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Technology flashback: Back in 1990 when I was working in a university stats lab by day and going to school by night to get certified as a high school teacher, I took an educational technology class, and even back then, BEFORE THE INTERNET, I found the possibilities thrilling. For my class project, I wrote what would be called a "recommender system" in the form of an interactive Lotus spreadsheet. I asked students a series of questions about movies and television shows and then, based on their answers (I played around with some funky algorithms to weight and combine their responses), the spreadsheet would then recommend what young adult books they would enjoy reading. One of the most important challenges I could imagine for myself as a high school English teacher was putting the right books in the hands of each student, and I was sure technology could help. And this was before my current students were even born! Ha!
Fast forward to 2015: The whole high school thing did not work out (for reasons that surpass all understanding, a B.A. from Berkeley, an M.Phil. from Oxford, and two additional years of teacher education courses were still not enough to qualify me to teach high school in the proud state of Tennessee) ... but now, teaching college classes in the Internet age, I am able to put books in my students' hands using technology I would not have even dared to hope for 25 years ago. For my online Myth-Folklore class, I have always used free public domain sources online, and last summer I expanded those range of reading options with an "UnTextbook" that has 100 different reading units for students to choose from. I've made selections from all kinds of mythology and folklore books that are available in full-text format online, and the idea is that students explore something new each week (their choice!) and, ideally, if they are excited about something, they can read the whole book online for free if they want, or even listen to free audiobooks from LibriVox. You can see how that works here: Myth-Folklore UnTextbook.
Re-Making Indian Epics. This summer, I am re-making my Indian Epics class in the same spirit. Unlike Myth-Folklore, though, this class is harder to teach with just public domain materials. When I first started teaching the class over 10 years ago, it was not even an option; there were very few public domain texts that I could even consider, and even Wikipedia did not have a lot of good reference articles. Now, though, the world of digitized public domain books is simply dazzling, and I realized back in December that I could re-make my class so that students could have the option of reading public domain texts online OR the four mass market paperbacks that I had traditionally used for teaching the class. I began to redesign the class with that goal in mind, finding all the possible public domain books that I could work with for both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and also for ancient Indian storytelling in general (the Puranas, Panchatantra, Jatakas, etc.). You can get a sense of how thrilled I was about this from the Google+ post where I shared my initial plans: December 3 rapture.
So, I was busily working away on this starting in December, and I was able to get input and feedback from my Indian Epics students in the spring semester, asking them to look at some books and also to let me know what kind of online book formats they liked best (I was surprised by how much they liked Google Books, which is kind of awkward to work with for me because of the strange URLs for the pages) and which book formats they liked least (I was bummed out by negative feedback for Hathi Trust, but since they can download Hathi books as PDFs, that gets around their frustration with the Hathi reading interface itself). I was planning to spend the summer writing up Reading Guides for these public domain books, just as I had always relied on Reading Guides for the paperback books in class (for example: Narayan's Ramayana).
NOT JUST TEXT ANYMORE. But then... AMAR CHITRA KATHA happened. I can pinpoint the date exactly again, thanks to Google+. For years, I had coveted the ACK Ultimate Collection of 300+ comic books based on the Indian classics and Indian history. It always cost over $1000, but a couple of times each year I would check in and just see what the list price was and dream about how cool it would be to own all those comic books. I had bought a bundled pack of the Jataka comic books, and they were marvelous, but I just couldn't justify paying over $1000 for comic books... and then: SALE. With FREE SHIPPING from Mumbai. The whole thing for $399. And no sales tax. I was ecstatic: 33 pounds of comic books. You can read about that here: April 10.
And then... EVEN BETTER: Stacy Zemke, the OER goddess for the University of Oklahoma Libraries, suggested that we could possibly buy the comic books to have on Reserve in the Library. WOW.
And then... Stacy suggested that I apply for an OER grant so that I could explore all kinds of options for re-making my Indian Epics class. Stacy's office offers a fabulous grant opportunity (it is, in fact, the only grant opportunity at my college that is open to all instructors, including even adjuncts like myself), with up to $2500 to redesign a class with open materials provided that the instructor is willing to CC license new materials created as a result of the grant, along with some other very proactive and positive requirements like that. Well, the requirements suited me perfectly... but I had to think for a while just what OER would mean in this context.
And what I decided it would mean is this: the OU Library purchases these copyrighted resources for my students to use and puts them on Reserve. With $2500, I can purchase a MOUNTAIN of materials to have on Reserve, and if students are all CHOOSING every week what they want to read, that will work just fine: since everybody will be choosing different things to read, having the materials on Reserve is not a problem. My students are almost all resident students in Norman, and I absolutely love the idea that they might be visiting the Library every week for a "reading session" as part of the online course they are taking with me. IF they want to. I will also have plenty of public domain options for them to choose from, based on my original plan before the Library stepped in and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me: comic books, audiobooks, ebooks, films...
So, that brings me back around again to the Lotus spreadsheet of 25 years ago: my challenge now is to find a way to help the students get the right books (or comic books! or ebooks! or audiobooks! or films!) in their hands each week so that they are able to spend appx. 3 hours reading (or listening or watching) in order to learn about the ancient stories so that they can then RETELL the stories in their own way, working with stories that really inspire them.
Now that it is July, I really have to pull myself out of the delightful process of searching for materials (both public domain and materials to purchase) and start organizing the experience I want my students to have. I've come up with a plan that I think will work really well, but for the purposes of this post, I want to just survey the amazing RANGE of stuff that I will now be able to offer my students:
BOOKSTORE BOOKS. Yes, the four paperback books will still be available for purchase (as always). I am very happy with those books and always have been ... the idea, though, is that now the students have so much more to choose from!
PUBLIC DOMAIN BOOKS. I have prepared "public domains editions" of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and I have also found over 60 free online public domain books the students can choose to read for class. Creating these public domain editions is such a thrill for me, and because I built them in a completely modular way, I will be able to keep improving them year after year after year. Inspired by Nina Paley (see below), I might also do some writing of my own to release into the public domain as she has done with her genius film, Sita Sings the Blues.
PUBLIC DOMAIN ARTWORK. Most of the students in this class have never heard of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata before (there might be a handful of students with Indian heritage in the class each semester, but only a few). Luckily, the beautiful Indian art tradition can pull students into the world of the epics so that the characters come to life. I've got a blog where I've been collecting images to go with the epics, and I am really excited now that students will have a chance to compare the traditional arts with modern illustrations in the comic books! To get a sense of the artwork, you can take a look at the blog — Indian Epics Images — and also at the Rama gif I made for #CLMOOC this week: Re-Mediating Rama.
COMIC BOOKS. The Library also purchased the Amar Chitra Katha "Ultimate Collection" using the grant money, and of the 300+ comic books, over half of them are directly relevant to my classes. I'm busily writing Reading Guides for these comic books just as for the "normal" books, and I will be trying to help students explore this amazing resources by using this blog: Amar Chitra Katha.
GRAPHIC NOVELS. In addition to the Amar Chitra Katha comic books (what you might call comic book "classics" in India), I will also be able to purchase contemporary graphic novels which are... AMAZING. They will also be available on Reserve in the Library. I am focusing on the Ramayan 3392 A.D. series from Virgin Comics and the Indian mythology line from Campfire Comics by Kalyani publishers in India; it will be about a dozen different graphic novels. Students who are into these novels would be able to spend the entire second half of the semester just working with the graphic novels if they want... and I am guessing some students will want to do that. I love the Amar Chitra Katha comic books the best, but there is no denying the appeal of these ultra-modern graphic novels.
KINDLE BOOKS. I am personally a big fan of reading with the Kindle app on my Touch and/or in my browser, so I had accumulated a pretty huge collection of India-related Kindle books. Well, while exploring Library possibilities, I found out that the Library has some Kindles for Reserve check-out, but no other instructors were using them... so I decided to use a chunk of the grant money to purchase Kindle books! And what an amazing list of Kindle books it is! I am glad that the students can go to the Library to use the Kindles there for free and, in addition, this allows them to "test drive" a book and see if they want to buy a copy to read themselves. Because Kindle books can be read on virtually any mobile (with a Kindle app) or in a browser (at read.amazon.com), it is a good ebook format for students, and the books are not expensive, especially if they can browse and read the book in the Library first.
AUDIOBOOKS. Given a choice, I prefer to listen to audiobooks rather than read a printed book. It takes more time, but I always get so much more out of listening to a book rather than reading it — in part because of that extra time. I base my reading assignments for the class on the ever-optimistic hope that students might choose to read to themselves out loud. Each week's worth of reading would be about three hours of reading out loud, and with audiobooks, the students can listen to someone read the book to them! There are a few public domain audiobooks at LibriVox which are relevant to this class, and I am also purchasing audiobooks to go on the Kindles in the Library. One of the nice things about Amazon and Audible's partnership is the steep discounting for audiobooks when someone perhaps a copy of the Kindle books. Here's a list of the audiobooks that I should be able to make available to the students, either free at LibriVox or free to check out on Reserve in the Library.
FILMS. There are not a lot of English-language films that I can use, but two are really important, and I have them both now: Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues (public domain! free online! Nina is both a genius AND generous), and Peter Brook's Mahabharata. Admittedly, that film can often be found illegally on YouTube, but now the 5-hour version is available as a DVD checkout from the Library (no streaming media options were available, alas). Being able to make Brook's film accessible to students is a really big deal for me; it was watching that film on PBS back when it first came out that began my own personal adventure in the world of Indian storytelling. It's a quite expensive video (I was glad the Library was able to find a new copy for just $60), which is exactly why I need the Library to provide the chance for my students to watch it!
MUSIC. I repurposed my YouTube channel to focus on Indian music, and I will be able to include Indian music videos in the class announcements along with widgets in the blog sidebars so that students can choose to listen to Indian music if they want while they are doing the work for class.
So, doesn't that all sound spectacular? Of course, it is also overwhelming, so I am going to have to work very carefully in the next few weeks to set this up so that the students can enter the world of the epics gradually (Ramayana in Weeks 2-4 and Mahabharata in Weeks 5-7), and then build their own exploration plan for the second half of the semester based on their own preferences. It's one of the best challenges I can imagine as a teacher, and now that all the materials are more or less lined up, I can start thinking about the best way to help students find their own reading pathways...
And yes, I really hope that one of the main impressions they will take away from this class will be: there is so much MORE that I want to explore!
So, a HUGE thank you again to Stacy Zemke and the OU Libraries for making this possible. I think this is going to be an incredible experience, and I am really excited to see what choices the students will make!