Electronic publishing overview

February 9th, 2015 11:36 AM
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Last month, I began my fourth semester teaching an undergraduate course in electronic publishing. I always start with an overview of computer history — not for "you kids don't know how good you have it" reasons, like when I taught high school students to use Visicalc, but because I consider it valuable for students to have a basic understanding of how the machinery and environment they'll be working came into being, and the decisions that were made decades ago that will affect their workflows and livelihoods.

We start with what might be considered ancient history, reviewing key figures in computing's history: Charles Babbage, Paul Baran, Tim Berners Lee. I suspected this might be the first semester in which the name Alan Turing might prove familiar. I was right: Benedict Cumberbatch's turn in that role had drawn my students to see The Imitation Game. We had a brief but fun discussion about how Turing's already dramatic tale had been further dramatized for the silver screen, before returning to the topic at hand: learning to count in binary.

As part of this lecture, I employ plenty of props from my Apple II, including a 5.25" floppy disk and floppy disk notcher. It's always interesting to see how the students respond to these artifacts. Spring 2014 was the first semester where none of my students had used a 5.25" floppy before. I figured I'd passed a tipping point: students born in 1992 didn't grow up with this media. So I was pleasantly surprised when this year's students recognized the disk fondly. And I, of course, got a kick out of wondering, "Can you believe that we used to ship software on these things?" holding up the Lawless Legends demo I received from Martin Haye at KansasFest 2014.

My favorite exercise of the evening involves publishing — which is their major, after all, not computer science. It's 2015 and you want to distribute software to your print magazine's subscribers. How can you do so? A link, a QR code, a Steam code, even a CD — these are all viable delivery mechanisms… and none of them were applicable in 1986. Sure, you could maybe include a 5.25" disk in your magazine — but who does that? Instead I hand out an issue of Nibble magazine and let the students peruse it, until it finally registers what they're looking at — at which point their eyes get big and they ask, "Did they actually print the entire program in the magazine and ask people to type it in??"

Okay… so maybe I do want my students to know how good they have it.

Apple-inspired Emerson education

November 25th, 2013 10:59 PM
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Here in the States, it's Thanksgiving week, for which I'm thankful for a break from school. Even us teachers need time off now and then.

My undergraduate course in electronic publishing has completed 12 of its 14 weeks, with the remaining two dedicated to lab work and presentations. As I look back over this, my second semester teaching the course, I smile to consider how influenced it's been by my Apple II connections.

I always open the first night of class with a lecture on the history of the Internet — not because I want my students, born in 1992, to appreciate how good they have it, but because it's important to recognize that we didn't just wake up one day and the Internet existed: it evolved for reasons, to serve specific purposes. Props for the evening include punch cards and a Replica-1.

Almost every week of class includes a different guest lecturer, so continuing the theme of history, I brought in Jason Scott, an alumnus of both KansasFest and the school at which I teach. Rather than any prepared material, Jason hosted 90 minutes of Q&A about Wikipedia, Archive.org, Sockington, and more. His Mythapedia presentation was required listening, and the first chapter of BBS: The Documentary was optional viewing.

In the following weeks, the students had their first remote presenter: Kevin Savetz, another KansasFest alumnus, video chatting with us from his home on the West Coast. In another hour of Q&A, he shared with students his transition from writer to publisher (as also detailed in his memoir, Terrible Nerd), how Amazon.com has democratized print publishing in much the way the Web opened up online publishing, and how Kickstarter is doing the same thing for artists and inventors. I was intrigued that my students were most fascinated by Kevin's work archiving classic computer magazines. I discovered several of my students are considering careers in library science!

Another guest speaker was Chris Lackey, who is not an Apple II user but who designed the foundation for the modern KansasFest logo and appeared on one of the first episodes of Open Apple — a show that likely inspired me to incorporate podcasting as an exercise in my class. You can hear my students' work on The Pubcast, a weekly interview series.

The guest speaker lineup concluded on a high note with a detailed overview of how to use social media to promote and humanize a product or brand. The presenter, Annie Lynsen, has no Apple II connection — except I was introduced to her at a festival I was attending to hear chiptune artist 8 Bit Weapon perform.

The first wave of survivors of an Apple II educator.

The first wave of survivors of an Apple II educator.

Although graduates of my class will not have used an actual Apple II or done any research into vintage computers, they will nonetheless have indirectly been educated by the experiences and lessons that this early personal computer conferred upon a generation of the intellectually curious. My thanks to the many talented professionals who volunteer their time and expertise to my class, and for the Apple II that introduced us to make such academic collaborations possible.