Monthly Archives: February 2009

Pitching the Kindle

A couple of us at my institution have been trying to pilot the use of the Amazon Kindle in a couple of classes. We’ve had a couple false starts along the way, but now we’ve put together a somewhat more formal (albeit short) proposal. Last time I tweeted about the issue, a couple of people showed interest in what I was doing. So I thought I’d post the guts of the proposal up here for others to see.

A couple of preliminary notes: First, the goal is to get money from the college’s Technology Fee, and this proposal is based on the format and requirements that the college has developed for this purpose. Second, what we’ve said here doesn’t really go into the details of how the project will be implemented – there is much more to say about faculty and student training, documentation, assessment, and so on – but it at least highlights what we envision to be the main aspects of the program.

Description of the project

The Center for Teaching and Learning, the Educational Technology Lab, and the Writing Across the Curriculum program propose to pilot the use of the Kindle 2.0 in 2 – 4 courses during the academic year 2009-10. E-books are quickly become competitors to traditional, printed material, and the Kindle is emerging as the leading e-book reader. Key elements include nearly instantaneous wireless download capabilities, improved readability (as compared to PDA/cell phone options), access to newspapers, blogs, books, and other documents and formats. If the pilot is funded, CTL, the Ed Tech Lab, and WAC will work with interested professors to select a roster of participating courses, representing a variety of departments and working with a variety of kinds of texts. Each participating faculty member will receive a Kindle, along with a $50 gift certificate redeemable at, to work with during the summer of 2009. In the fall, the students enrolled in a course taught by each of these faculty will receive Kindles on loan for the semester. Depending on the nature and availability of the readings prescribed by the class syllabus, the students in a given class may also be provided with a $50 gift certificate to cover the cost of the assigned Kindle texts. Faculty will participate in 2 – 3 workshops designed to help them share pedagogical possibilities and challenges of e-books. Instructors will use the pilot as an opportunity to address concerns about critical reading strategies, among other issues, with students. Faculty and students will be asked to complete surveys about their reading practices before and after the semester and to write periodic reflections on their experience using the Kindle for course work. The long-term plan will be to purchase and maintain enough Kindles that they may be loaned out for courses a semester at a time.


  • E-books are quickly become competitors to traditional, printed books, and the Kindle is emerging as the leading e-book reader. One objective will be to explore, articulate, and communicate with the faculty and student population about the pedagogical implications of this technological and cultural shift.
  • The technology offers an opportunity to explore and emphasize critical reading practices, as well as the organization and management of information (for both faculty and students).
  • Depending on the outcomes, participating faculty may put together a conference panel and/or journal article about the insights they glean from the project.
  • With the College’s push to cut down on paper, the Kindle seems like a good technology to explore, partly because it can read PDFs and other documents in addition to e-books. Students can download and annotate course readings posted on Blackboard or articles from the Library’s extensive databases of electronic journals. It would appear to provide an ideal opportunity for publicizing the College’s green initiatives.

Additional commentary

This proposal calls for the purchase of 75 Kindles, along with 75 protective cases, enough for the instructors and students in approximately 4 upper-level courses. It also calls for the purchase of 80 $50 gift certificates to One of these gift certificates will be given to each of the 5-10 faculty members who evaluate the device before the semester begins, so that they have time to learn and evaluate the book purchasing process before they demonstrate the process to their students. The remaining gift certificates will be distributed to students in those classes where the syllabus requires the purchase of texts that cannot be freely acquired, i.e. through a public domain repository or the library’s electronic resources. This provision is necessary because students will not keep the Kindles after the semester’s end and thus will not be able to keep the purchased texts in the same way that they would with a traditional paper book. CTL, WAC, and the Ed Tech Lab will work with instructors to determine whether the readings in a given class are such that the students in that class will require the gift certificates. Any gift certificates that are not used during the initial pilot semester will be used for similar purposes in the following semester.

Both during the pilot and throughout the life of the Kindles, the Educational Technology Lab will provide technical and pedagogical support to instructors and students using the devices.

After the initial pilot, the Educational Technology Lab will house and maintain the pilot devices. Working with the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Writing Across the Curriculum program, the Ed Tech Lab will be responsible for finding faculty members each semester who would like to use Kindles in their classes. In this way, the college will get long-term benefits from the purchase of the devices, above and beyond the findings of the original pilot.

What the Facebook debacle says about sharing

Allow me to take a few more swings at this dead horse.

Sharing - it used to be so easy

Sharing - it used to be so easy - via clappstar

Mark Zuckerberg, Head Honcho of Facebook, posted a blog entry yesterday about the uproar that followed the Consumerist’s comparison of FB’s old Terms of Service with the new. Luke over at Cac.ophony calls Zuckerberg’s response “totally inadequate”. I think I agree, but I want to take a closer look at the argument that Zuckerberg provides for the TOS being the way they are, as I think that it draws attention to a lot of unanswered questions about one’s relationship with content – and, in particular, the somewhat ill-formed concept of sharing – as it takes place in social spaces.

The first part of Zuckerberg’s argument:

When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they’ve asked us to share it with.

So far so good, I think. The act of uploading a photo or writing a Facebook blog entry is, I think, clearly an intentional act by the poster, a way of saying, more or less explicitly, “I want others to see/hear this content via Facebook”. If we posit a correlation between Facebook’s rights (I guess I mean moral rights here – I don’t know much about legal issues) and the extent to which the user’s action demonstrates an explicit desire to use Facebook for sharing content, Zuckerberg’s first point seems right enough.

Zuckerberg’s next point:

When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox.

He draws a parallel with the way that email works: when you send a message, the recipient gets her own copy, and you don’t get to take that copy back later, even if you wanted to. By extention, this is “the right way for Facebook to work”, Zuckerberg says. I don’t think it’s that easy, though.

If Zuckerberg is trying to legitimatize FB’s behavior in this regard by comparing it to email, then we should be able to establish that it’s OK for email to behave this way too. Is it? I have often (sad to say) wanted to take an email back within seconds of pressing the Send button. Sometimes it takes more time: there are emails I sent in college that seemed fine at the time, but now I would prefer that the recipient never again have the chance to go back and reread them. How obvious is it, from a moral point of view, that an email, once sent, should be irretrievable? Are we allowing the fact that it’s technologically difficult/impossible to retrieve a sent email to shade our moral judgment? Imagine that it’s the 18th century, and I’ve just sent a letter that I decided I want back. The only way to get it back would be to break into the person’s house and take away a physical object that I had given to the recipient. It seems to me that these circumstantial facts about retrieving a physical letter are at least part of what makes the act of retrieval wrong. But the circumstantial facts are far different with email, or at least they could be with the right software design. Thus, while I might have a gut feeling that a sent letter no longer belongs to me, the gut feeling really ought to be reassessed in light of the new circumstances presented by electronic communication.

In truth, my temptation is to say that there is something morally wrong with taking back an email that you’ve sent, above and beyond the technological considerations. It has to do with the fact that sending email is an explicit transfer of rights to the recipient. Considering just this point, Facebook’s claim that it – the medium, the messenger, rather than the recipient – has rights is dubious – Gmail (see section 9.4) claims no such thing.

Zuckerberg’s choice of words in this regard is peculiar, and telling: he talks about a person “sharing” a message with someone else, instead of “sending” it. My guess is that this is to make it more plausible that the posting of an item – let’s say, of a picture I took – is the same thing as sending a message. But this is far from obvious. If I ask you over to my house to look at my photo albums – certainly a legitimate sense of “sharing” my photos with you – it does not follow from my invitation that you are permitted to take copies of the photos home with you. You can look at them until I decide I want to put them back in the cabinet. This feels quite different from what happens when I send you a letter, whether electronic or otherwise.

It is this idea – that I get to decide when you stop looking at my photos – that Facebook is taking away in its new TOS. It might be true that, as a matter of practical, Internet fact, if you’ve shared content on a single occasion then you have ipso facto shared it unlimitedly for the rest of time. But just because this is the way things are doesn’t mean it’s the way things ought to be. Part of the justification for FB’s position is technical: when you post an image on a friend’s wall, another copy is created, so that deleting the “original” on your account does not automatically delete all other copies. Surely this technical limitation is easily overcome, though, through the association of all copies derived from the same original.

You might argue that actively posting a picture on someone else’s wall is essentially the same thing as sending them a message, and thus the same moral considerations should apply. Maybe that’s right. But not all “sharing” on Facebook is done through the explicit actions of the sender. If you look at a friend’s photo on Facebook, for example, there is a link underneath it to Share with others or to post on your own profile. It might be said that a person who uploads to Facebook has thereby implicitly shared with all potential viewers of the picture, but you need some argument to show that this kind of “sharing” is equally irrevocable, from a moral point of view, as the more explicit kind.

I guess all this is to say that we are going to have to figure out what happens to content ownership when the concept of sharing takes on these kinds of massive proportions. One radical approach is to do away altogether with ownership and to be totally open, dude. I like openness, despite the fact that I seem to be arguing on behalf of ownership in this post. But to make this move merely because we are stymied about how to solve the problem of massive sharing is rather defeatist – openness should be something we choose, not a last resort.

Facebook and content

The Consumerist published a story yesterday about Facebook’s new Terms of Service. The gist of the changes appears to be something like this. Facebook has always claimed rights to the content that you post there. But there used to be a clause stating that

You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

Now this clause is gone. Thus Facebook has legal (“irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide”) rights to your content.

On a personal note, these terms apply even to the content created by those individuals who place a Share This link on their personal sites, whether or not they are the ones who post the content on Facebook. I have a hard time believing that this would qualify as a conscionable contract, but I’m not a lawyer so what do I know. In any case, this means that I’ll be removing the Share on Facebook link from this blog.

The educational ramifications are important, I think. @academicdave tweeted the following this morning:

Just realized that facebook now owns the rights to one of my students recent projects (story told using facebook) even if they delete it.

This is a troubling thought. Instructors have a responsibility to their students and the work that those students do, and requiring that the students give essentially unlimited rights to their work to a corporate entity does not seem to me to be coincident with this responsibility. Of course, it was already the case that Facebook retained rights to these items before this TOS update, but the fact that these rights are now irrevocable, in my view, makes the question qualitatively different. Different enough that, while I used to be eager to talk to faculty members about how they might incorporate Facebook into their classes, I’m not certain that I can continue to do so with a clear conscience. There are lots of alternative spaces in which to share content where the restrictions aren’t so harsh.

Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I would be interested in knowing how the act of publishing something on Facebook, and the transfer of rights that it implies, interacts with any explicit licenses (e.g. Creative Commons) that you have given the content, especially where the Facebook license and the CC license are in disagreement with each other. Does anyone know anything about this?

I also wonder whether there will be sufficient backlash among the users of Facebook to make the company reconsider this updated TOS. I am pessimistic. My sense is that most people who use Facebook heavily aren’t thinking about this sort of issue.

On the cloud

Google freaked out this weekend, which, in turn, freaked me out. I’m a pretty ardent user of Google’s cloud services. Gmail is the most important to me, as it’s where all my email from the past four or five years resides. Reader has streamlined my online reading process so much that’s it’s hard for me to imagine how in the pre-Reader days I managed to read even a tenth of what I get through now. So when Google hiccups – even when the hiccup is apparently unrelated to where I store my data – I get scared.


via Reza Vaziri

These Google fears came just a week after I read Jason Scott‘s delightfully titled “Fuck the Cloud”. I don’t really buy into all the too-simple “you’re a sucker if you use cloud services” rhetoric, and I think (as urged in a Twitter conversation I had with @GeorgeReese) that a lot of what Scott is complaining about is more about backups than it is the cloud. Still, this piece, along with my Google woes, was enough to get me thinking about how wise it is to depend on web services like I do.

My first reaction on Saturday morning, when Google was acting up, was to back my stuff up. I saved all of my Reader subscriptions in a local OPML file, updated my POP3 backups of my Gmail messages in Thunderbird, and saved local copies of my important GDocs. I was able to make these backups because Google has allowed it by embracing the right kinds of standards. And this fact – that backups can be made and exports done – is one of the things that makes me relatively comfortable using Google’s services so extensively.

This relatively straightforward exportability stands in contrast to the situation at some of the other sites where I create and store content. I’ve used Tweetake to export my Twitter activity to a CSV file, but the solution is far from elegant. For one, I don’t really like giving my Twitter password out to a bunch of sites. Also, I’m not crazy about the fact that I can’t really do incremental backups. Ideally Twitter itself would offer some streamlined way to export one’s tweets. Facebook is even worse. I feel uncomfortable using Facebook’s message/email system because I know that there will probably come a day when I want access to those messages but cannot get them.

I don’t necessarily blame Twitter or Facebook for their total failure to provide content exporting. There is a sense in which the kind of content being created in these spaces – or, rather, the meaningful units of content to which we attach value and thus would want to save – is quite different from the most discrete units provided by email. What’s really valuable in Facebook is not just what I write, but what others write to and about me and my friends. Only a total snapshot of my entire immediate network would provide the kind of value for posterity that I want. With Twitter the situation is perhaps even more extreme: like in Facebook, the content I value is closely related to the content created by others, but in Twitter these people are not necessarily part of my immediate network at all (like when you @reply to someone you don’t follow because of some term you’re tracking). Pushed to the limit, you might even say that only a snapshot of all Twitter activity would really capture its value at any given time, since part of the value of Twitter lies in the potential you have to mine the collective consciousness, to get a sense of the zeitgeist. When the content that you value is so holistic, the details of backing it up become dicey.

On a more local scale, it’s probable that standard export formats will emerge as services like Twitter become more popular, in the way that something like Atom or RSS can be used to backup or restore a blog. In this sense, maybe my worries about certain kinds of cloud data storage are the kinds that will go away with time. Or at least until the next new kind of content is invented.

There are some other aspects of the cloud question that I find interesting, such as whether one should really feel more comfortable with local backups than with remote ones, and whether paying for a service really makes it more reasonable to feel comfortable keeping your stuff there, but I’ll save that for another day.