Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Technorati disconnect

I'm hijacking a side conversation started by Doug Johnson, a mensch, on his Blue Skunk Blog. Go take a peek.

Doug recently posted a letter by Janet HasBrouck, a teacher librarian lamenting the limitations of e-textbooks. ("Lamenting" may be too strong a word--I have an awful attachment to alliteration.)

"We seem to make assumptions about students and technology that are often not true, and there seems to be a lot of them about e-texts especially. I don't think we can necessarily combine the discussion about e-library books, including fiction and reference, with the discussion about e-textbooks at the high school or college level."

Meet Scott McLeod, a rising national figure, one of the "emerging voices that will shape the future of education technology." His dangerously irrelevant blog is challenging and in-your-face. He loves to tweak teachers, or at least a mythical version of teachers, and his blog is big fun to read, especially if you sprinkle it with a few grains of salt.

He wrote a pithy response to Ms. HasBrouck's piece, and ends it with "I feel like I'm missing something....."

Scott is bright and educated. Yet here we go again, folks squinting through telescopes in their ivory towers, judging us sowing in the field, wondering why we keep sowing by hand instead of using the John Deere 1590 Seed Drill that is so much more efficient.

So here's my reason, a tiny section of an on-line textbook used by my school, cut and pasted from the Holt, Rinehart, Winston website it came from:

To be fair to the Holt, your view of this may be adulterated by technological glitches beyond Holt's control, but the image has a slight pixelated feel when view directly on the computers at school and in my home.

Maybe it will be better next year, maybe 5--call me when it works. If cars were rolled out the same way technology is rolled out in schools, Ford's first Model A cars might have lacked wheels.


John Spencer said...

I'm not a fan of "Dangerously Irrelevant," salt or not. It's not that I dislike provocative discussion. I am provocative. I get it. (In fact, I really like the provocative blogger Tom the Uninspired Teacher)

I dislike it, because he seems to be a bit of an anti-teacher sellout. There are tons of people like him who use language to sound "provocative," but whose ideas are a simple reflection of what all the other elitists are saying.

Also, I HATE textbooks with a passion. I love texts and I love books, but I hate textbooks. Want to teach a child about "Manifest Destiny?" Let them read speeches from presidents alongside "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." Want to teach globalization? Combine "The World Is Flat" with "Brave New World" and watch them turn the ideas in their ever-evolving minds.

I want my students using both online and off-line texts. What I find is this:

1. Students who read online peruse the information, find what's important and compare it to other texts. All of these are valuable skills for thinking and they increase reading fluency and the acquisition of vocabulary.

2. Students who read accessible texts (pleasure reading, high interest and at their level) read quickly, but absorb it all. They learn to love reading and they often connect on a profound level to the work. I'm skeptical that this happens electronically. It is a very physical act.

3. Students need a ton of help with difficult texts. I have to give vocabulary, provide discussions to help spur prior knowledge, model the hardest passages with them. I'm not sure if this can happen online, but I'm still a little skeptical. the best tool is a pencil for underlining and margin-writing.

The Science Goddess said...

We also need to keep in mind the difference between reading text on a screen vs. print.

Serif fonts are perfect for print. They are actually easier to read than sans serif because each letter (or digit) has an identifiable shape. (Can you tell the difference between the number 1, a lowercase L, or a capital i in Arial?) The brain does not struggle with a serif font.

However, on the screen, there is some "bleed" with these fonts. This is why your example looks a bit pixelated. So, sans serif looks cleaner on the screen, but is not quite the same for the brain.

The content of the text makes no difference. Information is information. But, all of the strategies that we typically use to teach young readers (creating notes within the text) don't yet work for online versions. I think it will be awhile before we know how to be effective at teaching text shown on a screen---and longer before the line between print and screen is erased.

Kelly said...

Having a Kindle, I often wished that my students could have one for novels. No illustrations. No picture books. Just novels. They could highlight a word, a passage, a quote, and use it for book talks.

I love picture books. Emails. Letters. Primary documents. And yes, even textbooks and anthologies from time to time. I used to geek out and read encyclopedias. I also love: old books, hand-made books, on line texts, books I printed by hand, and written-in books.I even love the trashy tabloids when I'm getting my nails done.(Infrequent, yes, but fun.) Do you like green eggs and ham? Goat? Boat? Train, rain?

It's tough for me to make blanket statements about any book before reading it. Then that's when the fun and magic happens. I can no more imagine using one kind of text than one kind of brain cell.

So much of this feels like charging windmills. Is it?

Scott McLeod said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post and comment, Michael and John. My own thoughts are over at Doug's blog because I wanted to respond to the conversation over there too.

doyle said...

Dear John,

Both (maybe three?) times I have traded words with Scott, I've left charmed by the twinkle in his eye--I still maintain he likes to tweak teachers (and administrators), and I think his faith in high technology is over the top, but he throws himself out there, and does not veer from discussion, as evidenced below (and on his blog).

In short, he's a man I'd love to share a round or two with in a quiet pub.

At any rate, it's good to know cogent folks who hold contrary opinions--helps me hone my thoughts.

Textbooks sometimes work for me, sometimes don't--depends on the topic, the text, and (perhaps mostly) the diagrams. Much of biology is learning language, or rather vocabulary. (I spend a lot of time on word roots, something the text books only touch upon--if nothing else, my kids learn something about words.)

I agree that pencils are wonderful--I encourage kids to write in their texts, though they rarely do.

Dear Goddess,

I do not know enough about fonts to fairly comment, but the diagrams (not reproduced here) also come off slightly fuzzy.

Given the influence of fonts and the cost of the texts, seems reasonable to expect HRW to use the appropriate font online, even if it costs them a buck or two.

Dear Kelly,

I only recently saw a Kindle, and it blew my socks off--until then, I had no faith in online books.

I love to read, too, and will read a cereal carton if nothing else is around!

Dear Scott,

Thanks for coming by--I responded to you back on Doug's blog--only fair since I hijacked the thread.

Scott McLeod said...

Michael, I left you a brief reply over at Doug's post. Thanks.

Three things I forgot to say in my previous comment(s):

1. I find myself reading more and more fiction using the Kindle app for my iPod Touch. I just jack up the font size and flip through screens. I can read FAST this way.

2. I'll buy a Kindle the day it becomes easier to highlight, mark up, and otherwise annotate. I actively engage in my nonfiction text. The joystick for the Kindle is too clunky in my opinion.

3. Janet's dead on when she says that we often make assumptions about students and technology that aren't true (at least to the extent that we think they are).

John Spencer said...

Doyle, you very well might be right about Scott. I admit that I am judging him and my words came across a bit harsh.

Over a pint, we'd probably get along just fine.

Sometimes I forget that my comments are totally public and they can come across as hurtful.