“Me Books” Show the Way Forward

Sooner or later the teacher using an iPad in the classroom reaches the transition point between using apps for single function purposes and using apps or app workflows to create original content.  There is nothing wrong with using iPads to provide extension work or to reward success by allowing the students to enjoy a game of Jungle Coins or Math Bingo, of course.  But teachers who encourage students to use more multi-dimensional apps typically report greater degrees of satisfaction and success with iPads as tools to enhance learning.

In the same way, there appears to be an interactivity transition between traditional eBooks and something Ladybird has come up with that is currently attracting plaudits from UK technology commentators.  The app has the clumsily long title of Ladybird Classic Me Books, but Me Books will do for now.  Ladybird will need no introduction to anyone who grew up in the sixties, seventies or eighties in the UK, and indeed even today’s youngsters will have seen this enduring publisher’s titles on everything from jigsaw puzzles, to coasters to postcards to reissues of the original volumes over the past two years as the nostalgia market has propelled Ladybird’s back catalogue back onto the public consciousness!

The books appear as though on a school desktop

The idea of the Me Book is to take interactivity to new heights of personalisation.  Readers can even replace the bundled narration with their own reading (or that of a parent) or they can combine different voices so that for example, daddy reads the voice of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, or mummy the voice of Cinderella.  Moreover, there are hotspots on each picture page any one of which when tapped will provide extra sound effects, comments or other audible aids to understanding or enjoyment.  The reader can also create his or her own hotspots anywhere on the page or replace the ones that come bundled with the book.

These hotspots are the killer feature of the app.  Anyone who reads regularly with young children will recognise that much of the enjoyment of reading comes from observing and commenting on the activities going on at the sides and in the background of the main events (hence the popular “Find the Mouse” game that accompanies readings of Goodnight Moon, or the mischievous activities of the characters in Richard Scarry’s books – to name but two examples more or less contemporary with the rise of Ladybird).  The ability to create hotspots that allow these peripheral characters a voice, therefore, is an excellent way to engage the reader in the story and to allow him or her to extend the story without losing sight of the central plot.  Students with whom I read loved creating conversations between the mice, squirrels and other wildlife in the story of the Three Little Pigs, where these peripheral characters provide much of the amusement alongside the main story (see picture below)

The mice helping the third little pig build his house provide an opportunity for the reader to create his or her own fun dialogue

Students create hotspots (and, therefore, the potential for Readers’ Theatre) by drawing a circle with their finger anywhere on the screen.  The resulting purple patch (see example below from the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff) becomes the hotspot and replaces any hotspot that was already there – including the ones bundled with the software.  However, teachers (and parents) may prefer the bundled narrations and hotspots (which are generally of high quality) and so there also exists the option of erasing the students’ hotspots and returning to the default bundled ones.

Currently, only fourteen titles are available from the bundled store and not all of them are the classic editions of the Ladybird titles that are promised (the Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Gingerbread Man versions are the easy reading editions from the Read It Yourself series ladybird launched in 1977), and each edition costs a steep £1.99 but more titles are promised in the future and, as a special offer over the current Christmas holidays, the titles were on sale for just 69p each which bodes well for future pricing.  This app appears to be showing the way forward for true interactive eReading.

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Thoughts on eBooks

Penguin’s recent decision to withdraw books on its catalogue from eReaders caused consternation and heated debate among school librarians and other facilitators of school reading on electronic devices.  At ACS Cobham the debate turned to the possibility of adopting a patchwork model for our eReading programme, with a combination of Overdrive and Folletshelf being among the prime contenders for consideration.

Related to this discussion is the future of textbook provision for schools.  Having had on more than one occasion to go cap in hand to my board to obtain special funding for social studies textbook replacements in my teaching days, I can sympathise with the need to keep textbook collections up to date.  I recall being told in the mid-nineties at Shanghai American School that there would be no money to replace a Worldbook edition that contained the immortal lines “One day a man may walk on the moon”!  More recently, a huge investment in Houghton Mifflin’s A Message of Ancient Days at the American School of The Hague, where I taught for five years, had to be continually supplemented with teacher-produced materials from various sources to compensate for the fast pace of new discoveries in archaeology that had rendered some of the information in the book obsolete even before it was published.

Electronic textbooks solve this problem by means of continuous or regularly scheduled updates streamed to eReaders over the web.  A new discovery in a field of science, for example, can be included in a textbook as soon as it is ratified by the appropriate body and deemed suitable for inclusion in the relevant body of knowledge.

This extends to fiction also.  One of the most popular books of the year for iPad users has been Moonbot’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.  The animated film that accompanies this book has recently (at last!) been made available on the UK iTunes store and recent updates to the app, therefore, include that film – which helps students make sense of the book, or at least add another dimension to their understanding of the story.  Readers who became familiar with the story in the summer of 2011 and who have not revisited it since then may be surprised to see pages that look unfamiliar when they turn to the book today.  For example, among the books Morris distributes to the people at his door is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Included among the Cheerio shapes in his breakfast cereal now are punctuation marks and mathematical symbols.  Surely numbers will shortly be following – as should Chinese characters for the alternative language versions that have been added.

A page from Morris Lessmore featuring a seasonal addition not present in the summer edition

To some, this is a disturbing element.  A book even when published is now no longer a fixed point.  The text can continue to develop and respond to reader feedback.  To others it is simply a natural extension of the Web 2.0 world they have grown up in.  Just as Wikipedia replaced the Encyclopaedia Britannica as their go to reference of choice, so a fiction book continually responds to the changing seasons or new information from the world.  In some respects this is little more than an acceleration to the existing process of issuing new editions to texts.  Another view is that such a practice removes a sense of solidity and stasis from the book.  It is no longer sufficient to quote the book’s page number and author.  Now the date – or even the time, of the update must be referenced.

To our lower school readers of Morris Lessmore this is not a worrying trend.  They are eager to reread their favourite iBooks in order to discover what might have changed.  However, we need to be careful that iBooks become more than simply attention grabbers.  If students are merely playing the games or pushing the interactive buttons that accompany a text, then the reading process itself will be ill-served by the presence of these additional features.  To my mind Morris Lessmore has the balance about right.  But it will not always be an easy balance to strike.