Competing models of instructional resources

This post was precipitated in several ways by the Chronicle of Higher Ed coverage of a South by Southwest session on the “textbook crisis”. The Chronicle piece describes a debate been advocates of commercial textbooks (produced by what used to be called textbook companies) and OER resources. One of the pro-textbook company presents was Cheryl Costantini a Cengage VP (more on why the Cengage presence was of interest to me later).

The Chronicle does a nice job of framing the competing arguments and if you think you support one side or the other I think it worth your while to review the entire set of comments.

I can say that I can see value in both sides of this debate and I have been involved on both sides of the debate. My wife and I authored a textbook on the classroom use of technology (Integrating technology for meaningful learning) for more than 15 years through Houghton-Mifflin and Cengage (Cengage purchased the Houghton-Mifflin higher ed catalog). I now offer a book (Layering for Learning) explaining how K-12 teachers can modify online resources to improve instructional value. I think both commercial and educator designed content can be effective given an understanding of the benefits each approach offers and what each approach demands. The Chronicle piece offers insights into these strengths and weaknesses.

Back to Cengage. Years ago my wife and I were trying to get Cengage to consider a different approach to the commercial textbook – at least our textbook. We had issues with the model of preparing future teachers to use technology in their classrooms with only a textbook and we had issues with the three-year revision cycle that isolated us from our readers for extended periods of time while the information we wanted to convey became stale. We proposed the modification of our book into a Primer at a significantly lower price and a collection of online resources that could be continually updated and used as appropriate to the needs of a given instructor and student interests. We negotiated and explored for a couple of years without agreeing on a final project. We eventually withdrew from our association with Cengage (Cengage did return our copyright) to pursue our model as a Kindle book.

Through the final decade of my academic career I worked on a model of textbook study I called studying for mastery (some might call it adaptive study). I created technology-facilitated study environments intended to support the study of textbooks in large introductory classes and address the metacognitive deficiencies of new students unable to identify specific areas of need. I could make this investment because this was my area of research and I was able to secure some external funding to support the work. I knew what I was working on could not be duplicated by individual college instructors, but the techniques would have been perfect for commercial content providers who could take advantage of the efficiency of scale they could apply (the number of students using a given book across institutions and the value added for individual students given the capacity to spread costs across this large number). This seems to be what commercial content providers have now also figured out.

Being too early to the party is not always an advantage, but there is some satisfaction in seeing the commercial providers begin to catch up.


My book, Layering for Learning, was not intended as a comprehensive review of online services for annotating and sharing online web pages and video. Such a goal would have been tedious to write and read and quite redundant. The book was intended to alert readers to the possibility of what could be done to convert online content to instructional resources, to propose some tactics educator/designers might consider, and to describe a sample of some of the services suited to such purposes. I intend to use the web site I am developing to accompany the book as a way to offer some additional examples and I assume that interested educators will discover more services as they emerge.

Scrible is a browser-based service (extension or plugin) for highlighting and annotating web pages. I was surprised to learn when I was researching Scrible for this description that I already had established a Scrible account in 2011. Scrible has evolved since that time with Scrible Edu designed as what I would describe as a research tool for reviewing online content for the purpose of integrating this research as a writing project. The capabilities now include tools for both educators and students and the potential integration with Google classroom. Educators can create classes and enroll students by distributing an enrollment code. Students can take advantage of a citation manager when pulling together their notes for a writing project. Of course, this service does not have to be used for this purpose and could be used as a way to assign web annotated web content for student study.

Scrible is available as both free and pro versions. The Pro version which costs $10 per educator and differs from the free version in capacity and some additional features. It makes sense to pay the low fee just to keep the service going. A school can purchase access for $1000.

Scrible with an open web page. Note the icon in the menubar (the chrome extension in this case) used to activate the Scrible tool menu while viewing a web page.

Scrible EDU offers educators the opportunity to create classes. The creation of a class generates a code that is shared with students to allow them access to that class.


Photos for class

Photos for Class (Clever Prototypes) is a free, browser-based search engine for creative commons licensed images. The search service identifies images from several services (e.g., Flickr, Library of Congress). A nice feature of the service is that images downloaded are marked to include the photographer, license agreement and a direct link (see bottom of second image).

Significant innovation

Calling for innovation in education seems to be a big thing. The argument for this position would seem to be that new ideas are better or that goals have changed and adjustments must be made. There is little doubt that when it comes to the job market the world is changing, but who needs which skills to take advantage of these changes and which educational setting is best suited to helping learners develop these new skills? Are these new skills more advanced or just different? Are these skills different or do they build on traditional skills?

The innovation I see as necessary in K12 is very different from the changes advocated by others. New ideas such as coding for all, making, or project-based learning are useful and interesting, but do not address what I think is the core challenge. I think it useful to differentiate core information and skills from additional skills. In my opinion, he most significant problem is the variability in core skills that cannot be addressed by group-based instruction in the earliest grades with the consequence that more advanced students are held back and struggling students do not get the attention they need resulting in failed progress and motivational problems. The most meaningful innovation would focus on ways to individualize the development of core knowledge and skills providing the foundation for personal learner interests and more optimistic attributions for learning activities (some have taken to calling this a growth mindset).

The idea that all learners should acquire certain common skills is present at every level of education. This core may reflect essential life skills and a foundation for progress in other areas (e.g., reading, writing, math) or perhaps an expectation of the public for contributing to society  (e.g., civics/government).

I think we are at a point when schools must do multiple things in multiple ways. Perhaps a theme here might be individualization, but understanding that individualization can mean different things. The individualization in individual interests should likely be addressed by increasing options and the individualization in speed of learning core expectations due to differences in aptitude and background knowledge should be addressed through systems allowing progress when mastery is demonstrated. Grade level is not a reasonable way to think about individualization when it comes to this second category (core content). Students quickly become quite different when it comes to level of achievement. Using a group-based approach to teaching the same things to students who are advancing at different rates is far from optimal or innovative.

I often write about technology providing practical ways to implement sound educational ideas that have been extensively researched and often ignored for years. Often, the problem is one of finding a way to make the tactics employed by researchers practical in classroom settings. I recognize present technology-based implementations of individual progress systems as based in the mastery-learning research of the late 1960s. Sal Kahn is one of the few technologists who seems to recognize this connection and it took some years before he described what his group has done as a form of mastery learning.

I would like to see public schools try what is sometimes described as a “mastery” model. There are different variations, but the approach I think is most practical make use of technology to individualize core areas. The use of technology should not be understood as eliminating the importance of educator involvement. To the contrary, in these areas the technology allows educators to identify critical obstacles and to function as more of a tutor.

I see public schools ignoring such blended models and leaving them for charter schools. This is part of what I mean by talking the innovation game, but not taking on the most significant challenges. In the present political climate, I see this as a problem for public education.

What makes content a learning resource – 5

This is the final post in my series concerning the modification of content as a learning resource by layering activities on the original content. My final post offers a demonstration of two services. I have saved this demonstration because prioritizing the rationale for such services and the tactics for using such services must be considered for the services to be effective. I am working on additional tutorials/demonstrations that are available from my “layering” pages.

What makes content a learning resource – 4

Video annotation

More and more online video is being used in K-12 classrooms. This may be the case because educators want to expand the exposure to content sources beyond the traditional textbook. It may be because some educators are exploring flipping their classrooms and are creating the videos themselves to replace presentations they would offer during class time. It may simply be because educators find interesting and informative YouTube resources they can make available to their students.

With the exception of educator created video which would likely be developed with an understanding of the target student audience and an understanding of specific curriculum goals, the video content to be assigned could very well be an example fitting more toward the content rather than instructional resource end of the continuum I have been describing. Certainly, educators could preface exposure to the video with guidelines and follow up with a discussion. However, the layering process I have been describing can be applied to video and allows more immediate and embedded techniques for influencing productive cognitive behaviors.

I am guessing that annotating video is a more challenging concept for most educators than annotating static multimedia. We all have at least observed and probably have participated in highlighting and annotating static content and using these additions as part of the process of review. I would be the first to admit that tools for the addition of prompts to video is less well developed. I assume that part of this lag can be attributed to technical challenges, but I also believe that there has simply been less interest in the educational use of video. Tools are available and will grow in sophistication as interest in making use of video grows.

The method of association between original and added content must differ with video. With static online multimedia, the learner scrolls through the content and added content scrolls along wherever inserted. With video, adding content on top of a constantly changing display that appears in the same location presents problems. The solution has been to use the timeline for the video to integrate the moving imagery and content that appears in an adjacent window. You use the timeline when you scrub through video to move ahead or back rather than allow the video to run in real time. Ideally, the content related to the video should pop up in the adjacent window shortly before one reaches the related point in the video and should either stop the video at an appropriate point or allow the user to turn on and off pausing the video at those points when additional information has been displayed. The online services I have reviewed have yet to achieve this level of sophistication and learners pretty much have to scroll through the adjacent content window to locate added content. This is not a problem with short videos, but it is limiting when working with longer presentations.

How can layering improve the experience of learning from video? I would suggest that most of the prompt categories I outline in Layering for Learning apply. For example, a comment at the beginning can establish context and activate existing knowledge. Comments can be interjected to bring attention to particularly important points. Questions can be added to check for understanding and when necessary encourage review. These are traditional design tactics that classroom educators can apply.

The next and final segment in this series will provide a couple of examples of existing services for layering.