The Lost Art of Pen and Paper

It is depressing to shop in almost any university bookstore for a decent fountain pen or even a nice tablet of paper. The pens are almost entirely the cheapest ballpoints imaginable and the paper is monopolized by cheap spiral notebooks of lined paper that comes close to the quality of toilet paper. Why would students ever enjoying writing, much less want to write, with such terrible tools?

Likewise, if you check out the quality of materials marketed to the parents of school children, the situation is as bad if not worse. Pens, crayons, paper for young children, at such an impressionable age, are absolutely worthless. They would put off any child from wanting to sit down and write or draw or colour. They are just cheap.

Of course, you can find wonderful stationery in a high-end stationary store, or good fountain pens in specialised, boutique pen shops and some department stores, but you have to look. Clearly, the lion’s share of materials marketed to students of all ages is pitiful.


Organizations provide another example of the race for the bottom. Why would any organization think for a moment that giving someone a cheap pen with the organization’s name and logo on it would be a good idea. It just creates an association of the organization with such low quality junk – trinkets. They should have their logo or mascot on a beautifully crafted pen or on stationery that demonstrates that the organization stands for quality. Of course, then they couldn’t afford to give away hundreds of these quality tools. So perhaps it is this pricing issue that often pushes this technology to the bottom. Unthinking and cheap organizations and cheap households who don’t know better, buy cheap writing tools. I’ve been guilty myself of exposing my children to the junk on the list of supplies that parents dutifully purchase for school.

So when parents and educators wring their hands about kids shifting to computers and mobile phone texting and other electronic tools for writing, they should consider the fact that it is not simply the ease and attractions of the electronic, but the difficulty and unattractive options in pen and paper. They bought into this downward spiral of writing.

Any parent should feel guilty if they don’t spend more to get their child excellent pens, beautiful paper, wonderful books. They are expensive, but there is no comparison between writing with a great fountain pen and a cheap or even an expensive ballpoint pen. The ballpoint must have been seen as a technological marvel at its inception, and a means to avoid leaking pens, and ink stained pockets. But it is absolutely inferior as a tool to write with.

Of course, you cannot write with a fountain pen on the cheap paper sold to students – ink will run through several layers of paper given the absorbency of this crap paper the students are sold. So you must also get good paper and good tablets, such as the ‘moleskine’ notebooks, which are excellent.

Well, you might ask, why do parents and students buy poor technologies, when far better pens and paper exist. It can only be cost. Another part of the explanation must reside in the fact that quality pens and paper have disappeared to the extent that many parents and students don’t even think of using them. A fountain pen might as well be a quill pen. It is viewed by many as just as antiquated. Well, a fountain pen is a real advance on the quill pen. But often when someone sees me using my fountain pen, they are likely to ask about it as if I am driving an antique car down the street. Fountain pens continue to improve and there is a diverse array to choose from now, before the technology is completely lost.

So before your children are completely corrupted by being force-sold terrible writing tools, buy them a fountain pen they like – let them try them out – and a variety of good paper. The future is not one medium of communication, but the use of multiple media that will include handwriting. If you or your children lose the art of writing with pen and paper, it is not simply due to the rise of the computer age, but also to the decline of the written word, and the neglect of the tools for proper, civilized writing with a good pen and good paper.

In case you think my rant is unjustified, look for a really nice pen and excellent paper when you next go to a store catering to students. Let me know if I’m wrong. I hope I am, as my impressions do not bode well for the future of writing. I use the Internet and related computer-based tools as much as most people – probably more, but I still find wonder in writing.

Alibaba and E-Commerce in China

The recent and huge success of Alibaba on the stock market underscores the vitality of e-commerce in China. Not only does Alibaba capture the lion’s share of e-commerce in China, but e-commerce in this country is more vibrant than in almost any other country in the world. Our global survey associated with the Internet Values Project found that Internet users in China not only more likely to shop online compared with Internet users in the other countries we surveyed, but also by an order of magnitude more than in other nations. Many factors contribute to the success of the Internet as a tool for shopping in China, including some very practical, non-Internet factors, unlikely to be replicated in many other countries, such as the availability of low cost messengers to physically deliver products to households and businesses. Some of the key findings of relevance are outlined in our chapter 7, entitled ‘China and the US in the New Internet World: A Comparative Perspective’, by Gillian Bolsover, William H. Dutton, Ginette Law, And Soumitra Dutta, in Society and the Internet (OUP 2014). See:  images-1

The Aftermath of Scottish Vote on Independence

Most of the handwringing over how the UK government can deal with the aftermath of the Scottish voting results seems unnecessary, perhaps done simply as a hook for news stories. The high share of the vote for independence was expected for years as there was a clear sense of the strength of national identities, particularly in Scotland, and the strong sentiment for the devolution of some responsibilities. As a result, many government and regulatory agencies have been hard at work on creative ways to better capture and reflect these sentiments.

For example, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) – the UK parallel to the FCC – created a Nations Committee several years ago. It brings together representatives of the devolved nations and England to discuss communication and regulatory issues in order to discover and react to different national perspectives on issues. As you can see from reading the blog of the Advisory Committees for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, called ‘Advice to Ofcom‘, these national issues are most often unifying. For example, nations such as Scotland have great concern for rural access to communication services, but discussion reveals that this concern is very much shared with the other nations, including England. Similarly, England has been concerned over how communication services, such as broadcasting, reflect the cultural diversity of England’s cities, with London being at the extreme, but discussion leads to the realization that this is an issue for cities across the UK.

In such ways, national perspectives are being built into some governmental and regulatory processes in ways that are likely to have very positive outcomes. The government is not being caught off guard, from my perspective. The mechanisms are not like the US federal system, so they might seem confusing to Americans, but they are developing incrementally in ways that are compatible with the pragmatic and pluralist traditions of the UK and Northern Ireland. Progress will not be easy, but it has been an evolving project. And the resulting debate can be fruitful for the UK as a whole.

The Nations of the UK and Northern Ireland
The Nations of the UK and Northern Ireland

Innovations in the Technology of Higher Education: Where is the Social Research?

My colleagues and I organized a preconference for the 2014 International Communication Association on innovations in the technologies of higher education, focusing particularly on developments around massive online open courses and related innovations. It took place in Seattle, Washington, on the 21st of May 2014. I worked with Dr Kendall Guthrie of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Brian Loader, the Editor of iCS, and Director, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of York; and Sarah Porter and Rebecca Eynon of the OII. We were able to attract major figures in this area, such as Kevin Guthrie, President of Ithaka, but we were not able to unearth a significant set of high-quality research papers. Why?

Higher education is described as being in a time of crisis. In the US, tuition costs have been escalating beyond the cost of inflation for some years, students are building up significant debt, whilst completion rates are in decline. The higher education system is said to be creaking under the strain of additional scrutiny from government, funders, parents and students, yet is struggling to re-invent itself to reduce costs whilst improving quality and increasing flexibility for learners. In a Europe still feeling the consequences of the financial downturn, universities are struggling to retain their public service ethos when budgets are under huge pressure. Elsewhere in the world, many countries plan dramatic expansion to their higher education systems to fuel their growing economies, but they are being held up by lack of infrastructure and the increased intellectual capital that is needed.

At the same time, higher education is becoming a global business, and yet universities are not equipped to fully embrace the potential or address the risks that this might bring. One question is whether the development of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free online courses are being offered by a wide range of universities and opened to students with any academic background, will be an institutional response to this challenge. They are attracting millions of students from across the globe. To what extent though is the MOOC really revolutionary and disruptive, or is it being used cynically by the most elite institutions to further increase their brand power and assert their superiority, whilst the middle tier of institutions lose student numbers and academic credibility? Do MOOCs hold the potential to support the developing world in its academic ambitions, or are they just another example of neo-colonialism?

Whether MOOCs succeed or fail, or quickly evolve to become something else, they offer an opportunity for the higher education system to consider its future models and to test out new approaches to the way that it does its business – how it creates courses and course materials, how it teaches, how it supports students, how it accredits degrees, how it markets itself, how it covers its costs or makes a profit.

There is another element to the mass online provision of higher education courses. Hidden behind the welcoming and inclusive publicity materials, sophisticated data collection and analysis tools are being created that will gather and analyse information about each student as they move through the system, as they learn, interact with each other and with the materials. This is extremely valuable data and, for the first time, universities will have access to live data about the study habits of many millions of students, together with their personal profile. The potential to use this data for the good, to develop increasingly adaptable and personalised learning systems, is huge; but therein also lies the potential for mis-use and, in the words of the for profit providers of education, for ‘brand differentiation’. What are the implications of this innovation, for good and for bad – and are we giving enough due care and attention to the way that allow this data to be used?

My colleagues thought these developments raise a rich array of research questions. For example:

  1. Is higher education really in crisis or is it really a success story of a system that has adapted over time, and will survive the current challenges without major change?
  2. What are the major innovation challenges for the higher education system and how can they best be addressed?
  3. What do MOOCs mean for the future of higher education? Are they just a marketing device for elite institutions, or can they really be a force for the ‘democratisation of education’?
  4. Which other affordances will enable the higher education system to innovate more effectively?
  5. What is the potential for the use of learner analytics and big data approaches to large-scale online education, and are there threats hidden in this advances?

These are only indicative of a far wider range of topics that could be explored around these innovations. And yet, where is the systematic, empirical research needed to address these questions? While our preconference drew much interest and some excellent papers, we expected far more work in this area. It is not new. Brian Loader and I pulled together an edited book during the last round of interest in this area, entitled Digital Academe. By all of our indicators, less work is being done in academia on the social and institutional implications of the Internet in higher education than at the turn of the century? Are we too close to academia to systematically and critically look at our own institutions?

Bill Dutton with Sarah Porter

Doctoral Studies in Media and Information Studies at MSU

The Media and Information Studies (MIS) PhD program at Michigan State University invites applications for its interdisciplinary program that joins the study of media, information and design across several departments within the College of Communication Arts & Sciences. Offered jointly by the departments of Media and Information, and Advertising & Public Relations, and the School of Journalism, the MIS PhD program gives students access to fifty PhD faculty with research interests that span important current and emerging issues in media and information studies. Students get involved early on in projects, complementing theoretical coursework with hands-on research experiences.

Current research of the faculty include: social media and social computing; human-computer interaction; interactive media and games; Internet for development and ICT4D; media effects; socio-technical systems, including a growing focus on ICTs and health; and media, communication and Internet policy and regulation, to name a few.

Over 90 percent of our current doctoral students are supported by graduate teaching and research assistantships with generous monthly stipends, tuition remission, and health benefits. University fellowships, dissertation completion fellowships, summer research fellowships, and stipends for travel to academic conferences round out the resources available for students.

More than three-fourths of our graduates are hired into faculty positions at four-year institutions at graduation. They are based in departments of mass media, journalism, advertising, public relations, and information studies across the United States and worldwide. Others have gone on to careers in public service and business.

The National Communication Association (NCA), in their most recent doctoral program reputation study, ranked MSU’s Ph.D. programs as No. 1 in educating researchers in communication technology, and in the top four in mass communication. Michigan State University ranked third in frequency of faculty publication in communication in a study reported in The Electronic Journal of Communication in 2012.

East Lansing and the greater Lansing area offer a welcoming academic and cultural environment with easy access to a variety of outdoor activities and the scenic beauty of our state year-round. Blending urban and sub-urban living, it is one of the nation’s most affordable places to complete a doctoral program in media and information studies.

If you want to learn more, take a look at the program’s web page, contact one of our faculty members, or visit us on Facebook.

Should university faculty restrict use of social media in the classroom?

Do you think that university instructors should restrict the use of social media in the classroom? While some believe that social media might undermine the boundaries of the classroom, such as by sharing with colleagues who are not enrolled in the class, it is arguable whether this battle has been lost long ago, such as by sharing notes, or audio taping a lecture. Should we relax about this, and let students use social media in any way they find valuable in the classroom? Are you aware of progressive policies to govern the use of social media in the classroom?



The William F. Ogburn Career Achievement Award of the American Sociological Association

Wonderful to have received the 2014 William F. Ogburn Career Achievement Award from the American Sociological Association, given by CITASA (ASA’s section on Communication and Information Technology): Given my move to Michigan, I was unable to attend but I sent these words of appreciation:

Dear Colleagues of CITASA,

I would like to convey my appreciation to the selection committee and CITASA for honoring me with this career achievement award. It is a privilege to be in the company of those who have received this recognition in past years, and to have such a wonderful link with William F. Ogburn and the ASA. I am delighted to be part of the community of scholars you are building.

It amazes me that even in the space of my own career, the sociological study of the Internet and related communication and information technologies has moved from the margins of sociology to become one of its most exciting fields of innovative research. At Oxford, and I am sure this will be the case at MSU, my colleagues are increasingly looking to sociology for some of the most promising researchers focused on society and the Internet.

My thanks to CITASA for helping to raise the stature of social research on communication technology, and for this wonderful recognition from the American Sociological Association.

Bill Dutton