To Share or Not to Share

I created that last post just as I was updating ShareThis in my plugins page. And for the second time since I installed it, ShareThis has crashed during an update.

It’s especially aggravating since I like ShareThis even though it’s never given me reliable analytic information and has crashed on update before. The thing is that AddThis which is a more robust package that’s built into ThirdScribe (and active on my TS site) was a bear to set up for this blog, so I just kept the original plugin.

Seriously guys, come on.

To Wiki or Not to Wiki: That is the Question

We all know the phrase, since we’ve all had the talk with our students regarding research, so let’s all say it together: Wikipedia is not a citable source. Fine. Except we came up with that rule a billion years ago when the Wikipedia project was in its infancy. Or at least, its adolescence. Things have changed since then. Haven’t they?

Ultimately we have to re-evaluate the question and ask ourselves how reliable is Wikipedia anyway? I mean, considering that professionals like Trevor Thornton and Christina Pattuelli are using publically edited records for their own work? Does the description of Wikipedia’s contents as nonsense invalidate these models by association? The question did come up during the NYTSL panel, and they felt that for the purposes of their own work, the data standards were high enough to make it a reliable source.

On the one hand, those linked data projects were limited in scope. It’s one thing to crowdsource the conversations and quotes from musicians, or an index of personal names in a historical context. It’s quite another to use the same strategy to, say, devise medical treatments (except they are). And to be fair there is a world of difference between creating a wiki-based general catalog of informative articles and utilizing a distributed data processing model. (Except when there isn’t.)

Additionally, Wikipedia can be improved and if its own metrics are to be believed, is continually being improved by users who actually give a hoot about the quality of their submissions.  Whether or not that improves the whole project or just select bits of it is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, I’m sticking with my advice to students that Wikipedia is still not citable, but it is a decent source of useful references that might be well be worth checking out.


Data Mines Open in College E-textbooks

We’ve asked ourselves whether this development in using e-textbooks to mine data on students’ reading habits is as highly unnerving as it seems:

CourseSmart, which sells digital versions of textbooks by big publishers, announced on Wednesday a new tool to help professors and others measure students’ engagement with electronic course materials.

When students use print textbooks, professors can’t track their reading. But as learning shifts online, everything students do in digital spaces can be monitored, including the intimate details of their reading habits.

Those details are what will make the new CourseSmart service tick. Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.

The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.

Three institutions—Villanova University, Rasmussen College, and Texas A&M University at San Antonio—plan to run pilots of the product, called CourseSmart Analytics. It’s expected to be broadly available in 2013.

Our answer is a resounding YES! This is every bit as creepy as it seems. And the ALA agrees.

What do you think?

Do We Still Need RSS?

William Vambenepe says that “If the lords of the Internet have their way, the days of RSS are numbered.” He then points to the facts that Apple, Twitter, Firefox, and Google are all slowly but surely de-coupling RSS access from the functionality of their products.

Before I got the chance to work with RSS personally, I had categorized this post as a bit of a rant and kept it in my drafts folder, wondering if I would have the chance to take a closer look at it. For the past week I’ve been trying to figure out how to push this blog’s new material into my existing FeedBurner RSS account. I have no idea how to make it work. Our Emerging Technology Librarian, Emma, has no idea how to make it work (and looked sort of freaked out when I told her about my project.)

At the moment, I’m ready to start cheering for Team Lords.

The process of building a new website after importing the old posts was the easy part. Typepad has decent export options and WordPress is much the same with importing new material. What it doesn’t have–what nobody in the world apparently has–is a way of seamlessly switching an existing RSS feed for a new one. There is the added consideration of where the new stream of traffic comes from: so far, most of the action on the new website has come out of shared posts, tweets, and URL transfers, not RSS click-throughs. Even on the old blog, RSS click-throughs constituted less than 10% of the total activity.

I have tinkered with the guts of FeedBurner’s forms, tried splicing new feed URLs into existing feeds addresses, and played with the idea of using third party plugins to push new posts to the old feed. Nothing has worked very well. There are plenty of ways to squeeze traffic into the new feed but no way to transfer the new stuff into an old RSS URL.  (If you know of a way to do this, don’t keep it to yourself. Drop me a comment and let’s talk about it.) Old blog = old feed,  new blog= new feed, and there is no crossing the lines between the two. At least that’s how it seems right now.

I can burn new feeds all I want. I can combine them into one gigantic master feed through applications like Yahoo Pipes and Google Feed. I can redirect existing feeds from one blog to the other if I can figure out how to create a 301 permanent redirect through cPanel (or convince an exceptionally helpful tech support person at my ISP to do it for me). I can build an XML redirect and send it into the old feed in the hope that the current subscribers take advantage of it and migrate.

Or, I can abandon the current subscribers. For obvious reasons, that’s my least favorite option. Sadly, it seems to also be the most efficient option unless I can muster the additional time and energy to Franken-feed something together. Regardless of FeedBurner’s relative ease of use, modifying an existing feed is considerably more difficult than just burning a new feed and assigning it to a syndication page.

I’ll be honest. After three days of this, I’m ready to give up. RSS is unquestionably useful tech, but if it’s not portable, then other more portable options will leave it in the dust.

I burned a new feed for the WP blog, and I hope that at least some of the existing RSS subscribers have the patience, energy or motivation to click on the new feed when they get to the new website.

Which brings me back to the original critique of Vambenepe’s point . . . maybe the reason that the big players are abandoning RSS is the fact that you can’t really do anything with it. Except, of course, create more RSS feeds.

Again, if there is a way of making RSS portable, then I’d love to hear about it.


Tech-Terrified Teachers

Marisa Kaplan writes a little about the subtle (and not so subtle) bouts of technophobia some teachers feel from time to time, and offers these five workarounds:

  1. Remember, it’s not about you! Your discomfort with technology impacts your students’ futures. Teachers need to be preparing students for the world we live in today. So many jobs are dependent on a basic understanding of technology. Always ask yourself, “am I teaching something that is obsolete, or something that will help my students in the future that lies ahead?”
  2. Don’t resist your tech guru teacher-friend: It is difficult to ask for help but partnering up with a tech guru teacher-friend can provide a support system that can help ease your transition from tech terrified to tech curious.
  3. Realize it’s okay if you are not in control: In reflection, I realize that a major reason that I resisted tech for so long is because I feared what would happen if I was no longer in control…but it is okay if the tech malfunctions. In fact it can lead to some pretty teachable moments.
  4. Let your students teach you something: Newsflash – if you think you are the omnipotent force in your classroom, think again! Kids know a lot these days and it can boost their confidence and engagement if you call on students for support.
  5. If you find a product you like, ask someone from the company to come visit – Tech startups want you to use their products so most likely if you send an email, they will answer any questions you have or maybe even come visit your school to teach you how to use their product.

It’s good advice, and it’s worth it to read the entire article.






Google Docs Research Tool Needs Work

Amanda French wrote a guest post for the Prof. Hacker column in the Chronicle of Higher Education describing her experience with Google Doc's new research tool, subtly and accurately called Research Tool.

I'm not going to rehash what she wrote as the whole thing is very much worth reading in its entirety, but one bit about the tool's apparently schizophrenic treatment of citations caught my eye:

Anything that encourages people to cite their sources properly is inarguably a Good Thing, in my professorial opinion, so I’m a fan of this feature and plan to make sure that all my students know about it. Users of Zotero or other bibliographic software (and every single student or faculty member who writes research papers should be a user of some kind of bibliographic software) will know the insane glee that comes from being able to insert a properly formatted citation with just a click or two instead of having to type the whole thing in, so I do think that having this feature in Google Docs will increase students’ willingness to cite.

However, there are a few equally inarguable limitations on this Good Thing. By far the most worrying such limitation is that what Google calls “Research” is what we professors call “a Google search.” Not the same thing, from our point of view. The search will bring up maps and images, but, if you’ll pardon my French, big freaking deal: many of the results are not good sources for “research” at all. I wish very much that Google had seen fit to allow users to choose to confine their search to Google Scholar and/or Google Books results — so much do I wish it that I asked for this feature on the Google Docs forums. The only ways to “narrow your search” currently available are to “Everything,” “Images,” and “Quotes,” none of which are very useful for academic purposes.

I like citations; we all do. Hell, librarians, writers, and researches need their citations if they expect to be taken seriously. Including a citation feature is therefore (as she notes) A Very Big Deal. It's rather less of one when those citations can't conform to any recognizable style. You'd do just as well to type the whole thing out, a slog that this feature is clearly meant to alleviate the need for. 

I think French's criticism of Google's non-differentiation between scholarly (or at least academic) sources in Google Books and Google Scholar and everything else is a good one. If Google's wizards can't figure out that academics make use of their product and point millions of students all over the world to it, then, sorry, Google, but what is the point of us using you? None.

So, Google's Research Tool has promise, but like all works in progress needs  . . . work.


Google Getting Smarter or Merely Bigger?

According to Frederic Lardinois at TechCrunch, Google is getting "smarter":

Here is what this will look like in practice. Google is currently pretty good at understanding general search queries, but some terms are just too ambiguous. When you search for ‘andromeda,’ for example, it just can’t know if you are searching for the TV series, galaxy, or this Swedish progressive metal band. Now, whenever you type in one of these queries, Google will show you a box on the right side of the screen that lets you tell it which one of these topics you were really looking for. Once you pick the topic, the search result page will reload and show you the results related to what you were really looking for.

So if you were looking for the TV show Kings, the search result page will show you images related to the show, the right Wikipedia entry and links to episodes that are available for online streaming. If you were looking for the Sacramento Kings, though, you will get the latest box scores and other information related to the basketball team.

That’s only one part of what the Knowledge Graph now allows Google to do. The second part involves Google’s new automatically created topic summaries that will appear when you look for a topic that’s well defined by the Knowledge Graph. Say you search for the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, for example. Instead of having to click through to Wikipedia to find out when he was born, you will now see his biographical data right there on the search result page. As Gomes told me, Google, of course, knows what kind of facts around a certain person, place or event people usually search for, so it these summaries will also highlight these topics.

According to Gomes, you will see these summaries about as often as you currently see Google Maps in your search results. To put this into perspective (and sadly we couldn’t get Google to give us more concrete numbers), this launch is significantly bigger than the entire launch of Universal Search combined – and that was one of the company’s largest launches in this field.

I am forced to ask whether this sort of contextual sub-searching is too much of a good thing. There's a bit of personal angst in there: it seems to me that every time Google gets "smarter" another handful of librarians/information professionals/people who know where to find the stuff that Google can't, lose their jobs in the name of institutions being made more efficient. Meanwhile, those of us who remain need to re-think what the boundaries of privacy stand. Convince every MBA in the world of information science that Google can replace a knowledgeable information professional, and well, that's that. Technology to the rescue yet again. While I'm all for change and technical advancement, killing the pros' ability to earn a living at what they do best seems like another case of ultra-short term thinking.

Google would probably be happy as a pig in shit if nobody ever left its web pages, ever. It certainly looks as if they're worming their way into every digital nook and cranny they can find (YouTube social functions, anyone?) But, hey, it might work out better than that. Personal feelings of anxiety are not, after all, good reasons to trash talk new technologies which may very well make Google easier to use while providing better results for its users. Maybe this will herald an era of "better, smarter Googling" that librarians have been alternately pining for and loathing.

Or maybe not.

SOPA & PIPA: The Basics

SOPA/PIPA: What You Need to Know, from Political Hotsheet.

That is all.

Rich White Guy To Poor Black Kid: Get Technical

Gene Marks, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, (herein known by the phrase Rich White Guy, or RWG) offered some advice to an archtypical Poor Black Kid (PBK) last week regarding how to educate himself out of the ghetto by means of modern technology.  I'm not going to discuss his qualifications for giving advice of this type (none), nor the possibility that he has no idea what he's talking about (significant), nor the barely concealed privilege and racism of his remarks. That's been done very well elsewhere.

I want to talk about his advice to "get technical."

If I was a poor black kid I would get technical.  I would learn software.  I would learn how to write code.  I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online.  I would study on my own.  I would make sure my writing and communication skills stay polished.

Okay. That's a pretty general account of technical work. I'm not sure what "learning software" means: Learning to use Office 2010 well? Learning to write HTML? XML? Perl? Javascript? C++?  All have different applications, and learning to code competently in one won't necessarily help you with the others. High school (and college) classes in these subjects are limited by the quality of the slowest student–I found that out for myself studying XML at Queens College while pursuing my MLS. I got the concepts and the structure, but many of my classmates didn't. We stopped well short of where I'd hoped we'd be and I finished the studying on my own outside of class.

So, Poor Black Kid (PBK) will need textbooks and a lot of time to sit down in a quiet place where he won't be interrupted to study. That such places in urban settings can be few and far between doesn't seem to have occurred to RWG. The same goes for PBK's polishing his written communication skills. Want to learn to write well? Read several hundred books, several thousand articles, and write a thousand words or more a day for a year. That's how it's done. Time, space, and solitude are what's needed. Public libraries would be good spaces to do this in if they weren't being de-funded left and right.

Part the second:

And I would use the technology available to me as a student.  I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays.  That because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes a necessary thing to keep their kids safe at home than on the streets.  And libraries and schools have computers available too.  Computers can be purchased cheaply at outlets like TigerDirect and Dell’s Outlet.  Professional organizations like accountants and architects often offer used computers from their members, sometimes at no cost at all.

At first glance this is not bad advice, but again, it misses the point. Three things stand out to me as a guy who sold computers and the components that went into them for years. First, schools and libraries (not to mention school libraries) in neighborhoods where Poor Black Kids go to school are likely to be poorly funded, staffed and maintained. The value of the equipment they have is directly proportional to the amount of money spent, which, as I said, is not likely to be high. So the equipment this kid is meant to educate himself on is likely to be old and semi-functional, or non-functional at least part of the time.

Second, what he calls "cheap" computers generally don't last more than a couple of years. That's why they are cheap. If you spent several thousand dollars at Dell to get the good stuff, then pay for a top-tier service contract on top of that, you get real customer service. If you didn't, you get sent to Dell Hell where you get to spend a fortune in phone charges listening to some guy with an ESL accent insist that you should turn your PC off and then on again. Third, yes, professional organizations often offer perks to their members but Poor Black Kid is obviously not a member of these fraternities yet, so this tidbit falls a bit flat.

If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study.  I’d become expert at Google Scholar.   I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to help me understand books.  I’d watch relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy.  (I say relevant because some of these lectures may not be related to my work or too advanced for my age. But there are plenty of videos on these sites that are suitable to my studies and would help me stand out.)  I would also, when possible, get my books for free at Project Gutenberg and learn how to do research at the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia to help me with my studies.

Now we get serious. It's time for Tech Talk.

"Free" is a relative term. Air and water are free until you need someone (say, the government) to guarantee it's safe to breathe and drink, or unless you want to take it with you in a big tank. That takes money. Technology in all its myriad forms, applications, and performances, takes real money to make happen. What RWG doesn't seem to get is this: what he calls free technology is only available because thousands of people who produce it worked long hours with no pay then made a conscious choice to give it away it for free. Textbooks–the mainstay of higher education in the industrialized world–are never free, and they are what the education industry thrives on: text book sales. (Forbes, being a publisher of some note, surely understands this.)

So. Does PBK have to pay for the software? No. But will he have to scrape up $80 for a 6-inch Kindle or more for a Netbook or laptop to make use of this online material? You bet your booty.

Anyway, here's an experiment for you: send your application to harvard with the words "Self educated by means of free technology" scrawled on it instead of a high school transcript, and then call them a week later and see how you did. If you're accepted, I'll eat a bug.

 I don't have a problem with Google Scholar per se (I'm unsure if it will ever live up to the hype but that's another post), but in my experience both as a teacher and student, services like Spark Notes and Cliff Notes do more to wreck kids' ability to read a book than anything else. You won't understand the book any better, you just get exposed to a slim cross-section of it. That's not reading. That's cramming for an exam. Not a habit PBK should be cultivating this early in his academic career. Sources like TED and KhanAcademy are worthwhile, or one could be really ambitious and take a look at MIT's Open Courseware website.

I love Project Gutenberg. How can you not like a source of 36,000 free ebooks for download to a PC or portable device? The books are high-quality items all produced by bona fide publishers, and are made available through the effort of thousands of volunteers. The trouble is that these books are not generally textbooks. Classics, yes, and lots of them (here's the top 100 titles by download), but Business, Science, and Math classes don't use the classics. They use textbooks. Those are expensive and not generally available on line except in the most expensive universities.

The CIA World Fact Book, also isn't a bad resource. It's not the most easily accessible almanac in the world but, yes, it is complete, as long as you remember that its data are limited to descriptions of countries. Wikipedia, on the other hand is not a primary resource. For anything. Ever. Why? It's written and edited by absolutely everyone regardless of background, education, or research. Some articles are clearly better (or worse) than others, but using Wikipedia as a primary source is a sure ticket to an F from any competent teacher.

That said, one thing Wikipedia can be extremely useful for is to show you where else to look for source material. Scan the article, then go to the reference links. Those will lead you to better sources.

I would use homework tools like Backpack, and Diigo to help me store and share my work with other classmates.  I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school.  I would take advantage of study websites like Evernote, Study Rails, Flashcard Machine, Quizlet, and free online calculators.

I won't argue with any of this on a point-for-point basis, as they are good suggestions for people who make continual and substantive use of online files. But–and you knew there'd be a but–Diigo,  Backpack, Evernote and all those other good suggestions require all participants to have a PC of his or her own. In poor families, you're more likely to see one device shared among several people, or none at all. Again, Poor Black Kid is more likely to be relying on crappy equipment and spotty online access than not. These well-meant ideas don't work so well under those conditions.

I don't know what exactly our Rich White Guy thought he was thinking when he wrote this. None of it this is bad advice as far as it goes. But it seems inappropriate to me. It assumes that Poor Black Kids go to schools that are equally well funded and equipped as Rich White Kids' schools. That is not the case. It hasn't been the case for decades. Up to date textbooks, equipment, competent and well-paid teachers, and the time and opportunity to study are what make mediocre students into good ones and good students into great ones.

So . . . yes. Medicore White Guy is technically correct even as he misses (or obfuscates) the larger point: Poor Black Kid can use technology to help educate himself out of the inner city. Possibly even into a job in Big White Sky Building. But the tech he probably has access to will break often, take a lot longer to work, and the experience will suck.

But hey, at least it's possible, right?

Fair Use Now Legal, Sayz EFF

It is, of course, more complicated than that (it always is) but this post from Read Write Web spells it out pretty well.

New exemptions have been added to the the
Digital Millenimum Copyright Act (DMCA), a U.S. copyright law that
criminalized attempts to bypass copyright, access control technologies
or digital rights management (DRM) measures. The exemptions now provide
protections for "fair use" in several different circumstances, the most
notable of which is the (now legalized!) process of jailbreaking a
phone, a popular activity among iPhone owners in particular.

The term jailbreaking refers to hacking a smartphone in order to gain
access to additional features or install unapproved applications.
However, it is only one of the many new protections announced today.
Also included are protections that would allow owners to use their
mobile devices on different wireless networks – a practice known as
"unlocking" a phone – plus exemptions that allow breaking of copyright
protection mechanisms on both videos and games, exemptions that make
e-books more accessible, and finally, exemptions that allow bypassing
external security measures on computers in specific circumstances
involving dongles.

In other words, breaking into your own phone in order to experiment with the programming is no longer a crime. (Whew!)

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