An Attempt to Create Student-Authors, Through Technology

By Sean Cavanagh — June 28, 2014 3 min read
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Denise Jorgensen clicked and dragged on the image—a wolf in a top hat, suspenders, and black fur—and placed it on the screen, watching as written text flowed in around it.

Jorgensen, a school librarian from New York, was one of a roomful of K-12 officials on Saturday experimenting with software that allows users to assemble their own books, then “publish” and share them online.

If she ends up being sold on the tool—and Jorgensen’s initial reaction was positive—she says she’ll arrange to have her students use it to create their own online books.

The teachers, librarians, administrators, and technology officials gathered at the session at ISTE 2014 were using iBooks Author, a program created by Apple for Macs. The tool is one iteration of the classroom tech products aimed at making creators of students, and boosting some combination of their academic, organizational, research, and digital skills along the way.

On Apple’s site, iBooks seems to be primarily described in the school context as a way to assemble texbooks, but the session at ISTE described ways to allow students shape texts in more imaginative ways.

Users can click and drag, and cut and paste written content, images, videos, animation, and other features into their books, and adjust the style and content to meet their needs. They can embed questions or quizzes in the texts. The tool also includes special features to help special-needs students follow and shape the narrative, too.

Jabari Cain, an assistant professor in educational technology at Mercer University in Georgia, guided the session’s attendees, each of whom worked on a Mac, helping them build a book based on the classic fable “The Three Little Pigs.”

He sounded a note of caution: If students or teachers are using outside sources for the iBooks, they’re almost certainly going to need to cite those sources, or get some kind of permission, said Cain, who uses the tool with aspiring teachers in his college classes.

But on the whole, “it’s not a steep learning curve” for educators, he said. “It’s a lot of dragging and dropping.”

Jorgensen, the librarian at Bolton Central Schools, a tiny district in upstate New York, said she envisioned using the tool in her

classes, probably among students in 6th grade and higer. She said she might ask them to craft “fractured” fairy tales, or stories in which they vary the structure, characters, or narrative of stories like The Three Little Pigs. They might, for instance, tell the tale from the wolf’s perspective.

“They get technology skills, presentation skills, and they use their creativity to come up with a story,” she said.

Some school officials might create materials on their own and give them to students, but others are likely to go farther, allowing students to assemble their own books.

From there, teachers can publish their materials, or those produced by their students, in the iBook store, Cain said, so that they can be shared with others outside their districts. They also have the option of publishing them in more restricted forums, so that viewing is limited, he noted.

School officials can also export the materials they produce in PDF or text file formats, for added flexibility in distributing them, Cain said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge envisioned by Jorgensen, who has Macs in her library, is the time she would spend assembling the materials students would use to craft their “books.”

“It would be a big project,” she acknowledged.

Photo of Denise Jorgensen’s first steps in creating her version of “The Three Little Pigs” story by iBooks, taken by the author.

Follow the coverage of Benjamin Herold and Sean Cavanagh at ISTE at @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekSCavanagh.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.