The Future of the Book

Often, I post links to articles on Facebook, not because I’ve read them, but because I want to read them. I put them there to remind myself to go back to read them later when I have time. Fairly often I forget to ever go back to them, or enough people comment on them before I get around to reading that I almost feel as if I have read and formed my own opinion.

I made an exception for an article on “Enhanced ebooks” today and actually did read it after posting.

I even followed up by going into the iPad app store and looking up one of the books mentioned in the article. Unfortunately, I am on a financial diet this month due to a couple of extra and pesky little bills. $12.99 might not seem like much, but every dollar counts when you’re on a diet.

Instead of purchasing it, I did the next best thing and looked it up the “book trailer” on YouTube.

There, don’t you too feel you’ve practically read the book by now?

I’m excited to see people actually trying to make the book something new rather than just delivering the same kind of book on a new device. Wake me up when textbooks start looking like this. That’s sort of what I keep hoping I’ll see every time I review a new way to go about ebooks for college. Textbooks are just different. They don’t look like this yet, nor do the vast majority of the ebooks being sold right now to the voluntary book worms.

But they will. This is just the start. In a year or two everything will be new again.

Playing tennis without a ball (The Diet, Day 18)

I realize I’ve harped for a few days about my new Wii, but I think that’s okay.  It’s a harp-worthy topic…at least to me.

Probably every poet in the free world can quote you the Robert Frost line about free verse being like playing tennis without a net.  I have to admit that I always wondered what was so wrong with that.  Me and three quarters of the poets of the free world.

Regardless, I’ve developed a fascination this week for the idea of playing tennis without a ball.  There is a ball, but it’s imaginary.  You’re just swinging a remote control around in the air to make the ball move on the screen.  This is perfect.  I don’t know why it never occurred to me before to sally forth with a racket and no ball.  I could have been playing tennis for years if there were no ball to hit.  The ball was always the problem for me.

A friend of mine recently posted that she was outing herself as a diabetic.  I thought how brave and wonderful she was to say that for all of the internets to see.  I wondered how brave and wonderful I was willing to be.  So here goes.  My name is Sharon, and I have rheumatoid arthritis.

But that’s not what this post is about.  That’s just a necessary detail to move me along on my Wii tennis story.  I’m 42, and I’ve known about the arthritis for most of my adult life.  It’s okay.  It just means that I don’t adapt well to real sports.  My injuries don’t just stop by to visit.  They sign a lease and then make trouble about vacating when their time is up.

I envision myself as an outdoor person.  I envision myself playing tennis and basketball and volleyball and soccer.  But then I’m a poet, and imagination and reality sort of work out best for me the more disparate they really are.  I am just not a sports person anywhere other than inside my head.

Nor have I had much luck with aerobics classes.  I’ve joined classes I’ve loved at various points in my life.  And there are times when I get along with aerobics okay for weeks or even months on end.  But you see, if you have rheumatoid arthritis, you don’t just continually get more and more fit the more you exercise.  You have setbacks.  Some to greater degrees than others.  Your setbacks have setbacks.  You become a cycle of setbacks.  And then you give up for a time, and that just makes everything worse.  Whatever else happens, moving on along to engage in that cycle of setbacks is the best you can do.  It means you are still using all of your moving parts, and that is a brave and wonderful thing.

And so I come to what playing tennis without a ball means to me.  I love it.  It’s a real game against an opponent, not just a repetitive loop of a TV aerobics teacher.  I can win or lose.  I can see statistics on how well I’m playing.  I can set goals for myself.  And if I have sometimes felt like an otter in a sea of French poodles when I’ve tried to go to aerobics classes, at home in my living room I can embrace my inner otter if I want.  But best of all, there is no impact, and therefore there is no pain.

Better than best of all, I have loosened up the stiffness in my shoulders and elbows considerably in just a few days of playing Wii sports, and playing quite badly I might add.

I feel like I’ve found a way to move forward, and those footholds on forward aren’t always easy to locate.

Anyone’s study of the human body would tell you that more data than can be collected in just a few days is necessary to discern the trends from the flukes, but I don’t care about that right now.  I care about the fact that I’m starting out a school year feeling like I have it in me to pull myself together enough to not just endure but prevail.

I spent money I shouldn’t have on this Wii.  It’s the best shouldn’t have I’ve squandered away since buying my stress reducing digital camera.

People seem to disagree on how many calories can actually be burned this way.  Possibly I’m burning no more than I would standing around talking with my hands to friends.  But that’s just not what this is about.

And she says Wii, Wii, Wii all the way home (The Diet, Day 12)

I woke up this morning to the realization that I had to buy a Wii.  Strictly for medical purposes, you understand.  School starts for me on Monday, and something has to control my stress levels and keep me motivated to stick with a fitness plan.  Treadmills are fine for what they do, but treadmills are boring.

Stress relief.  Exercise.  Not boring.  Something I can do indoors because it is still too hot to move outside.  Something I will want to do when I come home from work in the afternoons.  Something that burns at least more calories than sitting on the couch.

I had to think about these criteria for about 10 seconds before I found myself in Best Buy.

Me:  I want that Wii.

BB Geek:  Would you like to pay $30 extra to have the Geek Squad set it up for you?

Me:  I don’t need a geek.  I have a teenage nephew.

My nephew is now the owner of some sort of fake automated weaponry, by the way.  I’m not sure how that became an added cost of the Wii, but everything does have its price.

I am officially the worst Wii player in the history of Wiiers.  That’s good.  I won’t be so good I bore myself any time soon.

In other news, I stuck to the diet all day long except for the tiny sliver of birthday cake I consumed from, you know, an innate sense of obligation.  I burned that off yelling at my nephew for laughing at my Wii skills.

For the love of the iPad

I’ve been asked to give a 45 minute talk next week on the iPad in education. I have about 30 seconds worth of stuff to say on that, so it occurs to me that I might need to devote some time today to thinking about it.

I’ve been reading some of Steven Krause’s posts about the iPad. He has good links and good points to make. That’s helpful, but I’m still not sure what to say. I think maybe I’ll just plug the iPad into a projector and spend 45 minutes saying, “Oh lookie here…pretty stuff.”

My main thought after that is that it’s about a year too soon to be able to really say what the iPad can do for the classroom because the applications that we’ll all be most likely to find useful are still being developed. This thing only come out in April, and no one knew what it would look like until it arrived.

That said, maybe I have a thought or three…30 seconds worth of them if I’m lucky.

1. Instant access. The web has developed into an instant access machine, and the iPad only highlights the desire we’ve all developed to acquire our information and entertainment via the microwave method as opposed to the slow cooker method. I can get books, movies, music, audio books, and games all in an instant just by touching a spot on the screen. That’s addictive, and it is, I think, the way our students will expect their courses to be delivered–not just with Burger King’s “have it your way” offer, but we drive by their houses and don’t keep them waiting while we fumble around rolling our windows down.

2. Device synchronization. It’s not about the iPad instead of a laptop or the iPad instead of a smart phone. It’s about the iPad in addition to those other devices. It’s not about figuring out how we can do the same things differently on a different device. It’s about figuring how we can do new things on a different device. It’s also about figuring how to make what we’re already doing workable in a cross platform world. Already, I have had to figure out how to sync my work when I do some of it at home, some of it in the office, and some of it in the library. Now I’ll be figuring out how to do some of it, not just from another computer, but from another type of computer altogether.

3. Mobile access. Yes, this is just a reiteration of #1 and #2. Devices like iPads and smart phones mean that we need to make anything we deliver electronically to students accessible through mobile technologies. That doesn’t mean we’re replacing the lab computers for these pocket gadgets. It just means that the students are going to want to have full access to their course materials whether they are in the school lab, on their home laptops, or standing in line at Walmart, holding an iPhone. It’s a fast food nation.

4. Use the tools, Luke. Use the tools. No one teacher has to invent new ways to deliver content to the iPad, nor do they have to wait for textbook companies to sell them products made for iPad. Plenty of free online tools have already figured this out. WordPress, the software that powers this blog, for example, is very mobile friendly, and the site Scribd is my favorite new place to post class content because it offers easy document publishing as well as multiple download formats.

So there’s my 30 seconds on the iPad. More later if I think up another few seconds worth of stuff to say.

Reading and Cleaning, Partly

I’ve been trying to convince myself I enjoy housework by playing an audio book while I saunter about the house making pretenses at improving the general situation. What I can say for this method is that I’m making more progress than I would be sitting on the couch watching TV. I go through the motions, and sometimes I actually sweep or unload the dishwasher, but my mind is on the story.

This is a great way to sort of clean. I highly recommend it.

Yes, it was only yesterday that my column about stepping back from all the gadgets appeared in the newspaper. Gadgets aren’t really the problem, though. It’s the fragmented lifestyle they represent.

We tend to absorb only pieces of information. We read only pieces of articles, and so many people never read books at all.

Multitasking can be good if it allows you to absorb larger pieces of information and more sustained patterns of thought.

There is a school of thought, though, that says there is no such thing as multitasking. People might rapidly switch back and forth between doing two things, but they are still doing them one at a time.

Others might say that even if they are doing more than one thing at once, they aren’t giving either activity their best attention.

Listen to Linda Stone talk about the concept of continuous partial attention:

Linda Stone at Gel 2006 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

You can learn more about Stone and her ideas about continuous partial attention on her blog.

I’m aware that this is what I’m doing when I read and clean. I’m doing two things at once, with my attention distracted away from both.

I can read a book faster than I can listen to it. I could certainly clean a house faster without allowing my mind to focus on something else.

The gadget life has led me to believe that I ought to do both at once. Because I can.

This isn’t a bad thing. I “read” a lot of books this way. I don’t get that much housework done, but it wasn’t being done anyway. I’m at least not completely sedentary. I’m doing something all the time.

But there are consequences too. I’m training myself to listen in this way…while I am doing something else. Thus, it is difficult for me to have a face-to-face conversation without doing something else while I listen. It’s nearly impossible for me to sit through a meeting if I don’t have something else to do. I take a notebook with me because people will think I am being rude if I mess around with my phone too much during a meeting, but they will just think I’m taking notes if I fiddle with a notebook.

My life hasn’t always been this way. I’ve adjusted and adapted over time to the technologies that have entered my life. I’ve changed the way I listen over time. One day I might think through what that means. Right now I’m processing photographs, listening to the above video, and answering text messages as I try to think of a way to end this post.

If you have read this far, way to pay attention.

As for me, I do want more time spent with the real and less time spent with the technologically contrived. I also want a Bose docking station for my iPod. Surely, with slightly higher sound quality, I’ll finally get my life under control.

Today's Column

From the Hattiesburg American.

A FEW DAYS AGO I sat in Starbucks wishing I had my camera with me.

A line of people formed, all waiting to order lattes, all looking down at phones rather than ahead toward whatever people watched while in line before ubiquitous text messaging.

The symmetry of the scene would have framed well for a photograph. It also framed well into my own sense of social irony.

It reminded me of a book I’ve been reading, “You Are Not a Gadget” by Jaron Lanier, the basic premise of which is that too much of the wrong kind of technological engagement erodes the human spirit.

A steady stream of fragmentary information and fragmentary communication dehumanizes social interaction and makes people mean and crazy.

They go along with the hive mind and pursue mob crusades which often are hostile in nature.

Lanier has a point. You don’t have to look very far to find examples of mob behavior online tending toward shallow and cruel.

His is just one of a number of books out lately questioning the human consequences of too much technology.

Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” was just released this week. Carr is also the author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This was an article published two years ago in “The Atlantic” that received enormous attention, enough at least to have its own Wikipedia page.

Carr says our brains are actually changing to accommodate technological saturation and not in a good way. We’re shallower and more easily distracted, and this can be measured at even the neurological level. Disturbing stuff.

I did read Carr’s article and his Wikipedia page. I have not yet read his book because it was not available for Kindle. When I realized I couldn’t acquire it with one push of one button on the gadget in hand, I moved on to become just another of the shallows.

Man makes machine. Machine threatens man. This is a familiar plot. We tell it over and over and have since the Industrial Revolution spawned an age of Romantic poetry and the monster Frankenstein.

Questioning anything that overtakes society at such a rapid rate as technological change is necessary and good. We do need to step back from the gadgets sometimes and remember our humanity.

I’ll do that tomorrow. My iPad just arrived.

The iPad, Day 2

Today I wrote a column about the downside of excess gadgetry. I sent it off and left for the office carrying a bag that contained an iPad, an HP net book, an iPhone, and an iPod. I’m just the preacher here, not the practicer.

I haven’t spent that much time with the iPad. I’ve been trying not to go online any more than I have to. I really do need at least a partial technological sabbatical. It’s a matter of personal sanity.

Somehow, though, in the day of not playing with the iPad, I’ve filled up nearly a whole page with new apps, and I’ve acquired several books in both the iBook and Kindle formats.

I’m typing this in the WordPress iPad app, which works like a charm. The biggest problem I’ve had typing on the ipad so far has been in convincing the cats not to get in the way.

The only real conclusion I’ve come too, though, is that I prefer the Kindle books to the iBook books for those that are just plain text. Books with pretty pictures are probably another matter.

I’ve also changed the background on the Kindle reader to sepia because the bright white seemed to irritate the eyes after a while.

Currently, I am reading a Bill Bryson book, the title of which I forget. Something about the history of everything. My friend Tammy suggested it, and I downloaded it on the spot. She said it brought things down to where even the goats could get it. It does seem to make complicated science funny, interesting, and understandable.

And at this point I can tell you the difference in typing a blog post on the computer and typing it on the iPad (aside from the smaller keyboard). I have no idea how to add any formatting to this post. What you see is what you get. Ah, well.

iPads and iDeals

I have an iPad. I have one in my possession at any rate. Technically it belongs to the school, but it has just been synched with my iTunes account, and I’ve just purchased some stuff for it in the app store. I’ve had it for a couple of hours now, and already the line between what is mine and what is theirs is blurring.

I am typing this post from my iPad. I don’t know yet what role I think this will play in the future of education, but it sure is fun to consider the possibilities.

I was in the right place at the right time today to learn that the iPads had arrived. I believe I was the third person at the school to get my hands on one today, though I may have been as low on the list as fifth. And whatever he says don’t believe I took mine days ahead of other people on the iPad team because I staged a sit-in at John Carter’s feet. It was more like his elbow, and it was a minor sit-in only.

A few paragraphs in now…it’s my pleasure to report that typing on the touch screen keyboard is not really awkward at all. I still think I will keep this short so that I can devote my time to downloading apps,though. Anyone have a favorite app to suggest?

iPad and Blackboard

Since I don’t actually have an iPad yet (emphasis on yet), I’m free to devote what I time I do have for it to pure speculation about the joys and trials it might bring to my life. For personal use, I see only joys. Maybe there would only be joys for school use too, but I admit to many questions about how we might convert our entire campus over to iPad junkies, as our fearless leader evidently envisions.

First, well…does Blackboard even work on the thing? We’re locked into Blackboard for course management, and Blackboard has lots of building blocks, like Wimba and so forth, that use flash. Apple isn’t even on speaking terms with flash, so how can this work?

I don’t know, but here’s a video demo of Blackboard for iPad.

Cool looking application. Does it solve the problems of incompatible Blackboard plug-ins? Who knows?

I have the Blackboard application on my iPhone, and I find it extremely frustrating. It shows me when new content has been created in my courses, but I can’t respond to it from my phone. I can see if a student has left a message on the discussion board, for example, but I can’t reply to it. The video above appears to indicate that this is not the case on the iPad. The app is meant to be much more functional than the previous app released for iPhone.

Yes, that’s nice, but do you mean only for native Blackboard content or for third party extras as well?

That will be one of the first questions I answer for myself when I finally get my very own iPad. I’m going to have to buy one, you see, before I can find out whether I need one or can even use one for what I think I want to do with it.

Meanwhile, I have played with the Evernote application on an iPad, and I think it is about the coolest learning tool ever invented. I oooh and aaah over it while I stood around in the Apple store in Madison hogging a demo model for an unseemly amount of time.

This, not the book reader, is why the iPad is a better device for the classroom than the Kindle.

A Task Force of One

This morning my computer asked if I wanted to continue reading my book on the last page I read on the computer or on the last page I read on the phone. I picked the phone because I had read from it more recently. The computer sent me to the right page. I read for a while. I did something else. I picked up the phone again and opened my book. It sent me to the last page I had read on the computer. I love device syncing.

This changes the experience of reading in so many ways. If I find myself waiting around somewhere, I have access to dozens of potential books to read (or thousands if I factor in the Amazon store) from my phone, a device I probably already had on me whether I knew I was going to be waiting around or not.

We’ve had storms and threats of storms yesterday and today. I found myself thinking, “I better make sure my phone is fully charged so I can finish my book.” Then I thought, “Or I could just read a book that doesn’t have to be charged.”

Likewise, if I’d just been reading a book, I wouldn’t worry about how the computer knew where I stopped before. I’d pick it up and start back where I left off without thinking about it. I’ll probably miss the simple tactile nature of reading when I’ve fully transitioned into buying all of my books electronically. I’m already halfway there. I don’t own a Kindle or an iPad yet, but I have the Kindle application on my phone and on my laptop. I download books straight from Amazon.

I’m also a big fan of audio books, and I’d say I download an average of four books a month from Audible.com. I carry them around on an iPod that remembers for me where I’ve stopped.

I read a lot. I’ve always read a lot. But I don’t have a lot of time for reading, so this is how I have shuffled books into my day. I listen in the car. I read from my phone while I’m waiting to see people. I read a chapter here and there on my computer while I’m taking a break from other jobs. Five minutes stolen at multiple points throughout the day using devices that are with me anyway. This is how reading happens in a digitized life.

I’ve been thinking about my own reading habits as I think about my new job of co-chairing a task force on the iPad. For all I know I could be the only person on this task force. We haven’t met. I wasn’t at the meeting where the issue came up. I only heard about it inadvertently. I take comfort in the term co-chair, though, implying that there are at least two of us. Possibly more.

Nonetheless, I’m on the job. I’ve been reading my Kindle books on my phone and wondering how my campus might manage to go to all ebooks within two years, as I have heard the president of my school said we would do at the meeting I did not attend.

At first I thought of iPads as a literal goal. iPad for all textbooks by 2012. That I found shocking. The cheapest version costs nearly as much as tuition at my school. If the cost of textbooks comes down enough, that could justify purchasing the device for full-time students. But what about students taking only one class at a time? What about students registered from online classes through other schools? What about dual enrollment students? The what abouts are staggering.

Then it hit me.

If I had an iPad, it would be my first choice of all the devices I own for an ebook reader. I’d pick it up first at home. I’d take it with me on trips. But then I would still read a book partially from my phone and partially from my laptop because those happened to be the most convenient devices at the time. My Kindle books are housed in an online library at Amazon. They sync across multiple devices. I don’t have to purchase them multiple times to access them from three or four different gadgets.

The iPad is just a metaphor here. The goal is the book itself.

We can expect even poor rural students to own some sort of Internet device. Their courses all use Blackboard. They have to have some form of Internet access to even be in school.

A netbook computer might cost half the price of an iPad, and it can run a Kindle app. If the question is whether we can expect our students to all be able to download an e-reader application to a device of their own choosing within two years, the answer is yes. That isn’t a shocking expectation at all.

I’m left with two real questions then:

(1) Will the textbook companies be ready with ebooks that our faculty find satisfactory in every discipline by that time?
(2) Will the textbook companies adopt an industry standard for ebook file formats so that one application would suffice for all of the textbooks a student needs to purchase?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I figure the iPad task force has devoted enough attention to this for one rainy Saturday.