Flat World Redefining Textbook Publishing for the Better

Flat World Publishers are putting out textbooks for free on the web, and making money. Oh, and students actually like it.

Sound stupid? Sounds like the future to me. Textbook publishing is a racket. Publishers extort billions from students bi-annually (or more often) by selling them required texts for their classes. Flat World comes in with a proposal that’s downright equitable. You can read this textbook online for free, or you can order a printed copy for a reasonable price, and you can buy additional materials, like audio books, study-aids and individual chapters if you need or want them. One of the optional purchases is a unencrypted, un-DRMed PDF file of the book, which can be read on any device that can read PDFs. This is useful for offline access and of course for Kindle and e-reader access.

Additionally, most of the materials are updated frequently and include appropriate links and media, all of which can be customized by individual professors for individual classes. This is smart. And it’s why I’m not at all surprised that this effort came from outside the traditional publishing industry.

Emerging Media and Communication at UT Dallas

A new program in Emerging Media and Communication at UT Dallas looks very interesting.

The Emerging Media and Communication degree prepares the “communicators of the twenty-first century.” These new communicators will combine technological expertise with effective communication skills across a wide range of media, developing “new media literacy” in response to the digital revolution that has radically changed all aspects of human communication.

There are both undergrad and graduate majors within the program.

This syllabus from the an Introduction for Emerging Media course in the program seems much like one I’d like to create for teachers and instructional designers at the graduate level. Teachers and instructional designers are being increasingly being expected to understand the Internet and become content managers and publishers of new media. They are very rarely given any instruction about the Internet and how it functions. They occasionally get training or classes on LMSs like Moodle and Blackboard, but what they really need is a clear understanding of the entire medium, that Moodle and Blackboard are but a tiny bastardization of. The Internet is to today as the Gutenberg Press was to the middle ages… a marked shift in communications where society must change to accommodate this new method of communication.

David Parry, one of the professors in program wrote this piece on his blog talking about getting the class off the ground this year, which is worth a read. He notes,

[…]we are educating our students for a world that no longer exists instead of educating them for the world they will inherit. This strikes me as irresponsible.

A similar problem exists, as I see it, at the graduate level for teachers and instructional designers. They can take courses where they make a course in Moodle or an activity in Flash, but those are tools used today (mostly poorly)… by the time they get jobs in the field, the tech will have changed. Plus, so many of these courses use proprietary software, which, once it falls out of favor, those creation skills are almost useless, unless you have the underlying theory and literacies for the digital landscape of the Internet. They need to know what types tools are good for what tasks, and learn to make those types of critical analyses for themselves, so in a year or two when they have to decide how or why to deploy something, they’ll know how to make those choices.

Tech Etiquette or Using the Right Tool for the Job

Imagine you have a house party and you invite 25 people you’re friendly with. They don’t all know each other, but there’s a good cross over. Interesting connections are being made and lively chat is spontaneously popping up all over the house.

Then something strange happens. Someone you met fairly recently, who seemed pretty cool, throws open the window. He sees your neighbors having a conversation in their backyard. He listens for a few minutes, then starts chiming in… loudly… while still in your house. It sounds like he’s having a conversation, effectively with himself, from the side of your living room.

This wouldn’t fly at a house party, right? Social etiquette would preclude this from happening. So why is it acceptable on Twitter? This is exactly what it is like when you join a conversation using a #hashtag instead of engaging in conversations with an @reply at the beginning. (See #lrnchat, #journochat, et al.)

Prefixing your tweet with an @username makes your conversation completely opt-in. The only people who will see your conversation will be someone who also follows the person you’re replying to. This greatly increases the chance it will be relevant or at least interesting to them. When you use a hashtag, it strips this functionality from the system, punishing all your uninterested followers… who will likely be the majority of your followers.

What this is is the misapplication of a tool. It’s an endemic problem with new technology. Many people want to hop aboard the latest, most popular tool and do so with the best of intentions. But tools are about solving problems. You must ask yourself what problem you’re looking to address and what the most effective way to do so is. You might want to create a new wiki to store all your information for a project, but in some situations a simple paper handout might be the best tool for the job!

You have to look critically and objectively at the characteristics of the tool and ask yourself if they really assist you in solving your problem. Wikis are a fabulous tool for collaboration, group documentation, and group curation of digital assets, just to name a few. But if your project requires you to provide a quick-access job aid displaying data unlikely to change frequently… a piece of paper might be the best technology to have. Perhaps upgrade it with a piece of Scotch™ tape to adhere it to the side of a computer display. There you have it, fast, easy, recyclable.

Tools are rarely free. People often have to use a tool because it’s available, not because it’s the best for the job. That’s reality. However, if you can master proper application of technological tools, then you can also maximize the available budget for them. If you become known as someone who makes the most form the dollars they’re given, you’re more likely to get them in the future. Don’t waste your company or organization’s resources on something just because “That’s what the kids are using these days.” Make sure it passes the sniff test.

People don’t care if you’re using the most popular, buzzword-worthy tool. They care that they’re able to get things done. Help them with that, and you’ll be a hero.

[If this is your first visit to this blog, you may notice it's a bit dormant. Please visit briandigital.com to see links to more active content by Brian. I hope to get this place hopping again soon.]

Social Media Classroom has gone live!

Big news! The other day my good friend Howard Rheingold flipped the switch and the public web site for our project, the Social Media Classroom went live to the world!

The SMC logo

The free (open source, no cost) software is combination of social media tools for use in education. It is designed to install right on top of Drupal, a popular open-source content management system.

I did a good deal of research and wireframing of many of the interfaces and interactions that happen in the software. It was a valuable educational experience for me design wise.

We got wrote up on Read Write Web.

I did not have as much time as I would have liked to donate to the project. My day job, grad school and my new baby boy all made my time scarce. I feel there’s a lot more I could do for the project, design wise, if I can find a little time… oh, time.

Special thanks to Sam Rose for all his hard work!

John Seely Brown on the Future of Organizational and Social Learning

Just stumbled upon this impromptu interview of John Seely Brown by Ulrike Reinhard (via Valeria Maltoni). It’s about 7 minutes of trademark Seely Brown brilliance. Enjoy.

Growing Up Online

Some people reading this blog will be thinking of younger students with their educational work. Others of us may focus on making digital things for the adults that will result from the current younger generation. For these people, and for me, here’s a great look at the generation who are “Growing Up Online.”

PBS’s Frontline is a fantastic show, and best of all, is freely available for viewing online. Thus, this episode is officially on my to-watch list: Growing Up Online :: PBS Frontline.

Minds on Fire

John Seely Brown is a pioneer in the realm of the computing, working as Chief Scientist for many years at Xerox PARC, which was the incubator of many of the most common place technologies we use today. JSB is also passionate about education and collaboration.

Recently, he co-wrote an article for EduCause, entitled Minds on Fire. (1.4MB PDF link!)

Below are a couple passages that got me excited. They’re more exciting in context, so I invite you to read the full article at JSB’s site, as linked above. (hyperlinks below are of my own insertion to help illustrate)

On Social Learning,

Compelling evidence for the importance of social interaction to learning comes from the landmark study by Richard J. Light, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, of students’ college/ university experience. Light discovered that one of the strongest determinants of students’ success in higher education—more important than the details of their instructors’ teaching styles—was their ability to form or participate in small study groups. Students who studied in groups, even only once a week, were more engaged in their studies, were better prepared for class, and learned significantly more than students who worked on their own.

On collaborative, open to the world learning,

An example of how the power of participation can be harnessed within a single course comes from David Wiley at Utah State University. In the fall of 2004, Wiley taught a graduate seminar, “Understanding Online Interaction.” He describes what happened when his students were required to share their coursework publicly:

Because my goal as a teacher is to bring my students into full legitimate participation in the community of instructional technologists as quickly as possible, all student writing was done on public blogs. The writing students did in the first few weeks was interesting but average. In the fourth week, however, I posted a list of links to all the student blogs and mentioned the list on my own blog. I also encouraged the students to start reading one another’s writing. The difference in the writing that next week was startling. Each student wrote significantly more than they had previously. Each piece was more thoughtful. Students commented on each other’s writing and interlinked their pieces to show related or contradicting thoughts. Then one of the student assignments was commented on and linked to from a very prominent blogger. Many people read the student blogs and subscribed to some of them. When these outside comments showed up, indicating that the students really were plugging into the international community’s discourse, the quality of the writing improved again. The power of peer review had been brought to bear on the assignments.

This is why I’m working on designing and creating software and techniques to enable social interaction that encourages learning.

On Rothfork’s Review of Dreyfus’s On the Internet. (619)

I must admit, I almost didn’t make it through John Rothfork’s Review of Hubert Dreyfus’s On the Internet.

I almost didn’t read far enough to note that the reviewer didn’t agree with Dreyfus. My immediate reaction is that someone (Dreyfus) had not spent any time actually in any online communities, and used his place of piety to lob stones at it. It would be the digital equivalent of renouncing some newly found culture in the Amazonian rain forest, without ever having spent time within the society.

I decided that I should probably finish reading the review.

Once I had done that, I figured I should do some more research, seeing that this book was written in 2001, which is approximately 70 years ago in Internet time (yes, it’s kind of like dog years). I found Dr Dreyfus’s homepage at Berkeley, and firstly found this Los Angeles Times article about Dr. Dreyfus’s podcasts being of the 20 most popular downloads on Apple’s iTunesU podcast directory. The Times story was a wonderful read, and I recommend it highly. I, too, have listed to a few lectures from there.

One of the articles main points is that people around the world, from all walks of life want to learn. Online education gives them capabilities that have never before existed so broadly or freely. I thought it a bit ironic that Dr. Dreyfus, who still stands by his 2001 work, nevertheless moved to a classroom with audio equipment to improve the recordings, of his own volition. From the article…

Dreyfus says the chance to disseminate ideas softens his reservations. And the e-mails he receives from the listening audience—”you podcast people,” he calls them during class—are touching.

To conclude, I still think Dr. Dreyfus’s assessment of communities on the Internet is critically lacking. I believe (without a lot of hard evidence to back me up) there’s a significant chance that the (at the time) 71-year-old Dreyfus read some philosophy books on artificial intelligence, communities on the Internet, then sat down with very little first hand experience with quality communities on the Internet and wrote his luddite screed against learning on the internet. Ironic, since he sees about 25% of his in-person class missing each class he holds in person, in a large lecture hall. It seems his own model is broke, as well.

“I’m pretty honored to take the class, but at the same time, when he does his lectures, it’s not like I’m there with Dreyfus the man,” Diaz said, referring to the impersonal feeling of sitting in a large lecture hall.

Quality communities can absolutely exist online. To say they do not is simply misinformed. It’s hard to say exactly what Dreyfus said from reading a book review alone. Did he mean communities cannot thrive, or they cannot thrive to the extent that they can be effective enough to promote learning at an advanced level? The bigger question I feel is, “Can quality online communities form quickly enough to be an effective environment for a limited-duration online class?”

Howard’s First SMC Update

Howard has posted his first update on the Social Media Classroom project. Another nice overview of all the hard work we’re putting in.

More coming soon!

(In case you missed it, here was my latest update)

Schools Dropping a Day Due to Gas Prices

Many community colleges, especially in rural America, are dropping Friday classes to save their students gas money.

Meridian Community College President Scott Elliott says his students, who on average drive 30 miles round-trip to campus, could save $200 or more a semester based on recent pump prices. “When you’re … working a minimum-wage job and (taking) care of a child or two, that could be a lot of money,” he says.

This seems to be a big opening for distance technology. Perhaps one class a week over a forum or an audio or video chat technology.

Thanks to Chris Penn for the link.

Related, also from CSP: Cisco’s really pushing telepresence. It’s hard to tell the quality from this video, it’s lighting, etc. but it’s clear they have something going.