Friday, July 17, 2009

The Future of Textbooks

My employer, Grand Rapids Community College, is one of two schools taking part in a pilot program being offered by the Follett Corporation (the entity the college outsourced its bookstore services to several years ago) to rent textbooks to students as opposed to forcing students to buy them, which could result in a savings of over 40% in some cases.

It's likely Follett is being forced into this position by online services like which offer textbook rental and are quickly gaining popularity.

Given how much dissatisfaction there is out there with textbook prices, I'm amazed this didn't happen sooner (though the used textbook market and meta-search engines like have helped keep text prices lower). That same dissatisfaction could provide the momentum that gets the open source textbook movement going.

It's an uphill battle (as California is finding out), but if academics could agree on a universal platform upon which to develop them, open source textbooks could be the future. Think of it: a world where everyone has access to free textbooks created by the brightest minds from around the world on any given topic and proofed by thousands of pairs of eyes. If published on a flexible base (like XML), they could be turned into digital texts (or students could pay a third party to print a copy for them), they could be readily turned into versions for students with disabilities (braille or audio), pushed out to mobile devices, or incorporated into enterprise course management systems like Blackboard.

Interestingly enough I don't think traditional textbook publishers have to disappear in an open source model. They could sustain themselves by focusing on the ancillary textbook material for faculty: translation services, banks of test questions, suggested classroom activities, exercises, multimedia teaching aids, video game modules, etc. - the opportunities are limitless.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Telemarketing/Spamming on Mobile Phones

Simon & Schuster and the marketing company ipsh! recently lost a court decision after spamming mobile phone owners with text messages promoting Stephen King's new book. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act currently limits the use of autodialing technologies

So long as consumers incur any sort of direct "per transaction" cost for the traffic they receive on mobile devices, any marketer that tries to use those platforms for unsolicited advertisements is begging for trouble (and risking cutting themselves off from their audience permanently). It wouldn't take much for an enterprizing programmer to have a hit iPhone or Blackberry app that blocks unsolicited texts.

Rather than wasting their time and money lobbying or trying to create systems that skirt the law to advance ineffectual mass-marketing campaigns - marketers should be concentrating on developing relationships with their key audiences so that they WANT to stay connected because of the valuable and relevant communications from the advertisers.

It will be interesting to see how mobile device pricing evolves. One could imagine marketers offering to pay mobile service providers to make the cost of, say, an SMS text message free. One could also then imagine mobile service providers creating a new "service" that allows users to block advertising for a monthly fee.

Whatever happens, the current price structure can't continue as more and more people begin to use phones for mobile computing as opposed to purely for phone calls because it's ass-backwards: even though it's all just data moving through towers and pipes - u
sers are charged more for SMS text messages and data transfer than they are for phone calls (which use more data).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Did the Demise of Newspapers Have to be?

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine has an interesting commentary on how the Economist is succeeding while the majority of newspapers around it fail. His point is that being a quality publication allows it to buck the conventions of the Internet age (particularly the convention that everything must be free).

This point was also raised by David Simon (writer of the Wire on HBO and a former Baltimore Sun reporter) in an interview on Bill Moyers Journal. When they were flush with cash in the 1990s, rather than investing in themselves and alternative ways of monetizing their services, newspapers bowed to the pressures of corporate consolidation which drove them to cut corners to help boost stock prices.

In an interview with Michigan Radio today about citizen journalism, MSU professor Stephen Lacy talked about how newspapers can't be hyper-local (which has prompted the rise in citizen journalism - to cover what is being neglected).

My question is - why can't establishment newspapers be hyper-local? Why does each one have to expend its resources trying to cover all of the world/national news as though there aren't dozens of other outlets doing the exact same thing in the same market on any given day?

What if ... newspapers invested in doing a good job catering to the niche right around them (instead of pumping their papers full of baldly-edited wire service stories and syndicated content)?

What if ... instead of aiming broadly with one huge metro edition, the newspapers put their regional editions on steroids and crafted a newspaper around the interests/news of a particular community (going so far as to only discuss national/world matters as they pertain to the hyper-local community)?

What if ... instead of trying to compete with the Internet, TV and Radio to break stories as fast as possible, newspapers concentrated on their traditional strength: depth (and tweak that by offering a customizeable local news experience for each user that would help recommend content via some Amazon/Netflix-esque engine)?

Maybe someone smarter than me has already asked and answered these questions. It just seems that there's a lot of opportunity out there just waiting to be harnessed with a little innovation and some heart. Are there seriously no opportunities to seize upon with iPhone/Blackberry apps, or Kindle licensing? No opportunities to sell highly-targeted ads like Facebook and Google?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Must-Watch Clay Shirky TED Lecture

John Gilmore once said "the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." As Clay Shirky notes, that was illustrated very clearly in Iran this past week as wired Iranians were able to communicate and organize demonstrations against the election results.

Shirky elegantly puts into words what we're dealing with: the Internet is the first medium that makes possible the "many-to-many" communication model which renders obsolete a great many long-held conventions (from when the media was limited to one-to-one or one-to-many). This helps me better explain the implications for two spheres of thought very important to me:

1. Journalism and the Future of Democracy

One of the things that worries me about the idea that we're coming to rely more and more on citizen journalists and less on professionals is the fact that we stand to lose the most important function professional journalists provide: investigative journalism.

If, however, the "many-to-many" paradigm established by the Internet (reinforced by social media) - will it matter? If anyone with a conscience can leak anything to the entire web-accessible world - how will any organization public or private be able to keep anything a secret? As for-profit news entities are shuttered, it strikes me that one of the most important things we can do is build up strong legal protections for whistleblowers and encourage platforms like WikiLeaks.

2. Education

Think about this quote in the context of the future of education:
"In a world where media is global, social, ubiquitous and cheap ... In a world of media where the former audience are increasingly full participants ... in that world, media is less and less often about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals. It is more and more often a way of creating an environment for convening and supporting groups. [...] The question we all face now is 'how can we make best use of this medium even though it means changing the way we've always done it?'"
Anyone think for a second that the next generation of students are going to have patience for an educational process that doesn't welcome their collaboration at every level (from curriculum design to assessment)?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Seth Godin vs. the Textbook Industry

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin took the textbook industry to the woodshed ("Textbook Rant"). I have a couple of points of disagreement, but overall I think most of his analysis was spot-on and highlights some of the paradigms about education that need to change.
  • My first point of disagreement was his assumption that marketing textbooks are representative of textbooks in general - I don't necessarily think that's the case. Some fields (like marketing) are more malleable (for lack of a better word) than others (like algebra). Compared to algebra, marketing is somewhat newer and is inherently more subjective in nature. Moreover, while there are always new developments in mathematics, they don't happen as rapidly as those in fields like marketing.
  • My second point of disagreement is that I think Seth tends to interact with self-directed, high-achieving individuals who function very well independent of the traditional academic system. For the majority of students, the approach most textbooks take tends to be more effective because they have a bit more difficulty following the more esoteric references or directing their own activities/exercises to reinforce the material.
That said, however, he's right: textbooks are too expensive, lack an innovative spirit, do too little to inspire students about a particular topic, and are impractical. This is why so many faculty rely heavily on coursepacks (or even multiple texts for a single course).

That's partially due to the industrial design of our [now-outmoded] education system, and it's partially due to the constraints of having to aim for a very broad audience (which limits how creative one can be in the presentation of subject matter). It takes a long time to put together a textbook because the text is only a small portion of the whole job. I would wager nearly half of the work involved in a textbook goes to producing the host of tools, assessments, guides, and other materials for use in the class which reinforce the material and help faculty assess the progress of the students in retaining and applying the material.

These realities don't excuse textbook manufacturers from their culpability, however. They could be innovating, but they're not because they've hit upon a lucrative way of doing business and have grown complacent ... which means it's right about time for someone innovative to come along and upend their business model and run them out of circulation.

As Godin notes, one could imagine the model of textbooks moving completely away to exhaustive, one-time paper texts and toward a constantly-evolving web-based model that is updated/maintained by a collaborative of faculty and experts (I would say even students would bring some valuable insights to the process).

Unfortunately I don't think it's as simple as Godin suggests. A cursory glance at the debate raging over where scholarly research should be published hints at the unseen complications that exist. Here are a few I can see (and some possible solutions):
  • The first barrier will be the publishing industry (which includes some academic institutions that have their own publishing houses) which won't go down without a fight. Similar to the music industry's reaction to file-sharing - they'll likely try to maintain their monopoly by suing or lobbying their competition out of existence (a lawsuit from a single intellectual property violation could decimate a start-up venture). They're also not above bribing faculty in the same way drug companies schmooze health professionals.
    [Solution: have a powerful academic institution house the effort so that it could fight off vexatious lawsuits.]

  • Second, though many engaged faculty would leap at the model he suggests (of cobbling together a customized text from crowdsourced "chapterettes"), there are a lot of more complacent faculty who won't be interested in assembling their own text (or in doing it for free, as many receive a slice of the profits from textbooks).
    [Solution: Make the platform user-friendly and compatible with enterprise content management systems like Oracle/PeopleSoft and Blackboard.]

  • Third, it may also be difficult to find people to do the less fun tasks associated with producing textbooks (like creating the test banks of questions, exercises, classroom activities, lecture guides, etc.) which is what makes the traditional model appealing to over-worked faculty looking to outsource as much of the labor associated with teaching a class as possible.
    [Solution: If a prestigious academic institution backed this effort, one could appeal to creators by allowing them to associate themselves with that institution.]
  • Fourth, someone also needs to create the platform or build the network that would enable enough creators to gather together to create enough content to make the system viable.
Fortunately I think the wired world is up to the task, and it's only a matter of time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How the Web Reaffirms Journalism as "an Activity"

A fascinating exchange about the future of journalism has been unfolding online.

Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine wrote a superb article (Product v. process journalism: The myth of perfection v. beta culture) defending online citizen journalism from its critics in the more elitist wing of the traditional media. One of his colleagues, Charles Arthur, weighed in on the topic as well (David v Goliath in the newsroom, and why we need new wrappers for journalism), prompting another response from Jarvis (David, meet Goliath).

Of particular interest to me in the Jarvis/Arthur dialog is the illuminating concept that transparency is really the major feature that differentiates a story that the New York Times publishes versus a story published via a blog post. There's also an artificial "definitive" quality in the traditional media that is exposed as false by web-based journalism (that is to say, information isn't neatly disclosed in sequence and as a result it isn't always possible to make a final judgment about the facts).

This is why I bristle at criticism of Wikipedia. I much prefer its transparent editing process to the opaque process used by traditional encyclopedia producers. I also like that it doesn't make judgments (driven by profitability) about what merits inclusion and what does not - every obscure detail can be cataloged online. It's also vastly more current at any given moment than any encyclopedia based simply on the length of time it takes to produce a printed work.

This dialog has reaffirmed my optimism that the web may be able to help fill the void being left by the decline of the "mainstream media." It also comes at an opportune time as the "Neighborhood News Bureaus" project here in Grand Rapids is beginning to really take shape (the project now even has a name: "The Rapidian").

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Contentious Debate Over Academic Freedom

The group Free Exchange on Campus has published an excellent report rebutting the allegations that the whole of public higher education is a gigantic propaganda outfit that brainwashes students into leftists. It also tracks the origins of the movement against academic freedom (which is curiously similar to the movement that has berated the media for being liberally-biased) and identifies the principle players pushing to insert .

Given the current contentious political climate and some of the recent developments at GRCC, I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes an issue and there is new pressure to enact Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights."

View Report: Manufactured Controversy (.pdf)

Friday, June 05, 2009

On Crediblity and Higher Education

I'm of the opinion that too few higher education institutions are making strides toward ensuring their relevance as human communication continues its Internet-enabled seismic shift. This is increasingly clearer as I read two seemingly-unconnected reports (posts? accounts? who knows what to call them anymore).

First, Seth Godin blogged about an intriguing venture he's been working on ("Learning From the MBA Program") - an unaccredited, invitation-only MBA program. One can already hear traditional academics sniffing with upturned noses . The program is almost entirely hands-on practical learning and involves only 5-20 hours of lecturing per week. It's also heavy on field trips and superb guest speakers.

Godin recalls his own graduate school experience:

"We didn’t do this at all at when I was at Stanford. We spent a lot of time reading irrelevant case studies and even more time building complex financial models. The thing is, you can now hire someone to build a complex financial model for you for $60 an hour. And a week’s worth of that is just about all the typical entrepreneur is going to need. The rest of the time, it’s about shipping, motivating, leading, connecting, envisioning and engaging. So that’s what we worked on. It amazes me that MBA students around the world aren’t up in arms. How can schools justify taking $100,000 in cash and teaching exactly the wrong stuff."

Second, the Charlotte Observer and New York Times have reported a Clemson staffer has turned whistleblower and spilled the beans on how the university has manipulated its rankings in the the US News & World Report annual rankings.

Those in higher education likely know to take them with a grain of salt given how difficult it is to compare colleges/universities as they're constantly-shifting and complex institutions. I don't think the same is true of the general public, a significant portion of which relies on these rankings to make this important life decision (also evidenced by the facts that a reputable university would take this sort of risk to get ahead in the rankings).

The link between these two stories is credibility. A connection to a respected institution from which one can derive credibility.

We in academia sort of assume that "accreditation" objectively confers credibility and that it will remain the gold standard forever (in the same way a lot of people sort of assume that a degree will remain the gold standard in education). While I think both will continue to hold value - they're losing a bit of ground to other ways of demonstrating credibility as a result of the democratizing power of the web enables upstarts to flourish.

I can't speak for others, but I certainly would consider a job applicant that was hand-picked to run through a program by Seth Godin. Yet, in the current industrialized model of human resources someone without an accredited degree might be weeded out of the application process for a large organization before the interview phase, but I bet there's already pressure to change those practices (because there's surely a lot of talented people being unfairly excluded).

All of this presents an opportunity for colleges and talented individuals like if they're innovative enough to seize upon it.

Update: More rankings shenanigans have been uncovered at the US News & World Report, this time with the University of Southern California.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Entertainment and the Crumbling of Barriers

It's an exciting time to be a fan of music; the barriers to producing one's own work have come crashing down. The technology is inexpensive. Social media connects artists to their fans. There are a plethora of low-cost options for outsourcing the commerce aspect of the business. Combined with the collapse of the terrestrial radio music industry - that means independent artists are on almost equal footing with the oligopoly of major record labels in terms of being able to create work, connect with fans and earn a living.

If this fan-generated Green Lantern trailer is any indication, the same will be true for movies sooner rather than later.

Robert Rodriguez already sent shockwaves through Hollywood when he produced Sin City at his ranch in Texas for $40 million on a digital backlot. Inexpensive digital cameras like the Red One are putting gorgeous digital images that rival the warmth of analog film even closer within reach.

The major hurdle to an explosion of diverse, fan-generated content is the thicket of intellectual property (IP) legislation the major entertainment companies have bought by lobbying congress for decades. We need a comprehensive rewrite of IP legislation so that creativity can thrive and the cabals of giant conglomerates that control the entertainment industry can't keep watering down artistic works so that they appeal to the broadest audience possible for (perceived) maximum profitability.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Marketers Miss the Point of Social Media (Again)

As audiences continue to fragment and marketers scramble to find the next big thing that is going to save the traditional advertising industry, they continue to mistakenly apply the traditional one-way mass media model to the tribalized digital environment. It's the equivalent of using chess pieces to play Halo 3.

Either as a result of naivete or a concerted effort to mislead those who buy advertising, they also continue to use delusive statistics to quantify that the traditional media is still on top. The latest example is a study by Knowledge Networks (written up in MediaPost). It concludes that in spite of the fact that 83 percent of the population on the Internet is using social media, "...genre has failed to become much of a marketing medium, and in the opinion of the Knowledge Networks' analysts, likely never will."

The conclusion is based on (among other things) the statistics that "5% of social media users regularly turn to these social networks for 'guidance on purchase decisions'" and "only 16% of social media users say they are more likely to buy from companies that advertise on social sites."

Based on these statistics, a Knowledge Networks VP reaches the conclusion, "...word-of-mouth is still the No. 1 most influential source, followed by TV. The influence of social media isn't at the bottom of the list, but it is somewhere in the long tail of marketing - about the same as print ads, or online [display] ads.'"

It sounds compelling until one realizes that they're completely missing the point.

First, social media enables people to broaden their social networks and to interact with friends and family in new ways. It not only greases the skids for interactions within one's social circle, but it indexes them and makes them searchable. Put another way - social media is a more effective iteration of word of mouth.

This makes it very difficult to draw the line between a decision influenced purely by word-of-mouth and a decision influenced purely by an interaction within a social media environment. For example, if I buy a car because my friend recommended it to me at a social function, but I learned this friend was an expert because of articles they posted on their Facebook profile - which medium gets the credit for the transaction?

Of course social media fails when used for traditional marketing efforts. It's created a completely new paradigm that has made possible entirely new economic systems and business models (to say nothing of how it has affected aspects of business like marketing). If you're a business built on volume trying to reach a mass audience - you're likely going to fail using social media. In fact, your failure is virtually guaranteed if you go about it in the traditional ways.

Invariably some percentage of those sales attributed to "word-of-mouth" rightly belong to social media, because of the way social media allows individuals to maintain contact with those they take "word-of-mouth" recommendations from.

The point of using social media for marketing is that allows one to easily target a very small, specialized audience in a very inexpensive way. So if you're trying to sell the most popular car (Toyota Camry) in the most popular color (White), you're wasting your time. If, instead, you're trying to sell a custom-crafted automobile (Tesla Roadster) in a custom color (Chartreuse) - you can now find and influence your audience more cheaply and easily.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Social Media Ethical Dilemma: the Admin-less Facebook Group

Case Study: As with any institution of a reasonable size, Grand Rapids Community College has its detractors who occasionally express themselves via social media.

One of the handful of anti-GRCC groups on Facebook recently had its administrator vacate his position, leaving the group leaderless. The ethical dilemma I'm presented with is: do I seize this opportunity to join the group, establish myself as the admin, and promptly abolish the group?

The answer is, of course, no. That would be unethical, and I run the risk of making the problem worse. Here's why:
  • First, criticism is perfectly fine - not everyone has had a positive experience and they're entitled to tell the world about it. Moreover, their complaints are powerful in helping frame the college's priorities which ultimately resolves the problems.
  • Second, the deletion of the group may be noticed by those who are currently members as a status update, which may spark an investigation which (along with their resulting ire) will be directed at me - a GRCC flak.
  • Third, the content on the group is barely-coherent and riddled with profanity, anti-gay slurs, misspellings and shoddy grammar - so it's unlikely many people will take it seriously.
Ultimately the group will go away of its own accord simply because it isn't a viewpoint shared by enough individuals to sustain it. Given the nature of the sentiment, here is a very small chance that reputation of the organization will be harmed by its existence as most people likely find it unpersuasive.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chevron's Fake News as Public Relations

Scenario: An oil company has polluted a South American nation with 30 times the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster. A major news outlet is about to do an expose on the pending multi-million dollar lawsuit over the environmental damage. What's a corporation to do?

Increase transparency by inviting citizens' groups inside the organization to help improve policies procedures? Invest in infrastructure improvements? Offer to clean up the damage and donate to rainforest preservation efforts?

Naah - they just pay to produce their own favorable news report.

That's precisely what Chevron just did. They hired former CNN anchor Gene Randall (laid off in 2001) to do an "investigation" into the disaster and resulting lawsuit to counteract a "60 Minutes" report that was about to drop with Chevron's "side" of the story (featuring solely consultants, lawyers and experts on the Chevron payroll).

A few years ago, when the Bush Administration was illegally using taxpayer money to produce propaganda in support of its No Child Left Behind" and Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit programs, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) condemned the practice when it is not transparent that the "news" was not produced by an objective journalistic outfit. In fact, they specifically noted "PRSA recommends that organizations that prepare VNRs should not use the word "reporting" if the narrator is not a reporter."

This is significant because in the Chevron propaganda piece, it opens with a key graphic "Gene Randal, Reporting" (that same graphic appears again later in the piece as Randall speaks while standing in front of a building in a trenchcoat), and the segment closes with Randall saying "this is Gene Randall, reporting" (a direct violation of PRSA's standards). It also mimics the style of magazine-style investigative news programs, opening with Randall standing in front of a bank of monitors in a video editing room. Thus far, PRSA has not issued any statements about the effort, though they mentioned it in PR Tactics and Strategist Online.

The Chevron-produced piece (available here) fails to mention in the video who produced the piece (one must infer that from the profile of the user "TexacoEcuador"). The video puts the blame for the damage on PetroEcuador (inferring that Chevron cleaned up all of its environmental damage with a $40 million clean-up campaign back in the 1990s) and greedy "trial lawyers." Not surprisingly, comments on all of the videos are disabled.

With disinformation tactics like this in such wide use and the investigative news media continually seeing declines in funding/staffing, it's no wonder that 41 percent of the US population thinks that the threat of global climate change is exaggerated (up from 30 percent in 2006).

[Update: Bob Garfield of Media Matters Interviews Gene Randall on the Chevron Piece.]

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Radically-Transparent Classroom

Two stories in my feed reader caught my attention this weekend that hint at the growing friction between outmoded academic traditions and Web 2.0:
  • First, the L.A. Times recently published an in-depth report about the difficulties of firing tenured teachers (Song, J. "Firing Tenured Teachers can be a Costly and Torturous Task,"May 3, 2009).
  • Second, the UK Times Higher Education edition published a story (Attwood, R. "Students Union Accused of Snooping on Lectures," April 20, 2009) about the University and College Union (UCU) objecting to the Manchester Metropolitan Students Union's (MMSU) new practice of encouraging students to report (via text message) when faculty are late or when they suddenly cancel lectures.
The halls of academia are no longer immune from the influence of the ubiquitous, networked, media-saturated, always-on world we live in - and in many ways they're more vulnerable because their insulated structure means they haven't been able to gradually develop as many workarounds to resolve minor conflicts between tradition and technology. As a result of 1) the way technology has empowered "consumers" (which includes students), 2) the pressures of strained education budgets, and 3) the continuing growth of shrill interest groups that attack public education - there's going to be a seismic shift in the governance of higher education.

There have already been a few incidents that have hinted at the future of a radically-transparent classroom (like Jay Bennish, and the much-less publicized case of David Paszkiewicz).

Instead of being sensationalist fodder for special interest groups, however, it could be that transparency provides educational institutions with the leverage they need to overcome the problematic aspects of tenure in a constructive way. Make no mistake: having protections in place for faculty (like tenure) is absolutely necessary to ensure quality education. This is especially true in the polarized era we're living in where an indelicately-worded comment in a discussion on any of the hot-button issues in education (like the teaching of creationism/intelligent design) can bring out the torches and pitchforks.

The first way transparency can help ensure better quality education is the ability social media gives students to connect with one another and share information. It's no longer the case that poor conduct on the part of an educator (which includes, by the way, ending the "voicemail hell" students all too frequently find themseves in) is lost to the wind after the twenty or so students that witnessed it go their separate ways at the end of the semester. It can be documented and indexed (i.e. searchable) so that it is readily available to future classes that will be able to easily document patterns of bad (or good) conduct by educators.

Second, due to the fact that so much of what makes dismissing a bad teacher so difficult is the highly-specialized nature and context of each individual situation and the difficulty in documenting poor performance - it would seem that social media and technology may provide both the tools and framework to ensure that we can more efficiently provide due process for educators when a dispute arises.

There is a constructive way to go about this, and it can be a great thing for all those involved if it's done right. What that means, however, is that educators (and administrators) will need to relinquish some of the outdated policies they've come to rely upon and be more responsive to the concerns of their stakeholders (which is something the majority of faculty are doing already).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cornel West and the Socioeconomics of Music

I recently had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Cornel West at Calvin College in which he spoke, almost in passing, about the impact of one's economic circumstances on the art they create (specifically in this example, the music). He explained, in part:
"But Hip hop from below, coming out of high schools where the art programs have been systematically eliminated so they can' t learn how to play the instruments in which the way the Ohio Players or Lakeside or Con Funk Shun or the Bar-Kays do. Those negroes can play their instruments. [...] but if you come in a context where the shift from poor people to the well-to-do has been so systematic, where the drug invasion has come in as the only source of you sustaining you sustaining yourself as your families become so weak, your community so feeble and market values begin to permeate every nook and cranny of your life ... then what do you do; well you get some old equipment around and have sampling. Okay we can't play instruments but Sly sure sounds good ... and James Brown sounds very good ... work it Grandmaster Flash, bring your Furious Five with you."
It had never before occurred to me that looking down on musicians who sampled could be not only snobbery but a form of racism given that it was economics that made a tape deck the only instrument some people had access to (while meanwhile in suburbia I had access to strings, percussion, winds and brass and the private lessons to master them). In that context, the esteem and awe with which people like Michael Eric Dyson speak of Hip hop becomes perfectly clear.

One of the phrases that kept ringing in my head from the lecture was the idea of "...bouncing off tradition in order to promote innovation." Anyone who has studied music knows that you become acutely aware of the fact that every musician stands on the shoulders of previous musicians; whether you're sampling or playing an instrument.

There are some interesting manifestations of the mashup of musical influences and available instruments going on in the digital world nowadays:
  • There's a whole generation of artists whose work is influenced by the accessibility of immersive 3D video game environments that have been remixed and used like a brush and palette to create original works. They work particularly well for music videos; Jonathan Coulton fans like Spiffworld (who favors World of Warcraft) have created them for songs like "Tom Cruise Crazy," "Re: Your Brains," and "Mr. Fancy Pants."
  • An Israeli artist named "Kutiman" has created an entire album remixing YouTube videos. I can't even describe how amazing it is; you have to check it out for yourself.
  • The DIY crowd has started hacking the plastic controllers that come with games like Guitar Hero to create *real* instruments.
It makes one excited to see what the future will bring (or not, depending on which age demographic you fall into).

[Listen to the full Cornel West Lecture: "Hope on a Tightrope"].

The Relentless March of Radical Transparency: Polar Rose

Flickr's about to get more interesting.

Polar Rose, a new web application, can recognize faces in Flickr photos and tag them. I was wondering when this was finally going to happen (now I wonder how quickly it will be rolled out to other social media platforms like Facebook/MySpace). Now you can find all of those photos of you holding a corndog with your gut hanging out, unaware that you're standing behind a family taking a group photo at a the local street fair.

It's going to get a whole lot harder for people to lie about where they were in an era when a stray photo someone took from across the street that happened to catch you in the frame is suddenly part of the accessible permanent evidentiary record. Good or bad, it's the new reality of radical transparency.

Monday, April 20, 2009 Vindicated by Court Decision on Fair Use

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck a blow to students who were attempting to shut down the website/service (which allows faculty to compare the work submitted by their students to other established works as well as the works submitted by other faculty) with a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement.

The decision is a good one, because services like are valuable for faculty who are increasingly pressed for time and cannot interrogate every student they suspect of lifting material without attributing it. The phenomena is disappointingly-common (as I've found in my own personal experience) - usually as a result of naivete about the need to properly attribute cited material, but also too often as a result of graft on the part of services that buy and sell papers previously submitted by other students.

Services like have been successful enough that the services selling papers to lazy students have moved to specializing in custom-written papers that would elude detection (having not previously been submitted for a grade).

The students' concern about holding on to their work isn't completely without merit, however; one could envision a future incident where might try to profit from those papers if it were ever strapped for cash (say, by publishing them for other students as "study aids") - so it would be good to see the courts articulate some sort of provision that narrowly restricts the interpretation of this decision to the limited use of the archived papers to comparing them for plagiarism.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Domino's Pizza and the Life Cycle of Public Opinion

In the democratized, media-saturated era we live in incidents like the one that just happened to Domino's Pizza (where two employees, Kristy Hammonds and Michael Setzer, videotaped themselves doing a variety of unsanitary things to customer's orders) are inevitable. In fact, I can't believe that this hasn't happened more frequently.

The PR industry is wringing its hands over how to respond given how seemingly powerless large organizations are to stop these sorts of events. The solution is (as with many problems in the age of social media) transparency.

Here's a couple free suggestions for Domino's:
  • Install webcams in all of your 8,500 kitchens and broadcast them in real time on your website so that customers can go peek in on the happenings at their local pizzeria to assuage their fears that some douchenozzle is snorting the shredded cheese into their Chicken Bacon Ranch Oven-Baked Sandwich.
  • If you really want to do a good job of it - crowdsource enforcement: empower your customers by giving them the option to flag a section of video for further scrutiny (and possible criminal charges).
Given how cheap digital technology and cloud computing are, it likely won't cost that much and you can simultaneously 1) recover from the negative perception, 2) build credibility by following up a promise with concrete action, 3) get a hot, cheesy promotional slice of earned media for being the first major fast food chain to adopt this safety measure.

The best part is that there's really nothing startlingly-new about this approach; it's the same principle as putting the kitchen in a restaurant within view of the customers.

Even if Domino's did nothing but make sure the two miscreants end up on the business end of a lawsuit and criminal charges - that's likely enough to restore their bruised image. That's the way of the wired world: yes, it casts a spotlight on an organization's negatives - but people are more open-minded and forgiving than we give them credit for when it comes to considering the context of bad PR (especially if an organization has built up credit by operating above-board and generally doing the right thing on a daily basis).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

YouTube .EDU Hints at Possible Future of "Open Source Education"

YouTube's recent release of its ".EDU" site which features channels and content from educational institutions hints at a possible "open source" future for education (particularly higher education). Grand Rapids Community College has a thriving YouTube channel as a result of the excellent work done by our Media Technologies department (which produces content for the Grand Rapids Public Schools as well as a number of local colleges and universities).

In fact, GRCC is one of the heavyweights in the new YouTube EDU site (as others have noticed, including Time Magazine in a recent article titled "Logging on to the Ivy League"); it has more content up than Harvard and almost as much as MIT. Many of the four-year universities in Michigan don't even have YouTube channels.

Watching the potential of online courses leads me to this question: what is the difference between an online course and a traditional course? This question is important, because as online course content from top-tier universities is increasingly available for free through the web - they're going to offer some serious competition to other education institutions.

One of the things the web does best is to free people from the geographic bonds that hold them; you're no longer limited to the offerings at your local mall, dating pool, or social circles. The same is true of education.

I see a possible future where students from across the US (and around the world) take online courses from the best faculty at the best schools, and the role of regional higher education becomes to provide the necessary support services, lab space, proctoring and resources for those students to become credentialed.

That is to say, your semester (assuming there's still a need to keep rigidly-defined calendars, which is less and less likely) looks something like this:
  • You fill your class schedule this semester with an online Chemistry class from M.I.T., an online English class from Yale, an online Social Science class from U.C. Berkley, and an online Ethics class from Oxford.
  • You watch podcasted lectures, participate in collaborative group exercises with Google Apps, and interact with the faculty (or their graduate assistants) in immersive virtual environments.
  • Then, when it comes time for tutoring, lab experiments or testing/assessment - you head to Grand Rapids Community College for the one-on-one instructional support and hands-on learning (which is GRCC's true core competence as a "teaching" institution).
One particular aspect of that scenerio that is particularly promising in terms of creating a dramatic opportunity for regional education institutions is assessment. Currently the means we use to measure comprehension (standardized tests) are woefully-inadequate; they're inherently biased with respect to culture and learning styles - yet they're necessary in order to keep class sizes manageable while still being cost-effective.

If we're free of some of those time constraints - suddenly a dramatic window opens up for personalized, one-on-one interview-style assessments of one's ability to comprehend, master and think critically about course material.

The reasons this can't be the near future are rapidly eroding away - which means that it's an increasingly likely future. Something to consider.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Privacy in the Age of Social Media and Radical Transparency

Bruce Schenier at Wired wrote an excellent piece ("It's Time to Drop the 'Expectation of Privacy' Test") about the need to drop the "Expectation of Privacy" test currently used as the primary case law that determines the constitutionality of government action. He cites some of the analysis and proposed alternatives from Daniel Solove, Orin Kerr, and Jed Rubenfeld.

It is crucial that the US take concrete efforts to address this issue; more information is being created (in 2008, 4 exabites of unique information was generated - more than all of the data created in the preceeding 5,000 years), digitized and held (potentially indefinitely), this will only become an increasingly dire concern. This is especially true when one considers the spectre of a privatized federal intelligence-gathering infrastructure.

The problem becomes apparent, too, when one thinks of how defamation law works given the "public figure doctrine." Under the current model, private citizens are affored more protection than public figures. But what constitutes a "public figure" in the age of social media? Does simply creating a MySpace profile qualify? What about publishing a Twitter feed?

In the book Born Digital (which I'm reading), the authors (John Palfrey and Urs Gasser) run through the lifecycle of a child born today to illustrate how vastly more data is created and available about them than in any generation in history - and how decisions that will affect the rest of their lives are made without their consent by unwitting parents.

In the area of government and civil rights, there have already been abuses of the warrantless wiretapping power that the Bush Administration claimed for itself as the administration illegally wiretapped journalists and aid workers. Perhaps the solution to this lack of privacy is more transparency: what if we requried the federal government to publish online a list of all of its active surveillance investigations? The argument that such information should be protected because it would alert criminals/terrorists to the investigation is moot because they already assume this is the case, and this might dissuade the government from abusing its power.

In the area of social norms, we're running up on some terrible uses of existing criminal law with respect to privacy - like those protecting sensitive populations like minors as teenagers are being prosecuted for sending or holding nude photos of themselves. (These prosecutions pervert the spirit of these laws becuase they're in place to protect the victimized population; they're not meant to be applied when the victim is the perpetrator).

I'm increasingly convinced that the future lies not in restricting access to information, but in protecting society after the fact in a world where everything is transparent. We should be asking ourselves what we can do to render harmless private information about us that might be disclosed (because we must assume that it will be). What will this look like? It will change everything from how we validate identity, to how we educate/prepare children, and it will likely fundamentally alter our societal/cultural mores.