Experimenting with iBooks Author

I recently took the step of dipping my feet in the Apple pool, much to the surprise of many people that know me and my preferences. There were a few reasons that I decided it would be a good idea, but one of them was the opportunity to experiment on my own time with iBooks Author.

I've tossed around the idea of writing a book. A few ideas for topics have been bouncing around, one being one in which the concepts of mathematical thinking are explored through programming. Given that all Mac computers have Python installed automatically, not to mention the ease that it can be installed on other platforms quite easily, Python is a perfect fit.

Now that I'm set up with my Mac, I've spent the last couple of days playing with it and getting to know its quirks. It does have quirks. I spent a couple of hours today battling a mystery white box that covered anything that slid into it, and that remained even after saves, restarts, and reboots. Eventually I got rid of it (though I'm not totally sure that I am sure how) and put together an activity I plan to have some independent study students work through this year.

The quiz options are nice ways to make things interactive, but they have all the same downsides of multiple choice questions. If there was a fill-in-the-blank option, I could very easily see putting together my own self-guided lessons along the lines of Udacity. That's really what I'm looking for. The really powerful thing to have would be an HTML5 Python interpreter, and I haven't yet looked to see if something exists that would work with the interface.

I found out late in the process that images placed in landscape mode only show up in the portrait orientation if they are set to be 'inline' instead of floating or anchored. Backsliding ensued.

On the whole, it's a nice free publishing platform, including for nice PDF files. I didn't have much multimedia material to throw in, and my attempts to do so would have been for exercising features, not for enhancing the book as a learning opportunity. As many have noted previously, iBooks author offers quite a bit of horsepower for generating flashy multimedia textbooks, but the extent to which it revolutionizes education isn't quite there. Opportunities for interfacing with others reading the same content through chat, messages, or something like that would be a step in that direction.

For what it's worth, feel free to check out the final product below. While the text is written as if it's a finished book ("More information on this can be found in the Appendix"), it very much isn't. Just an experiment to fill my hours battling jet lag back in China.

Mathematical Reasoning with Python

Selling mathematical thinking the Apple way

After reading Gizmodo's post on the recently created blog Applefied Ads, I started thinking about the relationship of good advertising and the public relations problem that learning mathematics has.

Most people think of math class as that "special" time of day when you learn step-by-step procedures on how to do something. I've posted on this before, so I don't need to go into it in detail. The common idea that math class is a time for nothing more than skill development is the reason this problem exists.

One thing that's interesting about Apple is that their advertising is always focused first on what it allows someone to do. Some companies often focus on the speed of the processor, the number of ports available, or installed memory. While these are things that Apple might mention in their ads, it isn't the first thing that is said about a product. Without exception, Apple focuses on how the product will improve things or be different from what is already possible. Despite the media rich world we live in, it does so in a strikingly minimalist fashion.

Textbook companies are faced with the task of engaging with media overloaded students and connect with the oft repeated goal of making math education focused on "the real world". In doing this, they usually stuff their pages with as many pictures as they can be found, contrived examples, and carefully crafted "investigations" that usually are nothing more than a series of guided steps to a single end. Dan Meyer does an amazing job of pointing out how Pearson has already tried to do more of the same in creating electronic textbooks in this post.

Dan has also done incredible work in getting the mathematical problem to jump off the page or screen, but in an understated and minimalist way through the power of multimedia. If done correctly, you don't need a bunch of fluffy text or pictures to explain a math problem to a student. A question and a picture or video, and often just a picture, is all that is required to set a student off investigating and developing problem solving skills. In math, these are the skills that will have lasting power and utility for a student beyond a single school year, not the steps of an algorithm.

I wonder what happens if we make a concerted effort to sell math (or any subject for that matter) in the same way that Apple does. What does it enable us to do? How does it let us look at the world in a new way? How can its elegance and beauty be captured through a picture and a few carefully chosen words? How do we get students to think about it as a philosophy?

My purpose is NOT to dress mathematics and mathematical thinking as a ruse to fool students into being engaged by it. This is what many of the textbooks do already. I'd love to see what draws students in and gets them thinking mathematically without our having to mess it up by talking or explaining it further. Less is more.

How would you sell the classes you teach in a way that engages students without tricking them? How would you show what your course is about on the first day of class? Can you do this with a picture and a few words? Try it and share what you create.

Can ideas and a little money be a bad thing?

I was having a conversation with someone recently about technology in education. I brought up Udacity as an interesting model for using video and interactivity for learning. My example was (expectedly) countered with Khan Academy. I shared my opinions about its strengths and weaknesses and we had a really great discussion about what its existence means. I felt good about being able to share some of the 'other side' of the argument that Time and CBS haven't really covered.

One point that was brought up has stuck with me, and I want to explore it a bit. Here's the basic idea with my own paraphrasing.

Here's a smart guy with an idea. He sees a problem and wants to help, so he puts his own time and resources into solving that problem. Other people noticed what he was doing and thought it was a good idea, so they put money into his project. What could it hurt?

What could it hurt?

My focus has nothing to do with the fact that many people have benefited from Khan's resources and his website. Many teachers have used the site as a tool to help their students in skill development. I also don't want to focus on the fact that many learning professionals have questioned the pedagogy of Khan's videos given the fact he has no teaching background. Many others have already fleshed out this line of reasoning pretty effectively.

The big problem I see comes from applying how business investment works - a business starting up needs investors so it can start getting what it needs to generate revenue. If the business is actually fulfilling a real need in the market, it will increase in value through the income earned and the equipment and intellectual property generated or acquired by the business. Venture capitalists research companies and their ideas to see which ones have potential to be successful in the market and then select those that, based on their experience in the field, are most likely to succeed. Often these capitalists invest in a number of different ideas to maximize the potential that one will be a real money maker - they understand that not every investment will actually be a winner.

Here's why I see the hubbub about Khan Academy as an indication of a bigger problem: We get things backward when we see a major investment as a measure of its value, whether in an idea or a business.

So much has been made out of the fact that Bill Gates and Google have invested in the Khan Academy that people might thing it's a good idea specifically because Gates and Google have done so. Don't get me wrong - Google has invested in many really great causes (FIRST being one of my favorites) but they don't always get things right. As I said before, this is the nature of investment though. Not everything works out. I challenge anyone to defend the content of the video below as really, honestly, being truly deserving of a major investment to help it be implemented in schools:

This is the Explicit Direct Instruction initiative that Google recently supported in the Mountain View school district. The manager of community affairs says in the linked article that EDI "...seemed like a really successful program that we want to continue to support." Google wants to help solve the complex problems of the educational problem, and based on the manager's assessment, it will continue to do so.

Why might this situation hurt rather than help?

The news story was all about Google's generous donation in support of the initiative. A person reading this article might make the mental connection that if Google is supporting the idea, then the idea must be one that will effectively address an educational issue. Google's donation (and subsequent coverage of the donation) have consequently turned it from a company that just wants to help, into a 'player' in the educational reform world. What was this originally based on? A manager that saw kids 'engaged' because they were compliant, which to her meant that learning was going on in the classroom. What does she know about education?

Many people think they are experts in education because they went to school and they know what worked for them. Salman Khan has been reported to be good at explaining concepts through solving problems - he has said himself that procedures are how he and everyone he knew learned. He makes videos that primarily show procedures, though there are some exceptions. Investors see this and contribute millions. The media picks up on this and says that because of these investments, school has been "rebooted" and education has been revolutionized by his contribution.

Money talks. If the money goes toward Khan, EDI, and other flavors of the week, a few things can happen. The media pounces and says that these ideas that have attracted investors must be what will revolutionize education. Not the genuine ways that many teachers have individually used technology to improve instruction in their classrooms. Not the ways teachers are able to have improved communication with parents and students about their progress. Administrators looking for quick solutions to achievement deficiencies in their districts might sink considerable resources into these ideas without consulting with the teachers responsible for implementing them. Parents can demand that teachers spend less time creating rich explorations and applications of topics in their classrooms in order to focus on this 'innovative' idea they learned about on TV or the internet. As I have said before, there is no silver bullet in education, not any one piece of technology, not a single pedagogical technique, nor a single textbook. Solutions to problems in a learning community must be influenced primarily by the parents, teachers, students, and administrators in that community, and not by what the news says is innovative because of a million dollar donation.

It is possible that the involved players can act with a bit more restraint. I know there are many administrators that do. We are so reactionary these days. We want a quick fix. The media's tendency to hype, the power of the internet to exponentially transmit ideas, and the ability money has to set our priorities: these form a dangerous formula that could lead us to rapidly pursue options that really don't resolve the issues we face. Hopefully we do not lose sight of what we really value in education. I don't believe it is too late.