Your school could benefit from a bit of holiday retail therapy

I often tell education audiences that there was a week, maybe ten days, in 1987 when your school had better technology than kids have in their bedrooms or backpacks. That was a historical accident that will never happen again. Wise educators not only leverage the talent, knowledge and expertise of their students, but their stuff too. It is incumbent upon us to not only build upon what kids know and expect when they come to school, but kids also own technology that they may enhance the learning process.

The holiday season offers a chance for some educational stimulus if you’re a savvy shopper. Here’s how…

Let Santa bring the iPod
Some schools are building iPod Labs. iPod Labs! I have no problem with the iPod, I own at least eight of them and am on my fourth iPhone. However, I have serious problems with the notion of iPod labs. 1) Didn’t we litigate the issues of efficacy regarding computer labs twenty-five years ago? 2) iPod Labs? Really? Does this mean that kids lineup from shortest to tallest once a fortnight to go visit the school iPods because they would never see one otherwise?

Are they then taught how to use an iPod? Are there iPod tests? Do some kids get a “D” in iPod?

When did iPods become worthy of study?

If your school believes that iPods hold educational value, especially the those capable of shooting video and monitoring physical activity, quietly suggest to parents that they get their children one as a gift that will be welcomed by the curriculum. There is no reason for schools to fetishize the iPod or spend limited funds on what kids might already own. Besides, the iPod is the ultimate personal technology. Sharing one stinks.

Great 21st Century educators spend 30 minutes per month at Toys ‘R Us
This has two benefits. 1) You find great toys that may enhance learning; and 2) Educators gain a greater respect for the world in which their students live. Hit the toy store, read the weekend sale circulars and you may find all sorts of cool teaching aids available for a song. Past holiday seasons have led to sub-$50 digital microscopes like the Eyeclops, low-cost video projectors, programmable robots, inexpensive drawing tablet, Hot Wheels cars capable of measuring velocity and more.

Holiday sales are an opportunity to stock up on batteries and extra LEGO. Robotics brings S.T.E.M. to life, but who wants to build an elevator without a building around it? Stores often offer buckets of LEGO bricks as a loss-leader. Batteries are often discounted too. Stock up!

Hit the red tag table
Last year’s sales duds may be just the thing you need to bring your classroom to life. That slightly sad puppet or Teddy bear may be just the actor you need for video productions. That $14 Blue Man Group Percussion Tubes set can help score a podcast or be played by a robot your kids invent. Art supplies and creepy failed action figures may be just what you’ve been looking for and at “such a price!”

Become an Associate
Why should kids write book reports when they can review books on and have their reviews actually help others? Alternatively, ask students to write reviews of their favorite books, place those recommendations on your class web site, blog or Wiki and if you become an Associate, up to 6% of all purchases may be earned to purchase books for your classroom library. This may motivate student reading and provides an authentic audience for their writing.

Treat Yourself or a Colleague to a Book or Two
I have assembled a large collection of books that should interest creative educators and parents for The Constructivist Consortium. Peruse the virtual bookstore and Amazon will deliver the books to you in just a few days.

I also created a list of required reading for those interested in “school reform” for The Huffington Post. This article includes fifteen or so classics on school improvement.

Use your imagination and start shopping!

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I bought a couple of iPads last weekend. I’ve already shared with colleagues how although I think it will be wildly successful in K-12 for all of the wrong reasons*, I’d buy one anyway because:

1.    I like new gadgets
2.    I like Apple products (since 1985 – prior to that I preferred Commodore)
3.    It’s my job to keep up with emerging technology
4.    My best friend has one
5.    I’m an adult with disposable income

I didn’t wait for the 3G model because I don’t want yet another stinkin’ AT&T bill. Had they come up with a fair plan for multiple devices, I would have jumped at it. I won’t even complain about 3G costing an extra $130 making the 64gb iPad the same price as a MacBook.

I harbored no illusions that the iPad would change my life like my laptop, iPhone or even iPod have done. Yes, the iPad is beautiful. Yes, the battery life is great. Yes, I feel less neurotic about losing or breaking it, as I do with my laptop. Now, I just have to figure out what to do with the iPad.

Go ahead. Call me an old codger, but I’ve been around eBooks/interactive books since the late 1980s. I still own a bunch of the groundbreaking Voyager Expanded Books. The Society of Mind, MacBeth, Who Built America?, The Rite of Spring, Poetry in Motion, Beethoven’s Ninth and Dazzeloids represent few of the examples of true commercial digital art ever created. It’s hard to think of any digital media that is better since those Voyager titles from nearly twenty years ago.

In 1991-92, I led countless workshops for educators on how to create their own interactive books using the Voyager Expanded Book Toolkit. Digital books would soon be widespread, right?

That said, I did not buy a Kindle because the design is ugly and I expected Apple to produce something better, an iPad perhaps? I love books. My house is filled with them. Had Amazon offered me the option of paying $2 extra and getting a digital copy of the physical book I ordered, I would have bought a Kindle. I recognize the value of carrying lots of books around in one device and the power of personal digital annotation. Whispernet is brilliant too. Anyone can use it, anywhere.

So, now I own an iPad. Oh, how I would love to use it as my primary way to read, but alas – not so fast!

Here are some of the reasons why Apple iBooks currently disappoint. I hope they get better quickly.

Steve Jobs is contemptuous of print

Mr. Jobs can be like that when he assesses the competition.

Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading.

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.” (1/15/08)

Further evidence of Jobs’ contempt for print is the fact that iPad owners have to wait for their iPad to ask them, “Would you like to download iBooks?” before the application is on the device. Why doesn’t the iBooks app come pre-installed?

I won’t even raise the specter of Jobs banning books from the iBooks Store because he disagrees with the content as he has done in the physical Apple Stores.

The iBooks catalog is pathetic
Although I hope that every book ever written will soon be available for download, the Apple iBooks store doesn’t even have relatively popular recent publications in it.

I know that I can (and did) download the Kindle App for iPad, but I didn’t buy an iPad to get a Kindle. Switching between two different book readers is a drag. Sheesh!

I eagerly await word from Apple that they are just as serious about publishing books for the iPad as they were in encoding YouTube videos for the iPhone.

Jobs must know how craptacular the iBooks Store is or otherwise he would have given Amazon the “Adobe-treatment” and forbidden a Kindle app for iPad.

Jobs hates so much that he’s letting publishers punish us
One of Steve Job’s greatest accomplishments was getting tough with the music and video companies and forcing them to charge a fair price for audio and video via iTunes. He single-handedly broke the cartel that was raising CD and DVD prices to absurd levels.

So, what’s the first thing Jobs does regarding written content? He tells publishers to go ahead and charge anything they want, not just the reasonable $9.99 per book pricing instituted by Amazon.

iBooks cannot be annotated
I hope this obvious omission will be rectified soon via a software update.  Surely, Apple would like to offer functionality customers came to expect from Hypercard 20+ years ago.

There are no magazines for subscription in the iBooks store
Surely, Apple knows that this is a potentially fertile revenue stream. I’d love to save some trees.

Amazon’s Kindle Store offers too few magazine currently. That’s still better than zero magazines available  from iBooks.

Are the books I purchased backed-up in the cloud?
Unless I’ve missed it, Apple has not indicated where my purchased books reside in case something goes awry with my iPad.

Why can’t I subscribe to a podcast on my iPad?
For a super-dooper mobile media device, I would expect that I could download audio and video podcasts directly to my iPad without requiring syncing with my laptop. Why can’t I do so? Shouldn’t the iPad make me less dependent on an old-school computer?

One more funny iPad observation… Apple is a company famous for protecting its intellectual property. Therefore, it seems peculiar that iTunes automatically copies my iPhone apps for use on my iPad as well. I know that I MAY have the legal right to maintain the software of two computers as long as I’m only using it on one, but how did Apple miss the opportunity to make me buy the same software twice?

Recommended reading: Ken Auletta’s 4/26/10 New Yorker article, Publish or Perish: Can the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business?

* I will write an article on why the iPad is a bad choice for K-12 education at a later time.

Come to CMK 2010!