Monthly Archives: January 2012

“What Version of PBL Will We Be Doing?”

Recently, I reflected for the Project-Based Learning In Action newsletter, sponsored by Project Foundry, on the time a teacher asked me, “What version of PBL will we be doing?” The question was full of judgement, and smacked of the subtext, “What version is best?”

I’m not sure one is better than another.  I think each “version” shares a common set of characteristics and the recipe you use to mix those characteristics defines the version.  And I believe that each version (that includes a quality implementation of these characteristics) brings value to different goals, needs, and contexts.

Read my original post here.

It’s Your Turn:

What “versions” of PBL do you use and what do you like about them?

Apple’s “Textbooks” Potential: Product Creation Tools for Students

Recently, I reflected on Apple’s education announcement about textbooks and my opinion of textbooks in general and how they are often used in schools. Although I’m a fan of teachers who use textbooks as one educational resource, my concern is that in far too many places the textbook IS the curriculum, and that textbooks are inadequate at and insufficient for helping students create meaning from knowledge.

Despite my concerns about how textbooks are sometimes (mis)used, I stated that I saw tremendous potential in Apple’s announcement of the iBooks Author Mac app and the iTunes U iPad app.  One of those areas of potential is as a product creation tool for students.

As I have hinted here, I don’t think a person really learns until they get the opportunity to use knowledge (read: “upper level Blooms”).  So, for me, one of the exciting opportunities from yesterday’s announcement was not that there was now a tool so publishers could create interactive textbooks, but rather that there was now a tool that would allow ANYONE to create interactive BOOKS! (Someone has already used iBooks Author to publish their comics.)

Now, students and teachers have one more tool for project-based learning.  Students have another choice at their disposal when they stop to think about what kind of product would they like to create to show others what they have learned and give them a chance to learn it too!


Imagine a class where the teacher breaks down the class into teams, each team taking responsibility for one chapter of their book (animals in an ecosystem; countries in the European Union; time periods in your state’s history, themes in a novel, etc.).  And within those teams, not only would they be responsible for researching the topic of their chapter, but for deciding what was important for others to know about it, and thinking about how they could best help others learn about each aspect (text, videos, interviews, demonstrations, interactive models, illustrations).  Of course, all this under the coaching of their teacher.

Eventually, the students and teacher would compile all the components in an audience-friendly format, publish, and share.  It could even be published to the iBookstore for others to buy.  Students don’t only get a chance to use knowledge, but they would have a real audience for their product.


What might that do to the level of student engagement?

It’s Your Turn:

How might you use iBooks Author with your students?

One Auburn Student & Maine’s New Education Strategic Plan

Commissioner Steve Bowen Announces his strategic Plan

Big news in Maine on January 17th was the Commissioner of Education’s announcement of his new strategic plan.  The plan promise’s to put “learners first” and promote customized, standards-based learning. Access the plan here.

In Auburn, we’re excited about the plan, because it promises support to the kinds of initiatives we (and other Maine Cohort for Customized Learning member districts) are involved in. We recognize that students learn in different ways and in different time frames, and are working hard to create systems that honor these two principles: our long history with MLTI; Advantage 2014, our primary grades literacy and math initiative that includes 1to1 iPads in kindergarten; Expeditionary Learning and projects at the middle grades; and multiple pathways and customized learning at the high school.  Auburn is also a funding partner of Projects4ME, Maine’s virtual project-based program for at-risk and drop-out youth.

Gareth Robinson

But Auburn is also excited about the plan because we were invited to participate in the roll out.  Commissioner Stephen Bowen invited 5 students to speak at the announcement.  Each was asked to talk about how the innovative work at their schools was helping them learn and succeed.  We brought Gareth Robinson, an Auburn Middle School 8th grader, who spoke about the role technology has played in his learning. Gareth has used technology for learning going back to elementary school, both at school and personally for hobbies, like playing guitar. Among other things, he related how, for a recent social studies project, he and his group used iMovie to make a newscast of the battle of Bunker Hill. 

You can read Gareth’s comments and watch a video of his talk here.  Or watch this WCSH Channel 6 news coverage of the Commissioner’s strategic plan, featuring Gareth. Scroll to the bottom of this page to find links to the talks of each of the 5 students who presented, or go here for photos from the event.


It’s Your Turn:

What does the Commissioner’s strategic plan mean to you, your school, or your district?

Apple, Textbooks, and Carbon Fibre Buggy Whips…

The other day, Apple held a big education event in New York, focused on textbooks on the iPad. (Info here or watch the event here). Apple released several products and tools, hoping to further impact the education market.

Apple released iBooks 2.0 (supports multimedia in the books, interactive elements, highlighting, note taking, pinch for TOC etc.) and a new category in the store: textbooks. Pearson, DK, and McGraw Hill already have a couple textbooks available. They’re cheaper than a regular text, too: around $15, but I think the goal is to sell one per student, instead of using one with 5-8 students over a period of 5-8 years. (Cool Cat Teacher blogs here about what it was like to work with/test out an interactive text.)

There is a new Mac app (Lion only) called iBooks Author for making your own “textbooks” (think Pages combined with iWeb combined with Keynote). Completed books can be sold in the iBookstore.

Finally, there is a new iTunes U app for iPad which lets teachers harness “courses” based on content from iTunes U, and the addition of tools so you can add your own syllabi, message with your students, make assignments, etc. Looks kind of like if iTunes U, Noteshare, and Newstand combined. Apple also announced that although iTunes U has traditionally been for University use, K-12 can now sign upfor accounts.

I can’t blame Apple for wanting a piece of the textbook market. According to Wired, in 2010, Pearson had over $8 billion in revenues and McGraw-Hill over $2 billion. (Yes. Billion. With a “B”! As in 9 zeros!) And the traditional print publishing industry is struggling. Newspapers, magazines, trade books are are struggling to redefine themselves in a digital world.

What print textbooks share with those other genre’s is that they are not interactive in an age when our students are accustomed to accessing interactive media (as illustrated by Joe’s frustration at his non-notebook computer). At least Apple’s new textbooks and textbook creation tools address this issue and allow publishers to create textbooks with videos, interactive models and other elements. So, if you’re going to use a textbook, I guess I’d rather you use one with interactive elements than a static one…

But in general, I’m not a huge fan of textbooks. I think for me, the problem is that too many places use textbooks AS the curriculum. I’m perfectly happy with good teachers who see textbooks as one educational resource to use as they design (or as students design) learning experiences. But too often it seems the textbook is the only resource. Textbooks are insufficent for the curriclum because they only provide background knowledge. They don’t provide context, or experiences, or allow students to synthesize or apply information. In other words, by themselves, textbooks essentially only provide facts, they don’t help students create meaning.

Textbooks seem out of place in a day when schools are trying to reinvent themselves from a system that was designed to work for only some students. In this economy, we need systems that work for every student. And those systems need to engage students not just in aquiring knowledge, but in creating meaning from it. Textbooks are so “last century”! Given today’s interactive, digital world, educator and blogger Fraser Speirs refers to the new textbooks as “the equivalent of carbon fibre buggy whips.”

In my opinion (and other’s, and other’s, and other’s, and other’s) often the best learning (and teaching) happens when teachers don’t use textbooks. This is especially true, living in a state where every middle school student, and about half the high school students, have a school provided laptop (and all of my district’s kindergarten students have iPads!). You’d think teachers would work with students not only on how to find information, but then also how to leverage their technology to apply, evaluate, and create with that knowledge.


For example, imagine an introductory lesson focused on building a student’s background knowledge on a topic. Instead of having students read a chapter on the causes of the Civil War and then discussing what they read (which, by the way, every single child not only read the exact same description of the causes, but they all have been exposed to only one take on those causes – the textbook’s), have students open their laptops and ask them, “what were the causes of the Civil War?” Students could search and share what they found out. You could ask, “Did anyone find anything different?” You could even compare sources or discuss approaches to surfing and searching. You could have them find perspectives that would reflect substantially different points of view. You could explore and discuss different kinds of sources and the apparent relative value.


Well, maybe not the first time you do this with students, but certainly the more times you do, the more you model for them, and the more they reflect on the process, the more your “introductory” lessons could look like this. And think about the “learning” skills and digital citizenship skills your students would develop!

That all said, these announcements are ripe with possiblities and potential! There is certainly some incremental improvement having texts with interactive elements (still no real model of an interactive text). But I think the understated power of Apple’s announcement last Thursday are iBooks Author and the iTunes U app. I agree with Fraser Speirs’ assessment:

iTunes U is the game changer. Put iBooks Author and iTunes U into the hands of great teachers, put iPads in their students hands, put them all in a room together then step back and see what happens. That’s the ballgame.

Over the next week or so, I’m going to publish a series of posts that explore some of that potential:

  • Product Creation Tools for Students
  • A Platform for Creating On-Demand PD for Teachers
  • Curriculum Creation Tools for Customized Learning

It’s Your Turn:

What was your reaction to Apple’s textbooks announcement? How do you think it will impact schools, education, and educational reform?