Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Universities post course materials for free

The Wall Street Journal reports that MIT, Notre Dame, Yale, Bryn Mawr and other schools are making coursework available online to the public.

MIT's program has been in place since 2003, with syllabi and class notes for over 1500 courses. It and other colleges also employ videos, audio files, and podcasts, much of the work supported by $68 million in grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Reporter Anne Marie Chaker says that offering materials online helps to "democratize" education, but that there is a return on investment to the schools as well: "Schools say that offering materials online can draw in potential applicants curious about what an actual course looks like. An MIT survey of users showed that about a third of freshmen who were aware of the site before attending the university said it made a significant impact on their decision to enroll."

Consumer revolts, via the Internet

Slashdot links to a story from The Independent's online edition about how the Internet is enabling British consumers to rally forces against businesses and government agencies, demanding reform in everything from road projects to overpriced football tickets.

A website campaign against British Gas, for example, cost the company 4 million customers before it cut its gas rates by 17 per cent. Environmental activists organized a boycott against air travel because of its impact on the climate. "An estimated 3 per cent of people have stopped flying to help the environment, while 10 per cent are cutting back on flights," The Independent reports.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Middlebury College prohibits Wikipedia research

A story from C/Net News, referencing an orginal article from the New York Times, reports that the History Department at Middlebury College has decided to prohibit students from "using Wikipedia as a research source in tests & essays."

The core issue at Middlebury appears to be questions regarding Wikipedia's reliability as a source for academic work, and whether college students should even be using encyclopedias (online or not) in research projects. Of course, they shouldn't.

As a writing instructor, I worry that my students who use Wikipedia (despite my warnings not to) aren't receiving the kind of fact-checked, professionally-vetted material available from more traditional print or electronic sources. I'm even more concerned over plagiarism, however.

I encounter an increasing volume of papers each quarter that either quote directly from Wikipedia without quotation marks, or borrow information from it freely without citation. Most of these papers come from students who understand what plagiarism is and would not deliberately commit it. It seems that because Wikipedia articles are "authorless" communal projects, students don't regard wholesale borrowing of information and language from them as plagiarism.

Online research tools, especially Wikipedia, challenge long-standing academic ideas regarding the authority, authorship and ownership of ideas and information. That is a much deeper issue than reliability, one that won't be resolved by a simple ban on students using the encyclopedia.

Blogging for Edwards

Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise has an article on Salon about the blogging problems of the Edwards' campaign. She was herself approached to blog for John Edwards, but declined, because she anticipated the political backlash that Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan encountered for their outspoken views.

Beyerstein was surprised that the campaign failed to understand that the "blogosphere isn't just 'The Situation Room' with swear words, it's a space for writers to explore ideas that are outside the bounds of mainstream discourse." It's, in part, the domain of "independent polemicists" who can better serve their chosen causes and candidates from "outside the campaign." She distinguishes polemicists from the "party activist" bloggers, who avoid outrageous statements and opinions.

Politicians who fail to grasp the blogosphere's cultural standards of discourse, in their haste to capitalize on the its potential for grassroots organizing, are setting themselves up for the kind of trouble the Edwards campaign has suffered.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Social network emerges on a book site

Colette Bancroft of the St. Petersburg Times has reported a story, "Bibliophiles, Unite!" about, a web service for cataloging private libraries that has surprised its creator.

Tim Spaulding, a grad student and web publisher, created a site that "allows users to enter the title, author or ISBN number of a book they own. The site retrieves information about the specific edition of the book, often complete with an image of the cover. Users can display their libraries as a list or as a virtual shelf with an array of covers." He didn't anticipate that it would transform into a complex social network of book lovers.

Bancroft reports that with 9 million books in its catalog, "would be the ninth largest [library] in the United States," if it were a physical structure. But numbers don't suggest the essence of this site, its vibrant life in book clubs and chat areas.

This is another example of a increasingly common web phenomenon: even when developers haven't planned for them, communities of interest often emerge spontaneously when a critical mass of traffic occurs on certain sites.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Anna, Robert and Jimmy

The recent, sudden death of Anna Nicole Smith produced a telling exchange of viewpoints last week, when National Public Radio's Robert Siegel interviewed Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia.

The issue at hand was speculation that Wikipedia had beaten traditional journalistic outlets to the story about Smith's passing. An anonymous editor had promptly posted the time of her death on her biography page, supposedly before any other news source. Wales corrected the rumor, claiming that the source had, in fact, been an announcement on CBS.

I enjoy Siegel's calm equanimity on All Things Considered in the afternoon, even if his delivery exemplifies what Camille Paglia once called the "repressed mellifluousness of National Public Radio." So it was especially interesting to hear him growing a bit nettled over Wikipedia's reported coup, and over the encyclopedia’s editorial policies. Transcripts are available from NPR and on LexisNexis, but they don't convey the edginess of his conversation with Wales. For that, you need to listen to the audio on NPR's site.

Siegel suggested that Wikipedia had based its report on a "slimmer basis for confirmation" than a news organization would have used, but Wales countered that it was "pretty much exactly the same" in that Wikipedia had acted on "a citation to what was being reported at another outlet." Siegel questioned the "hierarchy of editors" who had made the decision to remove the story from the site for a short time. Wales replied that Wikipedia instead acts through a "social hierarchy" of "experienced editors," and then admitted that by "experienced" he meant anyone with an account over four days old.

Siegel called four days a "pretty low bar." The interview maintained a veneer of civility, but Siegel attempted to cast the episode as a case of reckless amateur journalism, downplaying Wales' point that Wikipedia had simply posted information that had been already been broadcast by a major news organization, CBS.

The greater significance of this episode is the speed and adaptability of Wikipedia's social network in catching and disseminating news. Siegel groused, politely, about the absence of a "hierarchy," pointing out that the site's editors were "members of an online community" rather than professionals meeting together in a room somewhere. Wales' reply was a simple "Exactly!" What Siegel addressed as a flaw, Wales clearly recognized as Wikipedia's distinct advantage.

It was especially interesting that Siegel didn't react to Wales' referring to CBS as "another outlet." This raises an interesting question. Is Wikipedia an encyclopedia, or a news outlet? Or are the distinctions between those two functions beginning to blur?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hypertext Nation: A mission statement

Hypertext Nation will post news and commentary on the social, cultural, political, economic, educational, psychological, linguistic, artistic, and technological effects of hypertext on contemporary life.