Posts in technology

eBook Purchasing and Personal Values

An App to Proritize eBook Purchases by User-Set Priorities

I’m excited to read a new book, Sophia Samatar’s A Stranger in OlondriaI came across Ms. Samatar’s name and her work on the site Islam and Science Fiction and I was so excited about the perspective and literary references in A Stranger in Olondria that I immediately pre-ordered it from Amazon’s Kindle store. Then, after I’ve already bought the book, I noticed that it is also available from Weightless books, a niche retailer of ebooks that is small press and author friendly and sells books without DRM. I immediately regretted my Amazon purchase and wished I had sent my money to a vendor whose values are more in line with my own. The values I’m concerned about deal with DRM-free purchase options and the amount of my purchase dollars that go into the authors’ pockets.

I have a rough mental sketch of the ebook vendors I would prefer to use and in an ideal world, there are some resources available as well to help us choose. (If any readers cough librarians cough can help fill out this list, I’d appreciate it.)

My preferred ebook shopping list looks something like this:

  • Shop Smashwords first. In a conversation with Lindsay Buroker (the author of the fun steampunk series Emporer’s Edge) on Twitter, I learned that authors get a bigger cut of the purchase price on Smashwords then they get from Amazon, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble.
  • Shop Weightless Books second. Weightless books have no DRM, and they work with small presses to develop new authors.
  • Shop direct from the publisher third. There are several publishers such as O’Reilly, No Starch, or BAEN who offer better service and DRM-free purchase options.
  • Shop Kobo next. Kobo sometimes has DRM-free options when the next item on the list does not. I buy John Scalzi’s work from Kobo for this reason.
  • Shop Amazon if all other options fail. I like the convenience of Amazon. I don’t necessarily care for their privacy policies, their clout in the industry, or their DRM policies. (Their MP3 store has no DRM, but Kindle and Audible books are locked down.) I don’t mind shopping there and I maintain a Prime subscription, but I prefer to use them as a vendor of last resort, not my first stop. Shopping at Bezos’ store first means that vendors with values that reflect my own are less likely to thrive or exist at all.

The App:

This  experience has me thinking: there should be an app that can do this for us. If such an app exists, please let me know about it in the comments. If not, it sounds like a good summer code project. Here’s a back-of-the-napkin sketch of how I want this thing to work:

Step One:

  • The first step is for the user to enter an ISBN, title, title keyword for the book they are looking for. This is a tool for known-item-searching so it doesn’t need to be able to browse.
  • The user input will return a list of possible titles and the users can confirm that this is the precise item they are looking for.

Step Two:

  • Once the exact title has been identified, a unique identifier such as an ISBN, DOI, or ASN will be used to search a set of vendors.

Step Three:

  • If multiple vendors stock the book, the user will be directed to the first vendor on a list of priorities. These priorities can be set by the user.

Step Four:

  • If the vendor selected has an affiliate program, purchase the book using the affiliate code. Otherwise, just send the user to the vendor’s storefront. It is important *not* to privilege affilate programs, otherwise we could just use Amazon all the time, but if such options exist, no reason the designer can’t get a small slice of each transaction enabled with the app.

I’ll throw something together when I get some project time and put it up on Github. Unless, of course, it already exists or one of you smarty-pants beats me to it.

Wrapping Up:

That’s it. It seems simple enough, but I’ve bought enough ebooks from the Kindle store, only to regret not shopping with my values that I think I’d benefit from having a tool like this. What do you all think? It should be noted that using a queue system like this assumes the user has the ability to strip the DRM from the books they buy. I use Apprentice Alf’s plugins for Calibre to do this myself. If there is interest, I’ll do a technical walkthrough for novices on how to own your ebooks using this method. Please let me know in the comments.

From Cool to Useful: Incorporating hobby projects into library work

This was originally posted at ACRL TechConnect on January 09, 2013.
Cool or Useful? A guide to incorporating hobby projects into library work

Sometimes I have trouble creating a clear line between geeky hobby projects I do on my own time and professional tasks for MPOW (my place of work.) This time, the geeky-thing-I-think-is-cool is a LibraryBox. LibraryBox is a hardware hack created by Jason Griffey.  What I’m currently trying to work out is, is this project a viable solution to a practical work-place problem? Of course, I have to watch out for Maslov’s Law of the Instrument which can be paraphrased: “To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” These days I’m seeing a lot of LibraryBox-shaped nails. I’m eager to find potential applications for my new toy tool. My project in today’s post is to describe the LibraryBox project and describe a method of determining whether or not it has a work-related application.

What is a LibraryBox?

A LibraryBox is a very portable pocket-sized device that serves up digital content to wifi devices. It is designed to provide free ebooks to readers with wifi devices but without access to reliable Internet or power. The best introduction to LibraryBox may be found on the LibraryBox site. Jason Griffey has done an excellent job with the site’s design and has written comprehensive instructions for building and deploying LibraryBoxen. The site describes the project as: “an open source, portable digital file distribution tool based on inexpensive hardware that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid.”

The LibraryBox project was designed to solve a very specific kind of problem. It is useful in scenarios involving all of the following conditions:

  • Either no access or sporadic access to Internet and electrical utilities
  • a need to distribute digital content
  • users that have wifi enabled devices

In order to meet these objectives, the LibraryBox

  • uses inexpensive parts and hardware.
  • runs off of batteries and is highly portable.
  • uses open source software. (The code is both kinds of free; both libre and gratis.)
My LibraryBox

Building the LibraryBox was fun and easy. I bought the necessary parts: a mobile router, a large usb flash drive, plus an optional battery. (I’m using a Sony Cycle Energy CP-EL I found on sale at the grocery store for $13). Then I went through the instructions. The process is easy and straightforward. A friend of mine completed them while his baby daughter was down for a nap. I took a little longer because I didn’t read the instructions through before starting and did some steps out of order. If you more diligent with following directions than I am, Jason’s instructions will get you from start to finish easily and without a hitch. Once I had my LibraryBox up and running, I filled the flash drive with some free and creative commons licensed content. I tested it out and was happy to see that I could use it to download ebooks onto my phone, laptop, and tablet. Once I demonstrated that it worked, I began to look for practical applications where it could be more than just cool, I wanted my hobby project to be useful.  To keep myself honest and keep my project enthusiasm in check, I’m using a series of questions to help determine whether I’m being blinded by the new shiny thing or whether it is, in fact,  an appropriate tool for the job at hand. These questions help with the tool/toy distinction, especially when I’m under the spell of the law of the instrument.

Questions:
  1. Does this tool or technology offer a solution to an existing problem?
  2. If the answer to #1 is yes, does it solve the problem better (more efficiently, cheaply, etc.) than alternate solutions?
  3. Does this tool or technology introduce unintended consequences or side-effects that are worse than the original problem?
Applying the Questions:

There are two ready applications for a LibraryBox at MPOW. Neither directly involve the library, both involve faculty projects in our Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program. Both are interesting projects and both project leads have indicated interest in using a LibraryBox to solve a problem. The first case involves using a LibraryBox to allow visitors to a remote historical site the ability to download and install a mobile app. My colleague Brett Oppegaard is leading development of a mobile app to provide visitors to a historic site access to interpretive materials. The location is somewhat remote and mobile broadband coverage is spotty at best and varies depending on the cell provider. My thought was to provide visitors to the site a reliable method of installing and using the app. Applying the three questions from above to this project, I learned that the answers to the first two questions are an unqualified yes. It solves a real problem by allowing users to download a digital file without an active net connection. It does so better than alternate solutions, especially due to its ability to run off of battery power. (There are no utilities at the site.) However, the third question reveals some real difficulties. I was able to successfully download and install the app from its .apk file using the LibraryBox. However, the steps required to achieve this are too convoluted for non-technical end users to follow easily. In addition, the current version of the app requires an active Internet connection in order to successfully install, rendering the LibraryBox workaround moot. These issues may be able to be resolved with some hacking, but right now the LibraryBox isn’t a working solution to this project’s needs. We’ll keep it in mind as the project develops and try new approaches.

Fortunately, as I was demonstrating the LibraryBox to the CMDC faculty, another colleague asked me about using it to solve a problem he is facing.  John Barber has been working on preserving The Brautigan Library and re-opening it to submissions. The Brautigan Library is a collection of unpublished manuscripts organized in the spirit of  the fictional library described in Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion. The Brautigan Library manuscripts currently are housed at the Clark County Historical Museum and we tested the LibraryBox there as a source for providing mobile access to finding aids.  This worked, but there were speed and usability issues. As we tested, however, John developed a larger plan involving a dedicated tablet kiosk, a web-app template, and a local web server connected to a router in the building. While we did not choose to use LibraryBox to support this exhibit, it did spark useful conversation that is leading us in promising directions.

Next Steps:

After learning that the LibraryBox isn’t a turn-key solution for either project, I still have some productive work to do. The first step is to install a light-weight web server (lighttpd) on the hardware currently running LibraryBox. (Fortunately, someone has already done this and left directions.) It’s possible, but unlikely, that will meet our needs. After that we’re going to test our plans using more powerful hardware in a similar setup. I’ve acquired a Raspberry Pi to test as a web server for the project and may also try running a web server on a more powerful router than the TL-MR3020 LibraryBox is based on. (Some open-WRT capable routers have as much as 128mb of RAM, which may be enough.) There is also work to do on the Ft. Vancouver project. The next steps there involve working on-site with the design team to more clearly articulate the problem(s) we are trying to solve.

In both cases my hobbyist tinkering is leading to practical and productive work projects. In both cases the LibraryBox has served as an excellent kluge (jury-rigged temporary solution) and has helped us see a clearer path to a permanent solution. These solutions will probably not resemble my early amateur efforts, but by exercising a little discipline to make certain my toys tools  are being employed productively, I’m confident that my hobby tinkering has a place in a professional workplace. At very least, my leisure time spent experimenting is benefiting my professional work. I also think that the kind of questions used here have application when considering other library toys fads innovations.

 

Hacker Values ≈ Library Values*

* The ≈ symbol indicates that the two items are similar, but not equal, to each other.

This post was originally published at ACRL TechConnect 2012/11/13.

Disambiguation

Hacker is a disputed term. The word hacker is so often mis-applied to describe law breaking, information theft, privacy violation, and other black-hat activities that the mistake has become permanently installed in our lexicon. I am not using hacker in this sense of the word. To be clear: when I use the word hacker and when I write about hacker values, I am not referring to computer criminals and their sketchy value systems. Instead, I am using hacker in its original meaning: a person who makes clever use of technology and information to solve practical problems. 

Introduction

With the current popularity of hackerspaces and makerspaces in libraries, library hack-a-thons, and hacking projects for librarians; it is clear that library culture is warming to the hacker ethic. This is a highly positive trend and one that I encourage more librarians to participate in. The reason I am so excited to see libraries encourage adoption of the hacker ethic is that hackers share several core values with libraries. Working together we can serve our communities more effectively. This may appear to be counter-intuitive, especially due to a very common public misconception that hacker is just another word for computer-criminal. In this post I want to correct this error, explain the values behind the hacker movement, and show how librarians and hackers share core values. It is my hope that this opens the door for more librarians to get started in productive and positive library hackery.

Hacker Values

First, a working definition: hackers are people who empower themselves with information in order to modify their environment and make the world a better place. That’s it. Hacking doesn’t require intruding into computer security settings. There’s no imperative that hackers have to work with code, computers, or technology–although many do. Besides the traditional computer software hacker, there are many kinds of crafters, tinkerers, and makers that share core the hacker values. These makers all share knowledge about their world and engage in hands-on modification of it in order to make it a better place.

For a richer and more detailed look into the hacker ethic than provided by my simplified definition I recommend three books. First try Corey Doctorow’s young adult novel, Little Brother [1. Doctorow, Cory. 2008. Little brother. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/]. This novel highlights the hacker values of self-empowerment with information, hands-on hacking, and acting for the public good. Little Brother is not only an award-winning story, but it also comes with a bibliography that is one of the best introductions to hacking available. Next, check out Steven Levy’s classic book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution [2. Levy, Steven. 2010. Hackers Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Cambridge: O’Reilly Media, Incorporated. http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920010227.do]. Levy details the history of hackers in the early 1980s and explains the values that drove the movement. Third, try Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution [3. Anderson, Chris. 2012. Makers the new industrial revolution. New York: Crown Business. http://worldcat.org/oclc/812195098]. Anderson tells the story of the contemporary maker movement and the way it is combining the values of the traditional do-it-yourself (DIY) movement with the values of the computer hacker community to spark a vibrant and powerful creative movement across the world.

In the preface to Hackers: Heroes of the Computer revolution,  Levy observed a common philosophy that the hackers shared:

It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost to improve the machines and improve the world.

The Wikipedia entry on the hacker programming subculture builds on Levy’s observations and revises the list of core hacker values as:

  • Sharing
  • Openness
  • Collaboration
  • Engaging in the Hands-on Imperative. 

These values are also restated and expanded on in another Wikipedia article on Hacker Ethics. Each of these articulations of hacker values differs subtly, yet while they differ they reinforce the central idea that there are core hacker values and that the conception of hacker as computer criminal is misinformed and inaccurate. (While there clearly are computer criminals, the error lies in labeling these people as hackers. These criminals violate hacker values as much as they violate personal privacy and the law.)

Once we understand that hacking is rooted in the core values of sharing, openness, collaboration, and hands-on activity; we can begin to see that hackers and librarians share several core values and that there is a rich environment for developing synergies and collaborative projects between the two groups. If we can identify and isolate the core values that librarians share with hackers, we will be well on our way to identifying areas for productive collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between our cultures.

Library Values

If we are going to compare hacker values with library values, an excellent starting point is the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. I recently had the pleasure of attending a keynote presentation by Char Booth who made this point most persuasively. She spoke eloquently and developed a nuanced argument on the topic of the narratives we use to describe our libraries. She encouraged us to look beyond the tired narratives of library-as-container-of-information or library-as-content-repository and instead create new narratives that describe the enduring concept of the library. This concept of library captures the values and services libraries provide without being inextricably linked to the information containers and technologies that libraries have historically used.

Library bill of rights
Char Booth’s distillation of the 1948 Library Bill of Rights into five core values

As she developed this argument, Char encouraged us to look to library history and extract the core values that will continue to apply as our collections and services adapt and change. As an example, she displayed the 1948 Library Bill of Rights and extracted out of each paragraph a core value. Her lesson: these are still our core values, even if the way we serve our patrons has radically changed.

Char distilled the Library Bill of Rights into five core values: access, freedom, advocacy, inquiry, and openness. If we compare these values with the hacker values from above: sharing, openness, collaboration, and the hands-on-imperative, we’ll see that at least in terms of access to information, public openness, freedom, sharing, and collaboration libraries and hackers are on the same page. There are many things that hackers and libraries can do together that further these shared values and goals.

It should be noted that hackers have a traditionally anti-authoritarian bent and unlike libraries, their value of open access to information often trumps their civic duty to respect license agreements and copyright law. Without trivializing this difference, there are many projects that libraries and hackers can do together that honor our shared values and do not violate the core principles of either partner. After all, libraries have a lot of experience doing business with partners who do not share or honor the core library values of freedom, openness, and access to information. If we can maintain productive relationships with certain parties that reject values close to the heart of libraries and librarians, it stands to reason that we can also pursue and maintain relationships with other groups that respect these core values, even as we differ in others.

At the end of the day, library values and hacker values are more alike than different. Especially in the areas of library work that involve advocacy for freedom, openness, and access to information we have allies and potential partners who share core values with us.

Library Hackery

If my argument about library values and hacker values has been at all persuasive, it raises the question: what do hacker/library partnerships look like? Some of the answers to this have been hinted at above. They look like Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox project. This wonderful project involves hacking on multiple levels. On one level, it provides the information needed for libraries to modify (hack) a portable wifi router into a public distribution hub for public domain, open access, and creative-commons licensed books and media. LibraryBoxes can bring digital media to locations that are off the net. On another level, it is a hack of an existing hacker project PirateBox. PirateBox is a private portable network designed to provide untraceable local file-sharing. Griffey hacked the hack in order to create a project more in-line with library values and mission.

These partnerships can also look like the Washington DC public library’s Accessibility Hack-a-Thon, an ongoing project that brings together, civic, library, and hacker groups to collaborate on hacking projects that advance the public good in their city. Another great example of bringing hacker ethics into the library can be found in TechConnect’s own Bohyun Kim’s posts on AJAX and APIs. Using APIs to customize web services is a perfect example of a library hack: it leverages our understanding of technology and empowers us to customize and perfect our environment. With an injection of hacker values into library services, we no longer have to remain at the mercy of the default setting. We can empower ourselves to hack our way to better tools, a better library, and a better world.

An excellent example of hackery from outside the library community is Audrey Watters’ Hack Education and Hack [Higher] Education blogs. Just as computer hackers use their inside information of computer systems to remake the environment, Audrey users her inside knowledge of education systems to make positive changes to the system.

eBook Review – Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

Orignially posted at ACRL TechConnect 2012/11/01.

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

This is a review of the ebook Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines and also of the larger project that collected the stories that became the content of the ebook. The project collects discussions about how technology can be used to improve student success. Fifty practical examples of successful projects are the result. Academic librarians will find the book to be a highly useful addition to our reference or professional development collections. The stories collected in the ebook are valuable examples of innovative pedagogy and administration and are useful resources to librarians and faculty looking for technological innovations in the classroom. Even more valuable than the collected examples may be the model used to collect and publish them. Cultivating Change, especially in its introduction and epilogue, offers a model for getting like minds together on our campuses and sharing experiences from a diversity of campus perspectives. The results of interdisciplinary cooperation around technology and success make for interesting reading, but we can also follow their model to create our own interdisciplinary collaborations at home on our campuses. More details about the ongoing project are available on their community site. The ebook is available as a blog with comments and also as an .epub, .mobi, or .pdf file from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy.

The Review

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines [1. Hill Duin, A. et al (eds) (2012) Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines at the University of Minnesota in 2012, An Open-Source eBook. University of Minnesota. Creative Commons BY NC SA. http://digital-rights.net/wp-content/uploads/books/CC50_UMN_ebook.pdf]

The stories that make up the ebook have been peer reviewed and organized into chapters on the following topics: Changing Pedagogies (teaching using the affordances of today’s technology), Creating Solutions (technology applied to specific problems), Providing Direction (technology applied to leadership and administration), and Extending Reach (technology employed to reach expanded audiences.) The stories follow a semi-standard format that clearly lays out each project, including the problem addressed, methodology, results, and conclusions.

Section One: Changing Pedagogies

The opening chapter focuses on applications of academic technology in the classroom that specifically address issues of moving instruction from memorization to problem solving and interactive coaching. These efforts are often described by the term “digital pedagogy” (For an explanation of digital pedagogy, see Brian Croxall’s elegant definition.[2. http://www.briancroxall.net/digitalpedagogy/what-is-digital-pedagogy/]) I’m often critical of digital pedagogy efforts because they can confuse priorities and focus on the digital at the expense of the pedagogy. The stories in this section do not make this mistake and correctly focus on harnessing the affordances of technology (the things we can do now that were not previously possible) to achieve student-success and foster learning.

One particularly impressive story, Web-Based Problem-Solving Coaches for Physics Studentsexplained how a physics course used digital tools to enable more detailed feedback to student work using the cognitive apprenticeship model. This solution encouraged the development of problem-solving skills and has to potential to scale better than classical lecture/lab course structures.

Section Two: Creating Solutions

This section focuses on using digital technology to present content to students outside of the classroom. Technology is extending the reach of the University beyond the limits of our campus spaces, this section address how innovations can make distance education more effective. A common theme here is the concept of the flipped classroom. (See Salmam Khan’s TED talk for a good description of flipping the classroom. [2. http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html]) In a flipped classroom the traditional structure of content being presented to students in lectures during class time and creative work being assigned as homework is flipped.  Content is presented outside the classroom and instructors lead students in creative projects during class time. Solutions listed in this section include podcasts, video podcasts, and screencasts. They also address synchronous and asynchronous methods of distance education and some theoretical approaches for instructors to employ as they transition from primarily face to face instruction to more blended instruction environments.

Of special note is the story Creating Productive Presence: A Narrative in which the instructor assesses the steps taken to provide a distance cohort with the appropriate levels of instructor intervention and student freedom. In face-to-face instruction, students have body-language and other non-verbal cues to read on the instructor. Distance students, without these familiar cues, experienced anxiety in a text-only communication environment. Using delegates from student group projects and focus groups, the instructor was able to find an appropriate classroom presence balanced between cold distance and micro-management of the group projects.

Section Three: Providing Direction

The focus of this section is on innovative new tools for administration and leadership and how administration can provide leadership and support for the embrace of disruptive technologies on campus. The stories here tie the overall effort to use technology to advance student success to accreditation, often a necessary step to motivate any campus to make uncomfortable changes. Data archives, the institutional repository, clickers (class polling systems), and project management tools fall under this general category.

The University Digital Conservancy: A Platform to Publish, Share, and Preserve the University’s Scholarship is of particular interest to librarians. Written by three UM librarians, it makes a case for institutional repositories, explains their implementation, discusses tracking article-level impacts, and most importantly includes some highly useful models for assessing institutional repository impact and use.

Section Four: Extending Reach

The final section discusses ways technology can enable the university to reach wider audiences. Examples include moving courseware content to mobile platforms, using SMS messaging to gather research data, and using mobile devices to scale the collection of oral histories. Digital objects scale in ways that physical objects cannot and these projects take advantage of this scale to expand the reach of the university.

Not to be missed in this section is R U Up 4 it? Collecting Data via Texting: Developing and Testing of the Youth Ecological Momentary Assessment System (YEMAS). R U Up 4 it? is the story of using SMS (texting) to gather real-time survey data from teen populations.

Propagating the Meme

The stories and practical experiences recorded in Cultivating Change in the Academy are valuable in their own right. It is a great resource for ideas and shared experience for anyone looking for creative ways to leverage technology to achieve educational goals. For this reader though, the real value of this project is the format used to create it. The book is full of valuable and interesting content. However, in the digital world, content isn’t king. As Corey Doctorow tells us:

Content isn’t king. If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you’d choose your friends — if you chose the movies, we’d call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.[2. http://boingboing.net/2006/10/10/disney-exec-piracy-i.html]

The process the University of Minnesota followed to generate conversation around technology and student success is detailed in a white paper. [3. http://bit.ly/Rj5AIR] After reading some of the stories in Cultivating Change, if you find yourself wishing similar conversations could take place on your campus, this is the road-map the University of Minnesota followed. Before they were able to publish their stories, the University of Minnesota had to bring together their faculty, staff, and administration to talk about employing innovative technological solutions to the project of increasing student success. In a time when conversation trumps content, a successful model for creating these kinds of conversations on our own campuses will also trump the written record of other’s conversations.

 

Tablets in Library Workflows: Revolution & Healthy Skepticism

 Originally posted in ACRL TechConnect 2012/11/25.

Tablet Revolution: Healthy Skepticism

Tablets and mobile computing have been the subject of a lot of Internet hype. A quick search for “tablet revolution” will confirm this, but if we’re appropriately skeptical about the hype cycle, we’ll want to test the impact of tablets on our library ourselves. We can do this in a few ways. We can check the literature to see what studies have been done. [1. Pew. Tablet and E-book reader Ownership Nearly Double Over the Holiday Gift-Giving Period. Pew Internet Libraries. http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/01/23/tablet-and-e-book-reader-ownership-nearly-double-over-the-holiday-gift-giving-period/.] We can check our web analytics to see which devices are being used to access our web sites. [2. Wikipedia contributors. 2012. Mobile web analytics. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., September 13. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mobile_web_analytics&oldid=510528022.] We can also walk the public areas in our libraries and count patrons working on tablets. These investigations can tell us how and how often tablets are being used, but they don’t tell us how or if tablets are revolutionizing library use.

In order to better answer this question, I started a little project. Over the last year, I’ve been using informal methods to track the effects that tablet use have on my work. I secured some equipment funding and acquired an Apple iPad 2 and an Android tablet, the Asus Transformer Prime. I started doing my work on these devices, keeping an eye on how they changed my daily workflow, how suited they were to my daily tasks, and whether or not they increased my productivity or the quality of my work. Over the course of the year I can report that tablets have changed the way I work. Most of the changes are incremental, but there are at least a couple cases of genuine revolution to report.

Deploying Tablets in my Workflow

As I spent some time doing my work using the tablets, I discovered there were three possible results to my efforts to integrate them into my daily work. Some tasks simply did not translate well to the tablet environment. Other tasks translated fairly seamlessly to the tablet environment; what I could do on a computer I could also do on a tablet. Finally there were a few cases where the affordances of the tablets: touch interface, networked portability, and app environment enabled me to do my work in new ways, ways not possible using a traditional workstation or laptop.

The first sort of task, the kind in which tablets failed to produce positive results, tended to involve heavy processing requirements, the need to connect peripheral devices, or involved complex software programs not ported to mobile apps. Examples included editing image, sound, or video files; analyzing datasets; and creating presentation slides. The tablets lacked the processing power, peripheral interfaces, or fine interface control to make them adequate platforms for the editing tasks. Statistical analysis software shares the same heavy processor requirements and I was unable to find mobile apps equivalent to SPSS or Atlas TI. In the case of presentation slides, all the necessary conditions for success seemed to be present. Keynote for iOS is a great app, but I was never satisfied with the quality of my tablet-created presentations and soon returned to composing my slides in Keynote on my laptop. As a general rule of thumb, I found tasks that require lots of processing power, super-fine input control (fingers and even styli are imprecise on touch screens), or highly-specialized software environments to be poor candidates for moving to tablets.

The majority of my day-to-day work tasks fell into a second set of tasks, these tasks enabled me to easily replace my traditional computer with a tablet. I discovered that after a little research to discover the proper apps and a little time to learn how to use them, a tablet was a good as a computer, most of the time. At first, I experimented with treating the tablet as a small portable computer. I acquired Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard and the keyboard dock accessory for the Transformer and was able to do word processing, text editing and coding, email, instant messaging, and pretty much any browser-based activity without significant adjustment. I found text entry without a keyboard to be too clumsy a process for serious work. Tablets also are ideal for server-administration, since the computer on the other end handled the heavy lifting. There are SSH, FTP, and text editing apps that make tablets perfect remote administration environments. I also found text-based tasks like writing, email, chat, reading, and most things browser-based or whose files live in the cloud or on a server can be done just as well on a tablet as it can on a workstation or laptop.

The limitation to this general rule is that in some cases the iPad presented file management difficulties. The iOS defaults push users into using iTunes and iCloud to manage documents. If you like these options, there is no problem. I found these options lacking in flexibility, so I had to engage in a little hackery to get access to the files I needed on the iPad. Dropbox and Evernote are good examples of cloud storage apps that work once you learn how to route all your documents through them. In the end, I found myself preferring apps that access personal cloud space (Jungledisk) or my home NAS storage (Synology DS File) in my workflow. The Transformer Prime required fewer document-flow kluges and its keyboard accessory includes a USB flash-drive interface which is very useful for sharing documents with local colleagues and doesn’t require a fancy workaround.

A second limitation I encountered was in accessing web video content. Not frequently, but often enough to be noticed, certain web video files (Flash encoded) would not play on the iPad. The Android tablet is Flash capable and suffered fewer of these problems. Video isn’t a key part of my workflow, so for me this is mearly an annoyance, not a serious hindrance to productivity.

Touching Revolution

Of course, simply duplicating the capabilities of traditional computer environments in a smaller form-factor is not revolutionary. As long as I was using a tablet as if it were a smaller computer, then my work didn’t change, only the tools I was doing it with changed. It was when I started working outside of the keyboard and mouse interface model and started touching my work that new ways of approaching tasks presented themselves. When I started using a stylus to write on the screen of a tablet the revolution became apparent.

As an undergraduate, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book [3. Mortimer Adler, How to read a book, Rev. and updated ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).] was a required reading and their lesson on annotation while we read stuck with me. When it comes to professional development reading, annotation is absolutely necessary to comprehension and integration of content. Thus Amazon’s Kindle reader app for Android and iOS became my favorite ebook platform, due to its superior system for taking and sharing reading notes across platforms. I rely so heavily on annotations that I cannot do my work using ebook platforms that don’t allow me to take notes in text. In the same vein, I use personal copies of printed books for my research instead of borrowed library copies, because I have to write in the margins to process ideas.

Tablets revolutionized my reading when I discovered PDF annotation apps that allowed me to use a stylus to write on the top of documents. Apps like Notetaker HD and iAnnotate for iOS and ezPDF Reader for Android give readers the digital advantage of unlimited amounts of text without the bulk and weight of paper printouts. They also give the reader analog advantages of free-hand highlighting and writing notes in the margin. Combine these advantages with Zotero-friendly apps such as Zotpad, Zotfile, and Zandy that connect my favorite discovery tool to my tablet and I found myself reading more, taking better notes, and drawing clearer connections between documents. The portability of digital files on a mobile wirelessly connected device combined with the stylus and touch-screen method of text input enabled me to interact with my reading in ways impossible using either printed paper or a traditional computer monitor and keyboard. Now, my entire library and all of my reading lists came with me everywhere, so I carved out more time to read each week. When I opened a text, I was able to capture my thoughts about the reading more accurately and completely. This wasn’t just reading in a different medium, it was reading in a different method and it worked better than the way I had been doing before.

Tablets with reading annotation apps revolutionized the way that I read and organized my reading notes, but they had an even bigger impact on the way that I grade student papers. I love teaching, but grading essays is a task that I dread. Essays are heavy and hard to carry around. When I have essays with me, I have a constant and irrational background fear that someone will steal my car and I’ll lose irreplaceable student work. When I started using the tablet, I had my students submit their essays in PDF format. Then, I read their work in a similar manner to my professional reading. I read the essays on a tablet, using the stylus to highlight passages and write feedback in the margins. When I was finished, I could email the document back to the student and also keep an archived copy. This solved a number of paper distribution and unique copy problems. The students got better feedback more quickly and I always had a reference copy if questions arose later in the term.

A Personal Revolution

Taken by themselves, these reading and grading innovations may sound like incremental changes, not revolutions. For example, laptops are quite portable and we’ve had the ability to add notes and comments to PDF documents for a long time. There is no reason I couldn’t adopt this workflow without buying an additional expensive gadget, except that I couldn’t. I tried electronic reading and grading workflows before I had a tablet and rejected them. Reading on a computer monitor and typing comments into a PDF didn’t result in interesting thoughts about the reading. I tried grading by adding comments to PDF documents on a laptop and found my feedback comments to be arid and less helpful than the remarks I wrote in the margins of paper essays, so I switched back to colored pen on paper. These experiences are all anecdotal and personal, but accurately describe my experience. With a tablet, the feel of touching a screen and writing with a stylus enabled an organic flow of thoughts from my brain to the text. I can list the affordances of mobile computing that make this possible: ubiquitous wireless broadband networking, touch interface, lightweight and portable devices, a robust app ecology, and cloud storage of documents. The revolution lies in how these technical details combined in my workflow to creates an environment where I did better work with fewer distractions and more convenience.

Next Steps

One requirement to justify the time and expense of this project is that I share my findings. This post is an effort in that direction, but I will also be offering a series of faculty workshops on using tablets in academic workflows. I’m planning a workshop where faculty can put their hands on a range of tablet devices, a petting zoo of tablets. There will also be a workshop on reading app for tablets and one on grading workflows. One challenge to presenting what I’ve learned about tablets is that most of what I have learned is personal. I’ve spoken with scholars who do not share my preference for hand-written thoughts; my workflows are not revolutionary for them. What ultimately may be the most beneficial result of my project is uncovering a method for effectively communicating emerging technology experiences with non-technologically inclined colleagues.