A Daily Newspaper for the Digital Age

The proliferation of e-readers and digital reading devices has permanently altered the way we access content.  With so much material readily available, consumers have come to expect that much of that content will be free.  Much has already been written on what that expectation has wrought and the way that ‘free content’ has upended the publishing and news industries.  The newspaper industry, for example, has been particularly hard hit by the abundance of freely available content; and most consumers now expect much of their mainstream news to be free of charge.  As a result, subscription sales have dropped, advertisers are no longer paying premium prices for ad space, and many century old papers have shuttered their doors. 

That havoc, however, may be short-lived and may just signal an industry in flux.  Publishers are looking outside the industry for ways to remain both relevant and profitable.  Apple’s iPad, for example, has demonstrated that consumers are willing to pay for good content – even in digital form.  As the New York Times reports, News Corp is teaming with Apple to create The Daily, an iPad-centered newspaper. The Daily will offer an app-like news atmosphere of rich media and photography built specifically around the iPad experience.  News Corp. is hoping that by changing the way they deliver content, they can resurrect the idea of a profitable daily newspaper:

With The Daily, the News Corporations can enter the digital newsstand business in earnest with a new product that was never free on the Web and in a format for which payments are easily made. When I am on a Web browser and I bump into a pay-wall, I reflexively pull back unless it is in front of something I really must have. But when I’m in the App Store on an iPad, I’m already in a commercial environment: pushing the button to spend small money on something I’d like to see or play with doesn’t seem like such a sucker’s bet.

News Corp.’s newest venture blends old practices with new delivery methods. They will still employ a news team operating behind the scenes and the news will be produced in the evening, much like a standard newspaper.  But the latest edition will be delivered the next morning – in a format specifically developed for the iPad – at the push of a button. 

This is a promising development for the news industry.  The Daily goes live January 17th.

Harvesting the Data: What Social Media Sites May Soon Provide

Popular social media and networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have undoubtedly changed the way we communicate. What many don’t realize is that all those status posts and “likes” and “dislikes” are flooding the Internet with data; usable, searchable, baffling data. According to a recent article in Slate, over 500 million users are accessing Facebook and each of those users is creating an average of 90 pieces of content a month. Slate details how others have decided to utilize this data to examine various trends:

Our first stop is Openbook. The site lets you search public Facebook updates and was created to demonstrate how FB’s privacy settings are confusing: People don’t realize how widely they are sharing personal information. And, indeed, when you do a search like “cheated on my wife,” you discover updates that would’ve been better left in the privacy of one’s own mind. Same with “my boss sucks.”

 From a research standpoint, however, this kind of commentary can be tapped for more useful purposes:

It would be helpful for transportation planners to know the places where people complain the most about traffic. Educators could see the data and sentiment analysis around how a community feels about its local schools.

Facebook’s own data team sifts through their own information searching for trends. One trend they’ve already analyzed is the times of year their users seem to be the happiest.  Using the language of their user’s posts, researchers determined that Americans tend to be happiest on Thanksgiving Day – Mother’s day is a distant second.

There’s much more to be gleaned through the analysis of Facebook data; and much of this data will provide a treasure tr to future researchers.  It would be useful, for example, to analyze the writing level of Facebook’s many users utilizing a metric like The Lexile Framework for Writing, to gauge how the semantic and syntactic ability of writers increase over time.  It might also be useful to assess the writing level of students, in a particular region or area, when writing informally as contrasted with their more formal writing attempts.  Whatever we find in the data, it would certainly be interesting to assess student’s dominant mode of writing in non-assessment situations.

Kids Learning on Their Own?

At the heart of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, was an Indian physicist who 10 years ago installed computers in slum neighborhoods to watch how kids interacted with the technology.  Dr. Mitra’s latest brainchild is an idea called Self-Organized Learning Environment, or SOLE.  He is convinced that kids can learn by themselves with Internet-connected computers answering well-posed questions in small groups.  The small groups are essential to learning in his view.

One child in front of a computer learns little, four discussing and debating learn a lot.

The December 4-5 Wall Street Journal article by Matt Ridley describes how Dr. Mitra poses questions such as, “How do you stop something moving?”.  After a week or so, he follows up with a second question more closely tied to the curriculum such as “Who was Isaac Newton?” and then “What’s the connection between Newton and stopping things moving?”.  Schools in the UK, Australia, Columbia and India are experimenting with the concept now and he’s been approached by educators in Nevada, Maine and San Francisco.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of these experiments, there is much to be learned along the way.

A New Student Response System

As Jacques Steinberg of The NY Times reports, the days of slipping into a college classroom a few minutes late only to use the lecture time to attend to just about anything else, except the lecture itself, may soon be in the past.  As Steinberg explains, professors across the country have found a way to utilize technology to ensure student participation during class time.

University students may now find that, along with their class syllabus, they’ve been provided a  “clicker” or student response system, a hand-held device that allows students to provide feedback on a particular lesson’s difficulty and participate in quizzes, surveys, and other classroom activities.  The clicker also allows professors to track attendance and student participation.

According to USA Today, other universities have gone even further.  Students attending Texas’s Abilene Christian University receive an iPod touch or iPhone; select freshman attending Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland received Kindles instead of textbooks.  Many participating professors see the introduction of such technologies as a “new platform for learning.”

“A lot of this is us catching up with the students and what they’re bringing to us,” says Michael Reuter, director of technology operations at Central Michigan.

These new devices offer a degree of connectedness that is often lacking in many university classrooms.  Most university students are digital natives, and these new devices offer the best of both worlds: a new, technologically relevant way for students to participate in a class and a way for professors to engage even a large number of students. More importantly, the classroom clickers finally allow university professors to determine, in real time, which lessons are effective and which may need more explanation.  Rather than relying on the obligatory head-nods or blank stares, professors may now rely on quantifiable information and actionable data.

Coming Soon: Google Editions

Access to digital content is about to get even easier.  It appears that Google is set to soon launch its e-book division.  Google Editions offers an alternative to the existing e-book market in that Google Editions is available through any internet-connected device.  Meaning, one needs only a web browser to access a Google Editions account, an account that does not rely on a specific device for access:

Google Editions hopes to upend the existing e-book market by offering an open, “read anywhere” model that is different from many competitors. Users will be able to buy books directly from Google or from multiple online retailers—including independent bookstores—and add them to an online library tied to a Google account. They will be able to access their Google accounts on most devices with a Web browser, including personal computers, smartphones and tablets.

This latest venture is especially welcome for small publishers and independent book sellers, many of which have been unable to afford entrance into the digital sphere.  For many, Google Editions may offer them a way to make their titles more widely available. 

More importantly, this is good news for readers everywhere.  In addition to the hundreds of thousands of titles Google is expected to make available for purchase, there are millions more that will be available for free.  Now all readers will be able to take advantage of digital content – regardless of whether they own an e-reader device or not.

Essays on Demand: The Desperation of the Unprepared

Here’s The Chronicle of Higher Education offering an appalling view into the seedier side of post-secondary education.  In The Shadow Scholar, academic mercenary, Ed Dante (a pseudonym), chronicles his experience as a ghost-writer for hire.  Dante works for a custom-essay company, an organization birthed from the deficiencies of students ill-prepared for the academic rigors of university life and dedicated to churning out essays for students to pass off as their own:

 The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business. I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): “You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?”

I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

I told her no problem.

It truly was no problem. In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.

There’s no gray area here.  Even the most adept sophist would be hard-pressed to dress this practice up  as anything other than plagiarism – a practice we’d prefer to view as a rare mistep  by the desperate few.  That might be a mistake.  Dante argues that the practice of paying others to produce essays is far more pervasive than most would like to believe.  And it’s not constrained to a particular discipline or department.  Moral ambivalence, apparently, goes all the way down.  Unable, or unwilling, to produce even marginally competent work has led both graduates and undergraduates alike to enlist the help of writers, like Dante, to churn out thoughtful work that they can turn in as their own.  And, as Dante writes, there’s no pattern to the customer base.  The clientele is just as varied as the topics on which they refuse to write: (more…)

The Latest in Digital Content News

Libraries around the country continue to struggle to meet the needs of patrons through the expanded use of technology.  That struggle just got a bit harder.  In recent news, many publishing houses are now placing restrictions on the lending of e-books to library patrons. In the past, we’ve commented on public libraries that are now offering e-book downloads to patrons using their library account.  Unfortunately, at a recent library conference, it was announced that major trade publishers have agreed to offer their e-book content for lending – but with restrictions. These restrictions limit the means by which patrons may access online content, in many cases requiring a patron to be on-site in order to download e-book material.  Additionally, availability is severely limited and some publishers are now requiring that only one copy may be checked out at a time. We’ve seen this before.  This type of enforcement is similar to the type of restrictions in place for music and movie sharing.

Not all publishers, however, are on board. Several will continue to provide access to their e-books without these types of controls. According to Springer-Verlag (an international publisher in science and technology):

“Libraries buy direct from us and they own the content,” says the publisher’s director of channel marketing George Scotti. “Once users download content, they can give it out, share, whatever. They own it. Some of our competitors are afraid to do this, but we say, free the content.”

That’s good to hear.  As the article states, library systems make up only about 4% of book sales.  It’s, therefore, unlikely that the lending of e-content would have a significant impact on the publishing industry.

In  related digital news, it was recently announced that U.S. News and World Report will discontinue its monthly print publication to move entirely to a digital model. The last print issue will publish in December. This is a major milestone.  U.S. News & World Report dates back to 1948.  The shift to all digital content signals major changes in the publishing industry – primarily in the dominant way in which we access and engage content.  It’s likely that other publications may soon follow suit- abandoning print altogether, and opting for a more flexible  and efficient digital model.

Beginning in 2011, readers can find the magazine electronically, on their iPad or Android-based devices – perhaps even lent to you in e-form through your local library.

Education Evolves: Technology Transforms the Classroom

It goes without saying that the Internet has exerted a tremendous influence on today’s classrooms.  Even the way students receive their curriculum, for example, has undergone significant transformation. Here’s Harold Pollard discussing the alternative styles of teaching and learning his children encounter on a daily basis:

The way he is learning math is a lot different than the way I did. It’s interactive, entertaining, and it’s a competition. The course is online, available whenever and wherever, and it allows him to compete with his classmates, his schoolmates, and other schools nationwide.

Here at MetaMetrics®we’re making use of technology and working to provide teachers and parents with useful, interactive tools that help support instruction.  Lexile Find a Book, for example, allows educators and students to select books at their current Lexile reading level, and to further refine their results based on their areas of interest.  This online tool allows parents and students to create customized reading lists year round.  Find a Book then allows parents and educators to cross reference these customized reading lists with public library catalogs – making reading material available across all socio-economic levels.  Pollard, in fact, references his own use of the Find a Book site. He uses this tool to find reading material suitable and challenging for his sons:

The boys are also able to determine books based on their reading levels. Their teachers know the boys’ reading levels based on assessment tests administered online at school. Then, using an online guide at the Lexile Framework for Reading at Lexile.com, their teachers can recommend books for the boys based on that. Additionally, this same online guide allows my wife and me to determine whether certain titles are appropriate for the boys’ reading levels.

Pollard, like many parents these days, see the value and opportunity present in this increasingly digital age.  Our students have more access to information than ever before. To read more about the work MetaMetrics® is doing to be a part of this evolution, visit us at Lexile.com and Quantiles.com.

Amazon Offers ‘Digital Shorts’

In other e-reader news, Amazon has just begun offering a Digital Shorts section through its Kindle e-reader.  Digital Shorts offer readers the ability to buy short selections of digital text, e.g. short stories, pamphlets, essays, etc…  The benefit to consumers is obvious: it may no longer be necessary to purchase expensive anthologies or collected works.  Consumers will be able to pick and choose individual selections for immediate download – think of the iTunes model as applied to books.

Here’s Tech Crunch on Amazon’s latest offering:

Today, Amazon is launching Kindle Singles, which are Kindle books that are in the company’s words, “twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book.” Generally, Amazon characterized Kindle Singles as 10,000 to 30,000 words (roughly 30 to 90 pages).

Amazon says that Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store, which currently has over 700,000 books, and will be priced much less than a typical book (although Amazon didn’t reveal a range of pricing for the new format).

Amazon’s Digital Shorts offers another benefit as well: exposure.  Amazon has already put out a call for serious writers, thinkers, poets to self-publish their work and make it available through the Digital Shorts section.  Here’s TechCrunch again:

It sounds like anyone can submit a story or piece to be included as a Kindle Single, and Amazon is using the announcement as a “call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers” to submit writings. As Amazon writes in the release: Singles are a “perfect, natural length to lay out a single killer idea, well researched, well argued and well illustrated—whether it’s a business lesson, a political point of view, a scientific argument, or a beautifully crafted essay on a current event.”

The inability to access short-form works or single articles has been one of the chief limitations of the e-reader market.  It’s good to see Amazon taking steps to correct the oversight.  Click here to learn more.

The Promise of E-readers

Here’s Jonah Lehrer making an odd argument against e-readers and digital text:

…And this is where the problems begin. Do we really want reading to be as effortless as possible? The neuroscience of literacy suggests that, sometimes, the best way to make sense of a difficult text is to read it in a difficult format, to force our brain to slow down and process each word. After all, reading isn’t about ease—it’s about understanding. If we’re going to read Kant on the Kindle, or Proust on the iPad, then we should at least experiment with an ugly font.

Every medium eventually influences the message that it carries. I worry that, before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink that the technology will feed back onto the content, making us less willing to endure challenging texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a thorny stretch of prose. And that would be a shame, because not every sentence should be easy to read.

Lehrer’s argument seems to be a variant of the concern that ‘digital text is changing the way we process information’;  but it also appears to contain a bit of nostalgia – a yearning for a time when the experiential fact of the physical book was as much a part of the reading experience as the content itself.  Lehrer’s counsel ‘to flex those dorsal muscles’ seems to suggest that a good way to ensure deep and meaningful reading is to wrestle with an unwieldy formatting style, a figurative speed bump that forces the reader to slow down and fully experience the the various physical facets of the text. (more…)

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.