I’ve Got a New Way to Walk

I sent another aggravating email last week. In this particular case, the provocation was a reminder to check on something important. The email was accompanied by detailed directions: log in to point A, go to thing B, find header C, click the link for report D.

I thanked the sender, and explained more people might actually review their status given a more direct link, which I demonstrated in the email. (A truly direct link wasn’t possible, which dates the technology somewhat). The sender doesn’t seem convinced.

My struggle illustrates a problem emblematic of the Information Age—we let technology’s metaphorical antecedents constrain our thinking. We “navigate” the web, because physical movement is a helpful metaphor that grounds our experience with the new nature of the Internet. It’s natural to use the protocol for literal directions when you’re trying to help someone online.

But one of the hallmark capabilities of hypertext is that I can move from one document to another without traversing the space “in between” them. It’s text with a fourth dimension, a tesseract that shrinks the gap to virtually zero. If that doesn’t blow your mind, go repent and read A Wrinkle Time.

My millennial brain was still squishy when I started wrinkling time, so I don’t expect directions, I expect a portkey/wormhole/transporter, because I know that in the domain of internet content, that’s a reasonable expectation.

The same pattern led to this vintage 1998 beauty from Southwest Airlines, courtesy of archive.org’s Wayback Machine. (I first heard this example at the Front product/design conference in 2015):

18 years later, this design seems hilariously myopic, but it probably made sense at the time. It mapped new functions to familiar features of real-world experience. It made a complex new domain accessible to a lot of newcomers.

We’re equally shortsighted when it comes to learning materials. Here are three examples.

First, we cling to an ancient format. Why don’t academic articles incorporate more visuals? Because the page layout and printing is too costly. If only there were a technology robust enough to automate the arrangement and reproduction of arbitrary elements according to a simple set of customizable conventions. Alas.

Second, we’re stuck on antiquated business models. It used to be that if I had a textbook, you couldn’t have it, because there were only so many books in the world. Now we can throw a PDF online and literally anyone with a decent connection can have a copy without depriving anyone else the opportunity. Solution: create DRM to make these magically unfettered unbooks more like “real” books—because nothing drives progress like artificial scarcity.

Finally, even given rich educational media and legal permission to do tesseract-level magic with them (via open licensing), we tend to use them like normal textbooks. As my professor David Wiley puts it, this is like driving an airplane down the street. He advocates increased effort to pilot and study open pedagogy, defined as pedagogical techniques that like flight, are suddenly within reach through the wonders of open.

Sometimes we use new tools in very old ways.
Sometimes we use new tools in very old ways.

Naturally, we’ll struggle at first in the face of any domain that boasts a new dimension. Initially, our intuition will lead us astray. But if we’re willing to accept bumps and bruises, we can learn to move forward in qualitatively different and transcendently superior ways.

After all, that’s why we made the airplane.

You Literally Can’t Handle the Truth

I really like Stack Overflow. I’m fascinated by their success at encouraging experts to share high-quality knowledge and even individualized tutoring for free.

Why do people do this?

I suspect that it has something to do with social capital. Maybe it’s prestige or the need to feel useful. Maybe it’s altruistic satisfaction at serving a neighbor in need. Obviously they get something out of it, because these folks posted 4.6 million answers to 3.7 million questions on the Stack Exchange network last year.

The internet also makes it easy to share. I didn’t pay postage to publish this post. I could quite feasibly create and post a new HD video every day of my life if I wanted to. And my potential audience would be counted in billions.

In such a situation, a bit of bewilderment is understandable. Typical human behavior doesn’t always map well onto a gargantuan global network. In fact, failures to calibrate to a web-sized world can bring serious fallout, from lost job opportunities to distributed mobs engulfed in social media witch hunts.

Still, this trend hasn’t emerged without warning. Think about radio—with its advent, a single person could suddenly transmit her voice to thousands of people who would all hear the same words as if from her own mouth. Talk about power!

Talk about problems. Broadcast broke the tie to the tangible world, and its mapping to the human market. Books are things, and you pay to possess them. But how do you handle paying for goods you can’t handle? How do you prevent them from being stolen*?

(*Ask David Wiley (@opencontent) sometime about whether you can “steal” ideas. Go ahead, I dare you.)

This conundrum accelerated the evolution of intellectual property law, which has since developed various incongruous appendages in the face of recording and distribution technology. As media have grown more accessible, the rift between what we can do technologically and what we’re permitted to do legally has widened even further.

Hence the distinction between free content and open content. Radio is free, but I’m not free to rig up an antenna and bounce a home-brewed Spanish translation of NPR around my neighborhood. By contrast, I can use this open calculus textbook as the libretto for an opera, immortalize it in a stone tablet, or mail a thousand print copies to North Korea—as long as I attribute the original authors.

This is great news for those of us who who gravitate toward the kind of non-competitive, snuggly collaboration that brought us much of the internet. As the gold standard for global sharing, Creative Commons licenses allow authors to share their content openly by deliberately granting specific permissions to the world—to say it’s OK (legally) to share, to remix, or even to commercialize their work. And they’re machine-readable, so you can filter web searches by license type.

Honestly, you probably like helping. And your ideas could use probably some help, too. So next time you put something awesome in the world, slap a CC on there. It just might become the next Spanish-Korean rock opera.





How To Stick it to the Man

What would you do with an extra $90? Some ideas:

  • Get a year of ad-free music
  • Pay down student loans
  • Buy a circular saw

But let me back up. Where’d this $90 come from? Why, from textbooks savings, of course. The internet is replete with tips and tricks for whittling down the cost of books, from Ben Franklin classics like your local library to #OccupyTheBookstore, a Chrome extension that adds price comparisons to your school’s bookstore website (thanks, Trent Hamm).

Most of these strategies rely on price reduction available in a secondary market—buying used, renting, sharing, or selling books back. But here’s the rub: the publishers don’t get a cent of it. This explains in part why there are savings to be had, but also why publishers have raised the price of books around four times the rate of inflation in the last decade. They’ve also developed aggressive strategies to beat back secondary sales, from micro-updated editions to single-semester access codes.

This is understandable. These folks are acting rationally to compete in a lucrative market. This doesn’t make them evil, but it does make them the man.

So why not stick it to ’em? For those of us perched on well-padded privilege, the $90 per student per course we stand to gain may not seem worth the fight. But for students on the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum, it can mean the difference between taking an extra course or not, finishing on time or not, and succeeding or not in a major way.

Besides, I never said we should fight.

Frankly, a head-on clash between consumer cunning and corporate wit is not promising. As I pointed out last week, students who struggle are already adopting self-defeating behaviors in the face of high course material costs. On top of that, fast-growing internet tech is facilitating subscription models that affords publishers fine-grained control over who accesses their content and when. Barring Robin Hood-ish piracy and some mad technical chops, there isn’t a great way to beat them at their own game.

What we can do is side-step the game altogether, opting for high-quality open educational resources in place of commercial textbooks. This approach is especially impactful in high-volume entry-level courses, where content knowledge and media already abound.

It’s not an idealistic daydream; it’s a proven strategy adopted by scores of professors at many universities. In fact, adopting an open textbook can cost less than adopting a human child; universities in this study offered OER adoption grants to their faculty ranging from $1K-5K each. Spread over dozens of faculty, thousands of students, and multiple years, these modest investments have saved more than a million dollars so far in some instances.

So don’t let’s get drawn into their kind of fight, a one-on-one, mano a mongo scramble for savings. With a little teamwork, we can win this in a way that keeps on winning for thousands of students to come. The world is taking notice, so why not come along for the ride?


Textbook Tactics: Side-stepping Material Costs

For many students, textbooks are prohibitively expensive. Literally.

In the face of jaw-dropping tuition bills we might wonder whether textbooks are just another brick in the wall when it comes to looming student debt. No doubt that’s true for some, but you might be surprised to learn that for many students (particularly at community colleges), textbooks and similar course materials comprise nearly half of their education expenses, and sometimes more.

What to do? At first blush, it might seem like students don’t have a choice. In one sense, they don’t—professors choose which books and editions to bake into their courses, whether to require them, and whether to actually use them if required.

Yet students have options. They run the gamut from buying books used to renting, borrowing, or straight up pirating from BitTorrent. Such tactics vary in efficacy and moral dubiousness, but they’re all threatened by the push of established publishers to sell consumable content (worksheets, online practice sets, access codes) that can’t be reused, resold, or easily redistributed.

But even new-age non-renewables can’t counter some of the more serious measures that students are willing to take to avoid textbook costs. Consider these strategies, taken from a 2012 survey of higher-ed Florida students’ decisions in the face of textbook costs:

Just Don’t Try


If the books cost too much, just take fewer courses. Or don’t take the one with the pricey book. Nearly half of those surveyed reported doing just that.

Do Without


It’s a bold stroke, I’ll give you that. Besides, who needs books when you can have dinner?



Fortunately, Never performs a little better in this category, but I’m not exactly comforted by these results. Notwithstanding the merits of getting back up when life knocks you down, withdrawing from a course can exact an intangible toll on morale and momentum, in addition to concrete losses like scholarship and aid eligibility. Not to mention the tuition and hours of your life you spent on it.

Underperform or Fail


Granted, this stat is student-reported, so it probably includes some pin-the-fail-on-the-textbook (we millennials like externalize our shortcomings). But more than a quarter of the higher-ed students felt that the cost of their books had adversely affected their formally evaluated performance.

Would this fly in the “real world?” Picture a conversation between Rigby the CEO, and Eleanor the HR Director:

RIGBY: But new lighting is so expensive! And I can’t see how it could affect their work. They’re not artists or anything.

ELEANOR: Who cares how it affects their work! A quarter of them believe that it’s keeping them from doing their best work. Can we succeed with that many team members who feel forced to choose mediocrity?

RIGBY: But the cost. . .

ELEANOR: I know, I know. Why don’t we just open up some of the roof panels into skylights. After all, sunshine is free. . .

*             *             *

Now imagine a world where kids give up or avoid classes because they’re worried about paying for books. In the 21st century. That’s what I call a #lxfail.