Archive for the ‘eBooks’ Category

An “IR” of Our Own

October 29th, 2012

CUNY Open Access LogoThe culmination of Open Access Week at CUNY was a series of presentations at the CUNY Grad Center on Friday the 26th. And while it’s wrong to settle on one day in a whole week of events, still more wrong to highlight just one presentation among many, I’m going to do it anyway. Jill Cirasella of Brooklyn College (and of the UFS Open Access Advisory Group) gave a presentation that explained “Why We Need an Institutional Repository.” That explanation (available with a click on the afore-offered hyperlink) is 36 slides of compelling information and argument everyone should take the time to go through. But let me highlight a few of the main points here.

As Jill notes, one of the reasons we need an Institutional Repository (IR) is because we said we do. The University Faculty Senate passed a resolution in support of “”the development of an open-access institutional repository for the City University of New York” in November of last year, and the full text of that resolution is available in a report posted by (guess who?) Jill Cirasella.

The reasons for having an open-access IR (like the resolution’s whereases) are many, and they include the observation that most universities (especially universities anywhere near the size of CUNY) have them. But this is more, much more, than a matter of keeping up with the Joneses.

As Jill’s presentation makes compellingly clear, there are may potential benefits to CUNY, including raising its profile and strengthening its reputation, and doing so not just in the academic world but in the wider public realm. That would of course be away of doing the same for its faculty, but it would also make their collaboration easier and more productive, even as it would make it much easier for them to share materials with students, who would in turn be spared textbook costs while  improving their information literacy. Libraries as well as students would save money by purchasing less of what doesn’t get used while having more (open) access to what does.

In fact, there are so many reasons to do have an IR (reasons which should be considered with Jill’s fuller treatment of them, complete with graphs of expenditures and quotations from reports) that the only real question might also be the obvious head-scratcher here: why haven’t we set one up already? The short answer: we want to do this right. This isn’t the first or second time I’ve talked about an IR for CUNY in the last few months, and the one thing I keep returning to is the other no-brainer besides doing it: doing it differently. Too often IRs are static dumping grounds or the digital equivalent of vanity presses. We have an opportunity to learn from what has been done — and to do better. One great chance for us is to modify the essentially static nature of the Institutional Repository (the name itself signals something staid and inert) by tying it to the dynamism of the CUNY Academic Commons.

The Commons is itself an example of what we need to do. It was not the first of its kind, but it was so clearly the most innovative that it has become an award–  and grant-winning exemplar, now completing a plan to make its ways of working more available to others. Its Commons In A Box project has institutions lining up for their “box,” from other schools to a huge professional organization like the Modern Language Association. We can, at least potentially, have a similar effect on the world of IRs, islands on information too often unvisited. We have the means to network ours with our constituencies’ needs and interests. But we do need to get started.

A Work in Progress

August 30th, 2012

The Chronicle of Higher Ed released its annual Almanac this week, an omnium gatherum of data on colleges and univeristies, and the data on matters technological is gathered here. Quite a lot of it is pulled from other gatherings of data, notably  the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, or ECAR, which does its own annual study of undergraduates and technology, including a survey of the students’ sense of how much (and how well) faculty use technology in teaching. The upshot is that we should not be misled by all the talk (hype?) about change and transformative practices. Yes, there are MOOCs (here and there), and they are getting lots of attention. “The reality, though, is that professors have been slow to reshape their strategies.”

For all the press attention given e-books, they account for only 1% of college bookstores’ revenue. Courses using lecture capture continue to increase, but even at places where they are peaking — public universities — the percentages are still in the single digits. Speaking of publics, more than half of those same universities are reporting a cut in their technology budgets for the third year in a row, according to the Campus Computing Project. The CCP also reports that Blackboard’s dominance has declined a bit — dropping from 57% to just over 50% — while one of the most interesting corresponding gains, if slight, is in the proportion of schools that have “no campus standard.”

Students are a little less than wowed with the technology they do see used in teaching. According to that aforementioned ECAR study, fewer than a third think the use they see is effective when it comes to clicker response systems, gaming devices, webcams, television (and recorded video), music devices, tablets, cameras, and smartphones. They seem to have the highest regard for WiFi, perhaps because they rely so much on their own devices, with nearly 90% of them having their own laptops, and pushing that particularly (a particularly powerful) device into the realm of near ubiquity.

Probably none of this is surprising, and it all seems to add up to the familiar two-steps-forward-and one-step-back shuffle. It ought to chasten, at least a little, those who talk abut academic technology in terms of campus tsunamis and restructured systems. There is no done deal, no silver bullet, no killer app. The next big thing is just another thing, and there are more of them all the time. Festina Lente (“make haste slowly”) is — or at least ought to be — our motto. We are a work in progress.

A new report on faculty attitudes regarding technology is out from the Babson Survey Research Group and Inside Higher Ed — a follow-up to the report they released in earlier this summer (and I reviewed in a blog entry back then). Both reports mine the same survey, so the information here is not new, just more granular. And while the former report’s title, “Conflicted,” captures the mixed feelings faculty have (and especially the different responses different members of this very diverse group have to a number of different technology-related issues), this report’s title flatly declares them “Digital Faculty.” Is that a fair description? Not yet.

Titles, of course, can only say so much, and the report itself details some telling points of conflict and divergence. Accentuating the positive, the overview in Inside Higher Ed says, “In general, professors are pro-digital.” But the devil is in the details, and even in some of the broad strokes. Faculty are more fearful than excited about the growth of online education generally; ditto the growth of online outlets for scholarship. What’s more, this report breaks out gender differences, and it shows that women report doing more online but also feeling more stress. Cathy Ann Trower, director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, says this makes sense, that “women often feel more compelled to be immediately responsive to students and colleagues than men do.”

Trower’s take provides an interesting angle on the results: if faculty are in fact “digital faculty,” it may be more a reluctant acceptance of change than an enthusiastic embrace. The survey’s key strategy — to ask whether faculty are fearful or excited about different uses and manifestations of technology (and to insist on a choice of one or the other) — does not allow us to know about gradations of feeling. We can only infer, as Trower did.

Some things the survey results do make clear. Since the survey was done of administrators as well as faculty, we can see these two groups seem to see things differently. Administrators consistently overestimate faculty use of technology, particularly the use of any learning management system (LMS).  As I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, co-directors of the Babson Survey Research Group, note, “Administrators perceive a much higher degree of faculty use of LMS systems for every dimension than faculty actually report.”

On the other hand, many of the results do justify the “pro-digital” claim. While faculty are more fearful than excited about the growth of online education, more than 70% are more excited than fearful about the growth of hybrid or blended instruction, and almost that many feel that way about the “flipped classroom” — the use of technology to offer instructional content so that instructors can spend less class time lecturing and more time interacting with students. Most also feel positive about the growth of online educational resources (OER), as they do about the growing use of OER and e-textbooks to replace traditional textbooks.

Still, the results of the survey, mined more thoroughly in “Digital Faculty” report, underscore the ambivalence of the report titled “Conflicted.” Part of it could be that faculty, if they are “digital faculty,” may feel themselves more defined that way than defining themselves that way. (Issues of agency, like gradations of feeling, are not easily gleaned from the survey results.) And uncertainty as well as ambivalence has to be a part of any thoughtful response to change. The sentence in the Inside Higher Ed article that really struck me as this one: “Asked for their gut reaction to the emergence of ‘outlets for scholarship that do not use a traditional peer-review model,’ 64 percent of professors said it mostly filled them with fear.” If “fear” is the right word there, it would be mostly fear of the unknown or at least unsettled, and that will be with us for a while.




It was pointed out to me that my last blog entry (on what we need to know about how we and our students are reading) left out any mention of the one big knowable among the unknowables: that our students are paying way too much for textbooks. True. So it seemed providential that today’s Inside Higher Ed had a piece on free textbooks titled Textbooks Unbound.

The punny title was one way of signifying that the article focused primarily on Boundless (“The Free Textbook Replacement”).  And the ambiguity of that parenthetical (does it replace textbooks for free? or does it replace free textbooks?) is also significant. Unlike purveyors of free textbooks like Flat World Knowledge or the Community College Open Textbooks Collaborative, Boundless starts with what instructors want from a textbook and aggregate that from what’s out there. Given the growth of open educational resources (OER), that’s a lot, but it’s also a lot to look for (or look through), hence the utility of something that pulls these things together and packages them.

As the article in IHE points out, it’s also another kind of threat to the standard business model for textbooks, sort of the second swing in the 1-2 punch. Giving whole textbooks away is one thing, but when you start pulling stuff together (including multimedia, things that go beyond what you can find in a standard text), that creates real problems for publishers. The article is really on the stir that has resulted from publishers crying foul, and especially the federal court complaint filed by such major players in the textbook publishing industry as Pearson, Cengage, and MacMillan. Ironically, because Boundless uses open content, the suit charges that it’s ripping off the structure of existing textbooks, filling them with freely available content but retaining (borrowing?) a form that students and instructors are used to. And the real irony is that this repackaging that retains the package’s traditional shape comes from giving professors what they (supposedly) want: the same old same old, only without the cost.

This seems to be that familiar shuffle of two steps forward and one step back: we have free content that approximates what publishers have been (over)charging for, but in the same form. What transformed the music industry was a transformation of the way we experienced music, not just the way we bought it. Music was suddenly not just cheaper than formerly but more mobile, more find-able, more share-able. We didn’t have to buy an album to get the sought-after song. We didn’t have to search through used record stores to find that beloved old tune. It wasn’t just the price.

What if we similarly transformed the way we brought together and assigned content for a course? What if it wasn’t a matter of assigning one chapter after another? What if professors didn’t give students basically what they themselves were given at that age and stage, all pulled together in a compendium? What if students were able to choose and provide at least some of the reading? What if the discovery of it was part of the learning process? And what if only some of it was found and the rest made by the class?

Boundless has made a new move both the publishing industry and on OER, but there are lots of moves still to be made.

Getting a Read on Reading

August 8th, 2012

Both of the daily newsletters I get from the Chronicle of Higher Ed  (“Academe Today” and “Wired Campus”) featured the same piece this morning: “The Digital World Demands a New Mode of Reading.” The title is unfortunate, especially in its use of the singular. More than anything, the article is about the proliferation of modes of reading (and modes in multiple senses: different formats, different kinds of attention, different processes, even different versions, in one person, of what one interviewee calls the “reading self”).

Though whole books are mentioned (The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain), the article is wholly anecdotal, and the anecdotes all contribute to the sense of multiplicity, variety, and (for me, at least) confusion. Alan Jacobs, author of The Pleasures of Reading, reads voraciously and omnivorously but seems to do nothing else. (One irony is that the one datum in the article that gets the most thorough explanation is who Channing Tatum is. Why? Because Jacobs has no idea, what with his reading regimen that proscribes all TV and movies.) Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, rereads Hesse’s Magister Ludi to see if she can discover her “older reading self.” (She can, she says, but why she would conduct this experiment by rereading — never the same as the first encounter — and choosing to read a book in translation [or in another language] is a puzzle.)

There are certainly plenty of books and articles mourning the changes to reading brought on by the rise of the internet. Sven Birkets’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, originally published in 1994, is probably the granddaddy. But they tend to be (very) personal takes on the issue that hardly tell us what is really happening to us and our students. We can have our suspicions and personal opinions, our pulse-takings and personal experiences, but what do we really know? What, as educators, have we ever really known about what happens when a chapter is assigned and students either get it (whatever “it” is) or they don’t? Is that even the right way to frame what we should expect to see happen?

The questions are important because of the move to what you might call guided auto-didacticism, particularly via MOOCs and online extension courses that eschew the sustained interaction of established online instruction (too labor intensive and costly, presumably) for a trading of content and exams. If one mode of learning on the rise is the 21st-century version of the correspondence course, where material is made available and then machine-scored exams determine whether the student “gets it,” we had better be a good deal clearer than we are about what “getting it” amounts to. That would mean being much clearer about the cognitive processing involved as well as the validity of assessments used — and much more concerned about that than the putative contraction of attention spans and increase in impatience and distractibility.

That’s not a blog title. It’s a book title. The (e-)book is free, and its full title is Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines at the University of Minnesota in 2012, released this month. You can approach it from a couple of angles — a downloadable PDF and a WordPress site.

Users of the CUNY Academic Commons may be tempted to give the former a pass — the latter has contextualizations, access to particular chapters, etc. But here’s one reason to resist that temptation: the PDF, unlike the table of contents on the WP site, is annotated. It’s almost impossible to read through and not want to read more about any number of entries, especially the ones in the substantial first section “Changing Pedagogy.”

It’s also almost impossible not to wonder if CUNY could do something like this. All the work was volunteered, managed by three editors abetted by nine “co-designers.” It collects material from UM’s academic technology showcase held this past spring (yes, that recently). And it is made available through online an open-access repository for UM faculty scholarship formally known as the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy. The publication is all under a Creative Commons  (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0) license.

There’s a lot to admire here — and maybe emulate.


I want to recommend something I recently stumbled upon (literally: using StumbleUpon, I found something praised on Slashdot and tracked it down to its source): misleadingly titled “Books in the Age of iPad” — my first thought, in the wake of all the iPad hype, was “I don’t need this” — it turned out to be a very thoughtful (and, for me, revelatory) meditation by a publisher and designer on what the possibilities posed by digital content mean for “for books-makers, web-heads, content-creators, authors and designers.”  As I read what Craig Mod had to say, I thought of a critical audience he didn’t mention: faculty.

He begins with Maximum Provocation:

Print is dying.

Digital is surging.

Everyone is confused.


But what he is saying “good riddance” to is definitely not books. It is to the “disposable books” (his term) — books that don’t need to be books. His other term for this is “formless content”  (content whose meaning is not determined by the container) as opposed to “definite content” (content whose meaning would change if the container did).

Complicated by further distinctions and examples (laid out in beautiful design, by the way), this is of course not an absolute distinction, but it is definitely a thought-provoking one. For those contemplating CUNY’s eBook RFP, for example, it may help to cut through all the confusion about devices and formats and so on. When we discussed that last week at the monthly meeting of the CUNY Committee on Academic Technology (a private group on the CUNY Academic Commons as well as a University committee), I was hearing considerations that to some extent crystallized as I read Mod’s piece. What among the material we would have our students read or look at is formless and what is definite content? Remember that the latter can be digital content, not just books. And there are still odder compromises and symbioses. When I first started using Project Gutenberg, one of the  attractions was using digital means to create historically accurate facsimiles of literary texts as they originally appeared.

Of course, I’m speaking from vantage point of my (erstwhile) discipline, and I think one of the great questions here is how this distinction would play out at different kinds and levels of instruction. For me, the critical thing that Mod’s piece reinforces is how technological change almost never confronts us “either/or” choices, but with “both/and” options — always more complicated. Just as the VCR and DVD did not kill movie theaters (but made us all think more about what to watch where and when), the opportunity to assign digital content as well as traditional print textbooks has ramifications that are going to require thought, and what Mod has to say may be of some help in thinking them through. It certainly seemed so to me.

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