academic publishers should make digital copies of their books available online for free

The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education

attention academic publishers. a new article by david wiley in the chronicle of higher education‘s ‘wired campus’ section entitled ‘giving away academic books online can actually help print sales‘ makes a lot of sense, and there is data to back it up.

The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has been digitally distributing free copies of its books, but print sales have not declined. “After the complimentary distribution of 21 titles in 2008 that had for many years only been available in print, sales of these titles increased by 7 percent compared with the previous two years,” institute officials reported on their Web site.

i was particularly struck by a comment by james boyle, co-founder of the center for the study of the public domain at duke university school of law. he explains why it is beneficial for academic publishers to make digital volumes available for free:

First, most people hate reading a book on a screen, but like finding out if it is worth buying. I am sure I have lost some sales, but my guess is that I have gained more new readers who otherwise would be unaware of my work, and who treat the digital version as a ‘sampler,’ to which they then introduce others.

this actually makes a lot of sense. a scholar can flood the market with his or her ideas, which increases the visibility of the book and its arguments. those arguments then become a more talked about part of the public and academic debate because of increased familiarity with the subject matter. if the argument withstands scholarly scrutiny, it will become a ‘must have’ volume. because scholars take pride in their libraries (much like popular music listeners *have* to have the new cd of their favorite artists), they will order the book. thus, the free distribution of academic books in a digital form allows readers a preview of a book they might not otherwise have purchased. (and does this strategy sound familiar??)

this won’t necessarily work with popular books, because popular readers aren’t concerned with building up their libraries. but for academics, this is a marketing strategy that makes a lot of sense because it appeals to a scholar’s fundamental desire: the ability to say, ‘i’ve read that. in fact, i have a copy if you want to borrow it.’

smu dean suggests removing technology from classrooms

Dr. Robert R. Cargill lecturing in the UCLA Visualization Portal

Dr. Robert R. Cargill lecturing in the UCLA Visualization Portal

we in the digital humanities spend a great deal of time exploring new ways of using technology to make instruction and research more efficient and effective. but one university is now suggesting educators remove technology from the classroom. josé a. bowen, dean of the meadows school of the arts at southern methodist university is challenging faculty to ‘teach naked’ and cease using technological aids like powerpoint in the classroom. according to the chronicle of higher education,

Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather than using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web.

i most certainly disagree. i object not only to the suggestion that professors who use powerpoint need a crutch, but to the assumption that those who use powerpoint in class do not ask their students to prepare before class.

there are pedagogical reasons for the effective use of a information organization and dissemination tool like powerpoint in class. the fact is that lower division undergraduate courses provide much of the raw materials required for the critical thinking and research exercises at the upper-division and graduate levels. the lower division accumulation of knowledge provides the building blocks for skills learned in advanced seminars. while it is important to teach critical thinking skills at every level, lower division courses provide the in-class instruction and discussion that allow students the environment to take in vast amounts of information from a credible source and synthesize it via discussion and questions into their intellectual skill set. of course, those discussions are more productive when students have done their readings (in textbooks or online) beforehand, but as anyone who has ever taught freshmen will tell you, this is not always the case. reading ahead of class and using the classroom period to discuss prior readings is the essential expectation of an advanced seminar. and they are advanced seminars for a reason: only the best students are responsible and disciplined enough to prepare in this manner. most students need to be… wait for it… *taught* things. a good instructor can quickly ascertain what percentage of a class has read and how much they have read, and can balance his or her lecture and discussions accordingly (unless you just want simply to punish the students for not reading, as some are wont to do).

to advocate for the removal of powerpoint from the classroom reveals a couple of misconceptions about powerpoint itself (and the use of technology in class in general). this negative view of technology is either the product of instructors who do not possess substantive information to disseminate, or of instructors who simply do not know how to use powerpoint. the assumption that technology, and powerpoint in particular, is to blame for poor teaching is just as dumb as blaming vehicles for traffic accidents, guns for violent crimes, or garbage disposals for  severed hands – it is not the technology, but the misuse of it that is the problem.

a one-size-fits-all approach to technology is just as silly as a one-size-fits-all approach to pedagogy. powerpoint shouldn’t be used with jazz flute class (i didn’t see ron burgundy using powerpoint), but a history of music certainly would benefit from a lecture of prepared bullet points to aid in conveying key points. (making the slides available before class for download and review would be even better, allowing the students to prepare for lecture and spend more time in discussion during the lecture, leaving the familiar powerpoint material to be available in class to prompt discussion). likewise, while powerpoint might not much assist a discussion on ancient trade and economic theory, a slide or two displaying the archaeological evidence for certain claims made during the discussion would go far to drive into a student’s mind the wealth or scarcity of evidence for said claim. and no, perhaps a theology class wouldn’t require a lecture in powerpoint, but courses in an introduction to ancient near eastern backgrounds, hebrew, aramaic, greek, biblical criticism, and the synoptic gospels would benefit greatly from prepared, informative comparisons on slides, saving the instructor from having to spend time writing out and flipping to texts needed to make his argument.

(as an aside, maybe this is why so many theological classroom discussions result in worthless banter – students lack the foundational tools necessary to have an intelligent discussion. i’m all for teaching people how to think, but proper logic is well served by a set of vetted facts from which to draw logical conclusions. when an upper division theology class discusses ridiculous (and non-biblical) ideas, and the class participants weren’t well grounded in a foundation of scripture, language, and history (drilled into them by lower division courses), should we at all be surprised by the drivel these ‘theological’ discussions produce? but i digress…)

technology allows for a maximum dissemination of information in the shortest amount of time in an efficient manner. but that requires preparation and pedagogical consideration – two things that too many professors are failing to do in their courses.

please allow me to conclude my response to smu dean bowen with an equal and opposite chastisement of ‘class discussion.’ discussion within a class can be a useful way to draw new ideas and insight from students, prompting them to engage and participate more fully in the material being discussed. but ‘class discussion’ or ‘breaking into groups’ can be just as much of a waste of time and sign of unpreparedness on the part of the instructor as fumbling through a lecture with chalk in hand. and in most undergraduate courses, discussion time is often little more than a “share your ignorance” period facilitated by lazy professors. as a student, i didn’t pay tuition to sit in a class discussion and listen to what the the dumbass sitting next to me ‘thinks’ a text says (especially if he didn’t prepare for class and do the readings as i did). i certainly don’t care what he ‘feels’ about the text, or what it ‘means to him’ if those ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ are the product of misinformation, sensationalism, popular myth, and a lack of preparation. i paid tuition so a professor would consolidate the information that i could otherwise gather myself over the course of a couple of years into compact, vetted, and digestible units that i could take in, process, and use as i develop critical thoughts about the subject. as a professor (and an admitted dyed in the wool lecturer), it is my responsibility to present a course that does not waste a student’s time. i am charged with imparting as much information (especially at the undergraduate level) and critical thinking ability (especially at the upper division and graduate levels) as i can in the few weeks i am given. technology helps this happen.

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