iBooks Author best tech tool for teaching yet

I am tremendously excited by the launch of iBooks Author today. Two or three years ago I was looking for some easy way for students to create their own course content; not just collections of note, but material worthy of study and worthy of sharing.

Immediately after Apple’s announcement a few tweets popped up saying, rightly to a degree, that Apple seemed a bit short on pedagogy, that textbooks–paper or electronic–are still old paradigm. I’m not so sure about that. Dramatically cutting the price of a textbook makes a significant difference in the large scale deployment of resources and that has an effect on education overall. Mostly though, there is nothing inherently wrong with textbooks themselves; it’s how we use them that is the problem (else we would have to say all books, even great novels are flawed, wouldn’t we?). the question we ought to ask is how iBooks 2 might change how we use them.

But the potential revolution comes through iBooks author. What happens to education if students make the textbooks themselves?

In traditional schooling, education is seen as an artefact or object that is passed on from a knower to a learner. Education is seen as knowledge transfer. Even everyday language reflects this: we say “I have knowledge,” or “Let me give you some information.”



Collaborative learning looks dramatically different:



(Both images from an excellent read by Richard Alder and John Seely Brown, Minds on Fire.)

I’m not suggesting Cartesian or didactic teaching is wrong. Indeed it can be a very efficient and sometimes extremely enjoyable way to learn–I’ve been to hear some stunning speakers over time. Rather, I want to say that while Cartesian models are necessary, they are not sufficient. We need to develop social or collaborative learning. (Do you think we can use those terms interchangeably?) The Finns have a good handle on this.

Below is a model methodology I developed when traveling the world with THINK Global School. We had 15 students from 11 different countries and lived and studied in three different international cities (Stockholm, Sydney and Beijing) during the year.

Our experience suggests something like this is culturally and gender neutral: it lets all students engage naturally. I believe it’s scalable to any size project. And it provides for long-term engagement.




Starting on the left there are three levels of learning:<  

  • B: Baseline literacy, or the grammar of each subject; the basics you just have to know
  • A: Application of that baseline literacy.
  • E: Extension of B and A into real world problems

As metaphor, think of preparing a team for the World Cup. Baseline work is fitness training, passing drills etc. Application is the practice games. Extension is the final FIFA tournament–a real world, high stakes event. The baseline work is necessary for effective applied work and the practice gained in the applied work prepares students for big event.

What we found in our travels at THINK Global School was that at the Application stage, we could view all work as something like field research. Sometimes that was obvious as when we were taking physical measurements of the Great Wall of China, or recording a guest speaker. But we felt we could also consider reading a chapter in a novel as the same sort of thing: data gathering.

Next, when we had a chunk of data, we took it to the So What? stage at the bottom of the loop, and applied an analysis: Is the information accurate, comprehensive? do we have follow up questions. Once we were sure of all this, we’d tag the data and store it. We might use it right away, or much later, but in either case we could rest assured we had good data. In effect, we were creating our own course content. 


(The SM curving off to the right is our social media feed. After the data had been vetted in the So What? stage we found we had a lot of good material for promoting student work as well as the school itself. Our communications and marketing team drew on this content.)

But I wanted to push this farther. I feel it’s important that students create work that has intrinsic value, that is, work that has value for something more than the upcoming test. If all students feel they can throw out their notes at the end of the year, we’ve done something terribly wrong in our classes. So, at the end of the day students need to either find and solve original problems or participate in the solving of other problems. For example, TGS students took part in a longitudinal study counting sea urchin populations in Sydney Harbour during their stay in that city. The statistics they gathered were an important addition to a study set up by the Sydney Harbour authority. 

To help students and teachers identify problems for solving we can apply this flow chart to the data we gathered in Application and So What stages:




I need to spend some time thinking about what this looks like in broader practice, especially across all the grades. But I’m suggesting that as the students consider the questions in the diamonds, they must do some hard thinking. They would also have to think carefully–critically–about where to get help. I can see links to building social networks and teaching social search here.

I am especially interested in the final question–“is it worth keeping?” That question, essentially, replaces the final exam. (There’s probably another loop in here that asks if we ran another iteration of the problem would we find a better answer.) 

Students also have to consider how they will store that data for later use. I favour a bucket to hold huge piles of unstructured data that users can can reorder as they need, hence my note to tag rather than file. It seems the semantic web, which would be ideal here, is still a ways off, but there are ways to set up unstructured data collections even primary students could use. We had a custom-built prototype bucket at THINK Global School and I am pretty sure one can build a good workarounds using a combination of off-the-shelf tools. Blogs come to mind because they are already set up around tags and categories

The key is at each stage students are in charge of organizing the work, assigning student roles, leading the evaluations in the So What? stage and determining the quality of the emerging problems. I think in a collaborative project, these roles could be distributed between schools to great effect.

Notice, too, that the loop in the methodology diagram feeds back onto itself. This is to show that the results of the Extension work, i.e. the solutions to problems, ought to create more questions and data for yet more applied work and so on. I think here is the point where we could see long-term collaborative work.
Now, finally, back to iBooks Author. This, and derivatives of it, would be an ideal tool for working at the “So what?” and “Extension” stages of this methodolgy. If they answered yes to the question “Is it worth keeping?’ tehn an ebook would be a great place to put it and a great medium for sharing socially cosntructed knowledge.

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