February 3, 2009

Why I do not like iTunesU

I attended the eTech Ohio conference yesterday where it was announced that Ohio has created an iTunes U portal for free educational content. Ohio took the somewhat unique step of populating the site with content from community organizations along with educational institutions. eTech is soliciting more content and you can read the criteria in this pdf file.

The project is so new there are not yet links to it or info on it on either the eTech or OBOR web sites. To find the portal, go the iTunes Store and search “Ohio on iTunesU.” Then choose Ohio in the Institutions module.

I have harped on this before, so I’ll take this opportunity to do it again: we are selling ourselves short with iTunesU. While the goals of this initiative are laudable, ITunesU is not the best platform for achieving it. Here is why I think so:

  • iTunesU does nothing more than an easily built home grown product could do. All you need are a portal, files and rss feeds. Why lock ourselves inside a commercial music distribution service tightly integrated with one consumer device: the iPod?
  • A home grown system could and should do more. If the goal is the distribution and cultivation of knowledge we should be able to use the online tools that are available to facilitate that: tags, bookmarks and commenting. You cannot do these things inside iTunesU.
  • Using iTunes puts a significant educational resource on the wrong side of web filters and bandwidth management. Many people who want to access this will find their access curbed or blocked by local network management policies.
  • The symbolism of this initiative is important. The Governor called for “creativity and innovation” in education during his State of the State speech. At eTech, Chancellor Fingerhut said we will build “integrated technology platforms” for education. For the above reasons, the choice of iTunesU seems more emblematic of convenience than innovation.
  • Yes there is a certain sheen that comes with an association with the iPod that gives this project some visibility. But I think that the hype for that peaked over a year ago. What will we do when the next big thing comes along?

The one thing I do like about this is that video content is to be in .mov or .mp4 formats, not .m4v which I believe only plays in iTunes or iPods.

So am I just being a curmudgeon and raining on the parade? What do you think needs to be done to answer the call for creativity and innovation? Does iTunesU do it?

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January 19, 2009

Wikis in the Workplace: A Beginner Guide

I am making a presentation on wikis to the local chapter for the Society for Technical Communication this coming Wednesday. My draft slide deck is here. Comments welcome:

I'll get the Creative Commons credits added by Wednesday.
Interesting how some edits appear here while others do not. Caching perhaps?

December 9, 2008

Disappointed in DTV

Anyone else underwhelmed with digital television?

OK I admit I will never be confused with an Engadget blogger. For someone who works in educational technology and was a TV producer I am oddly a relic when it comes to television consumption. I am not a cable subscriber. I want to retire someday and I would rather pay myself a $100 a month than a cable company (I suspect the economy will drive others to join me.) My TV is a small 16 year old analog set.

So given my modest viewing experience, DTV seemed like an exciting possibility: clear reception, multiple channels. I eagerly requested my coupon. So far I have been roundly disappointed.

Despite living nine miles from downtown two of the major stations frequently stutter and halt, the signal too weak to play smoothly. And what happened to multicasting? The NBC affiliate gives a weather channel (gee I can't get that anywhere) and the ABC affiliate shows old movies -- bad movies -- on its alternative channel. PBS gives me some diversity -- legislative sessions and a channel dedicated to how to programs -- but not much that adds to my life or is particularly local.

So this transition to DTV was supposed to be in the public interest? You would think that given all the extra broadcast capacity stations now have there would be some local programming requirements. Even local sports is now almost entirely relegated to cable TV.

I hope a new FCC and Congress puts some meaningful public service requirements on broadcasters.

Build a public idea infrastructure

The Dispatch reported today on some creative urban design ideas developed by OSU students. These include:

• Seasonal beach: Greg Grippa suggested setting up a sandy retreat at North Bank Park for a month every summer. Boat rentals and a pool could accompany the beach.

• Bus alerts: COTA already posts live information on the Internet about where buses are, but it also could send text messages to let riders know how soon the bus will arrive, Annie Abell said.

• Car-free N. High Street: It's bolder than the mayor's streetcar proposal, but cities such as Denver have taken major shopping districts and labeled them bus-, bicycle- and pedestrian-only. Brown said that pedestrian shoppers might enjoy it, but it might give traffic engineers nightmares.

• Recycle art: Betsy Pandora recommended adding a 1-cent tax for beverage containers. Drinkers could get the cash back when they recycle or choose to donate the money to fund public art.

Professor Kyle Ezell says he is interested in creating a Civic Innovation Lab like Cleveland has. Kind of like angel investing for public spirited pursuits.

Despite all the tools at our disposal we don't yet seem to be able to cultivate innovation in any deliberate way. The Vision 2012 process for the City bond initiative was stimulating and generated tremendous public input. But then it was taken over by officialdom, distilled into general goals that already had political currency, and the original ideas now sit statically on the web site. Where are the social networks, the working groups, the seed grants? At least a wiki for refining the ideas?

Maybe institutional deliberateness and innovation are incompatible. Innovations are supposed to bust open institutions, not let them wear the term like a fashionable shirt. Many conversations are happening in the civic sector that will lead to innovations. But it would be nice to build some public idea infrastructure that linked these informal conversations to financial resources and urban planning. There are great ideas on the margins that die before ever getting a chance to grow.

December 6, 2008

Transit and Broadband

Could it be that the right combination of crisis and consciousness will create the will to build passenger rail in Ohio? It seems every economist agrees that massive infrastructure spending is needed to get the economy growing again. The debate is over what to build or repair. As noted in the previous post, a likely candidate is broadband infrastructure.

But rail could be a beneficiary too. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports:

Passenger rail service from Cleveland to Cincinnati could be a reality by 2010 if the state gets $100 million in proposed infrastructure stimulus money.

The Ohio Rail Development Commission also intends to apply next year for federal matching grants from a passenger rail bill passed by Congress this fall.

Now I am bit out of my expertise here but it seems that combining transportation corridors with ultra high speed public broadband access could provide a powerful nudge to mass transit use and sustainable development. Several cities in the US and abroad are offering free or low-cost public wifi on trains, light rail and even buses, giving commuters one more reason to get out of their cars. (See stories on San Francisco, Boston and Sweden).

And transit advocates are always pointing toward Transit Oriented Development (TOD) as the desirable outcome -- the hard core financial ROI -- of transit development. This is "the creation of compact, walkable communities centered around high quality train systems. This makes it possible to live a higher quality life without complete dependence on a car for mobility and survival."

Well, how about Broadband and Transit Oriented Development (BTOD)? Build a continuous network of human and digital connectivity. The allure of free or low cost, super fast broadband will be another incentive for citizens and innovative companies to locate near mass transit.

A good crisis should not go to waste. Let's get it right and build broadband and rail at the same time, laying the groundwork for 21st century economy and communities.

A glimpse of the future?