Thursday, October 11, 2012

Blog 12: The Dark Side of Digital,
The Graphic Textbook Model,
& Concluding Remarks

The Dark Side of Digital
In 2007 alone, 1,288 x 1018 bits, or 161 billion gigabytes of digital content were created, stored, and replicated around the world. In lay terms, that’s 3 million times the amount of information in all the books ever written, or twelve stacks of books reaching from the Earth to the Sun, or six tons of books for every living person. It would require 2 billion of the highest-capacity iPods to store all of that information.
                                                ―John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital, 185

            Ouch! That’s a lot of data. Why we are saving every Twitter tweet is beyond me. Not that I do not understand the technology, mind you, it is just that the whole act of saving them seems so…narcissistic. According to Frida Ghitis, Google has kept every email its users have ever sent or received, along with every chat using Google Talk, and every conversation using Google Voice. From your calendar to your contact list, Google saves it all, and “can even track searches on your computer when you're not logged in for up to six months.” (Ghitis, 2012) Scary! Unfortunately, they are not the only ones and the whole idea of your entire cyber life being available to “who knows who” has such an air of “Big Brotherliness” to it. With all that data waiting to be accessed there is a lot of potential for bad things to happen, which is odd for a company such as Google whose motto is “do no evil.” In the digital landscape there is neither a past nor a future, since all information is accessed simultaneously. That means the sins of the past not only never go away—they are always in the present. So, other than going completely offline, what is the answer?

The Right to Be Forgotten
            In January of this year the European Commission for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship proposed a privacy reform called, “The Right to Be Forgotten” (le droit à l’oubli—or the “right of oblivion”). (Rosen, 2012) It is the digital equivalent to, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” It is based on the belief that once a criminal has served their time, and has been rehabilitated, the slate is wiped clean (which is a basic tenet of every Abrahamic and Eastern religion). There are certain free speech issues associated with this law that are well above my pay grade, but I agree with the idea that if I delete personal data from the digital landscape it should be gone forever, and not saved forever. So, how does this figure into the topic of graphic eTextbooks? Quite simply, it has to do with the “cloud” and who has access to information.

The Cloud

            “Cloud computing” is simply where multiple devices simultaneously share the same application platform over a network (like the Internet). Back when I was a computer programmer everything was written, stored, and run on a mainframe, and all of the information was entered through a “dumb” terminal (which was nothing more than a monitor and keyboard). For example, this blog is not on your computer; it is on an application platform somewhere, and you are accessing it via the Internet. Most of you are using Foxfire (35%), Explorer (25%), or Safari (21%) for your web browser, while 63% of you are using Windows PC compared to 28% on a Mac. Most of you are from the United States, followed by Germany, Russia, and other Western European countries; however, there have been visits from Brazil, Australia, Canada, India, Vietnam, and South Africa. Oh,…and how do I know all this? Well, Google owns Blogspot, and collects all the data for me.

            The point is, just like this blog, digital textbooks are on a cloud somewhere, and students need to access them. Granted, you may have a pdf of a book or two saved on some device, but there are copyright problems with that. One of the downsides to digital publishing that still persists is that piracy is too easy. You only have to look at the music industry and Napster to see how that played out. There is a fine line between free access to all information, and the creators of graphic eTextbooks getting paid their fair share. After all, whether it is physical or digital, the contents of a book are still the intellectual property of its creator(s). [Note: As of October 5, 2012, Google settled a seven-year legal battle with McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Penguin, John Wiley & Sons, and Simon & Schuster over illegally digitizing their books.] If creators do not get paid for their efforts then there is no incentive to create more books. Digital Restriction Management codes (which restrict digital textbooks to only one device) are too restrictive. One solution that I prefer is for colleges and universities to purchase site-licenses, thus making eTextbooks accessible to students through their libraries.

            While students would not own eTextbooks the eNotes that they take should be theirs indefinitely. Peter Meyers suggested all tablets come with styluses, the ability to take notes, or highlight passages, and the ability to provide a “passage-quoting bulletin board.” (Meyers, 2011) To this list Alexandra Samuel adds collaborative annotating, persona management (privacy settings), social note sharing (access to social media from within the eBook), and the ability to add visuals to the notes. (Samuel, 2011) The Kno tablet is already doing most of this (click HERE then scroll down the article to watch the demo videos). In fact, Kno tablets also allow social sharing of notes, so if you miss a class your friend’s notes will immediately show up in your eTextbook. This “tablet” is actually a full-bore computer, so reading, note-taking, surfing the web, social networking—namely, multi-tasking—is all available to the user in one device. Presently, prices are steep ($900 for the double-screen version, & $600 for the single), and the duel-screen model weighs 5.6 pounds, but those should both come down if they want to stay competitive. Otherwise, expect all of their bells & whistles in the next ipad rollout.

“Dark Editing”

            Another problem with digital content is reliability. What none of you probably know is that I have made changes to every blog entry I have posted. Most changes have been minor such as adding links, and adding highlights, but I have also added and deleted text. On one occasion I changed the name I had originally referenced to “Charles Schulz” because it was a better choice for illustrating my point. I doubt if anyone knows what the original name was, and since the change was made within an hour of the original posting, it is highly unlikely there is a backup of it anywhere. I refer to this as “Dark Editing.” How do we validate the material in a digital landscape where there is only the present? Without a hard copy as proof of the past, how do we know the digital information we are quoting as a source will be the same tomorrow as it is today? To further illustrate the point, a friend of mine noticed that in a digital edition of Moby Dick several chapters were missing. Missing! And nowhere in the indicia, or on the title page, or on the website did it say it was an edited or abridged edition. “Truth” has always been subjective, but in the digital age it is also ephemeral. After all, what is a cloud anyway, but an amorphous, ever-changing wisp that eventually disappears completely?

Digital Natives and the Gatekeepers

            For Digital Natives, those born in 1980 and afterwards, the digital landscape is an integral part of their lives. For the rest of us, the Digital Immigrants, we can remember a time when phones had cords, and computer screens were black & white. In preparing for this blog entry I watched the first two episodes of the television show, Revolution, which takes place fifteen years after all the power goes out globally. One Internet entrepreneur laments his loss of wealth, and a mother still carries around her cell phone because locked inside are pictures of her long-gone children. At no time did anyone mention the loss of all that knowledge, but for some reason they want you to believe that without electricity we would be knocked back to living in Colonial times. One of the staples of spy shows of the past couple decades has been the electromagnetic bomb. Explode one within a major capital city, and that nation’s infrastructure and economy collapses. It is entertainment, so it is meant to be dramatic; however, the real threat to Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants is access, and the real power lies in the hands of the Gatekeepers.

            We know that it is possible for countries to block the Internet, or portions of it. The euphemism is called “filtering,” and it is the same principle as software controls parents put on their children’s computers, but on a larger scale. The greater concern is that, under the guise of “protecting its citizens” any country can frame the narrative for its people, especially those who never travel abroad. Not only that, but the Gatekeepers can designate specifically what knowledge a person may have access to and for how long. Without physical books it is therefore easier to create a caste society where some people have access to knowledge while others are left ignorant.

            When information on a cloud (mainframe) is completely blocked and certain people are no longer permitted access to fundamental knowledge, as in a caste society, I have begun calling this form of injustice “Clear Skies Censorship.”

Modeling the Graphic Textbook

            So, what does my model for graphic textbooks look like? Well, like this!

            All graphic narratives are made up of three parts. They are the script, the art, and the history of the medium. All three of these spheres are the same size because all are of equal importance. This model also encompasses people such as Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Jeff Smith, and all the others who both write and illustrate their stories because there is always a balance between text and imagery. The history of the medium is vital because it includes all that has come before to get us to where we are. If the creators study the writers, artists, and graphic narratives that have come before them; the better prepared they will be for creating their own graphic narratives. Each of these three spheres overlap, with the rich tradition of storytelling, and at the core of this is where graphic narratives emerge. For educational graphic novels and graphic textbooks, all of this fits into a sphere of pedagogy. This model does not advocate a specific style of writing or art, and is international in its scope. Nor does it advocate a specific format or software/hardware platform. What it does portray is the importance of the content; that storytelling is at the core of all good graphic narratives. After all, we all love a good story.

[Note: For educational purposes, I am also including a blank diagram so anyone can fill it in with whatever language they choose.]

Concluding Remarks

            Back in Blog #1 I wrote, “It is my opinion that one day introductory-level educational graphic textbooks for college students will be the norm rather than the exception.” I believe that. There is a fear that the educational system cannot keep up with changes in digital landscape. Graphic eTextbooks can help make learning fun and enjoyable, without diluting the information. This is not a juvenile art form. It is a hybridized, verbal/visual, problem-solving, engaging art form that entertains as it educates. As Ray Bradbury once wrote, Intellectual snobs will no doubt be shocked. Those with widespread, happy tastes will accept, as I accept, this new form.” (Bradbury, Autumn People, 1965)

            Finally, using comic books in the classroom is not a new concept, and began, to my knowledge, around the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics in 1938. The following was written by Milton Schwebel, professor emeritus of the graduate school of applied and professional psychology at Rutgers University as well as dean emeritus of the graduate school of education of the same institution. Professor Schwebel was also the founding chair of American Psychological Association's Advisory Committee on Impaired Psychologists for eight years, and founding editor of the APA divisional publication, Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology for seven years. It is the earliest account that I have found regarding the use of comic books in the classroom, and it validates my belief in the benefits of using graphic narratives for teaching undergraduate students.

Recent attention to the use of comic books in schools drove me to the search engine Google, where my query of the phrase yielded 682,000 English pages. [In] the late 1930s, when, as a high school substitute teacher in Troy, N.Y., I was called upon to teach a course in English for students in a low-status vocational program. […] To my dismay, I discovered that the chief literary fare in this so-called class in English consisted of comic books. As a recent graduate of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. —then an all-male institution of about 800, with a proud record of well over a century of teaching the liberal arts and science — and with a major in philosophy, I had nothing but disdain for this folly and for the elderly teacher, now ill, who had created it.

Fortunately for me, she was absent for a month, during which time I came to see that my arrogance had blinded me to her creativity. These boys and girls, all from working-class families, many of them children of immigrants, were devouring the comic books, and were reading for pleasure for the first time. Some of them had moved from comic books to Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Jack London, and they enjoyed discussing Oliver Twist as much as Superman.

The wisdom of this experienced woman taught me that there are numerous ways to get children hooked on books and learning. In the many ensuing years, the lesson I learned from her influenced my teaching at the college, university, and postdoctoral levels. I discovered that it didn't matter whether an instructor lectured, led discussions, or used role-play or any other procedure, provided the students—no matter their age—were engaged. It's not surprising that educational research has substantiated that principle.

                                    Milton Schwebel, Education Week, February 20, 2008
            I wish to express my deepest appreciation to everyone for reading this blog; especially to all of those who shared their thoughts, critiques, and personal stories with me. While this is the end of this blog it is not the end of my research!
            After all…I still have to finish my dissertation, graduate, and get a real job!

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