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