand-page compendia. (And it’s a clear win for, say, publishing concerns like Dungeons & Dragons.)

But ‘textbook with movies on an iPad’ sucks the same way ‘textbook plus movies online’ sucks. Nothing compares to an attentive tutor and a well-lit room.

12

Brett 01.21.12 at 4:38 am

It would be nice to have a straightforward “big” e-reader with e-ink (one the size of a standard textbook), with the ability to highlight, mark, and search through the text. You wouldn’t even have to give it Wi-Fi ability, although it would be helpful. I wonder if you could make one cheap enough for most students to afford, such as the “$50-75″ price range.

13

x.trapnel 01.21.12 at 4:52 am

They already exist, Brett, but–partly because the big players in the ecosystem have little interest in a general-purpose device that’s designed to be about consuming content you already have, or might get, from whatever source, and are intent instead on creating portals to purchase new content–they tend to be much more expensive than you’re hoping for, and not particularly well designed.

The irex Iliad and its sucessor, the DR800, were both pretty solid, though slightly smaller than what you’re talking about at 8″. (Henry even reviewed the former at CT!) The company went out of business.

14

The Raven 01.21.12 at 5:18 am

The small press publisher croaks: $15 textbooks would require twice the current sales. I have my doubts. (Why yes, ravens do publish books. Didn’t you know?)

On the other hand: cheap color. Weightless. 3-D illustrations. These things may make iPad textbooks–especially in sequential art form–successful in spite of Apple.

Steve Jobs is dead, alas.

Meantime, have you heard about the XO-3?

15

Chris Williams 01.21.12 at 7:41 am

Cian “I don’t have time to dig it out, but there’s fairly good research showing that animations actually reduce the amount of learning over conventional diagrams. They sure are pretty though.”
Go on, dig it out. I’m interested.

Me, I think that integrating Open University teaching material on the iTunesU thingy will make it a lot easier to use for a number of reasons, chief among which is, we’ll no longer be expecting the student to shift between paying attention to 2 or 3 printed books, a DVD, and something to play it on. I’m betting this will become the norm for OU material, in fact. More to the point, I suspect that my ultimate boss, Mr Bean, is also thinking this way, perhaps for different reasons, which explains why the OU logo was on Apple’s launch slide. The big drawback is indeed the lack of keyboard, which limits it as a vehicle for information processing.

As for content management systems, don’t forget to mention Moodle, which is about as easy to use as Blackboard, but being open source, doesn’t lock you into hair-tearing annual upgrades, and has a number of other advantages. OU uses that as well.

16

Happy Heyoka 01.21.12 at 8:43 am

Firstly, I’m not sure that you’re totally being fair to Encarta – it is, after all, twenty years old. CD (for data) were a new medium and DVDs about a decade in the future.
Your average PC at that point had about ten percent of the capacity, in any measure, of an iPad and a CD is about a fiftieth of the storage.

Having said that, the way that Microsoft began buying up the rights to content and then working to enforce those was not pretty.

I think tablet/pad style devices are a great idea for texts (especially if you’re shuttling and searching back and forth for references etc).

I also believe that trusting a single vendor for this stuff (ie: Apple, the iPad and their software) is a monumental mistake; Elsevier mark II if you like.

17

straightwood 01.21.12 at 3:38 pm

I am always astonished by the deep methodological conservatism of university faculty. The university itself is a relatively recent innovation, so the reflexive antipathy to change exhibited by many of its personnel is quite a puzzle.

The issue here is not the merits of the specific e-text initiative launched by Apple; it is the destination of the line of extrapolation indicated by Moore’s law. The technologies contending with conventional textbooks are improving at a very rapid, and readily calculable, rate. Ipad-like devices will eventually be sold at Toys R Us for $49.95.

Rather than acknowledge the unstoppable character of the shift from print to electronic readers in education, and seize the many resultant opportunities, some educators are throwing up a barrage of transient and insubstantial objections amounting to: Nothing to see here, move along.

The predatory character of college textbook publishers, who practice administered pricing and planned obsolescence of grossly over-produced texts, is acknowledged and resented by everyone except their stockholders, executives, and star authors. The collapse of their racket couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch.

18

Platonist 01.21.12 at 4:00 pm

Apple should partner with Sally Struthers and offer academics a special child-sponsership iPad program. For each iPad sold, each of your students will get their own virtual foster child from an Apple sweatshop. For every paper book your school shreds, burns, or throws out, Apple will give your foster child a bonus 5 minute break during one of her 16 hour shifts.

http://www.businessinsider.com/apple-child-labor-2012-1

19

Satan Mayo 01.21.12 at 5:17 pm

The predatory character of college textbook publishers, who practice administered pricing and planned obsolescence of grossly over-produced texts, is acknowledged and resented by everyone except their stockholders, executives, and star authors. The collapse of their racket couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch.

Right, what we need is predatory e-book publishes who practice administered pricing and planned obsolescence of grossly over-produced texts. That’ll show those fat cats.

20

mw 01.21.12 at 5:19 pm

In the U.S., the cost of an iPad (or laptop) is trivial compared to the cost of university tuition — that’s really not an issue. But switching to an electronic format doesn’t help with the outrageous rent-seeking of academic text publishers.

This is mostly a problem for large, lower-level courses where the material is often quite standard (100 level Calc, for example). The textbook price problem could be solved now, using printed books, if universities took away the ability for professors to choose texts in lower level courses and negotiated with publishers directly from a position of strength. If that does not happen, I don’t expect a move to ebooks would change anything at all in terms of students getting screwed over on text prices.

For K-12, a move to iPads (that still cost $500) is flat-out insane. Units will be broken/lost/stolen and there is no legal (or ethical) way that students and their families can be held responsible.

21

P.D. 01.21.12 at 5:21 pm

straightwood @17 laments luddite academics but concludes “The predatory character of college textbook publishers … is acknowledged and resented by everyone …. The collapse of their racket couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch.”

This last bit is surely right, but is a non sequitur. The real worry about ebooks as textbooks is that it just gives those predatory publishers a better engine for eliminating textbook sharing and the used book market. It also eliminates things like checking the book out from the library or photocopying assigned readings, once the book is only available as a DRM-laden ebook. These aren’t “transient and insubstantial objections”, but are instead the basic worry that the change to digital (whatever its pedagogical merits) would entrench rather than overthrow the status quo.

22

phosphorious 01.21.12 at 5:57 pm

Project Gutenberg is a useful tool here. One can teach, and in fact I have taught, a perfectly good intro to philosophy using only texts found on PG. Perhaps its only good for an intro, or a survey, but the price is exactly right.

I have not tried teaching an intro to logic or critical thinking course from PG texts; Mill’s “A System of Logic” is there, but I’ve never tried teaching from it.

23

Mandos 01.21.12 at 6:24 pm

And, of course, there is the problem of lock-in to Apple. The New Microsoft.

24

The Raven 01.21.12 at 6:42 pm

I mentioned the XO-3 because the One Laptop Per Child project has said from its inception: “an education project, not a laptop project.” This is exactly the reverse of Apple’s goal, which is to sell more of its media devices. If they sell some textbooks too (and take a cut) they wouldn’t mind. But 80% of Apple’s revenues come from its media devices.

25

Substance McGravitas 01.21.12 at 6:56 pm

And, of course, there is the problem of lock-in to Apple. The New Microsoft.

Yes, they’re getting worse all the time for both lock-down and arbitrary feature removal.

26

Salient 01.21.12 at 7:10 pm

The textbook price problem could be solved now, using printed books, if universities took away the ability for professors to choose texts in lower level courses and negotiated with publishers directly from a position of strength.

But something like 12 of the 15 textbooks we reviewed as candidates for a new calculus course were awful, just awful, like “I cannot believe they even printed this” awful. In a compromise, maybe we instructors could be required to write up a list of five or ten acceptable candidates, and then the university admin and the publishers could fight it out over which of those we use?

Also, the one textbook we were required to use (by university contract which I’ve never quite figured out who was responsible for) was possibly the worst textbook I’ve ever seen — it literally never taught or exemplified anything computational, at all, and all its homework exercises were computational. I’m all for conceptual mastery, but trying to attain conceptual mastery by never attempting to deploy the theory you’re learning is folly.

And if there’s one thing I need a textbook to do, it’s to work out concrete examples step by step, some utterly rote, some situational requiring some ingenuity, and some interesting applications. Doing a lot of that in class is horrible, because students can’t review each step at their own pace and are too busy keeping up with note-taking to think about what they’re writing, so I need a book that shows lots of examples. That way I can *talk* with the students *about* the examples, instead of just presenting them. That’s the whole point of having a textbook — it’s something to converse about.

27

straightwood 01.21.12 at 8:27 pm

Those who view e-texts as simply a new marketing channel for price-gouging textbook publishers fail to grasp the substantial lowering of barriers to competition resulting from low-cost access to e-text editing and distribution tools. With proper tools, future course materials can be assembled from public domain sources and a-la-carte selections from the archives of existing publishers and authors. Ambitious textbook authors will be able to self-publish, and energetic professors will be able to modify texts in the middle of their courses. Indeed, there will be little reason for any two courses to have identical texts, and the notion of the “standard text” will become an endangered species, as every text will be expected to reflect the most recent contributions to the relevant field of knowledge, as well as the perspectives of the instructor who assembles it.

The dominant cultural impact of the microelectronics revolution is the precise tailoring of information to the needs and preferences of its users. The capital intensive character of textbook publishing and its bias toward monolithic products will be transformed from assets to liabilities as nimble new entrants offer resources for instructors to assemble course materials that are not only cheaper, but are more precisely supportive of their educational objectives.

28

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.21.12 at 8:46 pm

In academic fields like computing, having Apple or Microsoft as textbook publishers would be a real conflict of interest. Take introductory HTML, which I start teaching in a week. I’d bet they’d mandate their browser (Safari or IE), and their IDEs as teaching tools. They’d even add their proprietary technologies (ASP.NET or what ever Apple are big into today) into the curriculum. Stuff that. I want to inculcate skepticism in the students regarding big Tech companies’ motives as soon as possible. Let them choose the tools and browsers they feel comfortable with, and give them vendor-neutral HTML as recognised by the W3C.

Fortunately, I have the freedom to do that, because I have no textbook. It’s a pain in some ways, because I have to gather the material myself, but it’s also fun, because I get to add newish technologies like web fonts for those students bored with Arial/Helvetica, Times [New Roman] and Courier something in their web pages.

Salient: I feel your pain. I can understand the mercenary motives for publishers churning out new Calculus textbooks every year, but I don’t understand why universities have to keep setting new editions as required material. This is calculus. Much of it is 400 years old, and even the newish stuff like Lebesgue integration is a century in age.

29

Metatone 01.21.12 at 9:02 pm

I hold no brief for Apple, but I think a couple of issues are worth pondering:

1) New media are very new in historical terms, there’s plenty of reason to believe that we have much to learn about multi-media presentation of non-fiction – and hence reason to believe we may be able to produce something more useful than the demos over time.

2) Animated diagrams might actually improve economics teaching tremendously, given that it seems even eminent economist repeatedly stumble over the classic static diagrams.

One might even go so far as to point out that static diagrams have been part of the techne that have kept us resolutely bad at thinking about dynamic situations, rather hiding in static analysis as much as possible.

30

hellblazer 01.21.12 at 10:04 pm

Having just worked very hard on course notes last term, having compared old monolithic textbooks to today’s expensive integrated textbooks, having seen how far students are from mastery of the particular subject I teach, and being unable to equate “preferences” with “needs”, I have to disagree with straightwood at #27. Some things, when overly modularized and “left to personal preferences”, become useless as learning experiences although popular as entertainment. Competition is not a virtue in itself.

resources for instructors to assemble course materials that are not only cheaper, but are more precisely supportive of their educational objectives.

I find that the resources known as “a library” and “Google” and “my colleague’s experience” work fine. They work considerably better than having to assemble pre-provided, publisher-controlled, chunks of e-material and then rework it all anyway.

Also, does no one read Politics and the English Language these days?

31

hellblazer 01.21.12 at 10:09 pm

Straightwood sez:

I am always astonished by the deep methodological conservatism of university faculty. The university itself is a relatively recent innovation, so the reflexive antipathy to change exhibited by many of its personnel is quite a puzzle.

Leaving aside the first sentence, what definition (or aspect) of “university” do you mean?

32

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.21.12 at 11:23 pm

Straightwood: do you have any experience in teaching at all? It doesn’t sound like it if you’re throwing around phrases like “reflexive antipathy”. In my experience, teachers aren’t adverse to technological innovations. (Like whiteboard pens. Beats chalk by a large margin.) But they are antipathic to deliberate ignoramuses selling them snake oil.

Fancy graphics may be useful, but only when allied to text. Let’s say you’re explaining gravity using Newton (contains differentiation!) or Einstein (contains differentiation and tensors!) So a graphic of a spacesuited figure orbiting a sun/planet/moon/black hole may be useful – but it will be more useful if the graphic displays the exact trajectory of the spacesuit using the model under question. Let the students plug parameters in to the equation. Let the students observe the computer solve the equation, and see how each variable is replaced by a number. Let them see the result of the equation: the spacesuit figure continue to orbit or gets shot into space or commits spaghettification. The whole point is that it is the equation that the teachers is trying to teach the students – and equations are text.

Alas, Phil Schiller sounds like the sort of guy who thinks a YouTube clip from Apollo 13 will do the trick. He sounds like he has a lot of imagination about certain stuff – making boardrooms happy, wowing them at TED, and making sales – but lacks imagination about actual teaching. I don’t trust people like that.

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hellblazer 01.22.12 at 1:42 am

@Down and Out: but you’re not meant to sharpen their understanding, you’re meant to facilitate their learning appreciation. Stop living in the past, man! Get with the new techne that has dynamic images! Functions are just shapes of moving things, yeah?

34

cian 01.22.12 at 1:57 am

Cian “I don’t have time to dig it out, but there’s fairly good research showing that animations actually reduce the amount of learning over conventional diagrams. They sure are pretty though.”
Go on, dig it out. I’m interested.

I think one of your colleagues in the OU wrote one of the papers I’m thinking about. Yvonne Rogers – she’s in the Computer Science department. I really don’t have time though. Sorry. Remind me in a fortnight and I’ll see what I can do.

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straightwood 01.22.12 at 2:06 am

@31

From Wikipedia:

by the 19th century, the German and the French university models had arisen. The German, or Humboldtian model, was conceived by Wilhelm von Humboldt and based on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s liberal ideas pertaining to the importance of freedom, seminars, and laboratories in universities.[citation needed] The French university model involved strict discipline and control over every aspect of the university.

Until the 19th century, religion played a significant role in university curriculum; however, the role of religion in research universities decreased in the 19th century, and by the end of the 19th century, the German university model had spread around the world.

The German model research university is the template for all modern universities, and it is less than 200 years old. It was an innovation that rendered obsolete prior models of higher education. Further innovations in higher education will be forthcoming – and probably at a faster tempo.

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hellblazer 01.22.12 at 3:43 am

Oh, *please* tell me you have something more precise and well-defined than a Wikipedia entry that reeks of what, in my long-gone days of writing history essays, was called “elastic wording”. Data? dates? I see you cut and pasted the [citation needed] link, which at least is honest.

It was an innovation that rendered obsolete prior models of higher education.

For a start: higher education for whom? Obsolete as a means of achieving what aims? If you’re going to do away with purportedly archaic methodology, what are you trying to achieve with the new methodology?

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F 01.22.12 at 3:59 am

I feel your pain. I can understand the mercenary motives for publishers churning out new Calculus textbooks every year, but I don’t understand why universities have to keep setting new editions as required material.

Because the textbook companies will not produce old editions of existing textbooks. So Ye Olde University Bookstore cannot reliably stock sufficient quantities of old editions. So if you want to guarantee students will have access to the textbook without relying on the vagaries of the used textbook market, you need to assign the latest version. Professors can and do specify that old editions are acceptable, but requiring an old edition does not actually help students.

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Salient 01.22.12 at 4:02 am

I don’t understand why universities have to keep setting new editions as required material.

These days, because we’re buying a homework grading system every bit as much as we’re buying a textbook. In the past twelve courses I’ve taught, I think 7 used (different) proprietary homework systems, with a whole kit and kaboodle of online help resources and such.

To get access to that homework system, students have to buy an access key. I dunno who else is using this kind of thing, but here’s the pricing on my current book’s system:
access key $85
textbook $105 — with free access key!

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hellblazer 01.22.12 at 4:07 am

Salient – is that the book which built the house of every violinist’s dream, by any chance? The one with an infuriating blend of nitpicking detail and evasive vagueness on “proofs” and “definitions”?

40

Salient 01.22.12 at 4:11 am

In my experience, teachers aren’t adverse to technological innovations. (Like whiteboard pens. Beats chalk by a large margin.)

Poe’s law violation, yellow card — If not for this statement, I would have taken your comment completely sincerely. Either that, or you’re the first person I’ve met who isn’t lividly apoplectic about the switch to whiteboard pens from chalk. It’s been the most popular topic at every instructors’ meeting, and I hear it comes up in the faculty meetings too.

Note — For those unfamiliar with this trend, universities have started massively replacing chalkboards with whiteboards and dry-erase markers. This is a problem because the pens wear out within a couple hours of use, so you need to buy and bring your own set. They’re much, much more expensive per word than chalk, especially because they dry out quite quickly. The university saves money by ceasing to stock the classrooms with writing materials (read: they don’t have to pay people to go into every classroom every day any more — our university cut the custodial staff in-room duties from daily to twice per week, and it definitely shows). But other than the reduced labor cost, which is actually the entire point of the switch, it’s a false savings; there’s a lot of cost getting dumped on departments (and individual instructors) who have to buy and stock the pens.

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Satan Mayo 01.22.12 at 4:19 am

Poe’s law violation, yellow card—If not for this statement, I would have taken your comment completely sincerely. Either that, or you’re the first person I’ve met who isn’t lividly apoplectic about the switch to whiteboard pens from chalk. It’s been the most popular topic at every instructors’ meeting, and I hear it comes up in the faculty meetings too.

I don’t think every institution has a policy of ceasing to stock the classrooms with writing materials. Different places cost-cut in different ways.

Presumably when instructors have to replace their own pens, they hate the pens. When the pens are reliably supplied by the institution, the instructors like the pens.

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hellblazer 01.22.12 at 4:20 am

Salient: as someone who prefers chalk and blackboard to whiteboards, I have to mention that a friend of mine (lecturing in the UK) has consistently preferred using whiteboards and marker pens. Not that this gainsays your point about hidden costs and false savings.

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straightwood 01.22.12 at 4:47 am

@41

You can’t make this stuff up. CT is frequented by chalk revivalists. Take that, Apple!

It was over 20 years ago that I first smelled the intoxicating fumes of whiteboard marker solvent in a classroom in New York. Little did I know that it was the beginning of an assault on the purity of our bodily fluids. Shall we now stand by idly as our beloved chalk is banished and replaced by a poisonous frippery? Oh, the humanity!

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F 01.22.12 at 5:15 am

Chalk is definitely better than whiteboard pens, which are much more unreliable. Of course, for large classes, writing on a computer tablet is superior to both, so it’s not simply a Luddite preference.

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Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.22.12 at 5:55 am

Salient: back in ‘Nam… some seven years ago, I used blackboards for the first and last time. This was when I was asked to teach ESL in two Vietnamese state schools in the Tân Phú district in “suburban” Sài Gòn. All other teaching in that city had been with whiteboards. But the state schools only had blackboards, so that’s what I used.

I found that I disliked teaching with chalk. There was more mechanical work per letter written than a whiteboard pen, there was less freedom to angle and curl, and chalk often snapped in my hand. In addition, chalk dust got on my hands, in my clothes, and on my face. Imagine having chalk in your pores in a tropical wet and dry and airborne particulate climate like Sài Gòn. It’s grimy. The classrooms were not air-conditioned, but they had fans, so I didn’t get the full tropical treatment. Not until I left the classroom with powder on my face.

Perhaps my handwriting style was not suited to chalk: I know I probably put more stress on the pieces of chalk than other teachers. But my “style” is for maximum legibility rather than speed, because I was teaching English. I had to spell out the words as clearly as possible, “printing” using upper case and lower case letters. I had to be even more clear when I was writing IPA symbols to indicate the pronunciation. I found that whiteboards would allow me to smoothly draw the letters; blackboards caused the curl to bend into a polygon edge. I found it irritating.

I should add that I never “running write” on board or off them – but other people do. Perhaps chalk is more suited for them, but not for I.

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Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.22.12 at 6:13 am

CT is frequented by chalk revivalists. Take that, Apple!

You still haven’t answered my question, straightwood: do you have any experience in teaching at all? I may prefer whiteboards to blackboards, but others may have experiences that lead to the opposite preference. I respect that.

What I don’t respect is people with no experience at all belittling others with experience. That’s just rude.

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Bread & Roses 01.22.12 at 7:17 am

@straightwood-

I was working on a office-remodel project recently for a bunch of engineers. Upper management, having difficulty with the sum of the project, cut quite a few of the whiteboards out of the plans. The head engineer, when he realized that, asked for more whiteboards, and then demanded when he got resistance. I priced out 10 more whiteboards, the numbers were crunched, management was reluctant, until the engineer said “the whole point of the project is lost without the whiteboards!”

We had whiteboards on every surface. The engineers were very happy.

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Metatone 01.22.12 at 11:35 am

Hellblazer – fun to be sarcastic, but try addressing the point. There are specific fields where dynamic images would improve understanding.

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Chris Williams 01.22.12 at 11:47 am

Cheers Cian – I can jump from here.

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Guido Nius 01.22.12 at 12:49 pm

Why all the push-back? Even if Apple is the next Satan of Computing, that should not be enough to invalidate the type of thing they are trying to do here.

Education is the single most important thing to get to people (feeding them just to stay alive isn’t quite enough). The current teaching model is almost fully based on physical interaction; not only with text books but also with teachers. This model is problematic for at least three potential student populations. People living far from schools, people (like me) having a day job and for whom it is difficult to keep on learning (because it is difficult to get to school) and young people disliking schools to sit still and behave in.

Anything that shifts this model and lowers the entry threshold should spark creativity to address those issues instead of sparking a take-down of an initiative like this. I don’t think making tablets mandatory is solving anything and I couldn’t care less about what Apple wants to get as a commercial gain, but the cost of education is dominated by the need for students to get to physical schools and work with physical assets so anything that may help dealing with that entry cost should imho be received with interest rather than with dismay.

Maybe this quote from Hume is also applicable to novelties proposed in the education field itself: http://quoughts.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/of-the-influence-of-belief/

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Nick 01.22.12 at 3:31 pm

Some good criticism and healthy dialogue here. For the staunch critics of Apple, I wonder what alternative you offer to Apple’s new idea. If indeed it is flawed, and if indeed the current textbook system also seems flawed, what should Apple have done?

52

tomslee 01.22.12 at 5:11 pm

Those who think that iBooks Author looks potentially useful or exciting should take a look at the license agreement, at least according to Ed Bott, who calls it “mind-bogglingly greedy and evil”, and Dan Wineman:

Apple, in this EULA, is claiming a right not just to its software, but to its software’s output. It’s akin to Microsoft trying to restrict what people can do with Word documents, or Adobe declaring that if you use Photoshop to export a JPEG, you can’t freely sell it to Getty. As far as I know, in the consumer software industry, this practice is unprecedented.

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Substance McGravitas 01.22.12 at 5:37 pm

Thanks to Tom for the EULA links.

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Alex 01.22.12 at 9:42 pm

To be honest, I’d rather paint a wall in every classroom with IdeaPaint, if you want a solution with InterCapping and trademarks that costs the same integer in the UK as in the US, just in sterling rather than dollars.

However, I support anything that might kill Blackboard with fire. I have literally never seen an uglier application that was more painful to work with, harder to understand the underlying model, or more confused in its mixing of UI metaphors from different systems. It sits in a Web browser, but bits of it try to behave like the Windows file dialog, while others talk about “links” as if it was proper HTML, but actually point at a pseudo-file manager and generate chunks of its own (hideous) HTML rather than just linking.

I know a considerable British university that decided to “upgrade” from Moodle to Blackboard (ugly stupid crap that costs money! 1!!1!!1!). After a horrible experience, including a hacker incursion and data loss, but mostly just furious incomprehension and much hand editing of stuff that was meant to “just copy and paste from Word” they turned back.

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Happy Heyoka 01.23.12 at 11:03 am

Nick wrote:

For the staunch critics of Apple, I wonder what alternative you offer to Apple’s new idea. If indeed it is flawed, and if indeed the current textbook system also seems flawed, what should Apple have done?

Apple is doing exactly what it should do – maximising returns for it’s shareholders. That’s the sole responsibility for a company – the law, even – and those that think different are just being naive.

My money was firmly where my mouth is in regard to this. Feel free to assume sour grapes. For me the lesson was that no matter what good intentions you start with, getting into bed with a sole supplier of a technology is a recipe for trouble.
A quick review of the history of media (hence my thing about Encarta above) will reveal this to be common battle.

As for alternatives, it depends on the form of the content – ultimately if the bulk consumers get together (that would be you academic folks and your institutions) and demand a certain format, you will win – the content producers want your money.

I believe PDF is relatively unencumbered (Intellectual Property wise) at the moment; it’s also fairly universally rendered – in other words pretty much all the current platforms that could be used for a textbook can use PDF. PDF does international scripts, graphics, indexes, printable, searchable. All good.

I’m not sure what the current favourite flavour is for interactive content.

HTML is also fairly universally rendered although you would have to make sure that things like the ability to cope with math/science symbols was a requirement (yes, I know things like MathML exist, but support is far from universal).

The nice thing about a standard like PDF is that it describes how to draw the page – it has no bearing on how you create it, what tools, what operating system and so on. Ideally you would settle on an interactive format that has the same characteristics (there are a couple of extensions to MPEG4 for interactive stuff that I think were effectively still-born, but perhaps possible to resurrect).

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Salient 01.23.12 at 1:57 pm

…I guess it’s worth mentioning I was good-naturedly joking about the chalk thing, though I’m sorta confident the replies were tongue-in-cheek in return, too. Anyhow. Y’know why I absolutely love whiteboard pens? Four-color bold-color easily-readable writing that actually does wipe off the surface, unlike the blasted color chalk that seems to come exclusively in tangerine and spearmint and the kind of off-off-shade pink that gets shunted a name like ‘dusty rose,’ not to mention it required a four-firefighter team with pressure hoses to remove from the damn board.

I’m also pretty sure the chalk thing has become a running gag around here, and I blame IT for that, because (1) always blame IT for everything, on principle, and (2) they had the gall to tell us that chalk is “incompatible with the in-class computer systems” (which is probably entirely true, as chalk dust kills anything killed by dust, but, see (1)).

Random pro tip of the day, sharing it forward: in a whiteboard classroom, get in the habit of taking pictures of the board with your cell phone before erasing, and post them to Moogle/course website/whatever. You can actually see the reduction in stress in the shoulders of students who had been worrying about copying that one line they missed copying while actually listening to you. It’s very nearly the best tech tip I’ve ever been given.

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straightwood 01.23.12 at 2:52 pm

Ladies and gentlemen, we are on a slippery slope. It is easy to fall into a sense of false comfort with chalk and books, but are we not losing sight of the true and tested tools of higher learning: sand drawings and handwritten scrolls? Are we such upstarts that we would question the wisdom of the ancients? Did Plato need printed books? Did Archimedes need chalk?

The advent of cheap printed books has addled the minds of the rabble and led them to believe that they may gain access to learning reserved only for those worthy of its advantages. Blackboards and mass-produced chalk cannot match the teaching efficacy of a great geometer drawing figures in the sand for his students.

We must never lose sight of the fact that any attempt at widening dissemination of knowledge necessarily dilutes the value of that knowledge. If the university cheapens its product and makes it a commodity, it can only lower the status and importance of educators. Thus any innovation aimed at expanding access to learning, however seductive, is ultimately an assault on the teaching profession.

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cian 01.23.12 at 5:04 pm

The nice thing about a standard like PDF is that it describes how to draw the page – it has no bearing on how you create it, what tools, what operating system and so on.

So long as everyone has the same size and shape screen. Its a great pre-print format, but people need to stop using it as a computer format.

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Doug K 01.23.12 at 6:34 pm

on the question of animations vs diagrams, I too did not expect that the animations would not be more effective. But upon wandering through Prof. Rogers’ papers,
“Many of the presumed benefits of good-old fashioned graphical representations (i.e. static diagrams) were considered to be due to years of practice of perceptual processing of visual stimuli and the learning of graphical conventions. This may help us to understand why advanced graphical technologies (e.g. animations and virtual reality) have not, as yet, been able to demonstrate comparable performance or learning benefits. “
which makes sense.

Further reading at “Learning with Animation”,
“Animations are assumed to increase interest and motivation, to direct attention, to illustrate procedures, and to explain how things work. Recent research shows that the educational effectiveness of animations depends on how their characteristics interact with the psychological functioning of the learner. “
which seems a trifle weaselly, learning depends on the psychological functioning of the learner too..

It’s not evident that Apple knows any of this.. OTOH, in its principal function as a profit-seeking missile, perhaps it doesn’t need to know anything about this. I recently had my first encounter with Itunes and found it oddly difficult to use: then I realized its primary function is not to make your music easier to manage, but to make it easier to buy things from the iStore.

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straightwood 01.23.12 at 8:16 pm

The above discussion of animations vs. static graphics completely misses the point of interactivity. Digital media allow the student to exercise a model and view results of changing input parameters and conditions . This is especially useful in demonstrating unstable and nonlinear systems (e.g., a runaway nuclear reactor, a collapsing ecosystem, or a financial panic). Researchers in the sciences and engineering are eagerly exploiting the interactive tools of data visualization. University students should at least learn that such tools exist.

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Manta1976 01.24.12 at 2:49 pm

Before using Apple iBook app to write anything, you should ceck the EULA: there are some really nasty surprises for you

“Apple, in this EULA, is claiming a right not just to its software, but to its software’s output. It’s akin to Microsoft trying to restrict what people can do with Word documents, or Adobe declaring that if you use Photoshop to export a JPEG, you can’t freely sell it to Getty. As far as I know, in the consumer software industry, this practice is unprecedented.”

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Manta1976 01.24.12 at 2:55 pm

Ops, I missed Tom’s comment.

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Happy Heyoka 01.25.12 at 12:45 am

cian:

So long as everyone has the same size and shape screen. Its a great pre-print format, but people need to stop using it as a computer format.

Yeah, I agree that can be an issue – although it can be mitigated to some extent by a decent document viewer.

HTML and CSS have technically had the ability to render for multiple devices/sizes for about ten years now and practically no one uses that feature. Pagination lives on in media that doesn’t require it, formatting still sucks and people still put great big black borders either side of the page when I have a honking great big display to view it on…

If you have a better suggestion then I’d love to know about it – my point was that whatever the standard, it should be (a) open and unencumbered and (b) not dictate a production platform because not keeping those things foremost is a slippery slope.

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ragweed 01.25.12 at 7:38 pm

There is a side to this that was breifly mentioned above, but really needs more thought.

E-textbooks – not through some proprietary format like Apple, but in a more general format – open up the possibility for the creation of resources that are not readily available. Look at the beef that JW Mason has over intro economics texts over at the slackwire – (Anti-Mankiw)

There is a real need for some decent intro – intermediate level textbooks that teach macro from a heterodox point of view. There are allegedly some books in the works, but I am sure these run into the choke-point of the textbook publishing industry. But with an e-textbook, one could bypass much of that industry and put it in the hands of students and teachers for a lot less money. It may take some teaming up with a distributor of some sort – but I suspect that would not be the biggest barrier. It would avoid some of the initial objection that publishers would have about the size of the intial market. But it could sell for $15, and the authors would likely keep a lot more of that than they do with conventional books.

Of course, someone (or a group of someones) still has to write it, and then it has got to be accepted more widely – but it is a big potential opportunity.

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Substance McGravitas 01.25.12 at 7:47 pm

If you look at the files the Apple tool generates it seems obvious to me that somebody’s going to be selling/giving away a conversion-to-epub tool pretty soon:

http://www.glazman.org/weblog/dotclear/index.php?post/2012/01/20/iBooks-Author-a-nice-tool-but

That doesn’t eliminate how stupid the EULA is but it would mean that the authoring tool would be useful for more than just iPads.

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Morat20 01.25.12 at 10:10 pm

My wife’s a teacher and is very pro-technology. Pro USEFUL technology, that is.

Of all the bells and whistles she — with experience teaching English, Math and Science — says there are two modern bits of technology that are indispensible in the modern K-12 classroom.

The pendant microphone and the document projector.

The pendant microphone is just a mic she hangs around her neck that ties into speakers in her classroom. Projecting your voice over the sounds of 20 to 30 students, even well behaved students, is tiring. A pendant mic means she saves that energy for actually teaching — plus, she admits when she does project it shocks the little tykes down because it’s like the voice of God demanding they sit down and close their yappers. (Not that she would say exactly that).

Secondly, the document projector allows her to slap up a paper — English, math or otherwise — quickly blur out the name and mark it up for the class to see — showing mistakes, good work, whatever. It allows quick back and forth with examples from the kids themselves, with the actual mistakes they are making it, rather than prepared examples.

She claims it’s particularly invaulable in teaching writing.

Everything else? It depends on how you use it, but she flat out refuses to teach in a classroom without at least the mic and the projector. Luckily for her, the school district universalized the microphone setup a few years ago (the trial program won enthusiastic support from virtually every volunteer) and there are enough document projectors for the interested teachers.

Having said that — a surprising number of educators are strangely technophobic. It ranges from dinosaurs who simply have stopped (or never bothered) keeping up with the times to teachers who seem literally afraid of the computer. Not as bad with the sub-40 crowd, but even the first year teachers are often technically clueless.

It doesn’t help that, by and large, software designed for teachers is a hunk of junk. I design software for a living, and the people that designed every gradebook and lesson planning software she’s ever been forced to use were clueless. They had no idea how actual teachers work.

Which might explain the technophobia — if every few years the district brings in a new software suite, forces you to learn and use it, and it sucks and was obviously designed by people who’d never been in a K-12 classroom, you can’t blame them for hating the source of their daily pain.

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