Tag Archives: open access

Writing a Book in Public

Yesterday I began a new blog site called Human Trafficking in Historical Perspective. This site is the online research and writing space I’m going to use for my next book project — a project still in its early days mode.

For a long time now I’ve been thinking about what happens when the entire scholarly process — or at least as much of it as possible — takes place in an open environment like a blog or a website. Certainly, I’m not the first person (or even close to the first) to do something like this. Dan Cohen just posted something in his blog on the same subject and he is much further along than I am on his project.

One wrinkle in what I’m doing on this project is that not only will my Zotero library be available for public consumption, but it is also a library that I’m building with students in the classes I have taught/am teaching/will teach on the subject of human trafficking. In this way I’m blending my own research efforts with theirs. How will that work? I’m really not sure, but it will be interesting to find out.

I’m also not sure if the final product of this work will be a book or something “book like.” In the book like category is everything from an eBook, to a website, to something that lives between those two. What that last something might be, I think we still don’t know. I suppose the project could just become a blog that is frozen in space and time with the comments turned off, or it could be something else we haven’t thought of yet. After all, like all good works of historical scholarship, this one is going to take a couple of years (at least) to complete. By the time I’m done, there is no telling what else we might have come up with as a means for displaying our work.

Hacking the Academy — the Book

I’m pleased to announce that Hacking the Academy is now available in its online edition from the University of Michigan’s Digital Culture series.

As my colleague Dan Cohen explains in his post on how the book came about, one should be careful about what one wishes for when it comes to a “hack” of a book. This one week project edited by Dan and Tom Scheinfeldt resulted in more than 300 contributions from almost 200 authors. Wading through all of that content to determine what would ultimately make it into the book was, I’m sure, a daunting task. I’m pleased that two bits of the book came out of this blog [1, 2]. Given how many excellent historians offered up some of their work for the project, I’m also humbled that some of my own writing made the final cut.

I love the variety of contributions in the book and look forward to reading (or re-reading) them all. The one thing I wish is that there were an eBook version of the book so I could download it onto my iPad. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like the look and feel of a book, even if that look and feel is reproduced in pixels rather than pulp.

E-Text Job

In the most recent installment of Digital Campus we discussed the rise of the e-textbook on college campuses and wondered how much longer it would take before e-texts replaced paper and glue texts as the primary vehicle for the delivery of information to students. The very next day my friend Sherry Linkon, co-director of Youngstown State University’s most excellent Center for Working Class Studies sent me an email about a job at YSU’s Maag Library for a founding director of an Electronic Textbook Center [download job description].

As the posting says, “The Center will support instructional faculty in the development of digital learning resources, electronic texts and the use of new and developing pedagogies all designed to promote the evolution and adoption of what are currently referred to as digital textbooks.” What I particularly like about the way YSU has framed this job is that the materials developed will be mostly for and within the open source/creative commons environment.

You might ask yourself, Youngstown? Isn’t that city dying/dead? I wondered the same thing myself until I visited YSU about a year and a half ago. What I found was a vibrant, exciting place where things are happening both at the university and around its campus. Unlike so many rust belt cities, Youngstown did not crash during the last decade or so — the big crash there was a long time ago. And the city has figured out ways to emerge on the other side of industrial collapse. The old mills have turned into art spaces, business incubators, and even condos, and the big homes of the steel barons (and their minions) go for a song compared to real estate prices in other cities around the country. Can you tell I liked it there?

If you are at all interested in the future of e-texts in higher education, I think this job is worth a look.

Will the Center Hold?

I took part in a very interesting meeting here at Mason the other day. After many years of a pretty hands-off approach to distance or at least distributed education, it seems we have decided to move into this market in a more coordinated way.

By “more coordinated” I mean that rather than reactively supporting to individual faculty members who decide to launch a distance or at least partially distance course, the University is going to throw some of its weight, that is to say funding, behind proactively encouraging faculty members to develop new approaches to high demand courses that will use new media to deliver content to those off site.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, as the meeting wore on it became clear that this otherwise laudable approach—one that is anchored in student needs rather than in faculty whims—has a tragic flaw. This flaw will, in my view, make the entire experiment much less likely to succeed. The current version of the plan for promoting  distance education at Mason restricts university support (especially funding) to courses developed for our campus course management platform. In our case, that platform is BlackBoard.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no BlackBoard hater. In fact, I’ll admit up front that I have never used it. However, I was a WebCT user for a number of years and finally gave up in frustration. I walked away and never looked back.

But that’s just me. I know plenty of people who are quite happy with BlackBoard, or at least happy enough. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the tendency to centralize curriculum development around a single platform means that all innovation by faculty members will be restricted to the capabilities of that platform. Nothing is possible unless the platform allows it.

To take an approach to “innovation” closes off access to all the products of the open source and open access movements. Anyone who has been paying attention in the past few years can see that much, if not most, of the exciting innovation in software has come not from big companies like BlackBoard or Microsoft, but from the open source community.

Thus, it’s a real puzzle to me why we have chosen to choke off any possibility of innovation beyond the vendor we are locked into. And, given that open source solutions are almost always less expensive than single vendor packages, I am especially surprised by Mason’s decision at this particular moment of economic stress.

The better alternative would be to give any and all innovative approaches to distance education a chance, see which ones show the most promise, throw some money and staff support behind the ones that seem to be working, continue to monitor the results, and improve the products based on what we learn.

The center may hold for a while against innovation taking place on the margins, but I’m a believer that our decision to try to strengthen the center at the expense of a free and open approach to innovation means that whatever we develop here at Mason will be outdated even before it’s rolled out.

If I’m right, then we’ve just decided to put off real innovation in distance education for another five to ten years. If I’m wrong, I promise to write a mea culpa.