PSEL: Leadership in Ferris Bueller

Over the weekend, I had a chance to see the 80’s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and I saw that it presented some alternative views of leadership.

The classic duel between hipster/prankster Ferris vs. the dictatorial Vice-Principal Rooney is a classic display of high EI (emotional intelligence) leadership in Ferris vs. low EI in Vice-Principal Rooney.

Ferris is popular because he is able determine what his fellow students’ needs and deliver them (absences, concert tickets, whatever). He further uses his EI skills to understand the motivations of his community and manipulate their behavior to his advantage. As one of the secretaries notes, Ferris is popular with every clique, meaning he has built up quite a constituency.

But essentially, he is community minded. Even his day off isn’t just for him but a gift to his friends as well. Ferris is out for himself, but rarely to the detriment of others. This is why people, even school staff, are willing to help him. His main gap is that he doesn’t yet see adults as his peers, but one day he will. Ferris also leverages a bad hand (a computer instead of a car) to his own advantage (using the computer to delete absences…before the Internet was born). No wonder he’s a genius.

Rooney, on the other hand, just barks orders and expects them to be followed regardless of what his students or staff may want. His leadership is all about his own reputation, and no one is motivated to help him.

But for me, the most interesting leadership story was Ferris’s sister Jeanie. In the beginning of the movie, she sees herself as a victim and is bitter that she can’t “get away with” the pranks that her more popular brother can. She never sees that she has some advantages too like her perceptiveness (enough to see through Ferris) and her crappy, but drivable car. For much of the movie she storms through the school and home spitting out sarcastic venom and not really able to get the information she needs. By the end of the movie though, she has a revelation – she doesn’t have to be a victim. She IS able to leverage her own EI knowledge and work the system to her advantage.

When Rooney comes looking for Ferris, Jeannie realizes that her brother is the better bet and eventually helps him escape Rooney’s clutches. A new working alliance has been formed. Interestingly, Jeannie won’t be a clone of Ferris (she’s just too damned sarcastic), but she won’t be a victim anymore. She’s beginning to understand she can use EI skills to get what she needs and that she has value to trade in too.

In a place as complex as Penn State, things can get screwy. It’s easy to see the insanity and wonder why nothing can be done. It’s much harder to understand that there is a crazy logic to it and begin to use EI to navigate the system. The trick for me is to understand we can’t all be a Ferris. More often we are a Jeanie or a Cameron (Ferris’s neurotic friend), but even so, some leadership skills are accessible for us too.

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PSEL: Welcome to the Team

The first “real” PSEL meeting happened yesterday and I admit I felt overwhelmed with detail. I’m more worried than ever about keeping track of the notebook. But I also recognize the assignments as probably being more typical of what people in the upper tiers of higher education management are being asked to do.

The best part of the day was when we got to meet our learning teams. We got a chance to break the ice, and we managed to self organize ourselves pretty quickly. It was interesting to see how we jumped in at different points to plan different aspects of communication and hopefully meeting. I could tell that we had done this a lot on our jobs and were experienced at it. I’m normally a bit stressed at making sure certain details happened and have been told I need to be more flexible (point taken). It was a relief to see that my colleagues have enough experience that I could let go…but not too much. I still have things to do in this program!

Speaking of Details

Based on my Kolb results and observations from my previous life experiences, I am seeing that my focus this year will probably be on communication, specifically spoken communication. When our group was talking about preferences, we had a discussion about how much “research” we wanted to do on the job.

I admit, I like to do research and even enjoy it. The problem for me is understanding how to digest what I normally think of as a complex topic into something other people can digest, but still preserve some of the important details. This is especially important for educational technology issues where background details can be very complicated, but the simplified version dangerously facile.

Accessibility (making content usable for a person with a disability) is an example where I see this dynamic played out. Traditionally accessibility guidelines are phrased in terms that only a person familiar with the HTML markup language can understand. However, most instructors are unfamiliar with HTML, so it’s important to phrase them in more concrete terms. As webmaster of the Penn State Accessibility Web site, I try to make sure the content is more user friendly, but I am still editing the content personally.

So I guess a leadership challenge for me would be to better enable other people to write similar quality documentation without me needing to be personally involved in maintaining the Web site. Something to think about through the year.

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ID-2-ID: What is my Learning Objective?

LING 100

As an instructional designer we’re always asking faculty to think beyond “topics” and determine what the true “learning objectives” are. That is, what skills should a student have when they exit the course. This can be particularly tricky for Gen Ed courses because we know that most students won’t continue on in future courses to perfect the skills of a linguist. The goal is to help students understand some basic principles and maybe whet their appetites for more courses. But how are these principles defined?

Well, I had the same dilemma for intro LING 100. Most instructors do divide the course into topics like phonetics, sociolinguistics, syntax and so on. Reading the Dirksen book helped me reflect on what my goals were and I finally realized my true goal was to help students observe language use more closely. This included understanding pronunciation, observing how new words are formed, seeing how rules of spoken language differ from written language, understanding cultural ettiquette conventions, perceptions of different social dialects, observing when and how people switch languages, and of course language change. These are all the topics of a traditional course, but thinking about them in terms of how they can be observed allows me to think about how to push students into making these observations.

I really appreciate that I finally got to put my own course under the ID microscope.


In general, I do think the program has been successful in expanding the ID network and allowing people to share common issues and tips with one another. I also like having a core learning activities like the book readings. I would definitely recommend the program to an ID trying to figure out the Penn State environment.

Likes: Book

I liked having the both of us read the book because it can provide a structure for a large chunk of meetings. Plus, I feel that participants can get insights from the book even if there are logistical issues with actually discussing the book. FYI – I ended up getting a duplicate version of the book from the Kindle store. It turns out that I could read it online in the office so I didn’t have to remember to put the book in the car at various times.

Recommendation: UNL/PSU Group Activity

I heard some comments about having a joint meetings with the UNL cohort, and I think it’s a good idea. One idea that could maximize benefit to Penn State is to have the UNL group talk about their observations from the program, particularly in regards to Penn State. If they would be willing to do a presentation for the entire Penn State cohort, everyone would benefit. And perhaps sub group from Penn State could do the same thing for UNL.

Recommendation: Expand “Joint Event” Options

One aspect of the program that may need to be looked at is the “joint event” recommendation. It’s a good idea, but for various reasons, it’s always been a joint webinar for me and my partner, and for me at least it can be problematic. The worst case was a JAWS training session where the presenter just had all sorts of technical issues and it disrupted his entire presentation. When partners can’t attend a live session together, I was wondering virtual options could be expanded to include articles, a Web site or an online tutorial module.

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PSEL: How Should I Evolve?

In February 2016, I will be participating in the Penn State Emerging Leader program. Several people I respect have been through the program, so I am very honored to have been selected and am looking forward towards understanding what “leadership” means. The program specifically does not guarantee any kind of promotion, and I think that is a good thing. I think the skills learned in this program can be applied to many positions at Penn State regardless of whether one is a “manager” or not. I know I will be working on communication skills needed to help different projects move along. I’m also hoping to discover more about how people higher up in the organization think about their work and goals.

As part of the program we will be posting blog posts reflecting on what we are learning and experiencing in our leadership development activities. Interestingly, one of the first questions I asked myself is whether I should use my existing “work” blog or whether it should be separate. As you can see from all the posts listed in the left, I am using my ongoing work blog.

For my initial blog post, I am thinking about changes that people make as they advance in their careers. Some of them are superficial changes like adopting a more “mature” wardrobe or haircut, but there are internal changes needed when you are asked to think about the “bigger picture.” These can be important considerations when moving on to a different role, but I have been equally concerned about making sure I can keep in touch with aspects of my life that may bring me balance or important perspectives to new situations.

Although I have been an instructional designer for 15 years and am proud of it, my training is still primarily in linguistics and I know it affects my perception of different issues. For a long time, I think I felt like it was so outside the “typical” instructional designer mind set that it could be a liability. I know that some of my early colleagues were concerned that I might not understand pedagogical theory, and they were right to remind me that I needed to bone up on the basics of pedagogical theory to do my job.

Fortunately, I was able to use my training in linguistics to help me learn more about other educational theories. I also quickly realized that my background gave me some unique insights into faculty culture and into certain content. Is it a coincidence that one of my earliest projects was a Spanish course? Those years of Spanish came in very handy.

Today, I suspect that most of my newer colleagues don’t necessarily realize I am not a “trained” instructional designer. I’ve learned enough from reading and from work to understand the challenges of being an instructional designer. I also realized that my colleagues came to instructional design through a number of paths. Some are former teachers and others majored in many different fields before coming into instructional design. Few of my colleagues have a “typical” background, but almost all of them have been able to leverage their backgrounds in unique ways.

And perhaps the greatest irony is that if I somehow became a “linguist” again, I would have a different perspective into pedagogy that I wouldn’t have had without being an instructional designer.

I’m keeping this blog as a reminder that I shouldn’t think of learning leadership as becoming a “different” person, but learning to be the same person I have been all along but with some leadership training that will benefit me in any number of different ways.

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Accessibility: Should We Kill the Carousel?

The more I work with accessibility, the more I see the connection that accessibility and usability are strongly tied together. If a type of interface element is difficulty to make “accessible”, chances are that there may be a problem with usability even for “abled” users.

The carousel (the interface element that rotates images on a Web page with links to amazing, can’t-miss content!). As with any animated element, screen reader accessibility will be an issue, but as it turns out carousels can be inaccessible to a number of audiences and turn out to NOT really do what the site designers want them to do – namely point users to different types of content on a site.

Carousel Accessibility Issues

For the record, here are the issues one might encounter when considering carousel accessibility when it’s constantly rotating.

Screen Readers

The headlines at least need to be identified and be accessible as links. Images may need an ALT text as well if they have content. What’s more problematic though is that if a headline changes and is not properly announced, a screen reader user may not know anything has changed. The person may click Link 1 and end up at the page for Link 2.

Keyboard Accessibility

In addition to screen reader accessibility, any interface needs to work with a keyboard, even for sighted users who may have motion impairments. This can be done, but it leads to the more serious problem of figuring out which dot to click.

Sighted Users with Less than Perfect Reading Skills

Imagine that you have some form of dyslexia, or are a low vision user zooming in on content, or are a non-native speaker, or haven’t had your morning caffeine yet. You may not have time to read that headline before it tastefully dissolves into another headline. You can experience this phenomenon at In a truly awful rotating carousel, you have to wait for all the headlines to cycle through before seeing the headline. In a better carousel, you have to remember which dot number you want to access. That gets hard for anyone if there are five or more dots at the bottom.

It should be noted that some users could not overcome the distraction of the constant rotation so could never really read the content and advance to the right page. For this reason, any content set on constant rotation without a pause button does not comply with WCAG 2.0 Guideline 2.2

Yet paradoxically, if a user clicks the the Pause button, will he or she know what to click next? The major problem with carousels isn’t accessibility, but poor link scent.

Other Issues

This article The Unbearable Inaccessibility of Slideshows by Gian Wild points these and other issues about typical carousels out in full detail.

Not Usable Either

As it turns our, carousels aren’t really clicked on by sighted users either. One one study by Erik Runyon of his university’s homepage carousel, only 1.07% clicked on any one slide. Of those, only 10.9% clicked slides 2-5. A version of non-rotating carousel still exists. It may be WCAG 2.0 compliant, but it’s not fulfilling its function.

Does keeping the auto-rotate feature affect click rates? A little, but not much. On the site with rotating carousel, only 9.4% of users clicked anything, and of those, only 45.43% clicked anything other than slide 1. That’s still a lot of missed content.
Note: Full disclosure – the home page of this university also has a non-rotating carousel. No one happened to ask my opinion….

In addition to this study, other usability studies (e.g. Nielsen Norman Group) have found that not many users click on carousels. One problem is banner blindness which happens when users interpret loud showy elements as ads which can be ignored. The other is that dots or arrows don’t provide a lot of link scent, especially if a slideshow carousel is embedded on a home page. Users may be more likely to interact with other links where the destination is more apparent.</p

Some Decent Carousel Interfaces

Despite these objections to the rotating carousels, I would say that not all carousels are bad. There are some interesting examples which do work to guide the user to the appropriate content.

One type is the carousel or slideshow meant used to display a specific set of themed images. An example is this Penn State Paris vigil gallery. The purpose of the slideshow is reasonably clear – to show photos from a nighttime vigil. The interface allows you to go at your own pace and includes keyboard navigation as an option. Each image also includes an ALT tag.

The next two examples show a usable, and quasi accessible layout. Thanks to those who pointed these out to me. One example is the top sliders at the Corning Museum of Glass and the other is from The Economist which lists all available headlines after the carousel image. Both are usable in the sense that the content of each carousel item is visible readable on a screen reader. Images either have an ALT tag (Economist) or the text is embedded in an SVG graphic (Corning Museum). The Economist version is also keyboard accessible although the CSS should be modified to make location of the cursor more obvious. There is also some keyboard function with the Corning Museum site, but the sliders don’t slide all the way across.

The most interesting thing about these carousel layouts is that they are much more easy to make accessible without too much in the way of special techniques (other than ensuring keyboard accessibility).

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ID-2-ID: The More Things Change…

One lesson I have gotten from this is that communication over the phone adds an extra layer of challenge to the relationship. I know I’m still interrupting (I think eastern urbanites tend to jump in quickly so they don’t lose their place in the queue). Fortunately, my partner has been very patient with me and we figure it out. I’m really glad we’ve both committed to calling each other every other week and keeping up with the book (even if we’ve read it just that morning).

One of the reasons I was glad to partner with someone from outside of Penn State is that it gives me a chance to learn what is happening outside of my Penn State TLT centric bubble. One thing I have learned about the set up at University of Nebraska is that many IDs are on one central organization (Office of Online and Distance Education) but assigned to different colleges (e.g. business). I think it has a lot of good advantages in that each ID has access central resources, but gets to know a smaller set of instructors on a more personal level. I don’t think that organization would be possible at Penn State, but I do think figuring out ways to establish communication channels between units is very important to the Penn State community.

We’re also having interesting discussions about Canvas which is in pilot mode at both Penn State and Nebraska. The difference is that we’re moving from an older LMS, but Nebraska might be moving from the newer Blackboard LMS which my partner likes. Both of us are discovering that our current LMS systems have features not (yet) available in Canvas. However, I feel that no matter what new LMS an institution chooses, it will never exactly replicate every feature from the older system, so there will always be an issue of finding alternatives for missing functions and explaining how they work to instructors who may not be willing to make the change.

A final interesting revelation happened in relation to accessibility. Unlike Penn State, they have not been involved in any legal actions, so there tends to be less awareness of the issue among instructors and, in fact, the number of students needing accommodation for sensory impairments is very small in comparison to Penn State. My partner noted he was more likely to encounter an accessibility accommodation request at his local community college. Unfortunately, I suspect that there are still a lot of barriers preventing students with accessibility from being able to attend an R1 institution, so numbers remain low and the problem has not seemed critical until recently. Going online though makes accommodation requests more likely because students with disabilities feel that the environment is more favorable. At Penn State the college with the most accommodation requests is World Campus. Harvard and MIT received a complaint from the National Association for the Deaf for uncaptioned videos associated with their OER resources. If Nebraska does significantly increase their online education presence, they will probably see that accessibility is no longer a theoretical issue.

Of course, a lot of things are just the same for every instructional designer. We both have to deal with quirky faculty, flaky students and occasionally balky LMS platforms. My partner asks me if I have any advice and a lot of times I just shake my head and tell a crazy war story. This reminds me that we have a long way to go in understanding how to design learning that works for humans. Which is great for job security I suppose.

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ID2ID: Always Good to Review the Basics (Dirksen)

This year I’ve been participating in the Penn State ID-2-ID instructional designer mentoring program with another ID from the University of Nebraska. One of our “assignments” was to read and discuss a book together. The one we chose was Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn, and I think it was a good pick.

This book is meant to be a review of instructional design theory and practice, but aimed for non-specialists. It’s perfect for a faculty member or Web designer who wants to “branch out” into online education, but isn’t always aware of what factors go into building an effective online course (or effective face to face course). Chapters cover important issues such as student background, motivation, memory and understanding different instructional goals. For each chapter, she

As a “practicing ID”, I was also glad to review basic concepts as a refresher. There are so many factors that go into a good design that it’s easy to lose track of some of the issues. I have also found that if I teach a course in my original discipline (linguistics), I am in the kind of expert mode that makes it even more likely I will lose track of instructional design practice. To this day I am still shocked that people are as interested in Latin grammar as I am.

Of course the book is somewhat of a simplification. I personally am not sure what the distinction between “knowledge” and “skill” is other than the difference between background knowledge. This comes up in accessibility training where background is very important. If you know a lot about accessibility but are learning a new HTML editor, you just need information about where to insert an image ALT tag. But if you are new to accessibility, you need to understand what an image ALT text is.

Dirksen has a good discussion of diagnosing what you need to cover based on audience prior knowledge. But one good discussion I had with my ID-2-ID partner was how to handle a mixed background audience. Truthfully this is probably the most common situation I have encountered, yet can be one of the most frustrating. Normally the result is that everyone is forced to revisit introductory concepts, but this discussion reminded me that it’s important to introduce some customization into the learning, especially for a longer course.

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Actors Replacing Instructors?

Campus Technology has an article in a recent issue about Purdue using actors instead of instructors to present video content. At first I had a knee jerk “The Apcolypse is here” reaction, but the article raised some interesting points worth considering in general.

Captioning and Scripting

One feature not discussed in the article is that video captioning could be much simpler in this model. That’s because all actors read from a script prepared by the instructor (and instructional designer). It’s also unlikely that an actor will deviate much from the script because that person won’t have the expertise to do so.

That’s good news for captioners because it means that a ready made transcript is available and can be quickly attached to a video file. In contrast, most instructors using video want to “wing it” like they do in face to face lecture (and I am quite guilty there myself). Unfortunately, this means that captioners must

Another nice feature of scripting is that you can preplan examples in advance. In the “wing it” model, instructors can make a mistake then have to do a retake. It’s happened. The “wing it” model means that instructors, even experienced instructors, can make strange grammatical errors (e.g. replacing “apathetic” with “apathetical”). Finally, scripting allows the team to split the lecture into smaller components of 7 min max. That’s about as long as students can focus on a video online.

Student Reaction

At Purdue, their surveys found that students generally preferred watching the actor even knowing that that person was not the instructor. At first I thought about “inauthenticity”, but even PBS often uses actors to provide narration for documentaries. A typical example is Benjamin Bratt providing narration for the show Latino Americans. A commenter also points out that actor Morgan Freeman hosts and narrates the science series Through the Wormhole. It’s a proven practice.

Other Possibilities

I think one has to be careful how content is presented, but so long as students don’t think of the presenter as the instructor, I do see that there are some potential benefits.

Using a voice actor to narrate images on the screen could be particularly effective as it would move lecture videos away from relying on a talking head. One could then insert the actual instructor for a few key points. I would also like to see the instructor make a personal introduction on video (although not all instructors want to be taped).

Alternatively, we could begin to invest in training instructors how to speak on camera and/or to use a written script. I could see some cultural resistance to this idea, but if it were accepted, I suspect that even face to face lectures and instruction could improve as well. Aren’t educators complaining that faculty in higher education have little to no formal communication training as instructors?

It could save money in the long run as professional actors (i.e. one in a union) is a pricey investment. In fact, Purdue creates video in Dallas even though they are in Indiana. They need to make sure they have studio space available once an actor is found. Imagine the costs of updating that course.

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3D Print Test Run

This week, I commissioned a 3D model of a trigonometric curve from the ETS 3D Print shop and was able to do a quick usability test with some volunteers from the TLT accessibility team on what kinds of information could be gleaned from it. As most people would expect, the test was reasonably successful, but I thought I would document the process to give people a sense of what was involved in making the model.

The Curve

For a 3D printer, you need a file (e.g. STL file) which specifies the dimensions of the object. For this example, I went online and looked for mathematical models and found this 3DPlot function utility for Open SCAD by dnewman on MakerBot Thingverse, one of the various 3D model download sites online now.

In this case, the curve I chose was (in MathML):

z(x,y)=cos ( x 2 + y 2 )

Mathematica and MatLab

If an instructor would need a curve and had access to either Mathematica or MatLab, the more recent versions of these programs should be able to export a generated curve to an STL file.

Other Modeling Programs

To create other types of models (e.g. a gear or pencil jar), a 3D modeling program which exports to and STL or other 3D printer compatible file is needed. The at Penn State service includes some 3D modeling courses.

Making The Print

I sent the STL file I found to our 3D printing gurus in ETS and after they verified the file, the were able to print a 2 inch x 2 inch version of the model. The resolution was quite good, but there were some caveats.

  1. Beware of any model with a sharp point. If a blind person is handling them, you don’t want any punctured fingers. In this case, I first covered the point with tape, but discovered you could “sand” down the point by pressing it on on a desktop. It removed some of the extruded plastic and rounded out the tip without too much distortion.
  2. Depending on your printer, there may be ridges created by the extruded plastic. Your model needs to account for any resolution issues. Expanding the scale could be one option although it will require a longer print time. Another is to select a finer resolution/nozzle – which will also result in a longer printing time.


A question about 3D printing is whether the expenditure is justified by a blind (or sighted) person being able to handle a 3D model. In this case, I would say yes. The model was usable enough so that the testers were able to quickly determine the same (circular ridges with a peak in the center). In fact one person immediately proclaimed “It’s a bullseye!” For the record, the original model was developed precisely to explain math curves to a blind student.

That’s not to say that you might not need some tweaks. One tester asked if there should be labeled axes (i.e. x and y axis). This could be done easily with ether a notch or some Braille labels (in the model or with some other Braille label). If a math problem were done based on the graph, it would be necessary to provide the same key data (such as a “y-intercept” point or values at key coordinates) that a sighted student would have.

You could also begin thinking about how many models would be needed. Would one basic model of a curve be sufficient to describe variations that would occur due to other parameters? At which point would a new curve be needed? And how does 2D tactile printing fit in to the discussion?

It’s an interesting topic and a great justification for experimenting with 3D printing

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Why Can’t Academic Publishing Be More like iTunes?

Kindle works fairly well for novels and light non-fiction, but I have always wondered why academic publishing can’t be more like iTunes or even like journals in the Libraries. Why can’t we allow users to purchase chapters? And why to prices of eBooks remain high if we’re not killing trees and are saving on printing costs?

Holy High Prices!

The Kindle/iBook price for an academic book are still ridiculously high. For example
the Kindle edition of the Oxford Handbook of Chinese Linguistics is a whopping $139.99 (i.e. $140). In Amazon’s defense, it IS a discount from the hardcover price of £115 (ca. $175) which happens to translate to $174.99 in the iBooks store.

BUT…do I really want to pay $175 for essentially a PDF (or ePub file) that just lives in a tablet device? Not really. For $175 (or more like $65), I actually want a real book that I can stick on a shelf.

But why $175 in the first place? No linguistics book I have ever seen has had color graphics. The main “cost” would be the special fonts, but costs have dropped for those. I realize that the expectation is that the market is limited to Libraries and Chinese linguistics instructors, so prices traditionally were high to cover production costs. But does it have to be that way? I think people interested in linguistics or people of Chinese heritage would be a potential market, if prices were more in line with a book like The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (History of Imperial China) ($9.99 on Kindle). These days, that’s the price of a paperback.

Note: If we compare the book market to the music market, we can think on album prices. No one would think of buying an indie or world music album for over $100 when best selling albums run between $8-15 on iTunes. Economics can be strange.

Why Can’t we Buy Chapters?

If we can’t lower academic book prices due to mysterious economic forces, can we at least buy chapters? Unlike novels, many academic books can be easily broken into chunks. For instance the $175 Handbook of Chinese Linguistics is actually composed of fifty-five (55) chapters on topics including the Sinitc language family, topic prominence in Chinese syntax, Middle Chinese phonology (with a separate chapter on old Chinese), Chinese-Japanese language contact, tone perception and even the Taiwan sign language.

Buying the whole book would be fantastic, but there’s a chance a researcher really only need 1-2 chapters to complete a research project. Wouldn’t it be great if we could purchase JUST THAT CHAPTER? Dividing $175/55 is about $3.19 per chapter. What a deal! It would actually be cheaper and less time consuming to purchase a $3.19 chapter than to (ahem) photocopy the chapter in the library…assuming your library has the book.

Ironically, this is how journal subscriptions in the libraries work. Anyone in the state of Pennsylvania can get access many journals one through the Penn State libraries Web site, and once an article is found, it can be downloaded. However, chapters in “handbooks” can cover materials in a way articles don’t. I would love to give students a good reading on the history of Chinese languages in digital format, but it’s not really available through the Libraries. Right now, the best best is Wikipedia.

Can we Print What We Buy?

In iTunes, we can play songs we buy on multiple devices, including audio CDs in the car on CD players at home. But you can’t easily print a Kindle book unless you have a wireless printer and a Kindle device (forget if you happen to have Kindle for iPad). Reading material just on a device is OK for novels, but hard for academic works where you need to highlight text, add notes, tab with Post its or just quickly page through to look up data.

Even working with recipes on a Kindle can be a challenge (do I really want my iPad in the kitchen while I cook?). The Kindle has notes tools, but they are not as efficient as the pens. I also want to be able to quickly access a library and not worry about shuffling memory on a device (which is still less than a desktop or whatever you can get on Dropbox or an academic server). It’s for these reasons that students still buy print textbooks, even if the electronic version might be a little cheaper.

If we can download music with DRM information but play it on multiple devices, why can’t we do the same thing with PDF/ePub files? Are publishers really that worried about blackmarket PDF’s on Chinese tones? If they are, offering separate chapters for $3.19 would help I think. I think it would generate more income for the publishers instead of for copy shops.

A Democracy Issue

Academics are often concerned about the lack of basic knowledge in their individual areas, and traditionally, the K-12 system has traditionally been called to account. But I think pricing of good academic books has also been an issue. Adults, more than children and teens, can begin to understand the importance of self-study, but sometimes resources are lacking.

Suppose I decide I AM interested in Chinese tones. If I’m an academic, I could get some basic information from the library bookshelves, but not all libraries have these resources. The last time I checked at the local library, the pickings on the phonology of tonal languages was quite slim.

It would be great if I could order a book on Chinese tones or even a chapter at a reasonable price, or if the library could provide digital access for me (since print book shelf space is scarce).

Digital Books in the Library

The idea of the library housing digital books is starting to happen. I was looking into William Labov’s Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change. It’s not really in stock at Amazon, but if you want it used, you can expect to pay between $700-$1100. Fortunately, a digital version is available at the Penn State University Libraries. You can even select and print individual chapters for review. What a deal!

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