Archive for the “Words Matter” Category


A book filled with text. And pictures. Textbooks are a leftover from an era when information was analog, scarce, and proprietary. 

Sometimes textbooks even have math problems, and sometimes these are story problems, which still strike fear into the heart of every person who ever attended school.  I'm still not sure today how to solve this: If a train left Cleveland heading west at a rate of 72 miles per hour, and a car left Detroit traveling southeast at 63 miles per hour, they would intersect….(shudder).

Anyway, one of the hottest things out there right now are digital textbooks.  If your district is not discussing these, my guess is that they will be shortly.

Most of the discussion around digital texts focuses on cost savings to the district, and/or parents, and reducing the textbook mass most kids lug around through the hallways each day.

I've not seen a conversation that focuses on how they will impact learning.

That should be the first conversation.

As you know, moving a textbook from paper to digital allows for the producer (textbook company) and user (teacher/student) to take advantage of the affordance of the digital world.  Animations, simulations, video, hyperlinks, annotation, reading together, writing notes…etc.   I would imagine that a digital textbook would also update itself just like software does, with updates streaming down from the cloud.  

I've seen several presentations by textbook companies on their new digital textbooks, and I'm not encouraged.  There's not a whole lot of what I just described.  Frankly, I don't believe textbook publishers understand the role that digital technologies can play in learning, and how people use them to connect to learn – in fact, I know they don't after seeing their products and listening to their sales pitches.

To me, digital textbooks, as they exist now, are simply a new way to do an old thing.

Let's begin with the name.  What if they were called something other than digital textbooks, something that went beyond the comfort zone of education, something that suggested new capabilities, purpose and use?  The name should be anything but "text book."  And words matter, right?

Changing the name also means changing the design, away from the traditional linear, sequential trip through content.  The user interface design on the examples I've seen are cumbersome at best.  But instead of user interface design, what if the producers of these resources focused on learner interface design? Maybe it would like like this:

What if the "textbook" (we'll call it that for now) was saavy enought to make recommendations on resources for learners, much in the same way Amazon and any of a number of other digital tools make suggestions for me right now? What if these resources were based on my pathway through the content, my interests, my passions, or even questions I might pose about ideas presented in the resource?  What if the book connected me with other learners based on my profile or interests, regardless of location, like Twitter does with their recommendations for new people to follow?  Why must my learning be limited to those I share a physical space with?

What if learners could ask the textbook to connect ideas, people, resources, websites, social media, really anything digital, in a way that does with their "If this happens, then do this?"statements?  If I do this, then the textbook does that.  For example, if I selected an online resource from a list provided to me by the textbook based on a question I posed to the textbook, then I could "program" the textbook to automatically post the resource to my Diigo account, and then share it with my network of learners, perhaps via Twitter, along with the tags I select.  I want an intelligent agent as my "textbook," not just a digital version of a static collection of ink on paper.

What if I could plug my social media resources and network into my new digital resource?  Why can't I take advantage of those?  Why should I allow a publisher to limit how I interact?

You know what, what if we just used the largest digital textbook ever invented, the World Wide Web?  

Seriously, how long would it take you to compile enough resources to replace your current textbook, at the level you use it?

Before I go further, let's step back a bit.  How many of the school districts engaged in going digital or thinking about going digital actually studied how textbooks were currently being used in learning, and to what extent?  Shouldn't this be done first?  And if textbooks weren't found to be a critcial component of the learning experience, why bother with going to a digital version?  What's to be gained other than cost savings and a reduction in sore backs?  Perhaps some schools would say that's enough benefit.

If a school district went digital, would the learning experience become more contemporary?  Would textbooks become a critical component of learning if they were digital?  Not necessairly, in both cases. What if the resource contained undeniable benefit, and this was obvious to all?  Would they become an essential component of the learning experience?  Perhaps…but I still have my doubts.

If your school or district decides to go digital, you also have to address the device question.  And it's a critical question.

If you expect digital textbooks to be a key factor in the learning experience, then you have to be in a 1:1 situation.  Everyone has to have the same device, with the same capability; to be fair to teachers, the teachers have to know what every kid walks into class with, and the school community has to build understanding together about the progress and impacts of the implementation..  If you don't have a 1:1, you'll have kids with devices without digital textbook capability (e.g. flip phone), which means that you 'll have some kids with digital textbooks and some without – completely unacceptable if you are concerned about about the role the digital textbook plays in learning.  

And if you still believe BYOD is the answer, imagine this scenario:  you've got some kids with digital textbooks and some kids without, and the kids that have digtal textbooks, have them on multiple types of devices…

Nice. That's a recipe for success.

But if you are in cost-recovery mode, and just trying to provide some savings, then a BYOD situation might make sense, at least at first glance.  OK, those kids that have a device can use digital, but if you don't, you go paper.  Now you've just intentionally introduced an inequity, and that's problematic, big time. Imagine the kid that doesn't have the device looking at those that do and wondering now if he's now outgunned and consequently outmatched.  Is that what you want? We have enough have and have nots in education.

You're also asking teachers to manage two different resources intended for the same purpose, and now one has a different look, feel, and capability.  

Good luck.  They'll ask for their paper textbooks back, guaranteed.

They'll also resent technology.  Even more.

In many ways, I believe the emergence, development and excitement around digital textbook paralells what we've seen with other "replacement" technologies, such as digital projectors and interactive whiteboards.  Whiteboards replaced chalkboards, digital projectors replaced overhead projectors, and now digital textbooks replace paper textbooks. 

A new way to do an old thing. When does something completely new arrive? 

But all is not lost.  There are some bright spots on the horizon.

Life on Earth, a 59 chapter book on Biology, produced by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, will be free to anyone.  It will be designed from the ground up as a digital textbook unlike the many digital textbooks that are simply digital conversions of their paper parent.

Biobook is a Gates Foundation funded iPad Web-enabled biology textbook that enables teachers to select content from a national database of biology chapters written and contributed by educators themselves. Here is what is intriguing: 

  • the "book" is build on the Moodle platform, which is widely distributed already, and available as an open source application. 
  • the "book" encourages leaners to set their own course through biological principles, to "seek different learning paths," with content organization based on a tree metaphor of Root, Branch, and Leaf.  Learners can take their own branch, and follow down to a specific content idea, or leaf.
  • an emphasis on socialy annotating the text.
  • a progress map provided to students that provides them with an understanding of their progress, the class progress, and a suggested progress.
  • an official book will be curated based on analytics provided by students. (Ferenstein 2011)

It will be interesting to see how these two efforts develop.

Now, if we could just do something about that train and car…

"It was the beginning and end of imagination, all at the same time."  From the movie Seabiscuit.


Literature Cited:

Ferenstein, Gregory. "BioBook, A Gates-Funded IPad Textbook, Would Create A Free Database For Customized Learning | Fast Company." – Where Ideas and People Meet | Fast Company. 30 Oct. 2011. Web. 26 Dec. 2011. <>.


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From Google:  define blinders:  

1.  A pair of small leather screens attached to a horse's bridle to prevent it seeing sideways and behind.

2.  Something that prevents someone from gaining a full understanding of a situation.

Evidently, blinders, or blinkers as they are called as well, are designed to keep a horse from looking backward, as well as towards the side.  It's believed that they may help the horse stay on target, moving forward without being distracted.

But I like the second definition better.

Consider your typical school. How many in the organization are truly aware of the forces that are shaping education today?  How many are aware of the learning opportunities available to people outside of traditional school?  How many live in an isolated world still shaped by "What We've Alway's Done" and with a view that looks forward, but down the same path, and without the benefit of peripheral vision, and the potential opportunities afforded by a wider range of exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking?

How many in education today wear blinders?

Worse, how many in education today are comfortable wearing blinders?

Take your school.  How many are aware of the Open Courseware movment, that has reached over 100 million people in a decade? How many saw today that MIT announced a new endeavor called MITx?  OK, to be fair, it was just released today.  But take a look at the learning environment they are trying to create-would most see that as something to follow, to learn about, to participate in, to understand?  Or is that just something happening at MIT, and well, it's MIT. 

Take your school.  How many are aware of, and could explain the significance, of the Artificial Intelligence course at Stanford?  Or the online high schools at George Washington University, at Stanford, or the Insight School of Washington. Or, for that matter, the rise of K-12 blended learning?

More importantly, do they care to understand?  Are they challenged by what they don't know, and how it impacts what they do, their profession?  

Take your school.  How many could explain the principles of learning within a massive open online course (MOOC)? Could they take the foundations of a MOOC course and adapt them for their classroom?  

Would they at least try?

Take your school.  How many could intelligently explain the impact of No Child Left Behind and AYP?  Response to Intervention?  Race to the Top?

Or, is it a belief that understanding all of that is someone else's issue, and if we wait long enough, it will go away anyway.  It has in the past…

How many could explain "flipping the classroom?"  That's been out there for a while.  My guess is not that many.

More importantly, if they didn't know what that entails, would they at least be curious enough to explore the practice?  Perhaps even try it? Take the initiative to try?

Or, with a sly smile, and a dismissive wave, explain that they know what works, and they know what's important for kids.  After all, they've been doing it for years.

For your school, and for you, are your efforts to improve constrained by a narrow focus on the immediate, and what's directly in front of you?  

Or do you have the capacity for a more wholistic vision, one in which disruptive opportunities and concepts, in the periphery and perhaps not yet in the "mainstream", challenge your intellect and potentially inform practice and action?

Or, are you wearing blinders?

image from

Posted via email from David Jakes



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To malke new again. To get a second chance.  Perhaps a third…

Have you re-invented yourself?  Do you need to?  Will you?  What if you did?

At some point in your life or career, you’ll probably have to. Sometimes you do it because it makes sense and takes you to a place you want to go.  Sometimes you don’t have a choice, and failing to do so results in a lack of relevance.

Fade away..

I’ve done it a number of times.  I have a bachelors and masters in fisheries management, and started my career working for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  Ronald Regan gets elected, goodbye environmental jobs. Time to reinvent myself.  Hello Northern Illinois University and the College of Education.  Here I am, 26 years later.

I’ve also done it a number of within those 26 years.  I’ve shifted from being a classroom teacher to being a technology coordinator and the administrative responsibilities that come with it.

As many of you know, a big part of my career has focused on presenting my ideas.  I did my first national presentation in 1995 in Phoenix on “Surfing the Information Highway in the Biology Classroom.”  Seriously.  How funny.  To get to that point, I had done numerous presentations on the local and state levels.  I paid my dues to get there.  At that time, there was no Twitter, and you actually had to do a presentation to get recognized to do other presentations. Imagine that.

I’ve had opportunities to speak at numerous conferences, and I’ve had some signature topics, including digital storytelling, presentation design, learning spaces, and some others.  Eventually as those topics became more mainstream, it was time to learn and reinvent.  Stay current. Stay relevant.  Actually do it in a real school.  Compete for those speaking gigs.  All at a tremendous cost of energy, time, stress…

At what point do you say enough is enough?  No more reinventing.

Musicians learn their craft, start playing small venues, and if they get good enough, connect enough, they play the big venues, the big concert halls.  But few can continue at such a high level, and gradually its down the other side of slope.

Interestingly, many continue on and return to the smaller venues where they got their start.  And they seem to enjoy that, and accept that that is just the way it is.  So do their fans, who realize that the musician’s voice is still true and the message in their songs is still much more meaningful than the superficial noise the new bands are putting out.

I guess most of all they just like playing their music, regardless of where.  They’ve had the big-time experiences, have been there, have achieved it, and probably reached the goals they set for themselves.  I’ll bet for many they just like playing for those fans who have been along for the ride, even though it may just be several hundred now.  Perhaps they just like playing for themselves, their music is that important to them. Playing, singing, and recognizing that they have the ability to communicate in a rare way might be just enough to see them through, without the big stage and lights, the travel,and the jazz that goes with the name on the big marquee…

So, at what point do you put it behind you?  Say goodbye, walk away, and do something else?  Just move on?

And reinvent yourself…all over again.

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Taking a tweet in Twitter by someone else and resending it out through your network, often with an RT in front of it.

If you’ve been around Twitter long enough, you know that there was a time when retweets didn’t exist.


And probably many of us long for those days, a time when people in your Twitter network actually shared what they thought, rather than just repurposed someone else’s ideas.

Is your Twitter stream constipated with multiple RT’s of some idea, by the same people?  RT RT RT RT RT RT RT, yeah I get it, OK!!!!!!

Ah, but there are no rules…

But, eventually, you have to have your own ideas, don’t you?  

Retweeting gets you noticed.  Retweeting gets you followers.  Retweeting amplifies your presence on Twitter.  Retweeting associates your name with someone who actually might have an idea…

But habitual retweeting is not a sustainable behavior over time.

You see, original thought is still important.  In fact, original thought is even more important today in the everyone-connected-everyone shares-copy and RTpaste world of digital networks.

Ideas ultimately get you noticed.  Ideas matter.  Your ideas.  

So before you hit the R and T keys, think, what can I offer that is original, what can I offer that reflects what I believe in, what can I offer that challenges or extends the ideas of another?

How can I be original?




Posted via email from djakes’ posterous

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