I Wanna Sweep my Book!: Thoughts on the WWU Symposium “The Future of Text”

Future of Text Event DetailsWestern Washington University held a symposium Thursday discussing the changing form and function of the book featuring a number of very thoughtful presentations.  It was a beautiful day in Bellingham I was lucky enough to attend three of them.

First up was Trina Marmarelli who presented on her findings that emerged from a pilot project involving the use of Amazon DX Kindles in a higher ed setting [PDF Report].  Some of the goals of this study were to evaluate the features of an ebook platform for textbook delivery and the impact of utilizing digital textbooks on both teaching and learning activities.

The reported disadvantages included poor accessibility features (which will most likely be resolved as per a statement from Amazon) and annotating/highlighting features that were absent for documents in the PDF format.  In general the students ability to annotate/highlight was slower than in real life although the Kindle iPhone/pad app had a more user friendly interface and hopefully will be the direction that Amazon will take with its native ebook devices.  Another problem the study participants encountered was how to get everyone on the same page, literally.  Because Kindle ebooks don’t have page#’s and inputting location #’s was onerous (multi-key touch required) it involved a more greater todo then simply saying – turn to page #.  Document organization was also a feature that the study participants desired as the number of pdf’s as reading requirements climbed, being able to tag and/or use folders would have been a useful organization tool.

Additional concerns this study highlighted probably won’t be quite to easy to address.  The loss of the ability to ‘skim’ or browse a book quickly for instance.  It also makes cross referencing text more challenging as one couldn’t compare text from two different sources side by side (although maybe the larger screen ipad type devices could find a way to accommodate this?  Or maybe fold-out paper monitors).

Conversely, the ebooks ended up being very hands-off for technical support beyond the original how-to pamphlet, a very welcomed development for the study implementers.  It also ended up saving paper (although the final environmental impact study on the manufacture of these devices verses a renewable/recyclable product has yet to be conducted).  The Amazon DX was also surprisingly durable, a trait that any piece of technology intended to interface with undergraduates should aspire to.

The results of this pilot project were ultimately inconclusive – not because of any inadequacies in the study but simply because of the fact that the technology changes so fast, that the device used is evolving (Amazon was financially invested in this and is actively looking to improve their product specifically for educational use) and therefore the conclusions reached were ephemeral. This problem of the intransient nature of human-technology research, interestingly enough, ended up being discussed by the next speaker Clyde Ford.

The use of ebook readers as textbook delivery device is definitely increasing.  There are still several large questions that remain such as who owns the device and who owns the content.  What type of support will university need to be able to provide (hardware/software).  The current format war may need some resolution (or at least a trimming of some of the many ebook formats in use), etc.

In other words, as Trina said: “Books are still great technology”.

The second speaker was local author Clyde Ford who filled up the room with people and fans.  His excitement about the changing times that we live in was contagious.  He compared the shifting publishing/reading habits of today to what occurred with the invention of the printing press and that the acceleration of these changes has reached a tipping point in the last few months exemplified, in his opinion, of the creation of “Open Road Integrated Media“, the first digital only publishing house.

He spoke of the literacy divide being about not only traditional basic literacy skills but also a digital-literacy divide as tech generations occur at such a quick pace that individuals even a few years apart in age (like high school and middle schoolers) can utilize tech in completely different ways.

To illustrate this he told a story about a toddler, who – having seen her parents use a smartphone with touch navigation all her life would go up to other digital screens, and if she couldn’t operate it by sweeping it (like you sweep your finger against a smartphone touchscreen) would burst into tears.  This story gave me the inspiration for the title of this post.  The power of user expectations is a huge driving force in technology development.

I felt that Mr. Ford’s best idea was the creation of new phrase called “Deictic Change” which indicates the ephemeral nature of new literacies that arise and are then rapidly eclipsed by even newer skills that they become difficult for researchers to study, such as  the Amazon DX study discussed by the previous speaker.  I hope I have an opportunity to hear him expand upon this thought in the future (he’s speaking at the WLA conference this summer!).

Another question raised during this part of the symposium was the primary cause of the demise of print.  Mr. Ford’s thoughts were that it was not so much technology that was causing the demise of print but that it is the success of print that is causing its own demise.  In the past, if someone read Moby Dick it was frequently the only way one could otherwise experience whales.  Because of the desire for experiences that people have, now because of the digital media, people can not only read about whales, but can order up a whale-watching cruise or experience whales in other ways.  The capacity for the digital age to give us access to additional living experiences is enormous and for many of us, it is these experiences discovered through text that is a catalyst for those opportunities.

A story is a virus, claims Mr. Ford, always looking for the quickest easiest way to replicate.  Story will always find the latest tech manifestation to be realized.  Mr. Ford asked us to think about whether we are in love with the content or the container.  Of course, being a librarian and having the pleasure of seeing many books that are all sorts of shapes, sizes, textures I could easily call many books a work of art in and of themselves.  For instance this book is part of the movement of Russian Futurism in the early 20th century and, as wikipedia says: “Whilst some of the books created by this group would be relatively straightforward typeset editions of poetry, many others played with form, structure, materials and content that still seems contemporary.”  Maybe I should start a twitter novel?

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Transrational Boog, 1914, by Olga Rozanova

The last session that I attended was an hour long talk by Cable Green, Director of eLearning & Open Education at the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges.  His blog is at http://blog.oer.sbctc.edu/ and is a good source for local (state) news on on how Community and Technical Colleges can utilize open educational resources (OER) and other forms of Open Access endeavors.

He spoke on the work that he is doing to create a bank of OER courses that Washington higher ed entities could have access to, especially as a way to defray costs as the number of students entering higher ed is increasing and funding is decreasing.

Open data is very much the direction that our information tech is heading in.  The common wisdom is becoming that if it is funded by public dollars than the public should have access to it and the current system of journal publication is untenable, and illogical.  This shift has powerful driving force behind it.

Students are currently voting with their money in terms of what kind of services they are want out of their institute of higher education as evidenced by the University of Phoenix with its mobile, online, anytime format of content delivery, being the second most transferred to place outside of state universities.

Mr. Green also spoke about Creative Commons and how important it is to have an understanding of what that is and how to use it.  He says “We will cultivate the culture and practice of using and contributing to the  Open Educational Resources… [and]… develop a culture of sharing content within the Washington community and tech colleges.”  Which is one of the bigger points in his efforts.  He spoke of Rice University Connexions where the Washington OER materials will be deposited, and as their website points out: “[is] a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc. Anyone may view or contribute.”  Mr. Green is committed to getting the OER modules that are being created for Washington State curriculum available through this resource as well.  His belief, and I agree with it, is that publicly funded digital content should be openly licensed and freely available to those who paid for it.

We are all stakeholders

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One thought on “I Wanna Sweep my Book!: Thoughts on the WWU Symposium “The Future of Text”

  1. Kiki Tommila Reply

    Thanks, Ro…I’m passing this along to our librarians. This is a good discussion that I think we should have, maybe at a department meeting.

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