Archive for September, 2012


Open Textbooks in California

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

My friend and colleague Tim Aiello sends me news that California has passed groundbreaking textbook legislation.

A crucial component of the California legislation is that the textbooks developed will be made available under the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY):

The textbooks and other materials are placed under a creative commons attribution license that allows others to use, distribute, and create derivative works based upon the digital material while still allowing the authors or creators to receive credit for their efforts.

The CC BY license allows teachers to tailor textbook content to students’ needs, permits commercial companies to take the resources and build new products with it (such as video tutorials), and opens the doors for collaboration and improvement of the materials.

In related news, Katherine Tyrrell commented on my blog recently about the Higher Education Act of 2008 in the USA:

This REQUIRES all educational establishments to define and COST all text books required for a course whether in print or online so as to allow a student to estimate the real cost of taking a course.

“The act mandates that textbook costs be available as part of any schedule of classes, whether online or in print. The intent of this act is to allow students to shop for the best price on textbooks and thus lower their costs. “

It seems that excessive prices of textbooks is something that has also been a major issue in the USA and that this has been addressed in part via this Act.

These are both really good things. I would like to know if there are similar plans underway in Canada.


App-ocalypse: When?

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Microsoft confirms that Windows 8 the-interface-formerly-known-as-Metro apps will only be available through the Windows Store.

Add to this the fact that Apple’s OSX Mountain Lion is by default restricting downloads to the App Store, although so far that default can be overridden.

There is ongoing controversy about the implementation of UEFI boot loaders, with Microsoft mandating to hardware vendors that ARM-based machines only boot to their OS.

These are signs that the Two Trajectories of Device Convergence are beginning to collide, the fronts are ever advancing, and the Closed side is preparing its arsenal.

Cory Doctorow has for some time been waxing cogently on the long term implications of the coming war on general-purpose computing, and recent and current trends seem to support his prognostication.

Am I over-analyzing or is that distant choppers I hear over the hill?


Rupert learns a lesson

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Rupert Murdoch finally admits that he needs Google more than they need him.

I’m surprised it took so long!


Can the textbook industry reimagine itself?

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Atrist and writer Katherine Tyrrell weighs in on my summary of the textbook fracas.

In order to focus efforts towards the short-term goal of resolving the issues with this particular course material, I’ve so far somewhat skirted the issue of the changing nature of publishing and how it is affecting post-secondary educational textbooks, impacting both the cost and efficacy of the education of our future generations.

As Katherine points out, we have Pearson, who is

a publisher who is trying hard to work out how it can create new products out of its existing asset base – in much the same way as many other publishers – in order to create new profit streams within the context of the collapse of the traditional business model for publishing

Unfortunately, it’s woefully apparent that the new profit streams they are creating are almost universally abhorred – witness the waves of angst expressed when you simply search for the word “textbook” on Reddit. If that’s not an industry shunted onto the same siding as a speeding freight train, I don’t know what is.

And before you dump on Redditors for being overly tetchy, remember that this is the cohort of our near future, also representing who we all were not so many years ago.

I can recall myself being peeved at textbook prices back in the early 80s, but at that time there were no courses for which the text changed every single term or changed from a one-time product purchase to essentially an annuity for the publisher.

I entreat upon Pearson and every other player in the space to make it their business to take the initiative to come up with innovative solutions that work with the schools and students to provide affordable and workable course materials without making students feel they are being deceived or fleeced. So far it ain’t working.


To Summarize…

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

There has been quite a bit of discussion about this textbook affair. A lot of people are stuck on the copyright issue. Yesterday I summarized my thoughts about it in a comment on the recent TechDirt article. Today I received a similar summary from a commenter named Vlad posting from Russia. I’ll post them both here.

First, my comment at TechDirt.

It turns out it’s not as simple as it seems at first. For the benefit of all, here are some things that have become clear to me this week.

Copyright isn’t where the expense lies, it’s Licensing.

If you want photos of public domain art works that are of high enough quality for print publication, you have a few choices.

1) You can send a photographer out to take photos of each work. Many will be in museums and will require negotiating a photography session with the museum. One reason is that the light used in high power flashes for this quality of photo has a high UV content and over time will contribute to deterioration of the work, so they limit access.

This is very expensive and time-consuming, but you will get high quality photos.

2) You can find a photographer or organization who has done #1 themselves or has bought the rights to license images from other photographers.

This will get you the quality photos, and save you some money.

3) You can try to source photos that have open and free licenses. While there are some organizations who are collecting such images (e.g.,, and others), there is not a deep well of these resources, so your experience will result in a lot of searching and varied quality.

As you can see, #2 is optimal among these (possibly not exhaustive) choices.

When you want to get photos for your book, you pay a license fee to the person who can provide you with the high-quality source material. They calculate it based on a number of factors, one of which is the quality of the final images – i.e. it’s cheaper to license a bunch of images to be presented in thumbnail or screen form than in full resolution.

If you print and sell 10,000 copies of your book, the cost component of the licensing is distributed much more thinly than if you have a limited run of 500 books. You have a choice of whether to present pictures in full, thumbnail, or online, or a combination. The choices made in this case resulted in a product that did not meet the needs of the audience (understated, I know, but that’s the bottom line).

What this all comes down to is that once the logistics of producing a book are considered, it’s apparent that there is no one entity in the chain demanding excessive profits. It’s just the economics of a high quality small print run in play here, and then the design decisions that came out of that.

So far the response of the school and the publisher has been very positive and I’m optimistic that a much better solution will come out of this episode. Open dialogue has been spawned and the wider issues of copyright, licensing and the spiralling cost of a university education have been subjected to very public review and criticism.

Thanks to the students who started the petition, and TechDirt who provided a platform for wide recognition, this story promises to have as happy an ending as one could hope for.

And Vlad’s comment:

Let me explain this story in plain words and by numbers.

1. All pre-1800 visual materials (paintings etc) are copyright free. Reproduce them all you want.

2. Quality digital images of these materials are not free and even not cheap, as producing them is really not cheap (you actually need to travel to dozens or hundreds of museums and pay them for using commercial photo equipment there, they charge for that).

3. A certain publisher has paid for gazillions of these images and printed three different textbooks. Their total retail price is 300 dollars. This value is the cost of printing, the price of images, the price of the text, the profit margin and so on — DIVIDED by the number of printed books.

4. A certain college professor realizes that his students need all three books to take the course. But 300 dollars is a lot, so he and the college look for a better solution.

5. They decide to publish a partial compilation of these three textbooks for a lower price and approach the original publisher. He does not mind and tells them the price of copyrights. It’s a resonable price, but when you DIVIDE it by the very small number of books the college needs, it’s 800 dollars per book. Not good.

6. They compromise: the compilation is printed without pictures, the pictures will be available for students online for free, all three original books with images will be available for students online for free — when they buy the compilation for 180 dollars. Instead of paying 300 dollars for the three books. Everybody is happy, everybody wins.

7. Except a small number of slacktivists. They are not happy, but luckily they don’t win either.

I’m sure you’ll note that I disagree with his assessment since the story continued somewhat beyond the reaction to a conclusion that suits many of the detractors, but that’s his opinion and I’m glad to have him express it.


iOS6 Safari Ajax issues

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Pete Forde pointed me to an interesting discussion of an iOS 6 Safari bug that affects Ajax calls.

I later came across a discussion of a different bug, also affecting Ajax calls.

I know it’s only day one for iOS6 and the odd bug is expected, however I find it jarring that with Apple’s strong advocacy of HTML5 and JavaScript to create interactive web apps, these issues could creep into Safari without someone considering the implications or finding the issue before release.


Watch this space

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Just got off the phone with Kathy Shailer, Dean of Liberal Studies at OCAD University. She has been catching all the flak over this textbook issue, and today hosted one meeting with the students and another with the publisher.

I’ll not try to cover the entire discussion since they have yet to formulate a statement about the day’s proceedings, however my precis is this:

  • OCAD takes this seriously. They want to work with the students and the publisher to resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction.
  • The publisher is responsive and there are positive actions being planned.
  • On the whole my personal impression is that this will be a prime example of a very good response to criticism.

For my part I will say that despite this misstep, I still consider OCAD to be a world-class school.


OCAD has posted their official statement after conferring with the students and publisher.

What do you think?


It’s a Design flaw

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 has a good blog post covering the OCAD textbook issue. There’s actually some feedback from the school.

I spoke with OCAD’s Dean of Liberal Studies, Kathy Shailer, about this issue shortly after this post. Shailer says that comparisons between OCAD textbook and other standard texts are unfair, since the OCAD-made custom text is designed to be broader than any one book would be.

“What this text does is bring together a very good art history text, and a very good design text, and a lot of material so that we could bring in aboriginal and Canadian art as well,” says Shailer. According to Shailer, most standard art history texts focus heavily on western European art history while giving less space and attention to Canadian or First Nations perspectives.

As Shailer notes, OCAD also needs to address the “D” in its acronym: design. This is something Shailer says wouldn’t be adequately covered by a single art history text.

“Design has more of a focus on objects, material culture, architecture, interior and graphic design. It has really evolved over the 19th, 20th century and is paid really short shrift in an art text,” says Shailer.

True. Design failure is what this issue comes down to. Had this been designed as an online reference with a spiral-bound offline study guide with references, I would have still argued the price but it would not have provoked quite the same visceral reaction.

The problem is that it was designed as a hardback finely bound glossy paged book with complete layouts for the pictures, and then… Lunchbag Letdown. Lucy Van Pelt came along and pulled away the football just as we were about to kick it.

It looks like an Art History textbook. It feels like an Art History textbook. It smells like an Art History textbook. It tastes like an Art History textbook. Good thing we didn’t step in it though, because it’s not exactly what it purports to be. The textbook definition of a sham.

Please take note that I’m not calling it a scam. I’m absolutely certain that this was done with the best of intentions, just poorly executed.