Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why We Need OER Textbooks

A scan of the brain using fMRIImage via Wikipedia

I can't recommend enough George Seimens and Peter Tittenberger's "Handbook of Emerging Technologies." I had been working on (and co-teaching) a "Student Success 2.0" class that has a wiki associated with the syllabus that links to tools. Seimens and Tittenberger will save me a lot of time in the future with keeping this up to date, especially their tools page. As an instructional designer, I need resources like these to help faculty solve problems and keep their courses interactive. I have one faculty member who just calls now and again and says "what really cool tools are out that that I don't know about?" (She is any instructional designer's dream teacher!) I will be directing a lot of people to this book. But here is the real point, it would be ridiculous to try to make this a print textbook. The tools change too rapidly for a print edition with the minimum two-year turn around time to make any sense. Also, for maximum usefulness, there has to be live links to the internet and these have to be kept up. I was thinking about this after reading a review in the New York Times about Leher's book on how we make decisions. It is essentially a popular look at the neuroscience behind decision making. His book discusses research that involve fMRI and I thought "wouldn't it be cool if this book could link to the research that is on the web?" And many books do, some have webpages associated with the book that serves as an online bibliography. But lets take all this further - the bulk of the relevant research in nearly every discipline is at least being managed on the web. When all of the information was in print, it makes sense to design textbooks that way - but since so much of it is accessible on the web now, why not create textbooks that utilize the media? There are cognitive science textbooks on the web and I think there are enough resources out there and combined with RSS feeds, one can imagine a textbook that essentially updates itself. And this could work for the humanities too. I was in an online workshop that was moderated by Steve Hargadon called "Remixing Shakespeare" that presented ways to get students involved in Shakespeare using new media tools. This workshop was presented by PBS Teachers and Classroom 2.0 and featured people from the Folger Library and of particular interest to me Amy Ulen, an English teacher at Tumwater High School in Tumwater, WA. who is the founder of Shakespeare High. There were enough resources in this one workshop for someone to turn around and create a living, dynamic "textbook" of interactive texts, tools for recording, videos of plays, and an online community dedicated to the subject matter. It didn't cost anyone a dime. Why wouldn't you want that?
I want to make sure that when we are discussing OER textbooks that we are not just talking about doing this because of the financial crisis. This is an opportunity to not only solve a problem, but to redefine textbooks in such a way that they include up to the minute research, instant corrections and updates, and community.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Brain Lives at "Edge of Chaos"

A depiction of the atomic structure of the en:...

Studies like Brain lives at "edge of chaos" are particularly interesting to me because of the tendency of those engaged in education research to interpret the brain's ability to organize information as somehow a description of how the brain works or how we learn. This study applies a phenomenon they call "self-organized criticality" to brain science — where systems spontaneously organize them­selves to operate at the borderline between order and chaos. This phenomena is present in many different physical systems, including "avalanches, for­est fires, earth quakes, and heart rhythms." We can learn using concept maps, for instance, not because that is how the brain works, but because one of the functions of the brain is to organize information. Networks exist in the brain but rather than a flowchart model typical of cognitivist pedagogy, this study is interested in the synchronization of activity between dif­ferent regions of the functional networks in the brain. Pictures of the brain merely as a network are far too mechanistic to explain what is happening. I don't think there is anything mystical about how the brain works, but it is an incredibly complex system that cannot be described by a flowchart. Scientists will one day look back on those models just as we now (or at least should be) look at those models of atoms with orbiting electrons. It is easier to imagine them as orbiting electrons and it would be difficult to represent an electron probability cloud in k-12 science textbooks, but the model tells us more about our limitations than the world.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Education and the Scientific Method

It is interesting to me that education is one of those fields where everyone has a tenaciously held opinion about what it is, how it works, or why it doesn't despite not having any training or background in the field beyond having been educated. For myself, that is like saying "Of course I can sew my own jacket, I have been wearing one for years" or "I can fix your car; I have been driving since I was a kid." Pronouncements on the credibility or the veracity of learning theories or tools come fast and furious from people who do not engage in education as a discipline in itself or its research. This is why we still get teachers that tell us "they don't let" their students use Wikipedia, quote from blogs, or will ever consider using Second Life, etc. I mean, insert whatever-it-is-they-do-not-quite-understand here. These are the same students, when sent to the library to research geology or anthropology do not come back with citations from "Chariots of the Gods," hollow earth literature, or other non-academically viable sources. The students have the critical thinking skills required to go into a library, and despite the library containing books on astrology or conspiracy theories, that sort of thing tends not to be cited by students. Why can't instructors have the same faith in students on the internet? Who said it was our job to "let" or not let the students do anything? I won't harp on Wikipedia further because there is already enough actual research from journals like Nature that say that Wikipedia articles were shown to be just as accurate as anything in peer reviewed articles. The problem with things like Wikipedia or learning online in any form is that it is new. Books and traditional journals safely fit into the framework of traditional teaching. The increasing amount of available information, the users ability to participate in the creation of that information, and the myriad ways of accessing and aggregating that information are all shaking that traditional framework to its 1200 year-old foundation. All of a sudden it is very difficult for traditional teachers to evaluate online sources, information and tools because their sources of peer-reviewed information are always printed one to two years late with sources that are three to four years old - an eternity on the internet. And here we introduce fear. The last thing you do when you are afraid is ask questions: you certainly aren't going to bother with research, create an hypothesis, test it, and analyze data. You are going to run straight to drawing your conclusions and broadcasting your "results" because you feel threatened. This has never been about whether something is a good teaching tool or not but about our ability to adapt to change. Good teachers are often good communicators and when good communicators connect with tools that facilitate communication and interaction, good teaching happens whether that tool is a clay tablet and a stylus or a virtual world.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Not Getting Twitter

The above video is funny. There is nothing wrong with that. What it points out though is how difficult it can be to understand new technology. There is nothing interesting about Twitter. It is a very simple tool. It allows users to post 140 character messages and follow others. It doesn't always even do that very well. The real power in Twitter is not the technology but the network, and that is everything. The networks that can emerge in Twitter can be very powerful. They can also be inane - a lot depends on the intention and critical thinking skills of the user. If you want to use it to socialize with your friends, there is nothing wrong with that. But Twitter can be used to build professional and learning networks of great power. It can be a living encyclopedia, job board, emergency network, political action coordinator, or problem-solving tool. There is nothing superficial or mundane about that! If you are interested, look at the HIM101 materials on this blog (Health Information Management) to see what I think are some effective uses of Twitter. Even users of technology are not always clear on why a piece of technology is successful or useful. I know instructors who use Second Life very effectively who still think that the novelty or "fun" is the primary reason it works so well as a teaching and learning platform. That is the shiny surface - it is really the connections that people are able to make - the community building that makes all the difference.