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Conference on World Affairs, an amazing week

At the University of Colorado in Boulder, the weather is fine and the speakers are finer at the annual Conference on World Affairs, a week-long series of panels (some 200 in all) at which folks discuss all kinds of topics.

I’m on seven panels this week, on topics ranging from the future of journalism to media monopolies to technology’s impact on reading. In the two I’ve done so far, especially a session on control of media, the university students have asked the best questions; they’ve obviously done some homework. It’s their future we’re talking about, after all.

The volunteers — program hosts, moderators, students, panelists, and more — are a joy to work with. And fellow panelists are teaching me things I didn’t know, even as we all make new friends in a busy week.

It’s hard to get me to commit myself to a full week of anything, but this tends to be worth it.

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Why I don’t force my students to buy an expensive textbook

In the online “digital media literacy” courses I teach for Arizona State University’s online program, the required reading includes my 2009 book, Mediactive. Most of the students don’t buy it.

The reason? I’ve published the book under a Creative Commons license that lets them, or anyone else, read it online (or download it) at no cost. Some buy it anyway — it’s not expensive, especially the ebook edition — and to those of you who do, thanks, I appreciate it.

My use of Creative Commons licensing is mostly about my objections to the draconian “All Rights Reserved” mentality our current copyright system engenders. My goal is to be heard at least as much as to be paid; but being heard is a prerequisite in any case in a world where the traditional ways of making and selling books have undergone such change.

Another reason I’m glad to be making the book available this way is my growing disgust at the academic publishers, which have pushed textbook prices into the stratosphere. It is a greed-infused ecosystem, where publishers rip off students in ways that should shame everyone involved.

Students are beginning to push back, in part by choosing courses with lower book costs. A good strategy — in part because it’s forcing the textbook industry to rethink the outrageous overpricing it’s gotten away with for so long.

Teachers and administrators are pushing back as well. The “open textbook” initiatives we’re seeing in K-12 schools and universities are evidence that people have had enough of the publishers’ greed. For example, a school district in Arizona is saving a lot of money by providing material created through this system, aiming the course reading at mobile devices. Maryland’s universities are moving in this direction with a pilot program. Foundations, recognizing a profound market failure, are moving into the field as well.

Textbook pricing is a classic bubble. It will burst. Harvard professor Gregory Mankiw should enjoy the ridiculous royalties on his grossly overpriced economics textbook while he can. Supply and demand will be arriving in what has been a rigged market, sooner than he may think. Those crashing revenues will be a nifty case study for an open economics text a few years from now.

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“Journalism innovation” teaching job open at U-Oregon

The University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication has created what sounds like a fantastic job for the right person. It’s looking for:

a leader who is dedicated to creating the future of journalism and civic engagement as the inaugural Chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement. Candidates should be committed to enhancing democracy, public knowledge and civic life while exploring new approaches to and pushing the boundaries of journalism and communication. The Chair will join a faculty in SOJC’s Portland and Eugene locations. The Chair will play an integral role in the development and operation of SOJC’s new Center for Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement.

I predict that some excellent people will be lining up at the door for this one. Oregon is a terrific place, and Portland is one of the most liveable cities in the U.S.

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Pat McGovern, R.I.P.

In the late 1990s, I think it was 1997, International Data Group invited me to interview the late Pat McGovern, founder and CEO of a company that published technology journals and did some of the best research in the field. We met at a Silicon Valley restaurant for breakfast. The conversation ranged all over the place, from technology (of course; I was a business and tech columnist at the time) to policy to global trends.

He dazzled me, then and in subsequent conversations over the years. He dazzled almost everyone. He combined a first-class mind, vision and temperament to literally create, and for many years dominate, an industry around bringing information about technology both to the tech industry and to a wider audience. IDG did research. It published trade journals. It created popular magazines like PC World and the “…for Dummies” series, and so much more. Later in life, Pat worked on improving the human condition, in particular by funding brain research.

Pat died yesterday in Palo Alto, California. Read this fine remembrance by Time’s Harry McCracken, who worked with Pat for many years, to understand what a multifaceted person — and rare kind of corporate leader — we’ve lost.

Calling Pat a visionary doesn’t begin capture his business acumen. And calling him a good person doesn’t capture what a gentleman he was.

At the end of our first conversation that morning in California, Pat told me that if I ever had an idea for a new publication he wanted to be the first to hear it, because he liked starting new things. I replied that I would do that, but hoped he realized that I couldn’t write a column about him now, because we  had created a potential conflict of interest. No problem, he said, it was still worth the time.

I never did start something with his company. I did almost work for him — twice, in fact, though neither deal ended up coming together for a variety of reasons.

Over the years when I was a tech journalist, we ran into each other many times. He’d long since become a billionaire, yet was always affable and happy to chat; and I always felt fortunate to learn what he thought was new and important. We’ve lost one of the greats in the tech and media worlds.

R.I.P.

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Education, Etcetera, Liberty, Media, Policy

I want to create “The Open Internet MOOC” — and you can help

The Knight, Ford and Mozilla Foundations are collaborating on the latest edition of the long-running Knight News Challenge. This one asks, “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?” — or risk losing the Net to the ever-more-powerful players that want to re-centralize (i.e. control) speech and, ultimately, innovation.

As you’ll see when you read the entries, folks are coming up with some terrific answers. I hope you’ll take a look at mine — I call it “The Open Internet MOOC” — and offer support if you like it. (Hint: There’s a little “Applause” button on the side that you can click.)

More important, I hope you’ll recognize the threat we all face, and get involved in saving/restoring the open Internet we all need.

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Lunch with RMS: Don’t use the word “open”

I met up with Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, for lunch today in San Francisco. Two people passing our table recognized him. Both used the word “open” in their brief chats with him. Needless to say, he told them they were using the wrong word — that “free” (as in freedom) was the only one that will do to describe his work and philosophy.

Our conversation was also about freedom, in the context of who controls our technology and communications. Hint: For the most part it’s not the users of technology and communications tools.

Stallman is relentless, and sometimes abrasive, in his approach to making things happen. He describes himself as pessimist by nature, yet he sees some signs of progress. Yes, there are constant encroachments on our liberties by governments, corporations and the metastasizing plutocracy that  seeks dominance of the economy and culture in service of wealth and power. But the often-tentative progressive movement is also starting to gain some strength, he said, even if it’s outmatched for now.

As I’ve said before, I deeply admire Stallman and his work, even if I don’t fully buy his prescriptions. Yes, I have decided that sometimes convenience outweighs absolute freedom; I recognize that makes me hypocritical in some ways, and I’ll live with that.

But I am determined to help people understand the consequences of using technology that others control. If we don’t realize what we’re doing, even when it’s costing us dearly in terms of our liberty, we can’t possibly make wise choices, whether they’re easy or difficult.

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