The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

Paving the road to the Web (or just spreading gravel)

On Jan. 19, 1995, I called to order the first meeting of a 10-person Chicago Tribune committee charged by our bosses with figuring out the Internet.

By March 29 … yes, just twenty years ago … we were done.

(Must have been the head start: Since 1992, the company had been running Chicago Online, a service on America Online that was about to become profitable … thanks to the number of hours its users were spending not so much reading the news, but chatting with each other.)

Of course, our merry little cross-functional band knew full well we weren’t done. But we were done enough to pitch a vision and a business plan, and to argue for the organizational bandwidth needed to hire about 18 new staffers. And then to turn them loose.

We also knew that even if we persuaded the bosses to go for our ideas, we could still screw it up. “An uncompetitive or uncompelling product invites ridicule, or worse, complete uninterest,” I wrote. “Reputations are made and lost on the Internet as quickly as technology changes; what once was ‘innovative reuse of content’ is now ‘shovelware.’ A substandard or merely mediocre product not only puts at risk our reputation for technological innovation; it also provides an opening for competitors.”

But enough quoting from source material, whether the prose be deathless or deadly. Here’s just the executive summary of that lengthy document … now-outdated or merely quaint verbiage unchanged … just as it looked when it officially saw the light of day in the Medill Room on the second floor of Tribune Tower. (Actually, it was a dimly lit room; can I blame that for the fact that I didn’t see just how fast it was all going to happen?) Click the image immediately below to navigate to a more readable PDF version that also includes the final two paragraphs that noted we’d need not only to hire new folks, but also to actually retain them.


Only one member of that committee, the intrepid Eric Zorn, remains at the Tribune. Props here to the rest, alphabetically: Barbara Boyer, Carolyn Crafts, Larry Druth, Kurt Fliegel, Judith Hoffman, Ann Marie Lipinski, the late Jim Szott, and Dave Wortsman. Whatever we didn’t get done in the years that immediately followed was my fault, not theirs.

The third time, but the first time too

On Monday, October 6, the classroom doors will swing open for the third session of my Coursera MOOC, “Understanding Media by Understanding Google.” I was just comparing the syllabi for this session and the first one, which launched in September of 2013, for a reality check on whether I’ve been keeping it current. Out of 70 links to videos, news articles, and blog posts in the weekly readings, 23 hadn’t yet been published when we began Session One (and the other two-thirds still are really, really good!).

That was part of the strategy for this course all along, of course. By relying on the readings for the very latest developments,  the video lectures have been relatively straightforward to update because they focus heavily on the six books around which the course is built. (For better or worse, I just didn’t receive the newest round of relevant books in time to make any wholesale changes; the newest, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg’s “How Google Works,” came out last week, and Nicholas Carr’s new “The Glass Cage” is supposed to arrive this week. They’ll be fair game for the next on-campus version of the class, I daresay.)

With a week to go to the launch, enrollment is running somewhat behind the first two sessions, which the Coursera folks tell me is par for the course, not least because the overall number of classes on platform continues to grow even as they drift a little bit farther off most people’s radar. Today, in an excerpt from his forthcoming bookMOOC U: Who Is Getting the Most Out of Online Education and Why,” contributing editor Jeffrey Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education posits that “the primary players—Coursera, edX, and their college sponsors—need to answer three fundamental questions about the position of MOOCs in the academic ecosystem if the technology is ever to deliver on some of its promises”:

  • What role should MOOCs play at traditional colleges and universities?
  • How do colleges make open online courses actually open?
  • How can the quality and success of MOOCs be measured?

One of his essential points, with which there can be little argument, is that “we should eventually expect more from MOOCs given the time and money colleges have spent developing and offering” them. While I disagree with him that here at Northwestern we “still view free online courses through the lens of the traditional, on-campus students they are accustomed to teaching,” there is a real imperative in figuring out how they fit into a university’s overall approach to all of its constituencies. This was among the themes of the material I wrote during and after the first session, in case you didn’t see any of it.

At any rate, there’s still room for you in the front row of the new session. As I have said before, with a cheerful nod to the Firesign Theatre: Line up, sign up, and re-enlist today.

We celebrate the book, and sing the e-book

IMG_2369 IMG_2362IMG_2371Looking at Julia Keller’s new e-short story: My Kindle Fire, Kindle DX, and Nexus 7. Admittedly, none of this hardware is of recent vintage…

This Saturday (June 7), I’ll be returning to the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest for the first time in a couple of years. It’s the 30th anniversary of an event that was called the Printers Row Book Fair when we acquired it from the Near South Planning Board a dozen years ago. My longtime colleague and Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor invited me back for a panel called “The Digital Revolution,” its general topic being “the many digital developments that are transforming the publishing industry.” (Event details at the end of this post.)

As it happens, the first thing that Liz and I worked on together was itself a “digital development”—a standalone Web site for the Tribune books section called “Chicago Books,” developed for us by Jimmy Guterman and which launched in August of 1997 even though only a fraction of the section’s readers were yet even online — and when, according to my files, a week of 30,000 Books page views was a big deal. (If you want to re-enter that version of the world, check out this piece by Donna Seaman from that month: “Learning to Crawl: Book Lovers Go On-Line.”)

Also as it happens, this is also the week in my Coursera MOOC “Understanding Media by Understanding Google” where one of the two topics being discussed is the impact of the Web in general, and Google in particular, on the book business (the other is the news business). One of the ideas I have put out for agreement or disagreement is taken from Steven Levy’s In the Plex, in which he quotes librarian John Wilkin of the University of Michigan: “Twenty years from now, interaction with a physical book will be rare. Most of that interaction will be in the study of books as artifacts.”

Does my worldwide student body agree? Continue reading

Is it a Google, Google, Google, Google world?

Worldwide visitors to "The next miracle"

This Jetpack heat map shows the 152 countries from which users have visited since I began teaching through Coursera.

For me the most fascinating part of teaching a massively open online course is coming into contact with so many motivated learners from around the world — or, more properly, interacting with them as they share their perspectives on the questions raised in the readings, video lectures, and forums.

As the second session of “Understanding Media by Understanding Google” got underway with (so far) about 31,000 students from 168 countries, I presented this question in the Coursera discussion forums as part of beginning the group exploration:

Early in Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book, The Googlization of Everything, he notes that skepticism and suspicion of Google’s motives seems higher in Europe and other parts of the world than in the United States. What do you find to be true in your own country?

The comments that follow, culled from the first 165 that were posted in response, have been lightly edited for concision. Continue reading

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