Distractions 1. Reading 0.

6 03 2012

I don’t own an e-reader or a tablet. Nonetheless, this is not news to me:

People who read e-books on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.

E-mail lurks tantalizingly within reach. Looking up a tricky word or unknown fact in the book is easily accomplished through a quick Google search. And if a book starts to drag, giving up on it to stream a movie over Netflix or scroll through your Twitter feed is only a few taps away.

Why isn’t this news to me? Because every computer user in America (including me) has to fight the urge to open a new tab and read something more fun than what they’re currently looking at every time they read or watch anything online.

Now imagine that you’re a college student taking an online course that you don’t want to be taking. Wouldn’t you have that same feeling nearly all the time? How often do you think you’d give in temptation and check Facebook or Twitter (particularly since nobody is watching you watch your course materials)?

By the way, the people interviewed in that story are experienced readers who, presumably, want to read the e-books they bought and downloaded onto their Kindle Fires and iPads. How do you think the students in your class who don’t want to read what what you’re assigning are going to respond under the same circumstances?


The 4-hour workweek (Higher education edition).

3 01 2012

For my first post of the new year, I’m going to try to cover all of my favorite subjects at one time.

Last Friday, I went to the Barnes and Noble in Colorado Springs with my family. Even before the Borders there closed, it was the biggest book store within fifty miles of us by far. Now I noticed they’ve put a toy store right in the middle of the place. Not coincidentally, they were pushing their Nook e-reader awfully hard. After all, why should I care how many physical books I can browse through if I have most every book Barnes and Noble sells at my fingertips without leaving my home? The Nook frees up space at Barnes and Nobles everywhere to serve other, more profitable functions. Best of all, it works without the need of living, breathing workers. All Barnes and Noble has to do is set up the infrastructure (which is presumably in place now), and then watch the cash roll in – both from e-books and the expensive Lego toys that so distracted my son’s attention that he didn’t pick up a single book the entire time we were in there.

Once I made this toys/e-book connection, I couldn’t help but think of Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ve mentioned Ferriss a few times before on this blog. His basic plan for anyone who wants to join the new rich is to start a web site that sells something people want, outsource the maintenance, then just answer your e-mail for four hours each week while you watch the money roll in too. If you read those old posts I just linked to, you’ll see that I used to find Ferriss funny. OK, I still find Ferriss funny, but I’m beginning to fear that this exact same mentality is beginning to creep into higher education and that’s not funny at all because a college education is a lot more expensive than one dumb book.

Where’s my proof? See Audrey Watters on the first robot graders. Or there’s this little nugget from EDUCAUSE:

[T]he issue of a federal definition of the credit hour as included in the regulations remains unresolved. Many in higher education view the definition as vague and unworkable, especially for online courses and programs. It is also considered to be a significant encroachment on the ability of institutions and academic programs to appropriately define the credit hour in relation to the demands of a given program.

When is an hour not an hour? When neither administrators nor students care how much anyone actually learns. Since it’s all about the paper, classes are something preventing you from learning how to do the tango in Argentina rather than a means to earning the money that will help you make that possible. I think this is the inevitable consequence of encouraging students to take classes at home in their pajamas. Teachers teach from anywhere, students learn from anywhere and college administrators work for only four hours per week since the university supposedly runs itself.

Now I’ve been on this techno-skeptic kick long enough to know that there are lots of dedicated teachers out there who believe that various technological doodads can make the learning experience better rather than worse. I, believe it or not, happen to be one of them. So is Cathy Davidson, who writes all the correct things in this follow up to that New York Times story on K12 Inc. that I covered a few weeks ago.

I really do agree with everything she writes there, just like I agree with just about everything that’s ever appeared over at Kate’s place. My problem with Davidson here is with her unspoken assumptions. As I read between the lines, she seems to assume that the people who run education at both the secondary and collegiate levels share our priorities and will respond to reasoned arguments about what constitutes a good education. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think most administrators share our priorities, nor will they care about whether we think technology will adversely affect the quality of our pedagogy if it is employed in the wrong ways.

I happen to like all the administrators that I work under at the moment, but as a class I think the vast majority of them have forgotten that learning is, to quote Davidson, “personal, intimate [and] specific,” rather than a product that can be mass-produced. I bet most of them envy the for-profit college sector (despite its obvious failings) rather than decry it. Indeed, if university administrators really cared about learning one of them would have tried to fix the adjunct problem in higher education a long, long time ago.

There! I think that’s all my favorite blogging topics in one post. Maybe I should just close up this blog now and try again in 2013. Wait! I’ve got a better idea! I’ll follow Ferriss’ advice and hire Your Man in India to write this blog and teach my classes for me. If only I believed I could ever learn how to tango.

Kindles are still for suckers.

13 11 2011

If there is anything good about e-books besides weighing less than the paper variety, it would have to be the way they de-emphasize the material aspect of owning books and emphasize the importance of the ideas within them. I think that’s why Bookshelf Porn associates itself with porn. Good liberals like me feel slightly guilty about coveting so many objects at once.

Amazon.com, however, appears to be doing everything it can to exploit such proclivities for its own material gain. When I wrote my original “Kindles Are for Suckers” post, the price of the Kindle version of David McCullough’s The Greater Journey was pennies more than the hardback. [I now see that that relationship has reversed since the book came out.] As I write this, the Kindle version of Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects is over five dollars more expensive than the paperback.

This would explain why Amazon.com is selling a device that costs $84 to make for $79. While there are other e-readers out there, Amazon has a monopoly on all things Kindle. With no used copies of e-books circulating to keep down prices, why not test what the traffic will allow?

Maybe a little materialism isn’t such a bad thing in the end. It might even end up saving you money.

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