Saturday, April 24, 2010

With the advent of the iPad and other mobile devices that support eBook readers, the eBook is enjoying a renaissance. The most widely adopted eBook format is the ePub open standard. There is now a well-established ePub eco-system comprised of software tools for creating and maintaining eBooks as well as a wide variety of devices for reading them. Of great interest in academia is the fact that much of the software needed to create, transform, convert and manage .epub files is free. This will become ever more important as educators rely more and more on digital content.

Thus, I can create .epub files using free, cross-platform software and students can consume that content using a variety of mobile and not-so-mobile devices. Using an iPad, for example, my students would simply drag the .epub files that I provide into the Books library of the iTunes application and then synch with the iPad. I could simply post those .epub files to my Faculty Web Server account for download.

However, as an academic using iTunes U, I am very eager to learn whether and how eBooks can be distributed using the same podcasting model as is now used by iTunes U to distribute audio, video and PDF files. The advantages of offering content via podcasting over simple file services are many, including being able to more easily restrict access, use subscription to schedule delivery of content over the semester timeline and extending the benefits of content aggregation (automated organization) to my students.

Although we frequently think about eBooks as novel-length tomes, the format will also support shorter works such as a textbook chapters, assignments, journal articles and the like. An eText and supplementary content could be delivered in serialized form throughout the semester. The problem, right now, is that neither the iTunes application nor iTunes U will handle files carrying the .epub suffix. This is a decision that only Apple can take but we can certainly lobby for it and I think that we should. I mention this to anyone at Apple who will listen and I have also signed up for a
free developer account so that I can submit "enhancement requests" via

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ning is, or was, a free service that many interested in education have used to create social networks. From their web site:

Ning is the social platform for the world's interests and passions online. Millions of people every day are coming together across Ning to explore and express their interests, discover new passions, and meet new people around shared pursuits.

Ning's Jason Rosenthal, who has been their CEO for a month, announced the end of free services this week. The knee jerk response to this event is to say, "This is what you get when you place yourself in the hands of proprietary services."

Of course some will try to apply this generalization to iTunes U, the iTunes Store Podcast Directory and other free services painting them all with the same very wide brush.  Is there a difference and, if so, what is it and why should we expect a different outcome?

I think that the difference is not simply the fact that Apple is profitable but that what Apple does for free actually generates income, albeit indirectly.  The iTunes Store, the part where you pay for stuff, is not a big profit center.  They do slightly better than break even.  This is also true of the MacOS and application software such as iWork, Final Cut etc.

All of these free and low margin products generate sales of Apple hardware and that’s where the profit margins are very healthy.  They are a hardware company.  Apple dominates (90%) the market for computers that cost more than $1,000.  They dominate the portable media player market with the iPod and are well on their way toward dominating the mobile phone and mobile computer markets with the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.  

So “free” can be fraught with danger but that risk can also be managed by making intelligent and well informed choices about which free things you predicate your programs upon. I see iTunes U and the larger Apple ecosystem that makes it possible as a much lower risk than Ning and other services that have to stand on their own and deliver profits to shareholders.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Responding to a reader question about the ethics of downloading a pirated eBook after having purchased the same title as a physical book, Randy Cohen, writing in the online New York Times Magazine, concludes that it is OK saying, "Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod." Entitled "E-Book Dodge," the author points out that although this behavior is ethical it is also illegal.

This piece was widely quoted in online blogs and elsewhere but few commenters seemed troubled about the idea that something can be both ethical and illegal at the same time. I'm not questioning whether this is the case because obviously it is if you agree with Cohen's reasoning. My question is whether both assertions
should be true. When the law condemns ethical behavior, something is wrong with the law and that should be changed.

Commercial entities are simply acting normally when they seek to leverage any and all means to maximize profit. Thus, it is quite natural for them to seize upon copyright law as one way to achieve this end. They will interpret copyright law in self-serving fashion, they will attempt to convince law enforcement and the general public of the correctness of their position and they will lobby for statutes that further reinforce their interpretation. This is the nature of the beast.

There are countervailing forces. Organizations such as the
Electronic Frontier Foundation draw upon the support of those who understand that society in general and they in particular would be harmed if commercial interpretations of copyright law were not challenged at every opportunity. The larger question, then, is whether the ratio favors the whole of society or some oligopoly or another. As the Internet becomes more and more central to the lives and fortunes of more people, the importance of this question will rise.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

With the discovery that DRM'd ePub volumes attempt to disallow quoting via copy and paste, one hoped-for advantage of eTextbooks over their physical cousins seems to be in doubt, at least for commercially published eTextBooks that are sure to be 'protected' with Digital Rights Management (DRM) software. On the recently released iPad, text copied from a DRM's ePub volume cannot be copied and pasted directly into a writing application such as Pages.

Of course, innovative folks have already conjured up a workaround.reported here

... that kinda, sorta works. But why should this be necessary? Whose priorities trump all others?

Traditionally, writing a paper and quoting from various sources inevitably involved transcription, just like Monks of old.  There simply wasn’t another way.

With the dawn of the digital era, it became possible to use a digital scanner and Optical Scanning Recognition (OCR) software to produce machine readable text and illustrations that could be re-purposed in academic and other writing.  Better but still not a boon to students without access to expensive gear. They were still mired in ancient scholarly bogs.

Now that we have eBooks and eTexts and eJournals and wonderful, magical devices to read them on, one would think that the scholarly life would ease-up a bit but noooooooo, the commercial interests will have none of that.  The doctrine of presumptive guilt means that scholars will continue to be consigned to ancient monastic transcription rather than the liberation of copy and paste.  That, of course, will come at the cost of less time invested in developing their higher order thinking skills.

Quoting excerpts from a book for the purpose of criticism or for scholarly purposes has long been protected as a fair use in US and international law. DRM places an unnecessary and unwarranted tax upon the exercise of these rights, especially in this digital era where there are better options than tedious and error-prone transcription.

The tragedy here is that DRM doesn't prevent the kind of copyright infringement that threatens a publisher's profitability. Those wholesale pirates will have their way regardless. Only scholarship will suffer.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

I've been researching the iPad since before it was announced (talk about faith or blind hope). I've read all the speculation that came out prior to the announcement. I've read all the analysis and commentary that came out after the announcement but before the release on 4/3/2010. I'm still pedaling as fast as I can. Version 3.3 of the iPhone OS, the one the iPad uses, is downloading as I type this. That will provide me with the iPad simulator. Yeah, that's right, I don't yet have one in my hands.

When I do get my hands on one I'll be like the fellow who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions. WaaaaHoooooo !

I suspect that the iPad will be pointed to by future historians as a watershed event in educational computing. How this will play out is less clear. A few of the things I'll be looking closely at are:

o The replacement of physical textbooks with eTexts. If the commercial interests have their way which seems likely. we'll have old wine in new bottles (yawn). On the other hand, there will be the opportunity to radically change the cost, content and logistics of textbooks in K-12 and higher education. That would be exciting.

o The challenge to institutionalized education where the proposition that one could learn all they need to know in grades K-(some number less that 12) in order to become a fully independent learner. Will higher education become irrelevant as David Wiley recently predicted or will it rise to the occasion and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? HINT: Credentialing won't save higher education, Microsoft and Cisco are already doing that quite well, thank you very much.

Stay tuned for future thoughts on these themes.