Last month, a survey was sent to Columbia students and faculty. The survey asked them to share the relative importance of “Accessing the Internet,” “Having the materials in color,” and “Highlighting text” in their academic materials, and what device they currently use to access literature and media—with the options including a desktop or laptop computer, and, provocatively, an e-reader.
The survey was sent from the email alias “eReader Survey,” but its specificity and allusions to e-reader functions were surprising—it appeared as though Columbia were on the brink of a seismic change in how its classes present information. Indeed, the IT committee for the University Senate had intended to gauge relative interest in the potential functionality of e-readers as academic tools alongside textbooks, but insists that the survey is merely a thought experiment, moving towards a day when e-reader technology is a part of life at Columbia. Julia Hirschberg, a professor of computer science and the chair of the Senate IT committee, says that the project was a response to enthusiasm for electronic book technology in a survey of faculty. “A lot of people got excited about it, and interested in it—several members of our committee decided to look into this. We did know that other universities have been exploring this issue.”
Hirschberg notes that the committee is preparing to analyze more than 4,000 sets of responses to the survey. Alex Frouman, a sophomore in CC and University Senator on the IT committee, says that the survey will shape the way the university deals with e-reader vendors in future purchases: “The most important part of the survey is what is important to the student in a device. … Do you need color, ability to print—what’s most important? When it does become time, what can we push for with a vendor?”
The time for e-reader implementation at Columbia is still distant, perhaps, but it prompts the question of whether change—to how information is presented, how classes are conducted, and how much learning takes place on the internet—is occurring to improve the academic life of the university. Many questions linger around the edges of the obvious one: When and why will e-readers become a part of daily life here? “Libraries have been doing a lot of research into this regarding their own collections,” says Hirschberg. “There are lots of issues regarding intellectual property. How many people can check a book out at once?”
This survey came shortly before a recent CCSC presentation that showed technological developments to a group of students. “Come with big ideas, big opinions, and big appetites,” said the online RSVP form (Chipotle was served). CCIT showed off a new residential life site that will serve as a portal of sorts to club websites and individualized information. A genuine “portal”—a one-password sign-in to all Columbia sites—was said to be in development, but for now has been shuttered due to time and money constraints. Such a portal could be accessible as an app via a portable device, like an e-reader.
Given how much is still unknown regarding the devices’ functionality and the nebulous legal issues surrounding them, will e-readers fundamentally improve how students learn, or merely allow Columbia to keep up with a swiftly racing set of technological changes, for the sake of impressing all those who need to be impressed—other Ivies, big donors, and a large number of other people who aren’t students? An e-reader is a beautiful piece of equipment, but seems to be just one component of a new and somewhat befuddling game—one in which keeping up with tech developments competes with maintaining real academic functionality.
Frouman, who as a sophomore is a key player in these debates, presented himself as a case study to the February 12 meeting of the IT committee and the library. He indicated that an e-reader would not save money and would not work at the present moment, given the lack of available course texts in the Amazon Kindle store, and specific, functional lags. The specter of Princeton’s recent foray into the high-tech reading world haunts the e-reader question at Columbia: “The program at Princeton was negatively reviewed,” says Frouman, understating the case. “It takes forever to flip a page, and the interface is slow.”
The most relevant and public exploration of e-readers in a college setting thus far occurred when Princeton joined five other institutions in a pilot program designed to test the suitability of the Kindle as a learning tool. While enthusiasm may be high for e-reader research at Columbia right now, Princeton’s experience casts a pall over the concept. A Daily Princetonian article from September 2009 found students already complaining about the devices. “I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool. It’s clunky, slow, and a real pain to operate,” said one senior in the Princetonian. This reaction, en masse, was a sharp comedown for Princeton. The students and professors who spoke to the Princetonian seemed to regret getting the nod. “There’s not a lot of opportunity to refer to the readings specifically in class, and I think that might’ve been a challenge,” professor Daniel Kurtzer told the Princetonian in February 2010.
Gilad Bendheim, a junior in CC and the CCSC academic affairs representative, who is not a part of the University Senate, echoes Kurtzer’s complaints, saying of e-readers: “I’m a history major, and depending on the text size you’re using, the pagination will change. Page 400 isn’t page 400.” Kindles, specifically, sort data by “region” rather than page number—it is still quotable, but, as with everything surrounding the experience of reading on an electronic device, uncannily changed. (I recently read an E. M. Forster novel on my phone, and had no idea how far I was from the end at any given point; I do not plan on repeating the experience.) Hirschberg feels that e-reader technology is a supplement, not a replacement, to books: “I like books,” she says, gesturing at a wall-to-wall shelving unit in her office crammed with tomes. “I like being able to browse through them. I don’t think that e-readers or e-reading technology is going to replace books: Librarians have a strong sense that they’re preserving intellectual property.” But if e-reading is not to replace books, where is the line between e-readers and books in classrooms? Which will professors use, and will the transition be consistent? The shaky implementation of CourseWorks acts as a sort of worst-case scenario for supplementing old with new in academia.
Columbia’s IT committee, though, remains optimistic about the potential utility of e-readers. They decided to make their presentation to the annual joint meeting of the library and the IT committee on what Hirschberg referred to as the question of “e-ink and e-readers.” “Our short-term plan is to prepare a report to the Senate before the end of the year; we’re hoping we have stuff to say not just from the survey, but from the other committees,” says Hirschberg.
For Hirschberg, the game of technological development has real world consequence: A survey by the IT committee tallied 157,326,500 sheets of paper purchased by the university in 2009. Columbia’s explorations are motivated by the ecological implications of reducing the number of purchased textbooks, a motivation of Princeton’s as well. When I stated that textbooks students buy were not printed by Columbia, Hirschberg replied, “But they’re printed by somebody!” A move towards e-reader technology, partnered with a snappy and responsive CourseWorks that is conducive to consistent postings of all relevant course materials, could firmly move Columbia into a post-paper era.
Frouman, like Hirschberg, is cagey about the potential ubiquity of e-readers at Columbia: “As a committee, we haven’t discussed [their being given out]—I don’t foresee them being given away, but Barnes & Noble [which operates the campus bookstore], which has their own version”—the Nook—“is talking with us about options.” It’s an open question as to whether e-readers will become a part of university life, but the curiosity certainly exists. As Hirschberg noted, “Almost every day you see something in the Times about e-readers.”
The game of technological evolution is transpiring, on a lower profile, on the fifth floor of Butler, at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning. This large office hosts a number of developers working on apps for academic use and longer-range projects. The office is the point of contact for professors struggling with implementing CourseWorks effectively in their classes, and on adapting the long-rumored (and long-delayed) successor to CourseWorks, Sakai, for Columbia. One of the project managers is Michael Preston, whose official title is education technologist. He notes that CourseWorks, as a course management system, is not representative of education’s technological potential in 2010.
The terms “course management” or “learning management” systems refer to programs that put course material on the Internet to facilitate participation during hours not spent in the classroom. As Preston says: “It has website containers for groups, courses, people—you begin with a template that looks like a course.” Presumably, beginning with that template, one would be able to incorporate all kinds of multimedia components, something that CourseWorks fails to capitalize on.
“The main problem of CourseWorks is that it’s old. It’s been here since 2001 or ’02, because the Prometheus platform that it’s based on ceased development the year we bought it. It’s very boxy, it’s very proscribed,” says Bendheim. He declares that despite its setbacks in terms of functionality—the site is only as useful as the least technologically capable professor is at using it, and its use value varies wildly from class to class—CourseWorks, in some form, is a necessity for Columbia. “For what it is, I think it’s necessary—I can’t fathom a pre-CourseWorks world,” he says. Unlike the question of e-readers, the improvement of CourseWorks and its movement towards a more responsive and interactive program has clear beneficiaries. Given that course management systems are by now as de rigeur for college students as cafeteria omelet stations and gym equipment, they need to be refined so as to fulfill their potential. Says Bendheim: “Could it [CourseWorks] integrate your schedule better, integrate with SSOL? Sure. Maybe that’s what Sakai will do.”
Sakai, currently available on a pilot basis to faculty, will sustain the functions that make CourseWorks a necessity, while edging towards a more streamlined, usable system. “The university has not committed to making it [Sakai] the platform of choice, but that’s the direction we’re heading,” says Preston. “Money has certainly been an issue in the past year—but it’s possible that Sakai had some growing up to do on its own.” Because Sakai is developed by each participating institution to suit each of its own specific needs, “there are all these tools but they’re not always consistent, because it’s coming from different places,” says Preston. Columbia’s iteration of Sakai would also be called CourseWorks.
Sakai is not the only course management system of interest—at least on a theoretical level—for Preston. Another, and one that makes use of free open source software, is called Moodle. “To do anything [on CourseWorks] that requires interactivity, you have to relegate it to the discussion board, where it’s threaded,” he said. “In Moodle, interactivity is given more prominence in the design, and the other elements are secondary in the navigation.” These are all theoretical discussions as of yet, but the game will shift dramatically once the revamp of CourseWorks finally gets the green light from the administration.
Preston has thus far worked with or around CourseWorks in designing internet-based apps for faculty members, including various systems for annotating multimedia. Some of these tools allow the student to collect audio, video, or images from anywhere on the Internet, and to tag small portions in order to pinpoint specifically important elements. Like other projects at CCNMTL, these systems were designed, initially, for specific faculty members. For example, one such project called Engaging Digital Tibet was created for a SIPA professor with a wealth of images of Tibetan artwork. “We are working to develop a one code base that we can repurpose for several things,” Preston says. “Then maybe you would have a nice collection of materials inside the Columbia libraries”—Columbia now spends more per year, Preston told me, on digital acquisitions than on hard-copy literature—“or on YouTube, where anyone can use it.”
This new system’s functionality would make it ideal for use in Art or Music Hum classes, among others. Obviously, its ability to build presentations around culled image and sound files has the potential to eliminate emailed PowerPoint presentations. Going further, one can see it as emblematic of the wealth of information available on the internet; the world becomes the student’s library as course management systems grow more engaging and more capable of encouraging feedback through their capabilities and their design. After a little while in the endless museum this program implies the Internet to be, the idea of learning through reading criticism and theory grows less exciting. Unlike e-readers, course management systems grant agency to the student. They remove traditional constraints, like text availability and expense—and reading—from the equation.
Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning, a system designed by CCNMTL and professor Herbert Ginsburg of Teachers College, grants agency to students as well, but channels their productivity along particular constraints. Dr. Ginsburg uses the video-tagging and video-uploading system to show how young children learn math. VITAL, as a system, seems somehow familiar; it’s like a cleaner, more modern-looking CourseWorks. Its functionality, though, is much more specific: It’s a system for viewing, editing, and commenting on video clips, from home. Ginsburg doesn’t hesitate to show off several clips on his office computer. I find the system remarkable-looking as a student used to the CourseWorks system, which logs me out while I’m working on discussion posts and lacks the very information I need. In a ten-minute demonstration of VITAL, its function becomes clear, and I cannot see any drawbacks.
While VITAL has yet to become an essential part of the game—it hasn’t fully breached the consciousness of undergraduates—it could radically change the learning process at Columbia. Unlike other twists in recent memory, (Sakai, e-readers) VITAL is already a reality at Columbia, and has made its mark on the wider world: For instance, a Shakespeare course at MIT uses VITAL to view and edit performances, and Columbia’s School of Social Work uses the system to critique (role-played) therapy sessions. It hasn’t penetrated undergraduate consciousness yet, but VITAL might point the way to what the revamped CourseWorks might look like—a system that encourages technology to play an even greater role in the classroom by taking advantage of functions that can only be performed online, like accessing video.
Ginsburg shows his graduate students videos classroom settings in order to illustrate how mathematical thinking is learned. One video shows two young children working together to count the days on a wall calendar; another shows a boy stealing building blocks from a friend in order to get “more”—a useful mathematical concept in disguise. “What I want them to do is to examine videos carefully and interpret them in a useful way. I want them to look at the kid in the playground and say, ‘Oh, did you notice this kid was counting over there?’”
VITAL seems straightforward to use as a system, but also straightforward in what it asks. Teachers’ College students tag the moments at which students are counting, then create, with a click, a smaller video file of the relevant content, which they are then expected to modify with comments and upload to the site. The moments are clearly delineated even without tagging, though, and the comments are brief—VITAL becomes a sort of video game. Eventually, Ginsburg’s students will create and upload videos of their own interactions with students, along with self-critiques citing specific moments in the video, to the site.
Ginsburg has accumulated a staggering wealth of videos pertinent to the math learning skills of kids, and the VITAL system makes his work in finding and recording students’ interactions available in an easy way. Unlike video files for a film class, which can be obtained at Butler, the New York Public Library, or any DVD store, these interactions have limited accessibility without the Internet. With the Internet—and with a system custom-designed for dissemination and reapprobriation of materials in an academic context—Teachers’ College students have easy access to an impressive cache of materials, and they use them to do things otherwise unfeasible: observing students in action whenever they like. Their tagging and commenting seems to me to be some sort of game, but perhaps only because I’m so unused to seeing so much academic interaction take place on a screen.
Some of CCNMTL’s other projects have caught on as well: Preston told me about several of them, like an app for mobile phones called MAAP, Mapping the African-American Past, and a mobile app for the College of Dental Medicine that provides information for preventing cavities in young children. “Our group here tends to develop for the web, specifically apps for engaging students,” Preston says, though some functions (an African-American studies app for a cell phone?) have unclear target audiences and purposes.
Preston’s lab at CCNMTL is the Senate IT committee’s equal and opposite: It makes clear progress on small-bore goals, rather than longer-term research of sweeping changes. And yet, they may be the largest change agent Columbia has. One of CCNMTL’s recent achievements is the Millennium Village Simulation,an online program accessible by UNI and to anyone outside the university who sets up an account, that simulates life in an African village over the course of fifty years. The program is too exhaustive to be considered a “game.” Its many requirements cast into relief the elements of Professor Jeffrey Sachs’ sustainable development courses, for which the app was commissioned. Players are given 15-year-old boy and girl avatars, and “have to allocate the labor of the boy and girl for collecting firewood, water, fishing, agriculture, and so forth,” says Preston. It’s a bit like Second Life or The Sims, but for intellectuals.
The interface suits a specific need: “Students are integrating the material they learn in the course, which covers environmental issues, economic issues—they’re trying these things out in a hermetic environment which, if they fail, they can try again,” says Preston.
This is unlike, say, the zero-sum game of a paper, in which a grade may be good or bad. “In this case, the faculty member had an issue where students weren’t effectively synthesizing issues he was presenting.” Textbooks, whose many supporters, including Hirschberg, say that students’ ability to take notes in margins is the ultimate in interactivity, may not be going anywhere. But apps of this kind promise to shape the student experience into one that is deeply rooted in the internet. One wishes CCNMTL could commission a Columbia University simulator app, one not unlike Sachs’ project. You would be able to visualize the enhancement of the digital classroom over the next five years. It would show whether online discourse gives students a competitive edge in an information packed world—or if it just teaches them to play by the rules of a different game.