Thursday, July 17, 2014

Death of the Book Redux

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein (from Wikipedia) 
I don't know if this is related to climate change or the polar vortex, but the yearly declaration that the book is dead or dying is early this year. Naomi S. Baron, in her article "How E-Reading Threatens the Humanities" is the latest. Never mind the fact that with every new change in technology, there is resistance to the change. Socrates was suspicious of writing itself because it took away from relying on memory. Writers like Sven Birkerts have been writing wistful epitaphs on books and culture for years, if you are not familiar with him, his book "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age" might be hard to find now in paperback but it is available in a Kindle edition.  The article is filled with anecdotal evidence from experiences with her students and she asks:

Are students even reading Milton or Thucydides or Wittgenstein these days? More fundamentally, are they studying the humanities, which are based on long-form reading?

As a former English teacher, I would say that is not their job but ours as teachers. It is our job to show them why Milton, Thucydides or Wittgenstein are relevant. The humanities have always been in crisis because most students expect to get training in college that will allow them to get work afterwords. It is our job as instructors to show them that despite that goal, everything they learn in humanities courses will only help them later.

When I first entered college in the 80s, I read about the death of the book, the death of the humanities, and read articles about the importance of a liberal arts education. This is probably just the nature of journals like the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but you rarely see articles like this from state or community colleges. They always seem to come from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League where instructors can afford the luxury of sitting in big libraries reading old leather bound books. What these instructors are really afraid of is the change in the technology. The technology makes paying hundreds of dollars for a text irrelevant and wasteful. There are too many new ways to deeply engage in an online text. I would recommend that anyone who is interested in this read Innovating Pedagogy 2012, the first article is called "New pedagogy for e-books." There are a number of tools that allow for commenting, highlighting, and discussing texts. I would especially include here:

  • NB from the Haystack Group at MIT's CSAIL. This site allows instructors to upload PDFs and then students can bookmark, highlight, add comments, and discuss the text with the class.
  • Diigo allows students to bookmark, highlight and comment on online texts and then share those bookmarks.
  • Bounce - Students or teachers can select regions of a webpage, annotate, and share the URL of the annotated page with others, who may also comment.
  • Google Docs - Any text can be uploaded to Google Docs and shared with a class that can highlight and comment on that text.
  • And just about any wiki like are good collaborative spaces to share and comment on texts. 
There is something exciting about holding a device in my hands that is connected to the largest library in the world. I can thoughtfully read on an iPad because I can annotate a text, bookmark, connect with others who are reading the text and if the author is alive, I can even send an email.

I see both sides of the argument - we do lose something whenever new technology is introduced. But sometimes we gain things as well. Every shift in communication technology has led to some kind of disruption, but also a benefit. We should learn from that history: moveable type got rid of scribes but eventually lowered the cost of books. One of the many ironies about all of this is that I know more people reading the classics right now because they are free downloads via Kindle, Google Books, Gutenberg, and the University of Pennsylvania's Online Books page.

We have a Biology teacher here who used an online, open textbook (openly licensed via Creative Commons) for his online and face-to-face Biology courses. Our survey tells us that these students felt that there was no difference between their experiences with the etext than with a commercial hardcopy except commercial text was too expensive!

It is up to instructors to work out how best to use this technology. There is a right way and a wrong way. Instructors should be asking questions about how best to leverage the technology into new opportunities for teaching and learning. There are a lot of tools here to harness towards the end of making the humanities engaging. Where Baron sees distractions, I see opportunities for engagement and deep learning. What Baron is really saying is that the old methods of teaching do not work in the connected age; I am not sure why that is news.