Book fever

December 13, 2013

I am terribly excited because my book just came out. Three years in gestation, but finally got there. Its called “Astronomical Measurement – a Concise Guide”, its published by Springer, and it even has a Kindle version. I am not expecting you all to rush out and buy it, because like most textbooks it is horribly expensive – 26p a page as Mike Watson pointed out. You will appreciate that the price was not chosen by me…

Career-wise, I think maybe finishing a book ranks third after finishing a thesis (btw, well done Jack!) and seeing my first research paper come out, but pretty groovy nonetheless. I was expecting a warm glow for a day or two. But what took me pleasantly by surprise was the very positive reactions from many friends, colleagues, and distant rellies. I guess I was expecting that most people would just think “err yeah ok, thats what academics do isn’t it, write textbooks? I expect you give some lectures too.” Or perhaps the younger ones would be thinking “oh, a book, how quaint, do people still do those?”.

Through most of my life books were very important to people. Its not just the stories. Its the physical presence. A book-lined room was what we dreamed of. The smell of a new book is wonderful. I love picking up an old book in a dusty second hand bookshop and finding it signed “To Eric, Christmas 1938”. A new friend walks into your room and goes straight to your shelves to see what kind of person you are, and a conversation starts.

Well now of course the future of the physical book is unclear, along with the physical music album and perhaps the physical lecture course. (I am halfway through filming a MOOC …) But its not even clear that eBooks will survive. What I mean is, when all the material you need is dispersed through many web pages, all indexable and searchable, why do you need to package material into 300 page chunks? Shouldn’t content diffuse and spread and mingle? Part of the appeal of a book has always been the heft. Never mind the quality, feel the width. But once that is gone, why do you need so many dumb consecutive words, as opposed to a complex hyperlinked reality?

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End of the University Part II/III : online education

May 1, 2013

Oh dear. Everybody knows you should never write Paper I unless you really are going to do Papers II, III etc. Posterity looks unkindly on failed pomposity. Back in November I wrote End of the University : Part I which was about the Browne report and a naive approach to “student choice”. I think perhaps I can count The Big REF Gamble as Part II – lots of us are investing for success, hiring new staff before the REF, but we can’t all win. These are both examples of market disruption, which may force a re-structuring. You may have various opinions on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

So what about good old disruptive technology? The music business got turned upside down by the internet and file sharing, and the book business is likewise in turmoil. The disruptive technology here is the ease of copying. The reaction of entrenched commercial interests was the development of digital restrictions management. Whatever you think of that, the market structures are re-forming, and we need to get used to the idea that we don’t own works of art, we rent them – or if you like, we pay for performances. Of course the logic that follows is that payment for performance should go straight to the artist – who needs the middleman?

So can the same thing happen to education? They key thing here is not ease of copying but economy of scale. Hundreds of years ago we invented lectures so we could teach 150 students at a time instead of 5. Now we can do thousands at a time. My own university has started its own experimentation with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). My colleague Charles Cockell ran a five week course in Astrobiology. Forty-one thousand students registered, and five thousand survived the whole course. I am toying with another course idea myself, along with the boundlessly energetic Dr H. Well this is very exciting of course, but you start to wonder why anybody would pay nine thousand sponduliks for a university degree from the University of West Somerset when they can sit on their sofa and take courses from Harvard…

One answer is assessment and another is feedback, and the whole business of giving credit. Marking exams has not gotten any more efficient, and likewise the provision of individual feedback. Multiple Choice Quizzes are good, but not enough. If somebody can solve this problem, things will really change. This recent Guardian article reports the debate in California about whether MOOCs will allow private providers to move into education.

Meanwhile, it could well be that content delivery and assessment will decouple. Oh what interesting times.