E I E I Oh dear… McDonaldization of the e-coursebook?

For every E it follows that there is an I, at least that’s how it would appear with Apple’s latest and much debated ‘free’ app hitting the mainstream and educational markets, iBooks Author. The only instance I can think of in the reverse is I, Claudius, first penned by Robert Graves, which now with an e-reader can be read as an e-I, Claudius.

When considering throwbacks to the analogue age, what exactly is it about e-books that make us (not forgetting publishers and hardware vendors) feel so at home with this type of packaging for content? Are e-books, and their close cousins the e-coursebooks, the great hand-holders as we make the transition from the semi-digital world of print media production toward a webbed bundle of digital content including dynamic RSS feeds, all of which can in effect be converted and customized into an e-book format? There is a very lively and timely open education seminar and collaborative e-book writing event going on right now within SCoPE (hosted by BCcampus in Canada), discussing the very nature of e-books. Writing an e-book about e-books for fun and no profit: February 1-14, 2012 is definitely worth checking out.

Similarly, within the ELT community, Scott Thornbury’s latest A-Z of ELT entry on e-coursebooks has created a lot of post-blogpost activity about the ‘need’ for coursebooks, digital or otherwise, in language teaching and learning. He offers an alternative 8-point ELT scenario for tapping into and toying with a mash-up of available technologies, both open and proprietary. Youtube is an endless resource provided you don’t live in a country or work in an institution where it is blocked, and this is where Apple’s iTunesU as an educational content channel wins the day again. To provide just one example of this success, The Open University in the UK has experienced 34 million downloads of their educational content on iTunesU since June 2008, much of which is open content released under creative commons licences.

I take Scott’s point that Tom Cobb’s Lextutor is an invaluable resource if you know how to use it and are willing to invest the time, as he suggests, to make the most of it in your learning and teaching. However, more in the way of training and the development of pedagogic wrappers for helping teachers and learners exploit corpus tools and resources effectively would not go amiss. I’ll be talking more along these lines in future posts.

Needless to say, this discussion on e-resources in the A-Z of ELT blog along with David Deubelbeiss’ call via EFL 2.0 Teacher Talk to disrupt ELT with more openness is what has inspired me to kick-start this blog – thanks, guys.

Pedagogic wrappers

Chinese spring roll wrappers, Burma Image via flickr creative commons

We have become too dependent on coursebooks and off-the-shelf dedicated resources for ELT. I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 years trying to deprogramme myself away from the ELT textbook consumer culture that I was formally trained into by Cambridge ESOL pre- and in-service teacher training courses. Yes, we could SARS – Select, Adapt, Reject, Supplement – (Graves, 2003) sections of a coursebook, as we were trained to do, but the coursebook still remains the crux of the lesson.

Anna Comas-Quinn of the LORO project (Languages Open Resources Online) talks of typical language teachers as being those who will beg, borrow and steal anything to teach a language point effectively. We’ve always done this to make our classes more interesting – taking a clip from a video here, chopping up a research article there – as we try to engage our students in authentic communication in the target language. So, in many ways we’ve always been at odds with the coursebook. But how often does our pedagogy, embedded in useful resources which we have painstakingly designed, remain locked in the secret garden that is our classroom? Or within the password-protected virtual learning environment of our institutions?

Our language teaching community would benefit greatly from the sharing of these resources and pedagogic wrappers in the form of lesson plans and tips for teaching. But what are the barriers to sharing when we’ve never been trained in intellectual property rights and the use of third party materials? If we had been trained in harvesting and harnessing open technologies and resources, then perhaps we would build resources from a different starting point, making it easier for us to share. We might even end up promoting ourselves and our institutions by releasing our open educational resources (OER) into the wild, a different business model worth exploring.

Image via flickr creative commons

By tapping into informal open education practitioner communities like those who hosted the recent Open Content Licensing for Educators 2012 (OCL4Ed, sponsored by Ako Aotearoa – New Zealand’s National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence), attended online by 1067 people from 87 countries with 15,961 unique visits to the WikiEducator site, we can start to grow our skills and understanding in this important area of materials development and dissemination for free. The OCL4Ed materials were developed openly and collaboratively by dedicated volunteers from the OER Foundation, WikiEducator,  the OpenCourseware Consortium (OCWC) and Creative Commons with funding support from UNESCO. If you’d like to learn more about creative commons, check out this video here.

Nobody does it better…?

‘Bond’ image via flickr creative commons

Apple and Amazon are disrupting publishing and their pockets run very deep. Educational resources developers, many of whom are teachers, have always engaged in contracts with traditional publishers to pay for the costs of publishing in one form or another. With the launch of iBooks Author, Apple have their eyes on the K-12 market and this comes with its problems as is discussed here in the Scholarly Kitchen, a vibrant blog on educational publishing. David Crotty argues against Apple’s rush for rich media, stating that he’s perfectly happy to read an e-book without the bells and whistles of animations and embedded scenes from movies etc to pump up the text and the e-reader experience, as has been the case with the release of the popular and digitally-enhanced Alice for the iPad e-book published by Atomic Antelope.  He may not be so interested in the hype around adding movie clips and animations to text but language teachers are interested in drawing their students’ attention to differences in features of spoken and written discourse, and e-books offer us the potential to combine resources in this way.

Apple has pushed beyond the open ePUB format standards for e-books which don’t necessarily support such a high level of rich media, and have come up with their own ibooks file format instead. In many ways this push for richer media standards is admirable. But their EULA (End User Licence Agreement) doesn’t leave educational resources developers, many of whom are teachers, for both open and proprietary resources, much room to move by locking us down with a file format for use only on iPads and for iBook sales only through the iBooks Store.

By tuning into the OER community and by playing with and learning about different technologies and licensing standards, we may not always come up with e-resources that are as flashy as the high-end iBooks prepared by animation artists (although there are some animation artists floating about the OER world who would love to help!). We can, however, between us come up with pedagogically relevant e-resources that can be shared and re-used.

References:

‘Pedagogic wrappers’ – term coined by Tom Browne, SCORE fellow with the Open University.

Graves, K, 2003. “Coursebooks.” In D. Nunan (Ed.) PracticalEnglish Language Teaching. New York: McGraw-Hill.

 

1 Comment

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  1. Great post, Alannah — excellent look at the new Apple ebook initiatives through the lens of OER. Having worked on iTunes U as an OER channel as a part of SCORE, I didn’t feel particularly happy hearing about the new initiatives because they just seem too exclusive. Can an ebook which is iPad-only really be OER? But on the other hand, it is a good thing for the world of learning to have innovation in this way, with Apple making flashy multimedia ebooks. And the fact is, there is as yet no real competition to these exclusively-iPad kinds of ebooks, not even in the rumours of Google Android or Windows tablets. The iPad is far and away the leading tablet in the world with no signs of letting up, so realistically why even talk about cross-platform issues in the ebooks-on-tablets world yet? Of course, that can change very quickly!
    I have so far made one whole ebook using the new iBooks Author; it was very easy and looks beautiful. It is iPad-only. However, I could have just as easily made a similarly beautiful epub ebook using other software (Pages for Mac, Calibre, inDesign to name three) — and the epub would work nicely on iPad and other ereaders bar the Kindle, and could be easily converted to Kindle format as well.
    As for the Apple End User License Agreement, I can’t see how that would be a hindrance to OERs in the form of, say, CC-licensed ebooks in iTunes U, because they are not being sold. If no money changes hands, Apple has nothing to say, right? I could be wrong on this and I’m happy to be corrected here! Basically, I think it’s a good thing that Apple is attempting to shake up the publishing industry, but it is not clear whether it will positively or negatively affect the field of publishing and distributing of OER thru the Apple ecosystem.

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