Facebook’s targeting machine

If you, like me, have doubted whether Facebook could live up to its valuation, you should read this:

So if you want to reach the 100 people on Facebook who live in California, are between 18 and 36 years old, like “space” and work at Apple or Google, you can. Amazing.

The specificity of targeting ads to users based on their self-revealed interests is staggering. When I read the example in the linked article, all the pieces fit together for me, and I agree with the article — Google should be worried.

Publicly Owned Internet Service

The Case for Publicly Owned Internet Service:

Right now, state legislatures – where the incumbents wield great power – are keeping towns and cities in the U.S. from making their own choices about their communications networks. Meanwhile, municipalities, cooperatives and small independent companies are practically the only entities building globally competitive networks these days. Both AT&T and Verizon have ceased the expansion of next-generation fiber installations across the U.S., and the cable companies’ services greatly favor downloads over uploads.

Such a shame there is almost no real competition in broadband service. I’ve often wondered if one solution to the lack of investment by the big players would be for communities to own their own networks. This column paints an ugly picture of the efforts these players will go to to keep that from happening.

The power of Keynote

A leading design firm uses Apple’s Keynote application for a lot of design work:

One of the most powerful features of Keynote is that is will take virtually any file that you throw at it. Images, vectors, video, audio, etc. can all be simply be dragged or pasted into your work area. Once in the work area, they can be resized nondestructively.

They use it in the idea-creation and mock-up stage of design, and they find it to be a nearly perfect tool for that purpose. My students and I have been using it to lay out large format scientific posters for years, and they find it much easier and more powerful than PowerPoint. The alignment guides that pop up and prompt you make a huge difference.

A Sea Change on Campus

If this survey is to be taken seriously, we are on the brink of a sea change in higher education. In that article, The Chronicle reports that the number of students with a tablet tripled in a year, and many more plan to buy one soon. The survey was performed long before the new iPad was announced, and I can imagine the high-resolution screen will only accelerate this trend. It is, in many ways, the perfect computing device for campus.

Students have been bringing computers to campus for decades, though, so why should the arrival of tablets like the iPad be any different? I think there are several key qualities of the iPad not shared with regular notebook computers. First, it is hard to overstate the importance of battery life. While a notebook computer may eke out 4 or 5 hours when brand new and not heavily used, it won’t be long before 2 to 3 hours of battery life is the norm. Most students I see with a notebook computer have it plugged in. Meanwhile, the iPad can be used heavily all day without a charge. I argue this is a huge deal on campus.

A second factor that favors the iPad in the classroom over a notebook is the position of the screen. Having a screen between the student and me changes the dynamic of exchange in some way. I know it sounds silly, but it does. Students who take notes on their iPad just seem to look up and pay attention more because of its position. It’s like students with a notebook open are waiting for something to happen on their screen, their default gaze includes their screen. This matters, and relates to the next issue…

The iPad only ever has ONE thing on the screen at a time. Apple is rigorous in enforcing this for apps — they actively deny apps that try recreate a desktop or windowing metaphor. This encourages focus and concentration in a class setting at a level that a more traditional notebook computer simply cannot do. Sure, sometimes this is not an advantage, if a student needs to gather information from a variety of apps simultaneously. On the iPad, they could double-tap the home button and bounce around their apps if they need to, but there is not a similar temptation to notice distractions as much.

Fourth, as a touch-based device, the iPad is a great tool for freeform note taking and drawing. In most of the classes I teach I lean heavily on visual aids to explain abstract ideas (diffusion? operons? signal transduction?). These are hard to capture on a notebook computer, but the iPad was made for drawing, especially with a stylus.

I could go on and on, but let me try to wrap it up here. Campuses have seen personal computers come in with students for decades. The iPad is not a PC, and represents something completely different and, in many ways, better. We are on the cusp of seeing the majority of our students coming to class with these in tow. What could we do to better prepare for this?

Reeder + Instapaper

I’ve been reading my feeds on my iPod touch with Reeder for years. Even after buying an iPad, I often read on my iPod because it’s almost always in my pocket. When I find something I want to read later or come back to, Reeder lets me easily send it to my Instapaper account with 2 taps, which is awesome.

One annoyance I had with Reeder, though, was how jarring it was to follow a link and have to resize a web page to read anything. Tonight, while poking around in the settings for Reeder to turn off lots of the send-to options I never use, I stumbled on this:

Screen shot of Reeder settings

So now when I follow a link from a feed item, it opens with Instapaper’s beautifully optimized layout applied for reading on my iPod touch. So nice.

Adding a Stylus Renews my iPad

Wacom Bamboo Stylus in black
Wacom Bamboo Stylus

Over the weekend I picked up my first stylus for my iPad, the Wacom Bamboo. I went with this one because 1) Wacom has been making styluses for their own tablets for a long time, so I figured they must be good at it and 2) it received high marks from Serenity at Macworld.

I’ve had my iPad (the original) since August of 2010 and put off buying a stylus until now because every time I looked at them I heard Steve’s voice in the back of my mind saying, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” So why did I give in after 1.5 years? Simple: despite years of experience in pre-school, it’s pretty hard to draw with my finger, and I have some diagrams and sketches I want to include in my course notes. I am no artist, but even I can cobble together an acceptable diagram given enough time and ready access to an ‘Undo’ button.

Now that I’ve used it for a couple days, I can say a couple things about it. First, there is a sense that my old, fat, heavy iPad is a brand new thing. I’ve always been struck by how the iPad dissolves into the background when using a well-designed app. It’s been said far more eloquently before, but part of the “magic” of the iPad is how it completely becomes whatever app is currently running. What does this have to do with a stylus? Well it happens that you begin to discover a whole new assortment of apps that you never paid attention to before, or if you did it was only for a few minutes as a novelty. I’m talking about things like SketchBook Pro, Notability, and Penultimate, to name a few.

The other thing I know for sure is that a stylus is totally goofy for doing any kind of navigation in iOS. Even in a drawing app, I find it unnatural to use it to select different colors, pens or brushes, so I tuck it into my hand and use my finger instead. These various tap targets still feel best when selected with my finger. I can imagine it must be tempting for app designers to optimize their targets for a stylus, given that the majority of people who are using drawing apps are probably using one, but I hope it never happens. I have the stylus because it allows me more precise control for drawing, period. In that sense, the most important sense, Steve was right. And at the same time, adding a stylus to my iPad makes it even more capable.

E-books can’t be burned

I love this article about ebooks and the nature of literature by Tim Parks:

The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end. More than any other art form it is pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself.

I continue to grow less and less inhibited about buying ebooks, I know that much.

Making interactive diagrams with Hype

I’ve been dabbling again with making my own animations to use as teaching aids. I say ‘again’ because I remember how excited I was to create a crude, two-dimensional animation of photosynthetic electron transport in my first year at OWU. I used Flash for that, when it was still produced by Macromedia (before Adobe bought them).

Instead of Flash or some other complicated authoring tool, I’ve been using Tumult Hype, which does its magic with only HTML5 and Javascript. The web has changed a lot since the early 2000’s, including the introduction of greater support for animation in the browser with HTML5, making it possible to bypass the plugins altogether. I’m still learning my way around the software, but I’ve managed to realize a couple of simple animations already — one demonstrating osmosis, one on meristem-driven growth, and one on cell expansion. They are, admittedly, not much to look at, but I think I spent all of 15 minutes on each. The design goal (if you could call it that) was to create the equivalent of a chalkboard sequence of drawings, and I think they accomplish that much.

In my opinion, even though Hype seems to be designed with web professionals in mind, it is perfect for this kind of activity. It has a mode in which you can ‘record’ an animation by simply dragging objects around and advancing the timeline. Alternatively, you can also control each object and animation sequence with manual controls, which I used for the cell division and growth example to obtain pixel-precise layout of each new cell. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the interaction capabilities thus far, only creating buttons on my examples for replaying or jumping to a new scene, but there is massive potential here for allowing students to explore the impact of changing different variables, for example.

One of the great benefits of the output format is that I can embed the animations on web pages and, using the same output, bundle them into a widget and insert them into iBooks Author projects, where they can become fully interactive diagrams. As I’ve written recently, I’m interested in exploring the creation of interactive books with iBooks Author, and having a simple tool for creating animations is an important complement to that process. I’m looking forward to tinkering with Hype more, and I’ve set my sights on remaking my old photosynthetic electron transport animation, which promises to be a bit more involved than growing squares.

Why iBooks Author is Interesting to Me

Today Apple announced a number of new initiatives relating to textbooks, including a new version of their iOS app iBooks, a new authoring tool to create iBooks, and a new iOS app for iTunes U. None of these announcements was an utter surprise, as rumors had been swirling for several weeks before announcements were even delivered to the press for the event. And while I think the new initiative to sell textbooks for iBooks is important, I want to focus on the authoring tool and its implications for higher ed in this post.

This semester I am teaching an upper-level course in my main area of specialty, plant physiology. Since I began teaching the class 10 years ago, and even when I took the class as an undergrad, I have used the standard-bearer text, Plant Physiology by Taiz and Zeiger. It is an excellent book with an encyclopedic coverage of the topic — it’s great. In fact, it is too great, going into detail at a level more appropriate for advanced courses. I have tended to assign readings from the text as a supplement and a reference for the students, and in almost no topic do we exhaust the coverage of the book. I provide the students with an outline for each topic so they know which details I want them to focus their attention on. For some time, I have felt like they aren’t getting their money’s worth out of the book using it in this way, but they are much more comfortable having an “official” textbook than going without (I’ve tried that experiment). The only alternative seemed to be to write my own, but the fact that the textbook in a field is too good did not seem like strong motivation to write something else. I have no interest in writing a real textbook and trying to get it published, as it seems to me like a monumental task, and I’d frankly rather be in the lab.

But if there were a way to “publish” a book only targeting my class, by converting those outlines I’ve made into short chapters on each topic, well… Why not? I have no intentions of any other students wanting or needing my vastly inferior collection of topic overviews, but it would be fine if they wanted them. The iBooks Author app seems like just the kind of tool to create such a book — I can take words I already have lying around (or write new ones), package them up, and push a button. I can export a PDF for students without iOS devices. I can publish them to the web for still others to find them. I can use something like pandoc to shape them into a file in ePub format.

And all this makes me wonder, how many other faculty members out there are like me, having a collection of notes and points of emphasis for a topic that they know something about, but had no interest in producing a textbook through a traditional publisher? Or perhaps they wrote their own “book” and published it through the campus copy shop? I think having an authoring tool and distribution system all wrapped up together has tremendous potential for these situations. Having the freedom and flexibility to put together a little book to accompany a specialty course is an attractive idea to me, one that I plan to experiment with.

If I end up doing the work to turn those outlines into book chapters and distribute them to my class, I will likely do so without cost to the students (despite the objections of my wife!). I have felt for a long time that textbooks are far too expensive, especially those that are used only as a secondary reference like I described above. I would love to save my students the cost of the textbook yet still provide them with something that serves as a reference for them as they study. I haven’t even begun investigating the new iTunes U app as a distribution means, but I understand it could work in conjunction with iBooks to provide all manner of resources to our students. Makes me wonder which will be more disrupted, textbook publishers or LMS vendors?

A textbook need for disruption

Nicholas Carr has an insightful piece on WSJ.com today, in which he points out that, with electronic books, the option to revise and update continues past the initial publication. One observation in particular struck me:

Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.
The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover.

This is something I suggested back when I was reviewing electronic textbook platforms, which could benefit immensely from this kind of feedback. I had in mind that publishers could use the data for marketing to faculty who adopt books:

This pays off for the textbook companies in another way, I’m sure, which is that they can track how thoroughly I’ve reviewed one of their titles. I don’t know for sure whether CourseSmart is providing tracking data back to the publisher, but I’m sure they will soon. It just makes sense to collect this information and use it to improve your sales approach and/or to improve the textbook.

But I could imagine the publisher using these data to refine or improve the text to improve learning outcomes, especially if they were also providing a course management platform that provided assessment. Ideally, the book would learn how to communicate better by taking into account its own performance.

How likely is this scenario? It’s almost unimagineable. Textbook publishers make their money by selling new editions. What would be their incentive to improve a “book” after its publication but before they could charge for a new copy? In my experience, almost nothing changes between editions of the books I adopt, yet I cannot officially adopt a previous edition through the campus bookstore because they can’t source the copies needed.

The efforts of the publishers to make electronic textbooks all seem crafted to maintain a business model anchored in the past and centered around physical books. The “electronic” versions they have released are more or less a facsimilie of the paper book — unchanging, rooted in the concept of the edition so important for the profits of a paper world.