Should We Care About Grammar and Structure?

“Every language has a grammar, a set of rules that govern usage and meaning, and literary language is no different. It’s all more or less arbitrary of course, just like language itself.”
Thomas C. Foster

I have written a lot about textbooks, ten blog posts.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say the I have written about the confluence of textbooks, modern technology, and educational practices.  What is a textbook, what should a textbook be, is education or business driving the design of textbooks, do textbooks still have a place in modern education, and should textbooks be digital or physical?

Lately, I have been thinking about grammar and typography with respects to writing and communication.  I try and pay attention to grammar when I write.  I am by no means a grammar expert. I am much more concerned with making sure my arguments and points get across then I am with perfect grammar.  I own a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, I like the book; however, if it were not for grammar checkers, I would be hopeless when it comes to commas.

I have been thinking a lot about grammar, typography, and layout lately. Mostly because of the humble period.  More precisely, the number of spaces used after the period.  When I was in school, my teachers taught, it would be more accurate to say abusively drilled into us that you always used two spaces after the period. Today it would appear that most style guides suggest using one space after a period. The only exception being the American Psychological Association (APA). However, this seems to have changed with the release of the 7th addition APA standards.

While the argument about double vs. single spaces is old, I have encountered it several times while recently doing research.  I wondered when the period rule changed. Surprisingly I can’t find a date or even decade.  In a lot of the articles about one space or two, the authors focused on explaining how the spacing was the result of “technology.”  I will come back to the technology (typewriter) argument in another blog post.

The argument about two spaces or one comes down to readability. Specifically, how does spacing affect readability?  It turns out there is little actual research looking at the effect of the number of spaces after the period on readability.  A paper published in April of 2018 Are two spaces better than one? The effect of spacing following periods and commas during reading concludes, two spaces.  Yes, I said a paper one.  However, the evidence is currently 100% on the side of two.  More research is needed.

What I found most interesting, however, was an article from the Atlantic The Scientific Case for Two Spaces After a Period A new study proves that half of people are correct. The other is also correct.  After explaining what the article says, the author “explains” why the work is not valid or relevant.  I’m not quite sure whether the author is arguing for irrelevancy or invalidity. The author concludes, “The standard comes down to aesthetics, tradition, conservation of paper and space—basically, the fact that reading is an act of much more than information delivery.”

The author goes on to talk about how people can read sentences without spaces.  He says, “Thai and Chinese are typically written without spaces between words.”  He is in fact correct, people have a tremendous ability to and comprehend regardless of word structure. For example, take the common sentence “Thequickbrownfoxjumpsoverthelazydog.” Or this version “Th qck brwn fx jmps vr th lzy dg.” Or even “7h3 qu1ck br0wn f0x jump5 0v3r 7h3 l4zy d06.” Chance is you can read all these variations.

So, let’s ask since you can read these sentences, does that mean we should write this way?  Think about how much paper we would save if we left out all the vowels.  According to article Vowel Compressibility And The Top 5000 Words In English on average, 31.45% of all characters are vowels. Plugging the textbook Concepts of Biology from the open textbook library into Microsoft Word, we find that Concepts of Biology is 599 pages long with 253,113 words and 1,601,952 characters.  Doing a little math on Concepts of Biology, the textbook has an average of 2674.4 characters per page.  Using 31.45% of all characters are vowels, there are 503,813.9 vowels in Concepts of Biology.  If we left out all the vowels Concepts of Biology would be 188.4 pages shorter. That’s a lot of savings.

Let’s take our question further.  This paragraph comes from page 15 of Concepts of Biology,

“Crl Ws nd th Phylgntc Tr

Th vltnry rltnshps f vrs lf frms n rth cn b smmrzd n  phylgntc tr.  phylgntc tr s  dgrm shwng th vltnry rltnshps mng blgcl spcs bsd n smlrts nd dffrncs n gntc r physcl trts r bth.  phylgntc tr s cmpsd f brnch pnts, r nds, nd brnchs. Th ntrnl nds rprsnt ncstrs nd r pnts n vltn whn, bsd n scntfc vdnc, n ncstr s thght t hv dvrgd t frm tw nw spcs. Th lngth f ch brnch cn b cnsdrd s stmts f rltv tm.”

or if we are going to embrace the idea that spacing and vowels don’t matter and you can still comprehend the meaning then we can write the paragraph like this,

“CrlWsndthPhylgntcTr

Thvltnryrltnshpsfvrslffrmsnrthcnbsmmrzdnphylgntctr.phylgntctrsdgrmshw
ngthvltnryrltnshpsmngblgclspcsbsdnsmlrtsnddffrncsngntcrphyscltrtsrbth.
phylgntctrscmpsdfbrnchpnts,rnds,ndbrnchs.Thntrnlndsrprsntncstrsndrpn
tsnvltnwhn,bsdnscntfcvdnc,nncstrsthghtthvdvrgdtfrmtwnwspcs.Thlngthfch
brnchcnbcnsdrdsstmtsfrltvtm.”

Can you read either of the previous paragraphs? It’s posable you can, it’s also possible you can’t.  Try and read the paragraph; here is the paragraph as it appears in the book.

Carl Woese and the Phylogenetic Tree

The evolutionary relationships of various life forms on Earth can be summarized in a phylogenetic tree. A phylogenetic tree is a diagram showing the evolutionary relationships among biological species based on similarities and differences in genetic or physical traits or both. A phylogenetic tree is composed of branch points, or nodes, and branches. The internal nodes represent ancestors and are points in evolution when, based on scientific evidence, an ancestor is thought to have diverged to form two new species. The length of each branch can be considered as estimates of relative time.”

Was your understanding correct, could you read the paragraph?  Even if you could read the paragraph, can you honestly say we should write this way? When it comes to communication and writing, one of the most important things I ever learned was the idea, “It is not your audience’s job to figure out what you are trying to say, it is your job to make sure they can understand it.”

Therefore, if you are trying to communicate, you should use anything that makes it easier for your audience.  While it is true that your readers don’t need two spaces to read your sentences if it makes it easier on your reader, no matter how small, shouldn’t you do it?  As writers, it is our responsibility to do everything; we can improve our writings readability.  Next time you want to stick rigidly to a rule, ask yourself, are you doing it for you or your audience? If you are writing a textbook, remember its already hard to learn something new, make sure your writing makes it as easy as possible.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg 

If a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, Why Do We Use Words in Education?

“A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.”
Ansel Adams

A picture is worth a thousand words. As someone who has practiced the art of photography for most of his life, this phrase has always rung true.  The phrase seems to have had its origin in US advertising in the early 20th center. (The Phrase Finder, retrieved June 25, 2019, from https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words.html) While it is certainly possible to learn without images, ask the 63,357 K-12 blind students in the US, (National Federation of the Blind, Blindness Statistics, retrieved June 25, 2019, from https://nfb.org/resources/blindness-statistics) image use is quite prevalent in education.

I don’t know many biology teachers that teach the structure of a eukaryotic cell without using a picture like the following one.

Unannotated version of File:Animal_Cell.svg, Author Kelvin Song, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Animal_Cell.svg. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Unannotated version of File:Animal_Cell.svg, Author Kelvin Song, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Animal_Cell.svg. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Not only does this diagram display the components of a cell, but it also helps to establish a relationship between the different parts of the cell. In the textbook Concepts of Biology, the introduction to the structure-function of eukaryotic cells is 14 pages long.  There are 16 images and 4486 words on 14 pages.  That works out to about 320 words and one image per page.

The ratio of text to images in textbooks changes as students’ progress from kindergarten to college. The structure of the college textbook is different from primary school readers.  For example, in the Jack and Jill or Little Dog Spot readers, the whole page is a picture with a maybe seven words (Jack and Jill went up the hill).  While I don’t think a cell biology textbook written like a Jack and Jill book would be a good idea.  Can you imagine how long a college textbook would be if each page were a full-page image with a single sentence like, “eukaryotic cells contain a membrane-bound nucleus?”

While textbooks composed primarily of images will probably not work, I do wonder if we make proper use of images in textbooks.  One of the most common complaints, besides cost, I hear from students is that textbooks are boring, too long, and hard to read.  While the central point of a textbook should be as a teaching tool not merely as a download of facts, we also need to remember that learning to extract information from text is essential.  There are times when books of exclusively just text are necessary, even essential. I don’t see my Shakespearean literature class having worked without reading the plays. That said I do wonder if textbooks should not only include more images but use the images as a central teaching tool rather than just support for text after all image use is a core part of our mental processes.

Images have been with us for longer than written language.  Some of the earliest examples of human-created images are cave paintings, like the paintings found in the Leang Timpuseng cave on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia.  Scientists have dated the paintings in this cave to at least 35,400 years old.  While they are not as well-known as the paintings in France’s Chauvet Caves, they are older than Chauvet (32,000 – 28,000 years old) making them possibly the earliest cave painting in the world.

Written language was developed around 5200 years ago in the form of the cuneiform script by the Mesopotamians.  The cuneiform script has a direct linkage to images carved in small clay tablets.  The earliest writing was to take these clay tablets and press them into a sheet of clay, “recording the image.”  These images evolved into the symbols of the cuneiform script. In addition to the fact that humans have been using imagery for 10s of thousands of years longer than written language, there is also evidence that images are more effective for learning than text.

One of the ideas behind images being better learning aids, then the text is the theory of dual-coding.  Simply the theory of dual-coding is that images activate two memory centers.  A text-based system and a separate image-based system.  While text by itself only activates a text-based system.  It is also possible that this dual-coding system would work with the other senses, touch, smell, and taste. In education, dual-coding gives the learner twice the number of memory locations for recall.

Beyond cognitive mechanisms like dual-coding, there is also the idea of visual langue. “Visual language is defined as the tight integration of words and visual elements and as having characteristics that distinguish it from natural languages as a separate communication tool as well as a distinctive subject of research.” (Visual Language and Converging Technologies in the Next 10-15 Years (and Beyond)) Infographics are an example of visual language.  Additionally, the paper Visual Language and Converging Technologies in the Next 10-15 Years (and Beyond), says that visual communication increases information transfer. “For example, improvements in human performance from 23 to 89% have been obtained by using integrated visual-verbal “stand-alone” diagrams.”

The ideas of dual-coding, coupled with visual language, suggest that textbooks should include more images.  Additionally, these images should be integrated tightly with the text and viewed as a central component of the learning process. Authors should not consider Images as secondary to the text but as an essential learning component on their own.

However, like so many other aspects of educational research while there is research stating that textbooks are not useful learning tools.  It is not clear if this failure is because textbooks are inherently ineffective learning tools or because of factors other than learning drive textbook design.  As I have said repeatedly, we desperately need more research into what makes an effective textbook.  In the meantime, maybe we should add a couple of pictures.

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The Teaching Cyborg

Pixels or Ink

“The technology itself is not transformative. It’s the school, the pedagogy, that is transformative.”
Tanya Byron

In an earlier blog post (To Be Digital or Not to Be Digital) I discussed how governments and schools are encouraging the adoption of digital media especially etextbooks (etexts) as a means of controlling cost. However, in most cases, these groups have failed to look at whether or not students want to use these etexts. Because of multiple issues, current students are not adopting etexts at a high rate. However, even if institutions deal with the problems of etext adoption, should we be using etexts?

While cost is an import factor in making education accessible, we need to be careful that cost does not run roughshod over pedagogy. In addition to the questions of whether students will use current etexts, we also need to ask to do etexts work, are etexts a legitimate pedagogical tool? Does it make any difference if words are on paper or screen to the learner? I don’t think written language has been around long enough for the brain to evolve to function exclusively with print.

Modern human evolved between 200,000 to 300,000 years ago in Africa (Smithsonian and UK National History Museum. Around 5200 years ago, humans invented writing. Writing gave us the ability to record complex ideas, theories, and information. Writing has only existed for 2.6% – 1.7% of human existence.

For most of writings existence information was recorded on things like; clay, stone, and paper. Today our writing can also be displayed on screens. While it might not be obvious, there is some evidence that the method of reading on paper vs. electronic screen might make a difference in learning.

Digital reading or more specifically reading on a digital device has many advantages. As Singer & Alexander say in their paper Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal “These paperless classrooms allow the reader to alter the size of the text, highlight important passages, and search related terms outside of the text with the click of a button.”

One of the outcomes from Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal are; students had better comprehension when reading a printed book when the text length was more than one page or screen. Researchers have proposed that scrolling text leads to increased cognitive load, which would negatively impact comprehension.

Interestingly when it came to general comprehension (general or broad topics), there was no difference in basic comprehension between digital and paper texts. However, when it came to specific questions (specific facts, comparisons, and deep understanding), there was better comprehension from paper texts over digital. It is possible that this difference between general and specific content has to do with differences in how students read in a digital vs. paper environment.

When the research was designed to study comprehension between digital and paper reading while reducing cognitive load, there were no significant differences in comprehension between digital and paper. However, it did appear that there was a broader deviation in the digital group then the paper group. (The Effects of Reading Mode on Recall and Comprehension). Why is there a difference between different types of comprehension?

Research into student reading has shown that digital readers have developed different reading habits. In Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years it is shown that digital readers make greater use of short cuts like skimming for keywords, bookmarks, and skimming the text then paper readers. Additionally, it has been shown that it is much easier for students to become distracted by multitasking when using digital texts (David B. Daniel and William Douglas Woody, “E textbooks at what cost? Performance and use of electronic vs. print texts,” Computers in Education, Vol. 62 (March 2013): 18-23)

In addition to a lower rate of adoption of etexts, the current research suggests that etexts, in general, might hurt learning especially deep learning. However, except for the cognitive load because of scrolling, there is little information that shows etexts have a significant (cognitive) adverse effect on learning. I would be interested in variations on this cognitive load of scrolling.

While I have encountered a lot of etexts that require scrolling, especially on the web, I have encountered other types of digital page turning. On my tablet (Samsung Galaxy), I have read books that have the same layout as print books where you flip pages from the edge of the screen. I also have, an e-reader (A dedicated ebook reader) again, the reader uses the same basic layout as a print book, and readers turn pages with small buttons. I would be interested in seeing if these methods of digital reading had the same effect on cognitive load and comprehension as scrolling.

The issues of digital devices leading to more significant amounts of skimming versus in-depth reading and increased multitasking is an issue of training. Somewhere along the line, we forgot that part of a students educational training is teaching them how to study and learn. It may well be that due to external forces, education will convert to the effective use of etexts. While there might be problems with etexts, many of the issues could be dealt with by teaching students how to study and read using etexts. Almost all of the ereaders (both physical and app-based) give students the ability to highlight, take notes, bookmark, and link to additional materials. If we teach students to use these tools, it might be that the comprehension differences will go away. Anyone care to look into it?

Thanks For Listening to my Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

To Be Digital or Not to Be Digital

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Confucius

The debate about textbooks and the cost of textbooks has become so large that governments are getting involved. In 2009 California passed SB 48 An act to add Section 66410 to the Education Code, relating to college textbooks. This bill requires publishers of College textbooks to make the books sold to the State schools (Diversities of California, the California State universities, and the California Community College system) available in digital format by 2020.

In 2011 Florida passed SB 2120 which added similar legislation for Florida schools. Several other states have passed bills relaxing regulations on the money assigned to textbooks to allow digital content to be purchased instead of traditional printed material.

Of course, even with these rules, there are still questions concerning digital books. One question is what do the students think about Digital textbooks? Several surveys have shown that e-textbooks (e-texts) have had slow sales, in 2010 e-texts accounted for only 2-3% of textbook sales, in 2012 e-text sales had grown to only 11%. The slow growth in e-texts sales is different than other types of e-books, as Amazon announced in 2010 that it was selling more digital than print books.

With the growth in sales of fiction and nonfiction e-books coupled with advantages like lower cost, more comfortable transport (weight), and the addition of multimedia and connected content it seems like e-texts should be growing exponentially. So why aren’t they? One reason might be the availability of the reader. While I read all my entertainment books in a digital format, I rarely read them on my laptop or desktop computer. I read them on my tablet or dedicated e-ink reader. According to the 2017 Educause study ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2017 While smartphones have reached near-saturation only about 50% of the students surveyed own a tablet. The presence of pictures, multimedia and formatting make e-texts challenging to use on smartphones; therefore another reading device is needed which 50% of the students don’t have.

If the availability of “reading” devices is the primary reason for the slow adoption of e-texts by students, there is an easy solution for governments and schools wishing to encourage the transition. The schools need to provide “readers” like they provide other educational tools. However, before we run out and change regulations we should ask is the lack of “readers” is the primary reason students are not adopting e-texts?

There is plenty of evidence that suggests there are other reasons students are not adopting e-texts. The current generation of undergraduate students is digital natives. Which means they are familiar and comfortable around technology. We might expect them to flock to e-texts. However, we need to remember that schools are historically slow to change how they do things in the classroom, even if they have the money to make changes. Authors Win Shih and Martha Allen in their article Working with Generation‐D: adopting and adapting to cultural learning and change point out that while the current students are digital natives. The students have not grown up with digital technology in their educational environment. Therefore the slow adoption of e-texts could be the students wish to stick with what they know.

Another interesting thing is that students confidence in their ability to use e-texts effectively has decreased over time. In 2012 60% of surveyed students felt they could effectively use e-texts while in 2016 only 44% said they could effectively use e-texts. (deNoyelles, A. and Raible, J. Exploring the Use of E-Textbooks in Higher Education: A Multiyear Study, EDUCAUSE Review, Monday, October 9, 2017) This decrease in comfort is unusual since students comfort with technology should be increasing as students grow up surrounded by more and more technology.

Where this decrease in comfort is coming from is an interesting question. A possible explanation could be the increased interactive and multimedia content in e-texts. In addition to searching, highlighting, and bookmarking features, e-texts have started to include features to ask questions, annotations, and chat with fellow students and faculty. All of these connected functions are in addition to the multimedia and linked content.

As I have written about previously (Shh I’m hunting (for) Digital Natives) Digital Natives while comfortable with technology do not have a deep understanding of how it works. Many faculty don’t understand this and fearful of looking foolish in front of their students don’t use, demonstrate, and model the educational technology used in their class. Because of this lack of training student might feel like they don’t understand how they should be using the e-texts.

Alternatively, since the use of e-texts has increased 24% over the same period as the students’ comfort has decreased
(deNoyelles, A. and Raible, J.Exploring the Use of E-Textbooks in Higher Education: A Multiyear Study, EDUCAUSE Review, Monday, October 9, 2017) , we might be seeing the Dunning-Kruger Effect . Early on in the adoption of e-texts, the students had so little self-knowledge about the use of e-texts they had no ability to judge their lack of skill and knowledge accurately. As time passed and the students gained experience with the e-texts they began to understand how much they didn’t know about the use of the e-text. More research is needed here.

While schools and governments have been quick to support e-texts for all there advantages, lowers cost, ease of portability, interactive and multimedia tools, and several (often incompletely implemented) accessibility features. Most of these groups have failed to look at the user population, the students. Recent studies from groups like Educause has shown that the ownership of dedicated reader devices like tablets has plateaued and may even be decreasing among college students. Additionally, while students are comfortable with technology the limited use of e-texts in K-12 means that students are more comfortable with regular print texts.

If we wish to continue with the increased adoption of e-texts we need to focus on working collaboratively across the whole of K-16. Students need to be comfortable and familiar with e-texts before they start college if we want e-texts to be used generally throughout college. To increase the successes of e-texts in education faculty also need to use and model e-texts in their classrooms so that students understand how to use them. Lastly, schools need to develop strategies to help students select and acquirer devices that will let the students get the most out of the e-text. Most importantly we need to remember e-texts will only work if the end user, the student, finds them helpful, compelling, and affordable.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

We Can Rebuild It, Better, Stronger: The Augmented Textbook

“VR and AR will eventually converge, and smart glasses will take over our digital interactions.”
Carlos López (Founder @ Oarsis)

Augmented Reality (AR) is a process that uses technology to overlay digital content on real-world objects.  The digital content can be provided by, smartphones, glasses, and screens.  While AR is still an emerging technology, the buy-in from major companies like Microsoft with the HoloLens, WebAR support in Google Chrome using ARCore, and Apple’s augmented reality development kit ARKit, likely mean this technology is here to stay.

While the form factor used in AR will undoubtedly go through multiple iterations the primary function overlying digital content will remain constant.  AR is a great place for higher education to embrace technology and stay current rather than playing catch-up.  While wearable AR tech is not yet coming place, we can use the near ubiquitous smartphone with augmented reality.

There are already educational AR tools developed both inside and outside of education.  The Dinosaur 4D+ flash cards by octagon studio bring Dinosaurs to life.  Using an app installed on an Android or Apple device the flash cards allow you to explore and interact with the cards, as you can see here.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has a blog post by Larysa Nadolny Worksheets for the digital age: AR interactive print.  The author gives a brief overview of the creation of these AR worksheets using existing technology.  Case Western Reserve is using AR to help teach anatomy, using the Microsoft HoloLens.  Students can see the anatomical process in active 3D.

Publishing companies are also starting to use AR in their books.  Carlton Books has two categories of AR books an educational category including titles like Explore 360: The Tomb of Tutankhamun and iExplore – Bugs that use AR apps to bring the content to life and let the readers interact with it.  They also have a new category of fiction novels they are working on; the first is The Ghostkeeper’s Journal and Field Guide a book that uses AR to enhance the story and engage the reader.

Many companies are producing AR books. Currently, the publishers are mostly focusing on the children and youth market.  These books have evolved from some simple animations like moving gears and simple 3D animals to full multimedia that include animations, sound, and interactivity.  Some of these books like the previously mentioned The Ghostkeeper’s Journal and Field Guide were written to include the book and its AR content as part of the story.

I have previously discussed how storytelling is a powerful educational tool (you can read about it here), I wish it was used more in textbooks.  If AR can enhance storytelling like these publishers are suggesting it should also enhance learning. While some people think the AR in books is gimmicky, I think anything that increases engagement with books is good.  Also, with regards to AR being gimmicky while Arthur C Clark said: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” technology doesn’t have to be “magical” to be effective in learning.

This discussion of AR and books brings me back to the idea of textbooks.  The addition of augmented reality to textbooks can enhance education.  Let’s start by thinking about the basic content in a textbook.  We could add something simple like sound.  Imagine a music appreciation course; the textbook could describe techniques used in improvisational jazz.  Say for instance arpeggio, where the musician plays the notes of a chord one after the other instead of together.  Think how much easier this would be to understand if the textbook could play clips of music with and without arpeggio.

In biology, we often talk about how seasonal changes affect the local ecology and behaviors of organisms.  A great example of this is the Amazon Floodplain forests.  A large area of the Amazonian forest that is flooded every year in the rainy session when the Amazon river is overflowing its banks. Textbooks will often show flooded, and dry pictures to show the effects of the flooding.  With AR you could show a time-lapse video of the flooding and retreating water to get a better idea of how the water affects the landscape.

Something I remember from my days as an undergraduate in chemistry and biology is the difficulty students have learning to translate a 2D model into 3D.  Molecules are 3D objects when writing about them; we need to represent them on paper.  A simple model would be the wedge and dash model used for methane below.

Structure of Methane By NEUROtiker Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
Structure of Methane By NEUROtiker Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

In the diagram, the solid wedge means the atom is projecting out of the paper towards you while the dotted wedge means the atom is projecting away. I was one of the lucky students I have always been able to picture the 3D shape of from these drawings rather easily. However, I have known a lot of people that have real trouble seeing the 3D form.

Now imagine if the textbook had AR we could design interactions that not only projected the molecule in 3D but let the students manipulate, rotate, and zoom in and out to examine them.  AR projections would be especially useful when you get into more complex structural issues like stereochemistry, were molecules have the same formula but differ in their shape.

A textbook on public speaking could include actual audio and video clips of famous speeches.  A math book could include video clips were professors solve example problems with explanations.  We already know that publishers are taking advantage of AR especially in the case of books for young audiences.  However, AR textbooks are starting to appear, Introductions to Graphics Communication is a college-level textbook using Ricoh’s Clickable Paper.  Publishing companies in Japan have released textbooks with AR; you can read about them here.

Even with the availability of many AR platforms some of which are Augment, Blippar, HP Reveal, Daqri and Layar that offer educational pricing.  I have not seen any Open Educational Resource (OER) textbooks with AR content even the textbooks developed with large federal or privet grants.  In addition to whether governmental and privet organizations will be willing to pay to update these OER textbooks in a few years, are we also going to end up in a situation where we have different classes of textbooks? Is there going to a case where if you can afford it you get a different textbook?

Augmented Reality is a technology that higher education needs to embrace.  We need to develop not only resources using AR but the tools, preferably in a free and opensource platform, we can use to incorporate into any resource where it makes sense.  Textbooks are a resource where AR makes a lot of sense.  Like I have said before we are in the middle of a revolution regarding textbooks it is critical that we don’t focus on just one aspect of the textbook.  We need to think about what we want a textbook to be in total, and one of the things we should add is AR.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

Have Textbook Chapter Review Problems Outlived Their Usefulness?

“Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.”
William S. Burroughs

While I don’t remember the specifics, one thing that I remember from many of the course outlines I had as a student is, read pages x-xx or chapter X and then answer the problems at the end of the chapter. The presence of problems in textbooks is in some way directly related to the creation of the textbook.

Homework - vector maths.jpg, Me and my homework, by Fir0002, From Wikimedia commons, published under Creative Commons license: Attribution NonCommercial Unported 3.0
Homework – vector maths.jpg, by Fir0002, From Wikimedia commons, published under Creative Commons license: Attribution NonCommercial Unported 3.0

The use of problems and answers in the “Textbook” predates the use of the word textbook.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary “The first known use of textbook was in 1779.” However educational books have been in use far longer.  During the 4th century AD, Aelius Donatus wrote school books about grammar one of them Ars Minor is written entirely in the format of problem and answers (Encyclopedia Britannica).

The Ars Minor included both the problem and answer.  The instructor used the Ars Minor in a recall method where an instructor would ask a problem, and the student would recite the answer.  In most modern textbook’s problems are found at the end of chapters or units.

Modern textbook present review problems in one of three methods, first the textbook will contain all the answers to the review problems. In the second method, the textbook will provide the answers to half or just some of the problems.  Lastly, the textbook does not include the answer to any of the problems.

The purpose of review problems in textbooks has historically also had multiple uses. One, students can check their understanding of the material with the problems that have answers. Additionally, if the author presents the solutions in enough detail, they can be used to model problem-solving.  The faculty member is meant to use the problems without answers for quizzes and homework assignments.  While many publishers are starting to provide access to problem banks, I have seen the addition of “new” problems used as an argument for adopting a new version of a textbook.

In this day and age of interconnectivity and the internet does it even make sense to include problems in a textbook?  The concern is students will look up the answers online.  The availability of answers online makes the included problem useless for homework and quizzes. Upgrading to a new edition of the textbook ever 3-4 years will probably not help.  After all, how long do you think it takes to post answers online? While I have not tested this, I suspect all the answers are on the internet in a couple of days to a few weeks from the publication data of most textbooks.

The availability of so many answers online causes several issues.  One, especially when we are dealing with problems at the introductory level plagiarism can be difficult to identify.  Even if I ask the students to write out a paragraph, for example, explaining Mendel’s Law of independent assortment how many ways are there to write that paragraph?  While I’m not sure how many ways there are to write that paragraph, I suspect many generations of students have already written them.

I know some faculty that say education is ultimately the student’s responsibility and if they choose to shortcut the process, they will only harm themselves in the end.  While I think most of this is true, I also think it is the responsibility of the instructor and the institution to hold the line on ethical behavior in the learning environment.

There is a lot of arguments about students using “Google” to answer problems.  I have heard a lot of faculty say that it is beneficial for the student to struggle with the answer to problems.  While that is true to some point, it is also important that the students have a reasonable starting point.  Providing a starting point is where a problem with “complete” answers that model problem solving are useful.  Additionally, the problems need to be solvable; if students can’t solve the problems, it can get discouraging.

I also think the issue of looking up problems on the internet touches on another point.  Most schools state that part of their educational goal is to foster lifelong learning. When the students graduate and leave the school how are they going to engage in that lifelong learning?  They’re going to use the internet.  It is desperately important that we teach students how to use the internet, how to evaluate the validity of information, and how to determine credible sources.  We need to embrace the internet and start including it as part of our educational process instead of just saying “ITS BAD!”

Lastly, the proper use of problems doesn’t only benefit the students but also the instructor.  Problems and their answers should be used to provide feedback on pedagogy and teaching in the classroom.  The solutions to the problems should inform revisions and changes to the course based on student difficulties and misunderstandings.

If problems are essential but the internet makes the usefulness of textbook problems suspect what are we going to do about it?  One, make it clear what is and isn’t allowed as far as “help” is concerned and do your best to enforce this policy.  Help students learn to use research tools, which includes the internet, correctly.  Lastly, concerning textbooks, we should stop including and using problems in the textbook itself.  We should include problems in a separate workbook that we can change every semester or at least every year. Workbooks will let instructors change problems not only to “try” and keep ahead of the internet but to meet the changing needs of the course without having to change the textbook.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

We Need CSS for e-books

“The layout of textbooks, I think, has been done with an assumption that students don’t read.”
James W. Loewen

 

Throughout several decades, I have watched the development of the technology used to build websites. I hand coded my first website using HTML 2 while I was still an undergraduate.

With each additional release of HTML, the addition of features allowed us to add more and more to websites. Additionally, many other technologies have added to websites like JavaScript and cascading style sheets (CSS).

I think CSS was one of the most significant changes to web design. One of the most apparent advantages of CSS is greater control of layout and design. While it would not be the best way to design a website with CSS, you can determine the position of every element on a webpage down to a single pixel.

Modern websites also use CSS to produce different layouts for desktop and mobile viewing. The reason I think CSS was such a significant change is CSS requires a different way of thinking about design and layout.

Proper use of CSS separates the content from the layout. CSS gives us the ability to move, position, and style content any way we want without changing the content. CSS layout is dependent on the use of tags, by giving each element of the website a unique identifier we can use CSS to place that element anywhere we want.

As an example, suppose we wrote three separate paragraphs and gave then CSS tags para1, para2, and para3.

One way to add the tag looks like this:

<p class=”para1”> Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.</p>

Without the unique tag it would look like this:

<p> Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.</p>

In and of itself that is not a big deal. However, since the paragraphs are now named elements, I can use CSS to style them independently of each other on the page.

If I do nothing, the three paragraphs will come one after the other. With just a little bit of CSS, I can make paragraph 2 right justified while the other two paragraphs stay left justified.

The code is:

.para2 {  text-align: right;  !important; }

The other paragraphs will stay left aligned because that is the default.

With some other code, I can make one of the paragraphs disappeared.

.para1 { display: none; }

This code would hide the first paragraph.

As the last example, I can change the order of the paragraphs.

p { display: flex; flex-direction: column;}

.para1 {order: 2 }

.para2 {order: 1 }

.para3 {order: 3}

This code would flip the order of the first and second paragraph while leaving the third where it is. These examples show that the code needed to make changes is rather small.

Now, why am I talking about CSS? Not long ago I wrote a blog discussing the problems I had with glossaries in several textbooks (read that blog here). In short, the traditional glossary at the end of a book was broken up and placed at the end of each chapter. For many reasons, I think this makes glossaries harder to use.

The reason for the glossary at the end of chapters is the fact that textbooks, especially open-source ones, are not meant to be used in their entirety but only the parts that fit your course. Since the book designers do not want extra words in the glossary, they split the glossary up.

Now imagine if we took the readability and accessibility of the electronic publication (EPUB) format and coupled that with the layout advantages of CSS. Now instead of copying, pasting, and editing the text of an open-source textbook with a few lines of code you can make a book for your course. Additionally, if something changes in your class, you can easily edit the book by making changes to the CSS. As an example, suppose we tagged all the text in a chapter with a unique name like chp#. If we added the same tag to the words in the glossary the words would behave the same as the chapter when formatted with CSS.

Now if we hide chp# not only will the chapter text disappear but so will the glossary words. However, you might ask “What if we wanted to move chp#? That will also move the glossary entries.” If the glossary entries moved, we would have the same problem with a glossary that I talked about before.

However, CSS has another little trick I skipped over; you can add tags together. As an example, your chapter text is a paragraph which has the default tag p. The glossary is a list, so each word is a list item which has the default tag li.

If I only wanted to move the chapter text, I would use the tag chp#.p this tag will leave the glossary words alone. To make a change to just the glossary words, I would use the tag chp#.li.

The makers of modern electronic books have done their best to re-create books just like their paper versions. While that is fine even desirable in some cases, we should not limit ourselves to it. After all, it should be comparatively easy to add functionality to electronic books.

We already have the code to make use of CSS it is in every web browser currently in use. This code can be added to e-reader software to give e-readers the ability to handle CSS. As for the creation of the books, we could start with any of the website creation tools and add the ability to export and save the documents (sites) as an EPUB document with CSS.

Having electronic books with expanded capabilities would give us tremendous advantages in addition to just CSS we can imagine being able to embed all kinds of additional content; media, live video, tests, and chat/discussions now books aren’t merely repositories for knowledge but a tool for learning.

We currently have all the tools we need to expand the functionality of the EPUBs format all we need to do is bring them together. Having this new EPUB format as a new tool would give us tremendous abilities as we design new and improved books for the use in the classroom.

 

Thanks for Listening to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg