Songbirds of Troy – Project Introduction: Part 1


Project Introduction: Part 1

Songbirds of Troy is a new project and my attempt to solve a problem with online learning. Since the very beginning of the Internet user groups and forum technology has been successfully used to bring people together in discussion on countless topics.  But when it is applied to distance learning of difficult subject matter, such as Ancient Greek or Latin, a problem often emerges.  The problem is how to efficiently create a successful and rewarding experiences for both the Learner and the Expert.   This post will explore this problem and be followed by a later post that introduces Songbirds in detail.

The Challenge – How To Identify Individuals Serious About Learning?

Over my fifteen years of developing Internet learning and education content, one problem has nagged me.  The problem is how to efficiently form strong and successful bonds between an individual seeking assistance and tutoring and the subject matter expert who is willing to share his or her time and skills.  In Textkit’s language forum, I am grateful to have witnessed beginners who are outside of a traditional classroom setting and who know almost nothing of either Ancient Greek or Latin, go from very beginner status to being extremely proficient readers at a graduate school level.  While their accomplishments were certainly due to their own hard work and determination, they were also helped along through the generosity of others who guided them with their feedback, suggestions – and encouragement.  Our human nature to teach each other is simply wonderful and the Internet has been revolutionary in its ability to make these connections possible.

I have also witnessed beginning learners fail in their goals to learn a new language.  It happens.  Failing is apart of life and I don’t want to sound hard on quitters, we all put things down.  But a consequence of failing is that a commitment failure consumes the time of the mentors and experts.  Time that is limited, time that has value and time that could have been better spent on someone else.

False-start failure has had a consequence in Internet forum culture.  Beginners ask questions and subject matter experts are often hesitant to answer the questions from an unknown person who is not known and vetted in that community – as they rightly should, since none of us want to have our time wasted.  For example, it is common to observe a beginner ask a question which is thoughtfully answered and then only to see that the original poster of the question doesn’t even return to say thank-you.  This leaves experts feeling burned.

Why do experts participate?  There are I’m sure many reasons, but one important reason is that many people simply want to share what the know and they want to feel good about sharing.  When there is frustration such as the example above, forum rules and Moderators can work to help reduce these kinds of frustrations but if there is too much noise from false starts and if it is too inefficient for experts to find learners who are serious about learning – experts drop out because their experiences are unrewarding.

The Challenge: How To Reward and Create Fulfilling Experiences For Experts?

We see some solutions towards this problem.  One attempt is the Question & Answer style community where subject matter experts earn points for successfully answering questions.  This solution is attractive because it rewards the experts by creating a valuable and measurable level of status.  On example is StackOverflow.com where experts with high reputation scores are often rewarded in their real lives with easier to find jobs due to their high reputation scores.

We tried and failed at a system like this at Textkit called Textkit Answers.  One reason I believe Textkit Answers didn’t take off is because of the complexity of learning Greek and Latin and the true needs of learners.  Unlike technical problems which can often have very definitive answers, language questions are really much different.  Learners arrive at Textkit with more than a simple question in mind- they are looking for community and individuals to guide and mentor them.  They are looking for Mr. Miyagi.

The Karate-Kid Lesson

When I say Karate Kid – I don’t mean Will Smith’s kid. I’m talking about the original 1984 film – old school baby!

What was all that wax-on, wax-off stuff about? Sure, Mr. Miyagi was strength training Daniel, but do you also recall that at the end of a long hard day of sanding a deck, waxing a car, or painting a fence Mr. Miyagi told Daniel to come back tomorrow - and Daniel did.  He kept coming back because he wanted to learn and Mr. Miyagi was testing his commitment. He was making sure Daniel was serious about learning karate.

But once the student demonstrated his will to learn, once Daniel made it clear that nothing was going to stop him from learning karate, Mr. Miyagi fully engaged in his role as teacher.  Magic happened.  Mr. Miyagi didn’t just teach Daniel karate – he fully invested himself in Daniel’s future.  Wow!  Their bond was so successful that Mr. Miyagi even gave Daniel a car and the two went on to make many a happy sequel together.

Who ever thought a quite mythical theme of a boy first proving his worth to master would ever come from a Hollywood karate movie? Epic stuff really. Click Here for the Cobra Kai gift shop.

I want The Wax-On/Wax Off Level Of Commitment

I mentioned earlier that Textkit is in a transition period. Since our very beginning our tag line has always been, ‘Greek and Latin Learning Tools’.  What we mean to say is that we are a facilitator of learning.  Our goal is to build content, tools and community that bring learners together.  Learners do not learn anything directly from Textkit -we are not the teachers.  Instead, we make the connections for community members to learn from each other.

We have been successful in the past with developing an online library and by creating our Greek and Latin Forum – but there is need for change.  Maybe I’m just a foolishly dreaming – but I’m going for the wax on/wax off kind of change.

Next Time – Songbirds of Troy

Well, I know after all this reading this was a bit of a cliff-hanger, but that’s the point.  For next time, I will introduce my concept which I call Songbirds of Troy.  I can let the cat out of the bag just a bit to say that it’s a geo-gaming/educational technology that’s all wrapped into a story – a story that takes place inside the walls of Troy.  Songbirds will work for young children to adults and at its very core – it’s a technology that builds relationships.

Posted in General, Kids, Songbirds of Troy | 3 Comments

2012: A Look Back on Textkit

With 2012 behind us and the start of a new year, this is often a good time to reflect on what has happened and prioritize and envision new goals and objectives.  For Textkit there has been both good and bad in 2012.

The Good
The good is that organic site traffic and downloads of textbooks has been consistent and strong.   Direct traffic and traffic through site links is also equally strong.

A rising trend in 2012 is the ever increasing use of mobile and tablet devices. This tells me that it’s time to install a mobile version of the website which is easy to do using a WordPress plugin. Also good are the Facebook Likes. Facebook and social sharing continues to grow and it’s great to see Textkit likes grow on a daily basis.

The Not So Good
The ‘Textkit Answers’ section of the site was a failure. It was a question and answer style tool that is very popular elsewhere. It just didn’t get enough traction and participation from experts who had the skills to answer the questions.

Another point of failure this year in 2012 is the Textkit forum which has seen slow activity from past years.  The failure in the forum is entirely my fault through lack of maintenance, moderation and activity.  I have made the commitment to re-engage because despite forum technology appearing quite old, it is still a very useful education tool.

Looking Ahead in 2013…
Textkit is at a crossroads.  We have met and solved the challenge of posting online textbooks and readers. When we began this project over a decade ago, it was very difficult to find free and quality Latin and Greek study material.  Fast forward to today and with the help of Textkit, Project Gutenberg, Google Books and others, we now live in a world of easy access to all kinds of amazing study material.

Still, Textkit is at a crossroads because with less demand for our library (happily so) and with so many changes in devices, social media, bandwidth, big data there is both the mandate and opportunity for us to change in order to meet the demands of today’s beginning Greek and Latin learners.

I have been thinking for the past two years on what that change should look like.  I have some great ideas, but the reality is that I cannot make positive changes alone.  At the very inner core of what Textkit is and will always be is a learning community. I see Textkit as a tool that doesn’t just connect content, it connects people.

A fundamental challenge with learning Ancient Greek and Latin is that there are so, so few of us out there and even fewer who have the skills and time to teach and mentor.  But how can Textkit better solve this challenge and help participate in keeping Classics alive?  How can Textkit help connect the learners with the teachers in a way that is productive and engaging?

These questions are why my thoughts have been for the past two years.  With that, I would like to announce a new Textkit project which I will share more about in the coming weeks.

The project is ‘Songbirds of Troy‘.

Thank you and I wish health and happiness to everyone in 2013.

Kindly,
Jeff

Posted in General | 4 Comments

Textkit Library Moving to Rackspace Content Delivery Network (CDN)

As part of Textkit’s new 2011 “Tools Channel” which is where we build, feature and discuss how educators can leverage Internet technologies in order to develop Classical education tools, we’re announcing that Textkit is shifting its PDF and raw source image library to a Content Delivery Network (CDN).  Textkit has chosen Rackspace’s Cloud Files product to provide world-wide content delivery of our library. This post is about our migration to the cloud and how cloud based technologies will drive new projects here at Textkit.

The Cost Decline

It’s worth discussing is this post how new technologies and drops in technology pricing can stimulate new tools and services for education communities like Textkit.  As best I can see it, and I am not an IT professional, price drops are due largely to:

  • Innovations in server virtualization and server management tools
  • Drops in server and component costs
  • Expansion of data centers
  • Expansion of networks and connectivity
  • Expansion of IT management staff

The drop in storage and transfer costs over the the past eight years is nothing less than astonishing.   Storage costs are the costs of hosting a file on a web server while transfer or bandwidth costs are the costs associated with downloading a file.  All websites you visit and the content you load in your browser and download to your computer has storage and bandwidth costs which are paid for upstream by the site owner.

Textkit began serving files over ten years ago.  At that time we provided large (at the time) PDF files free of charge and we operated in a cost environment that required us to seek hosting assistance through Miami University’s Montgomery Web Server.  In 2003, Textkit moved to a dedicated web server at the cost of $3,160.00 per year.

With advancements in technology and the rapid expansion of data center availability across the United States and throughout the world, in 2011 Textkit will see its storage and bandwidth costs under $4.00.  Yes, 4 bucks. Our utilization by today’s standards is quite small. Our library is slightly under 1 gigabyte and our monthly transfer is about 1 gigabyte as well.  The donut chart below visualizes this drastic drop in cost. The thin red slice in the chart below represents Textkit’s 2011 storage and bandwidth costs as compared with the large blue donut slice representing what we paid in 2003.

Content Delivery Network = Speed = Happy Visitors

We mentioned that our file library will have a new home on Rackspace’s Content Delivery Network under their Cloud Files product.  CDN is perhaps an esoteric term to you, but you certainly use it everyday on the Internet.  Between the file you want to download and your computer there is a network.  If they file is on a server in North America and you are in Asia, your network route is much longer and therefore you must wait longer as your packet requests route across the network.

CDNs simply cache content on server nodes positioned throughout the world. This way, your computer has a physically shorter network path to the file you are trying to download; shorter path, greater speed, happier experience.

I have taken the liberty to borrow a few illustrations of this concept from the Rackspace documentation page where they show the example of a user in Tokyo downloading content from a server in Texas across the CDN. You may see the entire document and learn more about Rackspace’s CDN here.

The above two images illustrate how content that is delivered will be cached world wide to servers closer to users in that location.  This is the power of cloud based technologies and we’re making use of this at the low cost of $4 a year to have our content cached across a multitude of servers world wide.

Experimenting On The Cloud – Why All This Matters To Social Educators

Cost savings aside, these price drops illustrate a larger change that’s currently unfolding in how we use the Internet today.  We’ve all certainly heard of the concept of “Web 2.0″ which is the emergence of the Social Layer of the Internet. The best examples of Web 2.0 are certainly Facebook and Twitter.  Before Web 2.0 we saw Web 1.0 which was the rise of websites, documents and content both static and database driven.

Cloud Computing providers like Rackspace are incredibly important for us social educators to pay attention to because they offer an entirely new set of tools and products which we can leverage and build upon.  It’s so important to state clearly now that the most imporant benefit that I see is the benefit of experimentation with scale. I can experiment with new cloud-based tools and service models for literally less than 100 bucks while having in place the instant scaling ability. Without the means to scale and distribute a project as it grows, it’s almost impossible to get started because the financial cost of failing are so high. Eight to ten year ago having scale meant up-front cash expenditures in the form of colocation contracts, hardware and personnel. We’re talking hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.  We’re talking big money, venture funding, and high risk.  Today, the cloud provides service experimentation that is small, countless and creative.

The Cloud & Web 3.0 – The Semantic Web

I see cloud infrastructure and products interwoven with Web 3.0   Web 3.0 which is aptly known as the Semantic Web is an emerging force which Textkit seeks to be a  part of.  Web 3.0 is for me where I’m most excited and why I’m returning to the Textkit project with great focus and energy.

If you haven’t heard of the Semantic Web, while not new, it’s very much still an emerging trend as this Google Trends graph points out.  What is new is how Cloud Computing will nitro-boost its use and popularity.  I believe there are the signs now of a coming explosion in Web 3.0 projects and products where massive data-sets interact with consumers across a variety of platforms.

We’re language people here at Textkit so we know that ‘semantics’ is the discussion of meaning. For Semantic Web, it’s best describe as the movement to place meaning on content.  It’s the building of vast data-sets of structured data through social, crowd sourcing, harvesting and other methods.  A common theme found in Semantic Web projects feature the exchange an interaction of data-sets, through API mashings, so that web products and services build upon each other.  The notion of walled data-sets is rejected by many Semantic Web projects and it’s fading away as API sharing, metering and licensing of data become more common place.  While Facebook and Twitter are best seen as Web 2.0 examples, they both actually have many Web 3.0 elements that include the sharing of data through their API and the opening up and interaction with other tools, and their contributions to big-data open source platforms and tools.  With new and large data-sets there can be new tools. This has critical meaning for educators because the low cost storage and use of large data-sets allows for new education innovations.

Our Forthcoming Experiments with Semantic Web Projects

Cloud based services have allowed us to experiment in ways that were not possible in the not too distance past.  We’ll be innovating in the Semantic Web arena by mapping relationship data-sets of Latin and Ancient Greek vocabulary. It will draw in the external data of Greek and Latin morphology provided by the Perseus Project, it will make use of digitized readers and grammars provided by ourselves and the Gutenberg Project, and through this combination we will crowd source new vocabulary data-sets where it is the relationship that is the data. Specifically, the relationship between reader + grammar book + word + morphology + quiz questions + quiz answers is mapped. This mapped data will then be opened up through an API which the Vocabulary Wars project will use.

Our first Vocabulary Tool project which has now been sunsetted was a very simply mySQL framework and it’s quizzing and progress tracking engine stored slightly under 1 million data points across 30K user accounts.  Our new tool will have a quiz engine making use of adaptive analytics and it can very easily see over 100K data points per user account.  Impossible then, but possible now with the cloud.

This is one example of how cloud computing is rushing in the new Web 3.0 and the rise of big data and how we’ll make use of this here at Textkit.  As always, I welcome you to share your comments.

Posted in Tools | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Textkit Answers – A Q&A Tool For Questions About The Classics, Ancient Greek and Latin

As part of Textkit’s 2011 commitment to developing new tools which will better serve Greek and Latin learners, Textkit has launched a new tool called Textkit Answers.  Textkit Answers is a social question and answer tool much like  StackExchange or Yahoo! Answers.  Our Q&A platform is an open sourced PHP script developed by Question2Answer.org.

There are a number of ways in which Textkit Answers is different from a traditional forum.  A key difference is that it’s very easy to post a question and posting a question requires no registration.  When it is time to create an account, our tool offers extremely easy and fast registration by making use of Facebook’s Login API.  Another difference is that unlike a forum where information is structured by topic, with Q&A tools information is tagged by keyword and category.  Tagging, in addition to RSS feeds, allows learners and experts to easily monitor specific topics and syndicate topics.

With Textkit Answers, there is a reputation system whereby those who answer questions and vote earn reputation points which will then further grant them privileges and bragging rights.   We are very grateful for the script provided by Question2Answer.org, however, the script is still very new and does lack a few features that we would like to bring online in the future. These features include badges and advanced privileges based upon activity. Still, we are off to a great start.

The goal of Textkit Answers is to provide a much easier tool and community repository for topics on The Classics and learning Ancient Greek and Latin.  All questions and answers hosted on Textkit Answers will be made public domain and licensed under a Creative Commons license.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll be making some structural changes to both Textkit and our Forums in order to better support Textkit Answers.  We ask now that if you like this project and would like to see it grow, please join us and help spread the word.

Posted in Tools | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Chicken Dinners & Learning To Read With McGuffey

This is the first post of Textkit’s Kids channel.  We created this channel because many of us here at Textkit are also parents or are responsible for the education of young children. I thought of no better way to open up this channel than by writing about the most basic and wonderful skill to teach a child – learning to read. Also, I wanted to open up the Kids Channel with a blog post that helped better explain a bit more about myself and what part of the world I’m from which is the beautiful state of Ohio and Miami University which is the birthplace of Textkit.

If you’re like myself, it’s possible you have reflected on how best and when to educate your child in the Classics and specifically in learning Ancient Greek or Latin. For myself, I can’t even say right now if  reading Greek and Latin are activities my children should attempt at their young age.  I do know however that as a parent there’s plenty I can do to set my children down the correct path so that if they do choose to learn Ancient Greek or Latin, their studies will provide them with greater success and satisfaction.

One thing I have done which I do believe will better prepare them to learn to read difficult languages is teaching them to read with McGuffey’s Readers.  I’m a graduate of Miami University and I was raised not too far from Oxford,Ohio, so I have know about McGuffey Readers nearly all my life.  If you’re unfamiliar, between Miami University’s McGuffey Museum and the McGuffey Wiki you will find excellent comments and background on the life and works of William  McGuffey.

Click Image For Readable Hi Resolution

It’s worth pointing out here that McGuffey Readers are estimated to have been printed over 120 million copies and it is by far the best selling and most widely used textbook in the world. While I don’t know about McGuffey’s use and impact outside the United States, in America, generations of students learned to read with McGuffey Readers.

My children used the 1879 Revised Edition, which is available today for purchase as a hardback at  Amazon.
I point out it’s the revised version because a prior version of McGuffey Readers, first written in 1836, included frequent Calvanistic principles in the lessons that often referenced obedience to God and the path of salvation through Jesus.  The 1879 Revision sought to better secularize the work.  From our modern perspective 132 years later, the 1879 version is still very much a textbook that is a product of another time. You will find lessons that contain moralization, bedtime prayers and lessons that reflect a harder time in which parents die, life is short, and young children have toil and duty in their daily lives.  If you as a parent object to any of this, just know that I found these references to be infrequent and can be easily skipped.  For home use, there was no content I found particularly objectionable and there are too many positive stories of moral bravery and sacrifice and stories that gave me the chance to talk to my children about a different time and life in mid-western American history.

Why McGuffey’s For the Young Modern Reader

What I appreciate about McGuffey Readers are their directness and brevity.  These are rubber meets the road readers where a child is asked to read the lesson with little to no pictorial clues for context or aid.    I speculate this is due in part to the economics and technology of the mid-19th century in which William McGuffey lived and worked.  A time where instructional material needed to be published with concision due to the limited resources of schools and the greater costs of publishing. Again, this is only my speculation and I would certainly welcome any comments or feedback on the economics of early American textbooks.

There are three practical areas where the use of McGuffey Readers I feel benefits my children directy:

  • Lesson Structure
  • Directness
  • Goals

Lesson Structure

It’s very clear to me that Mr. McGuffey took great care in structuring his lessons. Lessons begin with the most basic of vowels and word forms and gradually progress to include more difficult vocabulary, reading comprehension and sentence structure.  Mr. McGuffey was the Professor of Languages at Miami University and with certainty he had language exposure to both Latin and Ancient Greek.  I see this exposure in his works where clearly the notion of weak and strong vowel sounds are presented in good order.

Lessons that make clear segregation of vowel sounds lets me as a parent explain to my child why it is helpful for him or her to identify if the vowel was weak or strong before making an attempt at pronunciation.  By adding my own simple reminders like, ‘it takes two consonants to protect a weak vowel’ and ‘when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking’, my kindergarten age children quickly learned to see the difference in sound and meaning between words like ‘dine’, ‘dinner’, ‘diner’.   Exposing my children at an early age, with the help of McGuffey Readers, to weak and strong vowels has led them to better spelling and pronunciation at a much earlier age and a bit clearer understanding morphology.

Directness

From our modern perspective of full color textbooks, McGuffey Readers are quite plain.  Boringly plain. They actually contain many wonderful black and white etching but all the modern reprints seem to reproduce these etchings in a very dark tone.  I’m not trying to impose a sense of austerity with my children, but I do believe that reading lessons require focus and efficiency and the lack of artwork is an aid to the reader because the child has fewer things on the page to be distracted with.

Less distraction means greater efficiency.  While not stated this way, I learned this lesson from my Ancient Greek Professor, Dr. Jack Dutra of Miami University.  Dr. Dutra was known for starting lessons exactly – and I mean exactly – on time and ending the lesson not a second before the end of class.  In between the start and end we went full force.  Asking a small child to focus is even more difficult.   Therefore, I feel the simple format and layout of McGuffey’s is helpful to a modern young mind that sees noise and distraction in the home at every turn.

Goals

This is my favorite aspect of McGuffey Readers. McGuffey’s First Reader is a 94 page book divided into 63 lessons.  This is a big, big goal for a young 5 year-old reader. It’s something that we worked on, together at bedtime, throughout the school year.  I inscribed into each of my child’s copy this short poem I wrote to help them better see that learning to read is a process:

Chicken Dinner
In a greasy spoon
Is what you earn
If you finish by June.

Yet despite the length of the book, it’s divided into lessons that range from as short as a single sentence to no more than 2 pages towards the end.  With lessons in place, the kids have clear goals for each night. They feel good at the end of a lesson because they know they accomplished something.  And, I have to say, my oldest son felt just like a rock-star when he completed the book.  It was a big goal for him and he met it while both having fun along the way and seeing too that a little work and challenge didn’t kill him after all.

Wrap Up

As I said, I’m not an educator nor do I study or investigate different methods of reading. I’m just a regular dad who found these books to be very helpful and I feel that their structure and lessons really helped my children to begin the process of critically looking at words to see forms and morphology which are skills required for the reading of Ancient Greek or Latin.

McGuffey House - Oxford Ohio

The McGuffey house photo taken in October 2010 in Oxford, Ohio. In 1836 Professor McGuffey of Miami University wrote the McGuffey Readers series in this house. I myself am a third generation graduate of Miami University and fittingly, 175 years and over 120 million copies later, I taught my children to read using his books.

Here I am on the back porch of the McGuffey House.

Oh, and the Chicken Dinner…

I’m from Ohio where chicken dinners are especially popular.  We had Nathan’s McGuffey Readers Reward at Troyer’s Dutch Heritage in the heart of Ohio Amish Country. If you enjoy country style chicken dinners, I apologize for the image below.

Chicken Dinner

Troyer's Chicken Dinner in June. A well earned reward for completing McGuffey's First Reader.

Posted in Kids | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Second Year Latin – Part 1 – Selections of Easy Latin

pdf Download JBG Second Year Latin
5.03 MB | 8254 Downloads

Edited by Greenough, D’Ooge and Danniel, this free Latin reader features 62 pages of easy Latin text and line notes to assist the learner.  It is posted online in printer friendly format for convenient off-line use and study.

Posted in Latin | Tagged | 10 Comments

The Phormio of Terence in Latin

pdf Download FR Phormio Of Terence
3.34 MB | 3006 Downloads

For intermediate learners, this Latin reader is an ideal introduction into Terence. It presents an adapted version of The Phormio of Terence with an excellent introduction, line notes and vocabulary to assist the learner.

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Selections From Ovid

pdf Download AG Ovid AR5
8.63 MB | 4326 Downloads

Selections From Ovid – Chiefly Metamorphoses – by Allen and Greenough is an intermediate Latin reader which provides over 200 pages of Ovid text in Latin.  The reader has an informative introduction on both the life of Ovid and his writings.  The text is divided by selections, with index, and line notes are presented in the book’s appendix to assist the learner.  Also presented is a 146 page Special Ovid Latin Vocabulary.

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Select Orations of Cicero – Interlinear

pdf Download TC Cicero Interlinear
863.86 kB | 3918 Downloads

This Latin reader is an interlinear. The text is in Latin with a word by word translation in English beneath.  The translation is quite literal and it will read very broken.  The aim of interlinear translations was not to provide a smooth well-formed translation, but to serve as word by word aid to the reader.

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Ovid’s Metamorphoses – Literal Translation

pdf Download RDG Ovid Metamorphoses 1-4
7.25 MB | 19379 Downloads

This is a literal word-for-word translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses Books from the Key to the Classics Series by Rev. Dr. Giles.

Posted in Latin | Tagged | 5 Comments