Thoughts, reflections, news, and musings from a veteran Silicon Valley journalist and commentator.

August 24, 2008

Los Angeles Times Covers our Free Textbook Project

Many thanks to Gale Holland at the Los Angeles Times for her story this week about our Community College Consortium for Open Education Resources, one of the fruits of the policy on public domain learning materials I worked to enact as a community college trustee. Here is a link to the full story, and some excerpts:

From the Los Angeles Times

Free digital texts begin to challenge costly college textbooks in California

By Gale Holland
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 18, 2008

The annual college textbook rush starts this month, a time of reckoning for many students who will struggle to cover eye-popping costs of $128, $156, even $198 a volume.

Caltech economics professor R. Preston McAfee finds it annoying that students and faculty haven't looked harder for alternatives to the exorbitant prices. McAfee wrote a well-regarded open-source economics textbook and gave it away -- online. But although the text, released in 2007, has been adopted at several prestigious colleges, including Harvard and Claremont-McKenna, it has yet to make a dent in the wider textbook market.

"I was disappointed in the uptake," McAfee said recently at an outdoor campus cafe. "But I couldn't continue assigning idiotic books that are starting to break $200."

McAfee is one of a band of would-be reformers who are trying to beat the high cost -- and, they say, the dumbing down -- of college textbooks by writing or promoting open-source, no-cost digital texts.

Thus far, their quest has been largely quixotic, but that could be changing. Public colleges and universities in California this past year backed several initiatives to promote online course materials, and publishers and entrepreneurs are stepping up release of electronic textbooks, which typically sell at reduced prices....

Open educational resources is an amorphous category for publishers, but basically it includes e-textbooks, courses, videos, taped lectures, tests, software and other materials released online free to the public without restriction on use.

Universities for more than a decade have experimented with open-source educational sites and online libraries as a way to spread knowledge more equitably. Some seek to change the nature of the textbook by offering "chunks" of instruction that professors can mix and match to create their own content "collections."

One of the biggest pushes for open educational resources has come from California community colleges, where students devoted nearly 60% of their education spending in 2007-08 to textbooks, according to a California State Auditor's report released last week.

The Foothill-De Anza Community College District in the Silicon Valley has teamed with the state's other two-year colleges to encourage faculty to create, use and select digital textbooks. The California Community Colleges Board of Governors voted in May to back open educational resources.

"One of the most heartbreaking things you can see is a student in the bookstore with a course catalog in one hand looking at the book prices to see what courses he can afford to take," said Hal Plotkin, a Foothill-De Anza trustee who was instrumental in the drive.

Several experts said a strong shift by California's public universities to open-source textbooks could be the jolt that brings them into wider use.

Today's New York Times Features Spot.Us!

David Cohn's Spot.Us, is featured in a wonderful story in today's New York Times. Spot.Us is fiscally sponsored by the Center for Media Change,. Inc., the non-profit I created to get ReelChanges.org off the ground. David is really quite brilliant so it is great to see him getting this attention. As you'll see reading over the blog on his site, he has some very bold and savvy ideas about where journalism needs to go to survive. You can find today's NYT story here and copied below:

August 24, 2008

Crowd Funding
A Different Way to Pay for the News You Want

By SARAH KERSHAW

You think your local water supply is polluted. But you're getting the runaround from local officials, and you can't get your local newspaper to look into your concerns. What do you do?

A group of journalists say they have an answer. You hire them to investigate and write about what they find.

The idea, which they are calling "community-funded journalism," is now being tested in the San Francisco Bay area, where a new nonprofit, Spot Us, is using its Web site, spot.us, to solicit ideas for investigative articles and the money to pay for the reporting. But the experiment has also raised concerns of journalism being bought by the highest bidder.

The idea is that anyone can propose a story, though the editors at Spot Us ultimately choose which stories to pursue. Then the burden is put on the citizenry, which is asked to contribute money to pay upfront all of the estimated reporting costs. If the money doesn't materialize, the idea goes unreported.

"Spot Us would give a new sense of editorial power to the public," said David Cohn, a 26-year-old Web journalist who received a $340,000, two-year grant from the Knight Foundation to test his idea. "I'm not Bill and Melinda Gates, but I can give $10. This is the Obama model. This is the Howard Dean model."

Those campaigns revolutionized politics by using the power of the Web to raise small sums from vast numbers of people, making average citizens feel a part of the process in a way they had not felt before. In the same way, Spot Us hopes to empower citizens to be part of a newsgathering enterprise that, polls show, many mistrust and regard as both biased and elitist.

Other enterprises have found success with this approach, which, in the Internet age, has become known as "crowdfunding." This financing model takes its name from crowdsourcing, a method for using the public, typically via the Internet, to supply what employees and experts once did: information, research and development, T-shirt designs, stock photos, advertising spots. In crowdsourcing, the people supply the content; in crowdfunding, they supply the cash.

Charities have used crowdfunding, not necessarily under that name, for years. And one Hollywood studio, Brave New Worlds, is financing its movies by soliciting people over the Internet to pay for them before they are made.

The Spot Us experiment comes, not coincidentally, as newspapers around the country lay off reporters and editors by the hundreds and scale back their coverage to cope with a financial crisis brought about, in no small measure, by the rise of the Internet. Another experimental venture, Pro Publica, a nonprofit group led by Paul Steiger, a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, is being bankrolled by several major foundations to pursue investigative projects that it will then offer to newspapers and magazines.

Spot Us plans to post its articles on its Web site and give them to newspapers that want to publish them. If a newspaper wants exclusive rights to an article, the paper will have to pay for it.

Critics say the idea of using crowdfunding to finance journalism raises some troubling questions. For example, if a neighborhood with an agenda pays for an article, how is that different from a tobacco company backing an article about smoking? (Spot Us limits the amount any one contributor can give to no more than 20 percent of the cost of the story.)

But Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired Magazine whose book "Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business" is being published this month said: "It's not like the crowd is killing the newspaper. Lots of things are killing the newspaper. The crowd is at once a threat to newsrooms, but it's also one of several strategies that could help save the newspapers."

In an early test of its concept, Spot Us solicited ideas on its Web site and raised $250 for an article examining whether California can meet its ethanol demand. That might not pay the weekly phone bill for a lot of reporters. But for its newest project, Spot Us has raised nearly all of the $2,500 it says it will need to fact-check political ads in the coming local elections in San Francisco. "We need 12 more people to donate $25," the site said on Friday.

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University who is working with Mr. Cohn and who began his own experimental journalism site last year using the public's collaboration in news gathering, Assignment Zero (zero.newassignment.net), has been a leading critic of the traditional model of reporting. Now, with the industry's financial troubles, he may have a more receptive audience.

"The business model is broken," he said. "We're at a point now where nobody actually knows where the money is going to come from for editorial goods in the future. My own feeling is that we need to try lots of things. Most of them won't work. You'll have a lot of failure. But we need to launch a lot of boats."

By the way, the Center for Media Change, Inc. finally has its own modest little website, which you can find here.

August 05, 2008

ReelChanges Homepage Already Fully Populated!

ReelChanges.org's homepage already has a full roster of high-quality documentary projects! The response has been pretty overwhelming. One thing I've discovered over the past few weeks, though, is that if I have to explain what we are doing I am usually talking to the wrong people. The right people, and by that I mean the folks who are eager to participate, get it right away. I don't have to finish my sentences. There is another, and I am sure much larger group, who don't yet get it, who just can't imagine a commercial form of media where regular people would have real decision-making power. I suppose I will have to figure out how to connect with that larger group at some stage. But at present I'm just too busy for that. It's all I can do to keep up with the avalanche of ReelChanges-related email pouring in. Throw in an overdue manuscript to one of my most cherished publishers/funders and most of my days are a real pant, including today, so I will have to keep this long overdue blog update short.

The major news on the ReelChanges front, in addition to the growing number of high-quality projects on the site, revolves around promising new alliances and joint ventures. We're now working with Maryland Public Television (MPT) on a collaboration that will, I hope, make real inroads in using the Internet to strengthen the publics' link with public television. We've been fortunate to find a visionary public television pioneer to work with, MPT president Rob Shuman, whose credits include helping found the Learning Channel. Rob and his talented crew come to us by way of my old friend and mentor, Jim Russell, who has recently taken on a role as ReelChanges' Consulting Executive Producer. Jim was the first Executive Producer of All Things Considered and also created public radio's long running business news program, Marketplace, where I toiled for a time in the late 1980's. It's fun to be working with him again. Another key development: a growing alliance with new media visionary David Cohn, whose www.Spot.us project recently won major support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. David and I are close to a fiscal sponsorship agreement that will make www.Spot.us a project of the Center for Media Change, Inc., the 501c3 I run that also operates ReelChanges. Even better, David and I have started to talk about the ways ReelChanges and Spot.us can collaborate to build out the people powered media space. And finally, I'm also pleased to note that well-respected open source lawyer Larry Rosen has agreed to serve as general counsel for the Center for Media Change, Inc. and ReelChanges.org. As I mentioned, it's been a busy few weeks. And I've left more things out than I have time now to list. All very exciting.

Thanks again to J.D. Lasica, whose early blog posts and articles about ReelChanges led to many of the emails I mentioned above. Thanks also to Jonathan Shradar, FreePress, Leonard Witt, DocumentaryFilms.net, GreenScreenCinema, Media Giraffe, Wayne's Brain Dump, Global Mojo, Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media and too many others to mention here for all the help in spreading the word. Just do a "google" on ReelChanges and see what turns up. Weeks ago nothing, now it would take all day to follow all the links with positive mentions. Deep thanks to all. Oh, also, a special word of thanks to Arden Pennell, the terrific young journalist at the Palo Alto Weekly who did a very nice story about ReelChanges that I continue to circulate to great effect. Arden, who seems certain to emerge as her own Silicon Valley brand, has a new blog, ArdentNews, that you'll want to check out.

More when I next come up for air...

In the meantime, please visit ReelChanges and make a contribution to a project on the site or to the site itself. We need your support and you'll feel good when you do it. I promise. Or your money back.