A tool for a professor-centered edtech world.

7 01 2013

This one’s for all the historians out there, and perhaps all my readers who still think I’m a Luddite. Because this where I want to tell you about something I’ve been working on and see if any of you out there want to help.

I’ve mentioned Milestone Documents here many times before. A few years ago, when I decided to teach my American survey class without a textbook I started using their service as a replacement. For a $20 semester long subscription, students get access to a wide variety of online primary sources, all well-introduced and edited down to a size that most college freshman will actually read. What I like most about teaching this way is that my assigned reading perfectly compliments what I actually teach. I just go down their list of documents and link to each one I want students read on my syllabus.

While I was delighted to ditch my textbook, a lot of other professors have been reluctant to do so. Therefore, Milestone Documents has begun the process of putting together secondary materials of their own, something they are calling a “textbook layer.” However, this one will be like no other textbook available. It’s going to be written in discrete pieces, like their documents collection. That way professors can assign the parts of the book they teach, and ignore the ones that they don’t. Of course, those pieces will be organized by themes. The professors who assign them will be able to pick not only the parts of the textbook that they teach, but the appropriate primary sources too. Best of all, access to the textbook layer and the original Milestone Documents will cost only $30 per student per semester, just $10 more than access to Milestone Documents by itself.

I’m the Editor-in-Chief of the US History II textbook subject area and need help on two fronts: Milestone Docs needs authors to write the individual textbook entries and review board editors to help make the whole thing coherent. Indeed, while I’ve been calling this a textbook, from an editorial standpoint this process will bear a greater resemblance to a big encyclopedia. Since I’m not the employer I can’t talk payment rates, but I can assure you that compensation for authors and editors will be competitive with other encyclopedia projects out there.

So if you specialize in post-1877 US History and are interested in joining us, e-mail a cv and short note to me at the address at right and cc it to Neil Schlager, CEO of Milestone Documents (Neil [at] milestonedocuments.com). With respect to the editorial review board team, we’re looking for people of various specialties who have substantial teaching experience at the college level, but grad students are more than welcome to join us as writers. If you specialize in other survey areas, including US History to 1877, World History or Western Civ, send your cv directly to Neil and he’ll put you in touch with the Editor in Chief for the appropriate area.


A professor-centered pedagogical world.

5 10 2012

So far this sabbatical, I’ve finished two articles (that I started earlier), one conference paper (that I started from scratch), read my refrigeration manuscript at least three times to find and remove passive voice or other poor sentence constructions and have still somehow managed to accumulate lots of sources for my next project. As I mentioned before, a lot of that material has been in purely electronic form thanks to Google Books and the excellent scanners at the Library of Congress. Yesterday, I snagged a letter in an archive in Indiana that an archivist scanned and e-mailed to me as well as a key post-1923 text by my subject off Scribd of all places. So it looks like I’ll be dealing with a lot of electronic texts on this project and I couldn’t be happier.

“Wait a second,” you think to yourself. “Doesn’t he hate electronic texts?” Well…yes and no. I still have fond memories of hanging out in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, pulling obscure texts off the shelves and stacking them in my carrel for future use. Certainly, when given a choice between reading an entire book online or in codex format I still prefer paper. However, I no longer live near the 4th or 5th (I forget which one exactly) biggest research library in America. When electronic texts allow me to get easy access to materials that might not even be available through interlibrary loan otherwise, then I’m very grateful for their existence.

Tona Hangen, writing at Teaching United States History, tells us that she gave her students a choice between a free online textbook or a paper one that they had to pay for and they overwhelmingly choose the online option. However, they are not happy about it:

A couple of weeks into class, I asked for a short minute of writing on what’s going well this term, and what’s not going so well. I teach at 8:30 am (yup!), so naturally a lot of the comments talked about that (ranging from “I have a hard time waking up” and I think I might have written that one myself, to “I’m surprised to find I like this as a class time”). But a few touched on issues related to book format, and almost universally those students don’t like reading a textbook online. I don’t blame them. It’s no reflection on the specific publisher, which actually has a better user interface than most. Reading textbooks online or on a tablet/iPad is definitely different and takes some getting used to. Despite publishers’ attempts to add these features, highlighting, note-taking, tapeflagging and so on are just awkward or impossible with an ebook. But purchasing the printed book instead seems a cost none of them are willing to absorb. They’d rather get it free *and* complain about how hard it is to use. Interesting.

I would argue that the problem here isn’t so much that the book is online than that they have to access the entire textbook. The online version has no page numbers, so even though students don’t have to read the whole text they still have to navigate through it which can be a huge pain. If the sections themselves were short and discreet, this wouldn’t be a problem.

But my primary issue here isn’t how you read history, it’s what history you read. Hangen is having her students vote on what textbook content to cover in depth and then leaving out everything else. This sounds strangely like Second City improv to me. I, for one, am not clever enough to come up with the necessary jokes about everything that happened in America between 1877 and the present to make that method work.

As I’ve explained before, my method is to kill the textbook and plan the class around online primary source documents that match the content of the lectures. I work with (and now work for) Milestone Documents so my students and I have access to a very large, extremely well-edited and well-introduced collection of primary source documents created especially for survey level history classes. I pick the ones that match the material I already teach. I can even throw in other documents from elsewhere If I’m so moved since I link to them all from the online version of my syllabus. The key thing is that I’m in the driver’s seat. Not the LMS. Not my department chairman. Not the publisher. Me. The professor.

This way, I get to pick the history I teach because it’s what I know best and am therefore more likely to do a good job with it. I’m not forced to assign documents that students don’t read. I’m not forced to use bells and whistles that I don’t want. And if I’d rather read offline, I can print the relevant documents out without killing too many trees.

If you do want to kill your textbook and try online documents, then you should find the publisher that best suits your needs. Still, I think there’s a guiding question that history teachers should apply to whatever textbook/reader/subscription service they use (which I first mentioned in the Historical Society post that I linked to above): Do your readings work with you or against you? You will never get Eric Foner to change his textbook to suit the way you teach whether it’s online or not. If assigning online readings gives you better control over the content you teach, then that’s a leap that’s well worth taking.

Two things I wrote last week, appearing elsewhere.

13 08 2012

This is the week I head up north to drop my daughter off at college, so you’ll see nothing from me here for a while. However, you can read two things I wrote last week. The first is a post for the Academe Blog (where I’m now a contributor) about Cathy Davidson’s latest book. The second is a long post about teaching the survey class without a textbook, which I wrote for the Historical Society.

Radio Ga Ga.

31 07 2012

So yesterday morning, I was just sitting around enjoying the vacation part of my vacation, avoiding the weeds out back by reading a biography of Margaret Sanger. When I reflexively checked e-mail on my phone around 9:30, there was a note from a producer at NPR’s Talk of the Nation. They had read the last blog post I had done for the Historical Society and wanted to have me on to talk about it. At 12:30PM, I was driving up to Colorado Springs chanting the words of my lovely and wise wife like a mantra, “Don’t laugh and talk at the same time.” I was on the air at 1:40PM.

You can read about the interview and hear all seventeen minutes of it (which includes the calls) by clicking here.

PS This is all history with no edtech at all. Besides the post, it also covers another favorite cause of mine: ditching your survey textbook.

“You think it’s hot, but nobody else does.”

23 04 2012

While I was at the OAH in Milwaukee over the weekend, I went to see a session entitled, “The End of the History Survey Course.” The commentator, who actually did very little commenting on the papers at hand, was Lendol Calder of Augustana College. I went because I had read about him at John Fea’s blog, and because two of the main papers were by Joel Sipress and David Voelker, the co-authors of a JAH article that really changed the way I think about teaching surveys.

Towards the end of his remarks, Calder told an old Lyndon Johnson joke. Supposedly, Johnson had just heard a lecture on economics by John Kenneth Galbraith. After he was done, LBJ asked Galbraith if he knew what giving an economics lecture was like.

“No,” said Galbraith, “what is giving an economics lecture like?”

“Giving an economics lecture is like pissing down your pant leg. You think it’s hot, but nobody else does.”

Calder’s point was that most historians think they give great lectures whether they actually do or not. I actually would not include myself under that generalization though. I’ve never been happy with my survey lectures, which is why I’ve been messing with them from almost the moment I started teaching. Most notably, I’ve continually substituted lecture time for teaching other skills-related historical activity. This is why I was so taken with the Sipriss and Voelker article that I’ve linked to above. I remember thinking when I read it first read it, “You can do that?” Yes, you can. Their model for this was Lendol Calder, who’s given a name to the result of this intellectual process: uncoverage.

Ditching my textbook was the first step on the road to uncoverage. What I learned at this session was that I actually still have a long way to go. I have far too many remnants of the coverage model in my survey courses to consider myself at all innovative.

This session offered up an alternative. In his remarks, Joel Sipress outlined the framework for an argument-based model for a US history survey course. This struck me as a good thing is at allows historians to embrace a positive model for what introductory courses should be like, rather than just defining them by what they’re not. Here’s my transcription of his four points about what an argument-based model for a survey course would consist of:

* Organized around significant historical questions.
* Students systematically exposed to rival positions.
* Students asked to judge relative merits of rival positions on the basis of historical evidence.
* Students develop their own positions and argue for them on the basis of historical evidence.

Why would you want to organize your course this way? Lecturing is boring. I know I’ve defended it before and I still will (under limited circumstances), but I’ve favored teaching skills over facts for some time now in my upper-level classes. I’ve been inspired to practice what I preach all the time now.

Besides, your students aren’t learning anything in your coverage-based course (no matter how hot you think you are). It’s in one ear and out the other. How do we know this? As Calder pointed out, the scholarship of teaching and learning has come so far in the last decade or so that there is enough evidence for history teaching articles to have footnotes. None of those materials support sticking with the coverage model.

And after all, shouldn’t we base our arguments about a subject this important to our profession upon all the available evidence? “My professors did it, and their professors did it and their professors did it too.” – That just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Textbooks as instruments of oppression.

25 01 2012

My first job was at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. I went from a graduate program that was dominated by graduate students in American History (Go Badgers!) to a college where American historians were in the minority. The old hands there teased me mercilessly because I readily admitted that I really didn’t know much about anything that happened outside the borders of the United States.

That has changed. For the last 10+ years I’ve been going out of my way to read European and World History in my spare time out of a combination of embarrassment and enjoyment since so much of it has been completely new to me. I’ve also been working on a global history of the ice and refrigeration industries which has taken my narrative all over the world by using American reports on foreign inventions and companies.

While the deal isn’t finalized yet, it looks as if I’ll be teaching in South Korea for about a month this summer. They want me to do Western Civilization. All of it. In less than a month. If it weren’t for my years of reading I would never even consider it, but I’m going to need a textbook.

I can teach American history without a textbook because I am an expert in American history. I need a textbook to cover Western Civilization because textbooks are a crutch. I don’t mean that anyone who uses them is necessarily ignorant, but if you aren’t sure about what you are teaching they make it far easier to sound as if you do. I won’t be so much teaching out of the textbook as using it as a starting point for deeper discussion, but if I really had no idea what I was doing this would be an easy way to get by.

In the video I posted yesterday, Dan Czitrom of Mount Holyoke tells a story of visiting East Tennessee State shortly after his textbook first came out in order to talk that large department into adopting it. He was rightfully concerned about this mission because 1) Making people teach out of the same textbook has academic freedom implications and 2) Everyone in that department had to teach a section of US History whether they specialized in US history or not. Without textbooks, neither of these problems could ever have existed.

Czitrom also states that he was shocked, shocked to see gambling at that establishment at how bad the working conditions were at East Tennessee State. He then suggests that the wonderful accoutrements that his and other publishers provide are a lifesaver for people who face large classes with no help. I hate to disagree with a fellow Badger, particularly since I’m sure his heart is in the right place, but I would argue that the exact opposite is true.

When publishers create tools that make less-than-ideal situations tenable, they make it easier and more acceptable for administrations to make those circumstances even less tenable in the future. After all, what’s another hundred students if you’re grading multiple choice tests with a computer program? More importantly, if your textbook (or the web in general for that matter) is providing the content and the computer is doing your grading for you, why do they need you at all? And how are you ever going to get out from under those difficult working conditions if your “friends” in the publishing industry keep making it easier for colleges to teach more students with less-qualified instructors? There’s probably a shortage of Western historians of any kind in Korea, so my flawed expertise is better than nothing at all. What’s East Tennessee State’s excuse?

Teaching out of your textbook isn’t just bad for your students. In an environment when textbook publishers want to become online education providers, it’s bad for you too. That’s especially true for adjunct faculty who can be replaced by a machine in the blink of an eye any time their employer decides it would rather spend more on online learning rather than face-to-face education.

I don’t think I have to tell you how much your “friends” in the publishing industry will do for you the moment that happens.

Giant textbook publishers are not your friends.

24 01 2012

Thanks to AHA Today, I actually watched the entire video of the Wither the Future of the History Textbook? session from the AHA in Chicago yesterday and was shocked by how relevant it was to many of the concerns I address on this blog.

While not the center of the conversation, my main takeaway was the aspiration of textbook publishers to move into the online learning business. I know this shouldn’t have surprised me since as at least one publishing giant actually owns an online education arm, but I had forgotten that until I heard one of the publishing folks on the panel say something to the effect of, “What we make in the future may not even resemble what we make now.” Then the other panelist from the publishing industry pretty much explicitly stated that she expects the future of the history textbook to be some kind of online learning platform.

Wanna head ’em off at the pass? Stop assigning a survey textbook right now. It’s not against the law. Both publishing reps actually bring up the fact that some history professors have killed their textbooks already, but then they dismiss us as a disgruntled minority. True, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong. Watch the session closely, and you can actually hear the fear in their voices as they worry whether enough of us will wake up before it’s too late.

In the last speech, Jan Reiff of UCLA (who doesn’t assign textbooks and never had a class where the professor assigned a textbook) asks a very important question, “What if we create our own textbook?” She was talking specifically about a class on the history of Los Angeles, but there really is no reason that historians as a profession can’t do the same thing to giant textbook publishers that our administrators would love to do to us: Cut them out of the picture entirely. Create our own textbooks (that won’t resemble what’s being produced now at all) on the basis of what we actually teach, and charge little or no money for them. The key here is that all the decision-making power would fall to the people responsible for doing the actual educating, namely us.

No more books without price tags so that the bookstore can mark them up to $85 a pop. No more revisions for the sake of revisions every three years. I got a great idea for a slogan too: Don’t be evil. Yes, I realize that’s been taken, but I don’t think Google is really using it anymore.

PS Coming tomorrow (or whenever I find the time to write it up): textbooks as instruments of oppression.

Assign whatever book you actually teach.

20 01 2012

Did Apple make the exact same mistake that I worried about yesterday morning? It’s hard for me to tell as I didn’t get enough time online yesterday to figure out precisely what it was that they announced. Was it really any more than an electronic online book store? Doesn’t Amazon already have one of those?

By now I’ve read lots of commentary from people who probably understand what Apple is doing no better than I do, but then there’s Audrey Watters, who was actually there at the big announcement. She seems kind of underwhelmed, but I think her analysis of textbooks as a form is much more interesting than anything she wrote about Apple:

Once you’ve recognized that textbooks are just an assemblage of resources and that, in a digital world, there’s no reason to bind it together and publish these en masse, then I think you can see a path to liberation from that industry model. You can disassemble, reassemble, unbundle, disrupt, destroy the textbook. It is truly an irrelevant format.

Here! Here! This is precisely why I killed my textbook and now assign Milestone Documents instead. Moreover, Audrey’s phrasing suggests an opening for me to elaborate on what I think is probably the most important reason that teaching without a textbook makes me so happy: The almost precise alignment between what I teach in survey and what I make students read.

Even if your 800-page textbook is the best written 800-page textbook that the world has ever seen, there is an enormous amount of material in that book which you will never get to in lecture and you will never test them on come exam time. Students have a hard enough time learning just what I lecture on and discuss with them well. Why do I need to burden them with a lot of extra material, particularly if it’s likely that they won’t read it in the first place?

Honestly, when is the last time you read your entire survey textbook from cover to cover? Would you rather cover everything and have them remember next to nothing or would you rather cover less material and have them learn it better because the readings reinforce what you actually teach? So go ahead, Apple: Kill the bloody textbook. I won’t mourn its passing because I’ve been teaching textbook free for over a year now.

The mass market paperback, on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother story. Not only do I want page numbers so that students can follow along with discussions in class and footnotes so that they can do research with those books as a starting point, I want space in which to write my questions about the entire text, since I always assign the entire text.

I’m a hi-lighter, a page corner turner, a creator of marginalia and I tend to write all my discussion questions on the title page of every book I assign. This saves me the terrible burden of having to re-read every repeat book every time a new semester rolls around.* Nobody is going to be coming out with a new version of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test anytime soon just to make more money, and that’s precisely the way I like it.

Historians’ offices are full of books for a reason. Maybe you could talk me into reading novels on a Kindle or an iPad (if I weren’t convinced that Apple and Amazon were plotting to ruin my favorite pastime) because I know I’ll never go back to the vast majority of them again.** However, I won’t even give up the paper copies of my history books when Hell freezes over because I’d rather read than skate.

* To be fair to myself, I still re-read every book I assign (even the classics) at least every three or four times I teach it just to make sure I still remember the good stuff.

** Notice which books Historiann, my original inspiration for this whole no-textbook thing, is keeping in this post. It’s the same rationale.

End-of-the-semester link dump.

1 12 2011

My semester ends tomorrow. I have draft papers to review now, followed closely by final papers and exams start coming in next week. As an act of mental self-preservation, here are all the recent links that I’ve had even the slightest inclination to blog about so that I won’t even be tempted to write anything until I have the pile on my desk and in my inbox under control:

* Here’s a long story from the Washington Post on virtual schools that I’m not sure I ever even finished reading, but the beginning looked really good.

* Via Jonathan Dresner: “In reality, I question the value of technology in the classroom on a daily basis.” Read the whole thing. It really is impressive.

* I’d read him just for the links, but I wish John Fea wrote more longer posts like this one.

* “Amazon set to push traditional publishers off a cliff.” ‘Nuf said.

* My brother the economist has made the Daily Dish with this study which suggests that medical marijuana decreases traffic deaths. I’m so proud. I bet he’ll be on the Today Show any day now.

* And lastly, this link is actually about me. Considering the loud critique of my own teaching abilities which always remains in the back of my head, reading it makes me wince, but perhaps you might find it helpful.

How can you tell good educational technology from bad educational technology?

23 08 2011

When I first started teaching at what was then known as the University of Southern Colorado, there were two sets of old maps printed on canvas stored in an upstairs closet which I’m sure dated from about 1960. One set had historical maps for world history. The other set had maps pertaining to American history. Faculty had to drag them out of the closet and move them into their classrooms whenever they had to make a geographic point (and to be fair to today’s student’s for one moment, the last batch of non-digital natives didn’t know much about geography either). I was still teaching the first half of the US survey class at the time so from time to time I had to drag those maps out of storage to make some point, usually about the sheer magnitude of the British Empire.

Then I discovered those plastic sheets with maps printed on them. They went on top of what we around here call an ELMO machine (basically, a flattop projector that displays on a vertical screen) so suddenly there was no need to drag the maps around at all. Not only that, there were pictures of things on those sheets besides maps! Now instead of talking about what a cotton gin looked like (“It’s like a giant rotary mower, only stationary.”), I could actually show a picture of one.

Put off by too many canned presentations where the technology didn’t work, I was late coming to PowerPoint but I’m very glad to be there now. Thanks to Microsoft (I guarantee you I don’t write those words very often), I’m no longer dependent upon publishers for the pictures I want to show in lectures. The entire Internet is my slide library, just as it is everybody else’s.

When Spencer Crew of George Mason University visited us a few weeks ago for our teacher colloquium, I developed a terrible case of slide envy. For example, he had a picture of a clipping of Black Panthers serving breakfast in a Baltimore ghetto. Now I’d been talking about the more nurturing side of the Black Panthers ever since I saw Bobby Seale speak back around the time I was still using an ELMO machine. So he and I traded slides and now I can illustrate that point beautifully!*

I think the nature of the improvement apparent in this anecdote applies well to other educational technologies as well. Certainly, PowerPoint is more convenient than maps. I also have a much better choice of material than I did when I ordered every publisher’s plastic overlays and picked only the ones I liked most. But I think the quality that’s most important here is the increase in instructor control over time. If I get to design the slideshow exactly the way I like it, I know that I am running the technology rather than letting the technology run me.

Let me offer up one more example to illustrate that point. I’ve written any number of times here now about killing my survey textbook and using Milestone Documents, a subscription website with primary sources, instead. This may seem strange coming from someone who purports to hate e-reading, but in fact it gives me much better control over my curriculum than if I used a paper alternative.

Let me illustrate that point with another anecdote: This semester, I’m also using Milestone Documents as a reader for my upper level course on America from 1877-1945. [Best. Period. Ever.] While designing my syllabus last week, I was looking for something about Prohibition because I assigned Daniel Okrent’s awesome book on this subject, Last Call to the class for a text this time around. Seeing none, I shoot Neil Schlager of Milestone Docs an e-mail which said, in part, “You guys should really have the Volstead Act in your collection.” Yesterday, I get an e-mail back telling me that it’s up on the site and ready for classroom use.

Now I’ve sent enough e-mails like that to Neil this last year that they put me on the editorial board over there, but that’s beside the point. The advantage of the Milestone Documents model is that when they get enough documents up there, every history professor can get access to the precise historical materials that they already teach. No extra pounds to lug around that students won’t read anyways. No useless revisions of the text designed solely to destroy the used book market for that particular text. The teacher is in control, and the students can even use their subscription to read around other documents if they’re so inclined.

Hopefully, you get my point. This post is getting a little long so I’ll end it here. Perhaps I’ll make this a two-parter and talk about a few more illustrations of this argument that are swimming around my head at the moment, but I’d like to see what you all think of it first.

* There has to be some way that history professors can get together and trade PowerPoint slides without running afoul of copyright laws. After all, it makes no difference to me if someone else uses the same slides that I do. After all, we should hope that the same students won’t take the identical survey course twice from two different instructors.

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