Are textbooks obsolete?


Are we reaching a point in higher education in which textbooks are no longer necessary? So much information is freely available on the internet, why make students spend $100+ on a brick of paper that they might open once during a final exam cram session?  There are a variety of reasons to ditch the textbook. There are also many reasons to hold on to it. I think you will find that the decision to require a textbook for your course is a complicated one and there is no one right answer. Today I want to talk about the reasons NOT to use a textbook. In my next post I will talk about why I still require them.

1) Money. One of the main driving forces in abandoning the traditional textbook is cost. Last semester in one of my courses the total cost for the textbook, accompanying software and student response system (clicker) was well above $250 if purchased at the campus bookstore. This is a ridiculous amount of money for a non-traditional student population that struggles to get food on the table and keep the lights on. I experience a twinge of guilt every time I think about how much my students spend on course materials.

2) Alternate information sources (i.e. the internet). For some subjects there is a wealth of well put together resources available online. For example, last summer I taught an upper level parasitology course that did not require a textbook. I relied heavily on websites from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Society for Microbiology, and the World Health Organization. There is a fantastic series of podcasts on basic parasitology available for free. I purchased a reference book for myself and used it as a guide for putting together my lectures, but all of the visual aids and reference material were freely available online. In this age of YouTube and Khan Academy are textbooks redundant?

3) Freedom. Reliance on a textbook confines an instructor to the boundaries and the order of the material presented within it. No textbook is perfect. They all have their flaws, confusing wording, too much detail, too little detail, awful graphics, etc. You know your students best and as a teacher it is your responsibility to guide them through the maze of available information. By designing a course around your own outline, rather than the chapters of a book, you can customize a course according to the needs of your students. If students seem to be more engaged in a particular topic you can go further in depth, but for other subjects you might just want to glance the surface of the available knowledge base.

I have not abandoned textbooks, but I do spend a fair amount of time each semester contemplating doing so. How about you? Do you use textbooks? Or do you rely on alternative methods of information delivery?

Critical review of Seth Godin’s essay on “Art and Science and Making Things”

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Steve Jobs

I have played violin since the age of five.   In my youth, music helped build up my sense of worth, helped me enjoy making art with others, and encouraged me to appreciate making.    I have to confess that I hated the discipline of practicing and found it a chore.

As an adult, I reflect upon this time of my life with appreciation for my parents.   I cherish my talent as a musician.   It’s a source of creative thinking for my craft of writing software and leading teams.   When I learn a hard piece of music, I look at the page of dots and start to break the pieces of music into digestible phrases.   I attempt to slowly master each phrase of the music and incrementally integrate the parts into a total expressive form.   This same creative process occurs during software design.  In music and software, one breaks the experience into parts, masters each element, and puts the parts together.

As a musician and a technologist, I tend to pay attention to media discussing the intersection of art, technology and creativity.   Seth Godin recently gave an amazing and inspiring talk at the 2012 World Maker Faire.     His lecture challenged us to recognize how creative thinking and “making” are under attack by industrialization.  As a culture, why do we not value art and creativity?


I appreciated many aspects of Seth’s talk:

  • Just start and share:  Seth challenges us to start creating.   In many cases, our culture has taught us to seek and create perfection.   Many feel that we will never become perfect at making and creating.   So, why should we start?  Mr. Godin loudly challenges us to just start creating and share your work.  As Jon Acuff would say, “Murder perfection.”
  • Where do we teach experimentation and continuous improvement?  In school or the work place, how do we encourage innovation and creative thinking?   How do we create space for experimentation and the inevitable failed trials and experiments?
  • The internet is the platform to connect:  Mr. Godin argues that we are attracted to other makers and creative people.   The internet is a huge opportunity for people to connect with other creative people and inspire each other.

I do have a few challenges with Seth Godin’s talk though.

1)      There is no science lab that actually teaches science: During his talk, he claims that we do not really teach science in labs in schools.   Why?  Students are not discovering new knowledge.   They are just reproducing results and following scripted processes.    I would argue that the discipline of teaching science labs through scripted procedures is important.

  1. Any new scientific discovery must be peer reviewed and reproduced by peers in the community.
  2. In music, learning scales, theory, and imitating classics is important to learning the techniques of music making.   Likewise, scientists need the opportunity to pass along their craft of knowledge discovery to the next generation by teaching tools, processes, techniques and concepts.
  3. In the world of art, apprentices often learn the craft of their masters through imitation and modeling the behavior of a master.

2)      Industrialization stands in conflict with creative and independent thinking: Mr. Godin defines industrialization as the craft of incrementally making stuff better by a small degree.   In Mr. Godin’s view, true art favors the radical introduction of new ideas and expression.   I felt that Seth Godin put industrialization and art in stark opposition to each other.   Can the world use more art and creativity? Yes.  I, however, do not believe that every act of making should be an artistic experience.   Makers define the balance between the radical exploration of ideas (art) and incremental innovation. (industrialization)     Makers define themselves by the purpose of their creative act.  Does the piece exist to say something?  Does the piece exist for a functional reason? Perhaps the true conflict in our culture is pragmatism versus the opportunity for pure expression.

I value Seth Godin’s challenge to create space for true innovation and creative thinking.    This style of thinking needs a place in our educational system.   If we do not teach our students to be creative, how do we expect humanity to survive in a future filled with largely unknown challenges!?

How would you foster creativity in your classes or places of work?

How video games are changing education (infographic)

How video games use education and learning

Thank you and for sharing this.

Please visit our posts on game based learning.

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Happy Thanksgiving to our personal learning network

Happy Thanksgiving

As Sarah and I get our family ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, we wanted to take a moment to share our gratitude with our friends, family and readers.    As a couple, we have enjoyed the process of blogging together in an effort to combine our passions for technology, education, family and leadership.

Through this process, we have had the opportunity to connect with some amazing people.   We have met teachers who really know how to love their students and help them grow in character.   We have connected with educators and leaders who are using technology to engage their students and help them to love learning for life.   I am inspired by our network of servant leaders who still have hope in the world, believe that change starts from inside, and help change the world by having the heart of a teacher.

Thank you for helping us to grow: We are all busy people.   Teachers and leaders are especially busy people.    Despite this, I give thanks for the fellows in our personal learning network who have helped us to grow as people.    As learners, we have become better parents and professionals through our conversations, blog posts we read, and media we encounter.

Thank you for making a difference in the world:  I’m thankful for the times that our personal learning network has reached out to us to share a kind word, a fun resource, or ideas for inspiration.   The world is hurting in so many ways.  Our young people face a world full of profound challenges and distractions.    Teachers… THANK YOU for caring and investing in these students.    Leaders… thank you for your spirit of service and teaching others to do the same.

Thank you for your inspiration:  The world needs more hope.   In the deepest parts of ourselves, we know that our greatest purpose is satisfied when we can love and serve.   The people in our personal learning network  are professionals at caring and serving their communities.   These acts of service can sometimes involve significant investments of time and cost.    They often go without recognition.   Thank you for continuing to inspire us on our journey.

We hope you and your families have a restful and wonderful time this Thanksgiving!


So… What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?


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13 ideas for planning your online collaboration tools

Online teaching software

Take a moment to review Courosa’s setup for a grad school class.


As a professor teaching an online or blended class, one has many tools at your disposal to enable your students to collaborate online. Ultimately, one may consider encouraging collaboration in an online class to engage students through project based learning or to encourage a community of study.

As mentioned in our previous blog post, my wife and I are researching strategies for planning her biology and microbiology classes to move to an online format. We continued our study of materials from the University Of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. In the white paper entitled TEACHING IN THE CLOUD: LEVERAGING ONLINE COLLABORATION TOOLS TO ENHANCE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT ,  Chad Hershock and Mika LaVaque-Manty share lessons learned from the use of online collaboration tools used by University of Michigan. They provide the following motivations for introducing collaboration into the classroom:

• “…students demonstrated significantly greater learning gains, in terms of recall of basic knowledge and critical thinking, when collaborating than when working independently.”
• “Students also reported greater motivation and persistence regarding problem-solving tasks when working collaboratively.”

If you are also planning on teaching online or in a blended course, I would encourage you to review their report. The authors provide case studies from various types of professors. We have provided a check list of planning items mentioned in the report. We hope you find this summary helpful.

Design your online collaboration tools with a purpose
1.  Why will your students want to use the online collaboration tool? Is it easy to use? Have you designed incentive(s) for the students to collaborate? Do they earn points on their class grade for their participation?

2.  Consider encouraging your students to publish their writing and work online. In many cases, public publication of school work on a blog helps the students feel their assignment has meaning. Hopefully, they invest more effort into the quality of their content since the work will be seen by their peers and anyone on the Internet.

Ideas to make things easy for you and your students
3.  Consider time intensive start-up costs: how long will it take to load student accounts or profiles into your online collaboration tools?

4.  Does your school provide technical support for your online collaboration tool?

5.  If your school does not provide technical support for a tool, are you comfortable with supporting your students?

6.  As a school, consider establishing common online collaboration tools to help reduce the number of applications the students need to learn.

7. As a school, consider establishing tools so students have a “single sign-on.” Students get frustrated remembering many passwords.

8. Are your online tools usable and accessible to all students? (plan for students with disabilities)

9. Not all students are technology savvy. Plan tool orientation sessions as required. (pre-recorded or otherwise)

10. Test-drive online collaborative tools from the student perspective.

Details to provide clarity for rules of collaboration
11.  As the students collaborate, encourage your students to agree to a code of conduct. You might consider designing the code of conduct together with your students in the first week of class.

12.  Do the students have a clear understanding of “done” for online collaboration assignments?

13.  Protect the privacy of your student. Design assignments so that students can publish their work under an alias if requested.

At University of Michigan, the teaching staff has used products from Google, Box, and Piazza. Make sure to review their summary chart detailing tools implemented and their teaching purpose.

Google, Box, Piazza at UofM


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Resistance is Futile.

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The internet and technology are here to stay. I firmly believe that as teachers we must choose to embrace them or we will be left out in the cold. The landscape of education is constantly changing. We are called to be agile and adaptable. Still, I continue to encounter faculty members that refuse to adopt new technologies and teaching methods in the classroom. I can’t speak for them, but I can tell you why I can sometimes be resistant.

1)      Time. It takes time to learn something new and to build new curriculum. For example, right now I am trying to find time to learn how to use Camtasia. We downloaded it over a week ago and I still haven’t found the time to sit down and play with it. I have every intention of implementing video podcast lectures next semester, but I have to make time in between advising students, grading papers, and writing exams. I would venture to say that time is my primary barrier to adopting new technologies.

2)      Lack of inertia. Sometimes as educators we like to coast along. We put a lot of time and energy into developing lectures and classroom activities. Once we find an approach that works well we have the tendency to relax a little as we get settled into a routine. In can be very hard to find the motivation to push outside of that comfort zone.  I have spent many long hours building my course curriculum. My first semester teaching was incredibly stressful and I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water. Now that I have taught the same two courses for a couple of semesters, I finally feel like I am finding my stride. Each time I try something new, it disrupts my rhythm and introduces new stresses. Personally, I find a certain amount of change necessary to prevent boredom, but I can see how attractive it can be to just teach the same course every term without changing. It can be easy to just coast along.

3)      Fear of failure. Trying something new is exciting but it is also a little nerve racking, no matter the context. You never know if something new is going to work fantastically or fall completely flat. You can run the risk of preventing learning rather promoting it. I don’t want technology to be a distraction. As an undergraduate student, I had a biochemistry instructor that was big into student directed and project based learning. She was very eager to try out new teaching methods. Unfortunately, I don’t think I learned much about biochemistry that semester. I did, however, learn how to code in HTML. This experience is always in the back of my mind as I consider using a new approach in my classes. I want to be sure that I am not making the same mistakes. Sometimes I think this limits my openness to new ideas.

The traditional lecture format has worked for centuries, why change?  Because our students have changed. The world has changed. We must change too. We must overcome our own doubts and shortcomings to best serve our students.

Related posts:

  1. 7 Strategies For Planning Your Online Course
  2. 7 ideas for creating a student centered learning environment by Paul Andersen
  3. 5 ways to get more results in your teaching environment.
  4. How can YouTube support great teachers? Can we flip education?
  5. Organization Before Innovation

Envisioning the future of education technology

10 resources inspiring improvements in education through open innovation

We are open


Why should education leaders pay attention to “open” technology and innovation?

1. As education leaders, we seek to improve education while reducing cost for our schools and students.

2. As education leaders, we desire to improve education while building upon the experience and resources of other communities.

3. For education leaders and teachers, time is a precious asset that should not be wasted. Sharing data and technology can help save time.

There is a common perception that open technology is only useful to those geeks at work who keep our computers going. Do you use the Internet? Since you’re reading this blog article, we know that the answer is “yes.” Our lives have all been improved by open source software. How? As of May 2012, 62% of the web servers on the Internet use an open source software known as Apache web server, a free software application that serves web page content. If Apache web server did not exist, it’s very possible that surfing the Internet would be more expensive. Do you have an Android phone or tablet? If the answer is yes, you are a user of Linux, a free operating system. If Linux did not exist, the cost of your Android phone and tablet would be much more expensive.

In general, when communities decide to share and pool resources, the world saves time and money. In many cases, open data and technology can help inspire innovation and community engagement. Open technology encourages us to build upon the lessons and experience of other communities.  I wanted to share a brief list of tools and organizations that are helping to improve education through open source, open data, and open innovation.

10 resources inspiring improvements in education through open innovation

1. – Under the banner of “open course,” institutions of higher education have started sharing course materials for free! The aggregates open course materials into a single searchable website.

2. – If you’re going to teach the next generation of computer science hackers, students may need a computer for experimentation. The folks from offer a fully functional computer for $25 to $35.

3. Art of community – Great projects, reforms and movements start with community. I greatly encourage anyone interested in building a community for a cause or project to consider reading this book, “The art of community.” It’s free too!

4. – SchoolForge advocates the use of open texts and lessons, open curricula, free software and open source in education.

5. Moodle – Moodle is a free Course Management System (CMS). This free web application enables educators to create effective online learning sites.

6. OpenIdeo – OpenIDEO provides a “global community that will draw on your optimism, inspiration, ideas and opinions to solve problems together for the collective social good.”  It would be awesome to see more education related challenges here.

7. Knight foundation – The Knight foundation supports open innovation that creates engaged communities and democracy. I appreciated their last “news challenge” motivating innovators to share project ideas for improving communities using open data, networks, and mobile technology.

8. WordPress – WordPress has become a dominant blog platform for many change makers. Corporations often use this software as a general purpose platform for designing websites.

9. – helps to “increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.” Check out the education related data sets.

10. – The creative commons license has created a legal platform for sharing ideas, media, and resources. Learn more about education materials shared under creative commons license.


Closing thought:

As you create educational resources, how can you share your work to help other educators, students and schools?

Related posts

  1. Michael’s Free Book Index
  2. 5 reasons to love Khan academy for computer science
  3. 7 ideas for creating a student centered learning environment by Paul Andersen
  4. How to build a social networking site for free using Elgg
  5. Jennifer Pahika challenges us to “code a better government”

7 Strategies For Planning Your Online Course

Online teaching software

Take a moment to review Courosa’s setup for a grad school class.

For many institutions of higher education, online degrees provide a means of increasing access to education, reaching out to “non-traditional” learners who often work, and provide a platform for innovations in teaching. Whether you teach face-to-face or online, the mission is still the same. Educators want to engage their students, teach them to be lifelong learners and communicate with clarity. How do you do this without increasing your work load by two or three times?

My wife and I started this blog to give ourselves a forum to study how we can combine our passions for technology and education. My wife, a professor of Biology, has a professional goal teaching her classes online. She, however, has four main concerns for teaching online:

  • What is the time commitment for teaching an online class?
  • What software should I start to learn to teach online?
  • How do I assess performance in an online class?
  • How do I communicate complex ideas and topics online effectively?

We decided to research strategies and encountered a paper entitled “Introduction to teaching online” by Erping Zhu, Patricia Payette, and Deborah DeZure.   This work published by the “Center for Research on Learning and Teaching” at University of Michigan provides a brief introduction to some of the complexities of teaching online.
For simplicity, we will provide a summary of the major tips from the paper:

1. Start with your goals: During your class design, document your course goals and outcomes. Based on your goals, design your class strategies and use of technology.

2. Experiment in your face-to-face classes first: If you are interested in learning to teach online, start to experiment with technology and collaboration tools in your current face-to-face classes.  What technology will be user friendly to your students?   What technology fits your personality?

3. Design your assessment strategy: Design how you want to assess your students online. For example, a student can easily cheat on a multiple choice test. The authors recommend teachers assigning projects that force students to
document answers supported by reasoning. In other words, students should be encouraged to provide answers and document why their answer is correct.

4. Request training from your school: In your school, consult your leadership regarding opportunities to take formal classes on teaching online. Teaching online requires a change in technology usage and engagement strategies. All schools launching online classes should support their faculty with training materials.

5. All students are not technology savvy: In your course design, connect students with orientation materials, technology support contact information, and tutorials. In the ideal case, teachers should not be left to support all course “help desk” questions. Students, without a doubt, will have challenges with the technology tools of your course. Connect your students with your school’s official technology support help desk to help reduce your email load.

6. Know your options for teaching with the cloud:  You may also be interested in reviewing a more recent paper(2011) from Univ. of Michigan entitled “TEACHING IN THE CLOUD: LEVERAGING ONLINE COLLABORATION TOOLS TO ENHANCE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT.”   It provides more detailed comments on modern cloud services that teachers can use.

7. Teach well:  The authors challenge teachers to re-think the design of their courses when you teach online.   It’s ok to re-invent yourself.   It’s pretty easy to take existing face-to-face material and simply do the same thing using online mediums.   They, however, argue that this strategy is less successful in most cases.


I really appreciated the authors contrasting three approaches for teaching an online course

Teacher-centered(limited interaction)

  • This approach can reach a large number of students. This approach does not encourage collaboration or interaction.
  • Assignments focus on individual student efforts through reading, papers, etc.
  • E-mail level: ~20 email questions per week

Student-centered(high interaction)

  • This approach favors smaller class sizes and students who are highly motivated.
  • Class break down Idea: 40% discussion, 20% report, 40% final paper
  • Teacher starts class by recommending readings. For the first few weeks of class, the teacher leads discussion of readings. In the later seasons of the class, students are encouraged to facilitate class seminar sessions.

Mixed approach of teacher-centered and student-centered

  • The student/teacher e-mail complexity will be higher for this case.
  • The authors describe details regarding how student-centered and teacher-centered approaches can be mixed. Please see the paper for details.



What other tips could you share with the community regarding teaching an online or blended course?