Generalists

Yesterday I finished a project of 28 iBooks in 4 languages (Spanish, Haitian Creole, Arabic, and English), made in iBooks Author (iBA) for a high school program for SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education). A lot of these kids have significant life experience and world knowledge, but very low literacy skills in either their first language or English. It was a huge project with a fairly large team. My role was to “make digital books.” I came into it with lots of ideas about digital tools, games, visual literacy versus print, etc., and how all these things would help this particular population learn English in a public school system. Fairly quickly, I realized this wasn’t actually my role.

The first couple weeks were spent explaining what was possible and what wasn’t, what tools could be incorporated and pushing the boundaries of what the classroom could look like with iPads in students’ hands. Basically, exploring the idealistic boundaries of how to transform education for at-risk students. Then it got realistic. Deadlines starting approaching faster and faster and I was still trying to show how amazing it could be. But amazing wasn’t in the grant. A product that fits within the boundaries of what has always been a “book” was in the grant, and that’s what had to be delivered. My job quickly went from “make it digital” to “digitize it.”

Even “digitize it” required significant content development. I was handed books, just the text. “Interactive features with immediate feedback” were expected, this meant I had to write them. And there is the fuzzy boundary between content development and digitization. In our popular idea of a book, comprehension checks are not included, it’s just a static text. But, one of the most powerful things about iBooks and digital tools is that it CAN be interactive, and we know that quizzes and activities are what help students engage with a text, with language, or anything else. So, I wrote the comprehension checks.

Now, I have to wonder about this. I was hired for tech skills and language skills, not pedagogy. I’ve taught a fair amount, and in a fair amount of settings, but never high school students. So, should I be writing the content for the activities? Probably not. But, creating digital tools often means wearing many hats, possibly the overwhelming need for people who can be generalists, and able to do a wide range of things, while still specializing in something in order to put that framework and approach onto multiple projects.