E-books and EPUB: back to basics

Many years ago I was completing my Ph.D in the aging of mitochondria and was reminded of how I got into this project. My supervisor (to be) said that of all the disparate features of senescence (proper old aging) one thing above all characterised...

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Many years ago I was completing my Ph.D in the aging of mitochondria and was reminded of how I got into this project. My supervisor (to be) said that of all the disparate features of senescence (proper old aging) one thing above all characterised the condition ... and that was a loss of energy.

Thus, as 95% of the cell’s energy is produced by the tiny critters inside cells we call mitochondria. They are firmly in the frame.

The point is that the obvious is usually not only where you should start but where you will find the results in the end. The problem is that it’s just so un-difficult, un-elaborate that really clever folk would rather find another more esoteric approach.

For exactly the same reason, in education in particular, we suffer from an aversion to the blindingly obvious and notoriously favour complex theories and technologies to enhance students’ learning over ‘traditional approaches’.

The problem is that overwhelmingly learning is difficult, time consuming, sometimes painful or boring, and that effective teaching depends on the personal qualities of a teacher. Despite full on attempts to deny these obvious truths over the years they stubbornly persist ... it’s easier then to focus on things that can distract from the obvious.

The Basics

Obviously the learner and the teacher must be able to communicate orally and visually (to illustrate a point) and ideally some means of creating/using a record to allow more information to be processed than could be remembered.

In parts of rural Africa the above criteria are met under the shade of a large tree with the teacher drawing in the sand. This simply will not do! It must be more complicated than that!

It is now. We have Interactive Whiteboards attached to data projectors and computers which are marginally harder to write on than the sand; we have Virtual Learning Environments that extend the shade of the tree across the globe so that a learner does not have to physically go to school or even get up for that matter; we assess on a pathologically regular basis students’ progress and state of mind.

Finally, through the Internet we have access to vast amounts of information that far exceeds the data content of a satchel full of text and exercise books and children ‘chatter’ electronically rather than passing bits of paper.

Yet still we struggle to raise standards of literacy and numeracy. Surely not?

Back to Basics (modern twist)

As an adult I am addicted to information. Having finally left University, living in some god-forsaken provincial town working for an equally god-forsaken multi-national, the thing I missed most was the wonderful Library. After the Internet and later the hyperlinked-Web became available to us mere mortals I felt a feeling of such liberation having once again access to what is in effect the greatest Library in the world.

However as a child access to information was not a source of joy to me. Information came from text books. I viewed them with mostly distaste as they represented stuff to be learnt which would require my (mostly unwilling) application and valuable play time. The only upside was that at a push I could get the lot in my satchel, i.e. there was a limit to the torture.

Not so now. Children, pupils, learners, what have you, are deluged with information in any format you care to mention. Vast kilogrammes of text books, thousands of printed sheets of paper, and the entire Web.

I think effective learning requires information restriction ... there I have said it.

The answer must be a return to the concise, peer-reviewed text book. It is well known that most young people today do most of their reading via one screen or another and it would be a vain hope to wean them back onto paper books ... so e-books it is then.

The real value of an e-book is that it has structure. It has pages organised into sections (Chapters/topics) it has an index, a cover, an introduction, an ISBN number and contains selected information. The process require editing, selection, that’s the key.

To give an example of how ‘e-booking’ something can work. Consider a modular course; say a topic in GCSE chemistry. There will be various resources deployed during the module. A text book, some worksheets, some handouts maybe a video or web link. These will be distributed amongst the students’ possessions in more or less random way ... or even lost.

Gather these up, review them, design a cover and ‘epub them’ for your students. Now they have a little text book delimiting what they need to know which they can read on the bus if they wish on an e-reader, phone, slate, and laptop. Gasps of copyright violation are coming from readers at this point...not so (maybe).

If you have photocopy rights to the materials you have purchased (which you do) own some and provide merely links to online resources then e-booking is, you can argue, merely electronically stapling the stuff together in a sane order.

At the end of the day teaching and learning is not rocket science. A teacher who turns up and knows what they are on about, students who attend and pay attention and an e-reader...that’s all you’ll need, obvious.

Post Script: From Para 1... Aging...it was the mitochondria ‘what done it’ after all, obvious.

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