President Obama’s $250 million eBook Program — The Good, The Bad, and The Maybe

elibraryThe big ebook news of the week, via Engadget (“Obama to provide 10,000 free e-books through your library“):

“President Barack Obama announced a new program on Thursday aimed at delivering access for more than 10,000 e-books to financially strapped schoolchildren throughout the United States. The $250 million program will feature titles from numerous publishers including Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Hachette, selected by volunteers from Digital Public Library of America

It is a tremendous undertaking, and if nothing else, shows the large importance and impact that ebooks can hold for student education. Any joint project involving the White House, the tech industry, libraries across the country, and nonprofits has the potential to effect real meaningful change for a very large number of students and schools. It will be a very interesting thing to watch unfold over the coming months.

Already, others have noted that this joint effort can be related to more macro level factors in the book publishing industry (for example Flavorwire, “Can Obama and Big Publishing Save Children’s and YA Ebooks?“). On the surface, things such as this sound impressive: “unlimited access to all of the age-appropriate titles in their title catalog of approximately 2,500 books to school pupils, and Simon & Schuster, which will provide access to its entire e-catalog of books for children aged four to 14, comprised of 3,000 titles” (via The Bookseller, “Publishers give $250m free e-books for Obama scheme“).

But it’s not quite that simple, as Book Riot (” ‘Free’ Ebooks Don’t Help Poor Kids“) weighs in with a useful perspective. With the key question centering around access to internet and devices to make use of those ebooks, free ebooks are not necessarily going to reach those students from lowest income families that are most in need:

“So why is it that, despite these numbers, the publishing industry takes on initiatives meant to reach poor kids and improve their literacy in ways that show a clear lack of understanding about the real problems these kids face? How come publishers and politicians choose to ignore those who work with children and teenagers struggling with access — to books, to reading, to technology, to a host of literacies, including digital?”

I don’t know what the answers to some of these questions raised are. It’s heartening to see efforts such as Obama’s ConnectEd initiative draw upon the resources of the tech industry, such as Apple and a host of others (via TechCrunch, “Apple And Others Fund $750 Million In Education Gadgets And Internet Broadband“) and nonprofit organizations including First Book (an organization that is doing some of the best work out there in terms of nonprofit education literacy efforts).

Either way, this ambitious ebook program, in addition to Obama’s recent efforts in cleaning up the for-profit college industry (see: The Atlantic, “The Downfall of For-Profit Colleges“) has made for a very interesting few months of news in the education world.


The official release from the White House has full details: “FACT SHEET: Spreading the Joy of Reading to More Children and Young Adults

Radio interview: The Future of The Simpsons

Homer radio With Monday’s news that The Simpsons will continue through Seasons 27 and 28 (via Variety: “The Simpsons renewed for Two More Seasons“), I chatted with 938Live about the show’s remarkable longevity and relevance in 2015.

I don’t know if we will ever see a show quite like this again; a fair argument can even be made that The Simpsons has become one of the most important television shows of all time. It’s almost impossible to imagine what television today would look like in a world where The Simpsons had never existed.

In terms of the show’s relevance, last season’s online piracy episode (Season 25, episode 9: “Steal This Episode”) was both very smart and good — and showed just how much the show (and by extension, ourselves) have evolved since the show’s earliest days in 1989-1990.


You can check out the audio from the interview here!

Chronicle of Higher Education: “Why We Need Learning Engineers”

Here’s an interesting post from the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Why We Need Learning Engineers.” In terms of a reality check for all of the hype that sometimes surrounds edtech, the Chronicle post is fairly spot on in describing the gap between theory and practice:


“Almost no one who is involved in creating learning materials or large-scale educational experiences relies on the evidence from learning science. We are missing a job category: Where are our talented, creative, user-­centric ‘learning engineers’ — professionals who understand the research about learning, test it, and apply it to help more students learn more effectively?”

It sounds almost too simple, but methodical application of evidence-based research of learning and teaching models is crucial to delivering on the potential of what edtech can enable teachers, educators, and students to do. All of this probably sounds a bit too abstract, but we need only look at the sad, frustrating example of Los Angeles Unified School District’s failed iPad experiment (see Wired: “What Schools Must Learn from LA’s iPad Debacle“) to see why we need to take more of the guesswork out of edtech policy decisions.

And as the Chronicle post mentions, it comes down to asking the right kinds of questions in order to bridge that gap between research, evidence, and delivering positive learning outcomes:

“We also need decision makers in higher education — especially those who buy learning materials and educational-technology offerings — to ask harder questions. For example: What learning science underpins this offering? Is there learning science behind a particular professional-development activity as well? Do you have valid and reliable data showing that a new product works better than what we’re using? Will you conduct a pilot program to demonstrate that it works better? How are you using data to improve the learner and staff experience?”

How Important is Screen Size for Reading?

responsive-typography-reading-distanceWhen it comes to reading on devices, how important is screen size? Pocket, the reading and bookmarking app, looked at how some of its users opened some 2 million articles and videos comparing iPhone 5/5S to iPhone 6/6 Plus, which suggests at least some ways in which screen size is changing people’s behaviors (via the Pocket blog: “The Screen-Size Debate: How the iPhone 6 Plus Impacts Where We Read & Watch“).

Of course, it’s a small population of users who a) use the Pocket app, and b) have iPhones and iPads, but one of the things that caught my attention:

“The bigger your phone’s screen, the more time you’ll spend reading / watching on it: Users who upgraded to an iPhone 6 now view content on their phones 72% of the time, up from 55% when on a smaller screen. Those who went big and bought an iPhone 6 Plus consume content on their phones 80% of the time – the same ratio of phone to tablet reading as seen on Android.”


What would be even more interesting would be the amount of time those users spent interacting with their reading content relative to device and screen size — does more screen size also mean more time spent reading? For what it’s worth, Adobe earlier this year had similar findings about screen size and video watching habits (via Adobe Digital Index: “Large Screen Mobile Changes Video, Commerce Habits”). Not to overly geek, but as an avid Pocket app user, I wonder if some of those increased usage numbers are related to the iOS Safari integration.

The Pocket research also drew an interesting conclusion about morning commute and reading habits: “It’s pretty tricky to read on your iPhone 6 Plus with one hand and grasp a subway pole with the other. Turns out that those with an iPhone 6 Plus read 22% less on their morning commutes than those with an iPhone 5/5S or 6.” And as the graphic on the right indicates, more iPhone time meant less iPad time — with the exception of nighttime reading habits: “Regardless of which iPhone they have, users still reach for their iPads around 9pm for some late-night, bedtime reading.”


I wrote a bit about iPad reading and how the iPad still makes the most sense as a media consumption device — although GoodReader and iAnnotate are some of the best app options you’ll find for things like PDF reading — so maybe the iPhone 6/6 Plus hovers right in between that Kindle-sized device for reading/browsing. The difference between that hefty iPhone 6 Plus screen (5.5″) and the iPad Mini (7.9″) is relatively little; and how many devices do people need to use that do the same things, perhaps only slightly differently?

Could wearable technology track our reading habits?

With the recent intense interest surrounding the Apple Watch and what it might or might not do (I can hardly wait to see one in person), more general questions about wearable technology in daily life are going to be inevitable in the coming months. With apps and devices enabling us to track our steps taken, miles covered, hours slept, and calories burned — could our wearable devices not start measuring more cognitive functions? What if wearable tech — smart glasses, for example — track how and what we read? The New Scientist (“Fitbit for the mind: Eye-tracker watches your reading”) mentions some intriguing new research on this front:

google glass reading

Google Glass and reading?

“‘ A cognitive activity tracker’ developed by Kai Kunze at Osaka Prefecture University in Japan can tell how many words we read how often and how fast we read, and even whether we are skim reading or actually concentrating on the content. It could also generate summaries of documents as you read them by logging which passages your eyes dwell on … Kunze is taking the technology in a different direction. In tests on volunteers wearing infrared eye-tracking glasses, his team found that their software could count the number of words read with an accuracy of about 94 per cent, and tell how fast you were reading, purely by looking at the movement of the eyes. By asking their volunteers to read different types of materials – novels, fashion magazines, newspapers, research papers and textbooks – they have shown that these various media can be discerned near perfectly from the way readers’ eyes move around their telltale layouts.”

Thus far, we’ve seen the most research devoted to eye tracking and advertising and marketing and even video games (for example, check out this eye-opening post from KISSMetrics). But the possibilities for delving into our reading habits are so intriguing. Could eye-tracking glasses lend insight into what we read, how long we read, what keeps us engrossed, and what causes our attention spans to wander? The applications for education are even more encouraging —

“Or, says Kunze, publishers could work out if textbook designs need rethinking by seeing how readers navigate their pages. If the software knows what the document is – a novel being read on a Kindle, say – then more advanced features can be used. ‘It could lead to adaptive reading materials in which the computer recognises I have trouble understanding a particular word and changes the text in real time to give me the definition in the next sentence,'”

Could this kind of adaptive reading content and those kinds of insight in turn influence our reading habits? I think it could. I use a Fibit, and that subtle nudge of how many steps left till the 10,000 step goal usually is reminder enough to take the stairs instead of the elevator — could a similar nudge encourage more reading time?
Kobo’s Reading Life deserves credit for being one of the first to make a push into reading data — and this might just be the beginning.

Amazon Popular Highlights, the “Hawking Index”, and Attention Spans

There’s so much more information about our reading habits online now, it’s tantalizing to think about the possibilities. Jordan Ellenberg (Wall Street Journal: “The Summer’s Most Popular Book is …”) had a clever use for Amazon’s Popular Highlights feature, while coining the phrase, “the Hawking Index*” about what Kindle users are — and aren’t reading:

“How can we find today’s greatest non-reads? Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!)”

The results: 775-page The Goldfinch (surprisingly to me) was one of the most-finished reads, while 696-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century was the least finished on the list. It makes some sense that fiction — and perhaps especially serial fiction with their built-in cliffhangers and delayed narrative gratification — would see greater completion rates than nonfiction. What does all of this mean? Probably nothing without a bigger sample size of books, but it’s still neat to think about. I wonder if in the not-distant future, that kind of data about reading habits could influence the decision-making process of book publishers.

On a related note, check out The Atlantic’s compilation of The Most Popular Passages in Books, According to Kindle Data:

like any big business, publishing must always center on the mass: What do the most people want? What will the most people buy? What do people respond to? Between these two, there is a strange relationship. Companies collect and analyze this data, but rarely do readers get to see it.

From a social perspective, I do find interesting what passages carry resonance with a large number of readers. But in my own Kindle reading, I usually opt for turning Popular Highlights off because of the potential for distraction. It’s more than a little possible that there is a mirror neurons kind of effect going on; perhaps our eye is drawn towards those passages that others have highlighted because it feels more significant because of that appearance of social importance. On some level, we probably can’t help but look more closely at the passage that says “4000 other people highlighted this part of the book” as opposed to “11 other people highlighted this part of the book.”

Trivia: attention span of goldfish is 9 seconds

I do wonder about our collective attention spans, and how our reading habits are being shaped by the various forms in which we are now reading our books.

Science Fracture (The Rise of Short Fiction) also has some observations on Kindle Singles and the role it might contribute in shaping our reading habits — but if in fact our attention spans are gravitating towards shorter forms of content, why do longer form books (think: the Game of Thrones series and a combined 4000-plus pages and counting) remain so popular?


* Because apparently, A Brief of History of Time is the book everyone says they’re going to read but never do.**

** note to self: finish reading A Brief History of Time

Thoughts on Readability

So what do we mean when we say a book is “difficult”? The Atlantic (“Readability is a Myth“) had some interesting thoughts on the topic —

manet the reader painting“First, I think it’s more true to the experience of reading to see “difficult” as wrapped up in evaluation of “bad,” rather than as separate. Most people are willing to admit, even if grudgingly, that aesthetic quality is to some degree subjective. You may (as I do) find Art Spiegelman’s Maus a tedious, pompous slog, but that’s a judgment about which reasonable people may differ (even if, of course, all right-thinking people agree with me.) But “difficulty” seems to hold out the possibility of more objective standards—to assure us that these books, over here, by Joyce and Faulkner, are 1000 pounds of pure prose, while these books over there, by Stephenie Meyer or Tom Clancy, are sniveling 90-pound weaklings of meretriciousness. It’s as though “good” may be relative, but “tough” is always and everywhere the same.”

I think readability is a funny term to begin with, and we likely often tend to mean different things when we say Henry James is “difficult” or The Road is “difficult.” Sometimes it’s constructive  and refreshing to pause and think about what we mean when and how we come to arrive at those value judgments.

There is a virtue in difficult reading — by which I think of as challenging, long, complex, or outside of our usual reading norms — but I wonder about the line of argument that suggests a stoic moral obligation to finish reading a book, no matter what (Tim Parks had a great read on this, via The New York Review of Books: “Why Finish Books?“).

iPhone vs. Android Reading Habits

Well I just love random snippets of information on reading habits — and doubly so when it’s in infographic form! Oyster‘s post on reading habits (“Game of Phones: The Battle of iOS vs. Android“) piqued my curiosity.

The sociology of operating systems and user behavior is probably a whole topic of discussion unto itself, but some of the morsels of information about reading behavior unearthed by Oyster are fun: Android users appear to read at a quicker pace, and for longer durations of time, and are bigger comic book fans; iOS users prefer C.S. Lewis, books on happiness and read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (really?). None of this counts enough to draw any sweeping conclusions about Android user reading or iOS user reading, but wouldn’t it be interesting to know the reading preferences of Kindle users, or fiction/nonfiction reading preferences for phone vs. tablet users?

Observer (“Reading Habits Indicate Android Users Are Fun, iPhone Users Are Lifehacking Megalomanics“) also shares some tongue-in-cheek observations about what these reading behaviors might suggest about Android vs. iOS personalities.

iOS vs android reading habits

Book It — Books, and Pizza

book-it-pizza-hut-pinWith Book It! commemorating its 30th anniversary by way of a Book It! Alumni program aimed at nostalgic thirty-somethings, Mental Floss has a great rundown on what it fairly accurately calls “a clever way to get kids and parents into Pizza Hut franchises—with some reading thrown in” (via mental_floss, “Pizza for Reading: Pizza Hut’s “Book It!“). I love books, and I love pizza — and I can’t help but wonder how much the extrinsically motivating pizza rewards encouraged reading habits for elementary school students.

More interesting still is the controversy and discussion on reading motivation for students, along with the complicated tension between education and corporate sponsored programs —

“The Book It! program was the subject of a 1999 study and scholarly paper. Titled “Effects of extrinsic reinforcement for reading during childhood on reported reading habits of college students” (Psychological Record, 1999, by Flora, S. R., & Flora, D. B.; full text), the paper characterized pizza as an “extrinsic reward” for reading, and analyzed survey data collected from college students, trying to determine how the pizza rewards (and other extrinsic rewards like cash payments) affected students’ reading behavior”

Accurate numbers seem to be difficult to come by — but it’s unquestionable that the Book It! program has reached a very large number of students over three decades, with estimates claiming a total of 54 billion minutes of reading time (!), and one in five (!!) Americans having participated in the Book It! program since 1984  (via Mashable, “Were you a Pizza Hut BOOK-IT! Kid?“).

I wish grownups could get pizza for reading books. Actually, Book It! for grownups sounds like a great idea.

The Social Experiment of Social Media

Social media has become so ubiquitous a part of our everyday lives (depending of course on what we define as “social media”), it might sometimes be helpful for us to take a step back and think about just how much has changed in terms of the ways in which we now interact with one another.

And let’s be honest: we don’t really know, because we’re too busy being immersed in an online, hyper-connected world of apps and websites and alerts that is constantly changing (remember when The Facebook used to look like this?).

In some ways, social media is one giant, grand experiment*, which is constantly being tested every single day, by every single one of us. To that end, The New York Times (“Social Networks Can Affect Voter Turnout, Study Says“) wrote about an important study — one of the most substantial of its kind — involving researchers at Facebook and University of California, San Diego published in Nature: “A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization.”

In looking at Election Day 2010, the research team showed the ways both subtle and direct, that social cues affect our decision-making process. This in itself may not be news, but the ways in which we take those social cues has certainly changed. Could a simple nudge such as a Vote badge on Facebook be enough to generate additional votes? Do we use social media as a means to broaden our understanding of others and other viewpoints, or do we hear only what we want to hear, and block out the rest?



* Of course, the actual experiments that Facebook has already been up to is another, separate topic we may want to revisit!