Friday, April 15, 2011

Technology in the Classroom

The local news in Idaho has been filled with a lot of talk about the education reforms recently passed by the State Legislature and signed by the Governor. One of the controversial issues is to divert money from teacher pay to increasing technology in the classroom. If increasing the amount of technology provides more student benefit than increasing the number or teachers or quality of teachers, then it is a good idea. So the question is, does technology in the classroom benefit students, and if so by how much, and is that greater than the benefit of more teachers who are happy? Here is one product of the Idaho school system’s personal experience on the subject.


To give you a little background, I love technology and my entire working career has relied on it. I create websites and program custom web apps for clients in the financial, health care, retail, and many other sectors. I also use a computer to create logos, brochures, packaging, sales sheets, business cards, handouts, inserts, posters, and much, much more graphic design work. I also provide illustrations for book covers, children’s storybooks, and young adult novels all of which require a significant amount of digital art. So I am no stranger to technology and certainly understand its place. I’ve also had to use a diverse array of knowledge I gained in school including writing skills, math skills, accounting skills, analytic skills, debate skills, speech skills, random odd facts, and much, much more. Knowledge I’ve gained on a variety of subjects has been invaluable to me. So here are three case studies of technology in the classroom and what it did for me and my fellow classmates.

Case Study 1: High School Math

In High School I took all of the advanced math classes. In Advanced Algebra and Trig as well as Pre-Calculus, we occasionally used the T1-81 (a high tech graphing calculator) with several richer students had the then latest and greatest T1-85. In Calculus we used the HP 28 (another high tech graphing calculator). During the times we did NOT use the calculators, we learned how to do math by hand and better understand the principles. When we pulled out the calculators, students struggled with getting them to work, then once they figured it out all they had to do was punch in numbers and think about the processes taking place or the concepts being used. Or they programmed their calculator to play Mary Had A Little Lamb. In both cases, little math was learned. I honestly got a lot more out of the weeks in class we solved equations by hand then I did punching in numbers and copying the answer.

Case Study 2: College English

In college I took a computer-based English class. We sat at computers during class time and all work had to be done on the computer. During the 3-credit hour course I was required to type one paper and take two tests. And on the days the computers were malfunctioning (a common occurrence) class was cancelled. Anyone who has taken a college-level class will tell you one paper for the entire three credits is unheard of.

Since college I have become a professional writing both writing copy for websites and graphic design projects, marketing materials, newsletter articles, my regular column on, one young adult novel with another on the way, several short stories, and a few comic books. I have yet to use anything I learned in that computer-based class. I’m not even sure if I did learn anything.

Case Study 3: College History

I also took an Internet based Art History class. We were given a schedule of what we were to research, then let loose to scour the Internet for information and present it to the class. I had a friend in another Art History class being taught traditionally. I was always amazed how much they covered that we didn’t even touch. Later I took two other Art History classes taught traditionally, and I learned much more from those. Technology again got in the way of education.

Other Examples

These are just three of many, many examples I have. I could also include computers causing graphic designers to be worse designers, illustrators not drawing as well, business classes where more time was spent on finding funny pictures and cool transitions for a presentation than on researching and finding content for the presentation, and much more, but I think you’re getting the picture.

What am I saying?

Now, I’m not saying technology doesn’t have its place in a classroom. Word processors are the best way to type papers, and students should learn to use them and use them well. PowerPoint presentations, videos, and scientific calculators are also very helpful.

What I’m saying is whenever a teacher or institution tried to rely on technology or put great emphasis on technology, education has suffered. I have personally learned more from a teacher who was passionate about a subject and allowed to share that passion with me without worrying about whether the information would be on a standardized test or how to get some gadget to work.

My experience has told me that giving students laptops, iPads, new computers, and other cool gadgets isn’t going to improve education, but instead be a distraction from it. Unfortunately, it’ll be several years in the future before the data exists to prove this, and by then the damage will be done and the students will not be as capable as they could and should be.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

How Technology has changed the Illustrated Story: Case Study 1 - Pulps vs. Comics

Matt D. Williams, the author of Jak Phoenix, invited me to write a guest post on his site. I look at the early twentieth century and examine how advances in printing destroyed one genre but created a new one. It also changed the way certain types of stories were told.

Read the entire post at

As you can see, it is only one case study. The topic interests me so much that I plan to make it a whole series of posts. Don't hold your breath, because I have a lot of other things I'm working on first.

This image is a drawing of Wandering KoalaTM, and I think I'll use it for the title pages of all future stories. It's fitting, because I consider Wandering Koala to be a 21st century pulp hero who also appears in comics.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A few thoughts on Digital Comics

I use to be a big time comic fan, then I stopped reading them for a while, then I started reading them again but not with the same enthusiasm.

Recently Comixology released a few numbers about the growth of digital comics. They are growing, but more slowly than other media that went digital like music, movies, and books. It’s too soon and the data too scarce to make any definitive statements about them, but here are a few of my thoughts.

Why do people buy Digital Comics when they can get them on paper?
1) Price – Comics cost $2.99-3.99 per 22-page issue. When I started buying comics in 1989, most comics cost $1.00 while Superman comics cost 75 cents. That means they’ve increased in price by a factor between 3-5. Paperback books haven’t even doubled in price during the same period. Paper comics are pricing themselves into oblivion. The current diehard fans that are willing to spend too much and buy multiple copies for variant covers are the main thing keeping the current system going; very few new fans are entering the market threatening its survival. Digital Comics are currently sold for between 99 cents and $1.99. I feel this is the main reason digital comics are growing--the print market is so far above market price that it is forcing competition to emerge, a phenomenon that has been observed in the past and been misinterpreted by courts as a lack of monopoly instead of the result of a monopoly.

2) Coolness Factor – With the launch of the iPhone, Android phones, the Kindle and other eReaders, and the iPad, downloading digital is the current “new and cool”. People download apps they’ll never use, books they’ll never read, and music they’ll never listen to a second time. Why? Because it’s cool, and this has led many people who don’t read comics to start downloading digital comics. This is one reason certain titles have seen growth in digital sales without any loss in sales for the paper version.

3) Availability – Every year more and more comics shops close their doors. Fewer and fewer newsstands carry comics. And while the Direct Market was set up to over order comics so they’d have back issues to sell, the current goal is complete sellthrough so the shop isn’t stuck with unsold issues. Digital issues in theory should always be available in whatever quantity they’re demanded. This is probably the least compelling reason.

So are digital comics the future? Maybe. I personally like paper comics better, but I won’t be able to afford to buy them for much longer at current prices. And many times I’ll wait for the trade paperback and buy it at a discount at Amazon, which doesn’t help the Direct Market system or local comic shops.

Of course, there are challenges:

1) Collectablity – A digital file is unlikely to increase in value.

2) Readability – While one can read a comic book on a giant computer screen, it’s not a pleasant experience. People like to download and consume content on their iPhones and Kindles and iPads and other gadgets, but their screens are too small to read current comics. Some have tried to cut up the comic into individual panels, but that usually results in odd configurations and cropped artwork. Others have tried to zoom from panel to panel, but then you lose the “page as a whole” design the artist intended and again miss out on some of the artwork.

3) Technology – Anyone who has tried to download and read a digital comic knows it takes a lot of time and processing power. It’s kind of a buzz kill waiting and waiting and waiting only to have the comic crash.

4) Price - Digital comics are currently sold for between 99 cents and $1.99. I’m not sure these are the right prices, being a creator and seller of digital comics myself. At 99 cents you don’t make enough profit to sustain or grow the business unless every issue is a blockbuster which it won’t be. As a consumer I’m resistant to spend $1.99 on something that isn’t physical and that is hard to read.
Is there anyway to overcome these challenges. Of course!

1) Focus on complete collections over the one “hot” issue. Make having every issue seem as great as that limited first issue going for $40 on eBay. I don’t know how well it will work though. But if people actually read the comics instead of storing them in Mylar, it may.

2) In the 80s it was common for action figures to come packaged with a mini-comic. They were usually aroung 5” x 6.5” and would be easy to read even on a smart phone screen. In Brazil they sell comics in digest sizes with three issues per book. This makes the cost per issue much lower than it is in America, and they have to translate the dialogue anyway so adjusting it for the smaller space has to be done anyway. (In case you haven’t guessed, I’m proposing creating new comics as mini-comics; that way you still get the total effect of the page while maintaining readability. Plus you have fewer panels per page, so there are more pages and it appears to be a better value. Of course, this isn’t helpful for older comics. There is no good solution for those.

3) The technology problem will solve itself as Internet speeds become faster and devices become more powerful. Of course, better coding would speed up the process.

4) $1.50 seems like a good price to me. That’s what I sell a lot of comics at, and they sell as well as the ones I price at 99 cents, but I’m actually making enough money to make it worth my while. Of course, the packaging multiple issues together would allow for lower per issue prices and may be the way to go, especially for long stories that can’t be wrapped up in 22 pages.

I don’t see digital comics ever completely replacing print comics just as digital music hasn’t replaced hard media and eBooks haven’t replaced print books. There are things print can do digital can’t, and if the industry takes advantage of that, then print can have a healthy future.

But I have my doubts they will.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A few thoughts on books and writing

So a friend and fellow author has a blog where where she does a lot of reflecting on the writing process, publishing, and other related topics. Her latest post made many points and raised many questions that I've often pondered. Here are a few of my responses to what she wrote.

1) So called "literature" is in not superior to so called "escapist fantasy" books. I'm not a big fan of "literary" writing myself; it turned me off of reading in high school, and I didn't start reading again for several years until I was introduced to Foundation by Asimov. There is nothing wrong with popular books. There is nothing wrong with escapist literature. They can be just as well structured and written as the greatest work of "literature".

2) If a story wants to switch genre midstream, I say let it; the whole concept of genre can be very limiting and hurt a story. I think back to the classic 80s cartoons I loved as a kid, and they crossed all kinds of genre lines, and I loved them for it. He-Man was an action/adventure show, but it also has science fiction elements (robots, gadgets, alternate dimensions), fantasy elements (magic, dragons), romantic elements (Teela & He-Man), dramatic elements (Teela discovering her real mother) and more. A writer shouldn't force a story into a certain genre; they should let the story be what it wants to be, and if it's hard to categorize, then it's hard to categorize.

3) There is a false notion that you should show not tell. The wonder of using words and being a good storyteller means you can show when it best conveys the meaning, and you can tell when it best conveys the meaning (the term is story tell-er, not story show-er). A writer should use the best tool available.

4) If you seem to be writing screenplays, then publish your stories as screenplays. That's the magic and wonder of eBooks--you don't have traditional restrictions. Or get really crazy and turn them into podcasts or audiobooks and sell them as such. eBooks are a cool new format, and there's nothing wrong with experimenting with new forms that don't have a chance of making it in paper.

The picture at the right is another cover someone hired me to create for their book. It was done with a brush-tipped marker and colored with chalk in Corel Painter X.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Digital Comics vs. Print Comics

Recently I've read articles about the growth of digital comics and people wondering if they will replace print comics. While there has been growth, it has been very slow, much slower than music, movies, or even books. I've even written articles on it myself on While I am a huge fan of eBooks and think they will replace the majority of books with print shrinking to more of a specialty gift market, I'm not sure the same will happen with digital comics for several reasons.

I think people like printed comics better than digital comics. I know I do. They look better printed on paper and are easier to read. Comics were meant to be large with the words and details of the art nearly impossible to see on a small screen or a computer screen. Print also has resell value and is more collectable. But there are a couple of serious problems with print.

1) They are getting too expensive to buy ($2.99 to $3.99 for 22 pages?). Digital Comics have the potential to be priced where people can afford them (99 cents).

2) Print comics just aren't that cool. In a world of special effect movies, video games, and cool new gadgets like the iPad, eBook Readers, and smart phones, the four-color goodness of comics just aren't competing. They look pretty tame in comparison.

3) Comics take up a lot of physical space, whereas digital comics don't. For a lot of people, space is a premium.

Honestly, I think cost along with low quality stories and art will kill print comics unless they do something different with the format to provide more value. Here are a few of my suggestions:

1) Double the length of comics. Twenty-two pages is honestly the wrong length for a good story. It's too long for a quick yarn, and way to short for a story with any real development.

2) Increase the size to magazine size. Big artwork is cool (check out the DC Absolute Editions or the Spawn Deluxe Collections), and comics need a new infusion of cool with all the competition they're facing from movies, video games, and gadgets. Also, the small artwork on smart phones, eReaders, and computer screens wouldn't have a chance to compete. I personally love this size and have a lot of comics in it.

3) Put them out bi-monthly. Having a new story every month I think takes too much of a toll on writers and artists. They put out subpar work as a result, and a lot of readers stop reading as a result.

4) Charge $4.95. This way you are getting your 22 pages of story for $2.50 which is the maximum amount anyone really wants to pay for a comic.

Most likely the comic industry won't take any of these suggestions or do anything differently. They'll just continue to milk their current fans without attracting many new fans and slowly go the way of the nickelodeon. Of course, that will open the door for new people to enter the market, so maybe it's not such a bad thing.