We are North Dakota – We Get our Teachers for Cheap

Cindy and I had a brief argument over coffee this morning. It turns out I had skimmed an editorial in the GF Herald (I mean, really, who reads the Herald carefully). The source was an opinion piece written by Tom Dennis concerning the differences between the way North Dakota and Wisconsin have addressed teacher concerns (my comments on teacher unions can be found elsewhere). Dennis makes the point that ND continues to allow public sector unions to exist. This is what I focused on and probably the point at which I went back to reading on my iPad.

She was right – the Dennis position is a little convoluted, but here is the next section that I did not read carefully enough:

Because North Dakota law keeps public-sector unions comparatively weak. That has kept public-sector wages and benefits, including pensions, below the national average — sometimes far below.

And that, in turn, has kept the heat of resentment against the public-sector workforce and state government turned down very low.


Because North Dakota voters still think they get value for their tax dollar. And it really is as simple as that.

Let me begin with this – imagine yourself trying to process this as a college student with some academic talent. Is this the kind of message that would encourage you to focus on education as a career and on North Dakota as your destination?Imagine trying to process this as a parent of a college student knowing your kid has the aptitude to do well in whatever major he or she decides to pursue.

Imagine this when applied to another profession that draws on students with comparable service-oriented values – “come to North Dakota, we pay our nurses less.”

So, the issue with teacher salaries is not just that the salaries can be poor, it is also about the public attitude toward those who teach. I encountered this post from a well-known education blogger in Texas. This is what I was reading on my iPad.

How about this – tell a teacher you are sorry we take advantage of them. Use “we are cheap” as an excuse if you can think of nothing else.

Open Source Textbooks

This is the video that started me thinking about about open source textbooks. In trying to determine if David Wiley had more concrete recommendations on this submit, I was able to locate his site. There I found links to several businesses focused on open source. Note – open source is not exactly the same as free. I was most interested in Flat World Knowledge. For purposes of evaluation, I looked for psychology and found an Intro Psychology book. I happen to be teaching this college course at this time.

It appears that this is a scribd publication – the pdf version bears this label.  The author makes some money if the book is printed or purchased, but not viewed online – I assume the same is true for the distributor. I was interested in cost – $2.50 to print a chapter, $25 to print the book, $35 to purchase a black and white version, $25 for the ebook version.

So, just some thoughts. I am assuming this resource is of equal quality to the text I am presently using – hard to say if this is true and I am betting the established authors are still going with publishers. I use a custom print from Cengage that contains 10 chapters. The $200 figure Wiley quotes must be for books in chemistry or something. I think most educators realize that a $200 book cost would statistically atypical. Because I will use the Intro text I assign again, the student can sell this book back for half value. The students this semester are using a new black and white custom printed book for a little over $50 (actual cost after reselling). See my post on the “beer money ploy” for an explanation of how to interpret the real cost of textbooks. So, my interpretation is that the real cost comparison would be $35 + postage vs. about $50 at bookstore with return (I am assuming there is no practical way to return the $35 version for half your money back).

What would it cost the student to self-print? Not sure – I can’t really tell how many pages would be generated. That would be $25 + cost of printing. This has to be more expensive than purchasing the book for $35 unless you actually do not pay for the paper and printer supplies.

I think the ebook version might be a good deal. There does not seem to be much of an advantage for printed versions. The real cost savings here is to view the content online. Of course, the author gets nothing in this case and must hope that most students will opt for a print version. There must be data on viewing vs buying. It would be nice if these data were available. What do you think would happen if the online viewing option was not included?

Perhaps some of these numbers will be helpful. I think my numbers are realistic and take into account several variables that are typically not included.

Free should not equal lack of control

I have been thinking about doing a couple of posts focused on educators assumptions regarding the cost of instructional materials. So, in the spirit of using someone else’s work to create the background for our discussion, I would like you to read this NY Time article by David Carr. The author describes the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL for a reported $315 billion. The post is partly about who generates the content. The short version – much of the content is generated by bloggers who receive nothing. They are kind of upset.

The funny thing about all these frothy millions and billions piling up? Most of the value was created by people working free.

Most of the news on the site is rewritten from other sources, then given a single link to the original. Many media companies, used to seeing their scoops get picked off by HuffPo and others, have decided that legal action isn’t worth the bother. They might feel differently now.

First, I understand the reaction of the bloggers. Second, this notion of not understanding the difference between original sources (not necessarily primary by the normal definition) and rewriters needs to be appreciated. This is clearly a continuum, but where along the continuum the content you want to consume is located should be a significant issue.

Back to the issue of the bloggers – the individuals who really built the reputation of the site, not the infrastructure, were mostly people contributing their labor for free. So, why if they did what they did without compensation are they upset. One of the problems with free is that others seem to assume they have a right to decide how free will be used.

BTW – just in case you think my reference to the Carr piece represents some form of hypocrisy , I would encourage you to investigate the micropayment plan available through Readability.

Free pretty much equals shallow

I will get around to explaining the title near the end of this post.

In my previous post, I introduced an interesting idea I read about in MacWorld. The MacWorld article described a new service, Readability, and interesting mechanism for supporting content creators proposed by the company that created Readability.

So many of us make heavy use of products that organize and archive online content created by others. We use tools such as Diigo, Evernote, my current favorite Instapaper, or similar products to organize and archive resources. In a way, Readability does the same and is very much like Instapaper. It identifies the core content on a web page and archives this content without the “clutter” surrounding the content of interest. If you compare the following two images (reduced in size), it is pretty easy to see what I mean by reducing clutter. The core content is certainly presented in a way that is more readable.

What the developers of Readability noted was that what I have described as clutter may contain things, such as ads and links, the authors of content want you to see. Much in the same way we may skip over the ads in television content by using a TiVo or similar recording device, we have access to tools that allow us to ignore services that content developers may be counting on to support their commitment of time. The Reading people have proposed an alternative funding model. You put in $5 a month (or more). The money is collected by Amazon. The company creating Readability keeps 30% and distributes 70% to participating content providers. So, if you few the full pages you see the ads. If you avoid the ads by using Readability and sign up for “the plan”, you contribute with clicking through ad links.

So, I am giving it a try. I have committed my $60 AND I have signed up as a content provider. It is kind of an experiment. I wonder if this idea will go anywhere. It assumes people will be willing to make a contribution to support online content. You get to see how your $3.50 is allocated each month. I think it will be interesting to see who participates.

I am thinking it must be very early. The Readability web site describes apps for mobile devices and as far as I can tell, these apps are not yet available. There is also a predicted collaboration with Instapaper that I think has yet to actually be put into play.

Back to my title. I am coming to the conclusion that “the short form” is not enough. By this I am making a distinction between blog posts and books, between conference keynotes and courses, etc.  I am certainly not implying that posts and presentations are not interesting or useful, I am suggesting that they are not sufficient as educational resources. We have access to the stuff that is relatively easy to create, but not to resources that offer the big picture and tie things together. It takes far more work to offer long form content and this is what I am predicting we lose when we ignore and even circumvent ways to encourage author/developers to focus their time on larger products.

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Guilt Trip

A recent MacWorld description of Instapaper and Readability reminded me (and probably you if you try the link) that we accept conveniences that take advantage of others. These apps strip the text we want to read out of online pages and store the text for consumption at our leisure. We may accept this convenience with good intentions, but in doing so we accept an author’s content under conditions we and not the author have defined. The author may have wanted us to view and perhaps click an ad link. The author may have wanted us to view other work he or she created. We subvert such intentions even if we do so to improve our personal experience. We are functioning in an unethical fashion whether we choose to remain ignorant of the consequences of our behavior or not.

So much for my guilt trip, but I am on both sides of this issue. I really like Instapaper. I create content, not so much this blog, but book-length stuff that I want people to use from my site and not in a form and secured on a device of their choice. I could take my own content with Instapaper. This would be called a personal conflict.

As I understand the MacWorld article, Readability is creating and Instapaper is considering a model in which product users pay a fee that is partly dispersed to content providers. I think if you value such services this commitment is a good idea.