SXSW Day 2: The Textbooks of the Future

The panelists talking about Textbooks of the Future represented a nice diversity of perspectives, though they’re all strongly in the Open Educational Resources camp. We had Melissa Hagemann from the Open Society Institute as moderator (she didn’t say much, unfortunately), Richard Baraniuk from Rice University, Samuel (SJ) Klein from One Laptop per Child, and Erik Moeller from the Wikimedia Foundation.

Baraniuk and Moeller saw the textbooks of the future coming out of print on demand technologies, while Klein believes that POD is all wrong for updatable fact-based works. He argued that the web is superior for textbooks because our understanding of science and lots of other things is constantly changing, and those changes can be incorporated into a networked electronic text instantaneously, while paper is static, and therefore instantly outdated. I don’t agree; print books are still a very useful technology, even for fact-based textbook-type things. Customizable, cheap, print on demand books have the potential to be even more useful.

I thought the most interesting part of the session was hearing Richard Baraniuk from Rice University talk about Connexions, a nonprofit that provides “a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc.”

Connexions offers a collaborative medium for quickly creating and sharing scholarly work, and they’re working to provide some sort of peer review-esque credentialing system. My understanding is that while it’s a collaborative platform, it’s also closed. They aim to have experts creating and developing content, and have partnered with groups like IEEE to recruit authors and reviewers.

They use XML to turn all their pieces of content into recombinable building blocks that can look like a single, unified textbook. The final products end up costing many times less than conventional textbooks – the sample engineering textbook that Baraniuk mentioned would have cost $130 from a traditional publisher, and cost $20 from Connexions. It seems like a very promising model.

According to Baraniuk, three big changes made Connexions a viable project:

  1. New technology (XML)
  2. New intellectual property regime (Creative Commons)
  3. New quality control mechanisms.

The panel also spoke a bit about the copyright regime that open educational resources require. Creative Commons has been a boon to Connexions, while the OLPC folks prefer works without any licensing restrictions at all. According to Klein, once the XO laptops are widely available, “The only barrier… to getting textbooks to the third world [will be] the licensing barrier.” I’m not sure if I buy this, given the other major barriers to education in developing countries, but certainly in an online world, I agree that licensing is the biggest barrier to access.

SXSW Day 1: Attracting Girls to IT

The panelists at this session all work for organizations or on projects that aim to attract girls to math, science, and technology and then retain them in math/science/tech professions once they become women. They were mostly preaching to the choir, and I didn’t hear much I didn’t already know: girls begin to lose interest in math and science in middle school; most kids don’t really understand what careers in science and technology are like and so they think they wouldn’t want to have them; mentors make a big difference in retention and morale.

For me the most exciting part of the session was to see that J Strother Moore, the Chair of UT Austin’s Computer Science Department (one of the 10 biggest CS departments in the country), is an old white guy who is very invested in recruiting women to his department, improving their experiences once they get there, and helping them go on to have satisfying careers in Computer Science after they leave. He clearly has a good grasp of the problems and challenges that women face in his field, and his ability to speak frankly about those things, and his evident dedication to fixing them, gave me hope.

Favorite moment: During the Q&A section, a young CS professor asked what he can do to support the only two girls in his programming class.

Dr. Moore’s answer: “Don’t hit on them.”

Exactly.

SXSW Day 1: Keynote Speaker Henry Jenkins

The keynote was actually a conversation between Henry Jenkins (Convergence Culture, Fans Bloggers and Gamers) and Steven Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You), which is apparently how all keynotes work at SXSW. I got caught up in watching two really smart guys talk about the creativity of fan culture, new media, and the need for new copyright regimes, that I didn’t manage to take very many notes, but I did come away with a few things to jot down here.

Jenkins talked about studies showing that the current generation of young people tend to speak in “we”, while the older generation speaks in “I… you…” The Language of We is the language of social networks and collective intelligence, the language of collaboration and the Internet. Jenkins suggested that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are an example of this split. Though Obama isn’t in Generation First Person Plural himself, part of his ability to appeal to it is perfectly exemplified by his slogan, “Yes, we can.”

Jenkins mentioned a new non-profit called Organization for Transformative Works, that seeks to establish that all creative works arising out of fan culture (“fanworks”) are “legal and transformative.” Rock on.

Also regarding fan culture, there was an exchange between Jenkins and Johnson in which the whole, “Who are these people, and why do they have so much time on their hands, (and what’s wrong with them)?” question came up. And Jenkins said that most people participating in creative fan culture are “pink collar workers – teachers and librarians and nurses,” and then basically flipped the question on it’s head by asking, “What’s wrong with American culture that these bright and creative people are getting so little intellectual challenge at work?” I was sort of flabbergasted – it sounded to me like Henry Jenkins just said that America is wasting the brains of its women. He never said the words “woman” or “women” or “female” or “girl”, but he did say “pink collar” and “teacher” and “librarian” and “nurse”. The conversation moved on, and it never came up again, but if I’d been gutsier I would have gotten up during the question period and said, “Henry Jenkins, it sounds like you just said that America is wasting the brains of its women and that’s why we have such vibrantly creative fan cultures. Is that what you just said? Would you like to elaborate?”

SXSW Day 1: What Teens Want Online & On Their Phones

This panel was made up of actual teenagers, ranging in age from 12 to 17, with a grown-up moderator who did a great job of asking them questions about what they do online and on their phones. There was also time for the audience, which seemed to be mostly marketers, to ask questions directly to the teens. The teens all came from two private schools in Austin, but the panel was both ethnically diverse and had a good mix of girls and boys.

I learned some interesting things:

  1. All but one teen “has a MySpace”, and the one that doesn’t sounded like she was actively rejecting it. Only two are on Facebook, and one of those has a sister in college with whom she communicates on Facebook.
  2. They don’t email each other. They use MySpace or text messages or they talk face to face at school. Email is for website registrations and contacting teachers.
  3. They all hate ads on websites. They especially hate pop-ups, ads with audio files, video ads, and ads that tell you you’ve won something when you haven’t. Even so, one of the kids said that when he sees ads that have little games in them, he can’t help but play them. “Even when I know it’s going to take me to a page I don’t want to go to, I still have to shoot the monkey.”
  4. While only two of the kids identified as “gamers,” all the kids said they play games, on their phones and online. They like Tetris and PacMan, and little Flash games.
  5. The teens time shift most of their TV watching using the web. They all watch YouTube. Most interesting to me, they make no distinction between watching a full episode of a show on the CBS website, watching it on the licensed third-party site Veoh, and watching it on any one of the many sites that stream pirated shows from China. Wherever they can find the episode they want to watch, that’s where they’ll watch it.
  6. Some of the teens seemed pretty savvy about being advertised to, and they understand that the ads are what pay the bills. One commented that he likes to watch sports clips on NBA.com, but hates that before every single clip, there’s the same commercial for Miller Lite. It’s annoying, and he’s not interested in beer. “The advertising should go with what’s on the site,” he said. “If it were for basketball shoes, that would be okay.”

It was a great panel. These kids will be going to college in a few years, and they are going to bring their expectations for technology and communication with them to campus. They may not want their professors or librarians on Facebook, or sending them text messages, but they may respond a whole lot better to the things we try to teach them if we put it in the shape of a little Flash game.