Alexandria Online

Monday, December 27, 2010

"Quants" for the Humanities

I read in the news that robots are reading the news. They comb through billions of words to detect trends and moods in markets and then trigger automatic trades on Wall Street. (See )

When I was in junior high in the earlier 1970's, my private school decided that we were all going to spend a few weeks learning to "speed read." Speed reading went out of style long ago and any benefits that I received have faded away, although I and many others find the technique of "skimming" text quite useful. The new technologies that traders are using to skim the news takes that concept to the google power.

Wall Street technologies are doing very much the same thing that scholars are doing in the digital humanities. (See Counting words has been an important part of scholarship. Millman Parry revolutionized classical scholarship in the early 20th Century by meticulously counting patterns and variations of words and syllables in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. (See The Making of Homeric Verse.) Now we can skim millions of books and analyze patterns of usage over time in an entire culture.

A colleague and I are now thinking about how this might be applied to architectural elements of culture. Many digital imaging applications, e.g. Google's Picasa, have built-in face recognition. In Picasa, if you mouse over the image of someone's face, a frame appears around the face asking whether you would like to "tag" this person. The same software might be redesigned to recognize columns, freezes, gargoyles, etc.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Carefully Chosen Words in the Age of Digital Humanities

As a classicist, I read Greek and Latin very slowly. I don't write scholarly pieces any more, but when I did I wrote very slowly with carefully chosen words and then I edited my piece interminably. Very different from a blog.

Good ideas will always take a long time to work out. But does anyone value these lovingly turned phrases, these intricate, elegant concepts in a world of twitter, facebook,wikileaks and blogs? Apparently the answer is yes, because The Atlantic, a high-brow magazine for intellectuals, has begun to turn a profit according to The New York Times. And that profit is coming from an unlikely source: online advertising.

Advertisers have decided that painstaking research, fact-checked articles and elaborate prose will indeed "attract eyeballs" online. The magazine still gets revenue from print ads and subscriptions but the move to online readership has saved the day.

At the same time, a field called "Digital Humanities" has begun to take off thanks to Google's obsessive scanning of all printed materials in the universe. See this article in The Atlantic. Google estimates it is up to about five percent of all of literature. Scholars then find patterns in word usage over time and geography to map cultural changes. It is like shredding all the books in the world, grinding them into fine powder, suspending them in a chemical solution, running them through a magical centrifuge, waiting for them to precipitate into a crystal pattern and then thinking about the pattern that appears on the spectrometer.

This kind of spectral analysis of literature requires the same degree of careful, critical thinking and ends up being published in magazines like Science which caters primarily to scholars and scientists. So while the digital humanities takes a very different approach to analyzing the words, it takes the same approach when it comes to synthesizing them.

The Atlantic online is putting out very fine prose by extremely well-read authorities in their fields. All the thoughts are hand-made, as it were, and result in 500 to 1,000 words of beautiful sentences. Meanwhile, Google's Ngram Viewer is sifting 500,000,000 words as though they were DNA molecules, completely disregarding the authority of the sourses. Scholars interpret the results and produce carefully crafted thoughts and prose. All that carefully crafted prose will, someday, be fed back into the word grinder of Google or whatever replaces Google and be reduced to dust again.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Littered with Literature

Our breakfast table is covered with newspaper; our coffee table with New Yorkers; the news plays over the radio in the evening while I'm making dinner. These media have always been so easily accessible in our house that our kids have grown up reading the New York Times, listening to National Public Radio, and sampling bits of the New Yorker -- at first just the cartoons and then the long prose.

Imagine of all this content were delivered to us digitally -- paper-free. Very green you say. But would the kids have picked it up in a moment of boredom and read it as they do with the print material that we offer them? Would they stop what they were doing and listen to a public radio story if it were not being broadcast through the kitchen? If we relied on podcasts to get our audio news?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Shared Text / The Networked Text

Today, my colleagues set up a high-power projector to connect to our network. Anyone with this projector's address can now direct their video output there.

Fifteen years ago I learned that our state-of-the-art copier could make copies on "transparencies." Now, for you youngsters who don't know what a transparency is: it is an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of transparent plastic that can be written on with erasable markers or copied onto and then placed on an "overhead projector" that shines a light through the transparency and casts a  projection through an overhead prism onto a surface. They are still for sale at staples but are fast being replaced by document cameras and projectors.

I was teaching 10th grade Latin at the time and I bethought myself to copy the entirety of Cicero's Oratio in Catalinam onto transparencies. It was only about 15 pages even with notes. Every day I would darken the room -- something new and eerie for my students -- and project the words of Cicero in huge font onto my wall. Students came up to the projector when called upon and, with a pencil as a pointer, explained the significance of each word in front of their peers.

In the Classics Department of The Episcopal Academy, teachers are still projecting Latin and Greek words onto their walls, screens and whiteboards using computers with VGA connections to projectors. There is a big difference between everyone looking at the same line in their own books and everyone looking at the same word that the instructor is pointing to in huge letters at the front of the class. There is qualitatively more unity of thought, group focus and team-work.

But with this advance into network availability, the wired projector, we are changing the game significantly. Now a teacher can pull up a text, a diagram, a problem on his laptop, place it on the desk of a student (as long as his battery is charged) and ask for what used to be called, "a recitation," meaning -- the student talks and the teacher listens.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

If It Ain't Free Don't Buy It

In a previous post I wrote crankily about waiting for my free e-reader from Amazon, Google or Apple. I figure that when I buy a book, I don't get a separate bill for the paper, ink and binding. It's just one price. Likewise, I want somebody to send me a free e-reader if I agree to buy a certain amount of content each year.

I am going further with my insane demands. I want everything but my content to be free. Someone else has to swallow the cost -- not me. The only thing worth paying for is content.

I just collected over 300 great photographs of my son's championship water polo team in action. Of course, every parent on the team wants to have a copy of the greatest picture of their own son. And they want to download it themselves, maybe crop it a little in order to feature their darling, and print it on an excellent, cheap color printer in the basement office. Why not?

I loaded up these pictures on my Picasa account but hit the limit: one gigabyte. Then I bought 20 gigabytes more for just five dollars a year. Virtually free. The parents are delighted. Everyone has access to full-resolution files collected from all the amateur photographers who have contributed their pictures.

Meanwhile, back at school, we have sunk millions of dollars into our server room, tens of thousands into our industry-standard online course management system, and about a hundred thousand into a media distribution system.
The air-conditioning alone for this capital asset could pay for a lot of cheap consumer products that deliver content: DVD's, a heavy-duty Netflix account, and a lot of free or cheap storage space in the cloud.

When we planned the data and media infrustructure for our campus back in 2005, our plan looked very reasonable. It was the standard model for a technologically progressive school, featuring a hard-core data center with lots of heavy iron in it. Literally: I had to remind the engineers to check the load limit on the freight elevator before they shipped the chasis for our server environment.

Over the centuries, municipal infrustructure has gone through many changes. There was a time when whole neighborhoods in the Northeast were heated by a single steam plant. That model died and now pretty much every house has its own boiler. But schools don't usually generate their own electricity, purify their own water, or treat their own sewage. They rely on the municipal infrustructure.

Will the technological needs of schools eventually be met by some sort of municipal infrustructure? Our website is hosted offsite, as is our online course management system. But our student information system, general ledger software, file servers and email servers are in our server room.

In ten years, if I want to build a school that relies heavily on digital content, whether the content is developed by my teachers or selected and purchased from legitimate content providers, am I going to have to worry about how much air conditioning I'll need for the server room? Will I have to check the load limit on the elevator? And will I have to wring a million bucks out of my donors, who are really interested in educational excellence, not piles of humming machinery?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Print Prestige

At the end of my sabattical I wrote a feature-length article for a major educational publication hoping to wrap it all up before a large audience, get my name in print, impress my friends and colleagues and send a glossy copy of the issue to my mother. The editor wrote back with an even better idea: why not publish it as an electronic feature on the magazine's website? It was a good idea, but I was a bit crestfallen. Did my article not rate publication along with the rest of the pieces that were worth some ink and paper?

The question of online authority was hitting home. I felt that my work would not be as authoritative online as it would in print. But more than that, print seemed more prestigious to me.

I had just read this piece in the New York Times (online -- my wife read the same article in print and we both emailed it to each other at the same time) about scholars beginning to do peer review of articles online in a modified crowd-sourcing model. They use a hybrid model, where certain experts in the field are chosen to comment online about the piece (interestingly, without anonymity) and then it's thrown open for public comment. Authors have an opportunity to revise their work after reading the comments and then the work is either accepted for publication or rejected. The process goes lightning fast compared with the old, anonymous peer review system.

I realized I was clinging to old ways -- nostalgia for the table of contents showing my article with my name next to it, something to hold in your hand, something to mail in a manila envelope to my mother. On the contrary: publishing the piece online is exactly what should happen. I threw in one additional suggestion: that a pdf, beautifully designed by the publication's design team with all the attention to typography that would be given to print, be provided for print lovers so that they can download it and print it if they wish.

We should not have to give up paper for electrons. We can have it both ways. Any way you want. Blind people can download the file and translate it directly into braille.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Case of the Wrist Watch

Digital watches hit the retail scene when I was a kid. They were big and clunky with dark screens that only lit up when you pushed the button on the side and then the time was displayed in red numbers. People paid good money to be among the first to flaunt them.

The LCD watches were even better. You could read them at any time and didn't need to push a button. They were loaded with features.

Analog watches, with round dials and a big hand and short hand, are still what you see in most stores that sell watches. That's how people want to read the time.

How do people want to read books?

I was talking with a caolleague who is also very interested in the future of e-books and online educational materials. He was marveling at his i-Pad and the educational possibilities it afforded. I suggested that many people seem to prefer bound paper books still, even those that own or use e-readers. "Nostalgia" was his explanation for this preference; I countered with "aesthetics." He reasserted his position; I mine.

I don't think it's nostalgia that keeps analog watches under the glass counters in retails stores thirty years after the advent of the digital watch, and I think the same will be true of digital reading devices and bound paper books.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


You want to read? Read. Now you can do it wherever you want with whatever you want-- on your phone, in braille, on a giant screen, with your email popping in the background and a movie playing, or on the thin, minimilist greyscales of the Kindle.

There's no excuse not to read now. But it gets harder and harder to sit down and do it. Partly because that is what people do all day. They read email and documents. Then they go home and read facebook and blogs. They read their phones more than they use them to talk.

This all sounds wonderful. More reading than ever. But it's very twitchy reading. Look at the length of my sentences. Very. Short. One gets used to this from reading lots of email every day, and then one finds difficulty slowing down the mind -- and the eyes -- and perhaps even one's breathing -- to take in highly subordinated, complex, subtly nuanced articulations of ideas that may require a pause at the end of line to digest the clauses and savor the full implications of an idea, following its ramifications through the branching paths of validity or deceit.

Now that's the kind of sentence I like. Perhaps because I am a classicist, I have learned to treat different kinds of reading very differently. However quickly we classicists choose to read in our native tongues, we all read Latin and Greek extremely slowly. We can stare at a single Greek verb for minutes, take a few more to consult the lexicon, check the commentary to see if there is a note, and maybe even crack open a grammar book for backup. We know we have to change gears.

My wife, with a Ph.D in English, was accustomed to a narrower range, from Derrida (slow), to modern fiction (medium) to memoires (fast.) Email changed that by adding a new speed to her gear-box: twitchily fast. This summer it has taken her several weeks to change not only the pace but the depth of her reading so that it is slower, closer and more thoughtful.

Amazon has announced that it will again lower the price of the Kindle. And there will be no "improvements" except that it is even smaller and lighter. It costs a lot less than an iPad and it is a lot less than an iPad. This device is for people who want to sit still, breath slowly, and read without twitching. I'm hoping Amazon will still fulfill my prediction two posts back of making it free, perhaps with some sort of contract to buy a certain number of books within two years or such-like. People might even stop saying "Kindle" and start saying "book." We don't say "bound paper book" we say "book;" we don't say "cell phone" much any more, we just say "phone."

Trust Us: We Used To Be In Print

When the editors of WikiLeaks released 90,000 pages of classified documents, they released them first to three established new outlets: The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian. Only after these three content giants were able to analyze and comment were the raw data posted on the internet.

Ink and paper are not the elements that WikiLeaks lacked and sought in established news organizations. All three publish on the internet everything they publish in print. And some of the things they have published in print in the past have proven to be wrong.

Trust is a tricky thing. Sometimes our trust is betrayed. Trust means that you are not sure that someone is correct or telling the truth. If you already know what someone is telling you, there is no need to trust anyone but yourself. Of course, sometimes we don't even trust ourselves.

What really helps build trust is a third party, a witness, even a Notary Public. I have a friend who is a Notary Public, and have always been fascinated by the authority that comes with that little stamp press they use to notarize documents. That stamp means, "I attest, I verify, I authorize, I was there."

WikiLeaks was using these established news organizations as their notaries, their third party. WikiLeaks might be wrong; the documents might be fakes. But then all those other guys were faked out too, not just me the reader. We spread the pain around. It's one thing to look like a fool in front of everyone, it's another when everyone got fooled.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Do Not Buy an E-Reader: Buy Content

Want to get a free e-reader?

I borrowed a Kindle from school for a while to play with it. On short notice, we needed it back to give it to a librarian who was going away for the summer and desperately wanted to get comfortable with it before the school year began. Fair enough, I said, Trade ya for an iPad.

So I got one of the school's iPads to experiment with, loaded the Kindle App, and started reading all the stuff I bought on Amazon on the screen of my iPad. Then I had to give the iPad back -- but guess what? I've got Kindle-for-PC on my little laptop.

So now I'm reading my e-subscription to the Wall Street Journal, my free New York Times, and my books all on my laptop. Kindle-for-PC has lots of features to make the reading experience much more pleasant that the usual screen reading: easy access to brightness, easy font sizing, easy line width adjustment and three different tones: sepia, black font on white and white font on black.

Do you buy a phone or do you get one free every two years with your contract? If you must have an iPhone4 because you have extra money that will go stale if you don't spend it, then, by all means get the iPhone4. But if you, like me, go with $0.00 as your budget for new phone hardware, why, then would you pay money for an e-reader when you already have one in your PC?

And then there's this: if phone companies are giving away phones, how long will it be before Amazon starts giving away Kindles? The price has already dropped precipitously. You do the math!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Breaking Rules That Were Never Made

My ten year old is a Scratch addict. ( He could spend all day taking apart other kids' programs, remixing them, re-uploading them, leaving comments, reading comments, and playing silly, amateur games and animations online. Everything on this acclaimed, M.I.T-hosted, Web 2.0 Mecca is free for the taking. You can't steal on Scratch because nothing belongs to anybody; it all belongs to everybody.

For example, my son downloads a neat little animation that he finds, opens up the code, adds his own avatar or art to the project, recompiles it and loads it back onto the site as a different version -- a remix. It is an honor to be remixed, because it means that others ran your project and enjoyed it enough to add their own code. And it is considered in good taste to remix others -- a way of showing respect.

The Scratch admins at M.I.T. take this remix activity so seriously that they have a beautiful graphical display of the family trees of projects: You can see how lines fan out and split like family trees as the project evolves. Projects are ranked by the number of remixes they have engendered and authors with high remix statistics are esteemed.

Participants can review, rate and comment on projects, just as they do on blogs or commerical sites like Amazon. But the Scratchies have found a new way to use this feature: participatory fiction. They write stories comment by comment. While there is no rule saying that this is the wrong way to use the comment feature, who would think of using it that way? Kids would. So if there ever was an implied rule that you only write comments in the comment box, that rule is now thoroughly broken.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

When We Say "Book" ...

I have now read some books on a Kindle, some on an iPad, some on the Kindle for PC application and one Adobe Digital Edition. And I'm currently reading a beautiful hard cover edition of Updike. The hardcover is a book; the other technologies are book storage sytems. But our language is begining to change as our attitudes change.

Back in the 1970's, when we said we were watching television, we meant three things: we were looking at a television set, we were tuned to a broadcast network -- a "TV station," and we were enjoying the content -- also called "television" -- produced by that network. But now we can watch "TV" on a phone, or on, or on an iPad; and we can watch YouTube or streaming video on our "TV."

The term, "book", will soon evolve to include long prose content and the new technologies that store the content. So, when someone has to wait in the doctor's office, you will tell them, "bring a book" and point to an e-reader. But you will also describe as a book, the scanned, out-of-print 1888 edition of The Tuberous Begonia: it's History and Cultivation that you find on google books. And the hard cover Updike.

The evolution of television is a more appropriate analog to e-book evolution than what happened in the music industry, which was dramatic, out of control and disastrous for many players. The television industry tolerates a certain amount of pirating and occasionally prosecutes egregious content thieves. So it will be with publishers, and especially educational publishers, who have already established an uneasy truce with course packs and electronic reserves.

(For those who don't know, a "course pack" is an improvised anthology of readings for a particular course, put together by a professor from various sources. Chapters and articles are copied and bound in cheap, soft cover, plastic binders and sold in the college book store. The publishers get a pro-rated royalty for the amount copied. E-reserves are simply a free, electronic verion of course packs: sources are scanned and posted on Blackboard or a similar course management system under the -- legaly unstable -- limitations of the fair use clause of the copyright act.)

Have you noticed that you absolutely cannot select and copy to the clipboard any text from a book that you have bought from Amazon? Even on Kindle-for-the-PC, you cannot. The content is locked, even though the product is flexible enough to appear on an iPhone, Android, PC, Kindle or iPad. No doubt, someone will find a way to hack Amazon's security and post copies of books on pirate sites. But it's looking pretty secure for now.

Have you also noticed that there is no way to read content supplied by Apple on any other device? This is a huge flaw. But here's the down-low: no matter what Apple does, several million people will camp out overnight outside the Apple store to give them money because of the magical industrial design of Apple products.

What I've realized about my personal reading is that I want the content above all else. Amazon let's me have my content synchronized on multiple devices. If I read a little farther on my iPad, I'll sync to the same place on my laptop, and so forth. Letting content flow across multiple platforms may be the killer app. Google, which is working on exactly this approach, may show us the way later in the summer.

I may be willing to call that a book.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Authority, Fascism and Academia

Academia has long occupied the throne in the palace of intellectual authority, backed by the tenure system and the university press system. Any self-respecting media, publishing or broadcasting any kind of story requiring research or testimony from an authority, needs to throw in the words, "Stanford," or "Harvard" or some such brand name. The brand is actually academia itself, not a specific university. The pyramid of status is well-defined and publicly acknowledged, and the closer you can get to the top the more believable your story will be.

Scholars, of course, are famous for disagreeing. So it would seem that a lively diversity of ideas would thrive in academia; however, because of the way that people get tenure, there is some danger that a kind of intellectual fascism can also take hold.

The training for a career in academia is shockingly long and arduous. In the Humanities, it takes about ten years to get a PhD. That's before you apply for your first real job. During those ten years, you must do exactly what your professors tell you to do. Most professors tell you to do original, creative things with your time, and embrace a wide range of views and methods. Some, however, simply set you to work on their own projects. And while this experience can be a tremendous opportunity for young scholars, it can also amount to abuse of power. The professor has all the power and the student, like an apprentice, has none.

It would be different if a student could choose to move to a different institution. But after a few years in one doctoral program, that is not really an option. You are essentially locked into an apprenticeship with this particular group of professors. It is an an environment in which abuses of power -- sexual, psychological, and professional -- can occur.

The mentor/apprentice relationship is an essential element the academic training process. I am proud that I studied under Mabel Lang at Bryn Mawr College, and that I took a class with Albert Lord at Harvard (he even knew my name!) I am their student for life. I witnessed Camille Paglia greet Harold Bloom at a cocktail party with the repeated salutation, "oh, great father!" while he shook his head and waved away her adulation in mock modesty.

We should not be surprised, however, when some young scholars develop excessive admiration for their mentors, just as hostages sometimes develop loyalty to their captors: Stockholm Syndrome. But the training process is just the beginning of the apprenticeship, or the "indoctrination," or "hazing" depending on how it all turns out.

The tenure process takes seven years and at the end of it a small committee decides your fate. Generally, one negative evaluation from an influential colleague is enough to blackball the candidate. If you work in the sciences, you may have alternative career paths outside academia; if you are hot enough and young enough,  you might have a shot at getting tenure at another institution. Otherwise, you will be looking to build a new career in your mid-thirties.

Rejection is disastrous for the individual, but it also represents a failure of the institution and of the profession, which has spent seven years nurturing this scholar and must now start the process all over. While some rejections are based on scholarship or teaching that is universally recognized as inferior, some are based on the sad fact that the candidate has something new and creative to say that threatens somebody in power. This committee of tenured faculty has, essentially, absolute power. They may question each other, but no one may question them. The candidate may appeal but only on procedural grounds.

Candidates for tenure, then, are strongly motivated, indeed desperate, to please their colleagues in order to gain tenure. They must write -- and think -- in the grammar of the university presses in order to publish their work. The higher up the pyramid of status they can place their publications the more their colleagues will respect them and the better their chances at getting tenure: not Stockholm Syndrome, but "Tenure Syndrome."

I worry about the authority of Wikipedia, blogs, Flexbooks, etc., but I also worry about the authority produced by academia. I have great respect for many of the academic authorities in my life, some of whom I have never met, some who have been dead for centuries. But there are serious problems with the process of establishing that authority, which must ultimately effect the work of academics.

Where authority and power is absolute there will be abuse and degredation of academic freedom and creativity.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Survey on the Future of Reading

I gave my colleagues at The Episcopal Academy a survey about print and electronic teaching material. A few questions pertaining to their personal reading and teaching preferences were thrown in too. I wanted to see how they themselves were reading, how they were teaching and how they thought their practices might change in the future because of changes in reading technology.

Schools are conservative institutions -- conservators, in fact, of our culture. Private schools are more conservative than public schools, and Episcopal is more conservative than many private schools. My colleagues displayed their conservation instincts well in their responses to the question below:

If you add the "Strongly Agree" to the "Agree" segment, you can see that almost everyone wants to keep a few printed books around, including me. I will never give up reading my Oxford Classical Texts They are beautiful! See:

But then take a look at the progressive streak below. According to the faculty, our kids will miss something if we don't include electronic materials in their education:

Not so conservative after all, are we? Comfortable with new technology, but respectful of the simple, elegant technology of the codex? They want it both ways:

Only a few folks could disagree with that question. The faculty are crying out for a mixed experience for our students.

Now here's the one that surprised me the most: many of our faculty see fundamental change on the horizon:

If you add those who agree to those who strongly agree, almost half the faculty see printed books being put out on the curb like the old library card catalogs in just twenty years. Personally, I see print books and electronic books coexisting indefinitely, so I was alarmed at this revolutionary outlook.

Twenty years may seem like a long time in the world of technology, but if you read Books in the Digital Age by John B. Thompson, you will be most impressed by the disasters the publishing industry suffered almost twenty years ago, in the early '90s, when publishers tried to peddle books on CD. The technology was there but no one wanted to buy it. That disaster stifled e-book development until the advent of the Kindle, twenty years later. It took that long for e-books to improve enough to compete with printed books.

Although no one knows for sure, it is a pretty good bet that over ten million but under fifty million e-books have been sold in just the past few years. And the pace is picking up, not leveling off. Nonetheless, owners of iPads and Kindles are still buying print books too. (Wall Street Journal, 4.30/2010, "Buyers of E-Books Still Like Print Too, Survey Shows") A huge change has already occurred, but how much farther will it go?

According to my survey, our faculty are pretty bi-technological. They mostly read their newspapers online and most develop their own electronic teaching material and store it for future use. They often collaborate with colleagues to develop this material. A third of them read e-books as well as print. They are comfortable dealing with non-print resources and believe that reading will soon move away from print.

But check out their own personal preferences below:

Those teachers who think -- for now at least -- that they will always prefer print over e-text may be the same folks who think print will survive for at least twenty more years. And if they think that, then they are right. Why would publishers stop selling something that they have always sold successfully and is still preferred by a majority of its customers? Educational publishers would have to change teachers' minds and come out with e-textbooks that beat print books hands down.
Be aware, however, that we are dealing with an unusual demographic at The Academy. Most of us read more than one book a year, which puts us in a tiny minority. If e-books can change that at all, well ... it would be nice for us readers to have more company. The life of the mind is grossly undervalued.

The complete results are available to you online by clicking here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A New Law of Physics: The Conservation of Stupidity

My ten year old is a "Scratch" junkie. Scratch is a graphical programming tool that was developed at M.I.T. for kids. ( It's a great toy on its own, but the real beauty of it is that kids can upload their projects and let other kids play the games that they develop. You can see the code, figure out how the other guy did it, and learn by taking apart.

The potential for this kind of learning is incredible. The concept is very simple but it enshrines the informal way that people have always learned through the eons when formal schooling was absent or irrelevant. Even today, when programmers want to solve a problem, they look online for scraps of code, or they look through their own old files to try to remember how they fixed a bug the last time it came up. There are no rules in this kind of learning, only precedents and examples.

Over a million projects written by kids for kids have been posted to the Scratch site. Impressive, no? No. I suggest you go to the site and try playing some of these games, animations and presentations. There are a lot of very clever programs, but boy are there a lot of stupid ones. Now in kid world, stupid is not necessarily bad. Kids love stupid stuff. They love to giggle. Babies are endlessly amused by someone who looks away and then looks back at them. Sometimes that still passes for entertainment with a five year old. If I tried that with my seventeen year old he'd just shake his head.

So read this new law and see if you think it is valid:

Proposed Law of the Conservation of Stupidity: that for every bit of brilliant creativity in the universe there exists a degree of stupidity that is directly proportional to it by a constant K and that the value of K is indeterminate.
On a hot, dry Athenian afternoon in the 5th Century B.C.E., Socrates pulled aside an uneducated slave boy and led him through a simple geometric proof by scratching a diagram in the dust and asking a series of questions. He argued that the boy could not have answered his questions without existing knowledge; that since the boy was uneducated, he must have been born with the knowledge; and that the only way to be born with knowledge is to have an eternal soul that travels from life to death and back to life carrying that knowledge.

Plato recorded the event in the Socratic Dialog known as the Meno, a cultural monument to creativity, simple, elegant, and created with no budget, no technology, no studies or committees, no M.I.T and no Web 2.0. Meanwhile, K*(Meno) amount of stupid stuff was also happening.

In his book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein writes passionately about the billion empty words found on facebook walls, tweets, text messages, teen blogs and YouTube posts that aren't worth the cost of a single electron in the Internet. He is writing in the alarmist school of futurism, where everything is always coming to an end. I write from a classicist's point of view, where everything has already ended, the end of everything wasn't as bad as everyone thought it was going to be, and life seems to have gone in spite of the loss of everything.

Similarly, Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget) warns of a reduction to "grey goo" of all the activity on the Internet, where anything that was ever original and creative just gets copied, pasted, mashed up, remashed, tweeted and retweeted until everything means nothing.

To Lanier and Bauerlein, I propose what I see as the bright side of The Conservation of Stupidity: The Conservation of Creativity. No matter how stupid we get, there will still be an amount of creative brilliance equal to 1/K * (amount of stupidity).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Visit Your Own House. You Might Learn Something.

Have you ever thought that the people you work with might be just as smart or smarter than all those conference speakers, experts, consultants, and the gurus you went to meet at trend-setting schools? You might if you took the time to talk with them.

I took the day today to check out what is happening at Episcopal that relates to cloudbooks, online materials and print textbooks, treating the school where I have worked for twenty years like a stranger. It was very illuminating.

Chuck Bryant came to Episcopal in 1990, the same year that I arrived. He has been teaching History in Upper School ever since. This is a guy who loves information in both quality and quantity. He can't get enough. If you want to feel a little frisson of fear, go to his AP US History site:

There are hundreds of pages here. A whole course, almost. The detail and organization are astonishing. You ask yourself, Is this a complete course in and of itself? Does this guy really need a textbook?

Yes. He still needs a textbook. Like the history teacher at Dalton, Chuck explained that textbooks are extremely efficient in laying out a basic, authoritative framework for the history of the era. Could he create his own? Yes, but he worries about copyright infringement. How would he lay out the basic facts of history without relying on a published, authoritative text? Google books won't work because the texts are out of date. Even though the history hasn't changed, the interpretation has.

Chuck mused on the concept of a wikibook. a digital book that could be annotated by teachers over the years. It would still have the efficient, authoritative structure, but the supplementary materials and notes, everything that makes up Chuck's AP US History site, would be right there, linked with the text.

We have a problem of media at Episcopal. How and where we store things is a bit confusing. There are shared folders on a file server that I originally set up for teachers back in 1997. Images, documents, common exams, special fonts, etc. are stored there.

Some people create their own sites using a little html or with a little help from dreamweaver. Chuck Bryant went that way with his AP US History site. We host his site on our web server.

But we also use Blackboard, the classic, heavy-duty, expensive course management system. It is our official online academic resource and there is a lot of information on it. A bit clunky, but it connects to our internal school information system so that all the academic registrations appear online as if by magic. You can't beat if for convenience -- it's all set up for our teachers, kids and parents when school starts. No fuss no mess setting up accounts. In addition, everyone knows to go there which creates the critical mass of activity that you need.

Rubicon Atlas is also in the mix. We use it to map curriculum, but it has a classic problem: teachers put information in by mandate, but never use it for themselves, so they have no vested interest in it. It contains some of the information that is in Blackboard and so it is duplicative. It can't really be used to teach, so it's use is restricted to the ten year accreditation process.

In addition to this, some teachers maintain nings, voicethread channels, and google docs.

Stuff is getting very spread out. I think the most densely trafficked and meticulously organized area are still the shared folders, where many people use many files over and over. Of those many and often used files, common exams are probably the most significant.

I talked with Will Gibbs, a middle school history teacher. He inherited a wonderful piece of history teaching on the Middle East conflict from Chip Hollinger, a veteran teacher at EA. Chip personally witnessed or taught the events as they unfolded through the seventies, eighties and nineties in the Mideast. He read it in the news every morning and saw it broadcast live on TV.

The beloved textbook that Chip used for years has gone out of print and is out of copyright, so Will has begun to type in sections of the text in a "Prezi", an online graphical presentation builder. Here is Will's prezi: It was recently featured as "Prezi of the Day," and suddenly Will started getting lots of comments, some of them rather passionate, since the issue tends to inflame people.

This is the classic pattern I'm seeing for the development of cloudbooks. A great textbook goes out of print or appears in a new edition that teachers don't like and they take matters into their own hands. The process usually involves a veteran teacher who has plenty of material to add.

Lee Pearcy, a master teacher of Classics at EA and at several local colleges, has built a course on ancient medicine over many years of teaching. He and a few other professors across the world are the only people who teach such a course. There really isn't an appropriate textbook, so Lee has a great big folder - about 150 pages -- that he uses. The standard college course-pack. He is considering a number of possibilities: traditional publication in print, self-publication in print, and open-source publication online. Of course, it never hurts to be paid for one's labor, so the open-source is not as appealing as the other options. But electronic self-publication, through Lulu for example, might be just the ticket. Lulu might pay more than traditional, and it never hurts to have a little pocket money for a few good bottles of sherry.

When the Episcopal Classics Department decided to create our own textbook, we started with a text that had been out of print for a long time. We had been copying it and printing it on paper for several years, essentially making our own course-pack. At the time we wrote the textbooks, a series of three, self-publishing and electronic publishing were not an option. Now there are options as the industry continues to be buffetted by waves of change originating from innovations in hardware, the emergence of new business models, battles between publishers and content providers, shifting boundaries between all of these entities and of course the vicissitudes of the market and whimsy of taste.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are: Bigger, Stronger, Scarier Monsters

So I'm reading in various media sources about Android powered phones outselling iPhones, and Blackberries outselling iPhones and Google and Verizon working on a tablet to compete with the iPad. When I mention this to my wife, she says, "I couldn't care less about the iPad." And I say, well neither do I. But do you care about books? And she says, "Yes, I care a lot about the future of books."

The iPad is a great way to read books. The kindle is a wonderful way to read books. And the codex is also wonderful -- still the most wonderful way for millions of people. It's not like moving from vinyl to CD's or from CD's to mp3's. It's just not as clear-cut. Only a tiny minority of folks cling to their vinyl LP's; more cling to their CD's; but the vast majority of us made the switch to digital media really quickly. But the idea of digital books has been around for ten, fifteen years, and still it's a niche market.

But what if -- ah, "what if" -- what if you could suddenly get any book you wanted immediately on any device you wanted: your laptop, your phone, your TV, your e-ink reader? If you cared about books at all, you would sit up and pay attention, wouldn't you?

Loping along behind Steve Jobs is the biggest two-headed monster that ever lurked in a kid's closet: the Google-Verizon monster. Verizon has the best coverage of any network and the most access to the big pipes. Google has scanned over ten million titles and offers them for free, and is about to start its own bookstore, Google Editions, this summer. Google and Verizon are now working on a tablet device to compete with the iPad.

Apple has always thrived on being small, elegant and beautiful. But how will it fare against something as big and strong as Google-Verizon? A monstrous amount of content on a monstrous netork? If you care about books but you don't care for computers, this summer might be the time when you will finally think about reading digital books instead of printed ones.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Changing the Classroom or Not

It's amazing how strongly classroom practice resists change. Larry Cuban's book, How Teachers Taught, will convince you of that in just the introduction. There is something irresistable and safe about standing in the front of the room and establishing and maintaining authority for 40 minutes to an hour. Science labs have broken that mold; elementary school homerooms tend to have stations and small group tables; and in computer labs students often get the chance to do what they have longed to do for centuries: turn their backs on their teachers. But whole-class teacher-led instruction still dominates.

Online learning materials, cloudbooks, will not per se change the dynamic inside the classroom. But what is likely to accompany the emergence of the cloudbook is ubiquitous computing: one-to-one laptop programs for kids. And that has a shot at changing things, because it makes every room into a potential lab. When there are plenty of computers around, kids tend to create collaborative projects with them which they store on the network.

But beware: parents and students may not recognize this as teaching. It may be too noisy and chaotic for their expectations. I have gotten complaints from parents and student for teaching this way. They expected to be shown exactly how to do all the problems. They didn't want to figure them out for themselves. My class was too much like a "study hall."

So once we teachers get the courage to make the change to project-based teaching -- if indeed that is what we want to do -- we have to convince the rest of our constituency to take the leap with us.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mimeograph Machine

A Youtube video is worth a thousand words:

Remember the mimeograph machine? If you've actually used one as a teacher, you were born around 1960. The first year I taught, we had one of these in the faculty room; the next year it was gone -- replaced by a Xerox photocopier. Some teachers stored up whole courses of exercises, tests, quizes, exams, essay questions on these blue, carbon, reverse-printed sheets. They were carefully laid away in alphabetized folders. When the xerox machine appeared, they would just lay the flip side of the sheets down on the glass and photocopy the old blue carbons. They had no intention of redoing all that work.

This is where the network changes all that. Up until schools had networks, nothing much changed. Even schools that had computers didn't change much because each teacher's work was isolated -- stored on floppy disks carefully laid away in alphabetized folders.

With networks came shared storage space, an early form of google docs. Teachers could collaborate. They could use each other's work. And they could add, edit, refine and update that work.

All of this was possible before networks, but it took too much time. Textbooks and curriculum are exponentially easier to put together when you have a network and easily editable formats to work with. Teachers all over the world are posting lessons for free that you can incorporate.

Still I wish I had a spirit mimeograph machine in my basement!

By the way, I assert by my own authority that the video is accurate because I have personally used a mimeograph machine and what you are seeing is exactly how it works and looks.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Too Many Pages, Too Few Pages, Null Values.

I had to know something about the history of classroom practice, so I started reading How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms 1880-1990. In the introduction I found just the sort of gem-like, brief observation I had hoped to find:

Centuries ago, in European and American cultures, formal schooling was instituted in religious institutions with the aim of teaching students to spread the word of the particular gospel and to study its meaning. Books were rare and teaching and learning in church-related schools and colleges depended on those who were informed telling the uninformed what was important to know. Knowledge was a body of beliefs, facts, procedures, and opinions that largely went unquestioned.
I am suspicious of the idea that beliefs, facts, procedures and opinions went unquestioned. Western education has its roots in the inquisitive, combative minds of Ancient Greece and Rome. But the idea of too few books is very compelling to me.

Books were once expensive, rare, treasured by an exclusive few. And education was predominately oral. One wrote down the words of the master, creating one's own book. I have used the "listen and write" approach in my own classes from time to time, to add another dimension  that might appeal to different learning styles. It still works. Many kids respond well when it is used sparingly, to break up other learning activities. It's relaxing.

But if you don't have a book, it's just plain necessary.

Now we have too many books. Anyone with a computer has access to an almost infinite amount of information, most of which, by the way, is pornography. You can find exactly what you want, or you can find nothing of what you want. You can be confused, lost, overwhelmed, duped and ripped off. You need a guide.

Teachers, librarians, libraries, and textbooks all act as guides. They give you a frame, boundaries, a membrane that keeps you from dissolving into the Great All. They are dykes that keep the great digital river from drowning you but let some water through to irrigate the fields.

In his talk today, Alan November led us to a very amusing site: which is designed to help students learn about using the internet for research. There is a silly, patently fake biography of Sir Francis Drake . It's a great way to teach kids about internet research skills. But if you step back and consider the purpose and mission of the site you come back to the same issue of boundaries, frames, membranes, dykes. The site itself is enclosed. It was set up  by teachers specifically to teach research skills. And the person who brought me to the site was Alan November -- a well-known figure in the world of education, someone I am familiar with in a number of contexts, someone my friends and colleagues are also familiar with.

So in a world of too many books we are again dependent on a guide, a master, a trusted source, without whom we are lost in a flood of information that cannot be discerned as valid or invalid. Without a guide, all data becomes undefined, a value described in mathematics and in database design as "NULL."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Dalton School: The Dalton Plan: The Dalton Book

Dalton School sits on some of the most sought-after real estate on the planet: 89th Street between Lexington and Park on the Upper East Side of New York City. Whereas The Episcopal Academy spreads out over 123 acres of former farm land in the exurbs of Philadelphia, Dalton goes 12 stories up and is a fifteen minute walk from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim ... New York.  Two very different spaces that are home to two distinct, authentic institutions with strong identities.

Most schools have "the mission statement." For most independent schools it is the same statement, about nurturing the whole child, healthy mind in a healthy body ... high standards ... challenging ... character ... supportive environment ... banana banana banana.

Dalton has "The Dalton Plan" -- an entire book -- not a short one. It's a constitution, not a mission statement. I have read  only the short summary of the plan on the school's website, which I strongly recommend. In it you can see the seeds of Dalton's natural inclination toward using technology and you can also see an early version of a modern philosophy of education called "differentiated education," most notably articulated by Carol Ann Tomlinson.

The kids at Dalton get detailed assignments and they are taught how to take responsibility for dependably completing the assignment step-by-step independently. You could call the "assignment" a "project," which makes this "project-based learning," which is code for what schools desperately try to emulate and not infrequently fail to achieve when they implement one-to-one laptop programs. If kids don't have projects to do in the classroom, then they spend most of their time listening to the teacher, and their expensive, heavy laptops spend all of the time in their backpacks among the squashed bananas.

Dalton is doing it forward, where a lot of schools are doing it backward. Dalton is trying to fit the technology to the education, not the education to the technology.

John Neiers, Director of Technology at Dalton, is a practical guy. He asked why Episcopal was looking at a laptop program. I told him that one reason was that our program is quickly approaching a ratio of two students for every one computer. Our laptop carts and labs are in constant use. We are wondering at what point we should just give every kid a laptop and dispense with carts and labs. John's number, it turns out, is around 1.8-to-1 students-to-computers. At that point it made sense to him to enter a three-year lease on macbooks for every 6th grader and call it a pilot program.

A practical solution for a visionary type of education. That's what a good tech director can deliver. And at a certain point, when the pragmatism keeps taking a vision to the next level, the pragmatism itself is visionary. But beware: there are many false Buddhas out there, and some of them are "visionary" educational technologists who lack pragmatism.

Here's the funny thing, though: in most schools teachers resist new technologies, but at Dalton the teachers were ready. I'll give you four examples.

Example One: algebra
Aran Glancy teaches high school algebra. Yes, he distributes a standard, printed algebra textbook to his kids, but he uses a lot of problems from an out-of-print algebra textbook he found on google books and he has a tremendous amount of his own material on his moodle. He and a colleague are considering writing their own algebra text, so Aran has no lack of content. His "Dalton Assignments" are all there online for the kids to access.

And here are the two questions I always ask: "Can you do without a bound, paper textbook?" and "Can you use your online material next year?" Aran's answers are, "not quite, but soon!" and "yes."

Example Two: Spanish
Several years ago, Sol Gaitan, who teaches Spanish 6-12 at Dalton, heard a speaker from The Institute for the Future of the Book talk about creating electronic books, and she began using a little-known software package to create rich-media digital books. Video and audio clips, animations, mouse-over  call-out boxes, were coherently, tastefully -- I might even say beautifully -- integrated with text. She is now changing to another software program called Sophie being developed at USC.

At the time she started, Dalton did not have a one-to-one program, so the students had to install the software on whatever computer they had at home in order to read their homework. Many headaches were eliminated when the laptop program began and the machines were deployed with the proper software pre-installed and tested.

The course still depends on a bound, paper textbook to provide sequence and structure. Sol's ebook expands and amplifies.

Can Sol do without her bound paper textbook ("BPT")? Not yet. Can she use her own materials next year? Definitely. And one more question: does she need technology to run her class? Definitely.

Example Three: Middle School History
Jay Golon could almost do without a BPT; he feels that the bound paper text he uses just can't be beat for delivering bare-bones historical content in a clear, efficient, structured form. But if you check his pages on the Dalton moodle, you will find several books' worth of historical content stored and organized in keeping with the structure of his course. He mines the Library of Congress website along with the many subscription databases that Dalton maintains.

Jay uses a SmartBoard extensively and posts his class notes on the moodle. And while a map of Europe with a few red arrows and blue circles does not make a lesson, the potential is certainly there for reuse of those  sketches as well.

"BPT"? Still needs one. Reusable materials? You bet.

Example Four: Digital Spanish
Maria Madinaveitia wanted to solve a problem that every independent school faces. As kids advance in world languages, some go on to the advanced placement or honors level, but some don't have the natural inclination to excel in the grammar and literature of a language.

Maria felt that the school was not nurturing this group of students as well as it might. She convinced the head of school that a different approach was needed, and with her experience in curriculum development, she felt ready to take on that challenge. One thing scared her: she knew she had to use technology.

Maria claims that she is a technophobe. What a strange new category of suffering we have now in technophobia. Although thousands are killed in car accidents every year, one doesn't hear much about autophobia. And yet the thought of creating and storing one's work on an inscrutable, whimsical, sadistic little device terrifies so many. It humiliates you in front of students, peers, parents and administrators; it let's you down late at night; it makes you a novice again although you are an experienced and esteemed professional; it makes you dependent -- on electricity, on batteries, on your internet connection, on the snickering teenager in tech support ... But wait: did I mention tech support?

This is where Dalton scored big. Well before Maria started her summer project to develop a new course for conversational and cultural Spanish, she began meeting with Arlo Klinger, a curricular specialist within Dalton's technology department. Arlo knows no Spanish, but he knows how to help.

Maria also took a summer seminar with Carol Ann Tomlinson in order to integrate The Dalton Plan with some ideas borrowed from the new field of "differentiated education." She wanted her kids to take responsibility, plan their own work, identify and address their own weaknesses, assess their own strengths. All the materials would be there -- online, thanks to Arlo -- for them to work with at their own pace. Video, audio, text, animations, everything.

Maria shakes her head when she thinks about the amount of work that went into developing and implementing this curriculum, but it has clearly been tremendously engaging and stimulating for her. You need an Arlo to be able to pull it off. There are Arlos out there. We have some at Episcopal. When you've been in the tech biz long enough you can recognize them pretty fast. And their species is not exclusive to the tech world.

It's that person who doesn't necessarily volunteer first and fastest, may not even offer, doesn't want to be a hero, avoids big promises. The great support people are like entrepreneurs: they understand resources and identify opportunities. Nine parts pragmatism, one part altruism. And it helps a lot if they are nice.

And now the two big questions:
1. Reusable materials: are you kidding? After all that work?
2. Still need a BPT? Brace yourself: NO.
That's right. There is no bound paper textbook for this course. All the content is digital, stored on Dalton's moodle. A true cloudbook! The Institute for the Future of the Book calls it a "networked book." There is no copyright on the material, but you must be logged into the Dalton moodle to read it. Some of it can be printed; some cannot. You need a fully-featured computer to use it.

This cloudbook, or network book, has all the authority of it's author, Maria, and of Dalton School behind it. It is not a mash-up of other people's work and it is not anonymous. It represents a tremendous amount of work, refinement and editing, on the part of students as well as Maria and Arlo. The students' work is also posted there.

Maria's materials are published only for students at Dalton, but as materials like this accumulate on servers everywhere, teachers will begin to think about publishing more broadly. Maybe they will just try to pitch to the big publishers, or maybe they will try Lulu. Soon google will have its own publishing wing through google books. According to The New Yorker, some authors are already selling their content directly to Amazon without using traditional publishers.

Once all the work is done, the only questions that remain are how to make the work public -- and how to get paid for it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Education Versus School

In today's New York Times Education Life section, there is a long piece about online learning by Katie Hafner, called "An Open Mind." I think what the piece proves is that if you have the time, you can get a Yale, Stanford or M.I.T. education all by yourself. But you will have to do it without the following elements that you would get if you graduated from one of those institutions: a social life, real (as opposed to virtual) peers, a chance to ask questions, a grade and a diploma. You would be just as educated, but you would not be "going to school."

This is only a little better than buying all the books for the course, getting your hands on the syllabus, and working your way through the assignments on your own. It gets dismal pretty fast. After two or three courses, I would be banging my head on the keyboard.

On the other hand, I have done something similar myself. If you go into the "Computers" section of any bookstore, or search for computer training books online, you will find some of the fattest, most intimidatingly titled books you have ever encountered. I am currently working my way through Beginning ASP.NET 3.5 In C# and VB by Imar Spaanjaars and am proud to declare that I understand every acronym in that title. I have learned HyperText Markup Language (HTML), Visual Basic (VB), Active Server Pages (ASP), and, most importantly Structured Query Language (SQL) all in the same way: from big, fat books. I believe, however, that I am the exception. I like to work quietly, by myself, and at my own pace. Most people need a class.

Apparently millions of people are taking these free, online courses but no one knows why, or what affect this phenomenon is having. And millions of dollars in grant money are being spent to record lectures and assemble materials. Institutions everywhere are using online materials to augment, supplement, and remediate classwork and homework. Whether one regards the course as an "online" course, a "blended" course, or just a course, is a matter of degree, not category.

As with everything on the Internet, the amount of material in this category is almost infinite. And as with everything on the Internet, it is very difficult to find something that suit you exactly. We need boundaries -- Jaron Lanier's "membranes" again.

Behold The Episcopal Academy Online. Let's imagine it. There is a single portal, and a single login. You must pay a lot to join. You must show up and develop a relationship with your teachers and peers in person. You must participate in activities that demand your physical presense: sports, drama, music, etc. There is a space called "The Episcopal Academy" and a time called the school day.

So what has changed? All your textbooks are delivered to your computer from EA's textbook service. Your computer is licensed in some way similar to the way Amazon licenses its books. All the materials are copy-protected. Publishers get their money; authors (hopefully several of them will be teachers at EA) get theirs.

Peers use their online course areas to ask for and give help to each other. They get help from the teacher there. They can rest their eyes, put on headphones and listen to a brief, well-delivered lecture. They use interactive exercises to exercise problem-solving. They go at their own pace in a differentiated learning environment.

So what's the teacher doing? He's supervising kids in his room, because until college (and probably in college too) kids need supervision. But he's going from kid to kid asking questions or interacting one-on-one instead of engaging the whole class at once and losing 75% of the kids' attention.

Or is he? What if his assistant -- a less experienced, junior teacher -- were doing supervision and guidance for the group while the master teacher were in his office adapting and improving the curriculum to the needs of all the different sections of this class.

In this "blended" environment, parents know that their kids' education is a complete education. There is exacting quality control. There is an educational character to the all the courses that is unique to the institution. There are relationships between kids and between teachers and kids. There is community. The school is an organism with a skin around it. Ideas, materials, methods, theories and practices are gathered from everywhere, but the Academy decides what is good and right for its community and what is deleterious or beside the point.

In The Dumbest Generation, author Mark Bauerlein excoriates the young for their disinclination to read full sentences and paragraphs, choosing instead to flit from tweet to tweet. But he is careful not to blame the inherent potential of the technologies. A lot can be done with them, but nothing is. Instead, technology provides an avenue for the worst kind of malignant and aggressive mental deterioration.

Let me put this forward. As powerful as technology can be in destroying the intellect, it has the same positive potential to improve. Bauerlein is right that the status updates, taunts, flirts, porn and platitudes that comprise the vast bulk of what is stored on the world's servers will quickly make us the stupidest planet in the universe if that is our only diet. But if it can be grafted onto the sturdy structure of a school, all of its destructive power may be redirected for the good.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Anonymity is the Enemy of Authority

Let me tell you a story about anonymity

When Odysseus escaped the clutches of the man he had robbed and blinded, Polyphemos the Cyclops, he gave his name as "Outis" -- "Nobody." It was trick that bought him some time. Polyphemos bellowed to his fellow Cyclopses that "Nobody" had robbed and blinded him and they all laughed at him.

But Odysseus could not stand to be known as Nobody. If you've studied heroic narratives in any culture you have seen the importance of identity, of having a name. You show your identity in your armor, your horse, your father's name, your actions and the actions of your ancestors, and your name.

As Odysseus sailed away, he shouted his true name back at Polyphemos, who then prayed to his father, Poseidon, to destroy Odysseus. The hero's pride in his name brought on the destruction of all his comrads and great suffering for himself. But it was worth it because a hero needs a name.

I have made a point to reveal who I am, where I live and who I work for both in this blog and on my site. I have also named the people I have talked to and the schools I have visited. This news in the New York Times inspired me to revisit this issue. Newspapers are starting to request full names and email addresses when you want to comment on an article. But here is what is most interesting to me:

The debate over anonymity is entwined with the question of giving more weight to comments from some readers than others, based in part on how highly other readers regard them. Some sites already use a version of this approach; Wikipedia users can earn increasing editing rights by gaining the trust of other editors, and when reviews are posted on, those displayed most prominently are those that readers have voted “most helpful” — and they are often written under real names.
This phenomenon is the beginning of true peer review, a process that is critical to the advancement science, culture and thought. An idea is just an idea until it is reviewed and critiqued. Then it becomes authoritative. The process described above does not come close the peer review structure that is in place in academia, but it is a step in the right direction. When an experienced editor at FSG, the Paris Review, or The New Yorker is finished with your work, your ego is nothing but a smouldering field of ruin. We've all had coaches or teachers who broke us down and built us back up stronger and better. When they finish with you, you are just that much closer to being an authority, becoming a creative, unique individual.

To be an individual, you need to be separate. Jaron Lanier writes about the importance of "membranes" in his book, You Are Not a Gadget. I agree with him on the importance of membranes in keeping an entity unique and separate. An author is an intellectual organism surrounded by a membrane. Ideas flow in and out, but the flow is regulated so that the entity does not explode, disintegrate or fade into its own environment. If you are anonymous, you have no membrane. You are just part of the "grey goo" of the hive mind: mindless, infinite, incoherent chattering.

Before schools throw away books and start giving kids online content to read, they need some assurance that the content has a membrane, a brand, a name behind it, and a group of known, creative individuals with names creating the brand.

And if you're thinking of teaching them a language, how about the "Middlebury College" name brand? Can you beat that?

For decades Middlebury has run one of the most well-known language programs and summer programs for languages in the country. Now, according to the New York Times, it is teaming up with a for-profit entity, K-12 Inc. to produce complete, online courses of instruction in language. It's not free, not a wiki, not open-source, and decidedly not anonymous. It is the voice of Middlebury College and it branded programming as branded and packaged by K-12 Inc.

Branding and education? Can they really go together? Yes: Any questions?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Three Adjectives for the Future of Digital Books: Slow, Confusing, Inevitable

One colleague of mine predicted that in about one year, all our students would be carrying only an e-reader. That's just nutty and ain't gonna happen. Another suggested five years. That made me think. Now that the iPad is out, everybody is thinking about it.

Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council in New York City, wrote a compelling opinion piece in Education Week that I agree with:

Portable readers and on-screen classroom lessons are on the horizon. But printed textbooks will not disappear tomorrow. Hardbound books still dominate the $7 billion textbook market. Digital textbooks make up less than 5 percent of sales, and that includes textbooks at the college level, where for many reasons e-texts make more sense than in schools.
Even in an electronic age, books remain, when compared with plug-in and battery-operated laptops, cheap, portable, and durable. They are convenient, familiar, and easy to use. Books make a great deal of sense in the primary grades, and electronic textbooks much more sense in the upper grades and college.
Slow, confusing, inevitable. And to show just how confusing it will be, we have two very different devices, the Kindle and the iPad, to choose from. Then take a look at what's coming: socially networked reading from Copia offers lots of different e-reading devices, but more importantly it offers a software platform and social network that differes significantly from Amazon and Apple. Craig Morgan Teicher writes a review of this service in MediaBistro
He points out that the social networking service is set up perfectly to promote sharing of notes associated with reading: Blackboard or Moodle wedded to your textbooks.

Lots of different devices, lots of different ways to read, lots of books still being printed, sold and read on paper. The change will be slow, confusing and inevitable.

Oh and BTW: I predict the iPad will fall right between the Touch and iPhone in popularity. Remember that Apple is like Harley-Davidson, whose customers voluntarily tattoo the company's name on their bodies. 300,000 people were going to buy the iPad before it was even invented. People predict that some 3,000,000 kindles have been sold since it came out.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fraudulence and Authenticity on the Internet: What is Your Authentication Process?

In my last post, I wrote about a YouTube video that had been forwarded to me by an acquaintance. When did I decide that I could trust the content of that video?

The video was about disability services for students and had been sent to me by someone who researches and has a disability. It seemed unbiased, sincere and well-produced. Nothing was being sold and there did not seem to be any agenda aside from the obvious advocacy it was doing for improving access to adaptive content for the blind.

Fraud, like other crimes, requires a motive. I could not sense any motivation for posting a fraudulent video like this. Maybe if it asked for online donations, I would have worried a little. But it doesn't.

I wanted to find out who had made it. On YouTube, there was just the screen name, MollyS. No profile or other identification. Fortunately YouTube has a messaging feature that allows you to contact the creators of their videos anonymously.

I contacted MollyS and explained my interest in the video, making sure to identify myself by my full name, my blog, my website and the website of my institution. I felt that if I revealed myself, she would too. This is what she wrote back:

I am *******. I shot, edited and posted the video (with a little help from my partner.) The content is as accurate as it is real, as real as it is accurate to the best of my knowledge and ability to determine it as such.
I then searched for her and found her listed on the website of the University of ****** in the context of providing disability services to students. I have left out her name by request of the University, so now you the reader must trust me.
The process was a lot more involved than friending someone on facebook, but I now feel that this video is everything that Molly claims it is. The first time I watched it, it seemed very authentic, but I felt a strong need to follow up and make sure that I had done due diligence.

That was my authentication process in this particular case.

Each of us has multiple methods of authenticating what we see, read and hear on the Internet. It can be as subtle and instinctual as that feeling you get when you know someone is lying to you. A lot of valuable services and information are being passed back and forth on the Internet securely by honest strangers. On the other hand, a lot of people get fooled, ripped off, robbed of their financial identity, infected by viruses and spyware or have their computers made into zombies by cyber-criminals and even terrorists.

My colleague in the Classics Department at Episcopal, Greta Ham, gave a wonderful lecture on Greek pots using images that she had collected on the Internet. I asked her how she could vouch for their authenticity, and she said, "I've seen them in real life so I know what they look like." Because she is an authority herself, she can vouch for the authenicity of the images. She has a Ph.D. in Classics from a fine institution. (See my post about the Ph.D.) I know and trust her, and I would put money down on those pictures.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Publication and Protection: Copying and Copyrighting: Greed and Fear

To publish something is to make it public. People post blogs, publish web pages and instantly everyone can read them. But established print publishers need to brake the traffic of information to the public to protect their profits.

Publishers want protection: copyright protection. They want money for content. Matt Lake, a free-lance writer who has published in a variety of paid contexts, once said to me, "information wants to be free, but writers want to get paid." I would add: publishers want to post a quarterly profit too.

Sometimes the issue of copyright protection explodes. In recent episodes, Amazon surreptitiously "disappeared" a copy of 1984 from Kindles because of a copyright issue, and MacMillan products disappeared from the amazon store because of a pricing dispute. More often, the issue is simply an ever-present, but seismic pressure between protecting and publishing.

In a previous blog post, I describe how a teacher asked a publisher to continue to produce a specific edition of a textbook for him and the publisher refused. That refusal resulted in the teacher writing his own textbook and posting it for free as a "flexbook" on

An anonymous program director and consultant in disability services and an American university filmed and produced this video, in which Svetlana, a blind student, is shown going through the process of dealing with a textbook that has not been translated into braille. The spine of the book is cut off; the pages are scanned; optical character recognition software ("OCR") is run on it to convert it into text; the digital file is proofed and formatted and the braille version is then printed. So the book goes from digital to print to digital to braille. Perhaps the most chilling scene in the video is the one of the spines being lopped off the back of the books by a huge knife. Content unbound!

This administrator requested that the name of the university not be mentioned because the law is so muddy on this issue. On one hand, the institution has an obligation to fulfill under the Americans with Disabilities Act; on the other hand, it has an obligation to uphold copyright law. While publishers have materials to give universities, those materials fall short of this institution's standards for supporting blind students.

Why don't all publishers provide the digital file to the university so that they can print it on the brailler without going through the incredibly tedious and expensive process of converting it back to digital?
Is it fear or laziness?

Are publishers afraid they will lose control over the digital file containing their copyrighted content? Why not? The digitization of music overturned the old business model of that industry, taking away jobs and reducing profits significantly. Are they afraid that the digital file will be posted somewhere and everyone will download it for free? Say all the blind college students who are taking that particular course and using that particular textbook decide to email it to each other. Consider those odds. Organic Chemistry in Braille is not Justin Timberlake.

The publishers could insist that this blind student, Svetlana, buy a hardcopy of the text as a ritual acknowledgement of copyright protection -- and then get the digital file. It would involve no extra work on the part of the publisher, because the university would still print the text on their own brailler.
When publishers obstruct publication, even for a small population of individualistic physics teachers or blind students, they risk creating an environment in which competing business models may take root, thrive, grow, and eventually compete with traditional publishers.

Enter, an online self-publication company. This is not just a "vanity" press, for people who want their poems published whether the book will sell or not. John Edgar Wideman, a distinguished, established author, published his most recent collection of short stories through Lulu. (Interestingly, it is only available in print, not digital form.) If you go to buy his book on Amazon, you'll get it from Lulu. Plenty of people have done just that.

Why did Wideman go with Lulu? Tired of working with traditional publishers. And he's not the only one, according to a recent NPR piece. More money and more control are leading incentives for these authors, and traditional publishers no longer have the budgets to court writers with plush advances and generous publicity.

Then there is the open source side of the paradigm shift. Because of the needs of people like Svetlana in the video, a nonprofit organization for the visually impaired, Bookshare,, collects and distributes braille, audio and large-print copies of books. If you can prove officially that your vision is impaired, then you can have access to these texts legally, through an exception to copyright law. This includes 3,847 textbooks as of this reading of the site. Some texts are donated by people who have already digitized the content, but Bookshare also maintains a staff of volunteers who scan, proof and convert texts on demand.

The big publishers are blocking the door and demanding a cover charge for entry while others are propping open the fire escape and sneaking into the show. Free digital textbooks are appearing for the able-bodied on, and accessible, digital texts are being provided for the disabled, courtesy of MollyS and her colleagues at University of *******.

The Red River Dam diverts the Mississippi River away from its natural, shortest channel toward the Gulf of Mexico so that it continues to flow past Baton Rouge and New Orleans. If the river should someday overwhelm the dam, those cities will literally turn into backwaters, sitting on a huge, stagnant, unnavigable bayou. Some experts say it is a question of Whether; some say it is a question of When.

When or whether will the dam break between readers and writers?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Zero Authority Times a Large Enough Number is What?

A friend recently defended his dissertation, the last phase in his twenty year process of getting a Ph.D. He is now a "doctor." Nothing conveys authority like having a Ph.D. But who says that he is an authority?

As it turns out, very few but very learned people say so. Who says they are learned? Another generation of a very few, very learned people. And so forth.

I learned something that surprised me: anyone may participate in the defense of the dissertation. If I had wanted to take the time and effort, I could have gone down to Penn and thrown my own two cents in about late Roman history. I could have started a brawl, jumped up and yelled, "oh that's no such thing!"

This is also true for Wikipedia: anyone may participate. But they don't have to take the train downtown and find room 202a in Whoosy-flop Hall. Nothing impedes participation. And apparently, everybody wants to participate.

So while the Ph.D. process depends on the knowledge and review of very few, very authoritative people, producing very authoritative work, wikipedia depends on the knowledge and review of very many people who are anonymous, and therefore have zero authority. So zero authority multiplied by a large enough integer equals ninety-nine percent accuracy?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Disrupting Class: Will the Online Revolution Come to Independent Schools?

Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn (Disruption Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns) argue very convincingly that the small growth in online or computer-based learned that is beginning to accelerate will soon create a revolution in teaching along the lines of the introduction of the personal computer in the 1980's. Disruptive products and services begin as cheap, weak imitations of something that is established: early PC = online course; mainframe = traditional class. But a whole class of "non-consumers" arises: people who would not otherwise have access to any semblance of the established product or service. They take to the new technology or service like crazy, and the new thing gets better and better and finally replaces the established thing.

I don't think this will ever happen to established independent schools. That's my bet. And here's why.

While it seems pretty straightforward to replace a traditional algebra class with an online algebra class, there will never be a computer-based or online way to raise children. And raising children is much of what we do, not only in independent schools, but wherever adults are put in charge of groups of children.

I specify my own sector of the education industry, independent schools, because I think it is a more potent counter-example to the educational disruption that Horn and Christensen are talking about.

When parents send their children to independent schools, they are spending for a service that they could receive for free in their local school district. Some of the school districts that we draw our students from are excellent. But parents, and to some extent the students themselves, perceive a special value in going to The Episcopal Academy, for example, over the great schools in Radnor Township, PA.

For the sake of this argument, let's not even try to explain the factors that go into this decision. Suffice it to say that it is complicated and personal. Something to do with college admission, spirituality, growth of the whole child, values, small class size, community, etc. The list goes one and the items on it create an interdependent web of preference. I think many parents would have a hard time describing why they send their kids to Episcopal, but they are pretty sure that's what they want for them. There is something ineffable and unquanifiable that motivates them that defies a rational model. It is the complexity of communal life.

Kids learn when they are members of a learning community of parents, teachers and other students. They are motivated by their relationships, not by the material. They want to please their teachers, obey their parents, be accepted by their peers. There is no innate imperative to learn algebra; the imperative is learned by exposure to the community. Only when the learner embraces the community, sometimes wholeheartedly, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes from a lack of any alternative, can ideas begin to take root.

Once such a community exists, then yes: computer-based learning and online learning will quickly be adopted and prove their signature efficiencies. But the community is fundamental and primary; while the technological disruption is and will remain supplemental and secondary.

The question that my argument throws open is whether strong enough learning communities can develop online. There is no dirth of online communities, and some of them are quite strong. But can they ever match the level of bonding and shared beliefs that can develop in an actual community?

Disrupting Class is the most refreshing books about education I have read. Horn and Christensen talk about schools and learning in a way that no one else does.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The End of 20th Century Classroom Teaching

A New Geometry Class
Imagine a high school geometry class where the room is laid out like a lab. Picture four computer workstations on a square lab table. Students work through proofs using an educational cocktail of approaches: they write a line-by-line geometric proof using full sentences in Googledocs. They use the well-known software package, Geometer's Sketchpad, to solve problems visually, moving points around on a grid, measuring angles, construction "what-if?" scenarios.  They view animations and listen to podcasts downloaded from the class site.

The class site is the text for the course, a cloudbook, comprising postulates, corollaries and explanations in written sentences like your grandmother's geometry book, but also drills, animations, and podcasts that are visual-spatial, manipulable, and auditory. The cocktail of approaches accomodates almost all different kinds of learning.

Each student works at his or her own pace, mastering each step along the way using self-assessments. There is an FAQ section on the class site where kids have posted questions and the teacher has posted answers. They can also ask their lab partners to the left and right of them.

The teacher goes from lab bench to lab bench checking on progress and making sure kids are staying focused and not fooling around. He answers questions in person as he goes and sometimes, if the question is a really good one or one that he has been asked frequently, he asks the student to post it to the FAQ.

Clayton Christensen: Disrupting Class or Changing Class?
This is my vision of how a class would be organized under the revolutionary model proposed by Clayton Christensen in his book, Disrupting Class : How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Christensen is an economist and brings economic models from the business world to bear on education, and particularly public education.

The model is compelling. Disruptive technologies begin as cheap consumer products and eventually overturn whole industries by attracting "non-consumers" -- people who did without a product before it became cheap and easy to use. So personal computers eventually overwhelmed mainframes. People who had no access to computers bought cheap, low-powered PC's and Macs. The personal computer gradually improved and became more powerful until it overturned the entire industry.

Christensen applies this to the example of Advanced Placement courses or courses in rarely-taught languages that a student may want to take but may not find available at his own school. More and more students are taking these courses online. They are good courses given by good teachers, and the students have access to the teacher just as they would in a regular class.

Is Christensen's Model Predictive for Schools?
The question I have is whether Christensen's model, and his tone of certainty about the future, are right. His model is elegant and supported by abundant data and deep reading; the beginning of the trend is evident; but is it the right model for this industry?

His categorization of "non-consumer" to the population of learners who are not getting what they want is particularly vulnerable. Virtually every child in the country is currently consuming education, even if the quality of that education is sorely lacking. And, for the most part, that education is free. Hard to beat that price.

The PC revolution is a great example. But another example he cites is the Linux operating system, which I see as a counter-example. While Christensen argues that Linux exhibits the adoption by non-consumers, he does not address the fact that Linux is nowhere in terms of replacing Windows, Mac OS, or Unix. It has revolutionized the development of various computing appliance, but it has not replaced a paradigm.

Computer-based courses, like the online courses Christensen cites and like the one I describe, may be excellent educational alternatives. They may change the manner in which we teach and learn in many settings. But the model of disruptive change seems like a stretch when applied to the state of education in this country.

This post was written at the half-way point in the book, so stay tuned for an update once I am finished. One thing I would like to see is a set of examples of non-disruptive change, where an industry gradually adapts a new technology without a revolution. It would also be good to set forth more examples like Linux, where a new technology is adopted and exists parallel to the traditional business models without being either adopted or crushed.

So far, Christensen's approach is to propose one model and try to persuade the reader that he is right. A better approach might be to propose several models and show that the disruptive model is the best.