Monday, January 30, 2012

Apple Innovates Away Textbook Access and Affordabilty

I wanted to write a few notes here about many of the questions and comments I have read on Twitter and elsewhere about the iPad and textbook authoring. Two things that Apple does well is marketing and innovation. Sometimes though, the two don't speak well together. Apple is "reinventing" the textbook only for those who haven't been watching the textbook get reinvented over the last ten years. The open textbook and OER movements have been reinventing textbooks and revolutionizing education for while now. What Apple has figured out is how to monetize and brand that "revolution" into a free app on an expensive non-ADA compliant platform. English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...Image via Wikipedia

I have a Mac at home and an iPod, why aren't I delirious over the "new" technology? Because for what I do, for the problems I need to solve, Apple is no solution. What Apple has done is to figure out a way for instructors to quickly author textbooks on their proprietary platform. For instance, faculty can now take an open textbook, load it on to an iPad and upload it to the app store where it is now inaccessible to those with smaller budgets, older computers or even an e-book reader. How is this an improvement? All I see is an expensive tool designed to lock out poorer students and colleges.

Where would we get the money to provide iPads for students? Do we make it a requirement that students have to have an iPad to take someone's class? The colleges that are most excited about this are those with money. I think you will find the community colleges less enthusiastic.

Why is Apple doing this? According to Publisher's Weekly: "Sales of mass market paperback plunged in September, falling 54.3% at reporting houses. Trade paperback did much better with sales flat at reporting houses, while hardcover sales fell 18.1%." PW goes on to say that "For the first nine months of 2011, e-book sales were up 137.9% at reporting publishers, to $727.7 million." The e-book market is ripe for "innovation." Apple is not interested in opening access to education; they are not interested in innovating in education for the sake of education. Their eye is on the bottom line as it has always been.

Patrick Martin really summed this up nicely: “at the bare minimum, the technology that replaces textbooks must work across multiple platforms and be capable of running on the cheapest hardware. Anything short of that will just be another thing that only more prosperous parents can purchase in hopes of giving their children a leg up. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a revolution.”

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Daum Equation Editor

We had a faculty member who is teaching chemistry for non-majors ask us to come up with an equation editor that would not require his students to learn LaTex or ML - the subject is tough enough without having the students learn code as well. We went through a lot of candidates and we came to the conclusion that math people don't do visual stuff very well. We sent out the hounds on Twitter and Facebook to track anything down. We went to Europe (via email) and came close to buying something. Finally we found the Daum Equation Editor and what a Daum fine equation editor it is. It is a Google Chrome app so the students will have to have Google Chrome. It allows the students to click on a fraction symbol and fill it in. It saves the equation as text or as an image.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Open Education Week Coming in March

This from Cable Green at Creative Commons: "Join your colleagues around the world to increase understanding about open education! Open Education Week will take place from 5-10 March 2012 online and in locally hosted events around the world. Image representing Creative Commons as depicte...Image via CrunchBaseThe objective is to raise awareness of the open education movement and open educational resources. There are several ways you and your organization can be involved..." He then goes on to list several ways - provide a pre-recorded presentation of your work in OER, host a webinar, etc. There is a form at the bottom of the announcement.This is an important organization to support: they have literally redefined copyright in favor of both the consumers and producers in an age where the lines between the two are dissolving quickly. As they put it at Creative Commons: "The idea of universal access to research, education, and culture is made possible by the Internet, but our legal and social systems don’t always allow that idea to be realized. Copyright was created long before the emergence of the Internet, and can make it hard to legally perform actions we take for granted on the network: copy, paste, edit source, and post to the Web. The default setting of copyright law requires all of these actions to have explicit permission, granted in advance, whether you’re an artist, teacher, scientist, librarian, policymaker, or just a regular user. To achieve the vision of universal access, someone needed to provide a free, public, and standardized infrastructure that creates a balance between the reality of the Internet and the reality of copyright laws. That someone is Creative Commons."

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

OERs: Why Commercial Electronic Textbooks Are No Bargain

Earlier this month, there was a posting at the California State Library blog that said that, according to a Dayton College study, the savings for students using electronic textbooks was only a dollar: "Despite the promise that digital textbooks can lead to huge cost savings for students, a new study at Daytona State College has found that many who tried e-textbooks saved only one dollar, compared with their counterparts who purchased traditional printed material." This came as no surprise to me. Electronic textbooks in themselves, especially those sold by businesses, solve the problem of distribution and printing costs to the commercial publisher, but not the problem of cost to the students and schools (or as the commercial publishers refer to them "the customers"). The study show that there are some cost saving in many circumstances but the cost of education and textbooks is currently rising faster than inflation or health care manifold over.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  A view of the Mc...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeThe real solution to this problem is not just electronic textbooks, but textbooks that are also openly licensed. That means the textbooks are licensed in such a way that they are available to students and schools for free (such as the alternative to traditional copyright "Creative Commons"). These textbooks tend to be created by teachers for teachers and students in a particular context. They are then fully editable by other teachers to adapt to the particular needs of their students. According to the Dayton College study, nearly 1/4 of students who responded said they took fewer classes in a semester because of the cost of textbooks, and 29% of the students avoided purchasing a textbook because of its high cost at least once. Again, from the study, "During three of the project’s four semesters, students enrolled in some of the e-text pilot sections paid only $1 less for rental of their e-texts than students who bought a printed book due to publisher pricing decisions. These students were also unable to recoup a portion of expenses by selling the textbooks back to the on-campus bookstore when the course ended, which increased their disappointment."

The study, described at the CSL blog, was "conducted over four semesters, compared four different means of textbook distribution: traditional print purchase, print rental, e-textbook rental, and e-textbook rental with an e-reader device. It found that e-textbooks still face several hurdles as universities mull the switch to a digital textbook distribution model." None of this solves the problems for the students or schools. Electronic textbooks are a real temptation now for commercial enterprises because when you eliminate printing, storage and distribution, textbooks become very profitable. I am not excited when any corporation gets involved in the textbook business, even if the model is even sort of open. The whole point of business is to make a profit. I understand that, but there are appropriate and sustainable business models and old and broken ones. We do not privatize the police and generally the military (yes, there is Blackwater, but you see the problems that arise when you do it!). Our education should not be left in the hands of the profiteers. Even the somewhat more open than most publishers, like Flatworld Knowledge have a bottom line.

I can show numerous examples of outstanding open textbooks that are outstanding not just because they are "cool," have a great interface, and come with expensive supplements, but because they are incredibly effective. And no one can sell you that textbook even if they wanted to because the ones I am thinking about were created by a local community (our math department at College of the Redwoods for instance), meant to tackle problems in local schools, and address the needs of the local students. I can't sell you that book, but what I am willing to do is to talk to any educator, anywhere, who is interested in building that kind of community in your own school. This is a different philosophy than the commercial model (and no, that doesn't make me a "red") - it is a philosophy that says that learning and knowledge exist in the community and can't be commodified.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA Resistance Day

On Jan 24th, Congress will vote to pass internet censorship in the Senate, even though the vast majority of Americans are opposed. We need to kill the bill - PIPA in the Senate and SOPA in the House - to protect our rights to free speech, privacy, and prosperity. See this timeline of SOPA and PIPA events and the activist backlash.

What can you do?
    SOPA Resistance Day!Image by ~C4Chaos via Flickr
  1. If you have a Twitter account, tweet about the #SOPASTRIKE and ask your followers to get ready. You can follow SopaStrike on twitter for news as the strike gets closer. Go to Blackout SOPA to add ‘STOP SOPA’ to your Twitter image.
  2. Post the SOPA Strike page to your Facebook account by clicking here.
  3. Get ready for January 18th! Email and tweet at your friends, tell them to tell everyone about the strike. When the day comes, call Congress, tweet like crazy (#SOPASTRIKE), and help the strike appear everywhere!
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Friday, January 13, 2012

My Nigerian Millions

This is the Tech Beat article I wrote for the Times Standard:

By last count, I have made over $3.5 billion on the Internet since 1997. It has not come all at once; the money trickles in a few million dollars at a time. Every once in a while a whopping $100 million will just appear out of the blue. Apparently, I have a lot of friends in Nigeria: a widow of a former financial director, a rogue general or two, ex-managers of oil companies who need someone with my last name, and a couple of deposed dictators. All of them need me to contact them so I can collect untold millions.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Seal                 Image by DonkeyHotey
The Nigerian Scam letter is one of the most persistent and successful con games on the Internet. ”While such an invitation impresses most law-abiding citizens as a laughable hoax, millions of dollars in losses are caused by these schemes annually,” the FBI's Internet fraud website reads. The website refers to it as one in a class of frauds called “advance fee fraud.” It is also called the “419” scam after the Nigerian penal code enacted against it.

In my study of these letters a few years back, I chose 400 letters at random from seemingly different sources and traced the IP, or Internet protocol, addresses of about 200 of them (yes, I had more time on my hands then). Although not fool proof because Internet addresses can be spoofed, the emails seemed to come from everywhere: Nigeria, other African countries, Italy, the Netherlands, South America and all around the Pacific Rim. It is difficult to determine if an email comes from a real or fake account. The difficulties are illustrated by the one email which I traced to the Netherlands, but it claimed to be from Africa and had an email account from England. I found four major variations of the scam: the son or daughter who needs help in claiming the inheritance; an aide to an official who needs to open a foreign account for over-invoiced money; a banker who finds an abandoned account and needs a foreigner to claim the money; and the widow of an official wgi has money for a foreign investor or to “do God's work.” But common to all is the required advance fee to access the money. The letters are a request for assistance in the transfer of millions of dollars to an overseas account, for which the victim is promised a percentage.

Many recipients of these emails think that the authors are trying to get bank account numbers -- it is far more insidious than that. If a potential victim responds to the email, then the culprits start asking for more and more legal fees and bribes. They will take the money until the victim starts to complain, and then the culprits typically move on to the next victim. Like many Internet scams, their success depends on volume. For every 10,000 emails they send out, they may get only a couple of responses, but that is all they need. Often, victims are asked to come to Nigeria. If that happens, the victim runs the risk of kidnapping or murder.

Two days after the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, I received an email from a man claiming to be an arms dealer who had money to buy weapons for the insurgency. Since Saddam had been captured and the war was essentially over, would I help him find an appropriate bank to deposit $22 million? The letters are often written with bad grammar, phonetic spelling and in dialect. This allows the reader to imagine a poor, naive foreigner who will surely be taken advantage of.
”Why shouldn't that person be me?” a potential victim might ask.

Some of the letters ask that the victim send assurances that they will deal with the author honestly. This is meant to give the victim a sense of shared risk. If the authors can convey the feeling that they have something to lose, then the victim is more likely to believe that he or she has something to gain.

Variations of this con have been around since at least the 1920s as a variation of the “Spanish Prisoner” scam, which involves collecting money for bribes to help release an aristocrat who is supposedly languishing in prison. If you help with the escape, you will be handsomely rewarded by the family.

Who would fall for such a blatant scam? How could anyone respond to one of these emails? The FBI warns us that we should not reply to these emails. The more economically desperate the times, the more desperate the possible measures. A small percentage of people is willing to believe anything if it will get them in the black and out of trouble, and another percentage is always willing to make that offer, solicited or not.

Geoff Cain is the director of Distance Learning at College of the Redwoods. He also serves on the board of directors for the Redwood Technology Consortium. Want to know more about technology and education? See Geoff's blog at
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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

DE 101: Online Student Success

eLearning in Health conference twitter visuali...
I wanted to share a few notes here about our orientation to online learning. Here at College of the Redwoods, Barry Tucker and I have created "DE 101" - our free, not-for-credit, fully online student orientation to online learning. This is our syllabus.  NB: This posting is meant to be a chatty draft of a more formal paper that Barry Tucker and I will write on this course.

What problem does this solve?
Every semester, we have students going into to online classes with little exposure to technology or online learning. Students have spent 12 years learning to be a face-to-face student, and have had little experience with distance education. We find that students who are struggling with the technology and who do not understand what is involved in online learning (the motivation and study skills needed) will do poorly. We believe that this accounts for the disparity between the retention rates and success rates in the online and face-to-face classes.Our students typically do not have access to a lot of technology and it have only recently had access to high speed networks or even computers. This is a very rural and large area (10,000 sq miles).

How does it work?
The "course" goes for two weeks. We have two "facilitators" and three "TAs." Basically if you are in the Distance Education department, you are participating in DE 101. There are four modules in the course that open up twice a week. This mimics the flow of a typical online course. Each module covers a piece of technology and a personal skill, such as time management, that research has shown to contribute to success in online classes. The orientation is hosted in our instance of Sakai. We try to use as many of the tools in Sakai as we can and we throw in some outside tools as well. Each module has a lesson (which may include illustrations, recorded audio or video), a brief assignment, and a quiz or survey. The first module will open on Monday, the next on Thursday, etc. The tests and surveys are simple. The first one is a syllabus quiz. The whole point is to let the students play with the tools and practice using the technology with out the stress of trying to learn algebra or biology at the same time.We are using tools like Twitter to help model the possibilities of building learning networks online.

What Are the Challenges?
Time constraints. Two weeks does not seem to be enough time. It is better than trying to pack everything in a couple hours which is often the case with face-to-face orientations. ADA issues need to be solved. We have text equivalents for a lot of the media in the course - we need a quick, inexpensive (free?) way of captioning videos. We think YouTube's automatic captioning is exciting. We are also part of a grant for captioning educational video. In these days of Google Voice's speech-to-text technology, there has to be an easier way to do this. (Keep an eye on this blog for solutions to come.)

What are the results?
We have seen a significant increase in student retention and success rates in online classes since we have implemented DE 101. We went from and 11% difference between face-to-face rates to 5% which is the national average. One semester we brought it down to 4%. In our surveys, the students report that they feel more comfortable with the technology and are ready to take online classes. We hear back from faculty who say that they appreciate having DE 101 students in their classes because they can help other students out as well.

Where do we go from here?
We would like to see more of an emphasis on collaborative work. I would like to build the course into a community instead of a "class." I am in a class this semester, Jim Groom's DS 106 (Digital Storytelling). That course has a built in pedagogy of participation and collaboration. The students share assignments and create assignments. I would like to have the students decide what skills are important in online learning (and smart network creation) and then collaborate on assignments to meet those goals. I would like a system of badges ala Code Academy, where students with research and citation skills can help their peers learn how to use online tools like Zotero for their research. We want to use more assignments that use Google Docs, social media and other technologies that encourage collaborative learning.

How are you preparing your students for online learning? Please feel free to share your comments below.
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Thursday, January 05, 2012

OER Books & Journals: Don't forget Europe!

English: Open Access logo and textImage via WikipediaI came across a great site in my morning reading: OAPEN (Open Access Publishing in European Networks) which "is a collaborative initiative to develop and implement a sustainable Open Access publication model for academic books in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The OAPEN Library aims to improve the visibility and usability of high quality academic research by aggregating peer reviewed Open Access publications from across Europe." I was there this morning looking at a great article on new translations Dante. That is the occupational hazard here - I find far too many interesting things to read! A lot of this material is in English. I am particularly impressed with their focus on community which I feel is the most important aspect of open education resources and open textbooks, the community behind them. Also, the quality of the work is excellent.
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