One of the characteristics on authoring tools we look to recommend is simplicity. The idea is that learners should be able to focus most of their time and attention on the message/content and learn the means to convey their content quickly. TACKK is an online tool that is a good example of such a tool. The tool relies on templates and multimedia objects allowing users to easily generate a variety of attractive “page” types. The tool seems a great way to create what we have described as online embellished documents.

TACKK offers special provisions for educational classroom applications.

A simple tackk is embedded below (full-size version is available):

A quality textbook – according to me

I have been working to develop a “philosophy” for our book site. Since most would have no reason to read this position statement, I decided to cross post here.

Everyone reading this comment have likely experienced many textbooks in their academic lives. However, unless you have written one, you may not have defined for yourself exactly what a textbook should contain. I suppose it is possible those of us who do write one begin my using the textbooks we have experienced as models with the possibility that we have a tweek in mind to make our offering unique. Some years ago, we decided to take a different enough approach to textbooks that we felt it necessary to break with a publisher who did not share our vision. Issues of cost, recency, modeling of the way technology should be applied in instruction, and when and how authors should write led us to the model you are now applying. What readers experience is different in ways that they probably recognize and in ways that are invisible because some differences depend on how content is developed.

We have written about some of these new ideas elsewhere (see a series of blog posts beginning with this entry). This is not a rehash of that content. Rather, these ideas are intended as a more general reflection on textbooks and what they should contain. Textbooks have been criticized of late for a variety of limitations and inadequacies. Various criticisms have been recently applied to many aspects of schooling – the preparation and selection of teachers, the methods of instruction, the focus of the curriculum, etc. My general reaction to criticism is to use it as an opportunity to consider personal and institutional practices. Mostly, I regard criticism as having some truth but typically advocating overreaction. Adjustment typically is a more productive reaction than reform. Hence, our own efforts at generating a textbook have some similarities to textbooks most have used previously, but with some adjustments.

Here are some general characteristics we believe must be true of textbooks and differentiate textbooks from other learning resources.

Comprehensiveness – we assume that instructors assign a textbook to complement the role they play with learners. In much the same logic as the concept of “flipping the classroom”, the time available for direct interaction with students is not typically spent most productively providing students with information. A good textbook should allow an instructor to skip some important topics students are likely able to master on their own, take advantage of personal expertise and experiences to provide unique insights for learners, and respond to learner issues and observe their efforts at application.

A textbook author applies a somewhat different type of scholarship than is typical of most academics (in our opinion). Expertise often requires great focus and depth. As a personal example, one of us taught the introduction to psychology course for many years. I felt a unique expertise in the areas of learning, motivation, and development, but I would not really claim what I knew about abnormal psychology and clinical practice would come close to matching the background of my collegues who prepared clinical practitioners. These real differences existed because of our training and our daily experiences over many years of work. I assume that the author(s) of introductory psychology textbooks and textbooks in general are different. They either make a commitment to spend great amounts of time to develop expertise in areas that were not at the core of their own preparation or they combine with other authors with different backgrounds.

Cindy and I have taken both approaches in writing our textbook on technology integration. We have unique backgrounds and we spend time broadening our background in areas where greater insight is necessary. We begin by carefully considering what topics are relevant and then make the effort to develop background and experience when some of these topics are not the focus of what we have done for years. Textbook authors must strive to be competent generalists in a time of specialization.

Finally, different instructors and different groups of learners are looking for different things. We do not assume that all we write will be relevant to all, but a comprehensive approach should cover most of the bases for most.

A core model and voice
– we believe a textbook is more than a collection of topics, it should be based on a core model and use a common voice. We believe the pieces of learning resources should fit together. A structure rather than a mish-mash facilitates the integration of ideas. We believe that the content of a textbook should unfold in a meaningful way and should have a certain consistency to support comprehension. A consistent writing style contributes to this integration and it is difficult for multiple authors to converge on a consistent way of expressing themselves.

Critical analysis -this may be the most surprising expectation we impose on ourselves. We recognize that many aspects of education cause controversy and this is certainly the case with opinions on the way technology should be used by learners. We believe it is our responsibility to fairly represent these controversies to learners (future or practicing teachers) no matter our personal positions. If we do take a position (and we do), the positions taken should be based on the best research available. To some extent then, our approach on certain topics is to describe the controversy and offer the best analysis we can. We are not marketers or advocates with the exception of advocating for what seem to be the most productive methods. To support our analyses, textbook authors should identify the best evaluative sources (see completeness) and offer these resources so you will be able to examine these sources yourself. Our web site always invites discussion and we welcome “better” resources for our review should you think we have missed quality resources supporting a position we did not take.

Rationale for a copper bracelet

I have been concerned with an issue for some time and have been attempting to generate an analogy I might use to communicate this issue to educators. Here is a scenario I would like you to consider.

Assume you are a patient and you have wrist pain that you suspect is an indication of arthritis. You read an ad in Golf Digest for a copper bracelet ($29) that the providers claim offers relief from the pain of arthritis. Not knowing whether this claim is valid or not, you decide to call your physician for advice. You trust your physician who is about your age and you have noticed that he wears a bracelet that you think is probably copper. What would you expect the physician to use as the basis for his response to your inquiry? Would you expect him to be aware of the research literature on treatments for arthritis and arthritis pain? Would you assume that if he noted that he wore a bracelet that this was the case because the bracelet has scientifically proven value? How about a personal belief that “at least it can’t do any harm and I seem to feel better”?

As a retired educational psychologist and educational technologist, I spend considerable time writing to offer advice to practicing and future educators. I certainly write to influence their understanding of technology and instruction, but I attempt to make my ultimate goal the impact their practice has on their students. I would describe this as being an advocate for their students.

I spent most of the past 40 years engaged in a similar role both as a professor and as a researcher. I no longer consider myself a researcher, but the values that guided the initial commitment to research persist. I believe that understanding learning is best accomplished through the various methods of research. Certainly, practitioners and those who offer advice to practitioners do not have to be researchers, but they at least should rely on the best scientific thinking about practice.

I spend a great deal of time reading the popular books and online content intended to inform educator practice. I attend several conferences a year focused on the role of technology in supporting learning. I must say that I am discouraged by the disconnect between these two areas of my experience. I listen to the claims that it is time fo educational reform and new ways of doing things. I recognize that older folks are sometimes described as saying “new ideas will not work” and of being accused as rejecting change just because they are unwilling to change. I certainly do not want to be branded as being out of touch when I do not think I am – retired or not. Given my core philosophy that claims should be justified in scientific findings, I object to any research-based position I take being rejected out of hand because I argue new approaches lack demonstrated value. I would say this because I believe it to be true and I would invite any data-supported contradiction others can bring to my attention.

A couple of observations. Please do not reject without careful consideration unless you can verify that these observations are inaccurate.

1) Many concepts advanced as significant reforms and new ideas are historically not actually new. Many concepts such as student-centered learning, student choice, and projects experience are not new. Those of us who went through teacher training programs in the 1960s encountered these ideas.

Mayer has written about this issue and in frustration calls it the “three strike” problem. He asks how it is that new ideas that are actually old ideas keep resurfacing even though the ideas have been proven largely unsuccessful in a previous iteration.

It is almost as if the idea sounds good  and advocates forget or never knew the previous history of these practices.

2) I am willing to say that some practices that seem to be largely unsuccessful as commonly applied (problem-based learning, project-based learning) have been successful in some carefully researched cases. Hence, I can advocate for such practices and reference what I believe to be quality examples. At the same time, I can suggest by relying on research that the common implementations of these practices are less effective than what most of us would describe as traditional practices. It bothers me when advocates advocate without acknowledging what I would argue as the complexity of the practices they promote. I see few references to the general sub-par performance and no effort to contrast these many studies with successful examples. It is almost as if the approach seeks not to confuse practitioners with the facts. You cannot really simplify complexity if hidden in that complexity is the difference between success and failure.

If we truly care for the collective body of those we call students, what should we regard as the basis for practice? Being open minded is not a function of age, it is a willingness to consider both sides of an issue based on the best evidence available. Are you one of those interested in investing in a copper bracelet?


Updates to Grabe resources for teachers

I have spent several hours a day for the last couple of months updating one of my online resources for educators. Done or not (mostly done) it is time for me to prepare for my summer grad course.

I have two major online projects taking slightly different approaches. Integrating Technology for Meaningful Learning is Cindy and my effort to support formal courses for in-service and practicing teachers. This is the continuation of our textbook project now consisting of a Kindle book and web resources. We consider this our 6+ edition. To some extent, we use this as out exploration of the future of the textbook. This work takes what I regard as the necessary textbook approach – it defines major issues in instruction with technology and attempts to do a good job of arguing all sides of these issues. The Kindle book need not be purchased to view the online resources.

Meaningful Learning and the Participatory Web, the resource I have been most recently updating, is more directed at practitioners and defines “participatory” roles for learners in terms of tools and tactics. The tools sections describe the technology “apps” and how these tools are used. The tactics sections are focused on learning activities linked to a specific category of tools. These resources represent our original attempt to develop an integrated set of learning resources completely available online. We also offer opportunities for learners using these resources to participate and contribute their own ideas.

Project Noah

Project Noah is a favorite tech recommendation for a couple of reasons. First, it is participatory. It allows anyone to contribute and builds the resources it curates from these contributions. Second, it serves as an example that disputes the popular fallacy that technology limits your activity to staring at a screen indoors. To become actively involved in Project Noah, you must do the opposite and explore the outdoor world around you.

Project Noah may seem intimidating and only for experts, but the community associated with Project Noah can be very helpful (see the example of my own experience that follows) and some components of the service are designed specifically for teachers and students.

I have made a few contributions to Project Noah over the last couple of years based on photographs I have taken near our cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin. We have many opportunities to view and photograph wildlife and I have submitted a few photos based on these experiences.

Recently, I encountered a couple of snakes on our property. I had no idea what these snakes were and wondered if they might be dangerous. The snakes were found very near play equipment we have for our grandchildren. I was able to get a pretty good picture of one of these snakes and I sent it to the Wisconsin DNR for identification. I was concerned that the snake might be a Timber Rattlesnake, but thought it was more likely a bull snake (based on my online research). The DNR person said it was most likely a Northern Water snake. This made some sense because we live on a lake.

I submitted the picture to Project Noah identifying the snake as a Northern Water snake and I was soon contacted to indicate that the snake was likely a Hognose Snake. I decided to remove my own identification and leave the picture as unnamed. This is part of the fun.



My contributions



New models for content

This is a book recommendation. I read a variety of content because I believe my personal creativity works best when I feed it ideas. This might be described as reasoning by analogy, but I believe the focused approach of so many academics suffers from an influx of new, but existing perspectives.

I encourage those interested in generating instructional content to consider some of the ideas advanced by Jeff Jarvis on the news and the business of selling the news. Specifically, I recommend Geeks Bearing Gifts. If you are unwilling to spring for the $10 demanded by Amazon, Jarvis is also providing the same content as Buzzmachine posts. As I write this, he has made it to the latter chapters so you could read most of the book for free.

I want to highlight two ideas from the book which I think offer some interesting ideas for the educational publishing industry. There is much more to be had, but these are two ideas that immediately caught my attention.

Idea 1 – the article is not the only way to imagine the unit of distribution

I have long believed that a textbook has some specific limitations because it is offered as a single unit. Recognizing components would allow a number of limitations to be addressed (my analysis). Jarvis makes a similar case with the newspaper article. Most of us have a vague understanding of the format journalists often use to generate news articles. There is the initial summary, segments supporting and expanding this summary (quotes, background, deeper explanation), sources, etc. We probably learned somewhere that an article is originally written to gradually taper off should the editor have to shorten an article by cutting at the end. We may also be familiar with the issue of “burying the lead” in which an author misses what should have been the most important point and did not highlight it in the initial paragraph.

Jarvis does a nice job of pointing to experimental approaches related to the ideas he identifies. For example, he points to Circa News as a service built to use the elements of typical news articles more creatively. You can try Circa (optimized for reading content on your phone) and might want to review another of my posts on this service.

What insights might educational content providers gain? I think the idea of identifying the components in what we offer and possibly providing better ways to provide and develop these various components may be helpful.

Idea 2 – show me the money. How can professionals support their work?

Within the present reality of unlimited and often free online content, how can professional content providers and content organizations support their work? Clearly, the cost of textbooks has generated a lot of attention and scorn. Jarvis deals with the reality of business models throughout.

Here is one example of an idea I like. I would suggest I have had a related idea about educational content, but that is not the point here. Jarvis proposes that authors and readers represent a relationship that is not necessarily one directional. Relationships are a big thing in his book. He suggests one idea related to a more participatory approach I found intriguing. What if “readers” could buy down the cost of content in various ways (this is my interpretation and even if this is not what Jarvis intended I still like my spin)? This would obviously be more practical with a subscription model than a single purchase (a book). For example, a reader my buy down the cost by being willing to view ads (some free vs. paid services already use this approach). What if readers provide information (complete surveys) or even content (personal stories, examples) to reduce personal costs for the primary service? For example, I have proposed that practicing teachers might provide classroom examples as a way to supplement textbooks.

I know that making these ideas work would be a challenge. Implementation would not be that technically problematic, but it seems that it would be easy to game such systems without contributing much of value. Some type of evaluation would be necessary, expensive, and messy.

The Jarvis book has one major contribution I think is overlooked. When traditional models are obviously in decline, we should not assume that all is lost. New models that value quality will eventually be developed. The models in the book may not be the eventual successes, but it is reassuring to review ideas that exist and are interesting.

There may be comparable developments in the development of educational content. I just do not see traditional publishers investing much in R&D efforts. Perhaps someone will write something that will reassure me in the same way the Jarvis analysis brought me new insights into a different area of content generation.

Prof – No one is reading you

No one is reading you was the title of  a recent article describing scholarly publications. My brief summary would suggest the article claimed “most publications receive little attention even though some might offer useful information”.

The article reminds me of a story told by my wife’s sister who claims to have checked my dissertation out from the university library. At the time books had a little card in front that was marked with the “due date” and she said she was concerned there were no return dates on my masterpiece. I guess it makes a good story at family gatherings. I admit that I have never checked out a thesis or dissertation either. I did read many before students finished their work I thought that was enough.

A couple of quotes from the linked article will give you the flavor:

Even debates among scholars do not seem to function properly. Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.

If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.

Note that the examples in this article do not include educational research. I also could not determine the source for the data provided which prevented me from understanding the scope and method of the research. Citation frequency is easy enough to to check. With access to Google Scholar you can now check citation frequency and most of us are vain enough to know which of articles have drawn the most attention. I do agree that many cited articles are not read. I think people sometimes cite what other researchers cite without actually reading the publication beyond the abstract.

If few scholars read each others work (I think this statement is a serious exaggeration but I have only my own experience to go on), the chance that such work influences practice seems unlikely. I am more concerned about this issue especially as it applies to education. Clearly, from time to time, “trends” move through the educational community. These ideas must come from somewhere and I would hope the basis for innovations had some basis in careful scholarship. My concern is that this is not the case.

I am reading a book by educational historian Jack Schneider -From the Ivory Tower to the Classroom – that addresses the transfer issue in education. Based on his analysis of several specific ideas, Schneider argues that there are key characteristics of ideas that make the transition from research to practice

  1. Perceived significance – research offers a big picture approach rather than a piece of the puzzle.
  2. Philosophical compatibility – fits with the professional identity and values of teachers
  3. Occupational realism – fit within the professional constraints within which teachers operate – e.g., time
  4. Transportability – easy to communicate

Understand that the author is not attempting to identify the characteristics of research that is most meaningful research or ideas with the greatest potential. The author is attempting to identify ideas that seem to have been accepted/considered rather than ignored. His arguments through a kind of case study approach – here are some ideas that have been accepted and here are some ideas that have been ignored. I assume the approach assumes all are credible ideas and the arguments are based in an analysis of the factors that determine acceptance.

In a later post, I will provide a follow-up on two of his cases. I have particular interest in two of the cases – projects (accepted) and generative processing (ignored). Much of my writing on technology stems from a generative processing perspective. I see “writing to learn” as an extension of the generative position and I have morphed “writing to learn” into “authoring to learn” as a way to justify many of the tactics I propose.

I think this is a very important issue. I do not expect practicing educators to read basic research, but I do wish they accepted the value of research and read a little more of the secondary literature based on this research. Now retired, I consider myself no longer an active researcher, but I hope to spend some time reading the publications and writing to offer my perspective.