Copyright? More like copyWRONG, amirite?

My copyright-infringing masterpiece

Not so fast, E.T.

I designed a BEAUTIFUL etext for my junior and senior film classes via iBooks Author. It opened with a snippet from Raging Bull’s fight montage. The cover featured E.T. and Eliot flying past the full moon, an iconic image from one of America’s most beloved films. A slideshow of stills from Rosemary’s Baby walked students through different shooting angles, just a few clicks away from Citizen Kane and mise-en-scene, my favorite section of the piece. It was a text filled with sight and sound, the type of book students in my day couldn’t have ever imagined would exist. Immersive, interactive, filled with quizzes and clickable images…I really felt like I had accomplished something. I showed it to a few people over the summer and the response was uniformly positive. It was, I decided, the beginning of a brave new era.

I was painfully incorrect in that assessment. If anything, recent developments like the DMCA and TEACH Act have hamstrung educators in entirely new and awful ways, and we should be fighting back.

I’ve always lobbied under the delusion that my teaching materials were protected under the fair use provision of United States copyright law. And they were, more or less, until the horrendous TEACH Act was put into place in 2002 to strip mine not only our classroom materials, but out ability to grow and change with the times. Think you can make a handout with the Mona Lisa on it? Not according to the TEACH Act, which allows teachers to use material only as a part of mediated classroom activities, meaning you’re either in the room or, in a distance learning environment, on the digital stage lecturing. Want to include a still image of Douglas Fairbanks in your ebook? No you don’t, at least not if you want to stay out of copyright hell. At least you can show clips from his films, right? Well, kind of, but not really. You can show “reasonable and limited” portions of his work. What does that even mean? NO ONE KNOWS.

You can use photocopies of an interesting op-Ed in the New York Times, but only if it’s spontaneous. So if you plan your lessons out more than two hours in advance, you’re out of luck. Better start writing your own op-eds. The TEACH Act goes so far as to restrict converting material from analog to digital. So if you’ve ever scanned a document for class distribution, watch out: the Federales may be at your door. My favorite provision is the one that tells schools how far they need to go to protect major corporations’ rights:
“The institution must implement some technological measures to ensure compliance with these policies, beyond merely assigning a password. Ensuring compliance through technological means may include user and location authentication through Internet Protocol (IP) checking, content timeouts, print-disabling, cut and paste disabling, etc.”

Got all that? You MIGHT be able to use a grainy still picture from the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, provided you hire James Bond and Q to run your network security.

You might think this isn’t relevant for you, since many teachers are not creating digital resources quite yet, but I strenuously disagree. Yes, much of the TEACH Act is geared towards distance learning, but for those of us attempting to flip classrooms and create compelling digital resources for kids, it cuts us off at the knees. The TEACH Act expressly forbids making digital course packs, reserve materials, etc., that use copyrighted material. Which leaves you praying fair use will protect you, which is probably won’t, given the utterly subjective nature of the four fair use criteria. One of the criteria is how your work affects the market for the work you’re “borrowing” from. Well, I have absolutely no idea if my twenty second Raging Bull clip will bankrupt United Artists, but an argument could be made that my textbook’s use of the clip makes subsequent licensing less valuable, especially if they are selling licenses to massive textbook producers like Pearson or Houghton Mifflin.

So how do I find out? I get sued! That’s the only way to find out if your operating within the strictures of fair use. And, lest you think I’m just a lazy teacher looking to steal material, I contacted two of the pre-eminent minds in education law and neither could tell me how far fair use would extend. I also contacted a number of major studios. Of course they all tripped over themselves to assist an educator and expose their best work to a new generation.

I’m kidding, they either said no outright or asked for thousands of dollars. Except for one man…Charlie Chaplin(‘s estate). One of my favorite actors of all time(‘s estate) is allowing me to use two pictures of my choosing, and I genuinely appreciate it. I also think it’s an excellent way to give a new generation of students access to material they otherwise might never see. Why don’t the major studios agree?


Twitter, I love you but…

By now, you’ve probably heard about Twitter’s planned changes to their API policy. In order to deliver a more consistent experience (to advertisers, not you), the little start up that could is going to revoke API access from a whole host of third party apps and clients. HootSuite? Going. Echofon? Dying on the vine. Tweetbot (sweet, sweet Tweetbot)? Prognosis negative. You won’t be able to share via Instapaper’s social media features, or even open an image in a separate app if it’s attached to a tweet. Those of us who’ve become attached to Twitter might do best to consider detaching as soon as possible.

There aren’t going to be many legitimate options for heavy Twitter users, at least not immediately. You can use the app Twitter itself provides, but it’s limited in function and absolutely awful to look at. It feels like a Twitter app cooked up by a precocious teenager with serious coding skills, not the face of a dominant social media franchise. So that’s out. Plus there may be bigger implications than we realize in these changes. Which means it might be time to “MySpace” Twitter, so to speak.

Nothing lasts forever, and in the tech world, forever is about seven years. The carcasses of Friendster, MySpace, Google Buzz (and soon Google+), and hundreds of others (anyone remember litter the social media landscape, and while each died for different reasons, the enduring reality is that each of them fell into steep decline or outright disrepair within seven years. Friendster only had two years on top. MySpace had three years and change. Despite its unchallenged hegemony over social networking today, even the mighty Facebook has only been dominant for three years. Twitter is now six years old and has been the king of microblogging since day one. How do you stay on top? Probably not by alienating your most fervent advocates and developers with punitive API revocations.

I signed up for this morning, a Twitter competitor catering to a more tech-savvy crowd. It costs money, but not enough to be prohibitive (50 bucks is a few beers out in Brooklyn these days). You can find me @pf. It might be a Google+-esque ghost town, or become a MySpace-ish zombie lair in a few months, I don’t know. But I do know that Twitter’s new policies sound an awful lot like a death knell for a cutting edge social media network that changed how many of us get our news and communicate with the world at large. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

EDIT: Tapbots, the company behind Tweetbot, has responded, and they seem confident that their app will continue to exist. Wired, TechCrunch, and most other observers disagree.


My EdmodoCon 2012 presentation

EdmodoCon 2012 presentation

Judging by the response via Twitter, email, and of course Edmodo, I feel like my presentation at EdmodoCon 2012 went over pretty well. I talked fast because I had a lot to say, but ultimately I think it was a good representation of where one-to-one deployments and cloud classrooms are going.

With that said, here it is for your perusal. If you have any thoughts, please share them in the comments or via email, twitter, etc.

EdmodoCon 2012 presentation

App review: Evernote

Welcome to Evernote

The Evernote load screen.

If you’ve never heard of Evernote, this post might CHANGE YOUR LIFE (a little). If you know about it, read on for a review and some suggested uses.

App name: Evernote

Type: note-taking

Description: Evernote is a cloud notebook that syncs with all your devices and is accessible from any computing device

Evernote options

Evernote options menu.

Evernote is an app that is so beautifully constructed and intuitively designed, you’ll find it hard to believe it’s free across all platforms. But it is, and I’ve tried it on an iPhone 4S, an HTC Evo 4G, a laptop running Windows 2007, a Mac Pro desktop, and a 2010 MacBook. It’s one of the apps I know most thoroughly, and it’s flawless no matter how you access it.

Evernote in Notebook view

Evernote in it’s simple, efficient Notebook view

Evernote is a notebook that allows the attachment/insertion of a variety of file types, but it’s defined by it’s quick, user-friendly syncing options and deep feature set. Choosing a good note taking application comes down to identifying the essential features you need from a virtual notebook. If your priorities are access and price, look no further than Evernote, a free cloud notebook that, like Dropbox, is available from any device once you create an account.

An example of an Evernote notebook

A research notebook created in Evernote.

As an example of Evernote’s flexibility, the image to the left is a research notebook I created while working on the book. I was able to drag PDFs directly into the program on my MacBook and Windows laptop. I was also able to open PDFs through Evernote on my iPad, but only after temporarily deleting several other apps. For whatever reason, Evernote’s Open In… priority is really low, so it didn’t initially appear as an option for opening files. The problem here appears to lie with Apple’s iPad user interface, not Evernote, so don’t hold it against them.

Evernote works well as a component in a cloud classroom. You can share notebooks filled with course content with your students, or they can share with each other as part of research projects, study groups, and resource pooling. Creating organized student work spaces is one of Evernote’s hidden features. The flexibility of Evernote’s format handling is also great for students, since they are often working with a variety of file types.

The Evernote app and website work together seamlessly, but you can easily use one without ever signing in to the other. And no matter how many notes you take, syncing rarely takes more than a few seconds. You can use Evernote to provide space for students to collaborate on notes, and entire notebooks can be shared, so no more concerns about missed classes meaning a missed work. Attaching pictures, audio, documents, even recording audio from within the app are all remarkably simple to accomplish.

The app and website are both designed with simplicity in mind, and with a user interface that mirrors a basic word processing program, Evernote might not be the favorite amongst the student body. The same probably won’t be true of teachers and administrators.

Book excerpt: Speedbumps

A lovely road with one obstacleNOTE: I have a book coming out soon! If you buy it, I guarantee I won’t enjoy a penny of the proceeds. It’ll all be spent on building my thirteen month old a spaceship or something.

Here’s a small sample, from the Overview chapter:

My first experience with technologically enhanced unit planning was not quite the raging success I had predicted. Students were placed in groups of six and assigned a character from Hamlet, then each was asked to create Facebook accounts in the voice of his or her character. They were expected to live a Facebook life as their character would have, right up until each student’s alter ego died in the play. For instance, a student posting as Polonius might write a wall post saying, “I’m going to duck behind this curtain for a quick second, to hear what Hamlet is up to” right before his final post, which might read, “Ouch. Anyone in the castle have a first aid kit handy?” During the first week of the project, our classroom was electric. Students were posting far more than the required ten posts per week, and their character interactions were funny and infused with life. Unfortunately, it was at this point that I became the problem.

Postings that didn’t fit into my rigid view of what was appropriate for the project were deleted. Accounts were deleted or wiped clean when a student stepped too egregiously out of bounds (by my standards, of course, which were determined by a committee of one). One student in character as Hamlet posted a sarcastic, insulting screed on a faux Claudius’s wall. While his words were certainly appropriate for Hamlet at the play’s midpoint, it felt somehow too personal or too vivid, like reality was intruding into this corner of the world. I didn’t feel totally in control of the learning environment, so that diatribe served as the last straw: I pulled the plug on my short-lived attempt to integrate social media into the classroom, and things returned to the normal I knew and was comfortable with.

That was nearly three years ago, so I had plenty of time to reflect on what went wrong before launching a similar project at the start of the 2010-11 school year. Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far for feedback. The students let me know where I had gone awry in an anonymous survey I gave at the conclusion of Shakespeare on Facebook v1.0. They wrote of investing themselves in accounts by adding pictures, writing wall posts, and sending emails only to find that hard work edited or entirely deleted. They hammered home the point that they actually enjoyed their in-character interactions before I began over-moderating. No one was really bothered by anything that had been posted except me (and truth me told, I wasn’t bothered by the content so much as the possibility that other students might take offense). That extended to the parents, too. When I notified the parents of our verbose Hamlet that one of his Facebook posts could have caused offense, I could almost feel them shrugging at me through the phone, primarily because no one had actually been offended. I had to learn to let go, at least a little. I had to allow the students a greater say in their education.

Eventually, I felt compelled to try again. This time, before I so much as uttered the word “Facebook,” I had the students collaborate in groups to create several Acceptable Use policies for the character accounts they would soon be creating. I asked them to create a framework of what would and wouldn’t be acceptable in their character interactions, and I empowered them to delineate reasonable boundaries that wouldn’t stifle their creative output, but that would also satisfy the needs of their families and our institution. We then combined each groups’ work into one thorough, coherent policy. Our dean of students approved the students’ work, and before long students and their parents were digitally signing permission forms, propelling a plethora of counterfeit Claudiuses and faux Fortinbras into the social mediasphere.

The first version of the project was not substantially different from the second iteration in concept, content, or execution. The primary difference was my attitude, especially my approach to the input of my students. Once they took the lead, the project took off. Instead of acting as an overseer, I worked to be a facilitator. Instead of explaining why they couldn’t do certain things, I tried to consider the pedagogical value of student suggestions. Some of their ideas were less than pedagogically sound (to put it mildly) and some might’ve been legally actionable, but the best ones were incorporated into our project. When one student suggested we move the wall posting over to Twitter, I realized that they had taken ownership of the work and were now teaching me their best practices. The end result of our second Facebook project ultimately became something a source of pride for everyone, an energetic union of student creativity, teacher design, administrative vision, and institutional flexibility that illuminates many of the wonderful things we can achieve in a tech forward learning environment.

How free will you be?

A Berlin pedestrian traffic light

You should make sure your students see more green than red.

Once you’ve made the decision to put an iPad or laptop in the hands of every student. you face a pressing question: will your approach to internet access be laissez faire, or will you try a more proactively restrictive approach? Both have merit, so the responsible educator or administrator has several factors to consider. My point of view is simple: Don’t ask your students to climb a tree without branches.

The Facebook Connundrum
I’m using Facebook to represent any website or app to which you might want to restrict student access. And while it makes sense to limit distractions, I would argue that blocking websites that may have pedagogical value in a 1:1 computing environment is the equivalent of building a beautiful house and encasing it in glass. As counterintuitive as it might feel, providing students with more freedom rather than less has major benefits.

It’s quite simple to use your institution’s web filter to block all Facebook traffic, but this will only extend to devices on the school network. Students with cell phones (i.e. the vast majority) will still be able to access any sites or apps they choose, and the students who fastidiously observe the restrictions probably aren’t the ones your worried about. In other words, you might implement a restrictive Internet policy that only restricts those without the desire or inclination to violate the rules your institution has established. The same logic extends to Twitter, Tumblr, and other apps and social media sites. Any limitation placed on the student network will necessarily be a limitation placed on the teacher and his or her ability to utilize the technology in the classroom. I use Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Edmodo, and a host of other sites and services that would be closed off to me if our school went in a more restrictive direction. As it is, I have the freedom to use virtually any tool I choose in my classroom.

A laissez-faire approach to student usage does NOT mean providing unmoderated and unfettered access to the internet. Every school should use a trustworthy web filter and build in protections against prohibited websites. Those who advocate a more liberal approach to student access acknowledge that, while students will invariably browse the web or fire up a game of Angry Birds during class, that potential will not lead a school to limit the usage of apps, web browsers, cameras, etc. And while the potential for distraction is real, they aren’t much different than the distractions that have been present in classrooms for decades.

When I present this information in workshops, educators typically ask about keeping students off Facebook and preventing them from achieving total Fruit Ninja mastery. The answer is always the same: engage them. Whether you use a chalkboard, Smart Board, or tablet in your room, students will occassionally call out, behave in a disruptive manner, or simply disengage for a few minutes. But no device can prevent this, and no device can cause it. It all boils down to the quality of the classroom teacher. If they aren’t paying attention to you now because they have iPads, they probably never were.

Kill your library

Paper is simply not a long-term storage solution

Bye bye, school library.

Yesterday, I gave a presentation at EdmodoCon 2012, a global web education conference, about becoming a one-to-one computing classroom or school. It went pretty well until the Q&A, at which point someone asked me a question about funding these grand, expensive initiatives, and I was forced to go off script (always a mistake!). Judging by a few of the emails I got, I touched a nerve with my statement that we don’t need librarians anymore. If anything, this post doubles down on that assertion, but I want to explain why I feel this way, and how I think killing your library will help you go 1:1.

Let’s start by stating the obvious. Computers are to libraries what mp3s are to CDs. Your school simply won’t need a librarian or library for long after you hand out iPads, laptops, or netbooks, and the money you save can be pumped directly into your mobile computing deployment. I don’t want to see anyone out of a job, but I also don’t want schools with extremely limited resources to apportion them in a less than optimal way. So understand that I’m not anti-librarian; I’m just pro-2012. The skills and talents of librarians need to become part of the toolbox of every teacher. In essence, all educators are librarians now because we have to curate information and sources, and help students analyze and qualitatively assess data. And if we’re all librarians…

Getting started
Let’s assume your school is fortunate enough to have a full time librarian making between 30-50k a year. By eliminating that expenditure, you just bought between 75 and 100 iPads or (cheap) laptops. If you buy refurbished from the Apple store, you can get up to 125 iPads for 50k. That’s certainly the beginning of a deployment. And if you launch with a one grade or several-class pilot program, 125 should be enough to get the ball rolling. If it’s not, it’s time to take a look at the library and computer labs themselves.

There’s no need for a fully loaded computer lab in a K-12 one-to-one school. At the college level, students are working with specialty programs and processor-crunching applications that require standalone systems. But the majority of what K-12 students do can be done on an iPad for a fraction of the cost. In the event that there is some major computing task that does require heavy duty machinery, you might want to develop a relationship with a local college and use their lab on special field days, or outfit your school with a handful (ten to fifteen) of standalone PCs that allow more RAM-intensive programs to run without error.

The money
So let’s crunch some sample numbers: a typical PC monitor and tower lease will cost around a hundred bucks a machine for a term of three years. If you need a hundred machines, you’ve just dropped $80,000 for three years worth of PCs, and you’ve stuck them in a lab environment that by its nature limits the devices’ classroom applications.

You can lease iPads for somewhere between 400 and 500 bucks a machine, depending on vendor, length of relationship, etc. So let’s assume you need a hundred machines at five hundred dollars each. Good news: you just saved 30k. Celebrate by picking up 75 more refurbished iPad 2s with your extra money, and now you’ve got 200 iPads. Just like that. And you haven’t spent an additional penny.

The space
Now let’s look at the library itself. If you’re lucky enough to be in a school with an expansive physical library, I’m envious. Now start figuring out what you’re going to do with the space when the students are all carrying virtual libraries in their backpacks at all times. I spent my summer doing scholarly research on one-to-one deployments, and I stepped foot in a library exactly once (and I read over fifty studies and articles). There is little the physical library has to offer today’s student.

Maybe you rent it out, maybe you repurpose it, but whatever you do, STOP throwing money at an outdated, outmoded concept. Most schools spend hundreds to thousands of dollars maintaining a library. Divert that money to databases like JStor, LexisNexis, and Academic Search Premier and you will simultaneously cut the cost and raised the quality of your school’s library, whether it be a mix of virtual and physical or is exclusively virtual.

Reshaping education will not be without casualties. The key is adaptation; sometimes, our skills age poorly (I can still write raw HTML with the best of them, but I stopped keeping up around 1997…I know of what I speak) and we have to choose a new muscle to develop.

I think we can learn a lot from librarians, but unfortunately most schools and districts can’t afford to have it all. Supporting a full library, librarian, and mobile devices for every student probably isn’t feasible for the majority of public and private schools in the States. And if something has to give at this point, it can’t be the technology.