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Teach the Books, Touch the Heart

imageDomitille Collardey

FRANZ KAFKA wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” I once shared this quotation with a class of seventh graders, and it didn’t seem to require any explanation.

We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”

But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.

For the last seven years, I have worked as a reading enrichment teacher, reading classic works of literature with small groups of students from grades six to eight. I originally proposed this idea to my principal after learning that a former stellar student of mine had transferred out of a selective high school — one that often attracts the literary-minded offspring of Manhattan’s elite — into a less competitive setting. The daughter of immigrants, with a father in jail, she perhaps felt uncomfortable with her new classmates. I thought additional “cultural capital” could help students like her fare better in high school, where they would inevitably encounter, perhaps for the first time, peers who came from homes lined with bookshelves, whose parents had earned not G.E.D.’s but Ph.D.’s.

Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.

And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.

Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.

Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.

I MAY not be able to prove that my literature class makes a difference in my students’ test results, but there is a positive correlation between how much time students spend reading and higher scores. The problem is that low-income students, who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers, are also less likely to read at home. Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort. But those are the same students who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep. By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.

It is ironic, then, that English Language Arts exams are designed for “cultural neutrality.” This is supposed to give students a level playing field on the exams, but what it does is bleed our English classes dry. We are trying to teach students to read increasingly complex texts, but they are complex only on the sentence level — not because the ideas they present are complex, not because they are symbolic, allusive or ambiguous. These are literary qualities, and they are more or less absent from testing materials.

Of course no teacher disputes the necessity of being able to read for information. But if literature has no place in these tests, and if preparation for the tests becomes the sole goal of education, then the reading of literature will go out of fashion in our schools. I don’t have any illusions that adding literary passages to multiple-choice tests would instill a love of reading among students by itself. But it would keep those books on the syllabus, in the classrooms and in the hands of young readers — which is what really matters.

Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data. Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.

We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.

By

By CLAIRE NEEDELL HOLLANDER
Published: April 20, 2012

Courtesy: New York Times, Sunday Review

Filed under: Article of the Week,

Future Libraries and 17 Forms of Information Replacing Books

Question: As physical books go away, and computers and smart devices take their place, at what point does a library stop being a library, and start becoming something else?

Somewhere in the middle of this question lies the nagging fear and anxiety that we see brimming to the top among library insiders.

People who think libraries are going away simply because books are going digital are missing the true tectonic shifts taking place in the world of information.

Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books.

Libraries exist to give us access to information. Until recently, books were one of the more efficient forms of transferring information from one person to another. Today there are 17 basic forms of information that are taking the place of books, and in the future there will be many more…

Gas Station Map

Gas Station Maps

As a young child, I was enamored with the free maps I could pick up at gas stations. Over time I had collected maps for nearly every state and some of the Canadian Provinces.

Along with the early days of the automobile and a generally confusing road system came the need for maps. Oil companies quickly realized that people who knew where they were going often traveled more, and consequently bought more gasoline.

Over time, anyone driving a car soon came to expect free maps whenever they stopped for gas, and companies like Rand McNally, H.M. Gousha, and General Drafting turned out millions to meet demand.

In the early 1970s, when I was first learning the freedom of owning a car, I couldn’t imagine a time when these maps would not be an integral part of my life.

Today, as GPS and smartphones give us turn-by-turn instructions on where to go, printed road maps exist as little more than collectibles for people wishing to preserve their memories of a fading era.

Are printed books likely to go through a similar dwindling of popularity?

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Our Relationship with Information is Changing

As the form and delivery system for accessing information changes, our relationship with information also begins to morph.

If we treat this like other types relationships, we can begin to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

Gone are the days when we were simply “flirting” with our data, occasionally glancing at it, hoping it would pay attention to us as well.

In school we had more of a “dating” relationship, lugging books around, hoping they would impart their knowledge even though the parts that got read were few and far between. Much like dating a popular person, we became known by the books under our arms.

Once we started working, we became “married” to a relatively small universe of information that surrounded our job, company, and industry. People who became immersed in their particular universe became recognized as experts and quickly rose to the top.

Today we are beginning to have “affairs” with other exotic forms of information such as social networks and video chatting. All of these new forms of information seem much more alive and vibrant than the book world we had been married to for the past century.

Alone, on some dusty shelf, lie the books we had once been married to. On some level, many of us feel like we were cheating by abandoning our past, never getting closure for a divorce that left us with mixed loyalties haunting us on both a conscious and subconscious level.

If you think this is a crazy analogy, many will argue that its not. If anything, information is the heart and soul of our emotional self. Even though we may not feel it touching us like a finger pressing on our arm, a great piece of literature has a way of caressing our mind, adding fire to our inner rage, sending chills down the length of our spine, and giving us a euphoric high as we join our hero to reach a climactic conclusion.

Books of the past remain the physical manifestation of this kind of experience, and without their presence, a part of us feels lost.

Kindle e-book.The slimline Kindle?s electronic ink screen is de

Replacing Books

The transition to other forms of information has been happening for decades. Once we are able to get past the emotion connection we have to physical books, we begin to see how the information world is splintering off into dozens of different categories.

Here is a list of 17 primary categories of information that people turn to on a daily basis. While they are not direct replacements for physical books, they all have a way of eroding our reliance on them. There may be more that I’ve missed, but as you think through the following media channels, you’ll begin to understand how libraries of the future will need to function:

  1. Games – 135 million Americans play video games an hour or more each month. In the U.S. 190 million households will use a next-generation video game console in 2012, of which 148 million will be connected to the Internet. The average gamer is 35 years old and they have been playing games on average for 13 years.
  2. Digital Books – In January, USA Today reported a post-holiday e-book “surge,” with 32 of the top 50 titles on its most recent list selling more copies in digital format than in print. Self-published e-books now represent 20-27% of digital book sales.
  3. Audio Books – Audiobooks are the fastest growing sector of the publishing industry. There is currently a shortage of audiobooks worldwide as publishers race to meet demand. Only 0.75% (not even 1%!) of Amazon’s book catalog has so far been converted to audio. Last year more than $1 billion worth of audiobooks were sold in the U.S. alone. Over 5,000 public libraries now offer free downloadable audio books.
  4. Newspapers – Online readership of newspapers continues to grow, attracting more than 113 million readers in January 2012. Industry advertising revenues, however, continue to drop and are now at the same level as they were in 1950, when adjusted for inflation.
  5. Magazines – The U.S. magazine industry is comprised of 5,146 businesses publishing a total of 38,000 titles. Time spent reading newspapers or magazines combined is roughly 3.9 hours per week. Nearly half of all magazine consumption takes place with the TV on. The magazine industry is declined 3.5% last year.
  6. Music – According to Billboard’s “2011 Music Industry Report,” consumers bought 1.27 billion digital tracks last year, which accounted for 50.3% of all music sales. Digital track sales increased 8.5% in 2011. Meanwhile, physical sales declined 5%. According to Apple, there are an estimated 38 million songs in the known music universe.
  7. Photos – Over 250 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day
  8. Videos – Cisco estimates that over 90% of all Internet content will be video by 2015. Over 100,000 ‘years’ of Youtube video are viewed on Facebook every year. Over 350 million Youtube videos are shared on Twitter every year. Netflix streams 2 billion videos per quarter.
  9. Television – According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day, and owns 2.2 televisions. An estimated 41% of our information currently comes from television.
  10. Movies – There are currently over 39,500 movie screens in the U.S. with over 4,500 of them converted to 3D screens. The average American goes to 6 movies per year. However, almost one-third of U.S. broadband Households use the Internet to watch movies on their TV sets, according to Park Associates. That number is growing, with 4% of U.S. households buying a video media receiver, such as Apple TV and Roku, over the 2011 holiday season
  11. Radio – Satellite radio subscribers, currently at 20 million, is projected to reach 35 million by 2020. At the same time, Internet radio is projected to reach 196 million listeners by 2020. These combined equal the same number as terrestrial radio listeners.
  12. Blogs – There are currently over 70 million WordPress blogs and 39 million Tumblr blogs worldwide.
  13. Podcasts – According to Edison Research, an estimated 70 million Americans have listened to a podcast. The podcast audience has migrated from being predominantly “early adopters” to more closely resembling mainstream media consumers.
  14. Apps – There are now over 1.2 million smartphone apps with over 35 billion downloads. Sometime this year the number of apps will exceed the number of books in print – 3.2 million.
  15. Presentations – Leading the charge in this area, SlideShare is the world’s largest community for sharing presentations. With 60 million monthly visitors and 130 million pageviews, it is amongst the most visited 200 websites in the world.
  16. Courseware – The OpenCourseware movement has been catching fire with Apple leading the charge. iTunesU currently has over 1,000 Universities participating from 26 countries. Their selection of classes, now exceeding the 500,000 mark, have had over 700 million downloads. They recently announced they were expanding into the K-12 market.
  17. Personal Networks – Whether its LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest, people are becoming increasingly reliant on their personal network for information. There are now over 2.8 billion social media profiles, representing around half of all Internet users worldwide. LinkedIn now has over 147 million members. Facebook has over 1.1 billion members and accounts for 20% of all pageviews on the Internet. Google+ currently has over 90 million users.

Each of these forms of information has a place in future libraries. Whether or not physical books decline or even disappear has little relevance in the overall scheme of future library operations.

Steve Jobs introducing iCloud 673

Steve Jobs introducing iCloud

The Coming Era of the Library Cloud

In June 2011, Steve Jobs made his final public appearance at a software developer’s conference to unveil iCloud; a service that many believe will become his greatest legacy.

As Jobs envisioned it, the entire universe of songs, books, movies, and a variety of other information products would reside in iCloud and could be “pulled down” whenever someone needed to access it.

People would initially purchase the product through iTunes, and Apple would keep a copy of it in iCloud. So each subsequent purchase by other Apple users would be a quick download directly from iCloud.

Whether or not the information universe develops in the cloud like Jobs has envisioned, libraries will each need to develop their own cloud strategy for the future.

As an example, at a recent library event I was speaking at, one librarian mentioned she had just ordered 50 Kindles and 50 Nooks for their library. At the time, she was dealing with the restrictions from publishers that only allowed them to load each digital book on 10 devices. So which devices get the content in the end?

Over time, it’s easy to imagine a library with 350 Kindles, 400 iPads, 250 Nooks, 150 Xooms, and a variety of other devices. Keeping track of which content is loaded on each device will become a logistical nightmare. However, having each piece of digital content loaded in the cloud and restricting it to 10 simultaneous downloads will be far more manageable.

car-and-drugstore2

This snapshot in time could have been preserved by your local library.

The Value of the Community Archive

What was your community like in 1950, or for that matter in 1850 or even 1650? What role did your community play during the Civil War? How active was it during the Presidential elections of 1960? How did local people react to the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

We have access to plenty of history books that give us the “official story” of all the major events throughout history. But understanding the intersection of our city, our village, or our community with these earth-changing events has, for the most part, never been captured or preserved. In the future, this will become one of the most valuable functions provided by a community library.

Libraries have always had a mandate to archive the records of their service area, but it has rarely been pursued with more than passing enthusiasm. Archives of city council meetings and local history books made the cut, but few considered the library to be a good photo or video archive.

Over time, many of the newspapers, radio, and television stations will begin to disappear. As these businesses lose their viability, their storerooms of historical broadcast tapes and documents will need to be preserved. More specifically, every radio broadcast, newspaper, and television broadcast will need to be digitized and archived.

With the advent of iCloud and other similar services libraries will want to expand their hosting of original collections, and installing the equipment to digitize the information. The sale of this information to the outside world through an iTunes-like service could become a valuable income stream for libraries in the future.

Final Thoughts

Libraries, much like any living breathing organism, will have to adapt to the complex nature of the ever-changing world of information. As information becomes more sophisticated and complex, so will libraries.

Libraries are here to stay because they have a survival instinct. They have created a mutually dependent relationship with the communities they serve, and most importantly, they know how to adapt to the changing world around them.

I am always impressed with the creative things being done in libraries. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” There are a lot of beautiful dreams taking place that will help form tomorrow’s libraries.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

Courtesy: http://www.futuristspeaker.com

Filed under: Article of the Week,

Why 2012 is starting to look like 1984

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Between SOPA, NDAA, telecommunications surveillance, and people’s willingness to share endlessly via social networking, will 2012 mark the year consumers irreversibly surrender their privacy and freedoms?

A mantra of the Internet age, articulated in 1984 by WELL founder Stewart Brand, is that “information wants to be free.” Back then — the days of 360K floppies and 1200 baud modems — Brand was referring to digital technology making information ever easier to distribute, copy, and remix than their old-school analog counterparts. The oft-forgotten corollary Brand offered at the same time was “Information also wants to be expensive,” because particular items, while perhaps of no interest to one person, can be “immeasurably valuable” to someone else.

As we head into 2012, the conflict Brand articulated between information’s “want” to be both free and expensive is taking on new dimensions. So-called “digital content” like books, music, and television is increasingly falling into the expensive category, thanks to online stores, digital distribution, copyright, and DRM. Meanwhile, information about ourselves — like our location, habits, activities, possessions, transactions, preferences, and personal information — is increasingly becoming “free,” often accessible to advertisers, corporations, and governments without our explicit consent. Or, in many cases, proffered up willingly in exchange for things like coupons.

As we enter 2012, the tension between “free” and “expensive” information is becoming more charged than ever. What could 2012 bring… and will it end up resembling Orwell’s 1984? Here are a few of the threats on the horizon.

SOPA-Internet-censorship-shutterstock
Stop Online Piracy Act

The Stop Online Piracy Act and its companion piece, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) are bills currently being crafted by U.S. Congress aiming to expand the capabilities of U.S. law enforcement agencies to combat copyright and intellectual property infringement — piracy. The proposed legislation is aimed at both the piracy of digital goods (books, movies, television shows, games, and things like live broadcasts), but also the use of the Internet and online marketplaces to traffic in physical counterfeit goods. That means pirated DVDs, Blu-rays, and CDs, but also fake drugs, fashion and accessories, electronics, antiques, collectibles, and many more items.

At a basic level, most people accept that piracy and counterfeiting are bad. It’s theft, and theft is rarely justifiable. So, on the surface, the notions behind SOPA don’t seem that onerous. The devil is, of course, in the details — or lack of details, given the very broad language in SOPA as it exists today. As originally proposed, SOPA would enable copyright holders to seek court orders against Web sites they believe are infringing on copyrights or either enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Depending on one’s definitions, merely linking to a site that contained allegedly infringing content could be construed as “facilitating” infringement, so copyright holders could demand the site or account with that link be taken down.

In a worst-case scenario, Internet users who share a link to a cool video with their friends might find their social networking accounts suspended for “facilitating” alleged copyright infringement. Similarly, journalists writing about piracy could find their sites or publications suspended. And if a legitimate site or account were to get hijacked, transferred, or sold (because that never happens, right?) anyone who linked to or did business with once-legitimate content or sites might suddenly find themselves in violation of the law.

Under SOPA, a court could require ISPs to take down sites accused of infringement, order search engines to drop the sites from their listings, or bar online advertising and payment services (like AdSense or PayPal) from doing business with the site. The goal of those measures is ostensibly to shut down online marketplaces for pirated and counterfeit goods: Get them offline, and shut off access to their sources of online revenue. Although the bill provides for penalties against copyright holders who knowingly make false accusations of infringement (emphasis mine), the bill also grants immunity to ISPs who proactively take down accused sites. In other words, there’s no penalty to ISPs who take down sites because they’re accused of infringement, even if those claims are false. That’s a significant weakening of “safe harbor” provisions created by 1998′s still-controversial Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DCMA). Similarly, the process of requesting or obtaining a court order over alleged infringement would largely take place outside the public eye, likely with the owners of the accused site unaware action was being taken against it. If the order were granted, one morning a site or service operator could wake up and find their site gone. Site owners can file a counter-claim if they’re barred from ad or payment services, but the counter-claim would have no force.

That’s not the full course of SOPA. It also has broad implications for cybersecurity and DNSSEC, a new security layer for DNS. However, provisions like the ones outlined above obviously have tremendous implications for search engines and services that host user-generated content — think Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the like, but also for personal sites, blogs, small businesses, and (really) any person, organization, or business with a website. Under SOPA, merely linking to other sites could become a dangerous proposition, lest the site at the other end of the link be accused of copyright infringement.

Opponents of SOPA argue these provisions would fundamentally break the Internet and stifle innovation, and could lead to many sites and services migrating their infrastructure out of the U.S. to escape potential liability. Further, it seems unlikely SOPA’s provisions would do much to combat online piracy and trafficking in counterfeit goods, since site operators are already adept at moving to new hosting services in the space of a few hours: Even SOPA’s proposed streamlining of takedowns would still move at glacial speeds compared to the Internet world.

Proponents of the legislation argue SOPA’s provisions would protect revenues of content creators that would otherwise be lost and, hence, preserve jobs — an important buzzword in today’s political and economic climate. Supporters also note SOPA is not intended to go after single instances of links on blogs, social networking feeds, or other sites; rather, the bill is meant to offer law enforcement and rights holders tools to go after bigger fish, like substantial piracy and counterfeiting operations. However, the language of the bill as it stands today contains no such limits, implicitly relying on barriers to entry (court costs, attorneys’ fees, documentation, etc.) to curb potential abuses.

godaddy-sopa

SOPA (and PIPA) are not law. Both bills are proposed legislation that has yet to make it out of committee for votes before the House and Senate, let alone be signed by the president. Nonetheless, the proposed legislation has drawn a wealth of criticism, with domain registrar GoDaddy bearing the brunt of anti-SOPA sentiment by first endorsing the bill, then retracting its support. A handful of gaming companies have also apparently withdrawn their explicit support, although it’s not clear whether that’s a genuine reassessment of their stance or merely a PR move in the wake of the GoDaddy fracas. Many other top-line Internet companies—Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, eBay, Wikimedia Foundation — oppose SOPA, as do the EFF, Human Rights Watch, and the ACLU.

The bottom line is that if legislation like SOPA and PIPA become law, the way the Internet works for most Americans could change substantially. Much of the information we understand to be “free” today, even to the level of tweets and status updates, could suddenly come with enormous consequences. The weight of those consequences will tend to suppress Internet users’ willingness to speak, communicate, link, and share — and that’s why opponents say SOPA will “break” the Internet.

National Defense Authorization Act

SOPA is not yet law, but the most recent National Defense Authorization Act is. The NDAA is an annual bill passed by the U.S. Congress authorizing the budget of the U.S. Defense Department. It’s always a bit of a political hot potato because few presidents can justify failing authorizing revenue for the Defense Department, particularly when tens of thousands of U.S. troops are overseas serving in extended conflicts. Since the President does not have a line-item veto, lawmakers try to attach all sorts of things to the NDAA, knowing the President will almost certainly have to sign them all through into law.

This year, the NDAA contains a doozy: It enables the U.S. military to conduct anti-terrorist operations on U.S. soil, and authorizes indefinite detention of terror suspects, including U.S. citizens, without trial. The law is not entirely clear whether the military can indefinitely detain U.S. citizens domestically, but it can certainly do so overseas, and foreigners can be detained whether overseas or within U.S. borders.

In signing this year’s NDAA, President Obama included a signing statement attempting to clarify his position on the law. “The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it. In particular, I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists.”

In essence, this year’s NDAA expands on provisions granted into the Patriot Act and extends the military’s role in domestic law enforcement. Now, the U.S. military can detain anyone, anywhere in the world, without trial or process, simply because they’re suspected of terrorist activities.

lulzsec arrested

This may not seem to have anything to do with the Internet — until you think about groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks. Could Anonymous (or groups within Anonymous) attacking credit card operators, the threatening the NYSE, law enforcement organizations, or other organizations constitute terrorist activity? Similarly, would Wikileaks’ publication of classified U.S. diplomatic cables constitute terrorist activity? Suddenly, everyday Internet users speaking up in support of groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks might find themselves accused of aiding and facilitating terrorists. Similarly, if U.S. authorities decide these or similar groups’ activities constitute terrorism, members or alleged members might find themselves shipped to Guantanamo. No trial, no process, no appeal.

The Obama administration says it does not intend to exercise these powers. Even if that’s true, now that they’re law the only way they can be undone is with additional legislation that repeals the provisions, or through a court challenge, which would almost certainly ensure if the powers were ever utilized. But just because the Obama administration says it won’t use the powers doesn’t mean future administrations won’t. And let’s not forget that, at least in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Obama administration concluded it has the power to assassinate U.S. citizens without trail. (The American-born al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen by a targeted U.S. drone strike in September 2011.)

The bottom line here is that it doesn’t matter whether the U.S. government ever exercises the powers granted under this year’s NDAA: the very fact they exist suppresses American civil liberties by explicitly authorizing the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial, anywhere in the world. For folks who hold unpopular views, or merely know people who do, that’s a sobering thing to consider.

Telecom Immunity

Confused yet? Things get weirder. Late last month a U.S. Court of Appeals panel upheld the constitutionality of a law that makes telecommunications operators immune to lawsuits for assisting the federal government’s surveillance of American citizens. In other words, if your cell phone, telephone, or Internet provider turns over information about you, your activities, and use of their services over to the Federal government — even illegally — you’d have no grounds to sue. Communications companies face no sanctions for disclosing personal information to the federal government, including account information and even usage data like sites visited, account names, and location data.

When can the federal government require communications companies to hand over customer information? Essentially, anytime it likes: As part of anti-terrorist measures enacted by the Bush administration, the federal government has been engaging in warrantless wiretapping of individuals it has reason to believe may be connected to terrorist activities. Although originally revealed back in late 2005, the practice was sustained by the Bush administration and continues under the Obama administration. The activities include tapping phone calls, as well as intercepting Internet traffic (email, Web use, etc.) VoIP traffic, and text messages. The government is the sole arbiter of what individuals are surveilled, and is under no requirement to disclose its activities.

However, there is an upshot to the appeals court ruling. The court only finds the immunity granted to telecommunications operators to be legal; a case against the government challenging the legality of warrantless wiretapping practices can still proceed. That case, Jewel v. NSA, alleged that the National Security Agency set up secure facilities within AT&T facilities across the United States to engage in an “unprecedented suspicionless general search” of digital communications.

“The federal courts remain a forum to consider the constitutionality of the wiretapping scheme and other claims, including claims for injunctive relief,” wrote Judge Margaret McKeown of the 9th Circuit.

However, even if the Justice Department does not appeal the ruling that Jewel vs. NSA can proceed, it is likely to move the case be dismissed on state secrets grounds. Given the volume of information that has already been disclosed about the NSA’s domestic surveillance operations, the Justice Department may have a difficult time asserting a state secret privilege, but it does mean key proceedings of the case could take place outside public view.

The true value of privacy

Does any of this actually matter? Some might argue that talking about preserving privacy and civil liberties is pointless in an age when many everyday citizens regularly share intimate details of their daily lives with the entire world, including who they know, where they are, what they’re doing, what they like, what they’re looking for, and what they buy. Couple that with personal information about most people squirreled away in private and government databases (think health care providers, credit reporting agencies, banks, credit card companies, even grocery stores, not to mention the erstwhile efforts of online advertisers to track your every move across every site on the Internet) and it’s easy to see why former Sun head Scott McNealy said “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” And that was way back in 1999, before things like smartphones, Facebook, and Foursquare.

facebook-timeline

Fundamentally, the value of privacy comes down to whether individuals consider personal information to be free or expensive. It’s easy to consider information about other people “free,” after all, most of the time, it doesn’t matter to us. That leads to the comforting fallacy that individuals have nothing to worry about if they have nothing to hide. Perhaps, for a handful of people who have absolutely no qualms about living their entire lives in the public eye, that might be true.

However, there’s a distinct difference between having something to hide (like, say, terrorist connections), and not wanting every iota of personal information available to anyone, at any time. Few people would want their entire medical histories made public—which could lead to problems with insurance, health care, job prospects, and more. Similarly, few people would want their communications or financial records available to anyone, or consent to having their location monitored at all times. Is it acceptable to live our lives constantly wondering how our actions might be interpreted by the myriad of other people, organizations, and governments who might be watching?

Simply put, most people believe that information about themselves belongs to them, and ought to be under their control. We find information about ourselves to be “immeasurably valuable.” Sure, we’re free to share details if we like. But we should also be free not to share information, or to have information about ourselves collected and used with no right of recourse, appeal, deletion, or correction, because we recognize that information could be misused by others, to our detriment.

Unfortunately, in the world of 2012, it looks like Americans — and most other people — are finding themselves with less and less choice in the matter. And if you’re a marketer or a government, maybe that’s doubleplusgood.

By Geoff Duncan

inShare90

Courtesy: http://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/why-2012-is-starting-to-look-like-1984/

Filed under: Article of the Week,

10 Solutions for Climate Change

The enormity of global warming can be daunting and dispiriting. What can one person, or even one nation, do on their own to slow and reverse climate change? But just as ecologist Stephen Pacala and physicist Robert Socolow, both at Princeton University, came up with 15 so-called "wedges" for nations to utilize toward this goal—each of which is challenging but feasible and, in some combination, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safer levels—there are personal lifestyle changes that you can make too that, in some combination, can help reduce your carbon impact. Not all are right for everybody. Some you may already be doing or absolutely abhor. But implementing just a few of them could make a difference.

Forego Fossil Fuels—The first challenge is eliminating the burning of coal, oil and, eventually, natural gas. This is perhaps the most daunting challenge as denizens of richer nations literally eat, wear, work, play and even sleep on the products made from such fossilized sunshine. And citizens of developing nations want and arguably deserve the same comforts, which are largely thanks to the energy stored in such fuels.

Oil is the lubricant of the global economy, hidden inside such ubiquitous items as plastic and corn, and fundamental to the transportation of both consumers and goods. Coal is the substrate, supplying roughly half of the electricity used in the U.S. and nearly that much worldwide—a percentage that is likely to grow, according to the International Energy Agency. There are no perfect solutions for reducing dependence on fossil fuels (for example, carbon neutral biofuels can drive up the price of food and lead to forest destruction, and while nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases, it does produce radioactive waste), but every bit counts.

So try to employ alternatives when possible—plant-derived plastics, biodiesel, wind power—and to invest in the change, be it by divesting from oil stocks or investing in companies practicing carbon capture and storage.

Infrastructure Upgrade—Buildings worldwide contribute around one third of all greenhouse gas emissions (43 percent in the U.S. alone), even though investing in thicker insulation and other cost-effective, temperature-regulating steps can save money in the long run. Electric grids are at capacity or overloaded, but power demands continue to rise. And bad roads can lower the fuel economy of even the most efficient vehicle. Investing in new infrastructure, or radically upgrading existing highways and transmission lines, would help cut greenhouse gas emissions and drive economic growth in developing countries.

Of course, it takes a lot of cement, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, to construct new buildings and roads. The U.S. alone contributed 50.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2005 from cement production, which requires heating limestone and other ingredients to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit). Mining copper and other elements needed for electrical wiring and transmission also causes globe-warming pollution.

But energy-efficient buildings and improved cement-making processes (such as using alternative fuels to fire up the kiln) could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world and prevent them in the developing world.

Move Closer to WorkTransportation is the second leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. (burning a single gallon of gasoline produces 20 pounds of CO2). But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One way to dramatically curtail transportation fuel needs is to move closer to work, use mass transit, or switch to walking, cycling or some other mode of transport that does not require anything other than human energy. There is also the option of working from home and telecommuting several days a week.

Cutting down on long-distance travel would also help, most notably airplane flights, which are one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions and a source that arguably releases such emissions in the worst possible spot (higher in the atmosphere). Flights are also one of the few sources of globe-warming pollution for which there isn’t already a viable alternative: jets rely on kerosene, because it packs the most energy per pound, allowing them to travel far and fast, yet it takes roughly 10 gallons of oil to make one gallon of JetA fuel. Restricting flying to only critical, long-distance trips—in many parts of the world, trains can replace planes for short- to medium-distance trips—would help curb airplane emissions.

Consume Less—The easiest way to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions is simply to buy less stuff. Whether by forgoing an automobile or employing a reusable grocery sack, cutting back on consumption results in fewer fossil fuels being burned to extract, produce and ship products around the globe.

Think green when making purchases. For instance, if you are in the market for a new car, buy one that will last the longest and have the least impact on the environment. Thus, a used vehicle with a hybrid engine offers superior fuel efficiency over the long haul while saving the environmental impact of new car manufacture.

Paradoxically, when purchasing essentials, such as groceries, buying in bulk can reduce the amount of packaging—plastic wrapping, cardboard boxes and other unnecessary materials. Sometimes buying more means consuming less.

Be Efficient—A potentially simpler and even bigger impact can be made by doing more with less. Citizens of many developed countries are profligate wasters of energy, whether by speeding in a gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicle or leaving the lights on when not in a room.

Good driving—and good car maintenance, such as making sure tires are properly inflated—can limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from a vehicle and, perhaps more importantly, lower the frequency of payment at the pump.

Similarly, employing more efficient refrigerators, air conditioners and other appliances, such as those rated highly under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, can cut electric bills while something as simple as weatherproofing the windows of a home can reduce heating and cooling bills. Such efforts can also be usefully employed at work, whether that means installing more efficient turbines at the power plant or turning the lights off when you leave the office.

Eat Smart, Go Vegetarian?—Corn grown in the U.S. requires barrels of oil for the fertilizer to grow it and the diesel fuel to harvest and transport it. Some grocery stores stock organic produce that do not require such fertilizers, but it is often shipped from halfway across the globe. And meat, whether beef, chicken or pork, requires pounds of feed to produce a pound of protein.

Choosing food items that balance nutrition, taste and ecological impact is no easy task. Foodstuffs often bear some nutritional information, but there is little to reveal how far a head of lettuce, for example, has traveled.

University of Chicago researchers estimate that each meat-eating American produces 1.5 tons more greenhouse gases through their food choice than do their vegetarian peers. It would also take far less land to grow the crops necessary to feed humans than livestock, allowing more room for planting trees.

Stop Cutting Down Trees—Every year, 33 million acres of forests are cut down. Timber harvesting in the tropics alone contributes 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. That represents 20 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions and a source that could be avoided relatively easily.

Improved agricultural practices along with paper recycling and forest management—balancing the amount of wood taken out with the amount of new trees growing—could quickly eliminate this significant chunk of emissions.

And when purchasing wood products, such as furniture or flooring, buy used goods or, failing that, wood certified to have been sustainably harvested. The Amazon and other forests are not just the lungs of the earth, they may also be humanity’s best short-term hope for limiting climate change.

Unplug—Believe it or not, U.S. citizens spend more money on electricity to power devices when off than when on. Televisions, stereo equipment, computers, battery chargers and a host of other gadgets and appliances consume more energy when seemingly switched off, so unplug them instead.

Purchasing energy-efficient gadgets can also save both energy and money—and thus prevent more greenhouse gas emissions. To take but one example, efficient battery chargers could save more than one billion kilowatt-hours of electricity—$100 million at today’s electricity prices—and thus prevent the release of more than one million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Swapping old incandescent lightbulbs for more efficient replacements, such as compact fluorescents (warning: these lightbulbs contain mercury and must be properly disposed of at the end of their long life), would save billions of kilowatt-hours. In fact, according to the EPA, replacing just one incandescent lightbulb in every American home would save enough energy to provide electricity to three million American homes.

One Child—There are at least 6.6 billion people living today, a number that is predicted by the United Nations to grow to at least nine billion by mid-century. The U.N. Environmental Program estimates that it requires 54 acres to sustain an average human being today—food, clothing and other resources extracted from the planet. Continuing such population growth seems unsustainable.

Falling birth rates in some developed and developing countries (a significant portion of which are due to government-imposed limits on the number of children a couple can have) have begun to reduce or reverse the population explosion. It remains unclear how many people the planet can comfortably sustain, but it is clear that per capita energy consumption must go down if climate change is to be controlled.

Ultimately, a one child per couple rule is not sustainable either and there is no perfect number for human population. But it is clear that more humans means more greenhouse gas emissions.

Future Fuels—Replacing fossil fuels may prove the great challenge of the 21st century. Many contenders exist, ranging from ethanol derived from crops to hydrogen electrolyzed out of water, but all of them have some drawbacks, too, and none are immediately available at the scale needed.

Biofuels can have a host of negative impacts, from driving up food prices to sucking up more energy than they produce. Hydrogen must be created, requiring either reforming natural gas or electricity to crack water molecules. Biodiesel hybrid electric vehicles (that can plug into the grid overnight) may offer the best transportation solution in the short term, given the energy density of diesel and the carbon neutral ramifications of fuel from plants as well as the emissions of electric engines. A recent study found that the present amount of electricity generation in the U.S. could provide enough energy for the country’s entire fleet of automobiles to switch to plug-in hybrids, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

But plug-in hybrids would still rely on electricity, now predominantly generated by burning dirty coal. Massive investment in low-emission energy generation, whether solar-thermal power or nuclear fission, would be required to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And even more speculative energy sources—hyperefficient photovoltaic cells, solar energy stations in orbit or even fusion—may ultimately be required.

The solutions above offer the outline of a plan to personally avoid contributing to global warming. But should such individual and national efforts fail, there is another, potentially desperate solution:

Experiment Earth—Climate change represents humanity’s first planetwide experiment. But, if all else fails, it may not be the last. So-called geoengineering, radical interventions to either block sunlight or reduce greenhouse gases, is a potential last resort for addressing the challenge of climate change.

Among the ideas: releasing sulfate particles in the air to mimic the cooling effects of a massive volcanic eruption; placing millions of small mirrors or lenses in space to deflect sunlight; covering portions of the planet with reflective films to bounce sunlight back into space; fertilizing the oceans with iron or other nutrients to enable plankton to absorb more carbon; and increasing cloud cover or the reflectivity of clouds that already form.

All may have unintended consequences, making the solution worse than the original problem. But it is clear that at least some form of geoengineering will likely be required: capturing carbon dioxide before it is released and storing it in some fashion, either deep beneath the earth, at the bottom of the ocean or in carbonate minerals. Such carbon capture and storage is critical to any serious effort to combat climate change.

Additional reporting by Larry Greenemeier and Nikhil Swaminathan.

 

By David Biello  | November 26, 2007

Courtesy: Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com

Filed under: Article of the Week,

Fear, Begone!

By: Salini Johnson, India

It is written in white on an olive green background board erected at Nathula Pass, traversing the Old Silk Route, that, “Sleep peacefully at your homes, Indian Army is guarding the frontiers”. The first time I saw this, instead of feeling reassured, I was perplexed. Why should we be scared of our neighbours? Granted that there are physical, cultural and geographical differences between various groups of people living in varied regions of the globe, but these are purely evolutionary variations. In essence, we are all made of flesh and blood and, as far as a rational mind can see, we all are children of Mother Earth meant to coexist peacefully. Then why is Man so intent on securing his ‘borders’ day and night?

The shortest answer to this question would be ‘fear’. Aristotle once wisely said, “Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.” Over centuries, mankind has forgotten to feel true fraternity. Our eyes have turned blind to who our true brothers are. If the colour of the skin of a fellow being is not the same as ours, we demarcate our land from theirs and proudly proclaim the divide as our ’border’. Then under the pretext of granting him the title of our ‘esteemed neighbour’, we single him out as our enemy. We are scared of what our neighbour is about to do. Similarly seeing us conniving against him, this poor fellow too gets scared. In the end, we eye each other as potential foes in private while we exchange handshakes and sugar-coated words in public. As time and technology progress, we build complex defence equipments to ‘defend’, even if the poor of our nations are starving to death by the minute.

We would go to any extent to guard our ‘borders’ against impending attacks – commission great scientific minds to split atoms when they ought to be eradicating the nation’s food crisis; form the armed forces, one each for land, water and air, and so on. We devise more and more such imprudent plans and set aside a chunk of our revenue as ‘defence expenditure’. It is as if we are restraining ourselves from being friendly to one’s own friend. All this hard work accomplish nothing but in aiding to mount up the tension, until one day it reaches its zenith and the most disgusting trait of humankind reveals itself in the form of War. In War, a man finds himself unable to recognize one of his own. He revels in destruction and despair until finally, he is forced to wave the white flag and beg for peace. The same man, who did not think twice about pulling the trigger on his brethren, now laments his lost dear ones in the aftermath of his own brainchild, War.

Oh! There’s more as the ordeal does not end here. Over the years, we have become adept at jailing people who stray over to ‘our’ country. One step over the invisible, man-made ‘border’ and you are in for a lifetime. One night, Sarabjit Singh, an Indian farmer who lived in a village near the India-Pakistan border, wandered off accidentally in a drunken haze to the other nation’s territory. He was captured, tried and sentenced to death which he and his family assert is a case of mistaken identity. Anyway he has been under solitary confinement in the Kot Lakhpat prison in Lahore for the last twenty years and still is. This is only an instance from thousands of people of one nation languishing in the dingy prison cells of another nation and vice versa. Simultaneously, on a different level altogether, glasses are chinked together after diplomatic talks and round table conferences to toast for a friendship that exists only on paper. These so-called talks and dialogues are doled out at plush venues from time to time with no tangible results to show. After all, what do they know of an agonizing lifetime devastated by years of incarceration endured between the pressing walls of a prison cell? The fact that we, the youth care about these precious lives withering away in prisons, irrespective of their nationality, is the greatest message we can convey to the leaders of the world.

Why can’t we for once accept the fact that we all are one? Now it is the reign of ‘me, myself and I’ and our mindsets simply refuse to accommodate another individual, let alone another nation. Fear has got the better of us. Even while doing something, our one eye keeps track of what our neighbour is up to. Our insecurity and fear have destroyed too many and too much. Numerous invaluable lives have been laid in our country’s name. But when we accept the World as our nation, amity among all is bestowed. Then there would no longer be unreasonable fear stalking us in our dreams, no more lives to be perished and no more Borders and Wars. But to attain all these we need to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, as our Holy texts have preached since time immemorial. As the French writer Anais Nin has said, “Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of withering, of tarnishing.” These words have beautifully captured the path to redemption for mankind and it is up to us to do the rest.

image

Written By: Salini Johnson, India who is an undergraduate student of English Language and Literature at Govt. College for Women, Trivandrum under the University of Kerala, India.

She was the KVS National Topper in Humanities in Class XII , 2010-2011.

This article is a contest entry in the “ Your Message to the World Contest” conducted by  Opptunity.. Inspiring youth! (http://www.opptunity.com/ymtw-2011/).

You can leave a comment on the article page http://www.opptunity.com/ymtw-2011/2011/11/fear-begone/

(As per the competition selection guidelines, 80% weightage goes to the average of marks given by all judges across different metrics, while 20% marks will go to the popularity index of an article.)

So, if you like the article, visit http://www.opptunity.com/ymtw-2011/2011/11/fear-begone/  and post a comment.

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Digital textbooks open a new chapter

South Korea, one of the world’s highest-rated education systems, aims to consolidate its position by digitising its entire curriculum.

By 2015, it wants to be able to deliver all its curriculum materials in a digital form through computers. The information that would once have been in paper textbooks will be delivered on screen.

South Korea’s Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Ju-Ho Lee, said that his department was preparing a promotion strategy for "Smart Education", focusing on customised learning and teaching.

The project, launched during the summer, will involve wireless networks in all schools to allow students to learn "whenever and wherever", as well as an education information system that can run in a variety of devices including PCs, laptops, tablets and internet-connected TVs.

He said the government would support an open content market containing a variety of learning materials, aimed at keeping up quality while keeping down costs.

"Smart Education will change how we perceive textbooks," said Mr Lee.

"The transfer from the traditional paper textbooks to digital textbooks will allow students to leave behind their heavy backpacks and explore the world beyond the classroom."

Tech-friendly teenagers

The intended benefits include extending the choice of subjects for students in rural areas who previously have lacked specialist teachers and to make it easier for pupils to study from home.

South Korea’s teenagers should be particularly receptive to such educational technology.

Showroom in South Korea

  • South Korea is second in global rankings for reading, fourth for maths and fifth for science
  • Family spending on education is the highest in the world, as a proportion of household income
  • It has been among the most improved education systems in the world. In 1945, 78% of the population were illiterate. It now outperforms all European countries and the US at reading
  • In the 1980s, South Korea banned private tutoring
  • This year it introduced a ban on corporal punishment

An Organisation for Economic Co-ordination and Development (OECD) international assessment found that 15-year-olds in South Korea were the most competent users of digital technologies in a survey of 16 developed countries.

They were best at evaluating information on the internet, assessing its credibility and navigating web pages.

South Korea’s pre-eminence has not come about by chance.

Unesco has documented the way that South Korea has carefully controlled the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in education.

The government has understood the importance of having formal standards, so that systems can work with each other and quality can be assured.

The United States, alarmed by its relative international educational decline, is now also increasing the resources it devotes to digital learning.

But its move appears to be an acknowledgement of a lack of joined-up thinking in the past.

President Barack Obama’s "Digital Promise", announced last month, involves a new national centre to advance technologies that can supposedly transform teaching and learning.

The remit is "to determine quickly what is working and what is not, and transform today’s fragmented learning technology market, paving the way for the widespread use of learning technologies that deliver the best results for students, parents, and teachers".

Teaching gap

"With more than 14,000 school districts, and an outdated procurement system, it’s difficult for entrepreneurs to break into the market, and it’s also tough to prove that their products can deliver meaningful results," the White House said.

DIGITAL CLASSROOMS

E-book reader

  • The Indian state of Tamil Nadu is giving 6.8 million free laptops to school pupils
  • Uruguay plans to be the first country where all school pupils are given their own laptop
  • Apple says 600 US school districts are switching to digital textbooks on iPads
  • Amazon has launched a rental service in the US for digital textbooks for students

Given the way education in the US is so highly devolved there are bound to be continuing questions over how much the initiative can achieve.

Another question is whether technology in the classroom is what really makes a difference.

A study by the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University found that digital technology in the classroom might help to engage pupils in their learning and could save schools money.

But the Achilles’ heel – commonplace with educational technology – was the teachers. They felt they needed far greater training in how to integrate the resources into their lesson plans.

"The sad truth is that students can learn just as badly with a class full of computers, interactive whiteboards and mobile technology as they can with wooden desks and a chalkboard," said science and ICT teacher David Weston, founder of the consultancy Informed Education.

There might be enormous potential for software or gadgets to engage and challenge students in new and imaginative ways.

"But unless there is a focus on developing the teaching expertise to support this then you run the risk of wasting time, money and opportunity," he said.

And it may be that technology is seen as a way to achieve cost savings by – to put it crudely – replacing teachers with robots.

Digital tutor

Setting out its Digital Promise ambitions, the White House said: "For years, researchers have been working on developing educational software that is as effective as a personal tutor."

President Obama

Digital Promise has been launched by US President Obama to keep up with global competitors

Preliminary results from a US military "digital tutor" project suggested the time needed to become an expert in information technology could be reduced from years to months, said the White House.

"Achieving similar results in subjects such as math would transform K-12 [primary] education." It certainly would.

And although children tend to be quicker on the uptake than their teachers where anything with a screen is involved, this cannot be taken for granted.

The OECD’s study of the technology-friendliness of 15-year-olds highlighted crucial differences between printed and digital texts, with their non-linear navigation.

"Individuals who develop the skills needed to use these texts efficiently and effectively will be at an increasing advantage in accessing higher education, finding and succeeding in a well-paid job, and participating fully in society."

So policy makers must guard against creating a new "digital divide" between those who could and who could not use these new technologies, it warned.

Big Brother?

But is there a bigger, darker concern about such a centralised digital curriculum? If you put all your educational eggs in one digital basket you might hatch a monster.

An unscrupulous government could relish the fact that everything a child learns is controllable through one, easily manipulated, digital portal.

Electronic books

Do we trust the written word in digital books in the same way as the traditional printed editions?

Such fears have been examined in the novel, The Book, by M Clifford. The US author presents a dystopian civilization in which all information is accessed through an e-reader. The people discover that the digital content has been subtly altered by a corrupt government.

"There is something about paper that commands trust," Mr Clifford said. "And reading is very personal. A bonfire of books used to make us cringe because it represented the destruction of that trustworthy bond."

In an increasingly paperless society, we can trust the technology, but questions need to be raised when governments are involved, he says.

"The scare for me was always the subtlety. The delicate manipulation, one word at a time, to alter someone’s perception of the truth.

"Not only is there a fear of changing historical record, but of tailoring someone’s perspective on the world. If you think that what you are reading is authentic, then your guard is lowered and you accept it as reality."

He debunks his own dark scenario – but has doubts. "As we’ve seen, the world is becoming more interconnected on an individual level and so it is unlikely that factual information could be so widely altered. We are probably safe.

"But the fact that it could happen without anyone knowing is the real nail-biter."

 

By Gary Eason

Courtesy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15175962

Filed under: Article of the Week,

Finding good information on the internet

Have you heard about the highly endangered tree octopus of the forests of the Pacific Northwest? "Ridiculous," you say? But I found a whole webpage devoted to saving them, so they must exist, right? This website has been used to intentionally mislead students (see news article) as part of a scientific study, and it points out a real problem our society faces in the digital information age: anyone can put anything on the internet.[Ed. this sentence edited for clarification]

The internet empowers us to educate ourselves and make more informed choices and decisions without leaving our couches. But if we believe everything we find on the internet, we are likely to wind up making some very poor decisions. In this new digital information age, how do we keep from being misinformed? As a skeptical environmental research scientist and educator I have picked up a few tricks that anyone can use to find and select high-quality information from the internet.

#1 Don’t be scared of scientific papers

Aren’t scientific papers too hard to read?

While scientific papers may be filled with difficult to understand jargon, anyone can scan them and get the gist (pdf); just skip the confusing words or look them up. If you are still confused and it is important that you understand completely, ask for help from someone trained in the field of interest. For instance, if it is a medical paper, you might take the article to a physician, but not all doctors have the necessary level of scientific literacy to understand the article and you many need a second opinion.

You might also contact a medical researcher you know or are able to find using the internet and ask for their help in understanding what the article means. You could also take advantage of the power of social media and ask questions on twitter, adding hashtags for science or medical topics. You can even find and follow individual scientists in particular fields of interest on twitter using sciencepond.com.

Additionally, certain websites may allow you to ask questions directly of health professionals or scientists. Alternatively, you may be able to email the lead author of the study directly. Their address is usually listed on the publication and they are often thrilled to have someone interested in their research.

Why use scientific papers?

Scientific papers are the best source of information on the internet. These papers use rigorous experimental and statistical methods that improve validity of the evidence presented within them. For instance, scientific studies often allow the clear identification of cause and effect because only one factor is different at a time, so that the effect of that single factor can be determined. Additionally, these studies often repeat the tests many times using randomization of specific aspects of the experimental design, which helps reduce the likelihood that the results were due to chance or unknown factors.

Scientific papers are also peer-reviewed. Peer-review is a process by which other scientists in the field are asked to anonymously and critically evaluate the research presented within a paper. The editor ultimately makes the decision on whether or not to publish the articles, based on feedback from reviewers and his or her own critique.

This usually ensures that the information published in these papers has been obtained through rigorous, high-quality techniques and that the authors do not make overly speculative conclusions that do not match the data. However, this is not always true. With the proliferation of peer-reviewed journals, it may be that erroneous or poorly conducted research sometimes gets published. Even high profile journals sometimes make mistakes, but with a few techniques, you can make sure these publications don’t trick you.

How do I find appropriate scientific papers?

Google scholar allows anyone to search directly for scientific papers. This is an incredibly powerful tool. When I am trying to find information on a topic that is really important, I use several simple tricks to ensure that I am not misled by a single erroneous publication.

First, I add the word "review" to my search. Review articles generally consider most, if not all studies published on a topic and summarize them, often weighing the trade-offs between these studies, and giving the opinion of the authors about the relative weight of the evidence.

Second, if no recent review exists, I scan the top 10-50 articles and make a list, conducting my own mini-review on the topic. How do I read so many studies you ask? I don’t. I read the titles and abstracts first. Abstracts are a brief, simplified summary of the information contained within the article. Scanning these abstracts is a handy way to quickly examine a large collection of papers for their key points.

Another trick I use to obtain the best information is to obtain the most recent information. Google scholar gives you an option to narrow your search to a range of years. A drop down box allows you to specify how far back you want to search for articles. If you narrow your search to the last 1, 2, or 5 years, you are likely to get the most recent papers, which often will present the best summaries of the current understanding of the topic.

In general, abstracts of papers are available to everyone. This is not true for the full papers. Some journals or specific papers will be "open-access" and available to everyone, and these are becoming more common, but many papers are still not publicly available. Google scholar will give you links to the papers that are available in-full, online, but some will be unavailable with this tool. However, there are many other methods of obtaining these papers. For instance, you can ask for the paper on twitter using the hashtag #icanhazpdf, ask for it on friendfeed, email the author (all three of these methods ultimately result in one person e-mailing the paper to one other person, thus not violating copyright) of the paper asking them for it respectfully, or go to the nearest university library.

#2 Not all websites are created equal

Can I find good information on regular websites?

Using websites is like talking to friends. While we all have friends that are truly knowledgeable and can be very helpful, we all also have friends who are often wrong, but never in doubt. Some of our friends may tell us things that have mixtures of truth and fiction at the same time. Most people know to be skeptical of what some of their friends tell them and we should hold websites to the same standards. However, there are a few guidelines that can help you to separate the informative from the misleading.

Commercial websites that are trying to sell a product cannot be trusted to tell you the truth about issues related to that product. You may be able to gain understanding of a product and be able to compare products using these sites, but any claims should be highly suspect. Never forget they are trying to sell you something. Selling you something is the website’s goal, not educating you.

Websites sponsored by particular commercial, political, or other entities should be viewed with suspicion as well. Like commercial websites, these sites also have a goal of "selling" you something, it just may be a particular belief rather than a physical product. Check the "about us" page to see who sponsors the website. You are more likely to get high-quality information from websites affiliated with universities, government agencies (but not politicians), and some news organizations or non-profit associations devoted to public education.

Beyond these categories, we enter realm of news and magazine websites, blogs, and Wikipedia. All of these reporting platforms are valuable and can be trustworthy. Many respectable news and magazine websites now employ bloggers, hired because they are good journalists, with editors in some cases reviewing blog posts prior to publication. So blogs may be of equal or higher quality than many paper publications.

However, there is more variability among unaffiliated individual bloggers. Commonly, no one reviews the material in these blogs prior to posting. However, readers may comment on their posts and these comments can be informative. Among science blogs, individuals and organizations who regularly produce high-quality work are now being recognized and included in science blog aggregators like ResearchBlogging.org, Scienceblogging.org, and ScienceSeeker.org. Many of these blogs can be regarded as trustworthy sources of information and are often better than the coverage by the main stream media (see this post).

Wikipedia can also be very valuable. Although Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, it has a large group of active moderators/editors who remove erroneous information and protect some controversial websites from being altered too often or rapidly. Additionally, Wikipedia now flags pages that have fewer citations or might have poorer quality information with warning messages at the top of the page. Multiple approaches work together to ensure the overall accuracy of Wikipedia pages. Even before many of these policies were implemented, Wikipedia was found to be relatively equal in quality to Encyclopedia Britannica (see this study (pdf)). Thus, in its current form, Wikipedia is a fairly trustworthy source of information. Some individual pages may still need caution, but for these, you will get a warning right at the top.

#3 Checking the facts

How do I know if a particular piece of information is valid?

In general, webpages with more citations and links, or from more unbiased, reputable organizations, will provide you with better information. However, it is also a good idea to try spot-checking some of what is on the more suspicious websites, like commercial sites or some individual blogs, with other trusted webpages, or by using Google scholar or a fact-checking website.

Fact checking websites claim to deliver unbiased evaluations of recent internet rumors or statements by politicians. A couple of my favorites are factcheck.org and snopes.com. These sites are a great way to check whether that email claiming to be donating to a sick child or offering strange advice is a fake. You can also ask experts on twitter or other social media websites your questions. The more different sources you have that all say the same thing, the more confident you can be of the validity of that information.

See also:

http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/02/21/ep.web.sites/index.html

http://gethelp.library.upenn.edu/guides/tutorials/webliteracy/

http://askabiologist.asu.edu/

Note: many thanks to Bora Zivkovic for his helpful suggestions.

*

About the Author: Kevin McCluney is a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, also receiving his PhD in biology from this institution in 2010. McCluney conducts research on rivers and streamside animal communities and how water structures these communities. Through a series of peer-reviewed publications, he has shown that many food webs are really water webs, with animals essentially drinking their food rather than eating it. McCluney has also taught college level classes for seven years and mentored students from 6th grade through the graduate level in their efforts to conduct independent research projects, with students winning many local and international awards and publishing peer-reviewed papers.

Filed under: Article of the Week, , ,

Digital legacy: The fate of your online soul

Live long (Image: Federico Morando/Getty)

We are the first people in history to create vast online records of our lives. How much of it will endure when we are gone?

NOT long before my wife died, she asked me to do something for her. "Make sure people remember me," she said. "Not the way I am now. The way I was." Having spent most of her life as an assertive, ambitious and beautiful woman, Kathryn didn’t want people’s memories to be dominated by her final year, in which the ravages of disease and continual chemotherapy had taken her spirit, vitality and looks.

To me, the internet seemed to offer an obvious way to fulfil Kathryn’s wish – certainly more so than a dramatic headstone or funerary monument. So I built a memorial website to celebrate her life through carefully selected pictures and text. The decision was unorthodox at the time, and I suspect that some in our circle thought it tasteless.

Six years on, things are very different. As the internet’s population has grown and got older, memorial pages and tribute sites have become commonplace. But when you and I shuffle off this mortal coil, formal remembrances won’t be the only way we are remembered. I manage myriad websites and blogs, both personal and professional, as well as profiles on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and more. All of those will be left behind, and many other people will leave a similar legacy.

We are creating digital legacies for ourselves every day – even, increasingly, every minute. More than a quarter of a million Facebook users will die this year alone. The information about ourselves that we record online is the sum of our relationships, interests and beliefs. It’s who we are. Hans-Peter Brondmo, head of social software and services at Nokia in San Francisco, calls this collection of data our "digital soul".

Thanks to cheap storage and easy copying, our digital souls have the potential to be truly immortal. But do we really want everything we’ve done online – offhand comments, camera-phone snaps or embarrassing surfing habits – to be preserved for posterity? One school of thought, the "preservationists", believes we owe it to our descendants. Another, the "deletionists", think it’s vital the internet learns how to forget. These two groups are headed for a struggle over the future of the internet – and the fate of your digital soul is hanging in the balance.

As the internet has become seamlessly integrated with all our experiences, more and more of our everyday life is being documented online. Last year, two-thirds of all Americans stored personal data on a distant server in the cloud, while nearly half were active on social networks.

Today, that data is hoarded by internet companies. Google and Facebook are dedicated to storing as much of your data as possible for as long as possible. Even your "digital exhaust", such as search requests and browsing history, is often recorded by companies who want to target you with personalised advertising.

All this data will prove fascinating to sociologists, archaeologists and anthropologists studying the dawn of the digital age. For them, everyday life can be just as interesting as epoch-defining moments. Whereas researchers have hitherto had to rely on whatever physical documents happen to survive, our vast digital legacies mean their successors could be spoiled for choice.

Nothing is definite, though: it’s far from certain that this information will endure. "Digital records are more like an oral tradition than traditional documents," says Marc Weber of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. "If you don’t copy them regularly, they simply disappear." He is concerned that we are not doing enough. "If we’re not careful, our period could end up as a bit of a Dark Age. Everyone is putting material into digital formats, but not putting much effort into preserving it."

Amateur archivists

A movement is now emerging to make sure our legacies persist – with amateur enthusiasts in the vanguard. One of those is Jason Scott, a film-maker who recently staged an effort to save Geocities, a vast collection of personal websites dating back to 1994.

Geocities allowed anyone to create a home page of their own, usually usingcheesy clip art, excitable text effects and templates that look endearingly amateurish to modern eyes. Antique charm doesn’t count for much in the marketplace, and as slicker competitors emerged Geocities became deserted and spam-laden. After a decade’s forbearance (or neglect, some would say), the site’s owner, Yahoo, decided to pull the plug on the vast majority of pages in 2009.

The threat of the impending axe horrified Scott. He and his supporters hastily "scraped" as many Geocities pages as they could, creating a 641-gigabyte archive that initially circulated on file-sharing networks before being reposted at reocities.com.

The one question that gets asked most often, says Scott, is "Why bother to save this junk anyway?" His answer is that it’s not junk: it’s history. Geocities is a huge time capsule from the infancy of the World Wide Web. Its design values speak to the limitations of dial-up connections; its structure captures a time when no one had figured out how to navigate the web, where people built online homes in themed "neighbourhoods" called Hollywood or EnchantedForest. Its users’ interactions with each other – via email addresses and guestbooks published openly without fear of spam – offer valuable insights into the birth of online culture.

The fate of Geocities is relevant because the odds are that more sites will go the same way. History shows that even the most prominent technology companies can be rapidly overtaken by competitors or deserted by customers: think of IBM or Microsoft. Companies like Facebook provide you with free services and storage on their servers. In exchange, they track your online activities and sell advertising against the personal information you provide. But one day they may choose – or be forced – to look for new ways to make money. Those might not involve hosting pictures of your cat.

Last December, Yahoo announced plans to "sunset" more well-known services, including the pioneering social bookmarking service del.icio.us.Rumours soon began to circulate about an impending demise for its giant photo-sharing site Flickr. Yahoo has brushed aside suggestions that the site’s future is in question, but Flickr users remain concerned about what they see as a lack of commitment.

When such sites disappear, many users feel they are losing more than a photo album. Years of my personal photographs are stored on Flickr, and it is woven into Kathryn’s memorial site. I have backups, but the photos on Flickr are surrounded by a rich history of social interactions, from groups to which I belong to comments that friends have left about my photos. That feels just as much part of my digital soul as the images themselves. The same goes for anything we share on social networks: our friendships, likes and links are what’s really important.

Many preservationists feel that it is not safe to entrust information of sentimental value to companies with fickle agendas and fortunes, and are working on ways to give us greater control of our digital legacies. Over the past year, there has been a proliferation of tools that allow us to extract our data from the big social sites. There’s also a cottage industry that aims to ensure that our legacies are assembled and apportioned according to our wishes after we are gone. Many of those involved, including security specialists, virtual undertakers, data storage companies – and, inevitably,lawyers – will be meeting for a "Digital Death Day" in San Francisco in early May.

"Think about the appeal of family history," says Jeremy Leighton John, curator of e-manuscripts at the British Library in London. "The idea of creating a personal archive for your descendants is very evocative."

But assembling such a legacy is not simple. Facebook and its ilk put a lot of work into keeping your information neatly organised and readily accessible. That’s not something most of us are good at. John says around a third of us report having lost a digital file of personal value. "Imagine losing your memories of your children growing up," he says. You might not be doing much to mitigate that risk, he says, but it’s no doubt a concern for many people nowadays.

A new breed of social networking services might help us organise our data while also ensuring that we maintain control over it. Diaspora, based in San Francisco, is a fledgling social network which runs on servers maintained by its users. That’s in contrast to Facebook, which has its own servers and therefore controls everything on your profile. The downside with Diaspora and other "DIY" social networks is that you have to keep your server running; if you stop, your legacy could evaporate overnight.

Still, it might eventually be possible for us to assemble and bequeath our virtual estates with a few clicks – the internet equivalent of donating our personal letters and papers. The San Francisco-based Internet Archive, which has been curating a public collection of web pages and multimedia since 1996, hopes to accept such donations in the near future. Founder Brewster Kahle says he hopes it will inspire people to "endow a terabyte". If that happens, our digital legacies may be preserved for posterity after all.

Yet should we be so quick to give in to the urge to preserve? "Forgetting is built into the human brain," says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK, who studies internet governance and regulation. "So for thousands of years we’ve developed ways to preserve special memories." Today, though, it is quicker and easier to save every bit of our vast digital trails than it is to sort and discard what we don’t want. In other words, we might be producing more memories than we can cope with.

We are often ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of total recall. For example, Facebook has been sporadically testing a "memorable stories" feature: every now and again, it will show old status updates written by you or a friend. The general reaction has been bafflement, with users unsure what to make of these blasts from the past. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the vintage update is actually referring to; at others it’s unwanted, like a reminder of a bad break-up.

Forgetting gracefully

Occasionally, the resurgence of memories from long ago can be devastating. "A woman called in to a radio programme to tell me that her long-spent criminal conviction had been inadvertently revealed online," says Mayer-Schönberger. "It had instantly destroyed her standing in the small community where she lived, the fresh start she had worked for years to achieve. This wasn’t even something she had posted: it was someone else." It’s hard to forgive and forget if you can no longer forget.

There’s another persuasive reason why we might want to embrace online forgetfulness. If personal internet sites really did last forever, the web would start to fill up with "dead data" – a reflection of the truism that the dead outnumber the living. My memorial site for Kathryn is currently Google’s first result for her name. I’m not sure how her living namesakes feel about that.

In his 2009 book Delete, Mayer-Schönberger proposed that we should buildtechnology that forgets gracefully. Files might come with expiry dates, he suggests, so that they simply vanish after a certain point. Or they might "digitally rust", gradually becoming less faithful unless we make a concerted effort to preserve them. Perhaps files could become less accessible over time – like consigning old photos to a shoebox in the attic rather than displaying them on the wall.

A few firms have put these ideas into practice. In January, a German start-up called X-Pire launched software that lets you add digital expiry dates to images uploaded to sites like Facebook. After a certain date the images become invisible, so your friends will be able to check out your debauched photos on the morning after the night before, but you won’t have to worry about them appearing when a potential employer looks you up a few years later.

The problem with such schemes is that if something can be seen on the web it can also be copied, albeit with a bit of effort. Human nature being what it is, that’s most likely to happen to something really exceptional. If we’re lucky, our finest achievements will be replicated; if we’re not, it will be our epic failures that become immortal. Another difficulty is that the providers of "forgetting" services are minnows in a very big pond. How likely is it that a plucky start-up will be able to pry your entire legacy from Google and Facebook?

Even if we can’t erase data, we might be able to hide it. This February, after a number of individuals complained to the country’s data protection agency, a Spanish court ordered Google to remove nearly 100 links from its database because they contained out-of-date information about these people. The links were mostly to newspaper articles and public records, and Google refused to comply, but with the "right to be forgotten" enshrined as a key objective of the European Union’s 2011 data protection strategy, more and bigger cases are likely to follow. The EU has a track record of changing the way that the internet is used: forgetfulness may be the next big frontier.

Right now, though, we are living through a truly unique period in human history. We have learned how to create vast digital legacies but we don’t yet know how to tidy them up for our successors. The generations that went before us left no digital trace, and the ones that go after might leave nothing but sanitised "authorised biographies". We will be defined through piecemeal and haphazard collections of our finest and foulest moments.

The memories we are leaving behind now, in all their riotous glory – drunken tweets, ranting blog posts, bad-hair-day pictures and much more – may become a unique trove to be studied by historians for centuries to come. In fact, today’s web may offer the most truthful and comprehensive snapshot of the human race that will ever exist.

And perhaps, deep within that record, those historians will find an online memorial built by a grieving widower to a woman who died too young, at the dawn of the digital age.

 

By

Sumit Paul-Choudhury is the editor of newscientist.com. He is happily remarried.

Read more: "Forever online: Your digital legacy"

Courtesy: http://www.newscientist.com

Filed under: Article of the Week,

Textbooks’ Digital Future

E-books may be replacing hardbound versions in college classrooms.

Greg Hinsdale / Corbis

Harold Elder is not your typical Apple fanboy. Yet the 58-year-old University of Alabama economics professor pre-ordered an iPad to make sure he had one of the first ones. The device is “something that I’ve been waiting for for years,” he says. And not, to be clear, merely for reasons of gadget lust. “It really has the possibility of making the learning experience much richer,” says Elder, who is considering testing a new iPad-ready digital textbook in his introductory microeconomics course in the fall of 2010.

“Richer” is certainly the right word to use. App developers aren’t the only ones who greeted the iPad’s release with gratitude and optimism. The textbook industry, too, sees it as a way to woo customers away from the used-book market, boost profits, and help students learn better. It’s a pivotal moment for a segment of the publishing industry that has stubbornly resisted change. Thanks in large part to the iPad and an expected rush of competitor slates, that resistance is crumbling.

Of course, it won’t happen overnight. Textbooks today are still bought and sold in much the same way they’ve always been: as ink-and-paper objects assigned by professors and purchased by students in campus bookstores. “It’s a slow-moving pharmaceutical market,” says Matt MacInnis, the CEO of Inkling, a startup working on digital textbooks. “The professor writes a prescription, and the student goes to fill it.” It may be slow-moving, but it’s highly profitable. While McGraw-Hill Education’s earnings fell by 14 percent in 2009 because of the recession, college textbook sales actually increased.

But just ask any journalist or musician: technology has a way of laying siege to comfortable industries. And the iPad may be the first of many barbarians at the gate. Apple sold 3 million of the devices in its first three months, and now competitors, reportedly including Google, Hewlett-Packard, and Amazon, are preparing rivals. Educators and students are enthusiastic about them; at least three colleges, including the Illinois Institute of Technology, will offer free iPads to incoming students. But what will they put on them besides Bejeweled and Facebook?

There are already digital textbooks available, and their numbers are expected to grow: according to Simba Information, which provides data and research on the media industry, they represent less than 2 percent of textbook sales today, but will reach 10 percent by 2012. But in 2010 the offerings were pretty meager. CourseSmart, a San Mateo, Calif., company collectively owned by five of the biggest textbook publishers, has 6,000 educational titles for sale in digital format. But its electronic books are little more than scanned versions of printed works. A CourseSmart e-book includes some neat functions, like search capability and digital note-taking, but for the most part, it has few advantages over a traditional textbook other than weight and price. (CourseSmart books usually cost less than half the price of a new printed book.)

That’s where a company like Inkling comes in. Inkling, a 20-person San Francisco startup, and its competitors—including New York City’s ScrollMotion—are working with the textbook publishers to bring their books onto the iPad, iPhone, and other future devices. The aim, says Inkling’s MacInnis, is to harness all the advantages of a multitouch, Web-enabled slate. That means chemistry students won’t just see an illustration of a benzene molecule; they’ll spin and rotate a three-dimensional model of one. Biology students won’t just read about the cardiovascular system; they’ll see video of a beating heart, narrated by a world-class heart surgeon.

Interactivity, though, is only part of the story. Bringing texts onto a digital platform provides an opportunity to make the book as social as the classroom. With Inkling’s technology, for instance, a student can choose to follow another’s “note stream,” or view a heat map of the class’s most-highlighted passages. Professors get real-time information on how much of the reading assignment the class actually did, or whether a particular review problem is tripping up large numbers of students. All that comes on top of the cost savings: even these advanced digital textbooks will cost less than their print equivalents (with most of them in the $99 range) and some will even come “unbundled,” allowing students to buy the individual chapters they need most for a small fraction of the cost of a full textbook.

Textbook publishers stand to lose some revenue if individual chapter purchases catch on, but they hope to more than offset the loss by attracting new customers. Big publishers like McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Cengage are locked in a longstanding battle against the used-textbook market, which now totals about $2.2 billion, according to Simba, and from which they earn no revenue. Online textbook-rental companies like Chegg.com offer lower prices than the publishers, and reach a wide customer base. But traditional publishers think technology will be their salvation. There’s no such thing as a “used” e-book, and digital textbooks are the center of a whole ecosystem of services—such as homework-management systems and video-capture technology for recording lectures—that publishers hope will be profitable. “We’re becoming a software service company instead of a textbook company,” says Peter Davis, president of McGraw-Hill Education.

But what about the students? Are manipulable molecules just digital eye candy or real improvements to the learning process? “Technology is never the silver bullet, but it can sometimes be the bullet,” says Diana Rhoten, an education researcher and cofounder of Startl, which invests in innovative education companies. She notes that different students have different learning styles. Some are just fine reading text, while others prefer audiovisual aids, and kinesthetic learners need to interact with something. “In a digital book, I have all of those modalities available to me,” she says. “That is huge. Customization is going to have a great impact on learning.” And if it means getting an A in organic chemistry, paying $500 for an iPad seems like a smart choice.

 

By

Barrett Sheridan

Courtesy: http://education.newsweek.com

Filed under: Article of the Week, , ,

Education & Technology in 2025: A Thought Experiment

BY MICHAEL TRUCANO thinking big thoughts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In many places around the world, the costs associated with investments in educational technologies are perceived to be prohibitive (and often higher than one may initially calculate).  That said, there are few places where such investments are not under active consideration. 

On this blog, I have criticized

"the often singleminded focus, even obsession, on the retail price of ICT devices alone, which is in many ways a distraction from more fundamental discussions of the uses of educational technologies to meet a wide variety of educational goals in ways that are relevant, appropriate and cost-effective."

I have also wondered,

"What are the costs of not investing in ICT use in education? Can we afford them?"

Reasonable people can and will disagree about what the associated costs are for ICT/education initiatives — as well as how to calculate them, and what these costs might/should be, relative to other potential uses of scarce funds (teacher and administrative salaries, books, school infrastructure, health and feeding programs for students, etc.)

Reasonable people can also disagree on what the impact to date of such investments has been — a frequent topic here on this blog.

But let’s leave aside such discussions and debate for now.

As part of engagements in various countries, I sometimes propose the following ‘thought experiment’ to provoke policymakers to take a step back (or two — or five!) and think more broadly about why they are looking to introduce ICTs in their schools.  As part of this process, I present the following scenario:

Let’s assume that, by 2025, *all* hardware and software costs related to the use of information and communication technologies to support learning were zero.

How might this change the way you consider the use of ICTs to support the goals of your education system?

If we removed considerations of cost from the equation, how might we conceive of the use of technologies in education? Would our approach then be consistent with our approach today?

Now let’s be clear:

  • It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that hardware costs will continue to fall.  In addition, the rise of free and open source software, the new low-cost app economy and the open education resources (OER) movement has meant that, in many cases the applications (and the content that is sometimes bundled with them) are in many cases falling in price as well.

That said,

  • Hardware and software costs aren’t going to be near zero any time soon.
  • Even as prices continue to fall — and, for the sake of the sake of our scenario here, even as they approach zero — poor communities (and poor countries) will still have much greater difficulty meeting such costs.

And of course:

  • Hardware and software costs aren’t the only costs incurred in these sorts of investments (and may not even be the largest component costs).  That said, such costs are pretty easy to understand and calculate, and are in my experience the two costs that many policymakers (rightly or wrongly) consider most important.

With those caveats in place,

Can we learn anything from a thought experiment of this sort?

So much of the current planning around the use of educational technologies is concerned with what is happening and what is possible *today*, and the perceived future needs of industry and society related to the use of such current technologies (e.g. "we need to teach kids how to use computers").

I once had a 15 minute conversation with an education minister about ‘appropriate’ processor speeds (back when many users still talked about such things regularly) for school computers.  I was impressed by his knowledge of the subject … while lamenting that 15 minutes of valuable time in our 30-minute meeting was spent discussing this sort of minutiae.

Innovations in the technology sector will almost surely mean that many ICT tools we use now, or are considering using, will become more powerful (and potentially more interconnected), and that there will be new sets of tools available to use five and ten years down the road in the education sector that we haven’t even conceived of today.  In some cases these may only subtly change the ways things are done, in other cases the potential for change may be more radical.

Given the high likelihood of continued (potentially quite disruptive) innovation in this area, both on the technology and the cost side, sometimes it might be useful to be clear aboutfirst principles.

When I speak with many policymakers about their vision for education in 2025 as it relates to the use of technology, what I often hear is a description of new sets of gadgets and cool electronic things in schools. Every child with her own computing device, classrooms walls transforming into interactive touch displays, eyeglasses transformed into personal data projection devices, videoconferences with holograms and on-demand printing of objects in 3D: These sorts of visions are important to contemplate, especially where they may help challenge our conceptions (and preconceptions) of what it possible — or even likely.  But in the end they resemble more of a wish-list of items that can be purchased to rebuild and reimagine the architecture of a school or classroom than a vision for what students should be learning, and how, and how others can support them in this process.

If costs weren’t an issue, what would you be seeking to do with technology to support learning? Would this change your perspective on the role of ICTs from what it is now?

Answers to these sorts questions — or even the process of trying to answer them — might help provide some clarity and direction for our more immediate and ‘pressing’ policy challenges related to the appropriate and cost-effective use of a variety of information and communication technologies in the education sector.

Note: The public domain image used at the top of this blog post ("thinking big thoughts") comes via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Courtesy: http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/thought-experiment

Filed under: Article of the Week, ,

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