Textbooks in a Digital Age: The History of Canada Online

Digital technologies are changing the way we read history. With the popularization of consumer electronic e-readers like Kindle, Sony Reader, Kobo, and (yes) iPad, many textbook publishers are trying to take advantage of this opportunity to reach digital reading audiences.

Unfortunately, the Kindle DX digital textbook pilot program at Princeton had a rocky start and further reviews haven’t been favourable. Some universities are now experimenting with Apple’s iPad as a digital reader for the classroom. Many of the complaints about these digital readers, however, tend to focus on the hardware and not the e-book software. Obviously the hardware plays a significant role in the digital reading experience, but it is on the software side where we are likely to see the most exciting innovation in the development of e-textbooks.

Northern Blue Publishing is a digital textbook publisher and e-learning company that seems to be making a genuine effort to harness the advantages of digital technologies for textbooks. Rather than simply replicating a print reading experience on screen, Northern Blue uses wiki-based publishing software to produce customizable textbook offerings for schools and libraries with print-on-demand, DVD or CD publishing options, and flexible licensing. This not only provides school boards and educators affordable textbooks but it uses the advantages of digital publishing over print publishing to produce a more customizable digital reading experience for teachers and students.

The History of Canada Online is one such project that illustrates many of the advantages of digital technologies for textbook publishing. Dr. Alastair Sweeny from Northern Blue answered a few questions about this project:

Sean Kheraj: What is The History of Canada Online project all about?

Alastair Sweeny: We are producing a line of digital textbooks as a business (and a passion).

SK: What are the origins of The History of Canada Online? How did this project start?

AS: It goes back to work we did in the late 1980s, specifically Canadisk, Canada’s first multimedia CD-ROM.  This contained a timeline of Canadian history plus a digital library and image base, all indexed.  We did it as a joint venture with Encyclopedia  Britannica, who were also selling Compton’s Multimedia CD-ROM at the time.

When Britannica flamed out, due to competition from MS Encarta, we bought out their interest, continued on our own, and when teacher and McGraw-Hill author Nick Brune approached us, we pulled together a full scale online textbook portal.

SK: Who is the main audience for HCO?

AS: Middle secondary to early college.  It could be used as supplement for a first year university survey course.  We are doing a junior version as well.  See our current line here:

SK: Can you explain how you are using the wiki technology for HCO?

AS: We use Mediawiki builds, but customize the software, page design and so on.  It is very good, robust open source software, and it automatically indexes new pages and changes, and sends changes out as RSS if people want to subscribe.

Wikitext is fairly easy to learn and our authors are soon comfortable with writing online. Students who use Wikipedia also find it very easy to use.  But under our licences, users can mix media.  The NWT government for example are creating CD’s with the chapters because some of the far north village schools don’t have Web access, but they do have computers with optical drives.

SK: Where might this work go in the future?

AS: The portals are flexible and easy to update.  We hope to get more and more teacher and student input in future. We are also producing ebook apps that will be free to subscribers.

Take a look at The History of Canada Online and let me know what you think. Is this a good model for textbook publishing? Do you know of other digital textbook projects doing similar work? Let me know in the comments section.


What the Copyright Modernization Act Means for Historians

Last week the federal government tabled its long anticipated copyright reform legislation for first reading in the House of Commons. The Copyright Modernization Act or Bill C-32 attempts to overhaul many of the out-dated provisions of Canada’s copyright law that have fallen far behind major technological changes of the last thirty years. For instance, under the proposed legislation, it would now be legal for Canadians to rip a CD to an iPod. Unfortunately, as we give a sarcastic slow-clap for this long overdue “reform” to legalize what has been common (and soon to be obsolete) consumer behaviour for nearly a generation, the canonization of digital locks overrides all of the new fair dealing rights in the bill. And this may be a huge problem for history researchers and educators.

The summary statement for the proposed legislation ambitiously states that one of the eight major reforms will be to “allow educators and students to make greater use of copyright material.” It delivers on this point in some very positive ways, particularly in section 29: “Fair dealing for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody or satire does not infringe copyright.” Educators are specifically protected under section 29.4(1) which stipulates that “It is not an infringement of copyright for an educational institution or a person acting under its authority for the purposes of education or training on its premises to reproduce a work, or do any other necessary act, in order to display it.” There are even provisions to protect the use of copyright-protected content for online distance education. However, the online instructor must “destroy any fixation of the lesson within 30 days after the day on which the students who are enrolled in the course to which the lesson relates have received their final course evaluations.”

Researchers, librarians, and archivists can breathe a little easier whenever they operate a photocopier or digital camera thanks to a number of amendments in Bill C-32. Libraries and archives may now make copies of copyright-protected materials for researchers “to be used solely for research or private study and that any use of the copy for a purpose other than research or private study may require the authorization of the copyright owner of the work in question.” This seems obvious and should have been part of a more flexible definition of fair dealing, but for history researchers it is welcomed (if a compromise).

All of these new rights and provisions for educators and researchers, of course, are undone by a single line in the proposed legislation regarding technological protection measures and rights management information under section 41 of the bill: “No person shall circumvent a technological protection measure.” If any of the material needed for research, study, or teaching is protected by a so-called digital lock, it is illegal to copy that material. Like the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Canada’s Copyright Modernization Act obliterates all of the liberal reforms that Canadians asked for during last summer’s copyright consultations. At best, this is a careless oversight on the part of the responsible ministers. But with the government’s recent defence of section 41, it seems clear that this is not the case. At worst, this is simply deception to serve the interests of a powerful copyright lobby, representing major media publishing corporations.

As Dr. Michael Geist argues, this is fixable. The supremacy of digital locks or technological protection measures must be removed from this bill if it is to be of any use to history researchers and educators. To read more about this topic and have your voice heard, visit Speak Out on Copyright.

To read a PDF copy of Bill C-32, click here.

Canadian Environmental History on the Radio

You can now listen to Nature’s Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast, on the radio (in Prince George)! The kind folks at CFUR 88.7, the campus radio station at the University of Northern British Columbia will be broadcasting the full series of Nature’s Past this summer. This will be the first time that the podcast will make the jump to radio.

I’m obviously very pleased to have the podcast aired on CFUR and I’d love to get it out to more campus radio stations. If you are looking for content to air on your campus radio station, please get in touch with me and let me know. You can contact me through the Nature’s Past Twitter account @naturespast or via email.

If you happen to be in Prince George over the summer, tune in to 88.7 on your FM dial at noon on Wednesdays to catch Nature’s Past. Thanks CFUR!

A Different Kind of Environmental History Workshop

The Network in Canadian History & Environment New Scholars group will be hosting its own graduate student workshop this October, but it’s a different kind of workshop.

If you visit the Place and Placelessness website at http://virtualeh.wordpress.com/ you’ll see that this is no ordinary workshop. There’s no conference centre and hotel. There are no three-paper panels followed by questions and comments sessions. There are no travel costs. This is a virtual workshop hosted online through Skype conference calls and the Place and Placelessness website.

This model was derived from the success of the NiCHE New Scholars Reading Group, a monthly workshop where graduate students submit works in progress for review by a group of 4-5 peers who submit written comments and then participate in a live Skype conference call to discuss the given paper. For the past eight months, this group has reviewed draft essays, articles, and chapters from graduate students across Canada (and the world) with great results. This virtual workshop will expand that model and bring together a much larger group of graduate students.

The Place and Placelessness virtual workshop has now released a call for participants. They are looking for graduate students “in any related discipline on topics that address, complicate, or illustrate the local, regional, and transnational ecologies that bind us together.” If you have a work in progress you would like to submit or you just want to participate as a peer reviewer, please sign up for this exciting and novel workshop. This is a great opportunity to connect with graduate students from across Canada and other parts of the world.

A Quick Look at Copyright: Mini-Documentary

Cory Doctorow recently posted a link to a great short documentary called “When Copyright Goes Bad”. It explores, in brief, some of the implications of modern copyright law for consumers, artists, and educators. I thought this served as a pretty good resource for explaining some of the current debates surrounding copyright reform. It also touches of many of the challenges for educators.

Nature’s Past Canadian Environmental History Podcast Episode 14 Available

NiCHE_Podcast_Logo1smallEpisode 14 Management of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse: April 20, 2010.

North American environmental history is punctuated by notorious episodes of species extinctions, most notably the cases of the passenger pigeon and the bison. In both cases, humans exhausted what they believed were unlimited resources in the absence of any scientific management or regulations.

The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery in the 1990s stands out from these previous events because of the industry’s dependence on scientific management. This month, we speak with Professor Dean Bavington from Nipissing University about his research and the publication of his new book Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse.

Also, Marco Armiero, a senior researcher from the Italian National Research Council, tells us more about EMiGR, the Environment and Migration Group of Research.

Please be sure to take a moment and review this podcast on our iTunes page.

Visit the main page at http://niche-canada.org/naturespast


Works Cited

Sean Kheraj, Canadian History & Environment


Bavington, Dean L.Y. Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Crosby, Alfred. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1973.

Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Environment and Migration Group of Research (EMiGR)


Music Credits

“Test Drive” by Zapac

“Kids” by Pitx

“Baby Me” by Glenn Miller


Reaching a Popular Audience Workshop: Wrap-Up

Last week, we hosted a writing workshop for history and geography graduate students at the University of British Columbia called “Reaching a Popular Audience” sponsored by the Network in Canadian History & Environment and The History Education Network. The intent of the workshop was to introduce graduate students to some core skills for writing newspaper op-ed articles and magazine queries. We brought in an excellent group of students from Western Canada, including students from BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

Tina Loo, Laura Madokoro, and Mary Lynn Young came in to sit on a Q&A panel about their own experiences as writers and editors for magazines and newspapers. Tina writes a bi-monthly column for Canada’s History (formerly The Beaver), Laura is an occasional op-ed contributor to Globe & Mail, and Mary Lynn is the director of UBC’s journalism school as well as a former newspaper reporter and editor. This session was especially useful for our discussion of some of the bigger issues surrounding academia and popular publishing as well as some really important “nuts and bolts” issues about newspaper and magazine writing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I led an afternoon session on academic blogging. I wanted to thank everyone who sent me comments in advance of the session (thanks Shane!). Hopefully I laid out a convincing case for the place of academic blogging for history and geography scholars. I know I convinced some of the participants to start up new blogs and further develop existing blogs. Here are links to a couple of the participants’ blogs:

Can Enviro Rock?

Merle Massie, A Place in History

We hope that some of the participants will eventually publish an op-ed or magazine article in the future. At the very least, we started an excellent conversation about scholarly communication and the ways in which academics can mobilize their research to reach new audiences and perhaps serve a broader public interest.