Friday, June 17, 2011

Pleased to Announce a "Promotion"

I recently received a note from TripAdvisor, saying that I had been designated as a Senior Reviewer. It made me feel like one of those correspondents on the Daily Show, which only employs senior correspondents.

Seriously, I thought the TripAdvisor approach was a rather clever way of acknowledging volunteer contributors to the website.

And the criteria for promotion are clear:

1-5 Reviews: Reviewer
6-10 Reviews: Senior Reviewer
11-20 Reviews: Contributor
21-49 Reviews: Senior Contributor
50+ Reviews: Top Reviewer

Of course, the quality of reviews is inconsequential to this scheme.

But it's a great way of recognizing voluntary contributors to the site and encouraging them to contribute more. I'm already working on my promotion to "Contributor."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Technologies to Watch in Higher Education: 8 Years’ of Predictions

The New Media Consortium and Educause recently published their annual Horizon Report, which "describes six areas of emerging technology that will have significant impact in higher education within three adoption horizons over the next one to five years" (Johnson, Levine, Smith & Stone, 2010).

In response, I compiled the lists of technologies to watch from the eight Horizon reports that have been published to date:

Time to Adoption: 1 Year or Less
Time to Adoption: 2 to 3 Years
Time to Adoption: 4 to 5 Years
Learning objects
Scalable vector graphics (SVG)
Rapid prototyping
Multimodal interfaces
Context-aware computing
Knowledge webs
Extended Learning
Ubiquitous wireless
Intelligent searching

Educational gaming
Social Networks & Knowledge Webs
Context-Aware Computing/Augmented Reality
Social computing
Personal broadcasting
The phones in their pockets
Educational gaming
Social networks and knowledge webs
Context-aware computing/augmented reality
User-created content
Social networking
Mobile phones
Virtual worlds
The new scholarship and emerging forms of publication
Massively multiplayer educational gaming
Grassroots video
Collaboration web
Mobile broadband
Data mashups
Collective intelligence
Social operating systems
Cloud computing
Geo-everything (geo-tagging of data)
Personal web
Semantic-aware objects
Smart objects
Mobile computing
Open content
Electronic books
Simple augmented reality
Gesture-based computing
Visual data analysis
Electronic books
Mobiles (mobile devices)
Augmented reality
Game-based learning
Gesture-based computing
Learning analytics

Food for thought: Which technologies did they call correctly? Which ones not?

Johnson, L., Smith, R., Willis, H., Levine, A., and Haywood, K.,  (2011). The 2011 Horizon Report. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Johnson, L., Levine, A., Smith, R., & Stone, S. (2010). The 2010 Horizon Report.
Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

An Infant with Great Potential

Yesterday's post explored that, despite the hype, e-books are still in their infancy.

But everyone has high hopes for them.  Some of those hopes are admittedly hype.  But some are based on actual data and experience. Here are three cases:

  • A partner approach to online and print
  • Signs of life in the nonfiction market for e-books
  • New online course packs

Case 1. A Partner Approach to Online and Print

Some publishers are discovering that the path to e-books takes a journey through hybrid approaches, much like the route to e-learning involved a journey through blended learning.

The conversion of much workplace and university learning programs to electronic formats ended up involving blended formats, in which parts of programs were presented online and other parts remained in the classroom. This allowed all stakeholders to become comfortable with learning online. It reduced (but did not eliminate) instructor and learner resistance, and provided skeptical executives with an opportunity to try e-learning before making a full-fledged commitment to it.

Some evidence is arising that print media might be re-thinking their options along the same lines. The New York Times recently published a profile of the re-worked Hollywood Reporter. Until recently, the Reporter published a daily newspaper. Much of its news became redundant with the increasing myriad of Hollywood news sites. And it lost its focus on its core readers--Hollywood insiders--rather than Hollywood obsessed fans (OK, me).

To shift the focus back--while acknowledging the current realities of the entertainment news industry--new editor Janice Min reconceived the Hollywood Reporter as a combination of online and print contents:

  • Online news outlet, where breaking news was published on an ongoing basis
  • Glossy, weekly print publication, which publishes feature articles of interst to the traditional core audience of the Hollywood Reporter

The initial results after a year or so of publication suggest the transition has succeeded. Ad revenues--a key metric of performance in publishing--and which had fallen prior to the makeover, have--is up by 50 percent over the old daily version.

Min believes that only an outsider could have remade this publication (she came from US Weekly). Perhaps insiders could not have conceived of it; perhaps entrenched interests would have prevented an insider from implementing this vision.

So many visions of online publications approach them as clones of their print versions. Perhaps more publications will explore this partner approach.

Case 2. Signs of Life in the Nonfiction Market for e-Books

Industry figures suggest that early adopters of e-books primarily use them to read fiction.

But I always though that the real benefit would be in non-fiction.

Update-ability. Non-fiction titles feature time-sensitive information and electronic formats allow for easier updating of content.

  • Quantity. To keep up, many professionals and academics need to read many books and, ideally, have access to many of them simultaneously. e-Book devices provide readers with relatively easy access to several books on a single device.
  • Price. Because non-fiction titles are often highly specialized and intended for small slices of business and academic markets, the market potential for these books is limited, print runs are limited and--most significantly for consumers--prices are high. (An early article about e-books mentioned that one medical book that costs $US 3,600).

Now comes the first evidence that, perhaps, my hunch has some steam. e-Books seem to be waking the sleepy academic publishing market. Academic publishers specialize in research-based books that receive reviews similar to those of peer-review journals. Most of these books have small market potential, although a few become hits--at least, wihtin the disciplines they represent.

For the most part, print runs of these books are small and, once they're sold out, the books become rare books, difficult to find through book sellers and, sometimes, libraries.

Well, in a report on recent sales figures in the academic publishing industry (mostly represented by university presses) for the website Inside Higher Ed, Steve Kolowich reported that, although sales of print books are down, sales of electronic books have substantially risen since the first of the year.

For some presses, the rise has been as high as 1000 percent (from about 1.6 to nearly 11 percent of sales). Others have seen more modest gains.

The growth in e-book sales has two unqiue characteristics:

  • Most of the sales are for back-titles. Backtitles are books that are no longer available in print.

  • Most of the sales have occurred despite next to no marketing. In other words, readers are finding these books on their own.

Kolowich speculates that these results have implications for the marketing of e-books, which probably involve substantially different marketing schemes that used for printed books. As Kolowich notes, big displays of cardboard cut-out characters probably have no place in the marketing of e-books.

Case 3: New Online Course Packs

Two University of Chicago students realized that they were paying for something they had already bought--the readings in their course packs.

Students essentially pay three times for those readings. They pay twice for the readings in the course pack:

  • A per-page royalty for each reading, which goes to the publisher (at my university, they cited $C .21 per page)
  • A copying fee of about $C .05 pe page
    (plus Markup)

In addition, the student fees that students pay with their tuition also entitles them to an online copy of the same content through their university libraries.

Put in practical terms, students might spend as much as $C 6.00 for a 20-page article in print through a coursepack, when they could download it themselves from their university library (no additional cost) and print it on their own printers (let's say it's $.03/page) for a total cost of $C .60 for the same 20-page article (a savings of 90 percent).

That's one of the reasons I no longer provide course packs and just indicate to students that the article is available in the library and point them in the right direction. The other reason I do that is to help students become familiar and comfortable with the online library resources. Most of the students in one of my courses are first-time graduate students and, by directing them to the library weekly, I hope that the online journals become their first source of content and that the students become equally comfortable with peer-reviewed journals as a key, trusted source of information.

But I digress. The two University of Chicago students came to the same realization. But they also recognized that many students like the conveninece of a course pack.

So they devised an alternative--an online course pack, which Ben Weider describes in a recent posting on the Wired Campus blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education online.
The two students compile the readings for a course into a single online source.

And, in an innovation that could have positive impacts on education, the students who run the service also let professors who teach similar courses see one anothers' course packs so they can compare readings and, ideally, share the ideas.

The two students wondered whether their idea was legal and consulted a number of attorneys. The attorneys seem to believe that the students have not broken any laws.

Right now, the idea has received some funding and its business potential is being explored. Assuming that it succeeds, the coursepack could be reinvented for the electronic age.

Some Thoughts on What this Means

As both of these cases suggest, e-books show promise in non-fiction categories, both for periodicals and books.

But both cases also suggest that publishers need to do more work in re-conceiving of the ways in which people kinteract with print and electronic publications, and the means of marketing to potential readers.

These human processes take time--perhaps more time than was needed to develop the e-book readers.

And these are just two cases. I believe they signal something, but time might suggest otherwise.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

e-Books: The Hottest Infant on the Market?

e-Books grows in interest among professional communicators and instructional designers.

  • Several sessions at the most recent Society for Technical Communication Summit addressed the topic.  
  • Furthermore, the most recent Horizon Report from EduCause and the New Media Consortium names e-Books as a trend that is likely to affect education in the next 12 months.  

But several pieces of evidence suggest that e-books is still in its infancy.

One has to do with hardware and software formats.  They still proliferate. Two broad categories exist and, even within them,  standards compete for supremacy.

Purpose-built e-book readers, such as the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Sony e-Reader. Each has its own market.  For example, according to the New York Times (published May 22, 2011 at, the Barnes & Noble Nook has a strong appeal to women.

Although many believe that EPUB is the file format used on all e-reader devices, it is not.  In fact, the Kindle does not support it.

Tablets, such as the iPad and Playbook. The iPad has its own proprietary bookstore with iBooks, but the makers of other devices make compatible software for it.  For example, Kindle has an app that works on the iPad, so people can read Kindle books on an iPad.   Similar apps are available for tablets running under Android and Windows.

Another has to do with the definition of an e-book. Some people see the future of electronic books as interactive, multimedia experiences like the demonstration version of Sports Illustrated prepared by Wonderfactory.  Yet despite those images and claims like those by a recent tweeter at the STC Summit that “PDF is not an e-book,” many of the magazines for the Nook are PDF files.  And readers do not appear to be complaining about them.

Perhaps that gap between the potential and what readers are willing to accept can be explained by acceptance issues.  Several research studies suggest that, despite the acknowledged benefits of e-book readers—portability and lower cost of books—readers are still having difficult y giving up printed books.  That includes young readers.

A recent study noted that students believe that tablets will transform college—but most down own one.  And when they have used them, the study found that students had some practical problems, like writing notes in books.  (Chronicle of Higher Education online, ).

Furthermore, business models for e-books are still being defined—and publishers of books have different allegiances than those of magazines.  Publishers of books embraced the iPad and iBooks because Apple was going to charge more for e-books than Amazon, which had insisted on $9.99 for popular titles.

In contrast, magazine  publishers are as frustrated with Apple as book publishers were with Amazon.  Until earlier this year, Apple would not let publishers offer subscriptions.  Even when they do, Apple won’t provide magazines with information on subscribers, which is essential for advertiser-sponsored publications as advertisers demand demographics of the audience to verify that the magazine is helping advertisers reach their intended customers.  In contrast, Barnes & Noble has partnered with magazines in offering subscriptions and provides magazines with data on their subscribers.

The last piece of evidence that, despite the increasing interest in them, e-books remain  in their infancy is the lack of empirical research on them.  Few studies exist and, of those that do, most explore attitudes towards e-books.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Caught My Eye: Yet Another Discussion of the Flawed Millenials

In the past week, I’ve read a few pieces that address the strengths and flaws of millenials.

One was a paper from a master’s student.  Like much work by early researchers, despite the endless flurry of statistics, this one relied  more on emotion than fact in drawing its arguments.  The earnest student cited statistic after statistic to make the case that young people are heavy users of social media.

The student tried to put this into a broader social perspective.  Among the many points raised were that social media lets adolescents interact with strangers online without the knowledge of their parents.

I pointed out that it’s only in the last 20 or 30 years that young people have been housebound and monitored like prisoners.  100 years ago, many 15 and 16 year olds were already married.  Of those who weren’t, many were 1 of 7 or 8 or 10 or 15 children (like my grandparents).  With that many children, parents did simply could not follow the doings of each child the way they can when they have just 1 or 2 children.

This historical perspective is what seems to get lost in all of these discussions about Millenials.

One important part of the historical perspective is that we tend to forget that nearly every emerging generation in the past 100 years has been decried for one reason or another.

In her essay, A Generation of Slackers? Not So Much (, New York Times, May 28, 2011), Catherine Rampell notes that
It’s worth remembering that to some extent, these accusations of laziness and narcissism in “kids these days” are nothing new — they’ve been levied against Generation X, Baby Boomers and many generations before them. Even Aristotle and Plato were said to have expressed similar feelings about the slacker youth of their times. 
In other words, one of the issues that is often lost in our quickness to judge the rising generation is the historical perspective.  This perspective could balance conclusions in several ways:

  • Placing the family situation of young people into the larger perspective of time.  Some of the issues that people raise are unique to this generation.  Consider parents’ involvement with their adolescents.  Parents always loved their adolescents but, as a  result of several generations of slow change as well as longer education cycles, longer life spans, and smaller families, they are playing a guardian role longer than in the past and often with more attentiveness to this role.  So role-based expectations have also shifted.  What parents expect to know about their Millenial children might differ from what parents expected to know about their Boomer and Generation X children, much less what parents expected to know about their Depression-era children.  
  • Placing social phenomena attributed to the current generation into the larger perspective of time.  For example, an applicant for a degree program once said that we had a responsibility to study educational technology because of all the social phenomena affecting children.  I asked which phenomena.  She first mentioned crime—“there’s so much crime these days.”  But crime rates in the past decade have been far lower than those 20 to 40 years ago.  Perhaps the perception of crime is high but that’s not the same as actual physical threats.  

Somehow, the discussions about Millenials seems to lack this type of perspective.  The truth is:

  • Growing up always has its struggles.  What differs across time and people is what each person struggled with.  
  • Part of those struggles arise from the times in which the young people were born and raised.  Some were born and raised in hard times; others during years of relative peace and prosperity.  This has a general effect on people because it establishes some of the social norms and values that guide people the rest of their lives.
  • Some of those struggles have nothing to do with the times; they have everything to do with the individual circumstances.  Some people grew up in relatively comfortable home situations (define comfort however you choose); others had difficult circumstances (define difficult however you choose, too).   This happened  in every generation until now and is likely to continue in every generation to come.  
  • Young people tend to have a higher level of comfort adopting new technologies (though this is not universal).  In this generation, it’s social media.  In previous generations, it was AOL Instant Messenger, personal computers in general and even telephones.  Yet no matter how strong the presumed attachment of the young people to these technologies, the technologies are only a part of their lives.  They do not define them.

So many people who write and research generational issues seem to lose this perspective.

Certainly journalists should write about young people and researchers should study them.  How young people adopt technology could affect the way that people use it tomorrow.

But more than technology (which is what I study) or attitudinal issues of millenials, the primary reason that journalists should write about Millenials and resesarchers should study them is that we apparently have forgotten the experience ourselves as we have aged.

And perhaps it’s that lack of empathy that prevents us from embracing Millenials.  Rampell suggested this at the beginning of her essay:
YOU’D think there would be a little sympathy. This month, college graduates are jumping into the job market, only to land on their parents’ couches: the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds is a whopping 17.6 percent.
The reaction from many older Americans? This generation had it coming.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Toronto this Week, New York Next

Perhaps you can make one of these presentations.

Toronto--this Wednesday, June 8

Presenting Informal Learning and You: 10 Issues and Technologies to Consider, to:

Toronto chapter of the Canadian Society for Training and Development

6-8:30 pm

CMC - Canadian Management Centre

150 York Street

5th Floor

To register and see a complete session description, visit the event page.

New York--next Thursday, June 16

Presenting an afternoon workshop and a dinner speech to the Metro New York chapter of the Society for Techncial Communication.

  • The afternoon workshop, Tips for Internally Marketing your Communication Services , is scheduled 1:30 - 5 pm.
  • The evening presentation (and start-of-summer social), Lessons for Technical Communicators and Trainers from Cancellations of "All My Children" and "One Life to Live," is scheduled 5-8:30 pm (no--I'm not speaking the entire time :))

RSVP a must.

The event venue is:

Thomson Reuters

195 Broadway/Fulton

New York, NY 10007

To register and see some speculation about what I'll be saying in the evening, visit the event page.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Caught My Eye: A Plateful of Healthy Eating

For those of you interested in communication about diet and health (especially of the visual kind):  The U.S. government has unveiled the replacement to its food pyramid: a dinner plate.

Both the pyramid and its replacement, the plate, are supposed to provide a visual representation to guide healthy eating.

Given the high levels of obesity in the U.S., the pyramid wasn’t doing its job.  According to the New York Times article, Goodbye Food Pyramid, Hello Dinner Plate,  (, the pyramid “basically conveys no useful information.”

Originally intended to communicate the building blocks of healthy eating by showing food groups in horizontal bands in roughly some relation to the proportions in which people should eat them, the pyramid was reworked before its first introduction to address concerns by the dairy and meat industries that it under-represented those types of foods (as was the intention).

Later, the proportional horizontal bars were replaced by vertical ones that present all food groups on an equal footing (which diet experts say, they’re not).

The replacement image, a plate, is like a pie chart (the pie reference is not intended as a dietary suggestion) that roughly shows foods in the proportions that people should eat them.

Check it out for yourself.  

As a professional communicator, I empathize with the challenge facing the people who designed the plate: how to clearly convey useful technical information while acknowledging some difficult political choices.