Using Wikipedia Articles To Make OER Textbooks

Posted February 4, 2013 By Steve

“We are going to have to invest in our people and make available to them participation in the great educational process of research and development in order to learn more. When we learn more, we are able to do more with our given opportunities.” — Buckminster Fuller

open educational resources
Yesterday was pretty busy. We had a slightly belated family party for my eldest son’s sixteenth birthday, a trip to Warrenton and back to drop off my daughter, and, of course, watching the most excellent and exciting Superbowl in years, complete with a victory for the Baltimore Ravens, who I’d chosen as my favorite based more or less on proximity. D.C. and Baltimore are basically one big area, and they had to root for our football team during their years in the post-Colts wilderness, so when they make it to the big game it seems good to return the favor. Besides, D.C. people were in Orioles’ territory until the Nationals showed up, so rooting for a Baltimore team isn’t all that strange around here.

But enough about all that. In between those other events, I made a presentation for the online CO13 conference on how to use Wikipedia’s Book Creator tool to make quick, easy OER textbooks from Wikipedia articles. I “um” and “uh” too much — as a presenter I’m not exactly Frederick Douglass. But the information is there. I plan to distill it into a working paper for the Free Curricula Centre when I get the chance, so if you’re not in a hurry you may want to just wait for that.

If you are in a hurry, though, there is a recording of the presentation.

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Note: A friend of mine in Tamil Nedu wanted to speak out about the censorship of Vishwaroopam, a film from Indian cinema legend Kamal Haasan, but he’s concerned about retaliation. The following are his remarks.

Support Kamal HaasanWell the dictator we have as Chief Minister Jayalalitha has used minority religious groups (Islamic groups) to stall the release of Vishwaroopam because Kamal Haasan once said the Congress minister P. Chidambaram is Prime Minister material. Now this has triggered a ban on the movie in its principal revenue making zone, Tamil Nadu, a 65 million populous state in India where there would be houseful shows shown so the film maker and actor Kamal can get back his money as he has pledged his property and assets all together in this film. The pyrotechnics in the film are of Hollywood standards and in his vision to take Indian cinema to global standards, has lavished money in production costs. Most Indian celebrities are trying placate and express their views but none of them stand against the state government.

Spoiler alert: Well it is a film about an Indian muslim spy who is an undercover Indian cop who sneaks as a mole into the Taliban camp in Afghanistan and turns a traitor and have the American forces gun them down eventually foiling the ploy to have bio and nuke bombs planted into doves and pigeons and sent all over the world by Afghan terrorists. There are a few instances of holy Quran verses chanted as soon as a killing scene. (Or probably that’s what the politicians have been using to instigate minority religious groups to stall the movie’s release).

Now the irony is they have shown such themes in many such movies however this has been picked by the government because our Chief Minister Jayalalitha is against the central government and since Kamal once said in a function openly that central minister P. Chidambaram is Prime Minister material and also to the fact that the satellite right went into the hands of he opposition parties owing to their higher bid, she wants blood and has create a needless controversy by provoking the minority Muslim groups.

Now the film has been made at a budget of a billion Indian rupees. Thats two times the assets owned by he producer and actor and superstar Kamal Haasan who has been a huge contributor to Indian cinema industry. He is an ant, if you understand my analogy, who does not stop working and has an amazing filmography and is worshipped in these parts of he world. But sadly is fragile as the government is playing spoil sport.

Vishwaroopam’s piracy hunt has been in huge proportions lately as millions of Facebook fans have been reporting torrents and download sites 24/7/365 and have been standing guard. Each one of his fan has taken an oath that until he gets out of debts through the good box office show of his movie released world wide we would not indulge in piracy and would only watch films in theaters. And we have travelled far and wide just to watch the movie in our neighboring states. But still those are worth peanuts and only Tamil Nadu release can see through his debts.

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Questions About Copyright

Posted January 15, 2013 By Steve

It's a Nina Paley tribute
In an online conversation, an acquaintance who supports copyright asked a number of questions about how things would work in its absence. Obviously I’m not chair of the anti-copyright committee, but there are some possible answers. If you have a better one, please leave a comment!

Q. I don’t think anyone answered my question above about who will fund drug research if scientists & researchers don’t give their time for free?

A. Universities, philanthropists, generic drug companies (some are very large, and the last thing they’d want is no pipeline), and (alas) probably government.

Q. should a publisher (small or large) have a choice of whether they give content away or not?

A. This is a semantic problem. They’re not giving anything away because copying and taking are two different things. It gets back to what I was saying about scarcity, and how information isn’t property. Nina Paley’s song Copying Is Not Theft explains the sentiment, although it’s not exactly a dissertation and obviously leaves unanswered questions.

Q. Should Gary Trudeau be entitled to syndicate his column however he wishes? Or should he be forced to give his “product” away?

A. Same answer. And the repeated presumption is that artists, musicians, and writers won’t produce content without copyright, even though historically we know that’s not the case.

Q. is a local newspaper entitled to charge subscribers for either its print edition or its online edition? (the only difference is in the method of delivery)

A. Sure, if subscribers will pay, then that’s between them. Also, remember that a print copy of a newspaper is a physical item, subject to scarcity, and really is property.

Q. is a reporter entitled to be paid for his research?

A. Entitled? No. Otherwise I would research things that interest me all day and demand payment from someone.

Q. is Bruce Springsteen entitled to sell his works? Or does he have no right to make that choice?

A. He’s entitled to do whatever he wants. This isn’t about telling artists what they can do, it’s about not telling everyone else what they can’t do. Incidentally, though, musicians make more money on tour than they do from CD sales, so this is a pretty big red herring.

Q. if you look at the credits of any given movie, you’ll see 100s of people helping put that together. Do they deserve to be compensated?

A. They’re unlikely to work on the movie otherwise. But you don’t need a copyright regime to make that happen. Iron Sky, a movie that came out earlier this year, was specifically meant to be free for others to copy, yet it’s made money from voluntary subscription, logo merchandise, etc.

Q. if a publisher (movie, music, journalism, art, whatever) or research company (bio-technology) invests heavily in something and it bombs, should the government bail them out?

A. Not in my opinion. But that’s not a copyright issue.

Q. if someone spend a year writing a book or journal article and it benefits the public, should that be free?

A. The “year” part is a distractor, because it relies on a discredited nineteenth century economic principle called the labor theory of value. Just because I spend time and effort on something doesn’t make it inherently valuable. Or, as Scrooge MacDuck said, “Work smarter, not harder.” The “public” part is also a distractor, since there’s no such thing there are only individuals, who surely would benefit unevenly from just about anything.

Q. If a farmer spends a year working in his field, should he be required to put the harvest in a free public stand for whoever wants it?

A. No. But produce is property, if you have an apple and I take it, you can’t also have it anymore. Information is not property, if you know something and I learn it, you still know it.

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Happy National Spaghetti Day!

Posted January 4, 2013 By Steve

“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” — Sophia Loren

Flying Spaghetti Monster
January 4th is a very exciting day, both because it’s my Mom’s birthday and also, of course, because according to the Internet, it’s National Spaghetti Day! This is the sort of food where it’s easy to eat too much of it, but in moderation it’s perfectly good. When I make spaghetti, I usually make it with my “Fauxlonese Sauce”, which is ideal for vegans and also for meat eaters, who in this case might not even notice you’ve changed out ground beef for something healthier, kinder, and better for the environment.

(And happy birthday, Mom!)


Fauxlonese Sauce

  • One package of Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs
  • One to one and a half jars of Trader Joe’s Organic No-Salt-Added Marinara Sauce
  • One onion, chopped up
  • A big handful of fresh spinach
  • Minced garlic, as much or as little as you like

The directions are pretty simple. Saute the onion, garlic, and spinach at medium heat in a large pan, then turn heat to low and add the marinara sauce. (The spinach is optional, but it’s a good combination with marinara sauce because tomatoes help you absorb the iron in the spinach.) If you like, you can pour a little red wine into the jar of sauce you’re emptying, swish it around, and add it — you get everything out of the jar that way, and besides, hey, it’s wine.

Meanwhile, heat up the meatless meatballs by microwaving for five minutes on high. Once they’re warmed up, mash them up and stir them into the marinara sauce. TJ’s meatless meatballs are really good, but they have enough sodium that there’s no reason the sauce needs it as well, hence the suggestion for the marinara with no salt added.

That’s about it. You can add this on top of any pasta, usually I go with a bag of Trader Joe’s organic whole wheat rotelle, but today spaghetti is the way to go.

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The NRA’s Response To Newtown Misses The Mark

Posted December 21, 2012 By Steve

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

Police at riot
I have to admit to being disappointed. After Newtown, when those who run the NRA had no public statement, I was unsure of the reason. Was it that they believed that it would be politically disadvantageous for them to say anything for a while? Did they believe that it would be in their interest to wait to get a better sense of any change in public opinion in the wake of the massacre? Did they (unlike gun control advocates) actually have sufficient decorum to wait until after all of the funerals to politicize the tragedy?

But now we’ve learned that the real reason was none of these things. Instead, their response was delayed so long because, apparently, they have been working around the clock to come up with the most stupid and short-sighted possible response to the shootings. Put simply, for them to suggest that it’s actually necessary or wise to have an armed policeman in every school in America is so ridiculous if I hadn’t read it on their own web site I wouldn’t have believed they could say something that obtuse.

Now I understand the basic idea behind their proposal, that places where good guys don’t have guns, only bad guys will have them. And with that much I can agree. But as I see it, there are three really glaring flaws in any plan to station armed police in every public school in America.

First, it accepts at face value the hysterical notion that children are in unreasonable danger when they go to school. Events like Newtown and Columbine are horrific, but they’re also incredibly rare. I have four kids in public schools in the U.S., and I am no more concerned that they’ll be killed at school than I am if they go to the mall, or a museum, or any other public place. I realize that there is always a chance that something terrible could happen, and I don’t mean to minimize the sorrow of parents who have lost children to violence. But there is no way to keep kids completely safe, and there comes a point when one has already taken all reasonable precautions.

Second, this is the sort of proposal that addresses the symptom of the disease rather than the root cause. By the time someone gets to the point where they’re shooting innocent kids in a school, to blame the gun is like blaming a pencil because the one holding it never learned how to spell properly. American culture doesn’t take mental illness seriously enough, in particular when it focuses on liberally dispensing psychotropic drugs that destabilize people as often as help them. Americans’ lazy relationship with news media isn’t helpful either, because the sort of attention these incidents get serves only to glorify those who commit these atrocities.

Finally, the NRA’s plan shows that their leaders may care about private gun ownership, but have no concern for what it will take to slow the continuing decline of American freedom. The key to having kids grow up thinking of themselves as the heirs to a free society is not to have them spend the majority of their waking hours in the company of armed police. The history of liberty’s decline is the history of the use of crises as an excuse to increase government control over people’s lives, so the suggestion that we acclimate future generations to the constant presence of armed government officials is one that might be better expected from an organization that promotes tyranny than liberty.

It’s important to remember that no matter what its detractors say, the NRA doesn’t speak for all gun owners nor for those like me who don’t own a gun but believe the government has no legitimate role to play in an individual’s right to choose whether or not to do so. With this poorly considered proposal, that’s certainly the case. There’s no way to ensure perfect safety for kids, and armed cops in schools is no exception. But even on an individual basis we can renew our commitment to valuing life, accentuate positivity in ourselves, and promote an environment of concern for one another. Passing on those sorts of cultural changes on to future generations, not gun control or armed cops in schools, is the best way to respond to this tragedy.

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On Being Anti-Science

Posted November 2, 2012 By Steve

“A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone.” — Denis Diderot

McMaster Institute: 3 out of 3 Scientists Agree - Using Three Fingers Improves Your Life_0267
Recently in an email conversation among about a dozen ideologically diverse people, I made a throwaway comment that in some ways, many of those researching climate change actually strike me as anti-science. I got called on it by one of the participants, a scientist himself, and in response I wrote the following.

I should clarify what I mean about why those who talk about climate change are anti-science, since that’s a strong word. It’s not because I think they’re necessarily wrong — it’s not difficult to wrap one’s brain around the idea that human activity can affect the environment; it clearly can.

Science is a process through which we learn about the world about us by impartial research and a fearless willingness to follow data wherever it leads. But my observation, admittedly as a layman, is that most of those involved in climate change are completely disinclined to hear from naysayers. The worst example of this is how naysayers are habitually shouted down as being “denialists”, a word specifically designed to equate them with Holocaust deniers. Even if the naysayers are wrong and are utter fools, this cynical approach to skeptics is completely anti-scientific, a black mark on the respectability of anyone who considers himself a scientist.

This ties in with what I think may be the greatest requirement for true science, that it calls for humble skepticism — what Diderot rightfully referred to as the the first step toward truth. The history of scientific progress is a history of different theories leaping ahead and falling back, with progress being the overall result, yes, but not without many mistakes being made in the process. We are blind men in a maze, and while the scientific method gives us a powerful tool to feel our way toward the exit, it doesn’t guarantee we won’t go down wrong paths in the process.

While I’m not a scientist by training, I’ve spent ten years working for various universities, and from this have developed a a healthy disregard for experts’ self-evaluations of their own intellectual indispensability. For example, many climatologists seem breathlessly eager to make sweeping public policy suggestions, as though they had complete understanding not only of climate issues but also such issues as public health, economic development, demography, and political philosophy. They do not, and by pushing political agendas they earn a critical eye toward the actual climatological research that is supposed to be why we should respect them in the first place.

Obviously, this last criticism also applies to most of those who are skeptical that climate change is occurring. My point here is not to defend them, for as I said I find it plausible that climate change is a real phenomenon. But the way that mainstream climatologists have supported their consensus being politicized makes that harder for laymen like me to accept, not easier.

Note: I’m actually pretty interested in responses from people, especially well reasoned disagreements. Since this is an issue that pushes a lot of people’s buttons, though, I should add that welcomeness doesn’t extend to responses from anyone who is simply angey that I’m toeing one line or the other.

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Steve’s Pressure Cooked Vegan Stew

Posted September 16, 2012 By Steve

My friend Randall and I eat this whenever he comes over, and finally he asked me how to make it. Since I was typing out the recipe, I thought I’d post it here.

  • 1 package of Tofurky Italian Sausage
  • 2 Russet potatoes
  • 4 large carrots
  • 1 16 oz. bag of dry pearl onions (or frozen, if necessary)
  • 1 16 oz. bag of green split peas
  • 1 32 oz. box of vegetable stock1
  • 1 tablespoon of curry powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon of cayenne pepper

1Preferably Medford Farms brand, because every other brand has outrageous sodium, even the ones mislabeled “low sodium”.

In large pressure cooker, add pearl onions, split peas, stock, and the same amount of water as there is stock. Stir, let sit for a while so that onions warn up a little and peas start to soften slightly so they don’t stick together.

Chop up carrots, potatoes, and sausage, and drop them in. Add curry powder and cayenne pepper and stir.

Close pressure cooker, place on medium-high heat. Allow pressure to reach level one, then cook at that level for exactly thirteen minutes.

Depressurize, stir (peas should turn to mush but not have burned on the bottom), let sit for twenty minutes, stir again.

Makes about six bowls of stew.

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Relax, Redux

Posted September 9, 2012 By Steve


University World News liked my post about MOOCs, which was nice of them since I criticized their previous writer so much. They wanted me to expand on a few things for their commentary section. We went through a few iterations, and the resulting op-ed is an almost entirely different piece, found on their site.

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“My argument is that to the extent that a MOOC focuses on content, like a traditional course, it begins to fail. A MOOC should focus on the connections, not the content.” — Stephen Downes

MOOC!
I read University World News frequently, and find it a great place to keep abreast of what’s happening in higher education in other countries, especially in the low and middle income countries covered by their Africa edition. But that doesn’t mean everything they print is necessarily entirely on point, and a recent case in point is their commentary Yes, MOOC is the global higher education game changer, by Simon Marginson from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne.

Given Prof. Marginson’s impressive resume, I was surprised that this piece had factual inaccuracies, even from the very first sentence. Firstly, “MOOC” doesn’t stand for “Free Massive Open Online Courseware”, it stands for “Massive Open Online Course”. Courseware is something a bit different, and while MOOCs might make use of open courseware, and while the same institution might offer both (most famously MIT), they’re not the same thing.

Secondly, the MOOC offered by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig late last year was a great success which rightfully got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t the first MOOC. It’s tough to draw a bright line here, but the real first one was probably one offered in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes through Athabasca University.

Thirdly — and I’ll admit that this point is more in the realm of opinion and prediction — the idea that MOOCs will spell the death of higher education as we know it may be exciting to say, but there are some fundamental barriers involved that will be pretty challenging to overcome. As someone who’s worked in online education for a long time, I can assure you that not everyone wants to learn online, even if from a well-regarded school. Another is that MOOCs from prestigious universities do not lead to academic credit, and this is an important drawback to them that their cheerleaders need to consider a little more closely. Moreover, if I may be allowed a prediction, they never will lead to credit, especially from top universities. Education is not a university’s true product, prestigious credentials are. When employers start accepting MOOC certificates of completion as the equivalent to a university degree, then one will be able to consider them a substitute. Until then, one simply cannot.

Don’t get me wrong, MOOCs are a great new tool in the toolbox of adult education. I’m glad schools are offering them, in fact I’m doing one myself later this year. But as exciting as they are, they cannot be all things to all people, and local universities are in no danger whatsoever of being supplanted by them any time soon.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Posted May 15, 2012 By Steve

“I read the newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.” — Aneurin Bevan

Lies
I admit it: I’m a news junkie. Every day I catch up on what’s happening around the world and in the field of eLearning thanks to various news outlets that scour the globe to find out the latest goings on. Sure, sometimes the mainstream media doesn’t cover something important, and independent media have to pick up the slack, but that’s just how it is. No industry is perfect, after all, and for the most part the news media does a lot more good than harm.

Right, for the most part. But these are tough times for news media. The Internet has not been kind to newspapers in particular, or even television news. At the same time, it’s not like Internet-only news sources tend to have a large number of actual journalists writing stories. As a result, many news outlets have cut back on their reporting staff levels, filling pages with stories that were obtained as cheaply as possible from third parties rather than going out to find out firsthand what’s really happening.

Unfortunately, this can be dangerous. Recently I saw a supposed news story on Yahoo! News that is so irresponsible that it makes me pretty angry. It’s a press release from a notorious diploma mill called MUST University that has scammed many people. No journalist sat down and wrote this article, or even checked it out before it went up on Yahoo! News. It was simply written by the scammers themselves, submitted to a company that they paid to promote it as a real press release, and then picked up and published online without any review for accuracy.

When you’re a prospective student looking for the right school through which you can earn a degree by eLearning, it’s hard enough even choosing a college or university from all the real choices out there. But when this sort of deliberate misinformation is added into the mix, things are downright dangerous! But there are a few things one can do to minimize the risk of being taken in by this sort of scam. First, remember that just because it looks like news doesn’t mean you can trust it. Second, if a school wants you to make a one time payment in exchange for a degree, with nothing more required, that’s not a “life experience degree”, that’s just a fake.

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