Shuttleworth Funded!

I’m pleased to announce that the Shuttleworth Foundation has given me a “flash grant” to support my work.

I don’t know how much you all know about Shuttleworth flash grants, but they are more gift than grant. You don’t apply for them. An email shows up in your inbox one day and says hey, we like what you’re doing, and we’d like to give you $5,000. Conditions? Pretty much none — just a general expectation that I’ll “live openly” and tell the world what I did with it.

For me, the choice of what to do with it is clear. I’m trying to build a free WordPress-based, git-like, Wikipedia-for-everything-else that allows separate WordPress sites to act as one big wiki. It turns out to be easier to build that than to explain it to people, which is why (to my Nicole’s dismay) I’ve been coding it nights and weekends.

The money won’t change that — I think I still need to power through this and code it myself, at least to start, and my day job remains helping faculty implement open pedagogy, not building tools around it. But the grant should allow me to fund the infrastructure I need to do this right, and maybe fund a bit of promotion once it’s up.

Honestly, I’m still thinking this through. I’ve never had any money to spend on this but my own, so work on this has been driven a lot more by available resources than priorities. I’ve absorbed the costs the way one might for a hobby. (Current hobby: trying to re-imagine a new web built around reuse instead of sharing.)

Thanks to the Shuttleworth Foundation for the grant. And thanks to Ward Cunningham who introduced me to the solutions to the problems I’d been grappling with for years. I hope in six months to have something that makes these powerful ideas accessible to students, teachers, and lifelong learners.

Calypso is the Future of Personal Cyberinfrastructure

OK, so I haven’t used Calypso. I don’t own a Mac, and I’ve been working on other things. But I read Matt Mullenweg’s post on the introduction of the tool and Ben Werdmüller’s excellent take on that post,  and ultimately the current experience offered by that tool doesn’t matter. What matters is the separation of concerns, a separation that will ultimately allow a vastly larger portion of the public to own, manage, and innovate around their own data.

I wrote about this issue in a post in March 2014 called The Route to Personal Cyberinfrastructure Is Through Storage-Neutral Apps, and what a difference a year and a half makes. I think people in the ed-tech community back then thought I was a bit utopian (Ryan Brazell summarized the discussion back then), or worse, corporatist. But let’s recap:

Right now you have a couple elements to a web application:

  • Your data: the database and file structure, along with the server that serves it up.
  • Your admin interface: the software that allows your to manipulate the data. Add, edit, delete, tweak settings, etc.
  • Your presentation layer: the layer that exposes and shares your stuff to unprivileged users on the web.

And right now these things are bundled together. If I want to own my data, I have to run the admin interface and presentation layer on my own server. This means dealing with updates, hackers, spam, denial of service attacks, etc. It sucks, and only a sliver of the population will ever do it, no matter how nice you make cPanel.

On the other hand, if I want someone to do the heavy lifting around web application maintenance and the the like, I’ve got to move all my data to their server.

As I said last year, this is an incredibly lousy choice, and it’s the real thing that is holding personal cyberinfrastructure back. People want to own their data and their namespace but they don’t want to run servers to do it.

What’s the solution? Separate the elements. Treat your personal server as a BDS (Big Dumb Server), there to answer API calls and file requests.  Move the admin interfaces up towards the client, and maintain them centrally the way apps are maintained. Eventually, move the presentation layer towards the client too, allowing readers power over how they consume the data on your server.

This ultimately gives everyone more power.

  • I can host data on Reclaim Hosting without ever having to do any admin or posting through their server front end. I also get out of the software maintenance business.
  • The admin software doesn’t care if I am on a blog or self-hosted blog — it’s just a tool making calls to servers. (This is the storage neutral part of “storage-neutral app”)
  • Ultimately reading (the presentation layer) also becomes separate, and readers get the power to read things in a form that makes sense to them, rather than be beholden to the wishes of writers. (This is less developed in Calypso, but the built-in reader seems like a start).

We give power and responsibility to writers, readers, and software providers over the things that matter to each of them, rather than insist on all or nothing solutions. And if you want to get to broad acceptance of the personal cyberinfrastructure vision, *this* is how it happens.

There are, of course, issues to be addressed, and I can talk about some of those later. But for now, I guess I’m just glad to have an example we can bat around so people can grasp the concept and start thinking about the future we want to have.


Federated WordPress

Those who follow this blog will know that I’ve taken a bit of time off from federated wiki in order to try to bring some principles from federated wiki into WordPress. While most days this feels like having left Xerox PARC to go work on Windows 1.0, there are other days where it feels really good.

After a hard weekend of Starbucks-ing here’s what we have: a very simple proof of concept for the idea of forkable WordPress content with an attribution history.

A couple notes here: you can of course edit and reformat the articles you copy to your site any way you want. I made the quick annotation field because what I  found was when most people browse federated wiki editing comes later. People ask questions in this order:

  • Do I want a copy of this on my site?
  • Does it link to other things of mine?
  • Do I need to add a note as to why I copied this (or a note about having to fact-check it, etc)?

Then, after all that, that’s when they think — maybe I could edit or extend the core article here.

So I made annotations look kind of like comments because I want people to be fairly profligate about what they copy. In general I think people are to timid about copying when they first start out; by presenting copying as something akin to a “retweet with comment” we hope to spread good stuff more widely, while not requiring everyone be on the same service.

Anyway, let me know what you all thinks. And thanks to fedwiki-ers Alan Levine, Alyson Indrunas, Lisa Chamberlain, and Kate Bowles who have been busy producing WordPress-based federated wiki content that we will soon get to test the new code on!

Probabilistic vs. Deterministic Thought

Surprisingly good advice from LinkedIn founder:

> “One of the things that philosophy is very helpful on is how to think pretty precisely about arguments, and an investment thesis is fundamentally an argument. Part of philosophical training is making you really understand how good an argument is and how to think through the alternatives. Philosophy is really good at posing the question, ‘If the universe were such that this data would be different or the universe was such that this framework would be wrong, what happens to the argument then?’ Questioning those premises really helps you figure out why someone smart might actually hold a different point of view.

> “We live in a probabilistic universe, and we tend to think in determinist ways. If A is data-driven and I think I have that data, how certain am I that I have that data? What could I discover that might actually tell me that that data is formulated wrongly? When you dig into it, most of your arguments are actually probabilistic. They’re not certain, even when you have data. You’re really trying to get a sense of whether you have a reasonable bet on the probability.” post 

These are the key critical thinking skills. Everything else is nice to have, but the key skill is “If we imagined an alternate universe where thing A was different, what else would likely change? With what probability?”


Slack CEO also got a philosophy degree. SeeSlack’s Philosopher

Pill-Splitting the Textbook

Commenter GalleryP pointed out in the comments of my last piece on OER (here) that the Calculus book can be used across two semesters if bought new and not rented. This is true, and I’ll adjust down the high end of the range down across the two semesters by $209. (Spoiler alert: it’s still an obscene amount, and the low end of the range remains unchanged).

But this also an example of how people in the know understand how to keep costs down, while failing to realize that this “How To Be a College Student 101” stuff is not always available to everybody. Renting a Calculus book across three semesters could actually cost me more than buying it, and put me at a disadvantage in later courses when I need a refresher.

But as a first semester working adult, I know that how? As a first generation student trying to get a leg up on ordering books I know that how?

518WHJCMRVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I remember my Shakespeare Tragedies class as an undergraduate. We were supposed to get these thick, thick, annotated Arden editions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and other plays. Probably about $50 total then, back in the early 1990s, maybe the equivalent of a hundred now? The annotations in these things were three to four times the length of the text though, and considered the the best possible version of both text and commentary.

I wasn’t a rich kid by any means, but I took one look at those books, figured those annotations would be important, and ponied up the cash.

And I remember there being a few kids in that class, and you knew they were completely out of it, because they came in with these $4 Penguin editions of Shakespeare they’d gotten at Barnes and Noble or Paperback Booksmith. And so throughout the class the teacher would say “Turn to page 103, and let’s read from the Iago line down” and we’d all flip to that page in our scholarly editions, and they would look all around and try to figure out where that was in their little dinky version (which didn’t even *have* 103 pages). And questions would come up about something in the annotations, and they couldn’t answer it, or they’d have to borrow another’s book.

I wish I could say that I remember this because I felt such sympathy for those students. Unfortunately, no. At the time I felt really aggravated about it. What the hell? Just get the frickin’ book already!

I remember it not out of of the milk of human kindness, but because it made me and the other English majors in the class feel superior. It was a defining moment for us. It bonded us together. We were the real literature students. We knew not to bring a Penguin edition knife to an annotated gun fight.

Looking back on that, of course, I was being a complete dick. Some people don’t even know what an annotated edition is, never mind whether it would be important to get one. I can see them now looking at this stack of annotated Shakespeare editions and thinking — geez, $50? For a bunch of plays that haven’t changed in centuries? Ha! Nice try, College Bookstore!

I’m guessing the students in that class with the $4 Penguin copies did not do as well as they might have. Some of them may have even flunked. But of course, in their mind they were utilizing the same can-do attitude of the students that confidently buy an older edition of a textbook.

It calls to mind the whole pill-splitting phenomenon. Drug companies charge prices that soak people who take lower dosages of pills, so many people get higher dosages of their medicine and split the pills with a pill-splitter.

And for a person who knows their way around WebMD this might be a great solution — you can cut the cost of some of the drugs you take down by 50%. And so a bunch of insurers have encouraged the practice of prescribing double doses and having the consumer cut them in half.

But there are dangers to this.

First of all, people aren’t uniformly good at splitting pills. Dose deviation is common among pill-splitters and that’s an issue for drugs that need to be maintained in a narrow range. Worse, many pills are in extended release formulations that break down when split. Splitting a time-released pill in half can cause an overdose. The list goes on: cutting all your pills in half before you need them could cause them to become ineffective, people often forget to cut them and take a double dose, etc.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t split pills. But it is to say that it’s not as easy as saying when confronted with high drug prices “Well, patients can just split pills.” Because some patients will do it wrong. And then what do you do?

Those students that bought the cheap version of the text back in 1991? They were pill-splitters. And they failed at pill-splitting (and maybe at the course). Do we own that failure?

What we’ve learned over the past five years or so in OER is that what we sell in the Open Textbook movement is not just reduced cost. It’s the simplicity that you can get when you’re not working with an industry trying to milk every last dollar out of students. It’s every student having their materials on day one, for as long as they like, without having to navigate “simple” questions of what to buy, what to rent, and when-is-the-book-on-the-syllabus-that’s-required-not-really-required.

For people at home in academia, some of this may seem a little silly — informed students know how to work around the current system just fine. But maybe that’s exactly the point?


My original piece was a response to Phil Hill’s excellent piece here. You should also read his response to me here, which is frankly better than this post.

Bracken replies to the original post in Delivering the Ideal Bag O’ Books, noting that we have to ask how to make the groceries even healthier.

David Wiley calls further attention to the impact of net getting the textbook, citing a study (also cited by Phil) in The Practical Cost of Textbooks.

Asking What Students Spend on Textbooks Is the Wrong Question

Phil Hill continues to do some of the best data journalism in educational technology. His last piece is a tour de force, marshalling data to show that students spend much less on textbooks than the current figures bandied about would indicate.

I think he’s right on that point, but I also think readers of that piece are likely to take away the wrong conclusion from Phil’s figures (even if Phil himself does not). So I’d like to introduce a parable here to explain why asking what students spend on textbooks is the wrong question, and then follow up with a bit of data of my own that I think may shock you.

First, the parable.

The Island of Perdiem

On a small island called Perdiem, a nearby war has disrupted normal commerce and the ships that used to bring food from the mainland no longer come.

Food prices spike. The island is an ally of the U.S., so a debate in Congress breaks out as to whether Perdiem is in a food crisis, and if so should the U.S. intervene? Are food prices there really at crisis levels?

They send a fact-finding team there, and initially they are shocked at what they see. On an island with a median income matching the U.S.’s, cucumbers are $5 a pound. Meat — of any sort — is $25 dollars a pound. Potatoes, a local staple, are $100 a bag. All around people are gaunt, and starving. It looks like it truly is a pricing crisis after all.

That’s when the committee chairman makes a startling realization.  He starts asking the Perdimians how much of their monthly budget goes to food.

It turns out that while prices are five times higher, the Perdimians as a culture eat only a fifth of the calories of the average American eats. (What a weird coincidence!) And when you calculate this all out, it turns out that they spend about the same on food as Americans.

Well, that’s a funny sort of crisis he thinks — clearly this crisis is overblown. They head back to The U.S., relieved that all is well. The gaunt and quizzical Perdimians wave to them as their plane takes off.

Start With a Bag of Groceries

I’m sure you get the point of the parable, so I won’t belabor it. If we’re looking to find out if prices for some set of goods are too high, then by definition we cannot look at what people are spending as a reliable gauge, because one of the big effects of “prices too high” is that people can’t afford what they need.

If you don’t pay attention to this you get in all sorts of tautologies. Is food too expensive for minimum wage workers? Nope — it turns out they spend a lot less on food than the middle class, so it all works out. Were lower-class black children getting the care they need under the pre-Obamacare system? Absolutely — in fact their health care spending was the *lowest* in the nation!

A better approach to problems like the Island of Perdiem is to start with a bag of goods. We decide what it would take to keep you healthy for a week, take into consideration valid local substitutes, then look at the price of the bag. Then we look at what people are spending per week.

In a cash-strapped system, that difference between the price of the bag and the price people are spending on groceries is what we’ll call the food budget deficit — the amount of extra money people would need to eat healthy.

So let’s assemble a bag of textbook goods for our student, shall we?

Our Textbook Bag

So what should go into our bag of textbooks?

To create our bag, I went and got the first year suggested schedule for a math education major here. I then went to the bookstore and tallied up the price of all the required and recommended texts for my first year of courses (I did not include optional texts).

For each textbook I added two prices — the first price was for the cheapest version, which in most cases was a three-month textbook rental of a previously used textbook. The second price was for a new textbook.

The bag here also includes one $35-$50 clicker that is bundled with the textbooks — subtract that if you think that’s unfair.

Semester One:

Only four classes our first semester, two have labs bringing us to 14 credits. Light semester on books, then, which is good.

* Biology 101 (Intro Bio): $72.05 – $96.05
* English 101 Composition: $48.60 – $108
* History 105 (Global Issues): $70.55 – $128.40
* Math 171 Calculus” $106.30 – $209.70

Buying new: $542.15 + 8.5% sales tax = $588.23

Buying cheapest option (renting used) if available: $297.50 + 8.5% sales tax = $322.79

Semester Two:

* CS 121: (Intro Programming): $15.40 – $34.20
* FINE ART 201 (Pullman): $100.19 – $217
* MATH 172: $106.30 – $209.70
* MATH 220: $99.45 – $221.05
* SOC 102: $37.80 – $94.50

Buying new: $776.45 + 8.5% sales tax = $842.45

Buying cheapest option (renting used) if available: $359.14 + 8.5% sales tax = $389.67

And the Final Figures?

Commenter GalleryP notes that the Calculus book if bought (not rented) can be used across two semesters. So we adjust our high end down, and knock our mix down by $103. Rentals stay the same. For more on this see Pill-Splitting the Textbook.

  • One year of new textbooks: $1221.68 ($1430.68 – $209)
  • One year of rentals (mostly): $712.46
  • Mix, half rentals, half new: $968.07

So which figure do we use here? The chances of getting everything you need as a rental are low. Sure, you could be the super-prepared student who knows how to work the system and get them *all* as rentals — but not every student can be first in line at the bookstore. And the ones at the back of the line — guess their socio-economic class and first generation status?

This is a real issue, and it’s worth sticking with it a second here. I found myself going through this exercise and thinking — well, I can rent this here, and this one is a primary text, so I can probably find that online somewhere, and the only one that really NEEDS to be new is going to be that Calculus book (because new problem sets, plus I’m going to want to keep it).

And of course that’s me, thinking like a second-generation college student. I know where to skimp and where to spend. I know to get to the bookstore day one to get the rentals. As matter of fact I gave my daughter Katie the whole low-down on textbooks just last semester as she took her first college class: get the text before the class, rent things that aren’t reference works, look on Amazon for primary sources etc. I showed her how to determine whether getting a slightly different edition would impact her learning by comparing the syllabus, and helped her think through whether she was going to want to keep a textbook that she had spent time annotating (in which case buy it, and buy it new).

You could use skills like this to cobble together that bag of books and say *that’s* the true cost. Look what you can get your books for if you game the system right!

But to say that, you’d have to have learned nothing in the past decade about why students fail. Requiring a non-traditional student to cobble together a bag of half-priced textbooks the way a second-generation student might is setting them up for failure.

I think you have to assume you go at *least* half and half with rentals to new if we’re talking about creating a world where all students have a textbook in hand. So $1072 a year seems to me a minimum.

And frankly, the most straightforward option here, and the simplest for the first-generation student or the non-residential adult student to navigate, is to just buy all the books the teacher tells you to get, so honestly, if you care about equity and simplicity and the fate of non-traditional students, then you’re not off the hook. You *have* to wrestle with the $1430 figure, because every decision that a non-traditional student uses to get that price down is one fraught with risk.

The Affordability Deficit

But wait — what about this chart, showing what students are spending? They aren’t even spending half that much!

If we really believe that the texts we assign in class are useful to the classes they are assigned, then what you see there is students hitting the ceiling of what they are able to spend on textbooks, a good $400-$700 before they have the books they need.

This should terrify you. That graph is a picture of the cost of textbooks preventing students from getting the materials they need to succeed.

You can do this yourself with classes if you want — I just used public facing Washington State University pages to make up our bag, with a randomly chosen major. Make up your own bag, at a different institution, with a different major. Do it in a state that makes textbooks tax-exempt — or for a real kick in the pants, put together a nursing degree. Share your findings!

What I think you’ll find out is that although there is a lot of variability in the cost of textbooks for a year in different degrees, the College Board estimate is much closer to estimating what students actually need than other measures offered.

Most of all, the two lessons here are that

  • Under scarcity, the best picture of need is going to be calculated backward from what is needed, not what is bought.
  • Protests that students “in the know” can make do can also doom students with less cultural capital to failure.

Thanks again to Phil for starting this conversation.


There is an update to this in Pill-Splitting the Textbook, which deals with the issue of student strategies for buying, and how culture and access intersects with that.

Phil Hill replies in Asking What Students Spend On Textbooks Is Very Important, But Insufficient (and we’re basically in agreement).

Bracken replies in Delivering the Ideal Bag O’ Books, noting that we have to ask how to make the groceries even healthier.

David Wiley calls further attention to the impact of net getting the textbook, citing a study (also cited by Phil) in The Practical Cost of Textbooks.