LibriVox: Free audiobooks for my classes

One of the most exciting discoveries I made when working on the UnTextbook in summer 2014 was the amazing range of relevant full-text, public domain audiobooks at LibriVox! I'm someone who listens to a lot of audiobooks (I do almost all my reading for pleasure with audiobooks), so I'm excited to have audiobooks to share with my students.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. There are audiobooks available for 36 units in the UnTextbook: Reading Units with Audio. LibriVox offers a variety of download options for people who want to listen offline, and I have linked to their online audio player story-by-story for each page in the reading units with audio, as you can see here: Why the Lizard Moves His Head Up and Down.


As the LibriVox motto proclaims, this amazing community of volunteer readers is dedicated to the "acoustical liberation of books in the public domain." The recordings are not just CC-licensed; even better: the recordings themselves are in the public domain, just as the texts are.

For my purposes, the best LibriVox recordings are the ones that match up nicely with the specific contents that I have included, as in the Lizard story. Sometimes, the LibriVox audio files do not stop/start at the same places where I have excerpted the content for the UnTextbook, but even in those cases the audio can be useful, especially for people who are dedicated audio listeners.

During the first semester of using the UnTextbook in Fall 2014, there was a small but very dedicated group of students who used the audio, and several of them remarked that it was a determining factor for them in choosing their reading unit each week.

For the Spring 2015 semester, I want to do a better job with the audio: (1) I want to find ways to encourage students who have never used audiobooks to give it a try, possibly with some Tech Tips that encourage them to try out the different audio options and also compare just listening to listening while reading the text, and (2) I want to promote LibriVox books by including a recommended book every day in the class announcements, just as I currently include a free Kindle ebook every day; to do this, I've started to systematically review the LibriVox holdings, bookmarking possible items to feature with Diigo. I've also subscribed to the LibriVox RSS feed for new releases so that I can keep up with new items too, along with new releases at Project Gutenberg; here is the Inoreader HTML clippings view for those new public domain ebooks.

My main focus in Summer 2015 will be redesigning my Indian Epics materials while I work on the UnTextbook, so I am especially interested in Indian materials I can find at LibriVox.

HISTORY. I had known about LibriVox for years, but I had not realized how large their collection has grown! I had already completed a significant part of my UnTextbook in summer 2014 when I discovered how many books I could use at LibriVox. So, I refocused my project to take advantage of as many audiobooks as I could, and when I start expanding the UnTextbook in summer 2015, I will be using LibriVox as a key factor in deciding what new material to include. I've starting building a Diigo list of possible UnTextbook LibriVox materials so that I'll be able to hit the ground running when summer 2015 arrives!

GOALS. Here are my goals in sharing audiobooks with my students:
  • To support students who enjoy listening to the reading material, either just by listening or by listening while they also read the accompanying text.
  • To make students aware of the free audiobooks available at LibriVox, both books relevant to our class along with other books that might be of interest.

I love audiobooks, and I love the public domain, so of course I think LibriVox is an amazing project. They have such a great community of readers, and there are new books coming online all the time. One of the problems with the site, though, is that it is not all that easy to discover things; I hope I can eventually build up a kind of "online library" of mythology and folklore materials that will help people in general access these wonderful LibriVox materials, in addition to promoting this content with my students.

A personal note about audiobooks: I've been listening to audiobooks since the early 1970s when I was just a little kid. My grandmother was blind, and she shared reel-to-reel tapes with me so that I could listen to books while I played with my toys. So, some of my happiest memories are of playing with Legos or Spirograph while listening to books on tape! Many of the same books I loved then are available now at LibriVox, like Alice in Wonderland or Andrew Lang's fairy books. In high school and college, I didn't listen to books on tape so much, but I fell in love with back in the year 2000, and I've been a loyal subscriber all along. Commercial audiobooks can be quite expensive, though, so I am thrilled that LibriVox provides people with the opportunity to enjoy thousands of free audiobooks online!

New Google Site: Teaching with Inoreader

Given interested by others in how I'm using Inoreader, I decided that it would be more productive to collection my Inoreader-related items at a website, rather than at a blog: Teaching With Inoreader. I'm excited about this because it will give me a chance to re-acquaint myself with Google Sites, too, so that I will do a better job of helping my students as they work on their own Google Sites. So, on this page, I will keep regular updates about what I am posting at the new website that specifically pertain to my classes.

Here are the new posts as of November 23, 2014:
  • Student Blogs and Comments. This explains how I set up the blog network by subscribing to student blog post feeds and comment feeds.
  • Archiving Assignments. There are a few assignments that I want to archive after the class is over; here's how I save an assignment archive as a PDF.
  • One-Time Fetch. The lack of updates for post content is the only real problem I had with Inoreader, but I found some good work-around solutions.
  • My Rookie Mistakes. Learn from my mistakes, so you don't have to learn from your own! :-)

Spring 2015: Pinterest Plans

This will be the first in a series of posts about plans for the upcoming Spring semester. Since they will be about planned changes rather than reviewing current class procedures, they will have a slightly different format, more open-ended as I just try to think-out-loud through some of the ideas I'd like to try!

So, Pinterest:

I continue to really enjoy using Pinterest for class-related Boards, and there has been a fair amount of student interest in using Pinterest too, clearly more than for using Twitter. Here's the Socializing with Twitter and/or Pinterest extra credit option that I set up this semester, and Pinterest has been the preferred option by far.

Then, a big development happened just last week: I learned that Pinterest Boards have RSS feeds! Incredible, huh? So, I was able to subscribe to my various class-related Pinterest Boards using my amazing RSS reader, Inoreader. Then, because the Pinterest content is coming in to Inoreader, I can use the amazing RSS-out feature at Inoreader to combine those Pinterest feeds and send them back out via an RSS feed of its own, along with an HTML clippings view (see below for the clippings embedded here).

So, with RSS, that means I would be able to keep up with my students' Pinterest Boards, actively and passively, like I do now for the blogs. I think that would be great! One of the biggest challenges with an online course like this is feeling in touch with what the students are doing but without being overwhelmed with email or having to spend lots of time going from blog to blog (or Pinterest Board to Pinterest Board). Inoreader has given me the perfect way to do that, allowing me to watch the incoming flow and also to flag and tag things for future reuse, while also having the RSS-out and HTML clipping service in order to share content back with the students.

Which means... I am on the verge of making Pinterest a required tool for class, so that bookmarking, curating, and sharing would happen at Pinterest as a natural part of the class. As I type these words, I'm thinking, hmmmm, can I really make that work in a way that will not feel burdensome to the students, and I'm thinking that it can. Using Pinterest is incredibly quick and easy, and it also has big payoffs for reuse and efficiency. It's not the most powerful bookmarking and curating tool out there, but the ease of use and sheer appeal makes it the best way to START bookmarking, curating, and sharing.

So, here are my initial thoughts: I will ask everyone to create a Pinterest Board during the first week to use as their "personal portfolio" for the class. That will be a fun and easy addition to the first week of class. Then, there will be a Pinterest element associated with the class assignments I have now:

  • weekly reading: students can pin their favorite story from the reading (UnTextbook) or they can pin their favorite image from the epic selection (Indian Epics)
  • storytelling/essay: students can pin their own storytelling/essay blog posts to their Pinterest Board
  • Storybook: students can pin each page of their Storybook to their Board as they complete them
  • blog comments: as they comment on other students' blog posts, they can pin the other students' blog posts to their Board (this will be really great for remembering who you commented on!)
  • Storybook comments: likewise, as they comment on other students' Storybooks, they can pin those pages to their Board (which will also help them remember just which Storybooks they liked best)

Adding that Pinterest element into the existing assignments will only take a few minutes each week, but it will help the students produce a unified "picture" of their class experience, one that integrates their own writing as well as their interactions with the other students.

Then, for extra credit, I will encourage other kinds of Pinterest pinning each week that goes further:

  • research: pinning research materials relevant to the class reading each week and/or relevant to their class project
  • students connecting: pinning other materials that they find by exploring other students' blogs and looking at other kinds of posts in those blogs
  • class sharing: pinning materials from the class announcements and the class Twitter stream

Doesn't that sound cool? Then, by subscribing to the RSS feeds for the students' Pinterest Boards, I would get a sense of what things are being shared and reshared across the network, giving me a chance to foster that sharing also by grabbing items from the Pinterest Boards to put in the Twitter stream for the class, etc.

Here's the HTML clipping feed for my Pinterest Boards; just think how much more cool that would be with my students' stuff too:

Storybook Schedule and the Free Passes

In last weekend's post, I promised something about Storybook scheduling and free passes, so here it is! I probably need to break this up into separate posts, but this will do for now. The Storybook is really the heart of my classes, so please forgive the long post. You can find related posts also with the Storybook label. Starting in Fall 2014, there is an alternative semester-long project, the Portfolio.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. A completed Storybook website has a coverpage, introduction, and four stories — but it is also entirely possible to have a nice little Storybook with three or even just two stories. The Storybook schedule is flexible enough to accommodate these possibilities, and it also includes two "free passes" for students to choose when they need them. There is an archive of Storybooks for both classes, and the schedule I will be discussing in detail below is here: Storybook Schedule.

DETAILS. This is really nitty-gritty detail that pertains to this specific way of approaching a semester-long project. What I'm describing here is probably not directly transferrable to anybody else's classes, but the general principles involved — starting early in the semester, weekly additions to the project, and flexible scheduling — are general principles that can be applied to very different types of projects. Here's the Storybook Schedule page for the students, and I've commented on the weekly assignments below:

Week 1. Storybook Favorites. Students browse the archives of past projects and start to think about something they might want to do as their class project. Seeing what other students have done is so much more effective — and inspiring — than just reading instructions from me! It also gives them a sense of how important the Storybooks are not just now, but in the future. Next semester, after all, future students could be looking at the Storybooks they will now write and choosing them as favorites.

Week 2. Brainstorm Topics: Myth-Folklore - Indian Epics. This is a really fun assignment for me to read and reply to because it gives me a sense of just what the students are really interested in! One of my favorite parts of the whole semester, in fact, is reading and replying to this assignment, giving students lots (and lots and lots) of suggestions about online resources to use for the topics they are considering.

Week 3. Brainstorm Storytelling Styles. For this assignment, students choose their topic and start thinking about possible storytelling styles. While I written up some information about the wide range of possible styles, the most valuable resource here is the archive of past Storybooks, where students can see how different students have developed different storytelling styles in the past.

Week 4. Storybook Introduction. This is also the first piece of writing that students do for the class which will be revised; they receive detailed comments back from me to use in revising for Week 5. For some students, that comes as a real surprise; it is often the case that they have never, literally never, revised a piece of writing for a class since Freshman Comp.

Week 5. Revise and Publish Introduction. This is a really exciting week because the Storybook websites really start to take shape, having both a coverpage and a separate page for the Introduction.

Weeks 6-8-10-12. New Story. After the Introduction is published (and students get comments back from me on the revised version in order to do more revision if needed), it's time for the first story in Week 6, with new stories in alternating weeks: write-revise-write-revise, etc. If a student stays on the regular schedule, they turn in new stories during Weeks 6, 8, 10, and 12.

Weeks 7-9-11-13. Revisions. I've written another post about the revising process and the importance of feedback and revision in the overall flow of the class: Writing - Feedback - Revision. The feedback and revision process is an essential part of the Storybook projects, and the same weekly cycle is also how the Portfolio project works, too: write-revise-(revise)-write-revise-(revise)-and so on.

As you can see, the Storybook project is over in Week 13, two weeks before the end of the semester: students on the regular schedule add their last story in Week 12 and revise it in Week 13. There are no Storybook assignments for Weeks 14 and 15, and that's where the flexible schedule and the free passes come in!

Free Passes and Alternate Schedules. For students who complete the Storybook on schedule, there is no Storybook work in Week 14 or Week 15. I call those "free passes" because they get credit for a Storybook assignment in those weeks, although there is nothing they need to turn in. Those two weeks off are compensation for the fact that the Storybook is extra work compared to the Portfolio since the Portfolio contains stories that come from the weekly storytelling blog posts, while the Storybook stories are written in addition to the weekly blog post assignments.

Instead of staying on track and taking Weeks 14-15 off, though, most students end up going on an alternate schedule, missing a week or two (or more) earlier in the semester. The first two times that they miss turning in a Storybook assignment, the free pass covers the gap in points, and the schedule just moves up to adapt. That sounds kind of confusing, but in practice it's very simple. If a student doesn't get their Introduction turned in during Week 4, they turn it in during Week 5 and remain on the "one-week-off" schedule. Similarly, if a student stays on schedule up until Week 10 when the third story is due, but they don't get the third story turned in that week, they turn it in during Week 11 and remain on the "one-week-off" schedule. If you look at that schedule - One-Week-Off Schedule - you will see that there is no free pass anymore in Week 14, because the student has used those points to cover an earlier missing week.
If they are on the Two-Week-Off Schedule, that means they have used both free passes, and they have Storybook assignments still due in Week 14 and in Week 15.

The way I accommodate the flexible scheduling and free passes in the Desire2Learn Gradebook is by creating a Gradebook item called "Free Passes" and by using a text item which reminds students of what they have due that week for their project. Here's a screenshot of what that text item looks like at the end of Week 10:

As you can see, most students actually end up on an alternate schedule (one or two or more weeks off the regular schedule) by the time the semester reaches the end. And that's great: the whole idea of the flexible schedule is that it is something students really need to accommodate their complicated lives! The Portfolio also has a flexible schedule, but it does not have the free passes. Instead, students can use extra credit to make up for any missing Portfolio assignments.

HISTORY. The flexible Storybook schedule is something I have had in place since the first year or so that I started teaching online. I noticed that sometimes students got confused about just what they had due, so starting in about 2010 or so, I began using the text field in the D2L Gradebook to give students a reminder about what schedule they are on. The free passes are something new for Fall 2014, which is also the first semester that there was a Portfolio option; the free passes are my way of compensating students for the extra work involved in the Storybook compared to the Portfolio. I always had what were essentially "freebie" Storybook assignments in Weeks 14 and 15, just revising the Introduction and then doing a final revision check. Now, though, it is so much more useful to really acknowledge them as freebies and let students take advantage of that when they really need them, rather than just getting a break at the end of the semester. So, I've folded those final revisions into the process of adding the last story, and now the students have the free passes for whenever they need them during the semester.

GOALS. My overarching goal is for the students who choose the Storybook option to end up with a project that they are proud of. The flexible schedule is designed to keep the students always moving forward so that in any given week they can make progress on their project without worrying about a lack of progress in the previous week(s).


Overall, I am extremely happy with how the Storybooks are working. Adding in the Portfolio option was clearly a good choice, both for students who are looking for a semester project that requires less time than a Storybook project and also for those students who, for whatever reasons, are not ready to commit to a Storybook project topic by the time Week 4 of the semester rolls around. Because of the success of the Portfolios this semester, I am hoping that more students will choose the Portfolio option in the future. Exactly because it is different from the Storybook project, it offers the students some really good opportunities.

Even with the Portfolio option in place, I am seeing some students this semester whose Storybooks have gotten stalled out. It's not a widespread problem, but I think those few students might have been happier with the Portfolio option and would have ended up with something more satisfying than what they have with the stalled Storybook. One student switched over to the Portfolio even after she already had her Storybook up with one story in it (an excellent story... but her topic was indeed a lot of work!), and she ended up with a wonderful Portfolio. So, that was something I did not anticipate but was really glad to see, and I would like to promote that option in the future, especially for students who feel stuck with their Storybooks.

So, one thing I am thinking about doing next semester is to build in the Portfolio option as a choice right from the very start, so that students who want to commit to the Portfolio already in Week 3 or 4 can do so. If they do not find a Storybook topic that really interests them, the Portfolio should be an option they can choose already in Week 3. Another thing I need to do is improve my communication with people who are falling behind on their Storybooks. In the past, when the Storybook was the only option, it made sense to let people fall behind provided that they ended up with at least two stories in their project by the end of the semester. I did not really have an alternative to offer, after all! Now, though, the students who get four or five weeks behind on their Storybooks are not doing themselves a favor. They probably should switch over to the Portfolio so that they can still come up with a good writing project for the class, as opposed to the real risk of not ending up with even two stories in their Storybook. So, I am going to focus on the two free passes next time, and when people fall more than two weeks behind on the Storybook (the two weeks covered by the free passes), I will urge them to consider the Portfolio. I won't require the switch... but I'm guessing it would help the students to see the Portfolio as an option if they are feeling stuck with their Storybook.

One fun thing from this semester has been pinning new stories from the Storybooks to a special Pinterest Board for each class: Indian Epics and Myth-Folklore, so here is a screenshot of the current Indian Epics Board below. I like being able to keep track of the individual stories by pinning them this way, in addition to the class Storybook lists.