Is Udacity the future of higher ed?

I’ve spent the last two months enrolled in Udacity‘s Computer Science 101 course, and I’m happy to report that I scored 100% on the final exam! But what was it like?

Udacity is a Higher-Ed Startup, as odd as that term seems. That’s a crowded category lately, with startups offering college-level instruction for free. Of course there’s one important caveat: Udacity is unaccredited. I’m not working toward a degree here, though I will get a snazzy certificate of completion to print out.

Was it academically rigorous? Yes, though I don’t think it’s quite equivalent to the CS 101 class I took as an undergrad. There were some more advanced concepts missing from Udacity’s class. Instead, I found it roughly equivalent to the AP Computer Science class I took in high school. We started with foundations of what a computer is and how it works, and got all the way up to some trickier concepts like data structures and recursion. Portions of the final exam were quite challenging, and one of the questions stumped me until almost the last minute.

But I think evaluating Udacity’s CS 101 as a course should boil down to one question: Do I know more about programming than I did in April? Yes, I absolutely do. Professor Dave Evans (who also teaches at the University of Virginia) is a great teacher who capably broke up complex concepts into understandable nuggets. I’ll admit this was somewhat of a refresher course for me, but my original CS 101 class was over ten years ago and much of the knowledge I retained was quite faded. It was helpful to come in with some basic level of programming experience, but I think I could have done well even without that baseline.

What’s more interesting to me is Udacity’s course structure. I probably spent 3 or 4 hours per week on the class in total. The learning experience is broken up into seven units, each designed to take a week to complete. Each unit is in turn broken up into short (usually 1-3 minutes) videos and automated quizzes. It’s simple to rewatch the more complex portions of a video, something I did quite a bit. At the end of each unit there’s a set of automatically evaluated homework questions. Units built on each other, slowly teaching us how to build an actual functioning web crawler and search engine. I’m quite impressed that such a seemingly complex task could be taught so well to programming novices in just 8 weeks.

While the work was rigorous, I admit the promise of instantly available solutions for the homework made it very tempting to give up on a question earlier than I would have otherwise. Homework didn’t count toward the course grade, but in retrospect I wish it did.

Like any class, Udacity’s offerings will only be as good as the instructor teaching it. While I was quite happy with Dave Evans’ teaching style, I grew somewhat frustrated with one of the TAs. Explanations and clarifications were often confusing and hard to follow. But this was where the class discussion forums came in handy. Another student was often able to clarify things much better than the actual TA. I’ll admit I never actively participated in the discussions, but I was the recipient of much wisdom from reading along.

So my overall Udacity experience was a positive one. I refreshed/enhanced my basic programming knowledge and got that snazzy certificate. I’m happy enough that I’ll be signing up for more courses in the next session. I’m going to attempt both CS253 (Web Application Engineering) and their new Intro to Statistics offering at the same time. I might drop down to just one, but I’m optimistic that I can handle both. The next course session is the first time Udacity has expanded beyond Computer Science, with these new offerings:

  • Intro to Physics: Landmarks in Physics
  • Intro to Statistics: Making Decisions Based on Data Statistics
  • Logic & Discrete Mathematics: Foundations in Computing
  • Software Testing: How to Make Software Fail
  • Algorithms: Crunching Social Networks

I’m very interested to see if something beyond CS can be taught well in such a CS-aligned platform. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun has said that in 50 years there will only be ten providers of higher education in the whole world. I don’t think he’s right about that, but I do think there’s a place for offerings from Udacity at the table.

Maxing out the curve on ebook adoption

Last week Melissa and I visited the Wake County Public Library’s annual fundraiser book sale. I’d heard the legends, but never actually attended: 400,000+ books laid out on tables in a giant warehouse at the state fairgrounds. It’s pictured here. Think of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now fill it with books instead of crates. That’s what it was like.

We went on day 1, with prices at a relatively high $4/hardcover and $2/paperback. We came away with a good haul of 15-20 books, all stuff we’ve legitimately wanted to read. Things were orderly and dignified in the warehouse, with staffers calmly directing shoppers to their preferred genre. I took my time and pieced together William Gibson’s entire Bridge trilogy, among other finds. We left feeling happy and encouraged. But then, based on that encouragement, we foolishly returned on the final day of the sale. By that point everything drops to $5 per box (and it’s a big box).

A certain kind of madness had set in. I witnessed shoppers indiscriminately shove whole rows of books into a box. It didn’t matter what kind of book, who the author was, or even what condition it was in – they wanted them all. Others jealously guarded a stack of empty boxes, keeping watch while a partner filled them one by one. The Children’s section looked like the aftermath of a bomb, and the sci-fi tables in particular were picked to the bone. Only the sad Reference section remained quiet (and if you ever wanted a copy of the 1997 NC Statutes, boy was that your chance). Trying to browse was chaotic at best, and we came away with only another half dozen books that we really truly wanted to read and own. Still a deal, but I’m not sure it was worth the ordeal.

The whole experience popped back into my head this morning when I saw Pew’s new report on ebook adoption and use in the US. Between PDF journal articles at work and my Kindle at home, I spend most of my reading life in the e-book world. But Pew reminds me that my habits aren’t yet normal at all. Just 21% of adults have read an ebook in the past year. Granted, Pew also found that the number of people who read an ebook each day has increased four times in just the last two years. But as noted in the summary:

“The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers.”

Now I’m thinking back to the hardcore book grabbers at the sale: what will convince them to adopt e-books? Or would anything at all conceivably push them past the tipping point? Will they give up their feeding frenzy sales and packed bookshelves for a little convenience? Personally, I could see myself hitting that point someday. But the sale truly reminded me that I’m not the normal here.

I think what Pew left off at the end of that sentence above is “…for now.” That 21% will certainly continue to grow, but not forever. At what point will it eventually level off? At what point will we max out on the adoption curve? Will we be left with a few book-preferring holdouts, or will it be a more equal division? What will fundraiser book sales of the future look like, if they exist at all?

And, as always: Where do libraries fit into this picture?

Are we leaving the Gutenberg Parenthesis?

The news that Penguin is ending its relationship with Overdrive (which in turns stops library purchasing of Penguin ebooks for now) has me thinking about the idea of the Gutenberg Parenthesis again.

The Gutenberg Parenthesis is an idea that the printing press represented a massive shift in the recording and distribution of information. We rode that wave for about 500 years, but now digital distribution may represent an equally massive shift. The parenthesis opened with Gutenberg, but is it closing now? I’m afraid it may be for libraries.

Libraries were a major beneficiary of a printing press world. Information could be mass produced in an easily lendable book form, a form which was also difficult to restrict. Anybody who held the book could also access it, which provided a firm foundation for lending of material. There’s more to the parenthesis idea than just form of packaging, but it’s the part that I think most about.

The parenthesis and its inherent book-style packaging also represented a method for controlling content. We got lucky, and that control developed in a way benefitting libraries. Before the parenthesis opened, traditions were largely oral and couldn’t easily be stored in institutions. Inside the parenthesis, we got discrete objects without limitations that worked well for lending. Knowledge could be easily stored and accessed by many readers. But digital text may be the closing parenthesis, taking us back out of that easy and simple control.

In its easily copyable and non-permanent form, ebooks might be more akin to the earlier oral traditions than to physical printed copies. The potential loss of control over text, and its effect on their business model, is something publishers find terrifying. As a result they’re attempting to use DRM and other means to re-establish print levels of control over the digital world.

I think they’ve stumbled also on an unanticipated side effect of digital control – cutting libraries out of ebook lending. I have no idea where this quote originally came from, but I’ve repeatedly heard that “if libraries didn’t exist today, publishers would never let them be created.” I’ve also read repeatedly that publishers see it as essential to introduce ‘friction’ into the process of ebook lending. Digital text is trivially easy to send or copy, but borrowers might be required to go to a physical library to get the ebook or wait in line for a digital copy.

These restrictions strike me as particularly nonsensical. Publishers’ main competition for ebook sales is going to be the inevitable free pirated versions. Sellers have to be better than free to compete, a lesson the music industry took a long time to learn. Convenience and selection are the only ways to compete with a free product, but Penguin and others seem intent on putting up roadblocks to exactly those two elements when it comes to libraries.

Whether publishers can truly extend our time inside the Gutenberg Parenthesis remains to be seen. But they’re going to try their hardest. Will libraries match the effort to stay relevant and viable? We need to find a new model, because I don’t believe publishers will let the current one stand. It’s not too late yet, but it might be soon.

I hold out some small hope that Penguin’s withdrawl from Overdrive might be a good thing. Overdrive currently has an almost complete monopoly on popular fiction ebook lending for libraries. If Penguin goes to another vendor for library distribution instead, well then we’ve got competition. And that’s one force which applies equally both in and out of the parenthesis.

Web services I use, 2011 edition

Someone recently asked me about tools I use for my own personal infnormation management. I guess I haven’t posted about that kind of thing in a while, so here’s a list:

Simplenote syncs text notes across devices. For example: I can create a note on my home PC and know it’ll be waiting for me when I get to work. Notes can be tagged and searched. Simplenote has a great web interface, but I find it most useful when accessing the service via one of the numerous offline client options. I use ResophNotes on PCs, and FlickNote on my Android phone. The official iPad client is nice too. Simplenote is invaluable to me, and is absurdly useful for both complicated project planning and simple tasks like getting a grocery list onto my phone. It works with unformatted text only, but I view that as a feature. Similar options like Evernote have always been too complicated to draw me in. (P.S. I’m drafting this post in Simplenote)

I initially signed up for Pinboard‘s bookmark storage service as a Delicious replacement, but have since grown to use it far more regularly than I ever used Delicious. Pinboard monitors my twitter feed and automatically pulls in links from both my own tweets and my list of marked favorite tweets. For $25/year it even archives a copy of what the site looked like when I bookmarked it, with fulltext searching available! Signing up for Pinboard requires a one-time fee, which is currently $9.54 but very slowly increasing.

Tripit is one of the most useful travel tools I’ve ever encountered. I forward all my confirmation emails to Tripit – plane tickets, hotel reservations, event confirmations, car rentals, etc – and Tripit parses the emails to build a simple custom itinerary. Pro level users can even have Tripit monitor their airfares for price drops! I once used Tripit for a complicated trip involving 4 countries, 3 cities, 3 airlines and a train ticket with zero problems.

As far as reliable ‘it just works’ services, Dropbox can’t be beat. After installing Dropbox on a computer, it creates a folder. Any files you put in that folder will be synced across the web to any other computer you’ve also installed Dropbox on. I use it all the time for moving files back and forth between work and home, and have never had a single issue with the service. There’s even phone apps to access your files on the go. Shameless self promotion: If you want to sign up for Dropbox, please use this link. You and I will both get some extra space in our accounts if you do.

I’ve migrated a bit between cached reading services, but at the moment I use Spool. Here’s the idea: If I find an article online that I want to read later, I click the Spool button in my browser. Spool caches a copy and pushes it to my phone or tablet for later, offline reading. It’s often able to grab just the text of an article, stripping out unnecessary ads and sidebars and such. I previously used Instapaper and ReadItLater, which accomplish the same goal and are pretty good. But Spool has a far superior Android app to either of those options.

Those are the services I love. Here’s a couple that I’m on the verge of dropping:

Flickr, while undoubtedly still popular, doesn’t have the appeal or engagement for me that it once did. I had a bit of an epiphany a few months ago when I realized that most of my photo metadata like descriptions and tags existed only on Flickr’s servers – I had no local copy of any of that. I was eventually able to get most of that data out of Flickr and onto my hard drive via a program called Bulkr, but I’m still not entirely happy with the experience. Flickr feels stagnant to me, and I’m no longer sure I’m getting money’s worth out of my pro account. It still has immeasurable value as a place to search for creative-commons images, but it doesn’t serve me well anymore as a place to describe, store, and share my personal photos. I’m currently looking into Picasaweb (soon to be rebranded as Google Photos) as a replacement.

Google Reader is almost dead to me, and if you’d told me just a few months ago that I’d be this dissatisfied with Reader I’d never have believed you. Google recently merged all of Reader’s social functionality into Google Plus, but didn’t do a good job of it. What was once a very active community where my friends shared and discussed links very quickly dwindled to almost no activity. Without that social component I find myself much less motivated to return to Reader to consume articles and find more things to share. My unread count has skyrocketed. I have yet to find a replacement that even approaches the niche that Google Reader once filled for me.

Lastly, here’s one service I can see myself using a lot in the future:

The awkwardly named ifttt (“If This, Then That”) lets non-programmers easily tie various web services together a bit. After authorizing Ifttt to access various accounts I’m able to set up simple triggers and responses. For example:

  1. Every time I’m tagged in a photo on Facebook, Ifttt automatically saves a copy of that photo to a folder in my Dropbox account.
  2. Every time I star an item in Google Reader, Ifttt saves it as a bookmark in my Pinboard account.

There’s a browsable list of tasks other people have come up. They range from simple (if your profile photo changes on Facebook, change it on Twitter too) to slightly more complex (if an RSS feed indicates a tornado warning in my area, send me a text message). The possibilities are pretty endless, and don’t require any programming knowledge at all to accomplish.

Kindle Fire: First impressions from a library perspective

We were lucky enough at work to buy a Kindle Fire for experimentation. It has a mostly decent UI, feels very solidly built, and if you structure your media-consumption habits around Amazon content there’s no better tablet choice for you. But there’s reviews of the Fire all over the web, so I won’t waste time and words by rehashing all that in any more detail. Instead I want to focus on how the Fire’s features can (or can’t) be used in libraries.

  • First and foremost, the Kindle Fire’s PDF reading capabilities are what I’d call bare bones at best. PDFs can be sideloaded via a USB cable like any other Kindle, but the built-in PDF reader doesn’t allow highlighting, notes, or even bookmarks. Previous Kindle models did allow all of those features. Of course you can install and use a better PDF reader app to get around those restrictions, but that’s a clunky solution. As for loading PDFs in the browser from a website, I couldn’t get JSTOR or any EBSCO product to load a PDF article at all. Anybody planning to read journal articles on a Fire will be pretty disappointed.
  • For libraries which have chosen to circulate Kindle hardware, there may be new disappointment with the Fire. I know some libraries use their Amazon/Kindle account to purchase and load ebooks on the device, then remove the account and check the device out to users. This allowed users to read the loaded books, but not to purchase any new titles under the library’s account. Unfortunately the Fire does away with that. When removing an account, all ebooks are deleted without warning.
  • Not only are all Amazon-purchased ebooks removed, but any sideloaded content in the books folder is wiped as well. I find this baffling. I sideloaded my own (legit purchased from another site with no DRM) book via a USB cable. Why does that need to be deleted? Again, there’s no warning that this will happen.
  • After removing an account you can still play locally stored music and access some apps. But which apps still work is wildly inconsistent, and I can’t find any rhyme or reason to it. Some work fine, others demand the original account log back in before proceeding, and a third category just don’t work at all.
  • The Fire is a nice video player, but the limited storage space (6.54gb usable space) means relatively few movies or tv episodes can be stored for offline viewing.
  • If purchasing an app directly on the Fire, you must first link your account to a mobile phone number. Even for ‘buying’ a free app. I can’t think of a reason why this would be necessary other than to gather more personal info. This is also an annoyance, as the library I work at doesn’t have a mobile number to link it to. In addition, purchasing an app on the website from a PC requires no phone number. It’s a weird inconsistency.
  • We don’t have Overdrive books, and neither does my local public library, so I’ve been unable to test loading one of them on the Fire. Can anyone confirm that it works?

It’s possible I’m wrong on some of these points – I only experimented with the Fire for about an hour today. But I think these are a number of issues important to library use of a Kindle Fire. Is there anything I’ve missed?

The case for home-grown, sustainable next generation library services


I was recently honored to be asked to write a technology column for an upcoming special issue of Public Services Quarterly. The issue’s theme is next generation public services, and I went with a title of “The case for home-grown, sustainable next generation library services”. While the column won’t be published until December, I feel it relates to a lot of discussion going on in libraryland right now and wanted to make it available as soon as possible.

The journal is usually limited to subscriber-only access. But the journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis, allows me to post a preprint version online for free access. ‘Preprint’ means the article as it existed before undergoing peer review. But being essentially an opinion piece, peer review didn’t end up changing much. Only a few cosmetic changes were made, and so the actual content of this version is about 99% identical to what will be published in the December issue.

I’d like to give special thanks to Chris Guder, the journal’s technology column editor. His guidance helped craft this from a very (very) rough first draft into something I’m quite proud of. I think of it as my manifesto.

The links:

It’s a bit lengthy at 4400 words, so I converted the column into a PDF and formats for various ebook readers if you so desire:


Here’s an informal abstract:

I have grave concerns about libraries’ reliance on third party vendors in some areas. We gain the ability to provide new and cutting edge services to our users, but at what cost to sustainability? If a vendor disappears we’re suddenly out the service and the money we paid along the way. And sometimes we place the library in a very dangerous position as a precarious middleman. I talk about mobile services, ebook lending, terms of use issues, and potential new models for next generation public services. We can build services both by libraries and for libraries to provide a sustainable future of services.

Note that I wrote this column before Amazon introduced their Kindle library lending feature through Overdrive, and I’ll probably write a follow-up post about that soon.

Dear Amazon: We just want changelogs!

After pulling Neal Stephenson’s new book Reamde from the Kindle store, Amazon replaced it with an updated version yesterday. The whole saga is detailed at Teleread.

While perhaps not as disturbing as the time Amazon infamously pulled copies of 1984 from users’ Kindles, I would still have been annoyed if my copy of Reamde suddenly changed.

The issue here is a lack of transparency. Amazon informed customers that the book had been replaced, but only cited the changes as: “the version you received had Missing Content that have (sic) been corrected.”

As it turns out, most of the fixes were relatively minor. But users were not provided with that information up-front. They had to blindly make a choice to either lose all their accumulated bookmarks and annotations when switching to the new version, or keep a potentially fatally flawed copy.

Amazon seems to have an odd aversion to changelogs in general. They don’t provide them for updates in their app store either. If I’m going to trust Amazon to provide me with access to content, they need to trust me in return with the information I need to make informed decisions.

The Kindle Fire is no iPad

I’ve seen a lot of comparisons being drawn between the Kindle Fire and the iPad. This doesn’t make a lot of sense.

While the iPad catches a lot of flack for being a consumption-only device, I’ve never found that to be the case. I find tablets of the iPad’s size to be sometimes awkward for content creation, but also sometimes wonderful. It’s the Kindle Fire that I think will be a true consumption-only device, and so the two can’t really be compared. The Kindle Fire exists solely to accomplish one central function: consume Amazon-branded content. Video, music, and books. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I’m not trying to be a Fire killer or iPad fanboy, but both the Kindle Fire and the iPad were created to fill very different niches. I honestly expect that each will perform their duties admirably.

If the Fire must be compared to something, it should be the Nook Color. That’s a more or less equivalent product, and one that I’ve never seen or heard of anybody creating content on.

I’m highly interested to see what using a Fire is like. I just hope people don’t buy a Kindle and expect an iPad.

Why I’m not sold on Bloapp

Sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

There’s been a lot of excitement on librarian blogs and twitter accounts today about Bloapp. The service converts your blog into an app… sort of. Now excuse me while I put on my cranky old man hat:

I understand that apps are cool, and mobile websites don’t grab the public eye as much. But there’s one question I always try to ask myself when looking at a new technology service or product: What purpose does it serve? In the case of Bloapp, I’m not sure there’s a payoff beyond getting to say “I have an app!”. And even that statement turns out to be not entirely true.

What does a blog as app accomplish that a blog as mobile-formatted website doesn’t? Apps only make sense when they provide something above and beyond what a webapp can do. Do you need to use a device’s camera or accelerometer? Do you need offline access? Then an app is your thing. A blog doesn’t benefit from any of those doodads.

If Bloapp gave you an actual installable app distributed via Apple’s app store, that real estate grab alone might be worthwhile. But it doesn’t. Instead, users must first install the Bloapp app. They then scan your blog’s QR barcode, which adds your blog to their list of blogs that they follow inside the Bloapp app. That sounds an awful lot like the process of subscribing to a blog in an RSS reader to me, or even just saving a bookmark to an app.

I’m all for playing with new products and services to see what works. I just don’t think Bloapp is one that makes sense. Apps are shiny! But libraries shouldn’t jump into them without a real use case in mind. We don’t want to turn our users off of the concept too early.

Review: Droid Charge

While my original Droid will always by my first smartphone love, last month it was finally time to move on to greener pastures. After agonizing over the choices for far too long, I picked up a Samsung Droid Charge.

First a look at some other current options, and why I dismissed them:
-Droid 3: A beautiful phone with beefy specs, but sadly it has no 4G.
-Droid Bionic: Perhaps most obviously, it isn’t available yet. And while I would be happy to be wrong about this I have concerns about what 4G plus a dual core processor will do to battery life.
-iPhone: I’m not a hater, the iPhone is indeed a very nice device. But Android just works for me, and I’m pretty firmly embedded in that ecosystem now.

I’ve been very happy with the Charge (despite it having a semi-difficult name to search for online – every Droid phone out there has questions about getting it to charge).

The good:

-Verizon’s 4G speeds are amazing. They don’t enhance regular web browsing that much, but I stream a lot of music on the bus and it makes a huge difference there. Speed tests put it better than my home broadband connection, which is both exciting and sad at the same time.

-Battery life, while not spectacular, is still a big improvement over my old Droid. I can get through an average workday without plugging it in and be down to 10% by bedtime. With heavier use (like our recent trip to San Francisco where I used maps all the time) I still need to carry around some sort of extra battery. But at least on most days I’m not constantly searching for outlets anymore. And I still have to wonder – will smartphones ever get the multi-day charges that my dumbphones did? I miss that.

-The HDMI mirroring is really fun to play with on a big screen. Never has Angry Birds been so amazing!

-It works with Netflix streaming, unlike a lot of Android devices.

-Also unlike most Android devices, I can take screenshots via a simple button press instead of involving the SDK. I’m still baffled that this isn’t a standard Android feature, but at least I have it on the Charge.

-The 8MP camera is the best I’ve seen on a mobile device. Outdoor shots in sunlight are almost on par with my Canon point & shoot, and indoor or dimmer shots aren’t too shabby either. The 720p video camera is similarly impressive.

-Android in general has matured as an OS a lot over the last 2 years. Much smoother around the edges.

The bad:

-The Charge is running Android 2.2, when 2.3 has been on other phones for many months now. That’s sort of embarrassing. 2.3 enables a lot of video chatting features, so the front-facing camera is pretty useless without it.

-Samsung’s customizations to the Android UI seem questionable at best to me. The home screen is a mess, and of the dozen or so pre-installed apps (which I can’t uninstall!!) I don’t want any of them. Most of the home screen customizations can be undone by installing an alternate Launcher (yay Android!), but I still wonder why Samsung would go to so much trouble to make things worse. Apple is currently suing Samsung for supposedly copying the iPhone UI in their Android phones. If that’s true… well they did a really terrible copy/paste job.

Thankfully both of these negative points can be negated – the alternate Launcher gets rid of the UI junk, and the Charge will supposedly get an OS upgrade soon(ish). Crossing my fingers on that one.

I recommend the Droid Charge without major reservation. It feels much more future-proof that my original Droid did – I was ready to throw it out the window by the end as it ground to a slow halt – and I’m confident it’ll get me through till my next upgrade cycle.