The advances of technology in the digital age have permeated every area of society, from interpersonal communication to the way information is disseminated. Today’s children are able to manipulate sophisticated software, search the Internet, play games, and download information without being aware of the cognitive process involved. For instance, most children download and listen to music on the Internet, and in the very near future, they will not have a notion of what a CD is. As a teacher of children and adolescents, I firmly believe I have the moral obligation to prepare them for the world they will be part of as adults. I have been using technology in the classroom since 1993, and have witnessed rapid changes in students’ attitudes towards technology and their almost intuitive use of it. My adult peers, on the other hand, still tend to regard technology as a useful intruder that permits instant communication: a tool for shopping for books, airline tickets, and perhaps tickets, or an instant way to check the news, read periodicals, or get directions. Blogs, Wikis, and other networked applications are usually the realm of those who grew-up in the last decades.
As educators of today, we must overcome any fears of technology because it is here to stay. More than thirty years have passed since Nam June Paik coined the terms “Electronic Super Highway” and “the future is now.” However, as a product of the industrial era, our educational system continues to impose schedules and, as a result, segment time as if students are still bound for the assembly line, yet we live and teach in a very different moment. A moment we should embrace with the knowledge that it is in constant flux. As Sebastian Mary, a young British writer puts it, “many of us live now in a networked, post-industrial era, where many of the things that seemed so certain to a Dickens or Trollope no longer seem as reliable. And, perhaps fittingly, we have a new delivery mechanism for content. But unlike the book, which is bounded, fixed, authored, the Web is boundless, mutable, multi-authored and deeply unreliable.” This is precisely what I find so exciting about using technology. In 1993, I used Hypermedia Navigator, which relied heavily on Hypercard and the notion of hyperlinks, references to other text and media that can be accessed by a mouse click. It was a painful, long process of digitizing text, music and images and turning them into hypercards, in a world where searching/research tools did not exist. The final product was an electronic adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Poema del cante jondo. Later I “transferred” this book toTK3, a new authoring/reading environment created by Night Kitchen, which allowed me to re-create Poema del cante jondo without any programming, and with the addition of rich media. As technology continued to advance, in 2008, I used Sophie, a new multimedia authoring program created by The Institute for the Future of the Book to bring my edition of Poema del cante jondo to the present. Sophie included time-based events, and offered the possibility of bringing social networking into the book. The experiment was not completely satisfactory with respect to interaction among my students, but the new version of the book is beautiful and inspiring, and much better that the two previous ones. My goal with this book has been to introduce my students to one of the most beautiful poetry collections regarding the world of music in relation to the people who produced it. Thanks to Sophie, my students are able to explore the direct influence of the different music styles that comprise cante jondo on García Lorca’s poetry, and they have the tools to annotate several sections of the book. Most of this work takes place inside the classroom, with students working at their own pace, with my guidance when necessary.
The social networking aspect of “the book as a place” as Bob Stein, the mind behind all these experiments, puts it, has not been very satisfactory however because Sophie is still in formation. Sophie’s history is long and complicated. Its roots are in the CD-ROM era, when the Voyager Company sought to develop an authoring tool which would enable artists, authors and designers to assemble complex, multi-layered, multi-modal documents on their own, free of the need for programmers. The first version, known as TK3, never came to market because of a dispute with Microsoft, an early investor, who insisted that the Macintosh version be discontinued.
Sophie was commissioned by the Mellon Foundation as part of its Digital Infrastructure initiative. The goal was to provide professors and students with a rich media authoring environment. The work was carried out under the direction of the Institute for the Future of the Book, which at the time was based at the University of Southern California. At the same time that the Institute was working on Sophie, the group carried out a number of experiments under the rubric “networked books” exploring various mechanisms to enable conversation in the margins of a text. Due in large part to the success of these experiments, the concept of Sophie was expanded to include a robust social component.
Unfortunately, the team developing Sophie 1.0 was not able to complete the project, primarily because of poor project management. Although the team had made some spectacular progress, The Mellon Foundation decided that rather than continue funding the original effort, being developed in Smalltalk, they would fund a virtually new team to create Sophie 2.0 from scratch, in Java. This team, based in Sofia has done some brilliant work, but they are likely a year and a million dollars short of a product.
Missing the promise that Sophie’s social component offered, I adopted Commentpress as a complementary tool. I use Sophie and Commentpress as research and publishing tools, and also as extensions of the classroom.
Commentpress is an open-source theme for the WordPress blogging engine that allows readers to comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text, turning a document into a conversation. Commentpress is different from blogs or e-books because it provides a dynamic reading environment, where a piece of text can be annotated, as marginalia, or can be commented on by its readers by means of notes next to the text. Blogs support linear conversation, but Commentpress lets readers pull out multiple strands of text to start their own discussions. This can be applied to a fixed document (paper/essay/book etc.) or to a running blog. I have used it with fixed documents. Commentpress was originally developed by Eddie Tejeda at the Institute for the Future of the Book.
For my Hispanic Literature course, I have written assignments on many Spanish and Latin American authors using Commentpress. One of them is on Gabriel García Márquez’s collection of short stories Los funerales de la Mamá Grande and his novella El coronel no tiene quién le escriba. We used both printed books and Commentpress. I wrote an essay using primary and secondary sources to illustrate how the history of Colombia is seminal to García Márquez’s development as an author. I asked the class to comment on the assignment based on what they learned after reading his collection of short stories Los funerales de la Mamá Grande. I also added a section of guiding questions, and a section with excerpts from that collection. My expectation was that the students would comment on my text, but instead they went to the guiding questions and commented there. I believe they felt more comfortable with a familiar format.
After the class read El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, I asked them to enter comments on my essay as the culmination of the assignment. My rational behind this is that students only fully grasp what I tell them if I present an author after they have read his/her works and not the other way around. Commentpress allowed me to evaluate their work within the context of their whole experience as they developed knowledge and understanding, something that a final paper does not necessarily do. Furthermore, the posting of comments regularly helped students to know where they stood regarding assessment, because I used their posts in lieu of in-class essays. This rendered the evaluation process transparent since students were in intimate contact not only with their individual progress, but also with that of the whole class.
I valued enormously the fact that Commentpress allowed the classroom to be extended beyond its physical confines. Because class discussions are central to Dalton’s philosophy, students are quite accustomed to participating in class. One student argued that she already shared her thoughts in class and that she preferred to work on a paper in the privacy of her home than on a blog. Her argument was disputed by those students who saw great learning advantages in their ability to ponder the works of an author while they were reading at home, having the chance to share their ideas with their classmates, and with me, then and there.
One of my arguments with those students who expressed some uneasiness using a networked assignment was that we were using their favorite tool for communication. They all agreed that e-mail, social networking and text messaging are the way they connect. Why, then, did they object to having this applied to their learning experience? They felt that an academic blog demands a more “serious” approach and a certain degree of formality, and they also felt that they MUST comment. We decided that they should be less formal and that they should enter a minimum of two comments a week. Since they were writing in Spanish, they also had to enter grammar corrections whenever I asked them to edit their use of the target language.
Here are some students’ reactions:
When I finally became accustomed to the blog, I realized that it is in fact a very useful and helpful tool. It allowed us to continue discussions that would have otherwise died out when the bell rang, and helped us reach a deeper level of understanding of the finer details of the stories and books we read.
At first, using the blog felt slightly forced, simply because it was unfamiliar, and therefore, all of our initial comments seemed slightly too formal and didn’t utilize the purpose of the blog—communication. As we got more accustomed to writing shorter posts more frequently, I ended up really enjoying the blog because it allowed the type of communication that goes on in class, natural, analytical, but not as formal as an expository piece of writing. Despite its informality, the blog gave us time to really sink our teeth into the text and produce well thought-out comments that we perhaps wouldn’t come up with automatically when sitting in class.
I really enjoyed the blog because it permitted a development in my thoughts about the literature we read; as time went on, my ideas changed, and each post didn’t aim to prove a central thesis, which normally it would have if we had been assigned one take-home essay. My favorite part of the blog was reading what my classmates had to say. When writing a paper, one often ends up narrowing their perspective because they are focused on only one thing, or one area of the body of work
I liked the blog a lot. I felt it added to the discussion that we had in class. We could not only build off the themes we talked about in class on the blog and explore areas we particularly found interesting but also talk about what we had written on the blog in class. Writing a couple of times each week kept me up to date on the books we were reading and the ideas we discussed. Similarly, as we could all see each other’s work, it offered different perspectives on certain topics and allowed for debate.
First, even though it is something new and unusual right now, with new technology, education is changing to allow us to gain so much more information in faster ways. I think the blog allows us to use technology to get the most out of our work. Also, different from an essay or test, on the blog there is not really a way to cram because we write a little at a time; our work becomes a lot more about quality too. With the blog we can add to our own ideas or to the ideas of others, and it allows us to hold a conversation that is deeper than in-class discussion because there are no time restraints. It gives us a chance to process our ideas and think about what we want to say before saying it.
I thought the blog worked wonderfully. First, it was, I thought, nice to be able to explore a number of different themes in our writing, rather than have an essay entirely structured around one thesis. It also worked as a means of continuing discussion outside of class; an essay is just between the teacher and student, while this allowed for the whole class to engage in dialogue. In class discussion, students are less accountable for what they say; they don’t always have to back it up or face being challenged. The blog thus allowed a more formal form of debate with increased accountability while still maintaining some degree of informality or, at least, a conversational feel.
Commentpress added work to my daily workload because I had to check students’ comments often, send them grammar corrections, and add my own comments when clarification was needed. However, I was able to feel the pulse of the class more closely and accurately, and I didn’t have a ton of papers or exams to grade at the end of the assignment.
When we study Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, we start by reading his theater, using a traditional paper assignment and printed books, but for his poetry we use my electronic book built in Sophie. My feeling is that this allows the class to have the opportunity to delve into the culture of Andalusia from its origins in antiquity to its musical expression in cante jondo. I have been working with TK3 and Sophie because they allowed me to assemble multi-layered multi-modal documents books that addressed the needs to present Spanish literature, specifically, Federico García Lorca’s Poema del cante jondo to readers unfamiliar with cante jondo. Most readers, including Spanish-speakers, are not experts in this old musical form, and creating an electronic version was absolutely seductive and pertinent.
Poema del cante jondo, is a book that represents both the need for a lasting vehicle for a vital element of Andalusian culture that was on the verge of disappearing when García Lorca wrote it, and Lorca’s attempt to make Spaniards aware of their multicultural roots. The musicians producing cante jondo were dark-skinned, free-spirited people living in the midst of a racist, petrified culture, who were forced to stay within their own cultural boundaries. Their travails made them masters of the expression of the depths of their unique soul. Poema del cante jondo is the closest to that singing and to that depth a book can be. It is a conscious gesture on García Lorca’s part to give permanence to the evanescent. Poema del cante jondo is a book that demands to be music, visual imagery, poetry and song: it is art. That is the reason I have been moving it from software to software, and my reason for trying to keep it connected to the future. Sophie, once it became stable, allowed me to create a better book. Perhaps, because of my use of TK3, I can appreciate what Sophie does better. I am quite happy using this Sophie book as the book it is. I am also trying to make sense of its rich media contents as a key element for understanding and annotating it. Technology is feeding critical discourse; it is not just ancillary to the reading and interpretation of the book. It is how the book exists. It has been a wonderful experience to see students absolutely involved in García Lorca’s works and sharing their interpretation of his extraordinary poetry with the class.
At the end of the year, my literature class becomes highly individualized because students embark on their final project: a Sophie book on any Spanish and/or Latin American author of their choice. This allows for the implementation of the best the Dalton Plan has to offer since each student has the freedom to choose the subject of their research, and the luxury to devote class time to work. Once a week, students present the product of their work to the class so they learn from each other while I act as a facilitator, threading the different projects by comparing and contrasting authors, literary movements, styles, and so forth. It is an exciting time for all.
As a teacher, notwithstanding the time involved, and the ways I have devised to adapt and adopt technology in my classes, the satisfaction of seeing students blossoming with the benefits of rich media assignments is worth all the effort I put into creating them. Understanding that computers are not a substitute for books, as smartboards are not a substitute for blackboards, has made a world of difference for me. The realization that they are tools that serve very different purposes has come to me over the course of many years of using technology in, and outside, the classroom. I will never replace pencil and paper with a computer, but I will always take advantage of what technology has to offer that cannot be replicated by other means. With that in mind, I have created multiple e-assignments at Dalton, from Spanish I in the middle school to e-books produced by my Hispanic Literature students in the high school. Technology does not substitute for my teaching, but it enhances it. My students not only use my assignments presented in Sophie or Commentpress form, but are also actively involved in the production of their own. For seniors taking Hispanic Literature class during their second semester, this has proven to be an inspiring and highly productive exercise. The fact that they write e-books on authors of their choice makes them highly motivated, and the fact that their books become an electronic publication is the icing on the cake.
Over the years, my students have created beautiful TK3 and Sophie books at the end of their Spanish career at Dalton. At this point, however, I can no longer offer them that alternative. This is one more example of the potential frustrations of teaching with technology that promises but does not deliver, but it will not stop me from continuing to try.
Mary, Sebastian. “it’s multimedia, jim, but not as we know it.” if:book. 30 April 2007. Web. 15 February 2011. <http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2007/04/its_multimedia_jim_but_not_as.html>.
 See <http://www.futureofthebook.org/>.