Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Field Trips: Rediscover Your City

by Emeli Warren, Sales & Marketing Coordinator

Google wants you to find your inner child. The best way to do that? Go on a field trip, even in the city where you interact every day. In light of the thrifty economy, where many schools can no longer afford to take full classes on field trips and workers don’t have much of an expendable income, Google has stepped up with an app that reviewers are saying makes field trips uber affordable.

The app Field Trip, released over the summer, helps its users locate thousands of interesting places for the inquiring mind—and many are free. The app acts as an automated guide, meaning that it alerts you when you’re close to a location, offering you interesting facts and usable information in relation to that point of interest. Plus it’s customizable.

There are three modes of notifications: “Feeling Lucky,” “Explore,” and “Off.” Each is based on how many alerts you want to receive: The first sends sporadic messages, limited to specified interests; The second pushes more information for those open to any and all curiosities; And the third disables notifications completely for a more self-service experience.

Not only does Field Trip teach its users about their surroundings, but it also sends discounts to their phones based on their locations. This is an opt-out feature that the app provides, just in case users are purely in for the experience and don’t want to spend any money. If this is the case, a user can subscribe to notifications in other categories, such as  “Architecture,” “Cool & Unique,”  or “Historic Places & Events” rather than “Offers & Deals” or “Food, Drinks & Fun.”

This “consistent stream of information” that Google provides through the app was created in conjunction with recently purchased Zagat, Eater, Inhabitat and The Daily Secret. Zagat, perhaps the most well-known of these resources, is a publication specializing in restaurant lists and reviews based on consumer recommendations. Eater, a source for frequent diners and drinkers, offers updates on food-related items such as celebrity chefs and dining trends. Inhabitat is a weblog dedicated to clean and efficient design that tracks innovation in technology and architecture. The Daily Secret, on the other hand, is an email newsletter-based venture that provides insight into a subscriber’s city, covering restaurants, nightlife, sightseeing and anything in between—but with a focus on hidden gems and coveted locale.

All these forces combined into one app is worth a download, even if it is just intended for the occasional use. With the growing popularity of “staycations,” Field Trip can help you reconnect with the city you’re already familiar with or help you discover new adventures not far from your front door—and with the beginning of a new school year, we could all use a little adventure.

Did You Know?
If the Field Trip app doesn’t fulfill your curiosity needs, there are several apps that may. These don’t automatically update you with need-to-know facts, but they do make it easy to look for food you’re in the mood for, shows you’ve been dying to see and hidden bars with expertly-made drinks. Whether you favor iOS or Droid, there is something for everyone waiting on the other end of a download. Sosh, currently limited to New York and San Francisco, is working to curate search options for Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and Chicago. Places of interest can be bookmarked if your search brings up an interesting place you’re not quite ready to try. Scout takes these search engines even further with the ability to locate hostels, hotels and vacation homes, in addition to activities in your area.  UrbanDaddy makes the search itself more fun: After it renders the time and location for you (which can be changed manually), you move to selecting options ranging from “Dancing” to “Snacks” to “I’m Game for Anything.” Tell the app who you’re with: “Friends,” “Boss,” “Parents” or even “nobody in particular.” This renders an “And…?” category where you can finish with “and that’s all I need,” or you can push it further with more customization choosing from categories specifying types of food, the reason for the outing, if you want a celebrity chef to be cooking, or even the type of person you’re with (foodie, from out of town, etc.). Click submit and you’re given a long list of options with a map of locations. All you have to do is go.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Searching for a Good Read

by Chelsea Cooper, Intern Summer 2013

In March, Amazon announced it was expanding its business by acquiring Goodreads, a website that allows readers to discover new books and provide commentaries on books either already on shelves or soon to be publicly available. This expansion will surely draw more readers to Amazon; however, Goodreads originally helped not only readers, but a variety of booksellers as well. In a recent Publisher’s Weekly article, reporter Judith Rosen discusses how some booksellers used Goodreads to find bloggers’ and early readers’ reactions to advance copies of books before selling them in their stores. Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, states that she used Goodreads “to make blurbs, shelftalkers, and to submit for IndieNext.” Rosen writes that due to this expansion, some booksellers are seeking other independent platforms to replace Goodreads, especially since Amazon is one of their competitors.

One possible replacement Rosen mentions is Riffle, which just launched in May. The site provides a Pinterest-style, mobile-friendly setup, by focusing on individual posts that can be shared with a bigger network. The creators based their site on successful sites and apps in order to learn how to manage massive traffic. Bookish is another potential solution for booksellers. CEO Ardy Khazaei describes the platform as giving “people the insight of publishers large and small around their books.” Despite it still being in the early stages of certain functions, Khazaei also wants Bookish to integrate more with IndieBound—a site dedicated to directing consumers to their nearest independent bookstore for their book purchases—to promote indies.

Some people may prefer Zola, an up-and-coming site that, in addition to allowing its customers to socialize, will provide book news and offer features including digital book sales and, eventually, audio. Joe Regal, president of Zola, says “we’re kind of Amazon meets Goodreads [prior to the acquisition] and more.” Although it is only in its beta stage as of this summer, the site already has 137 booksellers ready for the launch. Beyond US options, there is BookLikes, a Polish-based platform that has Tumblr similarities in function and design. CEO Dawid Piaskowski believes BookLikes is more personal than Goodreads because users can create a virtual bookshelf, update reading timelines, post blogs and even get 100 percent commission from sales through their chosen bookstore. Also, with new updates, BookLikes will become even more personalized by syncing with Facebook and other reading apps.

Even though Amazon has acquired Goodreads to help compete with other booksellers and incorporate other components for its users, competing booksellers and other consumers have additional options for social media reading experiences. These alternatives will still have to compete with Goodreads but also with each other in gaining customers. Many customers may remain loyal both to the site and to Amazon, while others, namely competing bookstores or consumers looking for a differently formatted site, will recognize options they may not have realized existed. Now, the hardest decision for these customers will be which platforms to use.

Interested in more about Goodreads? Check out our previous blog on the topic, “Authors Join Goodreads” by Emeli Warren!

Did You Know?
Even though Amazon purchased Goodreads back in March, it seems the company is still working to fulfill their initial intended purpose for the buyout. Aside from wanting to use Goodreads to sell more books, the social media platform hasn’t been incorporated into their Kindle functionality. However, Goodreads now offers an additional option—Kindle Lending on Goodreads—and it has three basic requirements to join the group and partake in the shared titles:

  1. You must create a “shelf” that is dedicated solely to books you are willing to share. 
  2. You must have books on the shelf. (This prevents people from joining the group and purely borrowing books, rather than also sharing them.) 
  3. You have to live in the United States. 
For those comparing it to Amazon Prime’s Kindle Lending Library, this group is not only free to join, but borrowing isn’t limited to one select list title per month, something Kindle readers may consider a deal breaker if thinking about Prime’s year-long membership. However, Prime users can borrow select books from public libraries for library-implemented time increments, or even loan books to fellow Kindle users for up to 14 days. (DYK by Emeli Warren)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pay for an Education, or Get Paid for One?

by Hayley Gundlach, Intern Summer 2013

Every year, 20 college educations are put on hold for two years. This group of young adults—many under the age of 20 years old—are among the brightest, most creative and most motivated people in the world. They are all recipients of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship.

Peter Thiel, a co-founder and former CEO of PayPal and the first investor of Facebook, encourages young entrepreneurs to go after their goals. He supports start-up companies around the country and has recently established the Thiel Fellowship. The fellowship is based on the idea that college is not always the best way to gain an education and that a degree does not guarantee success. Thiel announces the 20 fellows in May of every year. This year’s fellows will be the third group awarded the fellowship; the first group was announced in 2011. Thiel fellows are given $50,000 a year for two years “to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education.” According to the website, this is a “no-strings-attached grant of $100,000.” No rules, no limits.

The chance of being awarded a Thiel Fellowship is lower than the acceptance rate at an Ivy League university (where many of the recipients attended or were accepted). Submitted applications are reviewed by 15 to 20 would-be mentors from the program; these future mentors also then choose the finalists. All finalists then have two-and-a-half minutes to pitch their project ideas to Thiel mentors. Finalists are narrowed down to the final 20 recipients and then announced.

Thiel fellows come from a variety of different backgrounds. Though most of those selected are American, there have been fellows from outside the United States, whose native countries include Britain, China, Canada, Germany, India, Russia and Singapore. The fellows’ fields of study are also diverse. They range from robotics to artificial intelligence, information and communication technology to medical technology, biotechnology, genomics and synthetic biology to nanotechnology, just to name a few. Most fellows focus on science, computer technology and medicine; however, the 2013 class claims a fashion merchandiser from San Diego named Maddy Maxey, the first of her kind among the fellows.

During the two-year program, a network of successful mentors guides the fellows. They include doctors, developers, inventors and entrepreneurs who offer business connections and advice that is hard to find in a traditional classroom. Some of this year’s mentors include Rob Meagley, CEO of One Nanotechnologies; Jonathan Baudanza, founder of Beatlab.com; Lindy Fishburne, executive director of Breakout Labs; Michael Ellsberg, author of The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won't Learn in College About How to Be Successful; and Peter Thiel himself. The fellows are also encouraged to work and engage with each other, creating their own network of connections. In order to get the most benefit possible from the fellowship, it is suggested that the fellows stay in the San Francisco area, where the fellowship is headquartered. However, if necessary, they may travel around the world to work on their projects.

While the Thiel Fellowship claims some success stories since its launch in 2011—it has raised over $34 million from investors and been the foundation for 30 new companies—not all the fellows have been successful. Most don’t make an income during their fellowship, and many switch from one project to another. Critics who favor traditional schooling use low success rates as evidence against the program; the chance at becoming a successful college-dropout-turned-entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs is slim. However, for Peter Thiel, the rate of success is secondary. What’s most important is the fact that these 20 young adults are given real-world experience and the chance to try.

Did You Know? 

Although a lack of funding for school arts programs is not a new problem, it seems pro-arts initiatives are finally being given the attention they deserve.
Individual states and districts are doing their best to revitalize their programs, arts being a main priority. Thanks to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at least “some arts instruction and cultural programming” is available in almost all city schools—a stark contrast to the low 45 and 33 percent of schools that provided arts education in elementary and middle schools, respectively. Dallas is another up-and-coming pro-arts community. For the first time in over 30 years, every single elementary student within the Dallas Independent School District is required to participate in 45 minutes of art and music instruction each week. Communities in Minneapolis, Chicago and Arizona follow Dallas and New York City as making the most notable changes to their programs in an effort to infuse the arts back into their curricula. (DYK by Emeli Warren)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Students Need to Read 70% Nonfiction, Says Common Core

by Grant Bradley, Intern Summer 2013

As the new Common Core State Standards (“The Standards,” or just “CCSS” in some circles) begin to be implemented in the 45 states that decided take on the across-the-board learning criteria for American students, one policy in particular is rousing the ire and frustration of teachers, parents and students: The Standards hold that 50 percent of elementary, 55 percent of junior high, and 70 percent of high school reading curricula should be nonfiction. Proponents of this significant change argue that nonfiction readings—or “informational texts,” as the Common Core denotes them—will prepare high school graduates for the things they will be reading in their future careers. Detractors say that less fiction means smaller imaginations, unengaged students and a dearth of literary classics in students’ lives.

David Coleman, president of the College Board (the organization that offers standardized higher education tests such as the SAT as well as programs such as AP) and lead architect of the Common Core standards, contends that poor student reading scores and lackluster reading comprehension in the working world require exactly this kind of overhaul. “If we can't have a breakthrough in this country in reading performance, particularly in later grades, so many students will be consigned to a world where they can't read the text in front of them and hence [can't] grow and learn," said Coleman.
By incorporating more of this kind of material, students will gain valuable experience with complex nonfiction documents and different styles of writing. "The idea is that things like Lincoln's second inaugural address and Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham jail… are worthy of close attention,” said Coleman. “Not just in a historical context, but also for the interweaving of thought and language.”

Some teachers on the ground don’t believe the new nonfiction requirements will be the literacy panacea that the Common Core claims it to be. Literary classics like The Great Gatsby or Lord of the Flies, goes the counterargument, will be replaced by bland reports such as “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management” by the General Services Administration (an actual recommendation from the Common Core found in Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks for Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects).
Jamie Highfill, an eighth-grade English teacher and the 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, says that the new standards force her to get rid of some of her favorite units and discourage students from engaging in the content. “I’m struggling with this, and my students are struggling,” Highfill said. “With informational text, there isn’t that human connection that you get with literature. And the kids are shutting down. They’re getting bored.”

A large part of the problem for both nonfiction hawks and fiction defenders is the way in which schools are putting the new nonfiction requirements into practice. While much of the debate centers around English courses, the 70 : 30 nonfiction-to-fiction ratio is meant to apply to a student’s entire curriculum—science, math, and history in addition to English. The Common Core intends this to mean that math classes could read selections from Euclid; environmental science classes could include passages from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or an executive order concerning energy and transportation; and a social studies class might read a passage from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The actual amount of nonfiction students would be reading in English classes, then, would have a much more equitable ratio with fiction texts.

Unfortunately, many school administrations and teachers are neglecting to distribute the nonfiction load. Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and a previous member of the Common Core team—he and the rest of the team parted ways over differing approaches to developing the standards—notes that teachers in other subjects feel nonfiction has no place in their curricula and consequently dismiss it. “You have chemistry teachers, history teachers saying, ‘We’re not going to teach reading and writing, we have to teach our subject matter. That’s what you English teachers do,’” Bauerlein said.

Neglecting nonfiction entirely seems like a big mistake—there’s much to be said about diversifying course readings, and some of the greatest pieces of human writing are speeches, legal documents, and essays. But if English classes need to address the new nonfiction quotas without help from the disciplines intended to help them, we may end up losing some of the greatest works of fiction, too.

Did You Know?
Teachers are arguing that the inclusion of so much nonfiction in the Common Core State Standards will make English and literature courses boring and cause a lack of imagination in their students. Teachers in mathematics and sciences are saying that it’s not their job to teach reading and writing, but it seems that they could benefit in teaching not only nonfiction but fiction as well. For example, subjects that otherwise may not engage students who lack strategic skills may find that fiction helps grab and maintain their attention or clarify concepts. Marilyn Burns, an educator who is founder of Math Solutions Professional Development and has published a number of books, notes that she uses children’s books to make her math lessons more effective. Not only does it help students engage in problem-solving experiences and build their appreciation for mathematics, but it also gives teachers who lack skills in teaching mathematics a way to gain personal enthusiasm in the subject and to spark self-confidence. She has organized a collection of fiction and nonfiction titles that she recommends for use in the classroom, titled The Marilyn Burns Classroom Math Libraries and published by Scholastic. (DYK by Emeli Warren)