Saturday, November 27, 2010

10 Things to Remember about Online Video

Everyone's talking about video for education purposes. It has crossed the threshold from something old and expensive to something new and accessible. It's in. The sure sign? Elliott Masie has decided to offer one of his patented, latest-cool-thing Learning Labs just to riff on its uses in training and education.

Take higher ed as another example: "The educational use of video on campus is accelerating rapidly in departments across all disciplines—from arts, humanities, and sciences to professional and vocational curricula." That revelation from a study by the Copyright Clearance Center (with help from New York University and something called Intelligent Television).

But even without a study, even without an eLearning guru, if you're online you know. Seems like every product or service, educational or otherwise, has at least one, if not multiple videos online to train, educate, persuade, inform, or at least impress you about their goals or products or services. Brightcove's Jeremy Allaire, writing for TechCrunch, says that "video has gained enormous momentum as a fundamental media type for all content on the Web." Technological ease of use will do that.

I'm all for it, and I think it's high time.

This situation seems to me a direct parallel to what happened a few years back when the podcast wave hit us, and suddenly everyone was highly excited about the opportunity to deliver audio to learners. Audio for learning! Where did that start? 45's on phonographs in the classroom? Or does it go back further? Video for learning has been with us forever, too, in every format and every era. There was never a time in the history of video that it wasn't used to teach or to train, and in high volumes.

And yet, it really is a new thing. Combine the explosion of broadband with the advance of compression and delivery technologies like Flash and Silverlight, and the old is new again. Throw in the high-def quality, amazingly low-cost shooting and editing capabilities of consumer products like the Flip cam and Apple's iMovie software, then popularize it with a juggernaut like YouTube, and suddenly that 1984 Freightliner is Optimus Prime. If you're teaching or training and you aren't locked and loaded with double-barrel video, you're missing it.

So what does it mean to use video as a learning tool in the age of YouTube? This is actually a particular strong suit of mine, having started my career in video production (this would be my chance to mention my Emmy, but I'll mostly resist), and having continued to find the best uses for video through a parade of learning technologies.

So here is my mini-Learning Lab, in case you can't make it to Elliott's.

10 Things to Remember about Online Video

Thing 1. Don't record a lecture and think you're done. It amazes me how often this still happens. Videos need to be produced, not just recorded.

Thing 2. Unless of course you can put the video up on an interactive site. It becomes something really interesting for learning when users can tag it and bookmark it and comment on it and jump to anyone else's comments. (Check out Veotag.)

Thing 3. Just because it was popular on YouTube does not mean you should copy the style. People will watch anything on YouTube if it's entertaining. Sometimes they're laughing at it, not with it. If you're the expert, then packaging matters.

Thing 4. Pay close attention to the first 30 seconds. That's the only part your audience is sure to see anyway. Use more short videos rather than few long videos.

Thing 5. Punch it up! Pace matters. Learn from Phil DeFranco. (And see Thing 4.)

Thing 6. More information! Part of the problem with a lecture (yes, even one with slides) is that it's a slow, analog delivery. Everyone, particularly everyone online, is used to multiple streams of information simultaneously. Watched CNN or Sports Center lately?

Thing 7. Put the video in an interactive context. Even YouTube, which is just about watching videos, allows you to rate, comment, share, favorite, subscribe... you get a control panel full of fun with every video. (See Things 2 and 6). Your extras can really enhance learning.

Thing 8. Invite everyone! It is not hard to make a video, so let learners make their own. Educators have known the value of user-generated content for generations. They call it homework. And you don't need to hold learners to the same standard of quality to which they hold you--but be prepared for some good stuff. They'll surprise you.

Thing 9. Don't have a broadband network that will handle video? YouTube works just fine.

Thing 10. It's all about content. Things 3, 4, 6, and 7 aside, if the video is meaningful, people will engage with it. Hold to what's true in non-video education and training: People need to understand the value of the learning in order to fully engage with it. If your content is good, you're more than halfway home.

And another Thing. Use the medium for all it's worth! This is fun stuff. More specific tips for the actual planning and production of videos, here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Publishers drive higher education. has just released a new app for Android phones that promises the cheapest textbooks, new, used, online, or e-books. Yet another way for students and their parents to reduce their textbook costs, and another reason for publishers to groan. Everyone, it seems, is in the business of lowering textbook prices. The federal government has had its say, of course, in a provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which went into effect this past July. Whether it will lower prices is another question, but that was its purpose. (Details here.)

Textbook publishers are under fire. The textbook business model is groaning under the strain. There are many in higher education who predict the downfall of the big textbook publishers, their foundations eroded by bootleg .PDFs, freeware ebooks, and the now-global used book market, while the consumer expectation of superb digital experiences continues to skyrocket. They can't make the turn, I've heard whispered among forward-thinking faculty and staff. The mainline publishers are dinosaurs, and they will disappear.

It won't happen. It can't. Publishers drive higher education.

This is something I've been saying for quite a while, and not without experience. Having been the executive responsible for the creation of hundreds and hundreds of fully accredited courses on bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels, all of them online, and all of them specifically designed to capture the latest and best thinking on the subject at hand, I have had a particularly good vantage point to see the evolving role of the textbook in the digital era. Then and since then, I have opined about how the hard-copy textbook and its red-headed electronic stepchild, the .PDF, are entirely unsuitable for the rise of elearning (see previous post, the End of Book Learning).

But we can't do without them. Textbooks, or something like them, are critically important. I used to say often that the textbook is the anchor of the course development process--and by "anchor," I meant the huge heavy thing that slows down all forward progress. Generally good for a chuckle, but the reality behind that statement is that we had no choice but to be slowed down by the process of choosing, ordering, and distributing textbooks--or licensing the .PDF versions. Either approach was arduous. One or the other was necessary.

Most of our course development processes were developed on my watch. We invested a lot in these courses, but we couldn't begin to create enough quality original material to make a good textbook irrelevant. One or two of our competitors decided to create their own textbooks--a bold idea, and we explored it, but the ROI wasn't there. The quality for the dollar didn't make sense. Media, instructional design, world-renowned experts--these added value, and the return was good. But textbooks? As difficult, expensive, and technologically clunky as they were, they were still a bargain.

I'm going to posit a foundational observation that has been forming in my mind for quite a while now. If you disagree with this, let me know, but it seems to me like a bedrock truth--easy to agree with it, but hard to get to the bottom of it. It's just this: Universities create knowledge, but textbook publishers create learning.

Lots of implications. Define university knowledge any way you like, from individual faculty members publishing papers, to applied research labs fulfilling government and private-sector contracts, to pure, grant-funded research unfolding the nature of the universe. Then define learning as the process of taking that knowledge of the universe, brand new or long established, and transforming it into something teachable, something learnable by a much wider group of people.

No one is going to beat textbook publishers for rounding up and organizing, and then returning to the university classroom in a highly teachable format, the innumerable divergent, convergent, and sometimes oppositional truths in any course of study. Those who think publishers can't make the change to meaningful digital platforms are wrong. It's being done, and I've presented examples in the past. Those who believe we don't need the publishers are confusing the baby with the bathwater. None of us can afford to lose them. I jumped at the chance to join the Pearson Strategic Advisory Board because I know that there is nothing out there that can now or in the foreseeable future replace them. I chaired the IMS Global project in search of the born-digital textbook for the same reason. I figure if I can help, I will. But they've got the core capabilities in a way no one else does.

This is an age of digital product, digital experience. It takes a team to build an engaging learning experience that actually leads to some sort of predetermined learning result (yes, even a purely constructivist one). To build well something like that takes a combination of faculty, content experts, writers, media developers, instructional designers, software programmers--all with a teaching and learning agenda. Check that--not an agenda, a passion. These are the very people that make up textbook publishing companies, and the publishing process. Public universities won't do it. Online universities, even the for-profit ones that build their own courses, won't do it. Individual faculty members can't do it, not at this quality level.

Publishers drive the education in higher education. They create the foundations for learning. If they can't make the turn to digital, and make money doing it, we're all in a world of hurt. But I for one am not counting them out.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

We do not yet realize how big the elearning change is.

I'm thinking about this because the USDLA today released a white paper entitled, "Enabled by Broadband, Education Enters a New Frontier." (Find the paper here). There's not much new inside the document; that's not its purpose. It's a recap of how mainstream online education has become, and a call to make it more so. It does present some important data, including:

-- The number of high school students taking a class online has doubled in the last couple of years.
--Seventy-five percent of school districts have online coursework of some sort.
--Fully a third of parents have taken an online course.
--The learning results (ie grades) tend to be better for online classes than traditional, when compared apples to apples.

That last point has been known for a while, and I've posted on it previously. But all the numbers and percentages keep growing, and will continue to grow. The point is that since elearning has become part of the warp and woof of education in America, the have-nots now have even less. The USDLA is calling on policymakers to redouble efforts to provide broadband access all across the economic scale.

This is a worthy goal. How to achieve it is another matter, but it's important because I believe we do not yet realize how big a change elearning hath wrought. As a nation we are still on horseback, watching with interest and sometimes even admiration as those loud contraptions bounce by trailing an odor of gasoline and an air of triumph. Sure, we know those machines will keep improving, but it's not yet possible for us to imagine a future without our steeds, which have after all been man's foremost mode of transportation since the most ancient of times. That an era is just ahead in which horses will be utterly irrelevant, except for two minutes annually on a quaint track in Kentucky? Completely unthinkable.

Yet with elearning, the highways are already built, and only those remote and isolated outposts are unable to avail themselves as yet. With the Internet, of course, the remote outposts are often in the heart of our cities, but that is beside the point. The road has arrived. The automobile is here. Sure, it's not very stylish yet, and it's a bumpy ride. We've got Model A and Model T and very little else. But it's here. And it will get better. And when it does, as it does, the classical methods of instruction with which we all grew up will begin, like the noble steed, to fade into the past. The 40-person classroom, the 600-seat auditorium, the daily routines of ringing bells and moving to the next scheduled lecture will likewise fade.

I don' t mean that schools will go away. Universities, profs, curriculum, campuses--all these will remain. But the classroom experience is destined to undergo a dramatic shift. Why? Because elearning works better. It can be applied in many different ways. Learning at its core is a highly personal activity that the 20th century converted into a mass production process. We industrialized it, and organized it, and processed it so that we could get big numbers of students through a system with a predictable outcome. Digital changes that. Everything can be highly personalized, uniquely mine.

I've said it before, but the entire daily educational process was designed to solve a people-moving, time and space problem. Classes, class schedules, class periods, classrooms, semesters, semester hours, credit hours, even the well-worn pattern of lecture-lecture-lecture-quiz, lecture-lecture-paper-exam... all of it is a manufacturing process. The university's daily, weekly system, the high school and middle school systems, and to a lesser extent the grade school system are our answer to the same problems that those Imagineers had to solve at Disney World: How do you get huge numbers of people into the park and through the rides while assuring that everyone has an equal experience?

When we didn't have digital technologies, that was the best way to get everyone educated. Now our technologies do not require any of that. Really, think about it. We may desire it for a long time to come, but nothing on my list above is required anymore, regardless of numbers. We have digital and web-based assessments, digital content delivery, meaningful social and instructional interaction, electronic testing, online grade books, Learning Management Systems to capture all the significant data and issue authoritative reports. We can get every student after a certain age a good education, include personal contact with professors, the best available content, and deep assessment of learning. And we can get every student moving at their own speed, everyone filling in the gaps of their own learning.

What about labs, you ask, what about group projects, what about social contact for the purpose of maturing? Well, I'm not including those things. You won't find them in my list. I am not saying we should abolish the campus--we should not and we can't. I'm just saying that the entire system within the campus, the organizational structure, the learning architecture, can now be rethought to suit the needs of the students. And, yes, the faculty, when they're up to it.

The technologies now available allow us to schedule everything flexibly, to utilize physical space in ways that matter most, like creating new knowledge, or applying what we've learned. We can get knowledge a thousand different ways, a million different places. Applying it, testing out theories, grappling with the larger meanings? That's worth some bricks and mortar. Not a gathering place where we all sit in silence while one individual gives his or her unique view of the world. I suggest that this is today's horse and buggy.

The USDLA report is a good one, and accurate, and its call to action is worthy. But I think we don't realize how big all this is, just yet. The frontier is already won. The horse is fading.

And we've got the car keys.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why social networks are powerful for learning.

Talk about the power of the new technologies for learning... MIT researcher Damon Centola has been studying online social networks to see how they can be used to change behaviors for the better. Not to determine if they can change behaviors for the better, but the best way to do it. This is huge, and I'll tell you why.

But first, let's take a quick step back, to get a little bit of perspective. Typical instructional design and pedagogy focus on breaking down a subject into component parts, gaining mastery of those parts, whether they are steps in a process or techniques or parts of the anatomy, and then reassembling them in the learner's mind and in practice so that the result is overall mastery of the broader subject. That may be oversimplified, but this basic approach goes back to Aristotle, at least. It's not debated in education, it's assumed that this is the best approach for learning anything, including complex processes or highly nuanced behaviors in shifting contexts. This is the way education is done in Western culture and we don't even notice it, much less question it. But suddenly there's an elephant in the room.

Centola's conclusions. He studied positive changes in people's behaviors regarding health care, changes that resulted directly from placing subjects in carefully designed social networks with the goal of improving their health decisions. What he concluded was that smaller, tighter social groups had more success improving health behaviors than larger, looser social groups (ie, the typical Facebook connections). Maybe you already see what it took me a while to notice. Both of them had success. Social networks designed for a specific purpose can do something pretty amazing: They can change people's behaviors. Any educator or trainer whose goal is actually to impact both thinking and behaviors (to change lives!) rather than just getting people to pass a test or check a box, should be paying close attention. And maybe getting a little excited.

Researchers in education have long known the power of social groups to alter behavior. Brown, Collins, and Duguid made this case a while back:

"From a very early age and throughout their lives, people, consciously or unconsciously, adopt the behavior and belief systems of new social groups. Given the chance to observe and practice in situ the behavior of members of a culture, people pick up relevant jargon, imitate behavior, and gradually start to act in accordance with its norms." (From "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning" 1989)

In fact, these three went on to say that highly complex behaviors are picked up, absorbed, through relatively informal social exchange more quickly than they could be if they were "taught" in the usual break-it-down sense. We're talking about complex behaviors. Processes. Highly nuanced interpersonal interactions. Centola's study suggests to me that we now have an online tool, the social network, that is fully capable of carrying the power of culture to shape behaviors and establish norms. And it can be done on purpose.

Virtual elbow-rubbing is clearly more limited than actual elbow-rubbing. But if you think about it, social media carry a lot of the same capabilities. Jargon is obviously transferred, if not created. And this habit of openly discussing what I am "doing right now," down to an almost absurd level of granularity, is unique to social media. A lot of people (mostly over 40) find this exceedingly strange. But this is precisely the sort of intimate knowledge of other people's basic life patterns and thought patterns that allows one person's behaviors to be observed and absorbed by others.

And what about showing or demonstrating behaviors? This is happening, too. Take a look at the most-viewed videos on YouTube on any given day, and fully half of them are either someone talking unscripted into a camera or behaving in an unscripted (albeit often planned) manner.

It's not that I think we should abandon classical, or scientific reason and rationale in our teaching. Social networks are not going to replace content. But content can be incorporated into social media, which is exactly what Centola did. It's what SalesDay does (my previous post). The point is that social networks have enormous untapped potential to help people learn and propagate important and complex knowledge and behaviors quickly--through sharing of thoughts, ideas, even life patterns.

I've said it already, but it bears repeating. This is huge.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why classrooms do not work, part 2.

I'm not advocating for the abolition of classrooms. I am just advocating for the thoughtful application of technology rather than defaulting to the comfortable and familiar. Especially since some of the technologies we now have at our fingertips every day are extraordinarily exciting, and powerful for learning--and should be used to the full.

And yes, it is in fact possible to use these technologies to drop practical, engaging, powerful learning right into the middle of a workday, avoiding training sessions altogether. And this is being done in a really interesting way right now, using: social networks, video streaming (it could be audio streaming, or PowerPoint, or any other content block you can name), and social network email notifications (it could be syndication or just simple email).

Let's look at the problems of the classroom, and how these technologies, with a small amount of design, can help solve them.

First problem: It's the nature of the classroom to over-stuff the learner. We all have experienced this. Once we gather and blocked out our time, we must make the most of it. So in an hour, I get six principles that will make me a better employee, soldier, sailor, salesman, whatever. What are the odds that I'll put all six to work after I leave? How about just three of them? How about one? It would take me a week to try them all out, and in a week I'll have forgotten. Overstuffed means underdigested.

Solve this by sending the content to the learner in small chunks every day. Social networking notifications ("You have a new message from...!") can deliver podcasts, vodcasts, slides, links, whatever. Or just use email. But break the content up into much smaller bits and deliver it daily. Put the spacing effect to use: Information learned over time is remembered better than information learned all at once. (Read more about this in my previous post.) One clear concept per day, ten minutes of seat time per block of content, maximum. Sure, that doesn't seem like much content, but take those same six principles we crammed into an hour, and do the math... they are ten minutes each. Of course you couldn't teach a college class this way, or not entirely. But here we're focused on an audience that works at their computers, and we want the learning to stick. So the overall design is: ten minutes to wrestle with it, and the rest of the day to ponder, discuss, put that learning into practice (see the next problem).

Second problem: Content is always abstracted in the classroom. Because it is separated from everyday reality, the classroom intellectualizes everything. You can teach the principles, the theory, easily enough. But you can't practice it. You don't even have time to tap into the insights and experience of learners or get all their misconceptions and concerns ironed out. It's hard to keep the focus on doing something in the future, when currently all we can focus on is knowing about it.

Solve this by putting the students (and the content if you can) inside a social network, one that is available in the workplace. Make it smart-phone friendly to widen the access window. But most importantly, require discussion. In fact, make discussion the primary focus, and use the content as the set-up for the discussion. Spend whatever design time you have on 1) clearly stating the single concept--communicating it in the simplest, most interesting way possible--and then 2) asking the right question or questions to get everyone involved in thinking through how they have applied it in the past, or how they could apply it, or how they will apply it. Make sure those who get it are explaining it for those who don't yet get it. This makes it experience-based. It's using the wisdom of the crowd. And, this is precisely what has been proven to influence behaviors in online social networks. (More on this in a future post.)

Third problem: Learners are out of their usual element when in a classroom, and therefore feel less obligation to apply what they've learned. There is a mental, even an emotional line you cross when you step out of a classroom doorway. Years and years of formal education have taught you that leaving the classroom gives you relief from the immediate obligations just piled high upon you. I call it the School's Out! syndrome. (Whew! Survived that class, now on to something else.)

Solve this by putting the learning into a social network within that real workspace, into the very environment where the learning will be practiced. It's one thing to sit in a classroom and take notes about how I should handle a customer, calculate long-term gains, or deal with patients. It's a whole different thing to sit at my workstation and learn, chat about it with colleagues, then raise my eyes and call that customer, calculate those long-term gains, or deal with that patient. I get no relief from obligations... in fact just the opposite. I get the adrenaline of hard-edged real life, immediate risk and reward, with the opportunity to apply it... right now. And if not now, soon.

Does this work? Yes. Is it being done? Yes. Here's a website where you can get a little glimpse of all this in action, for a sales audience:

SalesDay Network

If you're responsible for sales training you can sign up for a free trial immediately and put it to the test. Full disclosure: I have an ownership stake in this endeavor, and was responsible for, well, a whole lot of it. So it won't hurt my feelings if you sign up! But that's not the point--I've been building and enhancing learning environments using sound learning theory and the latest technologies for a long, long time, and I've had ownership stakes in just about all of them. And this is a proprietary approach, of course, with all the intellectual property protections, but the point is, check out the thinking behind it and see if it doesn't make sense to you. At root it's providing a single concept every day, to be discussed and applied every day, uniting a work team in discussion, bringing the learning out of the classroom and into the work environment. All very real and tangible. And I can report that early users are very happy with it; it engages them around the content in a way that a classroom simply can't.

It's almost too simple, but it works because the principles are sound and the technologies are powerful. I've said before and will say again, the technologies we now have lapping at our doorsteps like a flood are the most powerful learning technologies I have ever seen. We just need to keep redirecting and focusing those flood waters... and we need to keep building hydroelectric plants to put them to work.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Why classrooms generally do not work.

Did you ever have the experience of sitting in a classroom, and your mind wandered? I mean, where you started to feel that you were wasting your time? Not that you didn't need the material, you did. It was just the whole thing, the lecture, the slides, pages of notes--after fifteen minutes or half an hour you just wanted to be somewhere else. Ever have that experience?

If you said no, then you must be the instructor. Fight it if you can, but everyone else knows that feeling, at least a twinge of it, at least sometimes. And why is that? Why is this so common, even when you want to learn? The teacher wasn't interesting? The slides were bland? He went too slow? She went too fast? There are thousands of reasons this could happen.

But let me make an alternate, slightly larger suggestion, as gently as I can: Classrooms do not work. Not for adults, not for anyone who actually needs to apply what's being taught. A classroom by its nature is disengaged from real life, from practice, from the hard, welcomed edginess, the risk and reward of actual experience. And once you get to adulthood, nothing else will really do. Life is not lived as an abstraction, nor do we have much patience with principles that cannot be applied now, and applied with noticeable effect. (Note to profs and instructors: your own hard-edged, risk-and-reward reality is the classroom. That is your workplace. That is why you love it and work so hard to make it relevant. My hat is off.)

Moving the classroom online doesn't really change anything. It's like moving a conversation to the phone. You gain convenience but give up immediacy. So what can make a difference? Anything?

If my thesis is anywhere near correct, and the classroom by its nature disengages us from reality, only one thing could possibly fix it: Put the learning right in the middle of actual reality, into the hustle and bustle and go and flow of life. But how? Nineteenth-century apprenticeship is no longer practical. Neither is ancient Middle Eastern discipleship. Both did put practice first, with higher-order principles drawn out of experience. Highly effective.

But what can we do today, now? Give everyone the same iPhone app? It's still going to take a whole lot of design work to figure out how to inject learning right smack into workday reality, to make sure what's taught is what's learned and it's all practical and accurate. And frankly, who has the time or the resources to figure all that out? There's work to be done. The classroom is, at least, a place we can all agree to meet and make the best of it.

But let's narrow the focus a moment and think about the many adults who spend their time online. Home or office, there's a big chunk of the population actually spending a big chunk of their day in front of a keyboard and a monitor, alternately reaching for coffee and a mouse (like you're doing now). So it seems like it should not be hard to drop learning directly into this environment and make it just as real as your work. For those people, at least. If you could make the lesson intertwine with the daily experience of work at their workstation, you'd have a really good start. Right?

And of course, this is completely possible--and in fact is already being done. It is not a difficult design problem, it just involves unwinding the lesson so that it can be learned 1) over time and 2) within the work group. Intrigued yet? If you have anything to do with online learning, you should be. Because the technologies required not only exist, they are ubiquitous. The only thing lacking is a little design. Not even a lot of design. Just a little.

And maybe some courage.

More about how this can work, plus an example, in my next post.

Friday, July 23, 2010

eBooks outsell hardcovers. Are textbooks next?

So, for the last three months eBooks have outsold hardcovers on Amazon, thanks to the Kindle. This according to the New York Times.

People are asking me what this means for textbooks. One of those people is my wife, who just paid $200 for a required high school science book. She had been saving the elder sibling's book from that class for three years, in the hopes that it would still be required. But no, this year a new edition is mandatory. The old version, for which we paid about the same price, is now worth $8.50 on eBay. Not even the Ford Pinto depreciated that fast.

"Textbooks are the biggest legal ripoff in the world," was the unprompted comment from the elder sibling, now in college. (I didn't ask what the biggest illegal ripoff might be. Some rocks are better left unturned.)

I have blogged about this in the past, and I'm sticking to my guns. I continue to believe that Kindle and similar book readers are here to stay, and will ultimately overtake the physical book industry--but not for textbooks. For linear reading. Newspapers, novels, magazines, book-length nonfiction... The reading experience for these on a Kindle is good enough that the convenience factor becomes overwhelming. Every book I care to read in the same book-size device? A new book almost instantly, and cheaper than I could get a physical copy? Sign me up.

Textbooks are a whole different matter. Let's set aside literature textbooks for a moment--at least those that are pretty much collections of linear reading. Almost every other form of textbook is a marriage of content and activities. Homework, discussion questions, problem sets, quizzes, and in the last ten years, interactive animations, computer models, mini-documentaries and interviews, historical footage--you name it. This is not Kindle territory. It's iPad territory. But if it's iPad territory, it's also laptop territory, which brings us right back to the usual problem: textbooks are too varied in purpose to be just books. They are only books at all by accident of history.

What we consider a textbook needs to be a learning environment. It needs to be a technical space in which all the varied purposes of a textbook play out in the technology that is appropriate for the unique purpose being addressed. Quizzes are interactive, graded, with feedback. Discussions questions are actually discussed. Media is interwoven with the associated content, not added through a link or a DVD. Problem sets can be solved, and self-corrected, and remediated.

As far as I can tell, Pearson's MyMathLab continues to lead the way. And in some ways that's unfortunate, because it means there has been little movement over the past several years.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The nuances of a good video

Musing on the power of video to make a point. It does have that power, no doubt (see: Commercials, TV). But how? What makes a good video a good video and a bad video painful? Well, my answer is in the nuances. But they aren't really nuances once you start thinking about them. Here are a few:

1. Anticipation. The audience needs something to expect. Even if it's a minute long, they have to know there's a kicker coming. Think about the anticipation you feel when you see that Geico Rod-Serling-ish guy saying, "Can Geico really save you fifteen thousand dollars or more on car insurance?" Something clever, interesting, worth seeing is coming. You know that. So you watch. (Or at least, I do).

2. Unexpectedness. Completely the opposite of anticipation, unless of course you're anticipating the unexpected, which creates a whole different level of nuance. But you can't always give them what they expect. "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; Tell 'em; and Tell what you told 'em" may be good instructional design (in fact most instructional design approaches include variations of this), but it's death as the entire recipe for a video. You can do all that... but you should also tell 'em a few things you didn't tell 'em you were going to tell 'em. And you should tell 'em you told 'em a few things that you didn't actually tell 'em. (If that's not clear, I trust you can work it out. I'm not telling you again what I just told you).

3. Challenge. Don't tell them everything. Make them work a few things out for themselves.

4. Creative Messaging. By this I don't mean a catchy phrase like, "Getting it done is priority one." Do that if you must, but what I mean is that the message should be interwoven with a story, with themes, with characters. That the presentation builds to the message. If you've got a pyramid of ideas, make a physical pyramid that someone actually puts together on screen. This makes it interesting, and memorable.

5. Sparkle. Closely related to fun (see number 7 below), sparkle is that quality that instantly tells people someone cared enough to put something extra into this. There's a sense of energy and creativity here. Nothing was phoned in. Someone thought this was worth putting their stamp on, being proud of. It's special. Warning: after making it special, let it go and make the next one special. Nothing's sadder than someone producing a video and thinking it didn't get enough credit, or airplay, or awards, or whatever.

6. The Unstated. What you don't say, or don't show, is what gives a video depth. If you're producing these things, you should learn to manage the interplay between what is left in and what is left out--there is power in the tension between the two. You can get people to want to see something by not showing it. The old horror movies always did this. I remember how Elephant Man, the movie, showed several people's horrified reactions to the title character while I only heard his calm, sweet voice. By the time I saw how horrible his face actually was, I had already decided I would not react with revulsion. Avatar, more recently, showed the hero's Navi self in a huge fish tank, then, a while later, some maintenance workers were washing out the fish tank. He's gone... somewhere. And it made you really want to see him. Make an audience want to see what you're not showing them. They will love you for it when you do show it.

7. Fun. I'm not saying humor--humor is hard. Do it if you have the talent in place to pull it off. But fun, anyone can do. It's mostly about making sure that everyone involved is finding the process energizing. I learned in the first day of my first producing job (TV News) that the number one thing I could do to create a quality product was to keep the on-camera talent happy and relaxed. Also the number two, three, and four things. If they were having fun, the audience would like it.

Not really nuances. Not really all that subtle. But not paint-by-numbers, either.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why the iPad really could change everything

Assuming the iPad is a successful product--not a given based on early reactions--this looks like a product that could finally bring textbooks into the web 2.0 world. Not because the iBooks functionality is particularly advanced. An eBook reader is an eBook reader, and all eBook readers are Web 1.0, as I have mentioned in previous posts. The iPad has not, at first blush anyway, seriously moved the game forward. You're still reading a flat page on a highly interactive mechanism, and you're still not taking much advantage of "the crowd."

But the iPad has huge possibilities in the textbook arena nonetheless, in my view. There are two reasons for this, neither of which were part of the hoopla of the grand unveiling: iTunes, and EPUB. The iBookstore may not seem like an advance over Amazon for buying books--how could it compete with that megalith? But the promise is not in the transaction, it's in the transformation. Don't forget what iTunes did to the music industry. It deconstructed the CD, the decades of "album" sales, and brought the single back to the forefront of music. Consumers loved it. Publishers... well, not so much. The promise is that Apple will move the textbook publishing industry in that direction as well, selling chunks, or chapters, or just the media associated with a textbook--whatever is of value to students or faculty within a textbook. Is that their plan? Yes, it is. How do I know this? Because of EPUB.

EPUB is an open standard for eBooks. Kindle's is proprietary, as are most of its competitors. Imagine this for a moment... Apple, the undisputed king of the vertical integration, the company that owns the hardware and the operating system and the software, is using open standards for its eBooks. Why is that? Why would they do that? Because they know that in the textbook publishing world, there is as yet no such thing as a "single." The textbook is the equivalent of a CD, or an album. That's easy--they're big, they're expensive, and you're always buying more than you want in order to get the stuff you do want. But what is the parallel to the song? It's not a chapter, because a chapter typically can't stand alone. The answer is, it doesn't exist. But it could exist. There could easily be a digital something that is designed to meet a certain clearly defined learning objective. Several of these somethings could be strung together into a "playlist" that assisted greatly in meeting course learning objectives. And if several publishers were publishing these somethings, these "singles," then a course "playlist" could include singles from Macmillan as well as ones from Pearson.

I think Apple gets this. I further think they're wise enough to know that they can't invent or create these singles themselves. They can transform the textbook industry with iBooks the way iTunes transformed the music industry, but only if they get a lot of help with the songs. Thus, the open standard... they will use a technical platform that anyone can adopt. Do a deal with Macmillan, sure, but leave the door open for the future-thinkers at Pearson to create something that will be a game changer.

I like what Apple has done. I like it a lot.

Article from MacWorld: