March 07, 2011

Focus

Focus – “a central point, as of attraction, attention, or activity”

So, why is focus such a difficult thing to maintain? Why is it that we can make plans to accomplish some goal and, inevitably, these plans go awry? Why is it that entropy always wins?

One of the things that makes me human is my ability to choose. I make choices every day. I choose to get up in the morning or to stay in bed. I choose to drink coffee or water. I choose to go to work or stay home. Every day I make choices that impact my life and the personal fulfillment of that life.

Some things happen whether I choose them or not. I breathe; at least I hope I do, regularly. To not do so would have very serious repercussions. I can choose to not breathe but, at some point, a greater power will force me to inhale. The body’s desire to sustain itself is a much stronger force than my will.

At this moment, I am annoyed with myself because of my willingness to let nature guide me rather than focusing my energy on attainment of my personal goals. I want to believe that entropy is forcing me to take the path of least resistance rather than my expending energy to follow a different path. The reality is that I am choosing to give power to some other entity. I am choosing to avoid the things that are difficult.

They say that every journey begins with a single step. All we need to do is to choose to make that step, then choose to make the next step, and the next step, and… What they don’t tell you is that each of those steps is a choice and there are alternative choices at every step. Making the choice to continue moving along a certain path is not always an easy one. It is, however, my choice.

February 28, 2011

Digital Textbook

"The future is not in e-books and tablets, says one publisher, but in software programs that offer homework solutions and assessment tools."

This is the teaser for a story in the WIRED Section of the February 28 Chronicle of Higher Education.

My immediate response is...duh!!! How many teachers at post-secondary levels are currently assessing reading comprehension? Even at the high school level, why would we measure whether a student read the material rather than understood the material?

For the last several years, textbook publishers in the sciences have focused their energies on creating a product that is visually appealing and, supposedly, teaches problem solving. The facts within the text are important only to the extent that they provide the foundation needed to encourage a student to dig deeper, to understand more fully. However, very little time, energy or money has been expended to improve the problems that appear in the back of the book. That is, until recently.

William D. Rieders, executive vice president for new media at the publishing company Cengage Learning is quoted in the story stating, “An e-book is not an engaging experience, merely replicating a textbook”. Yet, Cengage is one of the founding companies of CourseSmart, an online library of textbooks and textbook rentals. In addition, Cengage is poised to announce a “new product” that will shake up their entire business model. For the last several years, Cengage has invested heavily in OWL, their online homework system. I wonder…..

I do have some interest in the use of digital readers and e-books in the classroom having used both a Kindle and the Entourage Edge in classes over the past two years. I also carry an iPad for my personal use. Since we first started using these devices, I have held the attitude that they are not for everyone. The benefits of a digital device over a printed text are not in the additional features they provide, e.g. highlighting, notes and bookmarks, but in the fact that a student can carry an entire semester of text material at all times and not worry about breaking their back. My students do carry their text if they have a less weighty version. They do read the text when they have a few spare minutes. They are learning more because they can access the information quickly and easily.

I think that what Mr. Reiders and the other publishers have missed is the truly unique benefits that a digital format can bring to the classroom. Students today want the ability to find information quickly. They want to have a rich experience that pushes them to understand the information. They desire a chance to show their ability to synthesize information and provide well thought responses to current issues applying the basic knowledge they have learned in class. They want a device that is incorporated into their learning experience. The digital readers and e-books available today do not meet these expectations. They are simply digital versions of a technology created in the mid 15th century.

I believe that a truly digital textbook can be created but is not currently available. Such a book will empower the user, not the author, to determine the path they will take through the book. This book will be different for each user and will need to mold itself seamlessly to each user. This digital textbook will need to be continuously updated and revised. It will need multiple authors, reviewers and editors. It will need to incorporate both facts and ideas. It will include assessment tools for individual and class use. It will be a tool that can be used at any educational level. It will be truly cross-disciplinary.

As I write this I am coming to the conclusion that, perhaps, this book does indeed exist. Or, at least, a good start to this book does exist. Is Wikipedia the textbook of the future?