Augmented Texts:The Future of Digital Texts

Which do you prefer, the look and feel of the paper and print book, or have you already grown accustomed to the e-book?  If e-books are your preferred medium, you may have already run across the next advance in e-book technology.  Here’s the Wall Street Journal on experiencing ‘augmented digital texts’, that is, interactive electronic books and articles.    

The increasing popularity of e-readers has resulted in a rise in the number of active readers; and ease of access has many readers reporting reading more than they did just five years ago.  Electronic versions of text, however, are cheaper than paper and print versions and the rising popularity of e-books has proven a double-edged sword for publishers.  On the one hand, publishers are experiencing a wave of new readers and an uptick in the volume of sales.  On the other hand, the adjusted pricing model means that, for many publishers, an increase in digital sales actually means less revenue.  Publishers are struggling to create value in ways that make up that lost revenue.  One such possibility is to offer readers enhanced versions of electronic texts. And publishers are now experimenting with just how much consumers are willing to pay for additional, interactive content.  In addition to the prescribed texts, enhanced versions of popular books might, for example, offer audio and video support. 

Enhanced versions may be catching on: there were more than 4 million copies of Jane Leavy’s biography of Mickey Mantle, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood,” sold.  The music industry offers an analog here.  The music industry has been producing enhanced CDs, or CD Plus, since 1998 and while there isn’t always a difference in cost between the ECD and the standard CD, the ECDs have proven much more popular:

“This is a period of testing,” said David Steinberger, Perseus’s CEO. “We know the audiences for the two products are different. How do you craft the right level of video? What is the right release schedule? If you assume this is closely analogous to what we have today in the market marketplace with hardcovers and paperbacks, chances are that you’ll miss some good opportunities.”

The ubiquity of e-readers and digital texts has presented educators with a fresh set of challenges as well.  Many classroom educators are struggling to integrate these valuable technologies into the classroom in ways that are neither disruptive nor irrelevant.  And many publishing and educational companies are working to do just that – to integrate new technologies with relevant content presented through a variety of mediums.  Inanimate Alice, for instance, offers a good example of the look and feel of augmented text and demonstrates the way that a wide variety of information can be incorporated into an interactive text.  This enhanced e-book takes you through the story of Alice and her imaginary digital friend, Brad. The four episodes offer progressive levels of interactivity, with the first episode offering minimal interaction, but increasing to a high level by the end of episode four.  The progressive level of Inanimate Alice makes it appealing to a wide range of ages and viewers. ‘Inanimate Alice,’ augments traditional storytelling through the use of images, sounds, text, and interaction and allows students to develop multiple literacies (literary, cinematic, artistic, etc.) in combination with the highly collaborative and participatory nature of the online environment.

Consumers of digital media, including students, stand to benefit immensely from the emergence and refinement of enhanced texts.  It’s a trend worth watching.  And we look forward to seeing how these new augmented texts are put to use in classrooms across the country

The Focus on Mathematics Achievement: A Rising Trend

Last year I wrote a blog post  for the National Associsation of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) titled “Math Education Needs More Emphasis”.  In the post I made a number of contrasts between the areas of reading and math. As those contrasts make clear, there is clearly more attention, in terms of money, print, and resources, that is allocated to reading than to math.  As further evidence of the disparity between the attention devoted to these two skills, I just used Google’s new Ngram viewer , which allows users to compare the occurrences of certain words in written English text, to compare the terms ‘reading achievement’ and ‘mathematics achievement’ from 1800 to 2000. As the graph below indicates, there is both good news and bad news.  

While the graph clearly demonstrates a disparity, the good news is that there is cause for hope.  The graph documents an increasing level of attention on mathematics achievement.   Slightly discouraging, however, is the fact that the graph also indicates a declining level of attention on reading achievement.  There is clearly a rising trend in the occurrences of the term ‘mathematics achievement’ in print from 1980 through 2000.  That’s a good sign.  More promising still, the last decade has seen the rise of NCLB, more detailed international comparisons of student achievement, and now the Common Core.  It will be interesting to see the total and relative impact of these two constructs when books from this decade are included in this new Google search feature.

A Daily Newspaper for the Digital Age

The proliferation of e-readers and digital reading devices has permanently altered the way we access content.  With so much material readily available, consumers have come to expect that much of that content will be free.  Much has already been written on what that expectation has wrought and the way that ‘free content’ has upended the publishing and news industries.  The newspaper industry, for example, has been particularly hard hit by the abundance of freely available content; and most consumers now expect much of their mainstream news to be free of charge.  As a result, subscription sales have dropped, advertisers are no longer paying premium prices for ad space, and many century old papers have shuttered their doors. 

That havoc, however, may be short-lived and may just signal an industry in flux.  Publishers are looking outside the industry for ways to remain both relevant and profitable.  Apple’s iPad, for example, has demonstrated that consumers are willing to pay for good content – even in digital form.  As the New York Times reports, News Corp is teaming with Apple to create The Daily, an iPad-centered newspaper. The Daily will offer an app-like news atmosphere of rich media and photography built specifically around the iPad experience.  News Corp. is hoping that by changing the way they deliver content, they can resurrect the idea of a profitable daily newspaper:

With The Daily, the News Corporations can enter the digital newsstand business in earnest with a new product that was never free on the Web and in a format for which payments are easily made. When I am on a Web browser and I bump into a pay-wall, I reflexively pull back unless it is in front of something I really must have. But when I’m in the App Store on an iPad, I’m already in a commercial environment: pushing the button to spend small money on something I’d like to see or play with doesn’t seem like such a sucker’s bet.

News Corp.’s newest venture blends old practices with new delivery methods. They will still employ a news team operating behind the scenes and the news will be produced in the evening, much like a standard newspaper.  But the latest edition will be delivered the next morning – in a format specifically developed for the iPad – at the push of a button. 

This is a promising development for the news industry.  The Daily goes live January 17th.

Chiefs For Change

Here’s a recent announcement worth mentioning: In case you haven’t heard, five state education leaders recently announced that they have formed a leadership group to emphasize certain education policy positions.  Chiefs for Change includes Tony Bennett (Indiana), Deborah Gist (Rhode Island), Paul Pastorek (Louisiana), Gerard Robinson (Virginia), and Eric Smith (Florida). 

The five chiefs said that even though they work on important policy issues through the Council of Chief State School Officers, they felt the need to push a subset of policies through a separate group. Pastorek said the five want to “set ourselves apart and pursue a much more aggressive path toward success.” It’s not a partisan agenda, he said, but a “cutting-edge, pushing-the-envelope way of putting children at the top of all of our decisions.” Bennett said the five have “kind of started our own union, a children’s union,” in which the interests of students trump those of adults.

Among the issues that the group will emphasize will be results-based systems of accountability, higher academic standards, and school choice.  Chiefs for Change is expected to release a draft of their policy agenda soon.  We’ll follow their progress closely as they launch their efforts.

Reading Across Boundaries: The Lexile Framework for Reading for All Students

In an increasingly globalized world national borders mean less than before.  Boundaries have grown more porous and the offerings of each nation’s popular culture have found eager consumers in other countries.  Consumers have shown their taste to be  cosmopolitan and have proven hungry for all flavors international.  Americans, on the other hand have remained largely indifferent to trends outside their own borders, preferring instead to stick to their own homegrown literature, music, and movies.  As this New York Times article makes clear, Americans have traditionally resisted the pop culture of other nations.  But that may be changing:

Among foreign cultural institutes and publishers, the traditional American aversion to literature in translation is known as “the 3 percent problem.”  But now, hoping to increase their minuscule share of the American book market – about 3 percent – foreign governments and foundations, especially those on the margins of Europe, are taking matters into their own hands and plunging into the publishing fray in the United States.

While a few international writers have experienced commercial success, it has mostly been an uphill battle for recognition for writers outside the U.S.  The Internet, however, may finally be introducing a whole nation of readers to a host of newly-discovered writers.  There are currently several sites that specialize in literature translation.  Amazon offers AmazonCrossing which attempts to “introduce readers to emerging and established authors from around the world with translations of foreign language books, making award-winning and bestselling books accessible to many readers for the first time.”

One of the benefits to this effort is that foreign titles will now be available in English.  In addition to offering American readers exposure to an entire catalog of previously unknown gifted writers, foreign students may now have access to some of their favorite titles in English.  We’ve written before on the ascent of the English language.  English is now the predominant language of business and science, and students abroad assiduously study the English language as a way to prepare for their entrance exams.  One of the primary ways to do that, of course, is through the targeted and sustained reading of English. 

MetaMetrics has recently partnered with ETS, creator of the TOEFL Junior test, to provide just such a service for international students (starting with those in Korea) who wish to not only practice their reading, but to practice it at a targeted reading level.  According to MetaMetrics President Dr. Malbert Smith, “With Lexile measures and our new book search on the TOEFL Junior site, we are simplifying the process of matching students with books that can help them strengthen their English reading skills and achieve their goals.”  It’s our hope that the Lexile Framework for Reading will not only help American students improve their reading level, but also allow ELL students to improve their English ability through the use of Lexile-linked books and articles.

If you haven’t yet seen the new website and service, be sure to check it out.

The Development of a Writer: Write Now, Write Away

Here’s Paul Collins over at Slate taking a look at the first ‘How-To’ guide for fiction writing and reminding us that much of today’s advice to aspiring writers bears remarkable similarity to what was dispensed over 100 years ago.  The first known guide offering systematic advice on creative writing  (as contrasted with ancient Greek works on the essential elements of drama) was How to Write Fiction by the 26 year old Sherwin Cody.  There’s nothing all that startling in Cody’s suggestions – at least not by today’s standards – and most of it is by now familiar enough that there’s little need to belabor the details: write what you know, show don’t tell, and, of course, don’t plan on writing full-time.  As an aside, Cody’s Victorian upbringing shines through in his admonishment that art should shy away from controversy or his warning that a good writer does not make the reader uncomfortable with stories about ‘peculiarities’.   Today, Cody’s work strikes us as a bit quaint.  But that’s not entirely fair.  The idioms may reflect today’s culture, but many of the contemporary ‘how-to-write’ guides proffer the same sort of generalities as Cody.

What is useful about Cody’s work, however, – and other ‘how-to’ works, more generally – is what it represents, or, more accurately, what it implies.  Implicit in Cody’s work is the idea that good writing is something that can be improved through effort, that good writers can be developed through hard work and by applying certain principles of practice to their work.   Despite the occasional insistence that great writers are born, not created, there’s nothing inherently strange in the idea of learning how to write.  Expertise in writing, like any human endeavor, is an adaptation acquired through repetition and hard work. 

We’ve written before on the work of Anders Ericson and on what it takes to move novice to expertise.  Ericson found that attaining expertise in a chosen activity required the following attributes:

  • Targeted Practice: practice at a developmentally appropriate level
  • Real-time Corrective Feedback: specific and based on one’s performance
  • Intensive Practice: practice performed on a daily basis (or often)
  • Distributed Practice: practice over a long period of time; allows for monitoring growth toward expert performance
  • Self-Directed Practice: practice in the absence of a coach, mentor, or teacher

There’s no reason to think that the act of writing is any different, or that writing somehow exists outside the range of other human activities and belongs to a special distinct class of human behaviors.  The qualities of a good writer are no more ineffable than what makes a good reader or a good cook.  If we think of writing as just one more human activity, as on a par with other endeavors, like swimming, mathematics, or chess, then we can dispense with the whole notion of treating writing as an essentially distinct activity and as somehow beyond the influence of practice.  Instead, we have much to gain by treating the practice of writing as one more useful skill that can be trained.

The idea that writing can be improved through practice and that great writers can be trained applies to all forms of writing – even fiction.  In fact, there’s been recent evidence to suggest that creativity – presumably the essential element of a great fiction writer – is a skill like any other, one that, in addition to responding to environmental cues, can be cultivated and learned.

Sites, like Figment, are attempting to do just that by providing a forum where students can read and write fiction.  By providing a social network, Figment allows students to present their writing to a peer community for review and criticism.  Our own work at MetaMetrics has incorporated Ericson’s research into our metrics.  In fact, The Lexile Framework for Writing (and its applications: MyWritingWeb and Oasis) is built around the idea that students have the ability to improve their writing skill through frequent, sustained, and targeted practice; and that writing performance – like reading comprehension and math readiness – may be measured.  Writing is a measurable skill, and by providing an automated platform in which students may practice, it is our hope to facilitate an environment where students may improve their writing ability through sustained and deliberate practice.

More Uses for Mathematics

In my high school mathematics classroom, I have often found it difficult to offer students relevant applications of the material we study. This is particularly true when the topics are abstract or concepts in number theory.

As mathematics teachers we have access to an increasing amount of material in map coloring and vertex-edge graphs. These topics in mathematics are the first experiences for students’ study of social and network analysis. The Common Core standards in mathematics have included this material as a part of their expectations as well.

My examples of vertex-edge graphs have always included the networks between airports, trains, one-way streets, etc.  In the classroom, however, I often felt the students found these applications rather dull. That’s why I was excited to hear “The Warrior Mathematician” on NPR recently.   This story provides a strong example of how networking is used to find and capture terrorists and criminals. In the story Major Ian McCulloh, deputy director of the Counter-IED Operations Center in Baghdad stated that “Civilian firms have used social network analysis for decades to map out those relationships and identify the organization’s vulnerabilities. The same principles apply to threat networks. This helps us identify their vulnerabilities.”

There are familiar civilian analogs as well.  Law enforcement, for example, has made good use of technology, science, and mathematics to prevent crime and solve criminal cases.  A number of law enforcement agencies have gone even further and used certain mathematical principles to forecast trends and take preventive action before those trends become too far-reaching.   The Warrior Mathematician, along with an increasing number of civilian instances, offers students a compelling look at the relevance and application of mathematical principles.

Design A Video Game, Win A Writing Contest

The recent National Writing Project (NWP) Annual Meeting featured a series of presentations and workshops about video games.  Not video games as sources of distraction, promoters of obesity, or providers of instant gratification.  These sessions focused on video games and writing.

Turns out, there’s more of a connection between video games and literacy than most teachers realize.  And now, several educators and non-profit organizations are exploring the inclusion of video games as a new and valid genre for students to study and compose.  The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards  now include a video game design category in the annual contest for students in grades 7-12.  Added last year, the newest of the 29 categories recognizes the creative and narrative elements involved with video gaming.  And of course, it taps into the 21stcentury literacies and relevancy at the same time.  The contest deadline is January 29, 2011, so there’s still time for students to get involved.

In one NWP session, Alan Gershenfeld, founder and president of E-Line Media, emphasized this connection through narrative structure and theme.  Gershenfeld, who is also the former Chairman of Games for Change, demonstrated several games that encourage students to make positive social change in the world.  These are not typical “educational software” that floods the market with low-end graphic design and barely disguised multiple choice questions.  These games use high quality design, role playing, and complex story lines to immerse the students in new situations and enable the development of empathy.

Video games share narrative elements with other fiction genres.   Plot development moves the game forward through different challenges; characters are created (often interactively) with different strengths and grow throughout the game.  Settings are well developed, often creating whole new worlds for the characters to explore.  And the games that Gernshenfeld featured focused on serious, thought-provoking themes.  Some, like The Sims or Civilization series, have been popular for quite a while.  Others, like PeaceMaker, which focuses on Israeli-Palestinian relationships, and ClimateChallenge, which addresses environmental issues, are less main-stream but are becoming more commonly available to educators.

Focus on video gaming as narrative?  As further evidence that video games aren’t all about the flash, students don’t have to have advanced software or programming skills.  They don’t even need access to a computer.  Students can complete the application and make their pitch for their original game on paper. Imagine that.

Integrating technology into the classroom must go beyond using the tools that others have developed; real integration will come from understanding the new genres of our world and incorporating them into our curriculum.

Harvesting the Data: What Social Media Sites May Soon Provide

Popular social media and networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have undoubtedly changed the way we communicate. What many don’t realize is that all those status posts and “likes” and “dislikes” are flooding the Internet with data; usable, searchable, baffling data. According to a recent article in Slate, over 500 million users are accessing Facebook and each of those users is creating an average of 90 pieces of content a month. Slate details how others have decided to utilize this data to examine various trends:

Our first stop is Openbook. The site lets you search public Facebook updates and was created to demonstrate how FB’s privacy settings are confusing: People don’t realize how widely they are sharing personal information. And, indeed, when you do a search like “cheated on my wife,” you discover updates that would’ve been better left in the privacy of one’s own mind. Same with “my boss sucks.”

 From a research standpoint, however, this kind of commentary can be tapped for more useful purposes:

It would be helpful for transportation planners to know the places where people complain the most about traffic. Educators could see the data and sentiment analysis around how a community feels about its local schools.

Facebook’s own data team sifts through their own information searching for trends. One trend they’ve already analyzed is the times of year their users seem to be the happiest.  Using the language of their user’s posts, researchers determined that Americans tend to be happiest on Thanksgiving Day – Mother’s day is a distant second.

There’s much more to be gleaned through the analysis of Facebook data; and much of this data will provide a treasure tr to future researchers.  It would be useful, for example, to analyze the writing level of Facebook’s many users utilizing a metric like The Lexile Framework for Writing, to gauge how the semantic and syntactic ability of writers increase over time.  It might also be useful to assess the writing level of students, in a particular region or area, when writing informally as contrasted with their more formal writing attempts.  Whatever we find in the data, it would certainly be interesting to assess student’s dominant mode of writing in non-assessment situations.

Kids Learning on Their Own?

At the heart of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, was an Indian physicist who 10 years ago installed computers in slum neighborhoods to watch how kids interacted with the technology.  Dr. Mitra’s latest brainchild is an idea called Self-Organized Learning Environment, or SOLE.  He is convinced that kids can learn by themselves with Internet-connected computers answering well-posed questions in small groups.  The small groups are essential to learning in his view.

One child in front of a computer learns little, four discussing and debating learn a lot.

The December 4-5 Wall Street Journal article by Matt Ridley describes how Dr. Mitra poses questions such as, “How do you stop something moving?”.  After a week or so, he follows up with a second question more closely tied to the curriculum such as “Who was Isaac Newton?” and then “What’s the connection between Newton and stopping things moving?”.  Schools in the UK, Australia, Columbia and India are experimenting with the concept now and he’s been approached by educators in Nevada, Maine and San Francisco.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of these experiments, there is much to be learned along the way.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.