April 2, 2013

From Gerald R. Lucas

Upcoming Projects

While I have been having a great semester, I have a couple of projects that I’m excited to get into. Teaching wise, this has a been a good semester—maybe one of my best ever in Georgia—but I’m looking forward to putting what I’ve learned about teaching and learning into further development.

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Between 1997 and 2002, I won six teaching awards or commendations. These were all in graduate school while at USF. This recognition made me think I had something to offer students as professor in an institution of higher education. Since moving to Georgia in 2002, I have received exactly zero recognition as a teacher in the form of awards from my department or college. I always thought it had something to do with central Georgia and student expectations. However, now I’m thinking it has more to do with technological progress and an old style approach to teaching.

Ever since seeing Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk on building a school in the cloud, I have been energized. There are several aspects of teaching that I struggle with—the dominant one seems to be my personality. It often gets in the way of my being an effective teacher. No matter what I do in other ways to be a progressive educator, they are usually overshadowed by comments about my being “intimidating,” “difficult to approach,” or “lacking respect.” While I do not make conscious decisions to project these personality traits, they do seem get in the way. Therefore, what’s the best way to overcome them? Remove my chances of displaying them.

Essentially he argues that the old paradigm of education should be buried like the British Empire that invented it. The “sage on the stage” is over. Students need to discover their own knowledge, and with today’s access to information, learning is about engagement, discovery, and participation.

While Mitra’s idea is not really new, what is new is students’ access to gadgets. I’m familiar with similar arguments; Ted Nelson’s might be the first I encountered back in the day. Next, I think I read Donald Finkel’s Teaching with Your Mouth Shut and Bruce Sterling’s (yes, the science fiction writer) Tomorrow Now, and all left the impression that I should be removing myself as the nineteenth-century pedagogue. However, at the time, technology did not provide a dependable and equitable solution. I could simply not count on each student having access to a networked gadget.

Well, times have changed, and with them come new opportunities for teaching. Couple this new access with another digital development, and I have the foundation for my projects.

Ever since Apple introduced iBooks Author just over a year ago, I have been excited at the possibilities. Apple had done what they do best: given people tools to create and engage the culture that we live in. Before then, creating an ebook was a chore; in fact, no software really offered an easy solution. IBooks Author seemed just the ticket: it used a familiar interface and equipment. What could be better? I even authored a grant proposal that allowed the department to get thirty new iPads, and I used them to teach two new courses, which I also authored, last fall: Digital Humanities was offered on iTunes University, and eText Authoring taught an introductory course to authoring ebooks. The former used iPads for taking the class, while the latter allowed students to create their own content.

However, while both classes went well, something wasn’t quite right. While I’m comfortable with Apple’s products, I was uneasy requiring them for my classes. I’ve always been of the mind that choice is crucial in deciding on technology, especially those gadgets that become intimate parts of our lives. While Apple was the first to offer a mass access to ebook authoring, I’m happy to say that they are no longer the only circuit on the board.

Enter Inkling’s Habitat. I remember signing up for Habitat almost at the same time Apple released iBooks, but I heard nothing further from them until recently. Inkling has released a development environment for the masses. Habitat offers three major benefits over iBooks Author: (1) it is cross-platform; (2) it is web-based; and (3) it is collaborative. Each of these facts made me ditch iBooks Author faster than a Ferrari traverses the Nürburgring.

Habitat also uses HTML and CSS, both of which I have a familiarity with. I used to teach them, so using Habitat will make me refresh my knowledge—always a good thing. More on Habitat in future posts.

So, my projects: first will be a coursebook for my classes, which I’ll call The LitMUSE Coursebook (original, I know). See the photo above for a look at it in Habitat. Next will be a textbook to support my online sections of Writing for Digital Media. Details about these are forthcoming.

Suffice it to say, I’m ready for the semester to end, so I can upgrade my approach to teaching.