Sunday, April 21, 2013

Why NOT to Read Using an Interactive App

Interactive is a buzzword.  Be careful, fellow teachers, how you employ it in the ELA classroom. 

It sounds like a great idea: apps that take on "the challenge of ensuring that every student is meaningfully moving forward in a given reading assignment—and not just faking it." (SLJ Reviews Gobstopper and Subtext).  The two interactive ebook reading apps reviewed by SLJ  work like the Kindle app on fire, or better yet, Kindle mated with Nearpod.  

As shown in the screen shots, teachers can embed annotations, quizzes, blog-type discussions, tags, links (to rich media/video and web pages), underlining, and highlighting into the text the students read.  The purposes are to keep the students focused on the task of reading, to direct and enrich their reading with materials provided by the teacher, and to align these to the CCSS - all by layering discussions, tags, links, rich-media, annotations, and highlighting on top of the text. 

Gobstopper - showing video of teacher embedded
Maybe it's just me, but this seems to fly in the face of current trends to make students responsible for their own learning. It seems, in fact, to be exactly the same teaching philosophy that resulted in the reading packets and book-based websites much criticized now as the core of poor ELA teaching.  Gobstopper unabashedly offers "Curriculets" for the titles they provide for download (not too many titles yet, by the way, but many CCSS classics are there) which are really "fully baked" curriculum packets for the teacher, and Subtext allows the teacher to access embedded materials provided by other teachers.  Both will save teacher-generated media for the life of the app. It's a filing cabinet or laptop folder of printables in a 21st Century costume.   

The difference is that there is an attempt here, at least in Subtext, to engage students in a social media type discussion of text, which can now happen online or in-app rather than in the classroom.  Given this difference, and the wider text selection, I would vote for Subtext over Gobstopper.  Actually, I would never send serious students to a web app named after a revolting form of candy.  It leads me to wonder about the seriousness of the app's creators.  It certainly says something about their low opinion of the American student.

For the student, using either app is much easier than independent or worksheet-guided reading - one-stop shopping and no original thought needed. When you enter your classroom, you will know exactly what the teacher wants you to think about - or think. No need to open a blog or wiki or webpage or Edmodo.  No need to speak up in class.  No real reason for class.

For the teacher, using either app is much easier, after the initial effort to create or select embeddable content, than duplicating reading guides, making a website, or turning personal annotations into discussion guides to use in class. Gobstopper users can simply use the canned Curriculet. Subtext users can, if they wish, use the embedded questions and annotations of others - or lurk and copy these. The quizzes in both apps are self-graded reading checks (we used to call these "checks for understanding," but now they are just checks for reading) and the discussions are digital and archived, so the teacher can review them or just check off a participation grade. I would guess that not too many teachers will take part in the discussions - that would be too much like grading.  

It used to be that a student had ultimate reading choice; she could choose NOT to read or NOT to read deeply or NOT to think about the reading.  Grades probably were effected, but that student survived ELA, often by listening, sometimes by using cheat notes, and usually with an understanding that NOT doing had a negative consequence (which she may or may not have cared about...).  Her teacher had to work harder to engage teach that child (I am assuming that he does care, although that is surely not always true). Both student and teacher profited from this extra effort.  

Unless higher education has changed dramatically since my days, the college student still has the choice NOT to read or NOT to read deeply or NOT to think about the reading.  

We used to prepare students for the consequences of those critical decisions.  That was part of teaching independently responsible learning.  These interactive apps take away the opportunity to make reading choices.  In fact, I think they make it possible for a student to believe she is reading just because she responds to all of the layered-in objects.  In fact, I read p. 3 of Gatsby entirely by clicking the icons.  I would, I think, have been a star in the class the next day.

And for what gain?  Surely not for increasing a love of literature.  Take another look at the screen shots above.  Would you be able to really read Gatsby with all of that highlighting, underlining, iconography and pop-ups on your screen?  This may be the single worst way imaginable of guiding students into a love of literature and language.  

Not to mention the time it will take students to complete an assignment (Gobstopper recommends two chapters of Gatsby as an assignment length). Reading as a student, I got through about four interactive pages before I had enough.  Tired of interruptions.  Tired of taking part in discussions.  Tired of pointless quiz questions.  And I wasn't even reading with 25 other students.  

What I ended up doing was selecting two neglected sentences and writing disruptive annotations for others to discuss.  And I had no idea what was going on in the novel - a novel I love and have read non-interactively at least four times.  

Interactive is a buzzword.  Be careful, fellow teachers, how you employ it in the ELA classroom.

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