Public libraries and OERs

The closest libary to me is the Fairfield County District Library, a public library with one main location and four outlying branches. It is not intended as an academic library per se but as a community library.

As a result of Gov. John Kasich’s drastic measures (shifting the burden of most public expenditures to the local level so he can say he has cut state spending), the local libary has substantially cut services, even closing at different times to furlough its employees. The Main branch is in Lancaster, Ohio, which is a small city of about 38,000, according to the latest Census data. Only roughly 13% of people here have their bachelor’s degree (0.3% have a doctorate; I guess that would be me and 10 other people). The median household income is just over USD$38,000, compared to the state’s median of USD$50,000. Poverty is estimated at about 10%. Luckily, it’s fairly cheap to live here.

Because I’m self-employed, I spend a lot of time at the library, and I see three general types of patrons during a typical workday: mothers with small children, elderly persons, and people using the computers. It’s unclear what the unemployment rate is here, but Ohio’s is about 10.5%, and my best guess is that Lancaster, given the educational levels of residents, may be higher than that.

People in Lancaster need their public library. And the library does a lot more than just check books in and out: it’s part of the larger community, and I’ve seen librarians take an hour helping someone with the online GED materials, for instance. Compared to university systems, a public library is ultra democratic. With the university library, you’re already putting a “firewall” between potential users and the library’s resources: the only way to really access materials is to be a student, faculty member, or staff. Public libraries, on the other hand, only ask that at some point you wander down and fill out a short form to get a card. They ask that you live there, but even that is negotiable. And around here, that card is good for your whole life.

So the Fairfield County Public Library is a repository for mostly physical and some digital materials. Of its limited digital materials, some are housed in collections (mostly photographs) and a few are linked to other sites that might be considered OERs. In the catalogue search, I typed in the keyword “writing” and got 2,943 hits. Narrowing my search to Electronic Resources culled the list down to 507 entries. I further narrowed it by the category Adult Education; the result was a list of 83 resources; here is the top of the list, which contains a link to an online course for high school students:

To go further I had to log in to the statewide Ohio Public Library Information Network, so in this way the Fairfield County library functions as a limited referatory. Here it gets a little more interesting. When I get to the OPLIN, it seems to share more of the qualities of a repository like the ones housed inside an educational institution; clicking the tab Skill Building for Adults gives me the following screen of choices, for example:

This is actually new to me: I have never before visited this site (which brings up a point for me, so what might that mean about other folks using the Fairfield County library, who may not be able to navigate as intuitively?), which contains learning objects called eBooks, Tests, and Courses. As the Educause article  notes, many other respositories such as MIT organize their collections in these familiar ways (p. 5). You can search for a word and a type of resource. Many of the Test resources seem to be preparation for civil service positions, police officer exams, GED preparation, or practice for the Federal Clerical exam (these are the ones under adult skills). Just for fun I took the Diagnostic Writing Skills test; it turns out I’m pretty good at grammar and mechanics.

I chose a public library instead of one associated with a teaching institution because I think there is a huge “repository” potential in truly public libraries to collect helpful learning materials and make them available to all sorts of patrons. I did not expect that it existed in even a sort of limited form as it does in OPLIN. But that seems to be a first step in some basic OERs. Could a next step be for those currently placing OERs in more institutional settings to migrate some of them to public libraries? What kinds of audiences are some of the OERs that are online now (MIT, Open University, etc.) targeting and getting? It seems to me that public libraries could capture more types of people than just the university crowd. I don’t think the folks at my local branch are going to go online to find courses at MIT; I’m not sure that would even occur to them. But they might just start with a search at their familiar, comfortable library that will end taking them into learning experiences they may not have anticipated. And then who knows what could happen with their journey?

Open educational resources, editing, and economics

This graphic was created by my mom, who runs Sue-perGraphics.com

It’s impossible to disagree with the principle of, as Ilkka Tuomi says in Open Educational Resources: What they are and why do they matter“a world where teachers and learners have free access to high-quality educational resources, independent of their location. Who wouldn’t want that? And what makes sense to me in the Cape Town declaration is the idea that if the public is paying for educational resources, the public should have free access, and “the public” includes the students using them. Last semester I taught some freshman composition courses, and my students at the community college paid more than $150 for the books for the course! For a writing course! The initiative from Cable Green and Washington State makes good sense for that reason alone. At the same time, however, that initiative is funded by a private foundation, Gates, which of course has its own agenda for educational change and certainly won’t keep underwriting this kind of development for every state in the union. In addition, it’s finding some challenges in the process (see thet commentary in the linked article about Washington State).

I want to be selfish for a minute, though, and figure out what all that means for me, given all the hats I wear. For instance, one of my larger clients is an academic journal publisher, for whom I edit papers appearing in seven different journals. I copyedit for the researchers and statisticians, making stylistic choices to adhere to the journal’s formal tone as well as ensuring things like all the citations in the text have sources listed in the References list. I also see journals, whether open or not, that are not edited in this way, and my eye immediately goes to the typos and infelicitous uses of language, errors, and usage problems. Likewise, when practitioners promote their theories on their blogs in order to foment that public discussion, I’m intrigued and interested in the results—while at the same time, I cringe at the run-on sentences, comma splices, typos, poor organization, unclear references, incorrect use of words like “comprise,” and so on. (I also cringe at these in the materials generated by my stepdaughters’ teachers.)

Definitely, my eye is more finely tuned than a normal person’s to grammatical nuances. But language primarily communicates, and poor language usage means that a reader is not receiving the clear communication she wants. Frankly, not all academics or teachers are, in fact, writers. Is there a place in open educational resources for qualified professional editing? Or do I need a new job?

This question becomes even larger: not everyone who knows about a subject is an expert in organizing content so that learners have the best experience they can, especially younger learners. Not everyone understands children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. That’s why K-12 teachers are required to attend hours and hours of professional training every year in order to remain a teacher and renew their licenses: in theory, at least, it helps them keep up with research in these subjects. That’s also why textbook publishers often pay for their editors to attend graduate school for MA degrees in education. My other clients are mostly educational publishers who are worried about the death of publishing. Sure, textbooks are expensive. Too expensive. But not everyone understands the enormous work that goes into creating them. Just as one example, at the K-12 level in the United States, each state has its own set of learning standards for, say, social studies. Maybe “history” in the generic sense doesn’t change…but what each state deems important makes it change, at least for the publishing industry. My old day job used to be keeping up with these developments in state legislatures and education departments, and publishers scramble to keep recreating textbooks when states change their minds about whether Thomas Jefferson is a crucial part of the U.S. History curriculum or not.

Perhaps it’s just that I don’t understand the economics of open source. How can I create “content” to share freely with the world when I need to be paid, somehow, in order to keep the electricity on?

One of the three strategies of the Cape Town Declaration includes the call for “educators, authors, publishers and institutions to release their resources openly. These open educational resources should be freely shared through open licences which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone.”  Fulfilling this and other strategies “will make it possible to redirect funds from expensive textbooks towards better learning.” I’m not seeing the step-by-step, flowchart kind of logic that shows this kind of business model, and I hope that my next course in the University of Manitoba Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program, Open Educational Resources, gives me some ideas about how this can actually work in the context of U.S. elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education. The principles of open access to information and knowledge appeal to me greatly, especially as someone who simply loves to learn; I look forward to learning about some practical examples that show how it can work.

AdjuncTechnology, or why I can’t figure out Blackboard

It’s ironic, really. Enrolled in the Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program, participating (or trying to) in MOOCs, teaching myself skills in WordPress and other tools…I certainly appear to be on top of all things ed-techie.

So when I started teaching again this fall as an adjunct instructor in English, hired about one week before classes began, I thought of the opportunities to work with students that technology gives us that I did not have 15 years ago, the last time I taught freshman composition courses. Would I have them each keep a blog? A class wiki? How could we do email and online conferences? Handed the books I was required to use and the essay rubrics I had to teach to, I was informed that the school also used Blackboard to communicate with students.

Wow, my first experience with a traditional learning management system! After all the LMS-bashing I’ve heard from my compatriots in MOOCs and read online, I looked forward to contributing a bash or two.

But between putting in the enormous amount of time dealing with the required texts and rubrics, the sheer volume of written work, and managing a full-time business on top of it…figuring out Blackboard hasn’t taken priority. As an adjunct, I am paid only for the hours I’m actually in the classroom—three per class—which works out to about $7 an hour when I account for the class preparation and grading and student meetings outside of class and supplementing the standard texts with materials that will actually help students write their required research papers. I simply can’t afford more time, which would be deducting from the time I spend writing and editing—what actually keeps me financially afloat. Forcing myself to limit the hours I spend on this teaching hobby sets up a choice between learning Blackboard or spending time with a student struggling with an essay. Of course the real-live person in need is going to win.

Considering that there are about eight full-time faculty and about 80 adjunct instructors in English, is it any wonder that the syllabus and texts I was given to work with look suspiciously like the ones I had 15 years ago? My students say they have not been using Blackboard because none of their instructors do, and I suspect that other departments have the same skewed faculty lineup. For an open enrollment community college, which has an equal mix of students planning to transfer for a four-year degree and students planning to earn their HVAC or culinary certificate, that skew is not surprising. This college is the only affordable option, and to keep it affordable means relying on part-time instructors who don’t get paid very much.

As I think more about it, the debates about doing away with traditional textbooks (my students claim that their rhetoric/grammar cost $78! $78?) could have an unintended consequence for adjunct faculty. If I had to find my own resources, gather them in the LMS, etc., how much more of my time would part-time teaching take up? And then how much more time to be innovative by crafting blog-based assignments and class wikis? I’m frustrated with forced choice I had to make, so frustrated that I’m not going back. (Yes, I know; in theory, the planning/supplementing time would decrease next semester because I’ve already got materials in place and my syllabus planned out…but I’m just not that type of teacher. I’ve always got to remake things so they have a chance to work better.)

We just had a big union fight here in Ohio (and our side won!) so that (full-time) public employees have the right to bargain collectively for their working conditions and benefits. I’m lucky I can walk away from part-time teaching because I have a good income in other ways; some of the adjuncts who are just out of grad school aren’t so blessed (I remember those days). I keep thinking about the loss to students, though, of teachers who have time not only to figure out Blackboard or any LMS but also go beyond that to engage students with new ways of communicating that are authentic and have the potential of a readership wider than just their freshman comp classroom and instructor. I’m jealous and sad I don’t get to be one of those teachers.

Career channeling change

The other day I tweeted a cry for help:

Smart writer enamored w #edtech. Bkgd publishing, higher ed. Should I learn programming? Advice sought!

and tagged it for MOOC participants in the last couple of courses I’ve taken.

Oddly, no one had The Answer. No voice from on high said, “Go learn Java!” or “Try creating an app!” Where is a dictator or a paranormal being when I need one? I don’t believe in either, but frankly at this point I’m looking for any clue.

I have been in and out of educational publishing for the last decade, and I think that the industry as we know it is going to look very different in 10 years. Already the larger publishers reach out into software and even into directly granting degrees. Businesses are getting (too) interested in the economic potential of education and are seeing the arena as an untapped fount of (mostly public) money; the publishing or “content delivery” side of things is one potential area of investment and acquisition.

But in the small company I currently work for, I hear comments like “We’re not a software company” and executives wishing aloud that technology would just “go away.” Hence, I’m not learning anything. Don’t get me wrong: informal learning works, especially for me. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I have a big brain. But I have to translate that into a resume entry, a “marketable skill,” or ideally some sort of portfolio of interesting work.

So what I’ve done is. . .quit my day job. (Music swells here.) As of next week, I will be cobbling together several great freelance gigs and part-time teaching at a local community college (read: minimum wage) to support my quest for figuring out what makes most sense for me to do with the rest of my time on earth. I am hoping that I can free up some time to participate fully in Change MOOC (#change11) as well as the Instructional Design course I am taking through the University of Manitoba’s Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program. I am hoping to offer my skills to further this odd movement of creating artifacts, writings, and videos just for and about learning, but I don’t know where that road takes me. Unlike my usual nature to plan everything, I’m planning only to leave myself open to all sorts of possibilities that hover around (“learning” ≈ “education” ≈ “technology” ) and try to leave some helpful breadcrumbs for others even in my mistakes.

Sobering

Comparisons between China and the United States
America Meet China
Created by: Online University Rankings

Mobile spelling games

My final project for Mobile Learning; I have figured out how to show the videos for the sample game ideas. Click the slide or the text below the embedded slides for a flash version.
[googleapps domain=”docs” dir=”present/embed” query=”id=df57smdh_27ck6t8dcd” width=”533″ height=”444″ /]

Sample Game 1 (Maze) Sample Game 2 (Monkey Throw)

Update 9/1/2011: A great post at PBS about gaming literacy.

A survey of mobile learners and teachers

For an assignment, “Each learner is to produce three critical findings from the survey and suggest three recommendations in support of/against mobile learning based on the outcome of the survey. Support your comments with the survey results. Post comments on your blogs giving a background of the study to your readers.”

In the late spring 2011, the course participants in Mobile Learning, a class out of the University of Manitoba’s Emerging Technologies for Learning certificate program, created and sent a survey to their networks of friends and colleagues asking their views of the future of mobile learning. Using SurveyMonkey, we received 153 responses to our request. Because this was an opt-in survey, and because the link could be forwarded to anyone outside of these networks, we do not know how many people may have actually received the invitation to participate. Assuming we had an acceptable, roughly 30%, response rate, we might estimate that the reach extended to roughly 450 people or greater.

These folks, of course, as a sample, are not truly representative of the population as a whole. For one thing, they are limited by their inclusion in a network of people that start with adult students enrolled in an online course about mobile technologies in education. I think a good case could be made that this network would already be primed to be thinking about these issues if not actively engaged in them already. For another thing, they are also self-selected: those who took the survey had to take action to get to the survey itself (that is, click a link in a post or email).  That means they may have already been interested in the topic or they may simply know a person who personally asked that they complete the survey. All these caveats are just to say that this is not a random sample but a deliberate one.

Because I am focused on K-12 education, here I’ll look at the responses primarily from that group of people. Out of the 153 respondents, 49% (75 respondents) identified themselves as working in the K-12 sector. This result was surprising to me; I expected most participants to be postsecondary instructors and I also expected that K-12 was severely limited in its ability to embrace mobile technologies. Here in my geographic area, most schools have a strict policy against using cell phones at any time during the school day, for example. Still, the results are pretty interesting.

Finding 1: Respondents are divided over mobile devices’ gaming possibilities for education

Respondents were given a prompt that read “Indicate your level of agreement with each statement on potential or suitable uses of mobile devices in formal education or institutional training settings.” Choices to rank were the following:

  • to conduct polls (clickers)
  • handheld gaming situations
  • access lecture notes
  • conduct searches or research
  • communication device (IM, email)
  • complete forms
  • collaboration (documents, content creation)
  • play audio or video podcasts
  • geolocations

Both K-12 and university respondents were divided on the question of handheld games, with slightly fewer K-12 workers strongly disagreeing that they had a place in education and slightly more strongly agreeing that they did. Summing the two categories “agree” and “strongly agree,” 53.6% of K-12 respondents agreed that handheld gaming had potential, whereas 58.8% of university respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed. Given the recent report Pockets of Potential, which documented that in 2008 more than 50% of children ages 6-9 owned a portable video game, I would have expected many more K-12 associated respondents to see these devices as possibilities for learning (Shuler, 2009, p. 11).  If I had the opportunity to add a question, I would have asked respondents whether they were parents and attempted to correlate these responses. Anyone who is around children should see clearly that gaming is part of their lives. Research company Latitude just issued the results of a worldwide survey of children on the future of technology that found 48% of the children envisioned games as the future of technology.

Games should be incorporated into learning experiences, even if to reinforce and support more traditional learning goals. More than three-quarters (77.18%)  of survey respondents  are between the ages of 31 and 60, so I would be interested in how that answer breaks down in a larger, more diverse group. Perhaps people around my age (I’m 46) think only of the disruptive possibility of games rather than their educational use? In any case, my recommendation that gaming be taken seriously as one tool in the educator’s belt is not supported by the survey results, but I think that in this case the survey respondents were short-sighted.

Finding 2: Respondents in both K-12 and postsecondary accessed online public resources with their mobile devices more than they accessed either proprietary, fee-based, or institutional content

The results of our survey fit well with the general trend for mobile use; a Pew Internet Project study recently found that 25% of adult smartphone owners surveyed used their smartphone as their primary connection to the Internet, so it is not surprising that our survey respondents accessed Internet resources on their mobile devices.

Clearly this finding supports mobile devices as an important connection to Internet resources. YouTube “how to” videos, Wikipedia entries, and Cooks.com recipes are perfectly bite-sized pieces of content to access using a device that is smaller than a laptop or desktop.

What is intriguing about our survey respondents is that their access to public resources that are not specifically “educational” outpaces their access to those that deliberately are (OERs): out of all our survey respondents, 86.1% accessed public resources and less than half that percentage (41.7%) accessed OERs. A clear takeaway from this finding is that if you want to reach the widest audience of learners, using public sites is a key strategy: this obviously brings up the question of how, then, learners could find your resources. Corollaries to this question might be these: if you use public resources for learning, how do you find them? Once you find them, how do you know they’re credible? If you don’t find them at first, what do you do?

Finding 3: Respondents believe that mobile technology use is less likely to grow in elementary school settings

Asked to ” Think about changes in technology and learning coming in the next five years: what do you think might happen?” respondents mostly replied that “Mobile devices will be used…” more frequently in most learning situations. However, nearly one third of all respondents (32.4%) thought that mobile devices would be used about the same or even less frequently in elementary school settings: among K-12 respondents, 32.7% responded similarly; among postsecondary, 32.4% did.  No other setting or group came close to this outcome—college, high school, and other settings all were identified by respondents as frequently or more frequently using mobile devices by a large margin.

In the survey, 69.3% of K-12 respondents identified their role as instructor/teacher/faculty and 18.7% as administrator. I would be curious about the breakdown of the response to this question along teachers and administrators. Likewise, I wonder what the breakdown of respondents is by level taught (K-5, 6-8, 9-12). If the survey were more robust and generalizable, as a marketer in K-8 educational publishing I would have to wonder whether any new digital efforts involving mobile learning would be worthwhile: if the people within those institutions believe that the elementary level is not a site for innovations in using mobile technology, perhaps that is not the area to pursue. At the same time, however, I question whether the students wouldn’t give a different answer. Adults not directly involved with elementary aged children may have different ideas about their capabilities when it comes to technology in general. According to the Pockets of Potential report, children under age 12 in the United States “constitute one of the fastest growing segments of mobile technology users” (p. 4), and mobile technology with its instant-on, instant-gratification seems ideally matched to children. Perhaps one recommendation out of our survey is to persuade educators “in the field” that this is so by showing them successful implementations of mobile technologies for younger people so their pessimism decreases.

_______________________

Addendum: See other analyses conducted by my colleagues in the course:

http://learn231.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/class-mobile-learning-survey/

http://www.eljamal.com/aboluay/?p=803

http://shakboot.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/survey-analysis-ml11

http://lunic.net/blog/?p=133

_______________________

Shuler, C. (2009). Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning, New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

MOOCs support inefficient learning…and that’s the point

With the shrill emphasis on standardized testing in K-12, some math educators are fighting back with innovative, hands-on learning for their students. Instead of providing equations for, say, calculating the hypotenuse of a bunch of right triangles with different base lengths, they have their students start with the object under consideration. Perhaps students measure a couple of triangles and talk about what they’ve found. Opponents to these constructivist methods scoff at the idea that students are supposed to “discover Pythagoras’ theorem on their own” by performing tests and measurements that will lead them to the same conclusion. As some of the criticisms of the Khan Academy note, efficiency of instruction does not necessarily lead to student learning. In fact, that efficiency may only promote the rote learning for tests that’s too prevalent.

I started thinking about this in the context of my last online course, run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, which was a MOOC: a massive, open online course that in the past has literally registered more than one thousand students in one course. At first, I was irritated with the overwhelming amount of materials I had to go find: although the course started from a few readings each week, the point of the course was to find the blogs, posts, and tweets of other members as well as other materials around the same subjects. In this last iteration of the Connectivism and Connected Knowledge course, Siemens and Downes experimented with a decentralized structure. What this meant was that there was no “learning management system” in which assignments and grades were posted, readings were collected and housed, and discussions were threaded, nested, and archived. Instead, the content was aggregated with gRSShopper (a Downes’ invention) and then housed in people’s blogs, a Facebook group, Diigo, and other online applications.

It took a while to get used to, I’ll admit. And I was often frustrated at the lack of a sort of ongoing, regular discussion base that I had in graduate school, where each week you picked up where you left off the week before and you could see the knowledge growing in your community because somehow it was more contained, physically, in one small college town—it was a bit more visceral. In addition, because I am hyperstudent, I never felt in CCK11 like I had quite done enough, had read enough in the tucked-away blogs of my colleagues and related materials I tried to find on my own. My Moocolleagues (neologism alert!) also seemed more connected to each other and to other networks of learners, whereas I’m on my own in rural Ohio. By the end of the course, I felt a bit weary, and I was looking forward to my next course, more traditionally organized, housed in a learning management system, and holding only about 20 students. Its potential was more restful.

But now a funny thing’s happened: I miss CCK11. Although many times I felt disconnected and frustrated, I paradoxically felt more engaged then. I did more work, so I got more out of it, even though it was hard and sometimes tiresome.  Using connectivism as both its subject matter and its structure, the experience yanked me out of a comfortable identity called “student” and put me in some other role that I still don’t have a name for. It’s stuck with me, in other words, and I’m not the same—and isn’t that what learning is?

And learning is or should be inefficient. It’s when you struggle to make a WordPress widget work the way you want to (see www.dandydogohio.com’s slideshow for what cause me an hour’s annoyance) that you gain more understanding about PHP rather than just reading the For Dummies guide and following along. The fact is, my arrogant brain sometimes thinks that internalizing information is enough for me, as though if I read a Honda Repair Manual I could build a Civic in the backyard. That hands-on learning I advocate when it comes to K12 and postsecondary education?—yeah, I need it, too. Reading about something isn’t the same as learning: learning should be messy and should contain some moments you just want to go hire someone to do it for you. Reading about connectivism’s belief that learning is a network phenomenon is one thing; trying to form, navigate, traverse, talk about, and reflect upon the network while you’re swimming around in it is another (this may be connected to Siemens’ discussion of internalization/externalization).

Now I’ve signed up for two more MOOCs: one, called EduMOOC, starts next week through the University of Illinois, and the other will be “the mother of all MOOCs” from our friends Downes and Siemens with the addition of Dave Cormier (who makes the great MOOC videos). I’m bound to be, at times, really frustrated and uncertain. I might even gripe. I bet I learn.

Update 6/27: Dave Cormier’s blog post on MOOCs as ecologies.

ML11: Am I a mobile nomad*?

…post not more than a 200 word reflection in your blog on who you may consider a mobile nomad to be and why designing courses for them might be important, or not. *Nomads are mobile by definition. I prefer “mobile worker” or “mobile learner.”

I need to access learning where I happen to be, on one or more devices at once. I have to fit learning in within small allotments of time, but sometimes I have three hours I can devote to my studies. I must be able to start and stop on any device and come back to the same place using a different tool. Sometimes I need to use two devices at the same time and your system shouldn’t prevent it. As a busy adult, I’m simply not able to carve out 3 hours a week to sit in a class. Know that during my lunch hour at the Day Job, I will religiously hop online to check our assignments or participate in our discussion, but it’s unlikely I can attend even an online meeting with fewer than 72 hours’ notice.  If you want to capture me as a learner, and potentially my tuition dollars, give me something that fits into my time and offer me connections, ideas, and materials I might not stumble upon in my travels. Connect me with other learners that live far away from me. Give me feedback as a real person, too.

 

Unrelated video of my dog Sparky…or a subtle, intelligent metaphor…?

 

Mobile Learning ML11: Weeks 4-5

Educational Publishing Must Change 

Even if you aren’t in the business of producing content that will be delivered to K-12 classrooms, you know intuitively that 20-pound textbooks are a vanishing breed of instructional materials in the United States.

If you’re in educational publishing here, however, you are doing everything you can to delay the funeral, including packaging those textbooks with “digital resources” that augment what’s in that big book and providing online games and smartboard accessories. You are highlighting studies of the “digital divide” to show that books are more accessible than computers for swaths of students, especially those who are disadvantaged in other ways. If you’re smart, your sales force is well-versed in their territories’ computer usage and ownership statistics, both in schools and in communities they service.

And there are some quite legitimate reasons that online resources would leave some students out of the learning process, a condition that you can’t accept if you’re a firm believer in the value of public education for all in a democracy, as I am.

All of that has been and continues to be debated in blogs and commentary online and in the administrations of school districts across the country. Here I want to provide a little insight into publishing itself, specifically from the point of view of product development, i.e., textbook development and creation.

The flip side to outward-facing sales are internal processes and procedures. I’ve written elsewhere about how textbooks are generally developed. I want to think a bit here about what an embrace of elearning and mlearning could mean for the day-to-day operations of a textbook company or a development house. For instance, I’ve worked, both as a full-time employee and as a contract or freelance worker, for educational publishers in the K–12 market, creating textbooks as well as ancillary materials.

I’ll lay out a situation that I think will highlight what has to change: Let’s say I’m creating a workbook to go along with a science textbook, and that workbook focuses on what you need to know because you live in a particular state (say, for instance, Ohio). The Educational Publisher (EP) wants to create that workbook as an ancillary to its General Science textbook so that its more competitive in the Ohio market, and as the editor I create the content. A decade ago, this is what I would have to do for the project:

  1. Identify all the relevant state standards for that grade’s workbook
  2. Plan out how to incorporate all the relevant state standards in the 6o pages the publisher has planned for
  3. Make sure each lesson complements and augments the relevant part(s) of the student edition textbook
  4. Write and edit the readings and activities (e.g., short answer response) to appear on specific pages (or hire a freelancer to do so)
  5. Identify and/or describe any art or illustration to go on that page with the reading and activity

In a completely print-based textbook context, five general realms of activity will reliably get you an Ohio Workbook to accompany your General Science textbook. (After this comes the page production process that’s standard to any publisher: proof cycles, editing, and any permissions you need for art or content;  I’m just focusing on basic content creation here.)

Fast-forward to now. What would change about this process in a full elearning environment? Leaving aside IT-related matters such as device compatibility, operating systems, and so on (i.e., the really technical stuff), I would still have to do the above, but I would also need to add at least some of the following activities (in no particular order):

  1. Plan and/or produce and/or find related video content, which requires me to think about sound and movement
  2. Plan and produce audio content
  3. Evaluate all text for its fit on a variety of screens, which requires me to adapt some of my writing skills to shorter lengths
  4. Plan and create interactive activities in which students would have immediate feedback on their efforts, which requires that I think about the limits of what students could do (such as not writing essays because they would not get immediate feedback)
  5. Plan and create activities that result in a student-generated product that a student would submit to a teacher for feedback or assessment
  6. Plan and create activities that allow students to work together using their devices, which requires me to have more understanding about what would work in a classroom environment as well as about social media tools
  7. Plan and create activities that would work even without an Internet connection
  8. Plan and create activities that could potentially be used as a whole-class experience via Smartboard technology, if a teacher wishes to use an eworkbook activity in that way
  9. Find and evaluate other web-based resources to provide to students and teachers in links or through portals
  10. Create motivational games/experiences that reward students for going through the activities
  11. Create experiences/activities linked to the student’s location in a particular place (for instance, if the student is in southeastern Ohio, a link or some content about the formation of the Appalachian Mountains)

(These are the examples I could think of—I wonder what younger, more technology-savvy folks would add?) With digital products, too, teachers and students expect updated content at all times, so there are a variety of completely new editorial processes that need to be established to make sure that the econtent is current and relevant (and no broken links). They would also want to know immediately when any update had been made, which means rigorously tracking changes and errata and setting up a communications process.  In addition, teachers would expect functionality such as receiving reports about access and use of the eworkbook and perhaps a way for them to go into a particular student’s eworkbook to provide feedback or help. That functionality also entails thinking about what part(s) of eworkbook activities can be “sent” or monitored.

It’s tempting to dismiss these problems and think that educational publishers are just being conservative in lagging behind just-in-time, just-for-you elearning. But they’re really just figuring out what their new jobs will be in a world where everyone with electricity and a device can access realms of information at any time. The short answer, then, is that educational publishers may want to embrace elearning, mlearning, and their new technologies, but that to do so entails nothing short of a superhuman effort coupled with a complete rethinking of what the business actually is in the wake of the embrace.