Digital Content – You keep using that word . . .

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Granted, it’s more than possible I have no idea what “digital content” means either. I may also be the guy walking around arguing that water is wet.

The White Whale

“Digital content” is what everyone wants as we move towards the magical BYOD-Edu-singularity. What that means is likely very different depending on the person saying it.1 I think you can divide what people mean by digital content into a few major categories.

  1. Link Lists – the venerable link list divided by your content label of choice (state standard, topic header, novel, etc.). The “new” version would likely be built using a social bookmarking solution and tagging but it’s the same concept. Context for the resources is minimal if it exists at all.
  2. PDF/HTML textbooks – no substantial changes in what we’ve always had but in digital format. The rationale usually involves things like lighter backpacks and the ability to update/correct errors.2 It is a sterile environment where you have to take what you get and integrating additional resources fluidly is difficult. Topical content integration isn’t facilitated.
  3. Augmented Textbooks – start with a traditional textbook and replace some of the pictures with movies, add self-grading multiple choice quizzes,3 and some links to internal content. Some simple tools may be integrated (think highlighter, light note taking). Interactivity and multimedia content is increased but I’m not sure it really matters. Content remains hard to change and customize with anything on the outside of the system. Topical content integration isn’t facilitated.
  4. LMS as Textbook – essentially lots of content and internal tools (discussion board, drop box, etc.) with varying degrees of imposed content structure. This system may or may not facilitate the integration of outside content and tools. This system tends to either be set up to push content in a fairly rigid format or to enable teachers to do whatever they like. It can provide an in between structure where core content is pushed in a modifiable manner and the teacher based customization is visible.

There are also a variety of ways to think about the actual pieces of content.

  1. The first is the vetted, contextualized informational content we’ve always relied on textbooks to provide. The kind of content that tells us what we need to know in a fairly condensed way so we can pass the test. It’s attractive, in part, because it’s convenient and seen as “true.”
  2. Then there are the resources (usually informational but which may also include lessons/projects/media) teachers habitually use to fill in gaps they perceive based on what the text provides. They tend to have context and are meant to be educational. This could be driven by the teacher’s understanding of the final test (their own, AP, or high stakes), personal interests/beliefs about the content, or based on attempts to engage students.
  3. Media elements devoid of textbook/externally imposed context also play a role. These can vary from primary source documents, to graphs, to maps, to images, to songs. They may or may not be intentionally educational (at all or about that topic). The context in which they are used matters quite a bit and tends to be personalized by the teacher around their particular teaching style and knowledge base.
  4. Finally, there’s the idea of topical/ephemeral content. This is the kind of content which matters in the moment but may not be (as) valuable once that moment passes.

In my own definition of digital content, I also include tools, platforms, and raw data- essentially things you might manipulate or process as well as the means to manipulate and process.

Clearly there are lots of ways to think about this content and the way both teachers and students interact with it. What I think becomes increasingly important is what we expect. For instance, if you believe that a textbook should tell a teacher who is struggling what to do- then you pursue a highly structured, very detailed, almost scripted model. That very structure and specificity is likely to turn off your highly skilled teachers.4 Maybe the goal is to provide base information so teacher don’t have to build everything from scratch. If so, that’s likely to be an entirely different type of structure and methodology. All things that seem to require quite a bit of thought and planning prior to deciding on a “digital content” solution.


In the scheme of things, it’s fairly easy to create an index of resources aligned to some set of standards. It’s not even that hard to create an online textbook.5 The textbook will certainly take more time and effort but in the end it is just a fleshed out version of the resources.

What’s more difficult is designing a structure and system that intentionally creates overlaps of structured content with alternative content types and harder still creating workflows that feed that system in ways that people will maintain. I want to prevent content in a way that encourages a lens on the world that is far broader and more inclusive than the one typically used in instruction and instructional content. I don’t know how much energy and time should be spent trying to make these connections explicit for people vs just juxtaposing content types where people might make connections themselves or others beyond what you intended.

I wonder quite a bit how the structures used to present content shape how that content is used both by teachers and students. I’m also realizing that I need to build something like this for two of the three audiences. I don’t think building systems for the lowest percentage of teachers has enough return to justify the huge amount of energy and time required. It seems you have to shoot for something that is manageable for the middle percentage but actually provides advantages and opportunities for the upper tier of teachers.

1 If it’s followed directly with a “cloud” reference, I suggest beating a hasty retreat.

2 Both of these make me fairly sad.

3 The results of which may or may not be visible to the teacher.

4 It seems it might be possible to have both simultaneously but it’s not an easy thing to achieve. I think for the most part people revert to the first scenario because most of the energy, attention, and structure is focused on “failing” teachers. I’d also argue that a truly bad teacher is not going to be fixed through scripting. You might get to low mediocrity through that kind of intervention but it’s unlikely to fix the core problems without some serious additional work. Aren’t you glad this is a footnote so you can ignore it?

5 The name is somewhat problematic but I’m going to let that go for now in a perhaps misguided attempt to avoid a long tangent.

Colonial Research – Ephemera

Beaver Hats

Here are examples of hats made of felted beaver fur, because if you ask your students to draw a picture of a beaver hat, you’re likely to get some sort of coonskin monstrosity. (Seriously, you should try that.)

Pukestocking, Puke-stocking, Puke Stocking

tl;dr – Being called puke-stocking likely has everything to do with fashion instead of seasickness.
Despite many sites claiming that Pilgrims were called puke stockings, I can’t find anything substantial to back that up (and now think it means something entirely different anyway). I did find a reference to puke stockings in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV

Wilt thou rob this leathern jerkin, crystal-button,
not-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter,
smooth-tongue, Spanish-pouch,–

Which led first to this explanation and then to this one which seems to have some backing.

In 1598, when Shakespeare wrote his play, “puke” was a very fine grade of woolen cloth, often used to make stockings as well as other garments. This kind of “puke” first appeared in English in the mid-15th century, derived from the Middle Dutch word “puuc,” meaning “the best grade of cloth.” Interestingly, “puke” cloth was, in Shakespeare’s day, usually dyed deep bluish-black or dark brown, leading to the term “puke color.” This “puke,” however, is unrelated to the brownish-purple color we know today as “puce,” which takes its name from the French word for “flea.” Apparently if one looks very, very closely at fleas (I’ll pass, thanks), they are purple-brown in color.


John Smith

tl;dr – Captain John Smith was not a nice man.

Thus haue you heard the particulars of this massacre, which in those respects some say will be good for the Plantation, because now we haue iust cause to destroy them by all meanes possible: but I thinke it had beene much better it had neuer happened, for they haue giuen vs an hundred times as iust occasions long agoe to subiect them, (and I wonder I can here of none but Master Stockam and Master Whitaker of my opinion.) Moreouer, where before we were troubled in cleering the ground of great Timber, which was to them of small vse: now we may take their owne plaine fields and Habitations, which are the pleasantest places in the Countrey. Besides, the Deere, Turkies, and other Beasts and Fowles will exceedingly increase if we beat the Saluages out of the Countrey, for at all times of the yeare they neuer spare Male nor Female, old nor young, egges nor birds, fat nor leane, in season or out of season with them, all is one. The like they did in our Swine and Goats, for they haue vsed to kill eight in tenne more then we, or else the wood would most plentifully abound with victuall; besides it is more easie to ciuilize them by conquest then faire meanes; for the one may be made at once, but their ciuilizing will require a long time and much industry. The manner how to suppresse them is so often related and approued, I omit it here: And you haue twenty examples of the Spaniards how they got the West-Indies, and forced the treacherous and rebellious Infidels to doe all manner of drudgery worke and slauery for them, themselues liuing like Souldiers vpon the fruits of their labours. This will make vs more circumspect, and be an example to posteritie: (But I say, this might as well haue beene put in practise sixteene yeares agoe as now.)

Page 147

Not Everyone Was A Jefferson Fan

ames Akin’s earliest-known signed cartoon, “The Prairie Dog” is an anti-Jefferson satire, relating to Jefferson’s covert negotiations for the purchase of West Florida from Spain in 1804. Jefferson, as a scrawny dog, is stung by a hornet with Napoleon’s head into coughing up “Two Millions” in gold coins, (the secret appropriation Jefferson sought from Congress for the purchase). On the right dances a man (possibly a French diplomat) with orders from French minister Talleyrand in his pocket and maps of East Florida and West Florida in his hand. He says, “A gull for the People.”

Internet Ephemera – Sociology Edition


Reducing a player’s worth to a single number can be contemptible, says John Thorn, a seminal sabermetric writer and the author of the 1984 book The Hidden Game of Baseball. That book introduced the Linear Weights System, which attaches a value in runs to every offensive event. (For instance, a single when the book was released was worth 0.47 of a run.) Linear Weights System provides the mathematical basis for WAR’s offensive components. Thorn, while supportive of WAR, criticizes the way it is often deployed to end an argument.

“The current lowest common denominator of statistical writing is the fixation on comparing Player A with Player B, which seems to me not only worthless but serves to obscure the larger story of baseball,” Thorn says. “Enjoyment of baseball is like enjoyment of art. If you decide it has to have a utilitarian function & you make it seem like work. It’s supposed to be play.”


Given there aren’t many baseball players, they are already filmed and analyzed from virtually every angle1 in a game that’s relatively simple compared to something like, say, teaching, I don’t have a lot of hope for the assessment of teacher quality working out well. Roger Shank doesn’t make me feel any better.

We’re trivializing the idea of evaluating teachers in part because culturally we don’t value the position or the skills. There’s likely some way to look at teaching with at least a degree of circumspection but all portents seem to indicate we are going to do the opposite.

While education isn’t supposed to be “play” (or fun for that matter), teaching is part of larger story that requires a wider lens. Culturally, we love to over-simplify down to a single metric for success be it a number or letter2. I doubt that’ll change and as a result we do ourselves harm.

Insights on Humanity?

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by bionicteaching

Castle Grayskull and Diomedes– there has to be a sociology project in the way people name wireless networks.

I used a blank Chrome account with no cookies etc. just to see what Google auto-completed with the prompt “I hate ___” and then when through the alphabet. Simply because I wanted to know. Even if it means nothing, it’d make for an interesting justification writing assignment.

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by bionicteaching

I was looking for a site I went to that describe the texture of a particular mega-herb as like “hairy celery.” I’m hoping the autocompletes are the result of some wayward SEO attempt. I opted not to follow them to their Internet conclusion just in case my imagination was correct.

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by bionicteaching

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary site lets you indicate why you looked up a specific word via Facebook. Absent all the tracking etc. (which is a big absence) that’s a pretty cool feature and could lead to some interesting discussions. Seems like the context and multiple angles through which people are approaching words adds context and realism.

1 Take a look at the coaches per individual skill and compare to how we try to

2 or series of letters – PhD

Internet Detritus – History Continued

Same as it ever was

The Massachusetts Body of Liberties 1620

More proof Pilgrams were more interesting than your history book would admit with a hat tip to my own dad for sending the link.

No torture . . . unless you’re convicted and we feel like you’re holding something back but we promise not to be “Barbarous” or “inhumane.”

45. No man shall be forced by Torture to confesse any Crime against himselfe nor any other unlesse it be in some Capitall case, where he is first fullie convicted by cleare and suffitient evidence to be guilty, After which if the cause be of that nature, That it is very apparent there be other conspiratours, or confederates with him, Then he may be tortured, yet not with such Tortures as be Barbarous and inhumane.

And of course the classics . . .

(Deut. 13. 6, 10. Deut. 17. 2, 6. Ex. 22.20)
If any man or woeman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) They shall be put to death.


(Lev. 24. 15,16.)
If any person shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Sonne or Holie Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death.

Notice the Biblical references that back up the laws. What’s also really cool is that I can link to these passages in the Geneva Bible that the colonists were likely using. The Internet is truly amazing and these bible people have put in some serious work.

Strangely, I have to give a NSFW warning as there’s also stuff about homosexuality and not eating the animals that are victims of beastiality that you might have to worry about depending on your community. It gives quite a bit of insight into the community’s concerns but may not be worth any additional drama.

Civil War Map

Attack on Ft. Mcallister II
Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 10.50.31 PM

A really nice high resolution image. It’d be nice to have students try to create a map of the local area or their homes and compare their efforts to this. There are also a lot of details in this map that make for a variety of document based questions. Georgia also has some really good compilations of primary source material on the Civil War in a “This Week in Civil War History” format.

Jefferson’s Pen

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by bionicteaching

I’m reading The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo which is part of my tour of all the books available via our library’s ebook provider – OverDrive. Sadly, the app doesn’t allow me to export notes, highlight things, or do anything remotely useful. I can awkwardly take screenshots like the one you see here. But I can only complain so much about free books that are magically on my phone.

Anyway, it’s fairly interesting so far and I came across the Declaration of the Rights of Man article screenshot-ed above. Since I was already in a colonial frame of mine, this seemed to line up pretty well.

From the Declaration of Independence – 1776

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

From the Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

Given that Thomas Jefferson played a major role in the writing of both documents, they provide some interesting opportunities for comparison both in terms of these particular lines/words and the documents as a whole. Did Jefferson do a better job in round two? What impact might the subtle difference have?

Colonial History Timeline

This was made with Timeline JS and is predominantly dates from the Virginia Standards of Learning USI5 and USI6 but I’m sure this is pretty standard fare for any US history course. I’ve got a fair amount more work to do but things are at least sketched out based on the “required knowledge.” My goal is to have a decent mix of primary source material, video, and links to places with fairly deep content.

The difficult thing about making content like this for anyone other than yourself is that the ideas I have about how to use particular items aren’t easily seen by others. Adding a layer of “teacher directions” is fairly odious for me and unless done very, very well it will likely be ignored anyway. For example, I opted to use an image of the Geneva Bible to represent Massachusetts Bay. There’s the obvious ideas around how the colonists tried to use biblical elements to guide all aspects of their life. I was struck by this statement on the cover “With moste profitable annotations upon all the hard places, and other things of great importance as may appeare in the Epistle to the Reader.” The Geneva Bible was seen as the first “study bible” and had extensive margin notes, numbered verses, was likely used by Shakespeare as reference etc.1 I’d also be tempted to work with an English or world language teacher around the difficulty of translating complex texts accurately.

Internet Detritus – History Edition

I have been building out a timeline for US History to 18761 and so have been wandering around the LOC site and other historical places quite a bit. As a result, I have found many things that interest me and may, just may, interest you.

Here Be Pirates!

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by bionicteaching
via LOC where you can see the whole document.

For as much as there coasts have been and still are infected with divers piratical sea rovers and other enemies; whereby sundry depredations, robberies and damages have been done to and committed upon many of the KING and QUEENS majesties liege subjects, and ?, goods and estates to the great impoverishing and hurt of the same.

Pirates are always a good thing to work into history and it sure looks like these are essentially taxes to pay for defense from said piratical sea rovers. It makes for a good counterpoint to the Boston Tea Party.

Remember that f looking s is not just for decoration- learn about the long s at Wikipedia.

Castaway Dental Tips

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by bionicteaching
There was just something about the fact that the stranded sailors came back with shining white teeth that amused me. I was also surprised no one sold an extract of this plant on late night TV.

This passage is from Island of the Lost by Joan Druett.

In 1864 two ships were wrecked on remote and uninhabited Auckland Island, some 385 miles from New Zealand. Five seamen in the far south survive, astonishingly, for nearly two years before building a vessel and setting off in what would become one of the most courageous voyages of the sea.

It’s a decent book with a few issues but it did lead me down some interesting roads exploring megaherbs and sub-antarctic plant life. Turns out the plant is very hard to grow and the consistency is like hairy celery. I read many other pages but that should be enough to get you started if you want to go down a strange path.

Passive Aggressive Wills from Plymouth

I give to my twoe Overseers Mr John Carver and Mr Williamson, twentye shillinges apeece to see this my will performed desiringe them that he would have an eye over my wife and children to be as fathers and freindes to them ; Allsoe to have a speciall eye to my man Robert wch hathe not so approved himselfe as I would he should have done.

In the spirit of Passive Aggressive Notes the not so recently deceased William Mullins (1620) lets his man Robert know he needs to step up his game. Lots more wills (and other primary source material) where that came from over at The Plymouth Colony Archive Project.


To those used to the smell of servants just from a ship, they will be easily discovered, unless they have procured new clothes. – full notice

I cannot imagine that smell.

FREDERICKSBURG, October 9, 1770. RUN away from the subscriber last Saturday night, an indented servant man named JOHN FLETCHER; he is an Englishman, by trade a tanner, about 25 years of age, 6 feet high, short brown hair, his left leg has a very large sore on it, which may be easily discovered by the stain through his trowsers, and has a very bad smell when nigh him; his apparel is a light coloured frize coat, with broad white metal buttons, a blue frize jacket, a check shirt, oznabrig trowsers, with buckskin breeches under them, a felt hat, and country made shoes almost new, with pewter buckles in them; he is fond of liquor, and playing cards. Whoever apprehends the said servant, and brings him to me in Fredericksburg, shall have THREE POUNDS reward, and reasonable charges; if taken and secured in any gaol so as I get him again, shall have FORTY SHILLINGS reward, paid by WILLIAM HOUSTON. – original post

Another smell related notice. I’m amazed someone wants this guy back.

. . . he carried with him a Book or two: He lately came from New-York, in the Sloop Henry, and talks good English; and pretends to talk Spanish, and to be a Frenchman. – full notice

This is one of those pieces of information that gives rise to so many questions. Could he read? Which books? Why? Can he really speak Spanish/French? If not, why pretend? It begs for some historical fiction.

Probably enough for now. It does amaze me how much interesting primary source material is sitting out there waiting for people to use it.

1 I’m using Timeline JS and the Google spreadsheet option. It’s pretty slick and easy but writing anything beyond a sentence in a spreadsheet has some serious drawbacks.