Archive for March 2013
California State Senator Darrell Steinberg is co-sponsoring SB 520, titled “California Virtual Campus.” The Senate Bill would potentially enable California students to receive credit at public universities and colleges (UCs, CSUs, and CCCs) for courses taken online from any source. This would presumably stimulate competition, lower course costs, and make higher education available to more Californians.
Predictably, there is resistance from faculty associations. The Berkeley Faculty Association, for example, is circulating a petition to oppose SB 520. The petition states that SB 520 “will lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socio-economic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education.”
This, of course, is all nonsense. Nearer the truth is that the Berkeley Faculty Association wants to protect faculty jobs. It is sad indeed when they place their own job security ahead of sensible efforts to make higher education affordable and accessible to more Californians.
That said, anything the State Government touches will be tainted by money. No doubt many private online universities (e.g., Univer$ity of Phoenix) will jump at the new chance to make money. Whether online universities are actively lobbying State Senators is anybody’s guess (but what do you think?).
What we ought to do is to simply eliminate expensive and needless accreditation requirements for undergraduate colleges, whether brick-and-mortar or virtual. Consumers and market competition would then assure the highest quality courses for the lowest price. We should similarly eliminate four-year degrees, which are meaningless. People should take classes for the purpose of learning, not to get a degree. If undergraduate education were completely de-regulated, everybody – minorities included – would follow their natural inclinations to educate themselves, and select high-quality vendors. A world-class college lecture series would cost no more than to rent a Blu-Ray movie.
Lately I’ve been reading an essay by the Christian Transcendentalist and anti-war writer, Caleb Sprague Henry, titled, The Importance of Elevating the Intellectual Spirit of the Nation (1837).
It’s an excellent essay, and supports my growing conviction that people were more literate and intellectually sophisticated in the 19th century than they are today, and that those of us who are interested in elevating culture should spend more time reading 19th century works like this one.
I’ll devote another post to a general discussion of his essay. At present the important point is his suggestion that (1) the work of scholars is vitally important in preserving culture, and, (2) inasmuch as scholars seldom receive sufficient support from the public at large or governments, we need to help each other — building up a Brotherhood of Scholars, to use his phrase.
In view of this, the goal of this post is for me to share with other modern scholars some of the technological tools that I’ve found most helpful. By ‘scholars’, of course, I don’t mean people who do research for selfish reasons — money, glory, or academic tenure. But rather for those true scholars who feel genuinely called to this work for moral and spiritual reasons: for God’s glory, and to help humanity. (If to write such a thing as the last sentence seems incredibly ‘old school’ by today’s standards, that is indicative of the very problem we face today: a disconnection of society from spiritual values.)
Nevertheless, anyone is more than welcome to benefit from the suggestions offered here.
In rough order of descending value, here are my favorite technological tools for scholarship:
When I learn of a new book of possible interest, the first thing I do is check Google Books to see if it is previewable there. If it is an older book, and I’m only interested in a chapter, I click the gear icon on the upper right to see if full text is available. If so, I cut and paste the plain text into a Word document (unfortunately this can only be done a few pages at a time) so I have my own file. I highlight when I read, so simply reading in the Google Books preview window isn’t a good option.
If the book is new, then you can’t view plain text, and can only preview page images. In this case I use the next tool.
This is very simple tool that (1) takes a snapshot of any area of your computer screen, and (2) applies optical character recognition (OCR) to convert any text in the image to editable text. So, for example, I preview a page of a book in Google Books, press a hotkey to invoke Screenshot Reader, capture and translate the text, and paste it into a Microsoft Word document for later reading. I might do this for several pages or even an entire chapter, if that’s available for previewing.
Back to older books. If I want to download an older book in pdf format, I usually don’t do this from Google Books. The reason is that Google Books pdf files are not editable. So instead I use the next website.
Many older books I want have been scanned and uploaded to archive.org, where they can be downloaded. Books are available in several formats, including epub and pdf. Unlike Google Books, these pdf files are usually editable (which means that you can highlight and copy passages from them).
If it’s a newer book I want, then I may need to buy it. Often I buy used versions. A handy feature of Amazon is that it includes a link to used copies of a given title. I pick a used version that looks promising (good price, not beat-up, reliable vendor), and Amazon centralizes the ordering and billing.
This is my nearest university library. While I have my issues with the CalState University System generally, I’m not one to ‘bite the hand that feeds me.’ As a member of the community (i.e., non-student and non-faculty), I’m allowed to read books in the library — and, importantly, to use the computers for scanning books. This is a very generous policy, and not all universities, not even all public universities, are so considerate.
Sometimes I bring in a book I’ve bought, or sometimes take a book off the shelves there — and use the large-bed scanners and OCR software to produce an editable pdf version. By this point it might be apparent to readers that I do not read paper books anymore. For me, anything worth reading is worth excerpting from — and that’s much easier to do with a pdf file.
I can also use the library computers to download reprints from JSTOR.
The Great Courses is a great idea. They offer university-level courses on video or mp3 files. The mp3 versions especially are a real bargain. I’ve previously listed what I consider to be some of their better courses here.
Want to play an mp3 lecture in your car, but don’t have a port built into the car’s audio system? No problem. Buy one of these babies, plug it into your cigarette lighter, and you’re good to go. It has a built-in transmitter that sends a signal to your car radio. You supply the mp3 file(s) via a an SD card or USB memory stick that plugs into the unit.
These are great. The only problem is that the quality varies. Some put out a weak signal, which produces a lot of static when listening. To be honest, I buy cheapo imports two or three at a time, and just use the one that works best.
Sometimes I end up with a pdf file that is not editable (e.g., from Google Books.) In that case I process the file with ABBY PDF Transformer. This performs OCR and produces an editable pdf file (or MS Word document if you prefer). However, if you have a new version of Adobe Acrobat, that will do the same thing.
For a while I experimented with text-to-speech software to convert scanned books and typed documents into synthesized speech. (I could then, e.g., listen to a book in my car.) This was an interesting experiment, though eventually I found even the best speech synthesis (the technology is quite amazing) kind of boring to listen to. It’s probably better for technical material than literature. Nevertheless, I wanted to mention this as an option.
Of course, no list would be complete without YouTube. There’s a ton of educational and edifying material at YouTube. Just search for “documentaries” to get started.