Algorithms behave in ways even their creators can’t understand, yet they dominate how we share and see information. Do we need a “Three Laws for Algorithms”?
The “ebook revolution” in scholarly publishing has behaved more like an evolution. Are we reaching a key inflection point where users are central to our innovations? The post The Ebook R/Evolution – Not as Easy as It Seems appeared first on The Scholarly Kitchen .
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Speaking at the Educause Annual Conference last month, Chris Bourg, director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said something that seemed to resonate with her audience.
“I don’t think we need to save libraries, but I do think we might need libraries to save us,” Bourg said.
Bourg was presenting a report on “The Future of Libraries,” the outcome of a year’s worth of conversations between faculty members, staffers and students at MIT. While its findings and recommendations are still preliminary, the report presents a vision of the library as an “open global platform” that gives people (regardless of whether they are affiliated with MIT) access to information that can help them solve global challenges such as increasing access to clean water or discovering new clean energy sources.
In a follow-up interview last week, Bourg described the report as a “moon shot” for libraries. At more than 26,000 words, the wide-ranging report covers digitization, open access, redesign of physical spaces and more, but it ultimately recommends libraries focus on four “pillars”: community and relationships, discovery and use, stewardship and sustainability, and research and development.
“What the report and the work of the task force say is that libraries aren’t just about buildings, and they’re not just about books,” Bourg said. “Providing access to credible information and the tools to assess, use, understand and exploit it is what libraries, librarians and archivists have always done. It’s more important than ever now.”
MIT, with its focus on science, technology, engineering and math, is in a different position to grapple with those issues compared to universities with traditional strengths (and extensive library collections) in the humanities and social sciences, other library directors and researchers said.
But MIT is not the only institute of its kind to take a long look at the role its libraries should play. The Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, has launched a Library Renewal Project that includes moving about 95 percent of its physical books to a cold storage facility it shares with Emory University. The space gained by cutting down on stacks will help the library in its transformation into a service organization, administrators there said.
More broadly, the MIT report reflects attitudes among academics highlighted in a national faculty survey conducted this year by Ithaka S+R, a research and consulting nonprofit. The survey found faculty members look to their libraries to offer more and more services, from acquiring new scholarly materials and preserving content to training students and serving as a starting point for research.
MIT isn’t committing to gutting its libraries of print books or other drastic changes just yet. The institute is still collecting feedback on the preliminary report, and the library staff will next decide which areas to prioritize.
They have plenty of opportunities to choose from among those discussed in the report. They could choose to boost the library’s role as a steward of knowledge first, tackling the task force’s recommendations that it serve as a repository for research and develop new models of preserving digital content. While many researchers rely on commercial services such as Figshare and Mendeley, “Academia in general is best served when the libraries are the trusted long-term repository for the scholarly record,” Bourg explained a blog post.
Alternatively, it could take a closer look at how it disseminates knowledge, for example by examining how MIT shares research with the world or by creating platforms that let users share and discover new information. Those efforts would go beyond digitizing, Bourg wrote, to ensure that new digital content isn’t simply being stored in its own silo.
Following the presidential election and the rise of racist incidents and protests across the country, libraries also need to consider how they can serve as “town squares” to promote diversity and social justice, Bourg said.
“College and university libraries need to step up to the plate here,” Bourg said. “They stand for intellectual freedom and the free exchange of ideas.”
Bourg said the task force effectively punted on two topics: library redesign and open access. The report only recommends that new groups be formed to look more specifically at those issues. While the task force on libraries was deliberating, MIT this summer announced a stand-alone committee to examine the future of its OpenCourseWare initiative. That committee is expected to issue its own recommendations before the new year, according to Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s vice president for open learning.
Elliott Shore, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, said in an email that the report lays the foundation for future collaboration between researchers, librarians and others involved in scholarly communication.
“This is a vision for MIT libraries that makes very clear the need to collaborate at scale,” Shore wrote. “It demonstrates that MIT knows it can’t go it alone and doesn’t want to — what it wants to do is to fulfill the goal of the university to create new knowledge as a public good.”
Bourg said MIT does not assume it can accomplish everything it sets out to do in the preliminary report alone, and that it needs help from other scholars, universities and publishers to bring its vision to life.
“We tried to write the report as an invitation,” Bourg said. “If this is your vision for the future, too, come join us, help us build it.”
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Published in October of 2016.
In his essential new book The Attention Merchants, Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu quotes from William James’ (1842-1910) observation that "our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to.”
In The Attention Merchants, Wu takes us back to the origins of the monetization of attention. He starts with the observation that there are two ways that information industries can capture revenues. They can sell content directly – such as through tickets or subscriptions or cover price charges etc – or they can sell the attention of an audience to a third party. The realm of advertising – the attention merchants in Wu’s story – is that of the reselling of that attention.
The modern attention economy can be traced back to the 1830’s, and the launch of mass-advertising through the penny newspapers. The New York Sun lost money on every sale, but made up for the gap between price and costs via advertising. The business model of every subsequent mass-market information industry company is built on this early penny newspaper business. Wu recounts the story of each of these industries, going from the advent of radio (and the original broadcasting networks), to television, the internet, and finally to the ascension of social media.
The strength of this book is the time that Wu takes to place the current digital attention economy within its historical context. The Attention Merchants provides insights into why today’s digital companies that depend on advertising – such as news organizations and platforms such as Twitter – struggle to achieve economic viability. At the same time, companies that have ridden network effects to gain dominance over our attention platforms – such as Google and Facebook – are able to mint money.
Do you remember the forebearers to today’s dominant digital attention platforms? When AOL seemed unstoppable? When in the mid-1990s when Microsoft spent hundreds of millions of dollars to launch its failed MSN 2.0 portal? And when that same Microsoft was spurned by Yahoo in 2008 in its $45 billion takeover bid? Are you fascinated by the rise of social media, the displacement of blogs by micro-blogging (Twitter), and the migration of our digital conversation (and attention) from the computer (the 3rd screen – films the 1st, TV the 2nd) to the 4th screen of the iPhone and Android mobile device?
This history fits in with a larger narrative of the history of radio, tv, newspapers, and magazines – all business that have depended on advertising. The Attention Merchants gives us a framework in which we can make sense of the history and future of the information economy, a story of interest to all of us participating as consumers or producers (or both – and nowadays we are all both) in today’s attention economy.
What is clear through The Attention Merchants is price we all pay, as individuals and as a society, for basing so much of our social and economic life, on the buying and selling of attention. When I was growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, that price was the willingness to sit through TV ads. I look back in some disbelief on the sheer number of my childhood hours spent watching TV shows (and presumably TV ads). Is it really possible that my younger self once knew the entire primetime schedules of NBC, ABC, and CBS? That I sat through not only episodes of good shows like M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere – but rerun dreck such as Hogan’s Heroes and The Brady Bunch?
Today, many of us are able to avoid the types of ads that were a fixture of previous decades. Besides watching live sports, when was the last time you sat passively through a 30 second TV ad?
We have all become believers in the idea – recently expressed by Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, that, "…when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”
We subscribe to Netflix so that we can watch House of Cards, and get HBO Now to have access to Game of Thrones. As Wu notes about this trend….
"Certainly among its most desired target demographics, the young and the affluent, advertising seemed to become one more avoidable toxin in the healthy lifestyle, another twentieth-century invention mistakenly assumed to be harmless, like sugary soft drinks, processed foods, and tanning beds."
If we look a bit deeper, and Wu is of course highly articulate and persuasive in his analysis, we see that we are not as good at avoiding the attention merchants as we might believe.
Anyone who spends their time on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram is trading their attention (and their personal details) for resale to advertisers. Google is not actually a public good – as Wikipedia has maintained itself – but a mechanism in which our attention (through search) is traded for exposure to advertising.
The attention merchants are no less dominant in the digital age as they were in the age of mass media. They still ply their trade through traditional TV advertising. The attention game, however, has moved from a mass to a targeted audience.
Search for a product or a service once on Google, and ads for that product or service will follow you around the internet. Spend time on social media platforms or a specialized content website, and you will be continually shown ads optimized for your demographics, preferences, and past purchase behaviors.
Should our campuses be a safe-zone from advertising?
Will higher ed follow the path of the the public schools that Wu describes, schools that raised much-needed dollars by selling advertising space on report cards?
Will we teach our students how to recognize if they are customer or the product?
What are your favorite books about the origins and the economics of the information economy?
Where might higher ed fit into the narrative of The Attention Merchants?
The Attention Merchants just might have my vote for the best nonfiction book of 2016.
What are you reading?
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New research warns that at the rate we’re going, the number of women in the computing workforce will decline to 22% from 24% by 2025 if nothing is done to encourage more of them to study computer science. From a USA Today report (shared by an anonymous reader): The research from Accenture and nonprofit group Girls Who Code says taking steps now to encourage more women to pursue a computer science education could triple the number of women in computing to 3.9 million in that same timeframe. Women account for 24% of computing jobs today, but could account for 39% by 2025, according to the report, Cracking the Gender Code. And greater numbers of women entering computer science could boost women’s cumulative earnings by $299 billion and help the U.S. fill the growing demand for computing talent, said Julie Sweet, Accenture’s group chief executive for North America.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
Ideas about platform society and platform capitalism raise significant issues for education, and for schools specifically. As platform companies are increasingly penetrating into the education system, they are seeking to fundamentally reorganize education institutions and practices of teaching and learning according to the in-built mechanisms and architectures of the platforms themselves. We are used to thinking of schools as built architectures. In a platform society, schooling looks set to take place within technical architectures too, but the consequences of this reconfiguration of schools have yet to be studied or understood.
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Anyone who reads the vast, rapidly expanding literature on innovation in higher education will be struck by the pervasiveness of certain discourses and tropes. Three stand out.
The Discourse of Crisis
This gloom and doom viewpoint regards the current system of higher education as broken and warns that many existing institutions are at risk due to escalating costs that have resulted from administrative bloat, country club amenities, easy access to government-funded financial aid, and a single-minded focus on institutional prestige, as well as declining per student funding by state legislatures and stagnating federal research expenditures.
The Discourse of Disruption
This is the Clayton Christiansen-inspired perspective that higher education is ripe for radical transformation, as traditional colleges and universities, for the first time, face serious competition not just from for-profits, which are under siege, but from rapidly expanding dual degree programs, low-cost online programs (like Arizona State’s Global Freshman Academy), and Alt-Ed providers like General Assembly that are gradually displacing existing Master’s programs. In Christiansen’s view, acceptable but lower-cost models – even those that offer inferior quality – gradually acquire a growing market share, undermining incumbent institutions.
The Discourse of Techno-Transformation
This is the techo booster claim that a revolution in technology – especially the rise of personalized, adaptive courseware — will radically transform education, offering better ways to deliver learning at lower cost with no diminution in quality.
The proponents of innovation are certainly right on one point: Higher education faces challenges that are real and inescapable. These include:
- A cost challenge – that middle-income families, in particular, are finding it more difficult to pay for college;
- A completion challenge – that too many students fail to graduate and many of those who do take too long;
- A student engagement challenge – that too much time dedicated to work or extracurricular activities has reduced time devoted to study;
- An equity challenge – that funding for broad-access institutions, which serve the country’s most needy students, is substantially lower than at more selective institutions.
- A business model challenge – as a result of declining per student public support, rising costs, and the erosion of the cross-subsidies that helped fund smaller upper division courses.
But many of the points that the critics make are certainly overblown. As Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman have persuasively shown, higher education’s financial challenges are rooted not in wasteful spending on prestige competition, luxury amenities, or bloated staffing, but in factors not susceptible to easy fixes, such as the costs of expert faculty, advanced technology, financial aid, and expanded student support services.
Even as institutions have sought to trim administrative expenses, improve financial management, and make procurement more efficient, costs inexorably rise. This is due, largely to the increasing costs of plant maintenance and operations, health and retirement benefits, technology, and especially the non-faculty professionals who provide student services (including disabilities services, psychological services, career services, and advising) and who monitor compliance with various governmental mandates.
In addition, there is a sharp increase in spending on the research, grants, and contracting infrastructure, as institutions seek new sources of revenue from contract research, patents, grants, philanthropy, investment income, and auxiliary services.
In fact, many of the steps that hold out the greatest promise for improving graduation rates and time-to-degree will further increase costs, at least in the short run. These include instituting:
- Exploratory majors or meta majors to allow students to test their aptitude in certain broad fields of study without wasting credit hours.
- e-Advising systems to help students select courses and majors, plan their schedule, and monitor their progress.
- An enhanced data infrastructure to allow administrators to check, in near real time, on course availability and scheduling, curricular bottlenecks, courses with high failure rates, instructor variance in grading, and student profiles at risk of failure.
- Expanding course availability through accelerated vacation courses, increased online options, and alternate approaches to course delivery, such as emporium models.
- Financial incentives for timely graduation.
- Block scheduling options for first year or working students.
- Coaching models that provide students with a single points of contact for academic and non-academic support.
- Care coordinators to help students navigate difficult transitions, such as transferring credits from other institutions or shifting majors.
What, then, can be done to address the innovation challenges and cost pressures that institutions face?
One proposed solution is a differentiated system of higher education, with distinct student profiles receiving an education better tailored to their needs, life circumstances, and aspirations. In many respects, this trend is already taking place. Better funded, more selective institutions are devoting more resources to experiential-, project-, and challenge-based learning, while less well-funded, broader access institutions, in particular, expend funds on remediation, competency-based models, and online instruction. The danger, of course, is a higher educational system that is even more stratified than it is today.
Another proposed solution: Increased funding for institutions that serve larger number of low-income students. Government might provide financial incentives for those institutions that enroll and graduate large numbers of Pell Grant recipients, much as Title I of the Elementary and Secondary School Act provides funding to local school districts to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students.
A third approach, which might be particularly well-suited for broad-access institutions, is to devise more optimized, coherent curricula, with a greater emphasis on skills development (including a greater emphasis on writing skills and numeracy) and better alignment with workforce needs. Such a learning model might also incorporate a more modular curriculum, making it easier for students to receive credit for prior learning, accelerating time to degree.
A fourth option focuses on better serving untapped markets. In recent years, many institutions, in a bid to increase revenue, have aggressively pursued out-of-state and international students and have rapidly expanded master’s degree offerings. But other potential markets remain largely underserved: These include adults with some college but no degree, working professionals who need want to enhance their skills or retool, and those who seek professional certifications but not a degree.
Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.