Ed Tech

A student-created digital textbook: Their process and resources

Garth Holman and his students weren't happy with their history textbooks. So they made their own. And they were much better. See what they did. (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

Garth Holman and his students weren’t happy with their history textbooks. So they made their own. And they were much better. See what they did. (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

Garth Holman’s students created something spectacular, and I cringe at calling it a “textbook.”

That’s the easy description. They created their own digital textbook.

But that term — “digital textbook” — doesn’t do these students’ product justice. A textbook is a static set of content. It doesn’t change and adapt and demonstrate the creativity and thinking of who is using it.

Garth’s students’ work does that. And they put it on display for anyone to see.

Garth teaches seventh grade social studies (by choice, he emphasizes) in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. He’s been teaching for 22 years.

About halfway through his teaching career, he started to see the possibilities of a different brand of education — one that was student-directed and student-created as well as inspiring and interesting.

While working with graduate education students at the University of Akron, a discussion ensued about Wikipedia. “You can’t possibly use that as a real resource, right?” the students asked.

Then it dawned on Garth. Wikipedia was collaborative. It was constantly updating.

It was exactly what his students needed.

From there, he embarked on what he calls a 10-year plan to create a different kind of instructional resource. Mike Pennington, his former student teacher who taught less than an hour away, joined him.

What came next evolved from the simple act of putting essays on the web to multimedia projects sourced by people around the world. The finished product, found at dgh.wikispaces.com, is what they call “a digital history textbook created by students, for students”. It comprises more than 600 different pages, all created by students. (Except for the home page and the “about the teachers” page … Garth created those.)

Below are several of the iterations of the website, as described by Garth in an interview with Ditch That Textbook (see full video above). By the end, what the students were producing was pretty impressive.

1. Essays on the Internet — At the beginning, Garth and Mike’s classes posted their students’ work on the Internet using Wikibooks. Putting essays on the web wasn’t exceptionally game-changing, but it was the productive start they needed. Teachers and students can start with where they are — even if it’s pretty low-level — and progress to bigger and better things. (Today, teachers can use a variety of tools — Weebly, Google Sites, etc. — to publish student work.)

2. Inspiration files — In its infancy, the class’s digital textbook was more like a passion project (i.e. covering what students were excited about in history). Students would create an “inspiration file,” full of notes, images and links to topics they thought should be included in the book. Students produced them and added them to the final product.

3. Connecting classes — When Mike (Garth’s one-time student teacher) took a job at a different school, their classes worked together. They regularly did video calls with each other (i.e. Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, etc.). It was almost as if both teachers were teaching both classes simultaneously.

4. Interactive content — With simple text on webpages, students started to lose interest. They said, “It’s just like a regular reading.” They suggested an alternative — interactive content. They needed images, video and links to other sources. They jumped to Wikispaces (partly because the password to the class’s Wikibooks account was lost!) and started reinventing the resource.

5. Student creation — After adding pre-created content to their site, it was time for students to get serious about creating their own. Using the content they were studying, students created political cartoons and PowerPoints. (Remember when “create a PowerPoint” was an innovative classroom task?) They also created videos like the stop-motion animation using pizza to describe the Reformation (above).

6. Collaborative work — When Google Docs started getting popular, Garth’s students started sharing them with other students to collaborate in the learning process. Students in Mike’s classes would work with them, one piecing together information that the other might have missed.

7. Student journalists — Audio and video eventually played a large part in taking the digital textbook to new heights. Students recorded everything from simple audio with a single microphone to enhanced podcasts and added them to the site. They also interviewed experts and eye-witnesses in the history they were studying via video call. Part of the assignment was to take the interviews (some longer than an hour) and parse them into shorter “cut to the chase” videos. Other videos were more like documentaries, like the video (above) a middle school student created about the Renaissance.

8. Expressing opinions — Student sharing didn’t only come in the form of information in the digital textbook. Each student got a blog to express their own perspective on the lessons they learned. They also took pictures of their experiences and shared them in a class Flickr account.

9. Getting ethical — At first, many of the images and other content were published to their sites in violation of the licenses of that work. It was time to revise those practices. Students learned about Creative Commons. They not only found media that was licensed that way that they could use, but they started creating their own work under a Creative Commons license.

For teachers that read this and think, “Wow, that sounds like so much. I can’t do all of that!”, Garth has a very clear response.

You don’t have to do all of that. And you definitely don’t do it at once.

Garth and Mike created a 10-year vision for their students’ digital resources. The first year was composed of publishing basic student work to a basic website. It grew year by year because they evaluated what they had done and thought about what they could do next to take it to a higher level.

And grading? There was none when it came to this digital textbook. In 2008-2009, they did away with rubrics to grade student work on the Wikispaces site.

“Once you give a rubric, you’ve limited what kids will do. You’ve dictated what they will do,” Garth said.

He found that inspiring them to create in this “digital playground” did more to encourage them than any grade or rubric would. (And don’t use the word “motivate” with Garth. He says this: “Motivation for me is like coffee. It gets me through the day but it doesn’t change me or make me any better. I want to inspire.”)

How did he inspire students to create this digital textbook? Through the building blocks offered in Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive” — mastery, autonomy and purpose (something I’ve written on myself):

  • Mastery: Students were given the opportunity to be great at the work they created
  • Autonomy: They were given the freedom to create on topics of their choosing related to the class
  • Purpose: Students had a reason for creating that was bigger than themselves (or a grade on an assignment)

Connecting his students with students in other classes — and with people around the world — was a point of emphasis for the class. Garth cites many reasons for it:

  • It models the behavior that the teachers wanted to see in the students
  • It prepared them for life better than a simple worksheet would
  • It helped them see outside their own community (the “Beachwood bubble,” as he called it) to a much bigger, richer world around them
  • It taught them communication skills they would never get by sitting passively in class
  • It helped them learn cultural differences and perspectives

So, where does the “digital textbook” go from here? There are always fresh eyes on the project, Garth says, so there will always be something new to add.

“It’s like any book,” he said. “Any book gets a second version, an updated version. It’s just that we’re updating every week.

As long as students have a real, authentic audience for their work, it will continue to be engaging, Garth said.

“You’ve got to give kids a playground. Where is your playground to play with your content, to learn, to engage, to do something with it?”

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Interested in having Matt present at your event or school? Contact him by e-mail!

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