Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Machine Learning

I listened to the Khan Institute TED talk the other day, and can see how a system like that could be flexible enough to adapt to each individual learner while giving the teacher fantastically accurate feedback on where problems lie and how to address them. A future like that looks bright indeed. Teachers would be free to focus on resolving problems and offering enrichment to basic skill sets, rather than standing in front of a crowd reciting facts. For skills based learning in languages and mathematics, this is revolutionary. This is technology used to differentiate a system that has developed some very habitual and static tendencies.

So, things are looking up, right? Education is slowly adapting to the technology wave and integrating it into a more flexible and responsive form of teaching. Then why do I think that once in place, this would allow governments to automate classrooms and drastically reduce the number of teachers in schools? Why do I think that, ultimately, this will dehumanize education?

I watched Kenneth Clark's Civilisation recently (one of the top rated documentaries of all time, I highly recommend it). This has to be one of the smartest men I've ever listened to pulling no punches on a broad spectrum of Western history. This part (starting at 35:35), in particular, resonated with me about the times in which we live.

I think he's ultimately right; machines do work slavishly for their owners, and those owners tend to be social powers in their own rights. Whether we're talking the technology companies themselves, multi-nationals or governments, technology in general, and computers in particular, do as much (or more) to dictate our responses than they do to free us from conventions. If anything, computers are a more invasive and totalitarian convention than any art medium or the written word ever were. Digital natives aren't people with a magical understanding of computers, they are human beings who have been taught to interface with them on a subconscious level. The industrial revolution started in the physical world and now continues its romp through the mental world, redefining human abilities in terms of how accurately and completely we can relate to digital technology.

Watching my poor grade 10s struggling through the standardized literacy test (in which they are identified by numbers and bar codes) today without their cyborg implants is reminding me just how pervasive cybernetics have become. They looked like ghosts without their constant media streams of video, sound and social connection. Watching them try to deal with 10 minutes of unneeded time at the end of the test without an onslaught of media was astonishing. They looked like they were in rehab.

Perhaps, as we grow through technological adolescence, it will become obvious that, at best, we will have a brave new world, at worst, a 1984. Digital technology will, ultimately, create a more manageable population, one that becomes easier to monitor while also becoming instinctively tuned to the needs of the machines that 'serve' them. A population that knows how to write (as long as it's on WORD), or make music (as long as it's on Garageband). Anyone who has watched a herd of high schools staring at Facebook can speak to its effectiveness as a herding tool.

More worrying is the sameness you tend to get out of student work based on the particular technology they used (we didn't all used to self-identify through the editable parts of our facebook pages). Hand written documents are original in many ways that the boiler plate WORD DOC is not, but you ask students to hand write anything now (or draw anything - why bother when I can google it?) and they immediately ask, 'what's the point?' Presentations have become powerpoints, then prezis, templates replace design, we find ourselves in a spiraling web of more intellectually focused (and limiting) applications; we start to develop an app mentality.

Machines will always favor efficiency over aesthetics, or ease of management over originality, or clear direction over multiple options. Their ones and zeros, by necessity, simplify the world their biological fore bearers created them from.

A few years ago I saw EPIC2014. It made some of my sharpest grade 12 media students cry. Here you have the concept of an individualized media feed, that gives you what you want, and nothing else. For the brightest, it becomes a nuanced, deep information tool, but for most of the population it feeds them what they want to hear: lies and gossip, while reinforcing their prejudices (sort of like Fox News). There might be some truth in that. If you've ever seen how students make use of social media, you can see how the stronger students reign it in, make use of it and control it, while weaker students are ruled by it.

I think that this will be the ultimate deciding factor: will clever people make use of technology to dominate, or will they use it to free us from conventions and allow us to think as optimally as we can? Looking at human history, the answer isn't very flattering, but I hope for the freedom.


I know teachers get edgy when considering business theory for use in the classroom, but gamestorming in class seems like a sure thing. The problem with it is the breaking down of conventions around learning. We structure our classes on this stuff. Would a good gamestorm be acceptable in English class, or is it too artsy? Would it be acceptable in art class, or is it too text driven? Would it be ok in a music class if it wasn't entirely musical? That these questions get asked gives you an idea about how far we have come from playing with our ideas. We've cut thinking into arbitrarily compartmented piece work.

I love looking at Leonardo's sketch books. Write about it when it fits, sketch when it doesn't. When I look at those, I wonder what a modern Leonardo would do with modern media. Where we used to be limited by word and graphic on paper, we can now create virtual 3d spaces and plaster them with images, sounds, text, video, some, none or all of it interactive. I wonder how well a universal mind like that would operate in such a rich media environment and then finding itself in our school system with it's little buckets of knowledge, none of which should ever mix.

I know this is beginning to change. Being able to differentiate instruction and accept multiple paths to proof of broader understanding is happening, but slowly, in school. I still see (usually) older teachers resisting the mash up, saying it doesn't respect the discipline of the... um, discipline.

In the meantime, I keep asking myself; how can I see that they know what they're doing without falling back into the same old habits? The text trap is the worst of all, it carries with it a patina of academia. If it's in text, it must be academically rigorous and appropriately difficult. Anyone who still thinks this hasn't seem the time, energy and creativity my students have put into a media project.

Here is a copy of one of my favorite audio assignments from the beginning of the grade 10 media course. The instructions were loose (1-2 mins, tell an audio story, multiple sound tracks, original content only - no internet pilfering). This is only sound, yet what a story unfolds. This medium is all but ignored in typical school. Imagine being able to read an essay while hearing student spoken comments at various times - or accepting a sound/graphic mashup of brainstorming, instead of just text. The software exists for this to happen now, but the urge isn't there because we keep retreating to our buckets.

Instead of having the technology push us out of bad habits, why not let some new habits push the technology? We keep seeing tentative steps towards mixed media (I'm thinking Prezi, Ning and Googledocs), but no bold changes in how we think. The ultimate change would be to forget what 200 years of scientific compartmentalizing has done and kick open possibility in thinking.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Copyright is sticky business

I read this which led me to this, which made me want to write this: (!)

Copyright is a sticky business. More often than not it isn't the artist that is being protected by copyright so much as the distribution company that owns the rights. The music industry is still trying to get itself out of being a manufacturing and distribution concern, which is where the copyright habits we've developed with music started.

When you've got to justify stamping millions of CDs to make music financially viable, the focus shifts from the artist to the manufacturing/distribution system (where big infrastructure costs exist). In order to protect this distribution system, a robust, aggressive and quite jackassey legal specialization developed that has nothing whatsoever to do with the art it claims to protect.

It seems we've arrived at an age where an artist can be stimulated by influences and then effectively prevent anyone else from evolving ideas out of them. The Beatles, perhaps one of the biggest offenders in this, freely stole ideas and even whole pieces of music from the black R&B musicians in the US that proceeded them. Later in their careers they made art by evolving influences from Indian and other world music as well. They then aggressively locked down the rights to the art they freely took from other people.

It seems that Boomers are unique in many ways, not the least of which is their self-claimed right to take everything that came before them and own it entirely forever. US copyright has led this erosion of artistic license for many years, continually expanding and pursuing the entertainment industry's right to own a piece of music, eventually (they hope) forever.

One of my favorite cautionary tales is Sita Sings The Blues. An artist going through a breakup creates an animated piece that integrates the 1920s music she is listening to at the time with an ancient Indian myth and her own relationship disaster. It's very thoughtfully done. Give it a look if you've never seen it before. The details are on the website, but here's the summary: when she went to get the copyright for the 1920s recordings (long out of copyright) that she wanted, she discovered a copyright law firm (one of many that buy up copyright-passed, older material) contacted her back and wanted a quarter of a million dollars for songs they didn't own by an artist they never represented.

This is the state of copyright nowadays: a savage wasteland of corporate vultures looking to pick the bones clean of any work of artistic merit. It's a completely unsustainable system that stifles art and kills creativity. Had Shakespeare been alive now, he would not have been able to publish any of his work (almost all of which borrowed heavily from proceeding material). Corporate vultures would have swooped in and killed Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth or Hamlet stone dead.

I make no bones about artists being able to make a living from their work, I'm an artist myself. My hope is that digitization of the workflow will free us from the vultures that have been feeding (and killing) the artistic process for the past 60 years.

Many artists are beginning to push content directly to fans. Courtney Love famously once said, "I work for tips" when she was talking about how little she made from CD sales. Doing tours made more, but even live performance requires covering a lot of hangers on.

The irony in all of this is that the music industry claims to be the protector and savior of music, yet it is the very thing stifling creativity, and it's doing it to protect an archaic manufacturing system that barely exists any more.

Ok, so after all that? I think NerdyTeacher's blog is a great opportunity for Taylor to step into a new era and develop fan based appreciation through Twitter and social networking. Those students, and the people who see the performance will know of her willingness to share her art. What I fear is that she isn't the one to make this decision. A legal firm representing her music industrial complex will make that decision, and it won't go well.

Thanks to @dougpete and @TheNerdyTeacher (and twitter) for the impetus to write!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Biological Education & Hot Groups

I've been to two Minds On Media events, at ECOO in October and the OELC Conference this past February. Both times I've been surprised by the response from teachers regardless of their technical prowess. Tech skills weren't the arbitrating force, curiosity was. The people who were involved in it found themselves working in their ZPD, and felt supercharged by the experience. So much of schooling involves crowd control rather than trying to get students into that zone of proximal development. So much teaching revolves around control, rather than encouraging self directed learning.

When I first attended MoM, the event reminded me of a gardener creating fertile ground, but having the sense not to micromanage the growing/learning. I suspect there is a truth in this that applies to all education. Whether you want to call it student centred or skills based or what have you, education isn't a mechanical/mathematical process, it's a biological one. Events like Minds On Media recognize this by empowering the learners (and the instructors) and giving them the freedom to move within a rich learning environment to where they think they need to be.

Most of the PD I experience exists in a mechanical process that alienates teachers and makes them resentful. This approach is used because administration is more concerned with a disciplined environment (that crowd control mentioned above) that ensures full participation even if it is entirely passive, than it is with presenting memorable content. When the learning takes a back seat to crowd control, you know the results aren't going to be pretty. In fact, they're going to look at lot like...

The other thing that's been bouncing around in my head is the idea of hot groups. I know many educators shy away from business approaches, calling them corporate and such, but this one is anything but corporate. Hot Groups recognize a fundamental truth about how people work together. In a hot group members will do work well beyond what is expected or required, simply for the joy of having it received as valuable within the group. In my own case, I recently did a hot group thing for our little cloud working group, I made a group logo and people dug it. It's an insider thing, only a few will appreciate it, but it builds team and even surprised me with a level of commitment (the fact that everyone wanted a t-shirt was what gave me the biggest buzz about it).

I've seen this happen time and again with students. As I type this I have my grade 12s putting together a network of computers using many different OSes. Some of them haven't done it before, others have, but are unfamiliar with the OSes I've provided them with (Red Hat Linux Server, Ubuntu Server, Windows Home Server, Ubuntu Desktop, Win7, XP and Vista). Listening to them talk, they are telling anecdotal stories of failed OS installs, upgrades that led to game failures due to compatibility issues and all sorts of other OS related experiences, all while working through multiple installs. This may look disorganized and inefficient, I'd argue that it's the opposite. Those students are creating context that I would not have imagined trying in a top down lesson on OS installs, and they're doing it while creating a sense of group coherence (made even more amazing when you realize that three of the ten of them in there are usually sequestered away in the autism learning class). Those guys came out of there, having installed half a dozen OSes during the period, and they'd also made this (a classic example of a hot group surprise - they were very keen to give me a copy when the class ended).

If you think that has nothing to do with what they were supposed to be doing, you're determined to force human relationships, and the learning the goes on within them into a linear, mechanical process. Those guys did many things that period that I hadn't intended, as well as most of the things I had. On aggregate, I'd suggest that they weren't limited by their teacher's knowledge of them, their own risk aversion to failure (installing unknown OSes), or a need to overly control the learning. The result is a non-judgmental, rich learning environment that encouraged creativity and constructive peer support. The team building that happened in there today will be something I can continue to develop for the rest of the semester.

If I can create that environment, I do. If a hot group grows out of it, I'm over the moon. You'll seldom experience a better teacher rush than the one you do when a hot group wows you with what you weren't expecting.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

DIY Electrical Generation Should Be A Mandated Future

Everyone is wringing their hands over the disaster in Japan, questioning nuclear energy (usually while using it to power their computers to post complaints about it). I'm a fan of nuclear energy, but it does come with risks, especially when you hit well run facilities with a massive earthquake and then a ten metre wall of water. In these circumstances, a disaster is immanent.

If we really want to deal with our electrical dependency, we need to change the way we're using it. We only develop industrial scale electrical generation to keep prices artificially low and hide the costs of generating it. Don't think it's hidden? Do you have a nuclear/fossil fuel fired/wind farm generating system near you? If you do, you don't think it's hidden.

Eventually, what you want is locally generated electricity. If this is done on small, local scales, it doesn't have to be painful. The NIMBYism that surrounds generation is because industrial scale operations are planted in people's back yards. A personal wind collector isn't that big a deal, dozens of three hundred foot tall towers are.

Conservation shouldn't be a choice, it should be a standard. From the existing infrastructure, a cap of 100kWh/person/month in a residence could be a starting point. We need existing infrastructure to maintain this standard for us. That means continuing to use nuclear and fossil fuel generators If you want to generate your own after that, you'd have first dibs on using it (it would be added to your total usable amount). Whatever you don't use in a month is refunded back to you. A family of three who generates 200KWhs a month would be able to live much as we do now (we average about 500kWh a month in a 1700 sq ft house in Canada). A dozen solar panels on the roof would exceed this if well placed and maintained. Our neighbor has just done this very thing, they are making more electricity than they use in a month now. Three houses could share the cost and maintenance of a small scale wind generator and live at current consumption levels comfortably.

This is with existing technology. Future technology in both concentrated solar and lighter than air wind turbines that hang above the boundary layer of air are much more efficient. Focused solar produces stunning amounts of energy in a short time, and the lighter than air wind turbine resolves many of the problems surrounding noise, while at the same time making use of the more constant and efficient air streams above the turbulent air that flows over the ground.

A mandated push into self generated electricity would put an end to industrial scale mega projects (nuclear, wind farm, fossil fuel burning or otherwise). The problem we have is that we want other people to do all the work to generate electricity out of sight and out of mind. We take no responsibility in what we consume and then complain about how it's all being done. In many cases we're completely ignorant of how these systems work, and after reading the panicky comments on the internet this week, I've realized many people are happy to live in fear and ignorance of nuclear power generation, as long as their bills are low. How someone can attack nuclear power generation while using it to power their house and post stupid comments on the internet is an irony or our times. It's time we started taking responsibility for what we are using.

Decentralizing the electrical system means making a system that is less a one way delivery system from industry to consumer, and more a web of interconnected users and generators. This smart grid would encourage and make use of locally developed energy generation. Even if you aren't using your solar at a given moment, you could be using your neighbor's wind or locally developed hydro. By using local sources the losses in transmission fall dramatically. Our current industrial/remote generation model loses about 6.5% of the energy produced to transmission. The further you have to transmit, the more you lose. Those long transmission systems are the sources of failure in ice storms and what over heat when energy use is too much. Transmission is our greatest single point of failure (though generation is giving it a run for its money in the news this week).

Until we take responsibility for generating at least some of the energy we want to use, we will keep making massive, industrial scale power generators that cause local problems. Taking the money spent on new, large projects and applying to locally generated power is a first step. Not forcing industrial scale energy production just because it's sustainable (a question in itself), but truly democratizing energy production. Existing infrastructure could be modernized and eventually downsized as the power grid becomes decentralized, more efficient and a true multi-directional conduit for us to share our power amongst ourselves.

In that future, Japan would have had fewer nuclear power plants operating when the tsunami hit, locals in Wellington county wouldn't be upset over heavy handed provincial plans to force massive wind farms on them, and, ultimately, we'd pour money into the companies that are doing R&D on more efficient solar and wind systems. That future might have solar energy collecting windows in every home, focused solar collectors that rise out of the ground every morning and disappear at night, and turbines hanging in the steady winds hundreds of metres up, constantly generating in a small but sustainable way.

There is no doubt that large scale electrical production still needs to occur. Nuclear systems need to become even more efficient, and eventually lead to fusion and other more advanced energy systems. We learn a lot from generating nuclear energy (more than we do from doing what cavemen did on an industrial scale by burning fossil fuels). What we learn from those big projects might eventually lead us to orbiting energy production and other space based solutions.

Even at its best, a massive population centre would have trouble keeping up with demand. Businesses are by far the largest energy hogs. Stories last summer about stores leaving their doors open and air conditioning on full blast so customers would be enticed in on a hot day are representative of how businesses don't think about conservation. A 100kWh/1000 sq/ft/month limit, unless they begin to generate their own, would be a start. Having much larger roofs, these stores could easily produce much more electricity if they wished, and perhaps they'd be a bit more reticent about flushing it out the door on a hot day if they were paying properly for it.

If we could begin the process of diversification by demanding legislation that requires an energy network rather than a distribution system (this is already happening), and encourages people to take on the responsibility of at least some of their own energy generation and consumption, then at least we'd be moving in a better direction than our current one of ignorance, fear and NIMBYism.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Lunch in San Francisco

One Whacky Timeline:

12:46am our time: worst earthquake in Japanese history happens.

1:55am Fri Mar 11: woke up before the alarm and got ready. 3.5 hours of sleep, not bad.

2:30: On way with Roy by 2:30,on way to get Oliver

3:00: in Guelph, on our way to Pearson

4:00: at Terminal 1 meeting students and parents

4:30: printing tickets and checking luggage. No one has a phone because we're all worried about horrific stories of cell phone charges from overseas trips

5:30: lined up in customs (no cell phones allowed anyway)

6:15: cleared customs with front end students, got food, went to the departure gate. The United Airlines floor manager is there. He had seen our group on the computer and had gotten out front, trying to find out if flights are still going in and how bad things are.

6:45: Our Narita plane is enroute to San Francisco (SFO) and will be ready to return when we land. We get on the Toronto to San Fran flight because of this.

9:30: Enroute, our (fantastic) flight attendant was on the radio to SFO, they confirmed that Narita is receiving flights, the damage is localized in the north.

Notes from the plane:

Rumours of an earthquake/tsunami in the ticket line – one agent said we were crazy to be taking kids into that, thought she was talking about the quake from a couple of days ago.

Through ticket line and into big customs line, cleared customs, got most expensive food ever and got to the San Francisco flight to see the CBC news images of the tsunami hitting North East Japan. Seemed terrible. Talked to the floor manager who was already there to intercept us knowing our final destination.

At 7am, Narita was open for flights and we were ok to board for the SanFran flight, so we did.

About 2 hours into the flight the attendant came up and told us that our plane wasn't there. Unclear information about what's happening and no access to news.

About an hour later, he came back to say our connecting plane made it out of Osaka and would be there for us in SanFran. It's currently 11:47, about 4.5 hours into the first flight and above the Rockies. Currently we believe that Tokyo is open, Narita is open and we have a plane to take us there. Damage was mainly due to tsunami along the North East coast, and we are heading south after the Tokyo days at the beginning.

Will write again when we're on the ground and know more. Will try to contact school with updated info (get on wireless in SFO).

12:50 (9:50local): We land in SFO and head over to the international gate immediately to find out what's going on. The 747 is fueled and ready to go, Narita is receiving planes, no information whatsoever on damage in Tokyo, other than that the mass transit had been closed for several hours and is now operating again.

1:15 (10:15local): Finally get in touch with our tour group - they have been contacted by the board and we are being recalled. Students very disappointed, tears in the airport. We're trying to balance keeping them on their feet and working out what we're supposed to be doing now (we're told we're flying back, but no one at the airport knows anything about this).

1:45 (10:45local): We have a return flight in 2 hours. I call my wife, Alanna and my VP, Francis and get some clarity. Then I take some students to eat (the flight to SFO did not include a meal - the return flight didn't either).

3:00 (12pm local): We're at the departure gate of the return flight trying to get tickets printed. Computers aren't cooperating, general confusion, but it finally gets worked out and we get the tickets.

4:00 (1pm local): we're on the return flight getting ready to depart.

9:00pm: landing at Pearson. Clear customs immediately (unlike US customs, Canada customs actually hires enough people to process passengers in less than two hours).

9:30pm: parents pick up students and we stand there stunned.


Watching the news Saturday morning, I have no doubt that Northern Japan around Sendai is a disaster. We weren't going there, but many people think of Japan as one place. If you heard that there was severe flooding in Montreal, would you not fly to Toronto that day?

We tried to act on facts relevant to what we were doing and where we were going. I wish we'd have had more and earlier contact with the tour group, but we were trapped in US customs, surrounded by ABSOLUTELY NO CELL PHONES USE signs, for the better part of 2 hours right when we needed to be in contact with them. Had we been enjoying the efficiency of Canada customs, we probably would never have gotten on the first flight to SFO.

The lack of cell phones on the trip because of all the travel horror stories didn't help. Don't know that cell phone access would have helped, but we're more likely to be able to do this than we are able to ask US customs at Pearson airport to actually respond to the busiest travel day of the year by opening up all of their stalls (less than half were open, the line went on for ever). Their indifference was staggering.

The news is sensational. Watching it the day after, the same pieces of the most exceptional footage. If I see one more stunned English teacher in Tokyo throwing around terms like "melt down" as if they know what they're talking about, I'm going to pop. People keep saying 3 Mile Island or Cherynoble - two nuclear disasters caused by incompetence and poor management. What you're seeing here is just how resilient and safe nuclear plants can be. These were hit by a freaking tsunami and one of the largest earthquakes in history, and they are contained, and any flooding and damage will be managed with Japanese efficiency. I really wish the news would stop skyping with wild eyed idiots with no background or knowledge of nuclear power generation and taking their sketchy opinions as fact, just because they live in Japan.

I suspect that in the next week, this will fall out of the 24 hour news cycle, when that happens no one will care any more. The nuclear plants are locked down and cooling, the damage up north is surreal, but it will get sorted out. I'll be really surprised that if, in a week or two, Japan isn't normalized and life in 95% of the country isn't back to normal.

The field trip being recalled was the right move. You don't bring other people's children into such uncertainty. Ultimately, some students, many of whom hadn't traveled internationally, got the chance to cross the continent, and return. Students were miserable, but perhaps learned the greatest life lesson: through no fault of your own, sometimes, circumstances will take from you what you most want. Learning how to deal with will be one of the most valuable things they ever learn.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Facebook vs Twitter: the epic showdown

Like everyone else, I got into Facebook. Never the pointless flash games, but as a place to share photos with family and friends, it worked for me. It also allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends who are far away. Recently though, with the constant addition of new 'friends' many of whom aren't, I find myself staring at news-feeds of people I couldn't care less about, and, in some cases, I wouldn't recognize if I passed them on the street. One day, after spending ten minutes trying to find a comment from someone I genuinely thought about often, I simply switched it off.

A couple of months ago I started using Twitter at a computers in education conference ( I'd tried Twitter a couple of times and it hadn't caught - I couldn't see the point in it, but this conference turbocharged the tweets. Following flash mobs to prizes, getting well researched links and ideas from other teachers, backchanneling in presentations... I got hooked.

Twitter is like facebook in that it's a social networking tool, but without the social dead-weight. Follow who you want and lurk, or twit away. If people enjoy it, word spreads and you get a posse. Keep grooming who you follow. After a while it's a steady stream of people you really enjoy reading. Twitter's not about you in the herd, it's about customizing a herd FOR you.

The teacher angle has let me build a PLN, personal learning network. Recently, at another conference, I ran into people I'd been tweeting with over several months. It felt like we already knew each other, but only in a certain way. Filling in the blanks was a wonderful experience, and a great opportunity to pick and choose new people to follow.

I'm still only 6 months into twitter. I've dropped more people than I now follow, and I suspect that I'll top out at about 100, and constantly be grooming out filler. I'm interested in following thoughts and developing PLN, not seeing what a celebrity thinks (rare exceptions: @naomiklien, for obvious reasons, @stephenfry because he broadcasts intelligently).

Twitter feels intimate and direct, while at the same time letting me broadcast far and wide. The idea that it's somehow limiting in scope is inaccurate as well. Twitter and blogs go together like 3 pound lobsters and butter. You can point to deeper thinking in a blog post, or to presentations and mind maps in Prezi, or photos on any number of photo sharing sites (or mashups and collages on glogster, etc etc). Twitter gives you the sign posts, aggregated by the people you trust to follow, and allows you to reciprocate for them.

I just culled the facebook herd and I'm finding it somewhat useful again, but I'm waiting for the blowback from in-law cousin's husbands who want to know why we're no longer friends. We never were dude.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

an immanent disruption

We're on the verge of a market change due to digital distribution, very similar to what happened in the music industry a decade ago. Just as music changed from a manufactured, industrial medium (CDs) to a digital, fluid medium (mp3s), text books (and books in general, but especially texts because of the ludicris overhead) will begin to 'leak' digitally.

As the means to access digital texts becomes more available, the medium will force a change in how distribution occurs. Because (like the music industry before them) the text book publishing industry has a huge industrial infrastructure they have to try and continually justify, they will not adapt to the new means of text transmission. Disruption is immanent and unavoidable.

"This certainly doesn't mean the end of the traditional textbook, but if the existing publishers follow the footsteps of other industries in trying to resist this disruption rather than adapt to it, expect plenty of angry stories about the evils of internet "piracy," with little recognition that piracy isn't the problem at all."

Already open source publications have started to appear.

The text book publishing industry has fed at great expense from the public (and private) school systems almost since the beginning. The change of transmission medium poses some interesting challenges for teachers, but also many opportunities for authors and editors, especially in locally developed courses. Without having to carry massive printing and shipping costs, and all the sales and marketing infrastructure that has to force it into a high volume industry to stay financially viable, text books could easily be developed at very local levels quite affordably. Ministries could share resources across common curriculum and the results would be locally grown content that fits our specific needs. No more mass market American focused text books that we have no choice but to buy into. The elearning system has already proven the viability of this.

Academics have long peer edited, reviewed, assessed and produced their own literature. Teachers are more than capable of doing the same, and I know many who would happily take a period in a semester to build a new e-text for board or provincial distribution. In house, without the weight of paper publication attached, educational texts could become much more current and specifically designed for student needs, much as the OERB and elearning courses have been written by Ontario teachers for Ontario students. In many cases, that same material could be re purposed to an e-text format without having to reinvent the wheel. Because the material is owned communally and locally, it could easily and often be updated and maintained for continuous consumption. Following the idea of a modular text book, teachers could even assemble specific material in a specific order prior to beginning their class - a digital version of those booklets you used to buy from professors with the selected readings bound in them.

No more 15 year old texts warning of the impending release of Windows XP, no more mold, no more focuses on other countries because our choices simply didn't offer a Canadian equivalent.

This is my kind of disruption.

To push things along, I'm presenting an ereader pilot tomorrow at our heads' meeting. We're hoping to see where the technology is and how etexts might work in the classroom. There's nothing worse than being on the wrong side of the fence when everything changes. Go look up one of the modern history texts in your school this week and find the chapter on the recent collapse of the iron curtain, and you'll see why.

Want to see a future text book? Have a look here. Whether it's ipads, Knos, laptops, PDAs or one of a million variations on the Android tablet, we're on the verge of making digital content easier to access than paper based content. The education system, the main source of income for this fumbling giant, will need to find a better way as it collapses, and collapse it will. No one invested in billions in infrastructure and decades of consistent market place dominance will even know how to begin to adapt, even if what they are doing is wasteful, expensive and self serving.