Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More on the Future for Online Textbooks

AKMA, Funding Neopublishing, continues to post things of interest on the topic started by Anumma, Open Access Intro to OT. In my previous post on this topic, The Future for Textbooks Online (with thanks to Tim Bulkeley on Sansblogue for an excellent discussion of my post alongside AKMA's), I suggested that we don't have to begin working on projects like this from scratch. There are now so many fantastic resources available on the web that the big issue is not so much how we create great resources but rather how we organize and publicize the existing ones in ways that will be helpful to our students. I suggested as one model the evolving NT Gateway, though I express interest in looking at other related and overlapping models.

Let me add some related thoughts.  Anumma articulates his goals for this project as one that:
  • is freely available online;
  • is historical- and literary-critical in focus (as is a Coogan or a Collins, say; in other words, not a “theological introduction” narrowly reflecting the concerns of faith communities or other readerly social contexts);
  • is authored by a socially diverse body of contributors.
The first two elements are at the heart of a site like the NT Gateway -- it links to freely available materials and is itself free; it is historical-critical in focus; and the resources to which it links are as diverse as the authors that write them (which in fact means that too many of them are from too narrow a group, but that is a reflection, of course, of the state of the guild and something we could do something about in this kind of project).

Now, the advantages of beginning with what is already available on the net are several:
  • No re-inventing the wheel is necessary.  Where excellent and diverse resources already exist, freely available on the net, one may as well work to those strengths rather than attempting, at every point, to create new resources.
  • There is a huge psychological boost in working with existing resources rather than beginning from scratch.  A new project can be hugely daunting.  Working collaboratively to develop existing resources, to organize, to add, to fill in areas that are lacking -- this can be encouraging and fulfilling.
  • It is much, much cheaper than beginning from scratch.
  • It is much less labour intensive than beginning from scratch.
  • It is easier to harness the great advantage of the internet in being fully multi-media.  You can pull in a range of resources, prose paper, website, podcasts, video clips and so on without the need to develop new websites, to begin recording new audio and new video.
  • As children of our age, we are unduly impressed by what is new.  But sometimes, in scholarship, the old is good.  The advantage of a dynamic approach to this issue is that it enables us to draw from the storehouse both old and new.
I suspect that our difficulty in this area is that we are still inclined to think too narrowly in terms of the old-fashioned "textbook".  I would like to brainstorm a bit more about this, but I think it might need a separate post.


AKMA said...

Mark, I had been referring to our “throttle to knowledge” discussion from years ago.

I’d need to see more about exactly how you use the Gateway as an alternative to textbooks. But even if I were utterly convinced that yours is a marvellous alternative, I’m persuaded that having an organised, consistent, page-designed resource for teaching would be a worthwhile endeavour. I don’t see it as a problem that I might encourage students to think of (text)books as a resource for learning; once we get past the initial awkward adolescence of digital publishing, I’m inclined to think that book-reading will be in for a fresh wave of vitality.

So I tend to think that in the long run, the Gateway and new-media publishing will complement one another — but you're on top of the NT Gateway, and the field of book-like publishing still needs a big, hard, painful shove. And I my boots are made for kicking.

Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Mark
I am always interested in free resources so I thought that I would do a test of the NT Gateway. I entered Herod as a search parameter. The results were pretty sparse. E.g. I did not get a hit on Mahlon Smith's Into his own - which I think from 4 or 5 years ago has some great introductory articles on Herod. I have to admit, I used the NT Gateway years ago when static web pages were the rule - now I almost never go there (of course my work is in the psalms and stuff so I don't have such occasion at the moment).. Nonetheless - what does one do with so many possible resources outside of Google and a dash of - I don't think I really want to go there.

What I most value was the old all-in-one search - now I use the Blue Letter Bible extensively for analysis - recognizing that there are places in that website where I don't go. Nonetheless its move to unicode and its fundamental design allow me to confirm a large number of structural and usage questions with a few clicks. It is static but a very good systemic approach to words as far as it goes (with some miserable limitations).

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, AKMA. While I still find that term, "throttle to knowledge" a bit shocking, I think we are at least partly in agreement here. I am trying to talk about ways in which sites like the NT Gateway can help to fulfil the vision of a more integrated, collaborative, digital textbook of the kind that you are imagining. To an extent this is happening already. At the beginning of Ehrman's Historical Introduction to the NT, he chooses to mention just the NT Gateway as a resource for students looking for websites to complement what they are reading in his book. But my point is that we can move a step beyond that and rethink the idea of "textbook" as a single-authored, bound resource created all at the same time. I think you are wanting to do the same kind of rethinking, which is where I see us overlapping. The difference between us I think comes down to the extent of the rethink. What you are envisaging is still something that closely resembles the traditional textbook, but has a bit more multi-authorship, and some different media involved. What I envisage is something similar but more radical that draws in, organizes and publicizes existing great resources.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, Bob. Sorry to hear that the NT Gateway is not speaking to your needs these days. The search box on the NT Gateway does not search each of the resources that are listed, though that kind of search would be something useful and it is something that I have experimented with before, including in the All-in-One Biblical Resources Search that you mention. I miss that resource -- I put a massive amount of time into it but eventually I had to retire it (in the sense of parking it and stopping updating it) because the forms-based technology I was using had become outdated.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for the reply Mark - I decided to do another test - suppose I remembered Mahlon Smith had something on Herod - I tried his name in the NT search box and was somewhat confused about the results. His name did not appear on the results list but there were repeated mentions of websites with no links except on the heading. Linking there got me closer. But not to Herod. So I put Mahlon Smith Herod into Google. Google gets it on the first page. The search in NT Gateway doesn't get a hit on that search.
For scanning and study your links are great - but you are right about the search - it needs to index all the links and their content as well - someone must have solved this problem before. Google may have an engine that would do it and make it available free to such a site.

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi again, Bob. The kind of thing you are looking for is, I think, the Deinde Biblical Studies search -- That searches all the links on the NT Gateway, iTanakh and a range of other resources. In fact, I had forgotten about it until reading your comment, so it might be worth a post from me for others who may have forgotten about it. There's a blog search facility there too, but it is pulling material from an older set of blogs, e.g. the NT Blog is not on there.

AKMA said...

If someone made available the kind of proximity-weighted search that I talked about back in 2004, Bob wouldn’t have this problem; one could search the entire web for “Herod,” but have the results weighted by their closeness to Mark and Mahlon Smith and Chris Heard (for example). That way, the same web results would come up, but the priority would be determined by how likely they were to be mentioned by one’s reference authors. Searching a Gateway site always entails limiting the possible results to what the Gatekeeper has already found. That, ahem, constitutes at least a minor inhibitor (is that less shocking?) to the flow of information.
But I greatly enjoy taking up sympathetic-but-divergent quibbles and quarrels with you, Mark. If I were more telegenic and there were an audience for it, we might make an amusing panel show, since there’s hardly anything on which we simply agree, but also hardly anything on which we’re actually directly opposed to one another.

Mark Goodacre said...

Good thoughts, AKMA, as always. I always enjoy chatting about these things with you. Comments on your blog greatly appreciated too.

Have you thought of trying to put a prototype of the proximity search thing into action? I'd bet it would be easier to do now than it would have been when we were talking about it in 2004. I think I'd need to see it illustrated before I fully understood it.

I tend to see searches as a fairly minor element in gateway resources, though the Deinde search gives some idea of the advantages of a search that is well worked out. I'd bet Danny wouldn't mind if we were to go a bit more collaborative on that front too.