I prefer to use Tinderbox due to its flexibility and search capabilities. However, as I'm planning on writing a course called The Digital Writer, I need to think about using the same blog platform as my students so that I'm more than just a little bit famlliar with it. So, for a while, perhaps longer, my posts will move there:

Just reviewing my notes of more than a few years ago in which Gary Stager commented on the "meaningless euphemisms" by Web 2.0 enthusiasts. As he noted,

a very small percentage of knowledge is constructed by talking. Much is not. ... With all due respect, talking about math or science is not the same as being a scientist or mathematician.

I sense that we have gone beyond the tipping point of what Seymour Papert calls "verbal inflation." We are terribly excited about so very little.

As I noted about one of Will Richardson's posts, Networks, Not Tools, although he spoke at length how he was connected via RSS, blogs, Twitter, and more, he never did say what it was that he learned from his networked conversation.

Again that's not to say that networks aren't important in learning, as noted in Dean Shareski's comment on Stager's post:

The social networking and collaboration to me is about personalizing learning. Even in your Papert driven thinking about using computers to create and design, there still comes a point where you need people. Traditionally you were limited to the people in the room. ... I don't think it's one or the other.

Shareski takes an appropriate and balanced perspective. Social networks and relationships motivate and engage learners; they expand and individual's knowledge and skills, and technology can expand those networks even more. Yet, we need to keep in mind that it is the individual that must move past talking about ideas and integrate those ideas into his/her practice to become "a scientist or mathematician" or any thing else.

ScienceBlog reports on how media multitasking is really multi-distracting.

Placed in a room containing a television and a computer and given a half hour to use either device, people on average switched their eyes back and forth between TV and computer a staggering 120 times in 27.5 minutes — or nearly once every 14 seconds, Carroll School of Management professors S. Adam Brasel and James Gips report in a forthcoming edition of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.


What’s more, the subjects were not even aware of their own actions. On average, participants in the study thought they might have looked back and forth between the two devices about 15 times per half hour. In reality, they were looking nearly 10 times as often. And even if quick “glances” less than 1.5 seconds are removed from the equation, people were still switching over 70 times per half hour.

If simply being in an urban city can impair your memory and "dull your thinking", just imagine how much multitasking interferes with learning.

Dave Snowden complains rightly about the oversimplification of differences between generations, in particular, the fuss being made over so-called digital natives:

We now have this rather silly idea that the next generation will be digital natives, comfortable with technology in a way that their parents were not. We also have the idea that this is necessarily a good thing. There are several reasons to challenge this but there are two main themes to the arguments. Firstly its simply not true that you can classify a whole generation and secondly the assumption that the new skills can displace older capabilities without loss.

Snowden goes into more detail with some telling examples. In particular, I liked his comment, "Professions have more in common across the generations that the generations do across professions."

Related posts:

The Myths of the Digital Generation
Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II
Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd
Hype from the Media and Web 2.0 Evangelists

One interesting session at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project was Reading the Research: Living and Learning with New Media, which discussed the MacArthur report summarizing its findings from the Digital Youth Project.

Report Findings:

  • Youth use online media to extend friendships and interests.
  • Youth engage in peer-based, self-directed learning online.

Implications from the Report:

  • Adults should facilitate young people's engagement with digital media.
  • Given the diversity of digital media, it is problematic to develop a standardized set of benchmarks against which to measure young people's technical and new media literacy.
  • In interest-driven participation, adults have an important role to play.
  • To stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media.

Looking at these findings and implications, I wondered, "Is there anything new here?" and initially concluded, "Not really." But continuing to read it, I thought that with respect to learning, it's difficult to posit something new. (As noted below, I continue to work with the same theories of learning I've used for the past 15 years.) Even so, it's an important report in that it shows that present theories of learning apply online as well as offline, thus supporting the validity of generalizing these theories across various contexts.

For its theoretical framework, the report drew upon the work of Henry Jenkins, Jean Lave, and Etienne Wenger, and emphasized the "social and cultural participation" nature of learning. In particular, learning occurs through interest- and "friendship-driven genres of participation."

Despite this emphasis, in many ways the report supported a psychological approach to learning with new media. In looking at interest-driven genres of participation, the report stated,

It is not about the given social relations that structure youth's school lives but about both focusing and expanding on an individual's social circle based on interests. (p. 10)

Despite the report's emphasizing "an individual's social circle", what is seen is an individual's interests driving his/her actions and the expanding of the social circle a by-product not a focus. In fact, the report itself also states,

Messing around with digital media is driven by personal interest, but it is supported by a broader social and technical ecology ...

Naturally, social support is key to pursuing one's own interests. Even Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory, a psychological theory of motivation (see Self-determination and motivation), notes its importance. However, this theory posits that the key factor in motivation is autonomy, which the report also noted as essential in learning "fluent and expert use of new media" (p. 36).

Another key factor in interest-driven genres of participation was "feedback," a term emphasized in Csikzentmihalyi's theory of flow (see Engagement and Flow), another theory of individual motivation.

Feedback is also a key factor in John Anderson's ACT-R theory of cognition, which posits the key factor in learning as "time on task," and the report also noted the need for "ample time" to learning to use new media.

So, in many ways, this report underscored how learning to use new media can be understood through cognitive theories of learning.

In its conclusion, the report asks some good questions:

Rather than thinking of public education as a burden that schools must shoulder on their own, what would it mean to think of public education as a responsibility of a more distributed network of people and institutions? And rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, what would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally, a public life that includes social, recreational, and civic engagement? And finally, what would it mean to enlist help in this endeavor from an engaged and diverse set of publics that are broader than what we traditionally think of as educational and civic institutions? (p. 39)

The Digital Media and Composition Institute was an interesting and worthwhile experience. Participants included a range of experience from young graduate students in rhetoric and composition to professors to a former editor of College Composition and Communication. Guest speakers included Cheryl Ball, editor of Kairos, and Hugh Burns, a visiting scholar from Texas Woman's University, also participated.

For the most part, the focus of the institute was to learn about multimodal composing. Four themes that were prominent were:

  • The more modes, the better the learning and the more inclusive of those who may favor one mode over others.
  • Using other modes can help us rethink and perhaps improve our theoretical and practical understanding of what it means to compose.
  • Using other modes might help us retool our pedagogical practice.
  • Using and understanding these digital forms of composing can help prepare students for writing in the 21st century.

The primary tools we used included Audacity, iMovie, and Sophie (a tool for assembling a "book" of electronic pages). Sophie is particularly good for creating not only a multimodal book but also an eportfolio. It's a little buggy right now (you need to save often and keep everything in one folder), but in October, a new version should be coming out that will also allow one to create a web "book." The audio and video editors are a crucial aspect of "revising" one's composing in these modes.

We were advised to pay attention to our learning processes as we did so. (For details and readings, go to the DMAC schedule and to pay particular attention to Takayoshi and Selfe's book chapter titled Thinking about modality [pdf].) I don't think I did a good job of paying attention to my learning processes as I was more focused, like my students, on the product I was creating. However, several thoughts on multimodal composing did occupy my mind.

One thought was the difficulty of moving from being a scholarly analyst of multimodal composing to becoming a scholarly producer of multimodal compositions. That is, it would take years of practice to reach a level in which the quality of my production would match my analysis. Alex Reid has written on this (Digital video and scholarship):

Once we get past the questions of the genre that might/will develop for video humanities scholarship, including the questions of scholarly validity, we need to address the material constraints such work imposes. Even for someone with real professional expertise (i.e. not me), producing quality video is expensive and time consuming. Generally it takes a group of professionals. Of course, if you're going to shoot home video style that's easier but is that level of quality going to fly for scholarly work?

Certainly there is something in-between professional, academic video of the type we see on the History channel for example and home movies. With a couple assistants, modestly better equipment, and a little practice and training, I'm sure I could put together something that would be of acceptable quality. But even that means an investment in time and money that goes substantively beyond what goes into humanities scholarship now.

Where is that investment going to come from? And what type of return will we expect from it?

Another thought was on whether it was worth the time for my students, considering that as second language learners, they have enough on their plate without squeezing another item into the semester. Alex had a response for that point, too:

I see FYC this way... Students need the opportunity to become writers. By "writers" I mean people who write on a regular basis with some sense of connecting to the world for some reason. By "write" I mean composing in any variety or combination of media that might be appropriate. That's the best way we can "prepare" students for the compositional and rhetorical challenges they will face as students, professionals, and citizens. In part this can still mean the fundamentals of rhetorical philosophy--of audience, purpose, and so on--applied to a variety of media. It means seeing how compositional practices are shaped by material, technological, discursive contexts, but also seeing compositional as an embodied process of distributed cognition. To do this, I think students will have to engage in the practice of new media composition.

I agree in some respects. After all, Powerpoint presentations are a normal part of our courses at Kean, presentations that incorporate images and sometimes sound or a YouTube video. But these are copy-and-paste productions that require no editing of the images, audio, or video. Based on my own experience at DMAC, it takes a considerable amount of time to "produce" a multimodal composition in which editing of audio and video has taken place. Although exceptions may exist according to the student population, students in FYC, especially second language students, need considerable work on revising and editing their print mode.

Even so, Alex and others are right in that new media composition is lincreasing in importance—even if it may be some time before Supreme Court justices begin to integrate new media into their legal edicts. The question is how much integration of new media into FYC and how much later on. Actually, I would guess that many, if not most, FYC classes introduce students to analyzing visual modes, such as how advertisements and commercials persuade their audiences to purchase their products. And others have had students produce ads, posters, and other items that integrate images. Various textbooks take such an approach (for example, Rhetorical Visions: Reading and Writing in a Visual Culture and Compose, Design, Advocate). In my FYC classes, I've had students analyze websites for both design and content based on the premise that analyzing rhetorical concepts across modes should lead to a better understanding of audience, context, and genre, which in turn should faciltate the transfer of those concepts to new contexts, genres, and modes, not only to other classes but also to their careers and civic lives.

However, on having students produce multimodal compositions, it makes sense in more advanced writing courses. In FYC (past what they're already doing with Powerpoint), well, I don't know. I've had my FYC students blog, collaborate on a wiki, participate on Ning, and subscribe to their classmates and search feeds in Netvibes. Obviously, print text is privileged in my classes, primarily because, as noted above, I focus on language due to teaching ESL students. However, keeping in mind the four themes mentioned above, I'll need to give this some more thought. Perhaps, for a beginning, I'll look into online tools like VoiceThread or Flowgram that can integrate the different modes into one document.

Related posts:
Math, Transfer, and Writing
Learning by Remixing
Bottlenecks in Learning to Write
Shin & Cimasko, Multimodal Composition in a College ESL Class

Apparently, a few days ago someone hacked into my website, putting stuff here that didn't belong. As far as I can tell, I've cleaned it up, but if I've missed something, let me know.

And it's been a while since I've posted anything. Well, in part, I've been busier than a bumblebee in a tar bucket, grading papers, getting ready for our site's Summer Institute and other such academic stuff. And, in part, I've had problems getting my blogging software to work right. I'm typing this directly onto the index page instead of using the software. So, once I fix it, I'll need to retype it.

Right now, I'm preparing and looking forward to going to Digital Media and Composition, a two-week institute run by Cynthia Selfe and Scott DeWitt at Ohio State University that will focus on multimodal composition. It should be a fun, learning experience.

At TESOL 2009, Suzanne Bonn and Leah Holck demonstrated how to use Voicethread and embed it in a blog. They showed how people can comment on the slide via written or voice input and they noted that people can also use the mouse to draw on the slide, useful when highlighting a point of interest and especially when talking about some aspect of a map.

Bonn and Holck have posted their powerpoint slides for the demonstration and also an excellent tutorial on setting up and creating your own Voicethread at Bonn's Teaching Resources and Projects, and they invite people to see how they themselves use it in their own blogs: msu-sugiyama0608 and What Makes America Tick?.

Voicethread is an engaging tool for language learners. It can be used at any level (novice, intermediate, advanced) for

  • language practice,
  • asynchronous conversations,
  • presentations and speeches,
  • debates,
  • storytelling,
  • learning reflections,
  • and more.

Free Voicethread accounts only allow for a maximum of three voicethreads at one time, but for those in K-12 settings, Voicethread has free educator accounts that have most of the pro account features. Voicethreads can be made private if need be, and Voicethread itself has their own secure site for educators.

For resources on using Voicethread in Education, check out

Some articles on Voicethread:

The journal Science has an interesting article Computers as Writing Instructors, an article that stirred up a conversation on the WPA listserv. Some of the concern relates to what Richard Haswell, a professor emeritus of English at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, stated in the article:

One peril, says Haswell, who has studied both traditional and electronic measures of writing, is that the programs pick up quantifiable indicators of good writing--average sentence length, for instance--yet ignore qualities such as whether an essay is factually accurate, clear, or concise, or whether it includes an element of wit or cleverness. "Those are all qualities that can't be measured by computer," he says.

When I read such statements, I wonder if supervisors worry about architects using computers to create and modify designs because computers can't measure the aesthetic qualities of the design. The computer is a tool. Of course, any tool can be abused. And if all teachers did were to use the program for assessing student writing and never offered their own feedback, that would be a problem. Still, no one seems to worry about architects using computers.

One thing I see as good about such tools, if they work (which is a requirement, of course), is that they incorporate conditions of flow, a state of intrinsic motivation, such as:

  1. immediate feedback
  2. clear goals
  3. focused attention
  4. tasks that challenge (without frustrating) one's skills

Motivation is crucial in engaging students to spend time on their writing, to work at improving it. (For more on motivation and flow, see Engagement and Flow.)

Immediate Feedback
Although learning and instruction may meet conditions 2-4, seldom is immediate feedback given in composition classes. In one semester, students might write from three to six essays, depending on the instructor, which means that feedback on essays is given every two to three weeks. In addition, the feedback of peer reviews generally takes place hours after the last version, unless a student pulled an all-nighter for an 8:00 am class. In this case, most of the feedback will be seen through a haze. The feedback of instructors usually occurs days later after they have looked at all of them.

The importance of immediate feedback with cognitive tutors has been demonstrated in teaching LISP, algebra, and geometry. In their abstract, Anderson et al. write,

Early evaluations of these tutors usually but not always showed significant achievement gains. Best case evaluations showed that students could achieve at least the same level of proficiency as conventional instruction in one-third of the time.

Those "best case evaluations" are in the lab where there are no distractions, but even in real classrooms, Anderson and Schunn (pdf) have found achievement gains equal to one letter grade. Learning is directly due to time on task, that is, practice. (Of course, practicing the wrong tasks leads to mislearning.) Thus, providing immediate feedback helps to eliminate wasted time in trying to figure out how to do something, which in turn, decreases the time required to learn a particular activity.

Now, writing is a fuzzier than math. Math usually has a correct answer, while writing doesn't. But perhaps by limiting one's focus to particular aspects of writing, such as coherence, cognitive tutors like WriteToLearn may be of help to students in developing their writing.

Alex Reid, however, questions interacting with computers instead of with other students:

The Science article explains that these computer programs are necessary because teachers cannot read and respond to as much student writing as the students should be doing; so the machine reads them instead. Hmmm.... what other possibilities could there be I wonder?  .... Maybe the other students? Maybe the could be reading each others' work? Maybe they could even actually be writing to one another? Maybe they could be using these networks to write to other students around the world? Maybe they could be composing texts that were addressed to other humans rather than to machines and which might actually have some real meaning and value?

I think that interaction with others is important for learning, too, but that does not necessitate an either-or dichotomy of interacting with students and others versus interacting with computers. In fact, using a computer doesn't necessarily mean that students are not interacting with others. Anderson et al. wrote,

When students are in the laboratory, they are working one-on-one with the machines, but that hardly means they are working in isolation. There is a constant banter of conversation going on in the classroom in which different students compare their progress and help one another. ... An effective teacher is quite active in such a classroom, circulating about the class and providing help to students who cannot get the help they need from either the tutor or their peers. (p. 200)

In addition, it would seem to be useful for students to have such a program at home when they are alone, according to Anderson and Schunn, because of "difficulties of [self-]generation and dangers of misgeneration." In other words, much time can be wasted in writing to others and also mislearned, with respect to learning specific aspects of writing.

Meaning and Value
As noted above, Reid's thrust is on the "meaning and value" of student writing. However, meaning and value shouldn't be limited to writing to people. It's interesting that just as we don't question architects using computers to aid in creating aesthetically pleasing buildings, neither do we question coaches who have their players practice drills over and over and over to perfect their skills. No one says, These drills don't have meaning. And no one asks, Why don't you just let them play games that have meaning instead of mindless drills? No one does because it's understood that honing one's skills is valuable for playing the game well. And skills like coherence are crucial to writing well.

Meaning and value are relative. What meaning and value do videogames have? Isn't it primarily just for pleasure, part of which derives from improving one's skills. And for that pleasure, people, especially youngsters, can play for hours on end, as can athletes. Supposedly, ex-NBA star Larry Bird felt shooting "200 free throws before school, every day" had meaning and value. From the article, Jenkins' students apparently found the writing tutor meaningful and valuable, as indicated by their improvement in writing:

Jenkins suspects that English language learners (ELL)—educationese for children who speak another language at home—may be among those who can benefit the most from using writing-instruction software. Last year, 92% of his ELL students passed the writing portion of the state assessment test, he says, compared with 31% of his ELL students before he started using the software. That percentage is also well above the statewide ELL rate of 58%.

That's a tremendous difference. Of course, there is a danger of limiting writing to what a standardized test can measure, and of dumbing down instruction, which is well-documented in George Hillocks' book The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

Having said that, although writing with a purpose to others, just like practice, can help to improve one's writing, such an approach has its limits. And to move beyond those limits requires studied practice (see The Expert Mind in Scientific American). And if some computer program can help in that regard, great!

As noted above, cognitive tutors, if designed appropriately, can motivate students to spend more time on task, which is the most important factor in learning. Anderson et al. wrote,

Students' own attitudes to the tutor classrooms are quite positive, to the point of creating minor discipline problems. Students skip other classes to do extra work on the tutor, refuse to leave the class when the period is over, and come in early.

How often does that happen in our classes? Students coming in early, not wanting to leave at the period's end, and preferring to do our homework instead of others'?

In their conclusion, Anderson et al. mention an anecdote:

The student, frustrated by restrictive access to the LISP tutor, deliberately induced a 2-day suspension by swearing at a teacher. He used those 2 days to dial into the school computer from his home and complete the lesson material on the LISP tutor. (p. 204)

And the Science article says that Jenkins found similar results with his students:

Maria had more confidence in her writing abilities--and passed the writing portion of the state assessment test. "It's not a cure-all, but what a difference it's made in what the kids have shown they can do," says Jenkins, who began using the software last year.

As Anderson et al. assert, "learning achievement is a very empowering experience," and one that has "meaning and value" to the students.

So, why wouldn't compositionists applaud the use of computers as tutors? Asao Inoue, in his review of the book Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences stated,

More importantly, most in the present collection do not acknowledge or address (accept [sic] arguably Haswell, Anson, and Broad) a core premise of the book, that what is at issue is a paradox of technology. We already use and need technologies of assessment, yet we are fighting against certain kinds of technologies because they take us in different directions, shape our practices, assumptions, student arrangements, and working conditions in ways we do not value enough to pursue.

This particular technology is too quickly dismissed. Not because it may not work but because present practices and assumptions have attained canonical status rather than being critically re-examined. Of course, we shouldn't uncritically accept new technology, either. But if it meets my values of motivating students to work on their writing and actually helps to improve their writing, then I'm interested in learning more about it.

Better Learning with Sites and Sounds (by Andy Guess from InsideHIgherEd)

One qualitative study ... found that students who create and edit documents using Web-based collaboration tools include more complex visual media in their assignments — and come away with a better understanding in the process. Another ongoing experiment finds, with statistical significance, that instructors can be more effective in grading students’ work if they record their comments directly into documents as audio.

Perhaps the first finding in this article sheds some light on the finding from the previous post in which the NSSE found that online learning resulted in "deep" learning. Using "more complex visual media," that is, leads to thinking about what one is learning in ways that offline learning doesn't. And using that media depends, in part, on how easy it is to use them.

The second finding is interesting, too, because it's not the same as giving them an audio file that is separate from the document. According to Ice, one of the researchers in the article, separating the audio file results in little additional learning. I'm guessing that having the audio play as you read focuses the listener more on those areas of writing that need work and why. To use this method, however, requires Adobe Acrobat Pro, about a $200 expenditure. (Students can read and listen with the free Acrobat Reader.) Still, read the Virtual Canuck's experience and enthusiasm for Marking with Voice Tools.

Excerpts from the 21st Century Learning: Going Global conference.

A Global Education
Three keynote speakers shared what their organizations were doing with respect to helping young people collaborate across countries in their learning and education.

Milton Chen, Executive Director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation (i.e., Edutopia), on "globalizing the curriculum"

"Globalizing the curriculum" is not about inventing new courses or departments but globalizing the curriculum, finding international connections in what you do.

"Learning without borders" is not simply crossing geographical borders, but it's learning about yourselves.

Michael Furdyk, Co-Founder and Director of TakingITGlobal, has a vision of young people "shaping our world," and asks,

If young people were actively engaged in all aspects of society, and thought of themselves as community leaders, problem-solvers, role models, mentors and key 'stakeholders' ... how would the world change?

Ed Gragert, Executive Director of iEARN (International Educators and Resource Network), talked on "Bringing Global Awareness into the Classroom":

Students move from learning about other cultures and languages to ....
Learning through interaction with other cultures.

Their organization helps schools and students in different countries collaborate on projects and produce student videos on a topic because

When students teach other students what they know, they learn better.

And he asked us to imagine,

What if the next Secretary of Education created a policy to enable

Every school in the US to be actively engaged with at least one other school in another country ...

The Digital Generation and Digital Learning
Two more keynote speakers, both from the Rutgers University Writing Center, presented on how education needs to change in this digital age: Paul Hammond, Director of Digital Initiatives, and Richard Miller, the center's Executive Director and Chair of the English Department. Richard Miller, who is known for his seven-minute video, The future is now: Presentation to the RU Board of Governors, noted that an academic monograph typically sold 246 copies, while his video had been viewed more than 9000 times and concluded, "It's the most important intellectual work I've ever published in my life."

We're not interested in the accessed information [on the Internet] ... What we're interested in as compositionists is, How do we get our students to work with this information ... how to make connections with the information they have in order to produce something of their own. ... to make use of this rich, rich media ...

What we're interested in is composing. How do we train people to make meaning in a withering firestorm of information? We need new ways of teaching, new ways of thinking about writing. But what technology allows us to do is, It allows us to dream in new ways.

A panel on "Digital Choices Define a Generation" included Scott Seider, Assistant Professor of Curriculum & Teaching at Boston University, Barry Schwartz, Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, and Jo Hoffman, Associate Professor of Education at Kean University.

Seider looked at identity issues for the digital generation. On the plus side, digital media can have these effects:

boyd (2007): "The need to write one's online idneity into existence can encourage self-reflection" on who you are or how you want to present yourself.

Stern (2007): On-line profiles and blogs push people to articulate what they believe in.

James et al (2008): Young people empowered by ability to tell their stories online and can be encouraged /comforted by feedback.

On the negative side:

James et al (2008): Exploration carried out "in a digital public before a vast and unknowable audience" The internet changes the stakes.

Perceived by many youth as "low stakes" but ...

boyd (2007): Internet and persistence, replicability , searchability, and invisible audience (potentially there forever)

May be difficult for young people to fully grasp potential consequences (reputation), ...

Exploration can more easily cross into 'deception'

Pretending to be someone else while interacting/flirting with peers

Overreliance on feedback (what Turkle (2008) refers to as 'tethering')

Lack of time for autonomous reflection

Barry Schwartz, who wrote The Paradox of Choice, talked about having choices was good but how having too many choices has three negative consequences:

  • Too many choices paralyzes one's ability to make a choice.
  • Too many choices negatively affects one's performance and ability to make good decisions.
  • Too many choices leads to regret about the choice you did make or will make.

He gave research examples of (1) how people who had too many choices to make, say in their 401(k) plans, would simply not choose one and lose out on matching funds from their employer, (2) how students who had 25 topics to choose from in order to write an essay wrote worse than those who selected from only 6 choices, and (3) how people who had too many choices tended to regret their choice more than those with fewer choices because as time passed they felt that the alternatives that they had passed up would have been better.

With respect to today's digital generation who have too many choices, he noted the following consequences:

Significant rise in the incidence of depressiona and suicide, both of which are appearing at younger and younger ages

Substantial increase in the rate at which college students are flocking to counseling centers

Palpable unease in the reports of young college graduates, who seem to lack a clear idea of what they are meant to do in their lives. Often this is manifest as anxiety disorder

And finally, in upper-class adolescents, whose family affluence makes anything possible, there are the same levels of drug abuse, anxiety disorder, and depression as there are in the children of the poor.

The solution is what he called "Libertarian Paternalism." That is,

It will become more common that people do nothing. So set it up so that when people do nothing, they get what they want, which is better [psychologically] for them.

He gave the example of organ donors in the U.S. and in Europe. In the U.S., about 98% believe that donating organs at one's death is a good thing to do, but only about 8% do it because they have to opt in on their driver's license to do it, while in Europe, about 90% (?) do it because they have to opt out of the default of donating one's organs at death.

Much to think about!

Bradley Hammer comments on the writing his students do at Duke University in A New Type of Writing Course, arguing that technology can make writing more meaningful to students:

In great contrast to only a few years ago, most of my students write several hours a day. I’m not talking about technically perfect papers, focused on grammar and the rules of structure. These students are tirelessly blogging, texting and responding to their peers in lengthy e-mail. And rather than dismiss this kind of writing as lacking in academic merit, I’ve started thinking about how schools can embrace, in academic ways, the emerging forms of writing students have already claimed as their own. ...

As part of this change, technology has radically extended the spaces for academic debate. In real ways, blogging and other forms of virtual debate actually foster the very types of intellectual exchange, analysis and argumentative writing that universities value. 

Along these lines, Can MySpace make better writers talks about how technology is changing writing and how it can motivate students in their writing.

Amy Gahran, in Straight to the Point: The Miniskirt Theory of Writing (via Downes), asserts,

If you want to make a point in writing, make sure you nail the “so what” in your first 62 words.

Of course, as she admits, reader tastes vary and cites Dave Taylor as saying "more educated, intelligent readers prefer longer, more thoughtful and eloquent content." There's no question that the first words are important in "hooking" one's audience into continuing to read. But hopefully, one's posts will not become mere sound bites.

How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It (via Downes) is an excellent online book written by Wikipedians Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. It includes an appendix for teachers.

Blogging Pedagogy has a recent post on integrating multimedia into newspaper readings Deconstructing and Reconstructing Media and Messages:

For those of you looking to invite students to interact with different media, you might consider adopting and adapting the lesson plans conveniently provided as part of the Humanities Institute’s Living Newspaper Project. In this case, the four kinds of media are printed news reports, play script, oral reading, and theater performance.

What you can't win in court: "After you’ve been called racist by some students, can you sue to get your reputation back?" That's what Richard Peltz, who teaches law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, did. He began a lawsuit against students who had accused him of being racist because those accusations had led to him being "barred" from teaching certain courses. One of the accusations concerned his having students "focus more on their writing."

While defending his intent, Peltz pledged in his new memo to never again offer the writing tips “lest I again be maligned for trying to improve student writing.”

The article shows that it is not difficult to undermine the university as a place of learning and discussing ideas.

William Major, an associate professor of English at the University of Hartford, takes Another view of bias:

There’s a great deal of discussion in academe about a perceived bias amongst the professoriate, though Horowitz is looking in the wrong place. If he and his acolytes want bias, I have no doubt that there is plenty to go around. But playing favorites has the potential to do real harm to the student, ourselves, and to an ethic of professionalism. There is the spirit of fair play, unwritten and rarely acknowledged, through which we show our students and colleagues and, most importantly, ourselves who we are and what we are about. I suppose it’s called character.

Mark Richardson, an assistant professor of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University, takes aim at the myths surrouding learning to write in Writing is not just a basic skills:

From that vantage point, first-year composition is only indirectly preparatory to writing in other disciplines: What a student will learn is somewhat applicable to writing a history or psychology paper, but significant gaps in preparation will remain. Psychology professors who want students to write effective papers, even at the introductory level, can't count on first-year composition to have done all the preparatory work.

And here are a few more links on writing:
John Updike reflects on the challenges and satisfactions of the aging writer.
Zhura releases world's first online, collaborative editor for comic book writers
On college: Essay writing critical to getting accepted

Ruth Reynard's Avoiding the 5 Most Common Mistakes in Using Blogs with Students (via Stephen Downes) has some good guidelines for using blogs in the classroom. Reynard teaches graduate students, but her five mistakes to avoid are sound for all levels:

  • Ineffective contextualization
  • Unclear learning outcomes
  • Misuse of the environment
  • Elusive grading practices
  • Inadequate time allocation

These principles actually work for any course assignment or technology. For instance, it helps students if they understand the purpose of a particular assignment. If they consider something to be busy work, motivation will be lower and their work can reflect their perception of the assignment. And so on.

Reynard's article is similar to two older, brief posts by James Farmer. Misuse of the environment refers to what Farmer wrote about not using blogs for purposes they're not intended, in which he includes discussion boards, listservs, learning management systems, and group blogs. Ineffective contextualization is similar to his assertion that blogs "should be key, task driven, elements of your course".

Reynard goes into more depth than Farmer's brief posts (but see his article Blogs @ Anywhere: High-Fidelity Online Communication. Even so they take similar perspectives.

Reynard writes,

In the case of blogging, the most effective use of this tool is in the area of self reflection or thought processing. As such, there must be concepts for students to think through, various resources and content segments to process, or ideas to construct. To simply ask students to blog without this level of planning will lead to frustration for the students. In other words, there must be a certain amount of content preparation already covered or made accessible for students before blogging will really support the learning process.

Self-reflection is certainly one reason why I have a blog. But is it "the most effective use of this tool"? It's not clear to me, but she seems to be equating self-reflection with thinking through ideas. Self-reflection for me is learning about myself, who I am, and where I'm going. It might also be about examining how I learn. But thinking through ideas is more about problem-solving and learning about the ideas, which may or may not include reflecting about myself and my learning.

I definitely disagree with the following excerpt:

While a blog can also provide social placement of students or academic placement of students within a group, blogs are fundamentally individual in their purpose and essence. That is, while comments can be added or ideas posted following a blog entry, these sit outside the initial posting--blogs are not wikis or online discussion forums, therefore, if individual self-reflection is the central benefit to the learning process, instructors must plan carefully as to when in the course self-reflection will enhance the learning process for each student.

Yes, my blog, for instance, has my purpose and my essence. But its purpose and essence are not independent of the purposes and essences of other blogs. Rather, it's influenced, even shaped, by its interactions with those other blogs. That is, I read what others are posting and respond to them, and they may do likewise, in an iterative fashion. Thus, others' posts do not "sit outside the initial posting" nor does the "initial posting" sit outside of them, but they are interconnected in an ongoing conversational web consisting of parallel posts in my blog's case and, in the case of others, via posts and comments. Thus, blogs are fundamentally social.

Paradoxically, what can facilitate social learning is the individualization of blogs, as Farmer notes in his article:

Indeed, for MacColl et al. the individualisation of the blogging experience was significant in that it allowed for the students to express themselves through “heavily customising their blogs and requesting more advanced functionality”. This control over information is, they surmise, critical to “fostering appropriation of the technology for unintended uses” and plays heavily in their future plans to “explore extensions that approximate the fluency of a shared paper-based journal, as a basis for the serendipitous backtalk that reveals unanticipated problems or surprise opportunities”. Invariably, it would seem, aggregation and individualisation would play a key role in this.

Although Farmer doesn't use the term "autonomy," it can be understood through the terms "customising," student "control over information," "unintended uses," "serendipitous backtalk," and, of course, "individualisation." Note that it is self-determination within a context of social interaction via aggregation that fosters autonomy and also learning.

Related post:
How to Use Blogs in the Classroom

The Center for Innovative Education at Kean University will be holding its Fourth Annual Fall Conference December 5-6, 2008: 21st Century Learning: Going Global. Keynote speakers include Milton Chen (George Lucas Foundation), Michael Furdyk (, and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (Powerful Learning Practice).

iTunes University continues to grow. According to Apple's website, it has

over 75,000 educational audio and video files from top universities, museums and public media organizations from around the world.

Its latest addition is Edutopia: What Works in Public Education sponsored by the George Lucas Educational Foundation with podcasts ranging from Technology Integration to Assessment to Project Learning and more.

It also a variety of language learning podcasts, a few of which are Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, ... , and, of course, English.

And it has various podcasts on writing, including podcasts from

Related post:
The Web: The Future of Learning

Russell Stannard, lecturer principal lecturer in Multimedia/ICT at the University of Westminster has some excellent videos on technology and on English language teaching (via Nik Peachey). This month he has a series of videos on How to use Blogger.

A good blog to follow on how to use technology is Traci Gardner's NCTE Inbox. In just July and August, she has written on

And Traci covers these tools in detail, making it easy to learn to use them for yourself and in your classes.

A good blog to follow for new software tools is Jane's E-Learning Pick of the Day. Every day, she introduces a new tool, sometimes a software application, sometimes a video. And for those interested in learning, the left sidebar has a link to the Top 100 Tools for Learning and another link to 2400+ Tools for Learning, both maintained by her Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies. I've been keeping my own page on free software, but it comes nowhere close to 2400+ tools.

Another good resource for learning about Web 2.0 tools is CommonCraft. They have videos explaining blogs, wikis, RSS, and many others.

Finally, (via Digital Writing, Digital Teaching) some NOVA science videos are available free. Go here and click on the Download Videos button to see what's available.

I was just rereading Will Richardson assertion that it's about Networks, Not Tools:

Today, it was all about networks, not tools. All about connections, not publishing. All about working together to get smarter, not learning alone. All about how RSS connects us to ideas, how blogs connect us to people, how Twitter connects us to, um, the Twitterverse, and on and on and on. ...

Networks and connections are important in learning. But as Richardson goes "on and on and on," he says little about what he actually learned from skyping over to Utrecht during his presentation. Instead, he gives us words like "cool", "passion", and "glow", but no indication of what learning, if any, took place. We can now "buzz" around in streams of information overflow, but it's not clear how that makes us "smarter." There seems to be an emotional conflating (1) of fact aggregating with learning and (2) of stream of consciousness socializing with mastering a body of knowledge to the extent that you can use it in novel situations. Twitter, like any other tool, can be useful, but it is just as likely to lead to frittering our time away. As I wrote earlier about twitter,

Twitter can keep us from achieving, as noted in [Kathy Sierra's] article How to be an Expert, Philip Ross's The Expert Mind, and my post Forget IQ. Just Work Hard! Twittering one's time away may be momentarily pleasurable, but real pleasure, real achievement, and real learning--whether it's learning a language, learning to write, or learning in general--come from real, focused, and challenging endeavors.

Most of the tag cloud generators tend to keep all of the words horizontal, but Wordle (via Collin vs. Blog) has them both horizontal and vertical, giving it a rather neat appearance.

Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.

I generated the tag clouds below from two of my papers.

Building Blocks (left) and Learning Networks (right)
Learning Networks

It's to be expected that the words overlap quite a bit. One difference is the emphasis on "knowledge" under Learning Networks, which indicates the difference in the emphasis on individuals in Building Blocks and networks in Learning Networks, so that in the former, students construct learning, while in the latter, knowledge becomes a resource in the network.

The size of these tag clouds are fixed when linking to them, and if you increase the size, the words become blurred. So, to get a larger image, you need to take a screen capture of the tag cloud at Wordle and use that image instead as below:

Learning Networks

I'm wondering how this might be useful for students. Perhaps it would let them see what their focus was, which words they used the most, and whether they needed to change the focus or the words.

About two weeks ago, Claire Thompson, upon finding that I didn't allow comments initially was "aghast" and wrote,

On my blog comments were my riason d’etre. What was wrong with this guy? If only I could give him a piece of my mind…"

I'm glad that I wasn't close at hand then. :)

She then went on to a brief but thoughtful consideration of the pros and cons of having comments. One point she made that I hadn't given much thought to before was that many readers are not likely to follow trackbacks. Comments have a time advantage by having the entire conversation in one place.

I'm not sure why readers don't follow trackbacks, but I believe that many want to skim something quickly, and if it attracts them enough, they will slow down to think about it. Going after trackbacks simply doesn't have a sufficient level of catalytic attraction to get them to click. That applies to me, too, because often all trackbacks do is quote part of a post from which I can't determine if it's worth my time to click on it. Trackbacks need to have a few words that indicate the value/substance of the reply sufficiently so that I want to see what they have to say. As Christine Martell, one of the commenters on Claire's post, stated,

I don’t check out trackbacks on others posts unless the blogger points them out in a subsequent post. I’m even clicking on less and less links in a post unless the blogger gives me a sense of why I should. I’ve just gone down too many paths of check out this post only to find out it doesn’t add a lot of value for me.

Similarly, the large majority of readers do not want to expend the time and energy in writing a lenghty and thoughtful comment. In the two years since I initially gave my rationale for no comments, not one reader has taken me up on my invitation to send me by email a thoughtful and measured response to anything I've written for posting on my blog. (Before that time, two individuals did post lengthy responses on my blog, one, a colleague whose response I invited.)

Now I do think that some blogs are meant for comments. Technical ones are a good example, in which a large number of people can bring together isolated pieces of information, giving readers a much better grasp of possibilities for resolving some problem. And some blogs seem to encourage good comments, such as the Becker-Posner Blog.

But many blogs (I would say most), for whatever the reason, have too many comments that add nothing but feelings. As Claire noted, this post

by Will Richardson has garnered 68 blog reactions and 166 comments to date. What could someone possibly add to the conversation at comment 166? I don’t know, but they must feel pretty stongly to add their 2 cents worth.

For these reasons, I don't think comments are best for students because they often take the path of least resistance due to time pressures, such as work, family, and so on. The goal for blogs used in classes has to be learning, but the instantaneous nature of comments inhibit reflection. Then, again, as Mary Hillis wrote,

commenting is a skill that students need some guidance on.

From this perspective, with guidance, perhaps commenting can be a learning endeavor. Before assuming that comments or no comments are better, we should be able to answer questions like these:

  • Is commenting as effective for learning as writing a post on one's own blog and trackbacking to the initial post.
  • Does posting on one's own blog reduce the tendency of confirmation bias that is found in comments?
  • Does the social nature of commenting (compared to trackbacks) motivate students more to continue their learning via blogs after the class ends?

Each of these questions would make for a good study, and at the least require some thought before assuming that comments are important for learning.

Although I lean against commenting, I do not see it as black and white. There's no research along these lines that I am aware of that can give definitive answers according to type of blog, context, and so on. But for those of us who are educators, I would say that we need to be careful about being sidetracked by the social contagion of commenting and instead keep the goal of learning in the foreground of our blogging and of our students' blogging.

Related posts can be found at Why I don't have comments.

Yesterday, Dina Rosen and I presented at a conference on Pedagogy across Disciplines: Imagining and Delivering the Possibilities. We looked at the use of blogs, wikis, and google docs for promoting interaction among students and among instructors.

Participants had quite a few questions. One asked how what we were doing was any different from Dewey approaches to educcation. We responded that the approaches aren't different, but that these online tools support experiential learning in ways that may be more difficult without them. For instance,

  • These tools allow students ways to interact without having to meet physically, a key factor for commuter and working students.
  • They create real audiences, thus giving an authentic purpose that motivates students.
  • They can engage students more, thus ending up with them spending more time on task, the main factor in learning.
  • And so on.

As one participant noted, however, it's not about the tools: It's about learning. Thus, as we use these tools, or others, we need to ask ourselves:

  • What's my purpose? That is, what do I want myself and my students to accomplish and why?
  • What's my strategy for accomplishing that purpose?
  • What's my strategy for integrating factors of learning, motivating, and interacting with ideas?

Although none of this is new for those already engaged with such learning tools, it is new for the majority who aren't. And they are interested in learning about these tools, and they ask good questions about using them. It's just a matter of time for integrating them in learning-oriented ways in their own instruction.

On a sidenote, I like putting my presentations online. I generally leave them up for a while so participants can return and click on the links, plus email me if they have additional questions. If you have a Mac, Sandvox is a great way to put up websites (and presentations) quickly. All you need to do is fill in the content. The program takes care of the design. I used it for my "Why I don't have comments" page, along with "E-Learning", "Second Language Writing", "Kean University Writing Project", and others. You can see others who have used it for their main websites at Sandvoxed. For those who want to simplify their website life, this is one way to do it.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, I had to set up a website for the Kean University Writing Project, which I've done. For now, I took the easy path using Sandvox, a nifty website creator, and the Franchise theme from Sandvox Web Designs. It's just a matter of copy and paste the information needed into the pages, sometimes with a little tweaking of the html code, and the program and template make it look good.

I was thinking, Did I learn anything from using this program? Do I need always to learn something in all endeavors? To both questions, I've come to the conclusion: No. Although I would enjoy learning more about html and css, spending too much time there would stop me from learning more about what I need to do as a technology liaison between our local site and the National Writing Project. It would take time away from learning about e-Anthology, how to introduce technology to the participants in the Summer Institute, and so on. Just like everything else in life, there are priorities of learning.

This semester, my posting frequency will likely be less frequent than previous semesters due to two new responsibilities.

One responsibility is overseeing the establishing of a website that will support writing across the curriculum at Kean University. (At least we have someone, Alex Taner, on board who will design the website and its architecture and is a professional in this area.) Initially, we'll have a skeleton of writing concepts linked to other sites that already have the content for those ideas. Next fall, we'll begin working on our own content to fit our particular students' needs, and a year from now, we'll start working with other departments to integrate their writing needs into the site, so it will truly be "Writing @ Kean" instead of only writing in the English Department.

My other responsibility is related to our English Department becoming a National Writing Project site: I've been appointed the technology liaison--not because I know a lot, but my meager knowledge is more than most others (and others have their own strengths that lead them to other positions). That means I have to set up a website for us, become acquainted with our Summer Institute's technology expectations, and figure out how to help our participants and collaborators become more proficient in using technology in their classes. (I need to figure that out for myself, too, so I'll be hitting two birds with one stone.)

So much to consider, too. Do we want a blog hosted on Blogger or Wordpress, or our own blog installed on our own domain? Do we want static pages or dynamic ones controlled by a CMS? Do we want a commercial CMS like ExpressionEngine that provides support (and costs money) or an open-source CMS like Drupal, which has a community but a steep learning curve. The former items in those sentences are easy to accomplish, while the latter will require much learning on my part. I like learning, but sometimes there's just not enough time to do everything you want and keep up with your other responsibilities. Of course, we can take the easy path now and later move on the more powerful and flexible tools. What problems will that create?

Below are links to articles on using comic books in school and to online comic book applications.

Comic Books in the Classroom (NY Times) reports on the Comic Book Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, which helps students become more interested in art and writing.

Teachers are finding it easier to teach writing, grammar and punctuation with material that students are fully invested in. And it turns out that comic books have other built-in advantages. The pairing of visual and written plotlines that they rely on appear to be especially helpful to struggling readers. No one is suggesting that comic books should substitute for traditional books or for standard reading and composition lessons. Teachers who would once have dismissed comics out of hand are learning to exploit a genre that clearly has a powerful hold on young minds. They are using what works.

Thinking outside the box, inside the panel (Valerie Strauss, Washington Post) also reports on the Comic Book Project. The project's founder, Michael Bitz,

wanted to combine his research findings -- that learning through the arts can have academic and social value for children -- with a creative approach to get kids to combine skills such as reading, writing, brainstorming and conceptualizing ideas. Creating comic books, he said, would allow them to draw on their experiences and interests.

Interview with Michael Bitz of the Comic Book Project (Christian Hill, National Association of Comics Art Educators).

Teachers are getting graphic (Greg Toppo, USA Today) is a lengthy article on those using comic books in public schools with a section on those not in favor. Those in favor feel that getting students interested in reading comics will lead to their wanting to read more serious books.

Even French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre loved comic books, Gantos says. "This is a pretty heavy thinker, but he said in his autobiography that he started off reading comic books as a child and that if it wasn't for comic books, he never would have stuck with books.

Comic Book Project proves to be effective learning tool is a news release on The Maryland Comic Book Initiative.

Comics in the Classroom is a site devoted to using comics in school and has lesson plans, news, and reviews, all pertaining to using comic books.

Read-Write-Think is a site that has an online comic creator with accompanying lesson plans for using the tools.


Tales from the Public Domain: Bound by Law? is a comic book from the Duke School of Law for teaching about copyright:

“Bound by Law translates law into plain English and abstract ideas into ‘visual metaphors.’ So the comic's heroine, Akiko, brandishes a laser gun as she fends off a cyclopean 'Rights Monster' - all the while learning copyright law basics, including the line between fair use and copyright infringement.” -Brandt Goldstein, The Wall Street Journal online

Heroes in the Classroom: Comic Books in Art Education (Jay Berkowitz and Todd Packer) is a 7-page JSTOR article (published in Art Education) that gives "background, guidelines, and a lesson plan to help you use comics and cartoons in these artistic skills of students."

For those with access, Bitz has a journal article on the Comic Book Project (see excerpt below):
Bitz, M. (2004). The Comic Book Project: Forging alternative pathways to literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47.

In this arts-based literacy initiative in urban after-school environments, children brainstormed, outlined, sketched, wrote, and designed original comic books that represented their lives as urban youth.

Many deep-rooted problems in urban areas of the United States--including crime, poverty, and poor health--correlate with illiteracy. The statistics reported by organizations such as the National Alliance for Urban Literacy Coalitions are telling. Urban citizens who cannot read sufficiently are at a clear disadvantage in life. They are more likely to be poor (see Barton & Jenkins, 1995), to be incarcerated (see Haigler, Harlow, O'Connor, & Campbell, 1994), and to have health problems (see Baker et al., 2002). Meanwhile, another body of research shows a strong correlation between arts-rich environments and children's academic performance (Burton, Horowitz, & Abeles, 1999). Of course, the jury is still out on the conundrum between the chicken and the egg: Do the arts make kids smarter, or are smart kids involved in the arts?

While the debate continues in the academic community, the fact remains that most urban schools are not "rich" in arts or anything else. Most urban schools cannot make a connection between their arts and academic programs be cause there are simply too many other issues to worry about, particularly budgets and standardized test scores. Even in an arts-oriented program, urban youth face extraordinary challenges: family situations, safety concerns, lack of affordable or appropriate instructional opportunities, and peer resentment (Oreck, Baum, & McCartney, 1999). As urban schools continue to struggle, many now look to after-school programs as the future of education in the city. The need for and development of after-school programs are on the rise, and many...

Links to online tools for making comics:
Make Beliefs Comix
Comics Sketch
Strip Generator
Strip Creator

Will Richardson spoke today at the 21st Century Learning: Education 2.0 conference sponsored by the Center for Innovative Education at Kean University. His main point was:

The Big Premise:

This is a very challenging moment for educators. Our children are headed for a much more networked existence, one that allows for learning to occur 24, 7, 365, one that renders physical space much less important for learning, one that will challenge the relevance of classrooms as currently envisioned, and one that challenges our roles as teachers and adult learners.

As he noted, the world is changing, and the read/write web is facilitating those changes in politics, government, journalism/media, business, and education. He emphasized the need for curriculum to include and to integrate technology into the learning experiences of our children.

Much of what he said is available at a wiki he created for the presentation, along with links to many examples and resources.

What sort of web presence should you or your organization have? And how do you go about creating it?

These questions and others were discussed at a session at the 2007 NWP (National Writing Profect) 2007 Annual Meeting this morning. The session on "Planning your site's online presence" led by Susan Biggs, Cheryl Canada, and Terri Godby, had us look at the following items:

  • Inquiry questions
  • Web presence word explosion
  • Exploring identity
  • Exploring audience and purpose
  • Mapping out our writing project sites

The main point was to establish our identity: who we are, what we do, and who do we have relationships with. And to do so in a way that was clear, professional, relevant to teachers' and schools' needs, welcoming to visitors and potential participants, and accessible in terms of ease of use and navigation. I made a preliminary map as follows:

One crucial relationship, as represented in the figure, are the teacher consultants who are on the leadership team and also take back to their schools and fellow teachers what they have learned in the Summer Institute and other programs. Yet as the connecting lines indicate, to have a web presence that represents you well takes considerable interaction and collaboration among the different participants.

To see how three local sites have interpreted these issues, check out
Western Masschusetts Writing Project
The Philadelphia Writing Project
Northern Virginia Writing Project

More bloggers are commenting on the myths of the Digital Generation.

Juliette White wrote of her misgivings on the notion of digital natives. As she notes, most of the evidence on their characteristics is "anecdotal."

George Siemens also critiques the so-called digital native/immigrant division of Marc Prensky, stating,

But I don't think the distinction has merit beyond a buzz phrase that has outlived the role it initially played in getting educators to think about the different types of learners now entering our classrooms.

the premise is wrong (and offensive), the remedy suggested is wrong, and the research is needlessly twisted to lead readers in directions at conflict with even the slightest amount of critical thinking. Prensky’s articles takes readers through a very shallow dive of a very deep pool.

Also critiquing Prensky's digital evangelism, Jamie McKenzie, in his article Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation (via George Siemens), gets to the point:

Prensky's labels are crude, inaccurate and based on no data. His gross generalizations lump complex segments together as if identical.

McKenzie's critique of Prensky is rather harsh, but he details how Prensky overgeneralizes, simplifies groups of people, and lacks evidence for his claims.

On a calmer note, Carrie Fried, Associate Professor of Psychology at Winona State University, conducted a study on how using laptops in class negatively affected learning. Her research is crucial because much of the earlier research, according to Fried, (1) did not objectively measure learning; (2) did not have a control group; but (3) prescribed how laptops could be used in the classroom. Although I wouldn't limit research to only experimental approaches, it is important that so far the effect computers on student learning has been left out. In addition to distracting other students, she found,

Students admit to spending considerable time during lectures using their laptops for things other than taking notes. More importantly, the use of laptops was negatively related to several measures of learning. The pattern of the correlations suggests that laptop use interfered with students’ abilities to pay attention to and understand the lecture material, which in turn resulted in lower test scores. The results of the regression analysis clearly show that success in the class was negatively related to the level of laptop use.

In other words, multitasking by digital natives decreases learning. Common sense dictates this finding: Learning depends on effective time on task (see Anderson & Schunn's Implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets (pdf)), and dividing one's time among tasks lessens the amount of time devoted to any one task, along with losing time for switching between tasks. And other research has found the same results for multitasking. (See, for example, Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory and its Projects for links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes.)

None of this is to say that computers cannot be used for learning in the classroom. Actually, they should be: They are part of the fabric in which we exist. Some research indicates that they can promote learning if used appropriately. (See again Fried's article and also this news about the Maine laptop project.) But also note that if used inappropriately, computers do nothing for learning.

So, we need to avoid the hype and exaggeration associated with the digital generation, focus on how Web 2.0 applications can support learning, and support instructors in gaining the skills to use these tools. Web 2.0 tools are not a panacea for ineffective instruction, but

  • They can engage students more than traditional forms of instruction.
  • They can enable students to interact with each other and others outside the classroom, thus
    • multiplying their exposure to course concepts and
    • motivating them to spend more time on task, the number one factor in learning.


Fried, Carrie B. (In press). In class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers & Education.

Related posts:
Myths of the Digital Generation, Part I
Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II
Hype from the Media and from Web 2.0 Evangelists

Links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes from the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory: Projects

Links to other posts on the myth of "digital natives":
Digital Natives and Immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date
Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation

Update (June 8, 2008) : I just came across this blog via Chris Lott: Net Gen Nonsense

My previous post on The Myths of the Digital Generation looked at how many of the characteristics ascribed to "digital natives" were exaggerated to the point of becoming myth. What is more founded in research (although I'm sure it has its share of controversy) is the native multitasking ability of women. Helen Fisher, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, researches "the evolution and future of human sex, love and marriage and gender differences in the brain and behavior." From Chapter 1 (NY Times, free registration required) of her book The First Sex, here are some excerpts on what she calls women's "web thinking" and men's "step thinking":

  • As a general rule, men tend to focus on one thing at a time—a male trait I first noticed in my twenties. At the time I had a boyfriend who liked to watch the news on television, listen to rock music on the stereo, and read a book—presumably all at once. In reality, he just switched channels in his head. When he was imbibing from one modality, he tuned the others out. Not I. The flashing of the TV screen, the throbbing music, the printed words: all of these stimuli swamped my mind.
  • Janet Scott Batchler has described this gender difference succinctly. She writes feature films with her husband and partner, Lee Batchler. She says of her spouse, "He does one thing at a time. Does it well. Finishes it and moves on. He's very direct in his thought processes and in his actions. And he deals with people in that same focused way, meaning exactly what he says, with no hidden agenda. I'm the one who can juggle a hundred balls at once, and can realize that other people may be doing the same thing, professionally or emotionally."
  • Web thinking versus step thinking; an emphasis on the whole versus a focus on the parts; multitasking versus doing one thing at a time: scientists are far from understanding, even properly defining, these subtle differences between women and men.
  • As women around the world do multiple tasks simultaneously, they are mentally assessing and assimilating an abundance of data— engaging in web thinking.
  • Women are "process-oriented." They are "gathering." They want to explore the multiple interactions, the multidirectional paths, all of the permutations of the puzzle.
  • Psychologists argue that contemporary women learn to do and think several things simultaneously. Just watch a working mother in the morning, dressing children, packing lunches, feeding goldfish, pouring cereal, and arranging day care on the phone—all at once.
  • I suspect that women's talent for contextual thinking—and the related skill of multitasking—evolved in deep history. Thousands of generations of performing mental and physical acrobatics as they raised helpless infants built these outstanding capacities into the architecture of the female brain.

Note that ahough Fisher's boyfriend seemed to be multitasking, he wasn't.

Note also that many of the characteristics attributed to digital natives by Prensky in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants are also attributed to women by Fisher. One difference is that while digital natives acquire their multitasking skills through normal learning processes, according to Fisher, about 50 percent of women have it hardwired into their brain. Obviously, although Prensky claimed that digital natives' multitasking and other skills "are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants," they are not foreign to women.

Of course, Fisher's theories are (contested) interpretations of data, but to me they adhere more closely to the evidence. Prensky's interpretations are speculative extrapolations from research findings that the brain continues to adapt and is malleable, and that people think differently according to their experiences. In Part II of Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (pdf), he writes,

So, today’s neurobiologists and social psychologists agree that brains can and do change with new input.

And elsewhere:

While these individual cognitive skills may not be new, the particular combination and intensity is. We now have a new generation with a very different blend of cognitive skills than its predecessors—the Digital Natives.

From very general concepts of plasticity and malleability, Prensky jumps to a very specific conclusion of "very different" cognitive processing . And elsewhere:

But these differences, most observers agree, are less a matter of kind than a difference of degree.

This last statement is key. First, if it's more a matter of degree, then considerable more evidence is needed before claiming that it is "a very different blend." Second, what is the specific combination and what is the difference in degree? As David E. Meyer, Director of the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory, said with respect to Net Gen's multitasking ability, "it's a myth" (see The Myths of the Digital Generation). So, the degree doesn't seem that large.

And the particular combination doesn't seem all that new, either: For millenia, according to Fisher, women have been natural, or native, multi-taskers. (Perhaps Meyer will disagree with Fisher.)

As stated in the previous post, that each generation differs from the preceding ones is common sense. But that the differences reach mythical levels, well, let's have a little more evidence.

Related posts:
Myths of the Digital Generation
Hype from the Media and from Web 2.0 Evangelists
Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd

Links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes from the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory: Projects

Links to other posts on the myth of "digital natives":
Digital Natives and Immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date
Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation

Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities, interviews (Part One, Part Two) Elizabeth Soep, Research Director and Senior Producer for Youth Radio, and some of her coworkers. In the preface to the interview, he comments on problems with the term "Digital Generation." The term

  1. is "ahistorical," meaning that in every generation, youth have been technologically ahead of their parents;
  2. "collapses all young people into a so-called digital generation," forgetting the Columbine Generation myth and the Digital Divide of access and participation; and
  3. "ignores the degree that what's really powerful about most of the new forms of participatory culture of fans, bloggers, and gamers is that such affinity spaces allow young people and adults to interact with each other in new terms."

The interviews are worth reading for insight into "collegial pedagogy" between adults and children, and I'll look at that in a later post. But for now I'd like to emphasize points #1 and #2.

On #2, my classes (almost all ESL) have had a range of students: typical teenagers out of high school, single mothers, parents with children who have graduated from college, most working part-time, quite a few working full time, and the categories go on. Just looking at the teenagers, I've seen a few who have had accounts on Myspace or Xanga, but most of them didn't. One had actually signed up for an account with but had not used it and wasn't sure what to do with it.

On #1, it's obvious that cars are a recent invention, as are computers and calculators. My father showed me how to use a slide rule, but I bought a handheld calculator instead. I remember a contest on TV between someone using one of the first calculators and another using an abacus. The abacus won.

Perhaps because people forget the history of technological innovation, they exaggerate the differences between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants". Marc Prensky wrote,

They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite.

An ancient proverb says that a picture is worth a thousand words. It is not new that people are visual. What is new is that we have a way of realizing our teaching visually in ways today that weren't available yesterday.

Prensky also wrote,

Unfortunately for our Digital Immigrant teachers, the people sitting in their classes grew up on the "twitch speed" of video games and MTV. They are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, beamed messages and instant messaging. They've been networked most or all of their lives.  They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and "tell-test" instruction. 

Are there many people who really prefer lectures? I remember sleeping through high school and many of my undergraduate college courses. Rather than the step-by-step procedures in manuals, I prefer just having someone show me what to do. I don't think I'm unique.

Although the pace of multitasking has reached a new high, it is not a new phenomenon. As Claudia Wallis in The multitasking generation states:

HUMAN BEINGS HAVE ALWAYS HAD A CAPACITY to attend to several things at once. Mothers have done it since the hunter-gatherer era--picking berries while suckling an infant, stirring the pot with one eye on the toddler. Nor is electronic multitasking entirely new: we've been driving while listening to car radios since they became popular in the 1930s. But there is no doubt that the phenomenon has reached a kind of warp speed in the era of Web-enabled computers, when it has become routine to conduct six IM conversations, watch American Idol on TV and Google the names of last season's finalists all at once.

Yes, youngsters multitask faster, but it's not new. And I would expect them to do it faster even if they hadn't grown up with it. After all, multitasking, like other physical and mental abilities, is age-related: it declines with age. The fact that "digital natives" multi-task "well" is a factor of age as well as being "digital."

As far as "twitch speed" goes, so what if "digital natives" can twitch. Are they learning anything as they twitch? In research reported on last year, Study: Multitasking hinders learning, twitch learning appears less effective:

"What's new is that even if you can learn while distracted, it changes how you learn"--making the learning "less efficient and useful," said Russell A. Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

It was a small study, and it was downplayed by Stephen Downes. But APA Online reports that multitasking is less efficient. In an introductory psychology course of 137 students, Fried (see source below) looked at how using laptops in class affected learning. Having students fill out online surveys weekly, she found that

the negative influence of in-class laptop use is two-pronged; laptop use is negatively associated with student learning [according to course performance] and it poses a distraction to fellow students.

Wallis's article concurs. Here are some excepts:

The mental habit of dividing one's attention into many small slices has significant implications for the way young people learn, reason, socialize, do creative work and understand the world.

Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one's output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks.

the ability to multiprocess has its limits, even among young adults. When people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer--often double the time or more--to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially, says David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan: "The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large--amazingly so." Meyer frequently tests Gen M students in his lab, and he sees no exception for them, despite their "mystique" as master multitaskers. "The bottom line is that you can't simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay, just as you can't talk to yourself about two things at once," he says. "If a teenager is trying to have a conversation on an e-mail chat line while doing algebra, she'll suffer a decrease in efficiency, compared to if she just thought about algebra until she was done. People may think otherwise, but it's a myth. With such complicated tasks [you] will never, ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain for processing information during multitasking. It just can't be, any more than the best of all humans will ever be able to run a one-minute mile."

In an earlier post (Twitter, or How to Fritter your Life Away), I cited Kathy Sierra, who wrote,

this onslaught [of twittering] is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.

And not only are we stopping ourselves from ever getting in flow, we're stopping ourselves from ever getting really good at something. From becoming experts. The brain scientists now tell us that becoming an expert is not a matter of being a prodigy, it's a matter of being able to focus.

Although this post was on Twitter, it applies also to mulitasking. The ability to focus one's attention is necessary both for acquiring expertise and for being in flow. The fact that youngsters like to multitask and that they can do it better than oldsters says little about well they learn while multitasking. And the research says otherwise.

Prensky does have some good ideas. From his website, he has apparently done well at creating computer games for learning. I think games are great for learning. If I had the money, I'd get him to create a game for my first-year composition course.

I don't doubt that there are differences between my generation and the digital generation. I also don't doubt that much of what is said about the digital native has been exaggerated to the level of myth.

Related posts:
The Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II
Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd
Hype from the Media and from Web 2.0 Evangelists

Links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes from the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory: Projects

Links to other posts on the myth of "digital natives":
Digital Natives and Immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date
Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation


Fried, Carrie B. (in press). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers and Education.

Marc Prensky reports on the NSBA Study on Online Behaviors. The report, "Creating & Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social and Educational Networking", gives some welcome statistics on how students are using the Internet, showing that much of the concern on the dangers on online social networking is exaggerated. For me, another problem is the exaggerated hype on why schools and teachers aren't using web tools.

Prensky writes:

In general, schools (teachers and administrators) are deathly afraid of what I call “The Emerging Online Life of the Digital Native” because it is something they don’t understand.

On what evidence does Prensky base these claims: (1) that schools are "deathly afraid" and (2) they are afraid because they don't understand it. I can imagine some schools and teachers being nervous, but deathly afraid? And perhaps some don't understand it, but all of the schools who don't accept it don't understand it?

I can think of other reasons for not rushing to accept social networking apps. The main one is time. I have my students using blogs, wikis, and RSS now. And I've been wanting to start incorporating podcasts and videos. But to learn how to use them (some of my students do use them, which is great!) effectively in my classes, I just don't have the time: I have two papers to write on the front burner, two on the back burner, a new text for our composition courses that I have to study and figure out what changes are needed to incorporate it, committees to serve on, and a wife, son, and daughter who I want to spend time with. (I suppose I could stop blogging to find the time.) I imagine other teachers are just as busy, too, and they may simply be finding it difficult to find the time to to restructure and revise their teaching and keep up with their other tasks and responsibilities. Of course, some teachers, as Prensky notes, are likely stuck on "lecturing."

Prensky states:

A lot of concerns about the “have nots” would go away if the schools kept their computer labs open till midnight and on weekends, and teachers assigned projects to groups where at least one member (or the school) had the technology. Kids are great at sharing and teaching each other.

Now, I like this idea, but I wonder what would be involved and how much it would cost to do this. Most people already grumble about the taxes they pay now for schools. As a member of a school's board, I know that we couldn't cover the cost with our present budget.

Prensky has other good ideas, too. The exaggeration, however, is problematic: That is, those who don't listen to the Web 2.0 evangelists are in "darkness," as Prensky puts it, and those who heed the call will be in the "light" and go to education heaven.

Related posts:
Myths of the Digital Generation
Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II
Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd

Links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes from the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory: Projects

Links to other posts on the myth of "digital natives":
Digital Natives and Immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date
Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation

Joel Spolsky cites with approval Dave Winer's post "The unedited voice of a person":

Do comments make it a blog? Do the lack of comments make it not a blog? Well actually, my opinion is different from many, but it still is my opinion that it does not follow that a blog must have comments, in fact, to the extent that comments interfere with the natural expression of the unedited voice of an individual, comments may act to make something not a blog.

We already had mail lists before we had blogs. The whole notion that blogs should evolve to become mail lists seems to waste the blogs. Comments are very much mail-list-like things. A few voices can drown out all others. The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you're looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones.:

Joel then turns to the destructive nature of comments:

When a blog allows comments right below the writer's post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody ... nobody ... would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.

Although noting that comments have their down side, Clay Shirky disagrees:

This can be true, all true, as any casual read of blog comments can attest. BoingBoing turned off their comments years ago, because they’d long since passed the scale where polite conversation was possible. The Tragedy of the Conversational Commons that comes from being able to hijack an audience to get attention for your own views becomes too persistently tempting when that audience is large. At large scale, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory cannot be repealed.

But the uselessness of comments it is not the universal truth that Dave or Joel make it out to be, for two reasons. First, posting and conversation are different kinds of things — same keyboard, same text box, same web page, different modes of expression. Second, the sites that suffer most from anonymous postings and drivel are the ones operating at large scale.

If you are operating below that scale, comments can be quite good, in a way not replicable in any “everyone post to their own blog”.

Shirky has a point that scale matters, as does the content and quality of the initial post, which I've mentioned earlier in Rethinking Comments and Trackback:

Over at weblogg-ed [original post link misplaced], I looked at the first 30 comments. The overwhelming majority of comments were in agreement with Will's position, sometimes adding a twist on it, but mostly agreeing.

At Creating Passionate Users, we see a different picture on one post, "Intuition", which had 15 comments when I looked at it. Three comments added nothing, but the majority added some point that was slightly new or gave a different perspective.

At "Half an Hour," Stephen Downes writes about "Adults and MySpace". It's a long article: 1758 words. It has two comments, one with 78 words that doesn't add much, and another with 280 words that adds new insight into the issue of adults on MySpace.

Different factors do affect the quality of comments, some of which are scale, subject matter, quality of post, and tone. And Shirky's concluding remarks are pertinent:

the question to ask about comments is not whether they are available, but how a community uses them. The value in in blogs as communities of practice is considerable, and its a mistake to write off comment threads on those kinds of blogs just because, in other environments, comments are lame.

Thus, for educators, we need to ask, How will our communities of students use comments. Will a majority of them use comments to offer new insights or useful contributions to their classmates' posts? Or will most simply say, "I agree"? No doubt, students' ages and levels of maturity can make a difference, so that it wouldn't necessarily be one size fits all. Thus, on a case by case basis, the primary consideration should be, Will comments enable learning or disable it?

Related posts:

The Online Education Database is an excellent resource for online learning. Yesterday, they posted "Take Any College Class for Free: 236 Open Courseware Collections, Podcasts, and Videos". This page also has a link to their Top 100 Open Courseware Projects, The Top 25 Web 2.0 Apps to Help You Learn, and The Top 25 Web 2.0 Apps to Help a Student's or Professor's Productivity.

Common Craft has recently published two excellent, down-to-earth videos that introduce readers to RSS in Plain English and Wikis in Plain English.

Keith Burnett posted his response to the Learning Circuits Blog's question of when and how to use Powerpoint. He obviously uses Powerpoint in ways that go beyond presenting material. Here's some of the ways he uses it:

  • Activity briefs
  • Quick whole class exercises
  • Voting slides
  • Mind maps and bubble diagrams
  • Builds in diagrams
  • Photos of a procedure

You'll need to go to his site to get the explanation for these, but they show that you can use Powerpoint in creative ways and not be limited simply to using it for a lecture presentation.

One point that needs to be considered a little more is Burnett's preference for Guide on the Side as opposed to Sage on the Stage. This is a common refrain based on the belief that students constructing knowledge from the ground up results in better learning. However, one point of the initial question of how to use powerpoint was some research reported by Anna Patty (Sydney Morning Herald), which had several findings.

One finding was that people don't process the same information as effectively when it's presented both verbally and in written form. With respect to Powerpoint, then, you don't want to just read words off a slide. Rather, if used, the slide should provide a visual, such as a picture or graph, that supports the points that you are saying.

Another finding was this:

instead of asking students to solve problems on their own, teachers helped students more if they presented already solved problems.

"Looking at an already solved problem reduces the working memory load and allows you to learn. It means the next time you come across a problem like that, you have a better chance at solving it," Professor Sweller said.

The working memory was only effective in juggling two or three tasks at the same time, retaining them for a few seconds. When too many mental tasks were taken on some things were forgotten.

In other words, this research indicates that in learning something new, it's better for teachers to act as Sages who present examples of "already solved problems." After a problem or process been learned and students are moving towards mastery of that area, then the role switches to Guide.

In a related post Learning with Examples, I commented on the power of examples for learning:

I've learned by observing what Mark did. Previously, I would duplicate an entire file to have a practice file; Mark simply added a new CSS note. Previously, I would export an entire document to see how it looked in html. While in Boston, I noticed that Mark just used the Preview button. And from the code he sent, I began to understand the difference between "float" and "absolute". In trying to re-design this blog, I spent two full days acquiring quite a bit of frustration but little understanding, as opposed to taking a few minutes to look at Mark's re-coding to learn where I had gone wrong.

For myself, I prefer to have a Sage tell me what to do and save me hours of frustration and wasted effort.

Perhaps you've heard about the recent article in the New York Times, "Seeing no progress, some schools drop laptops". That is, students had not shown any improvement "on grades and test scores" as a result of laptop initiatives. Alex Reid at Digital Digs has an excellent response:

So basically the teachers couldn't figure out how to use the technology in the classroom. Not surprisingly, as a result, the technology did not have much of an impact on outcomes. It is not surprising that the teachers have no idea what they are doing. Why would we imagine that they would? ...

As I've said before and will say again (here and later, no doubt), it's not about delivering the same old curriculum with a new technology.

Why should I use books in my classroom? Lecturing works much better. Students hide magazines inside the covers of their books. They look at the wrong pages. They copy text out of the book and plagiarize. They can't do any of those things when I'm lecturing. The book is just a box that gets in the way of my one-to-one relationship with my students.

Sounds pretty funny when it's put that way, huh?

As Reid notes, it's not clear that laptops will aid learning effectively; however, "our children will live and work, and yes, learn, in these networked environments." So, it's not a question of whether to incorporate technology into our schools. But two questions we do need to answer are:

  1. What are the best ways to introduce our children to the networked environments they will "live and work" in?
  2. What are the best ways to introduce our teachers to using networked environments to facilitate learning in school?

Mark Marino (at Writer Response Theory) has, along with links to pertinent readings, a good summary of Web 2.0 tools for the writing classroom ranging from social software to browser research tools like Diigo, Zotero, and others.

What does one say? Where does one begin? You probably have heard that Kathy Sierra did not go to ETech due to death threat comments, along with "disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs" against her. And as she noted, these posts included ones by "prominent bloggers." She wrote:

I do not want to be part of a culture--the Blogosphere--where this is considered acceptable. Where the price for being a blogger is kevlar-coated skin and daughters who are tough enough to not have their "widdy biddy sensibilities offended" when they see their own mother Photoshopped into nothing more than an objectified sexual orifice, possibly suffocated as part of some sexual fetish. (And of course all coming on the heels of more explicit threats)

I agree. I don't want to be part of such a culture, either. I prefer to read blogs like Kathy's, blogs that are positive and helpful. We cannot undo what has been done. But we can follow her advice:

If you want to do something about it--do not tolerate the kind of abuse that includes threats or even suggestions of violence (especially sexual violence). Do not put these people on a pedestal. Do not let them get away with calling this "social commentary", "protected speech", or simply "criticism". I would never be for censoring speech--these people can say all the misogynistic, vile, tasteless things they like--but we must preserve that line where words and images become threats of violence. Freedom of speech--however distasteful and rude the speech may be, is crucial. But when those words contain threats of harm or death, they can destroy a life.


Chris Locke's response to Kathy Sierra's initial post.
Kathy Sierra and Chris Locke: "Coordinated Statements on the Recent Events"
Nancy White: Hate, Threats and the Culture of Love
Kim Cameron: One very sad story
Mitch Ratcliffe: Identity rape and mob mentality
Tim Reilly: Call for a Blogger's Code of Conduct
Richard Koman (Silicon Valley Watcher), About that Code of Conduct (a response to Tim Reilly)
Richard Koman (Silicon Valley Watcher), Blogger Guidelines and a Call for Censure (a follow-up response to Tim Reilly)
Fractals of Change, Anonymous Cowards and Infamous Scribblers (an interesting post noting the "uncivil" and "pseudonym[ous]" discourse of the U.S. founding fathers)
Jeff Jarvis (BuzzMachine), No Twinkie Badgers Here

Although comments may be appropriate for some purposes, for classes, it is better to use comment-disabled blogs. Students, when commenting upon a classmate's blog, tend to give supportive comments, such as "I agree!" without following them with some substance. When responding to a classmate from their own blog, students can acquire habits of citing others, summarizing/paraphrasing classmates' points, and writing more substantive contributions to a class conversation. In addition, when all are using RSS feeds (and news readers, such as bloglines), students can see how many others write and respond, and learn from them.

I outright LOATHE blogs that don’t permit comments.
—Chris Brogan

Is a blog without comments a blog? According to many, no. Chris Brogan (at SHOUTS:

I outright LOATHE blogs that don’t permit comments. It’s the opposite of a blog. As Shel Israel said the day before yesterday (if not further back), “It has been the dialog vs. the monologue.”

While not shouting, Michael Arrington (TechCrunch) is just as adamant:

I believe the term “blog” means more than an online journal. I believe a blog is a conversation. People go to blogs to read AND write, not just consume. We’ve allowed comments here on TechCrunch since it started. At times, user comments can be painful to deal with. But they also keep the writer honest, and make the content vastly more interesting.

Should the definitions of “blog” be revised to exclude journals that do not allow reader comments? Yeah, absolutely.

Like Brogan, Arrington believes that the conversation must be limited to one writing space, at least if you want to consider it a blogging conversation. But is it so? Brogan's claim, for instance, implies that the monologuers live in a cave, never reading what others are saying, never responding to the web conversation on their own blog. Arrington suggests that disabling comments somehow prevents others from writing on their own blogs and that enabling comments acts as some sort of anti-dishonesty ointment. Now, they're not actually saying it that way, but it seems to be a logical conclusion of their claims. Plus, they don't seem to consider what other types of conversations are available to bloggers besides comment-enabled ones. George Siemens (Connectivism) does:

Dialogue does not need to be direct in order to be effective. Dialogue of greatest value is what I call parallel, or dialogue of awareness. At this level, the comments and views of others are within our cognitive network (i.e. we know they exist) and their influence weighs in our reasoning and thought formation. It's the same way we come to know people. We have a sense of how a colleague or family member will react to something we say or do because we function with an awareness of their views, personality, and character. This is not to say that we lose our identity in consideration of others. We affirm the value and individuality of others not by changing our mind sets to reflect theirs, but rather by creating our world views with an understanding of the world views of others.

Hmm. Reminds me of the greater processing power of computers in parallel.

blogging should not become ... "more a medium of exchange than reflection."

By "effective," Siemens, like myself, is thinking in terms of learning. From an educator's perspective, blogging should not become, as Joshua Marshall wrote, "more a medium of exchange than reflection." I've posted on this issue before, too, also noting the value of parallel conversations in preventing confirmation bias and in promoting a "measured pace of weblog response" (Mark Bernstein)—not to mention that "blog comments seem to bring out the worst in people" (Matt Linderman).

The fact is, far too many people comment simply to talk, to "twitter", as Kathy Sierra put it, not so much to learn from others or to make the conversation worthwhile. Listen to Allen Stern's (CenterNetworks) trackback post:

For example, Seth Godin has comments off. So I read his posts, I may have good insight or reaction, but I can go nowhere with it. Instead it is almost like attending a seminar in that we listen to what he has to say, grab our coat and head back home. I want a chance for Seth to hear my thoughts and views just as I hear his.

Note that I and everyone else who read Stern's post were able to hear his "thoughts and views." The problem is that Stern wants Seth to hear them, to have his opinion at a level equal to Godin's. Excluding comments is seen as excluding equality and the desired social relationship (see "The Social Nature of Blog Comments"). But why should it be seen this way?

What is making the conversation "vastly more interesting" apparently isn't the content, but simply the feel-good socializing taking place among "peers." When I counted, out of the 58 comments on Brogan's post, perhaps 20% of them said something that added "content." Out of the 141 on Arrington's (not including trackback, which have a higher percentage of "content"), it seemed to be a little more than 20%. (I stopped counting quickly as my eyes glazed over.) Now, a few of the 20% were very good. Still, most comments were simply thanks, pats on the back, or repetition of something already said, without reference to others in the "conversation." As Dave Winer (comment #116 on Arrington's post) said:

Dave, I don’t see much moderation here, nor do I see much conversation. Most people state their point of view without relating it to what other people said.

Now, if the purpose of the comments is simply to socialize, then comments are fine. And I can think of other purposes for which comments might work well. The "context, the author, the audience, and the subject all" do affect the nature and quality of comments. But far too often, it seems that if the purpose is to add content to the conversation, then comments don't work well.

Most people who support comments claim they do so because they want a conversation or dialogue. Where's the conversation when the overwhelming majority of commenters add nothing to the conversation? Where's the dialogue when most do not relate their comments to others'. Just imagine the following face-to-face "conversation" between two friends:

Friend 1: What'd you think of the movie Aragon ?

Friend 2: I got the new MacPro yesterday.

Friend 1: The special effects were great.

Friend 2: It's much more user-friendly than my PC was.

Why not rethink how we should conduct our conversations? Just as weblogs have taken us past the simple broadcasts of websites, other tools such as RSS, trackback, and search engines can take us past the simple monologues found in comment sections. From Siemens again:

The space of dialogue has changed. Instead of a physical or even virtual space (newspaper, TV, radio, classroom, or discussion forum), the connections we form have now become the space. The connection is the space. In direct dialogue we still hold control of voice (through filtering and silencing)...because the ownership of the space rests in the hands of one individual (or a particular group of people). In parallel dialogue, we separate the control of the space from the conversation. The separation of space from dialogue allows each individual to form the connections they find of interest. The formation of their network results in the creation of their own space - a space not held or controlled by others.

It's not an issue of "the dialog vs. the monologue." It's the multilog vs. the dialog.

Obviously, my post here is an example of how the "space of dialogue has changed." It's not a "monologue" because it's a response to and drawing upon the writing of quite a few other bloggers. And it need not be limited to just this website. Others who come here to "read" can "write" on their own blogs, continuing the "conversation." It's not an issue of "the dialog vs. the monologue." It's the multilog vs. the dialog.

Instead of fixating on old forms of conversation, why not have our forms of conversation evolve along with the new tools available? Why not move beyond impoverished conversations full of empty comments to rich conversations across the blogosphere? Not that there aren't empty blog posts in the blogosphere, but rather we can select the nodes we wish to create networks of conversations rich in content. Responding to a commenter, Brogan said,

It's all a matter of what you want.

What evidence is there that a direct conversation is generally more effective than a parallel one?

For myself, a rich conversation is what I want. For those who feel the old ways are better, What evidence is there that a direct conversation is generally more effective than a parallel one?

For related posts on commenting, see my website with links to my earlier posts on commenting and Mark Bernstein's many posts on this issue as follows:

Update: For a balanced, pro-comment perspective, read "Blogging Basics: The Convenience of Comments" (Nongeek Perspective).

elgg Kevin Jardine has a good summary of "What Elgg gets right" (via Dave Tosh). He writes in detail on the following points:

» A user-centric rather than content-centric approach
» Tags
» Access groups
» Aggregation
» Theming

Jardine concludes,

Elgg gives individual users unprecedented power to define their own personal spaces and to find people like themselves in a potentially huge member base. This creates an enormous shift from traditional content-based sites to new user-based ones. 

The Intercultural Club at Kean University has long been publishing Accents, a magazine with articles from matriculated ESL students ranging in language proficiency from beginner to advanced. This past weekened, I was able to figure out a Tinderbox template for websites (designed by Marisa Antonaya) and put Accents online. If you'd like to check it out, click here.

To find out which is the right wiki for you, go to WikiMatrix.

TechCrunch writes:

Like it or not, wikis are a dime a dozen these days. So when (and if) it comes time to choose one, WikiMatrix is a good place to start. It’s a site that allows you to compare any and all wikis on the market in a side-by-side grid.

Want to improve your learning? Read Hacking Knowledge: 77 Ways to Learn Faster, Deeper, and Better (via Teaching Hacks), a compendium of tips on learning:

Life-changing knowledge does typically require advanced learning techniques. In fact, it's been said that the average adult only uses 10% of his/her brain. Imagine what we may be capable of with more advanced learning techniques. Here are 77 tips related to knowledge and learning to help you on your quest. A few are specifically for students in traditional learning institutions; the rest for self-starters, or those learning on their own. Happy learning.

Most of it is just common sense, but it's good to have all of these tips in one place and to review them once in a while. One of the interesting ones for me was #29:

Write, don't type. While typing your notes into the computer is great for posterity, writing by hand stimulates ideas. The simple act of holding and using a pen or pencil massages acupuncture points in the hand, which in turn stimulates ideas.

I don't know about the acupuncture part, but I can imagine that having to write notes by hand would slow me down, giving more time for thinking and reflecting while writing. Even so, I do almost all of my notetaking by computer with Tinderbox. Using Tinderbox allows my notes to be revised and searchable. It also allows me to make links between my notes and create a visual representation of those connections, to allow patterns to emerge. So, I can see the value to slowing down and thinking while writing, but there is also the value of revisiting notes, reflecting on them, re-organizing them, and having them in a format that "stimulates ideas." Here's a map view of notes from the Tinderbox site:

Isn't a picture worth a thousand handwritten notes?

Update: I just came across a similar article, 22 ways to overclock your brain at the Ririan Project blog (via Problogger).

For those without access to academic journals, try Project Muse:

Project MUSE is a unique collaboration between libraries and publishers providing 100% full-text, affordable and user-friendly online access to over 300 high quality humanities, arts, and social sciences journals from 60 scholarly publishers.

What I really like is that I can have an RSS feed for the journals I'm interested in, which lets me know when new issues have come out (via academHacK).

Will Richardson has posted on using Pageflakes as a student portal:

From a teaching standpoint, pages of this type can be pretty effective for bringing in potential content and then making decisions about what to do with that content. Not everything that shows up here will necessarily be suitable for some ages. (I have, however, created a same page for my daughter Tess about horses that I let her read at her discretion…she’s nine.) From a student standpoint, I think it’s a great way to introduce RSS, to give kids some ownership over the type of page they create (assuming you’ve had all the responsible use conversations already) and let them start working out their own processes for consuming and deciding about content in this content rich world. And the good news is that they can keep these pages private, or they can share them with groups (or teachers) so they don’t have to be as transparent as this example.

He has a great example on Darfur drawing upon news feeds, a Sudanese newspaper, flickr, Youtube, blogs, etc.

Alex Reid at "digital digs" writes on "the threat of the network". Alex states that teachers

continue to view their profession as one that will be founded on a discrete, unchanging body of information that they will acquire before graduating. We might all deride the notion of the teacher/professor reciting the same lectures and lessons plans year after year, but somehow this does not alter this belief that a degree will certify us once and for all as authorities. Sure, all these teacher-students recognize that they will gain experience as teachers, learn helpful tips along the way, and become better practitioners. But this development of practice is separated from the acquisition of authoritative knowledge.

And this faith exists in both  K-12 and  college faculty. 

The threat of the network is the dissolution of this authority. The ongoing development of media and networks requires us to keep moving. It doesn't mean that what we've learned has no value; it means that it cannot establish us as authorities. We cannot imagine the classroom as resting upon a core body of knowledge. We are engaged in a technocultural shift that shakes the very foundations of epistemology: what began as a philosophical critique in theory now becomes a material condition (Hayles makes this argument, citing the birth of Netscape as the end of the "postmodern" era and the beginning of something new)

In many ways, I agree with all that Alex wrote, especially on the disconnect between formal education and the real world. Still, some points need to be clarified with respect to technological expertise and disciplinary expertise. Certainly, I don't consider myself as an authority on new technologies. But why should I? Technology and new media is not the goal of learning in my classes, although it is a byproduct. Rather, it supports learning certain concepts and practices of my subject of composition.

As a teacher of university composition for 14+ years, I've never thought about possessing an unchanging body of content knowledge. What I do consider not to change much over time are principles of rhetoric. For instance, when trying to communicate, especially persuasive communication, we use logic, appeal to emotions and values, and attempt to establish a credible ethos. Or coming from stasis theory, we might consider what are the facts, what are their nature, how do we evaluate them, and what should we do about them. These principles haven't changed in millenia and apply to cyberwriting as well as to print writing as well as to oral communication. So, although I do not consider myself to be an expert [perhaps I might in another 14+ years :) ], I would say that I have some "authority" in applying these principles and some "authority" in teaching the application of those principles to old and new media and networks or writing.

I accept that knowledge changes and that what we teach should change, too. But does that really mean that teachers, such as myself with many years of experience, have no more authority than our students with respect to our disciplines? I don't think that's what Alex is arguing, but in attempts to make education more relevant to students, I wonder about the hype associated with these new media and about the conflating of technological expertise with disciplinary knowledge.

Somewhat related posts:
Experts in the Learning Profession
Experts, Learning, and Networks
The Expert Mind

ATPM writes on Writing Environments, Plus Two New Outliners:

This column we’ll just note the types of things I suppose should be on a list of capabilities to consider. You might call them features. We’ll list them this time, with another list of the products we’ll draw from for our examples. Then you’ll have some time to set me right, correct, and add things. Next column, we’ll redo the list, show examples, and give some discussion.

OK? It’ll be like the old ATPO days.

Where we are deviating from the ATPO model is that many of the applications we’ll look at don’t use outlining. You know, usually I’m pretty strict about what we discuss here and at drawing the line around outliners. But I’ve had many requests to address writing, and it makes such sense to. Many ATPO users are in the outliner community because they use their outliners in workflows that produce some written output. I admit I am one of those. And it just doesn’t make sense to talk about writing without starting with the actual writing process and seeing where it takes us.

This will be a good opportunity to compare and contrast various word processing, notetaking, and outlining apps. As I use Tinderbox, I'm always interested in how it compares to other applications. I'm also interested in other apps that I sometimes read (but know little) about, such as Ulysses, which its website says is "The text editor for creative writers." And I'm looking forward to seeing what features they consider useful for writing and why.

Here's an excellent list on the "Best of the Best Web 2.0 Web Sites" (via Stephen's Web).

Also, see Back to School with the Class of Web 2.0: Part I, Part II, and Part III, which is an excellent introduction to educational applications.

Ken Yamosh at the Read/Write Web has written a brief review of four smart social networks: Facebook, imbee, Vox, and Multiply. The main points are as follows:

multiply Facebook is a social networking space used much by college students that allows them to determine who can see their profile and the amount of contact information according to a determined classification.

multiply Multiply gives one fine-tuned control over who can view their space.

vox Vox seems to be good for integrating a variety of web services like flickr, youtube, and others.

imbeeBecause children are more and more entering the digital world, imbee is one parents should be interested in.

imbee is the "first secure social networking and blogging destination for kids." Users can't just connect with each other by browsing profiles. They need to know the e-mail addresses and/or imbee user names of other imbee members.

Kids cannot join the site without a credit card being on file (and not necessarily charged), meaning that someone - probably a parent - is going to have to be involved from the start. Parents can also control the way their kids interact on the site. New messages, connections, and other profile changes get put into a queue for parents to approve - depending on the approval rules put in place.

All of these services are providing more control over your privacy and how much you reveal of yourself to the outside world.

I like all of these tools, especially imbee. But I wonder how much use they are to professionals. Usually, I can easily contact those I collaborate with by email, and for subject-specific interests, there are email listservs, along with wikis and blogs. They seem to work well for "social" endeavors but I'm not sure how well they work for "professional" purposes.

Ebrahim Ezzy at the Read/Write Web continues to review Search 2.0 engines.

SE 2.0 SE 2.0 Part 1 looked at Swicki, Rollyo, Clusty, Wink, and Lexxe.

Part 2 looks at Gravee, Jookster, Krugle, LivePlasma, Qube, and ZoomInfo.

For me, the good thing about these different search engines is their niche orientation. By focusing on specific types of searches, they reduce the clutter of items I'm not interested in. If I want to search music and movies, then LivePlasma is of help. If I want to find someone, then it's ZoomInfo. Krugle is good for code-related technical questions.

As Ezzy says,

S-2.0 enabled data is distributed through the lateral route of a user's interests - rather than the direct route of TSEs, which require a user to carefully craft his/her query to be an accurate statement of the information desired.

Having students explore these search engines for their own interests may be a good stepping stone to performing academic searches using databases.

Ebrahim Ezzy at the Read/Write Web reviews Search 2.0 engines (Part 1). He categorizes search engines as follows:

What I'm calling Search 2.0 are actually third generation search technologies. To explain the generations:

  • First-generation search ranked sites based on page content - examples are early and Alta Vista.
  • Second-generation relies on link analysis for ranking - so they take the structure of the Web into account. Examples are Google and Overture.
  • Third-generation search technologies are designed to combine the scalability of existing internet search engines with new and improved relevancy models; they bring into the equation user preferences, collaboration, collective intelligence, a rich user experience, and many other specialized capabilities that make information more productive.

Examples: Swicki, Rollyo, Clusty, Wink, Lexxe

Ezzy's review is concise, informative, and worth reading. In Part 2, he plans to review other search engines and ask these questions:

How is traditional search evolving to Search 2.0? Can Search 2.0 replace Traditional Search, ever?

The answers to these questions may help us in deciding how to help our students improve their research skills.

IE Isn't that a great-looking icon! Why can't the browser live up to the icon's beauty?!!

I've slowly been re-working the design on my blog. Although it still has a way to go, I thought yesterday morning that I had finally achieved my design framework of having no banner with title but instead using just two columns, one for the posts and one for the blog title and other items of interest. About an hour later, I found out that the sidebar cannot be seen in Internet Explorer. The design works in Safari, Firefox, Camino, Flock, and Opera. But NOT Internet Explorer!!

I'm not proficient in CSS, so this will take some time. At least there is a lot of help on the web here, and Mark Bernstein brought to my attention Matthew Levine's excellent article In search of the Holy Grail, which shows how to create a cross-browser web design. Well, back to the designing board.

P.S. Although this design doesn't work in later versions of IE, it does work in IE 5.2 for the Mac. Go figure.

A little while ago, my seven-year-old son asserted on doing his homework,

I'm so smart. I have everything in my brain.

However, about ten minutes later when I asked him to tie his own shoelaces, he said,

I can't. I know the first part, but I don't know the second part. Is it the thumb or two fingers?

His comments reminded me of the book The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, which posits a fundamental circularity between cognition and experience. There is no disembodied mind directing our actions: All knowledge is enacted via experience.

Eleanor Rosch gave a talk at the American Psychological Association a few years ago titled "What Buddhist Meditation has to Tell Psychology About the Mind". She ended her talk with some quotes from the autobiography of Peter Ralston, a world martial arts champion:

One: The starting point: ambition, focused intention “As a teenager I wanted to be the best fighter in the world. Period!”

Two: Recognition of the unsatisfactoriness of the ordinary conscious way of doing things. (May come with success) “Around that time, I would go to classes and fight black belts and win, but still feel like I lost…Something wasn’t right…. I was winning from natural ability, but I wasn’t winning because I really understood anything…”

Three: Finding the unbiased mind beyond fear and desire. Opening perceptions. Appreciation. “It was in that situation that I first learned to drop fear of getting hit, or of winning or losing… What that did was open up my perception to what was really happening. I just saw a fist coming and I’d move…When I’d get worried about it, I’d get stuck somewhere and get hit… It’s a beautiful secret, an exacting and tremendous feedback.”

Four: Expansion of the knowing field. Also some change in sense of time. “…abilities like being able to read somebody’s disposition accurately started to come. The moment they would think to hit me I would stop them. That’s it. Handled. I just kept finishing everything before it got started.”

Five: Actions from awareness; simply knowing what to do and it’s always appropriate “New abilities started to arise… I didn’t have to be cognizant of any movement on their part, psychic or otherwise, to know what to do. I just knew. That blew me away. I didn’t have to perceive a thing…very simple, very simple.”

Six: Comes full circle; transformation of the original ambition and intention “I decided that if I were to continue to do this, I wanted to start contributing what I did and what I knew in a much larger way. I wanted to transform the martial arts in the world into a place for the development of the human being, and of honesty.”

Quite a bit of what Ralston says is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow, a process of total enagement in an activity for its own sake with the result that one feels a sense of satisfaction and loses track of time. Flow has eight dimensions, not all of which must be operating at once (from EduTech Wiki):

Clear goals and immediate feedback
Equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill
Merging of action and awareness
Focussed concentration
Sense of potential control
Loss of self-consciousness
Time distortion
Autotelic or self-rewarding experience

It seems obvious that Ralston often enjoyed the state of flow. Many athletes do, as do video gamers, gardeners, and others. According to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor), however, flow is not typical:

'A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,' says Csikszentmihalyi. 'Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.'

Elsewhere, Csikszentmihalyi wrote,

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

And they don't, because school is seldom a place of "intense living." Of course, work isn't, either, but that's not the point. If we wish for students to enjoy learning, then it would help to design our classes so that they are more conducive for states of flow to occur.

Sometimes, the system just works against states of flow. For instance, my ESL students are expected to reach levels of English that, although possible, are often more than challenging due to obligations constraining their study time, such as working 20, 30, and 40 hours a week. In addition to working full time, most of my night students (and some of my day students) are married (or single) with children.

Still, another condition for flow is clear goals and immediate feedback. As I look at my composition syllabus, those goals are probably not clear enough to my students, and feedback is usually delayed. It shouldn't be too difficult to make the goals clearer, but it's more difficult to give immediate feedback on essays. I usually grade them on the weekend, and so there's a 5- to 7-day delay.

What would be interesting would to develop a software tutor for writing that could provide immediate feedback and guidance. John Anderson et al. has an interesting article "Cognitive Tutors: Lessons Learned". The article discusses different tutors (algebra, geometry, LISP) used to facilitate student learning and mentions a few problems:

Students' own attitudes to the tutor classrooms are quite positive to the point of creating minor discipline problems. Students skip other classes to do extra work on the tutor, refuse to leave the class when the period is over, and come in early.

Isn't it terrible when motivation becomes a problem? A tutor application for writing would likely be harder to create than it is for math. Math has right and wrong answers, and the wrong answers can fall into different types of errors for which a tutor can be programmed to respond. Writing is fuzzier than math. It's not right or wrong: it's more or less effective. But if it could be done, it would have the advantage of many of the conditions for flow.

Another possibility would be to create video games in which writing plays a major role. James Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, in his book "What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy" strongly supports using games in education. Christine Simmons ("Video games seen as way to train, learn") reports that the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) "has developed three 3-D video games to be used for training and education," two of which are for firefighting and immunology. On the latter one:

"Immune Attack," places players on a tiny vessel that can travel inside the human body. The game aims to educate high school, college and graduate-level students in immunology. The goal is to find and attack dangerous bacteria, said Kay Howell, vice president for information technologies at the FAS.

Shaffer et al. have a paper on "Video Games and the Future of Learning". As they note:

The American Army, a longtime leader in simulations, is building games like Full Spectrum Warrior and America’s Army —games that introduce civilians to military ideology. Several homeland security games are under development, as are a range of games for health education, from games to help kids with cancer better treat themselves, to simulations to help doctors perform surgery more effectively. Companies are developing games for learning history (Making History), engineering (Time Engineers), and the mathematics of design (Homes of Our Own).

I doubt that most of my students would be interested in a game designed simply to write better. But what if writing were a crucial element in the game? Perhaps games for journalists, business managers, lawyers, and others for whom writing is an integral part of the job? Or perhaps redesign existing games to put the focus on writing? I have more questions than answers. But Shaffer et al. comment on the implicit learning theory behind video games:

Video games thus make it possible to “learn by doing” on a grand scale—but not just by doing any old thing, wandering around in a rich computer environment to learn without any guidance. These forms of learning, associated with progressive pedagogies, are bad theories of learning. Learners are novices. Leaving them to float in rich experiences with no guidance only triggers the very real human penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and generalizations. The fruitful patterns or generalizations in any domain are the ones that are best recognized by those who already know how to look at the domain and know how complex variables in the domain interrelate with each other. And this is precisely what the learner does not yet know. In Full Spectrum Warrior, in contrast, the player is immersed in activity, values, and ways of seeing. But the player is guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual soldiers and the weapons, equipment, and environments in the game. Players are not left free to invent everything for themselves. To succeed in the game, they must live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of military doctrine.

So, we need a game in which students "live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of" a rhetorician. Hmm. I think I would enjoy, playing that game.

On a final note, educators, myself included, often try to ease students' way into materials as much as possible, thus sometimes (often?) "dumbing down" their learning. In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn't its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. Most schools, however, seek to avoid invoking feelings of both pleasure and frustration, blind to the fact that these emotions can be extremely useful when it comes to teaching kids.

Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve. This carefully choreographed dialectic has been identified by learning theorists as the best way to achieve expertise in any field. This doesn't happen much in our routine-driven schools, where "good" students are often just good at "doing school."

How did videogames become such successful models of effective learning? Game coders aren't trained as cognitive scientists. It's a simple case of free-market economics: If a title doesn't teach players how to play it well, it won't sell well. Game companies don't rake in $6.9 billion a year by dumbing down the material - aficionados condemn short and easy games like Half Life: Blue Shift and Devil May Cry 2. Designers respond by making harder and more complex games that require mastery of sophisticated worlds and as many as 50 to 100 hours to complete.

"Hover[ing] at the boundary of a student's competence" and challenging students "to adapt and evolve" with immediate feedback put players in a state of flow. Hmm. Would it be possible to design an entire course as a video game?

For choosing a news reader, previously I've recommended Ryan Stewart's "Rich RSS Readers: best of breed picks" provides an excellent introduction to his choices for the best readers. On Wednesday, Mark Glaser gave his "Top 5 for RSS Week", one of which is an exhaustive and annotated list of RSS readers, "RSS Compendium - RSS Readers".

Why is RSS so important? From TechCrunch, Marshall Kirkpatrick's article "Newsgator posts roadmap for the future of RSS" provides this answer:

RSS is the foundation of almost everything Web 2.0 - isn’t it? It’s what makes blog readership scalable, podcasts subscribable, wiki changes watchable and so much more.

RSS works by bringing to us new content from web sites (whether from blogs, wikis, online newspapers, or others) immediately as they're updated so that we don't need to return to those sites (thus saving us time) to check for new content. The content can either be chosen or searched for. For instance, for the former, I have a subscription to the Education section of the New York Times, and for the latter, I have a Google Search Engine feed that looks for items related to ESL. The Search feed brings me news from sites I am unaware of, thus diversifying my sources of information on particular topics. Thus, RSS, or news, feeds enable us, and our students, to enter and participate in conversations with others near and far away (in a way that's manageable), which in turn exposes us to diverse ideas and perspectives, which in turn are requisites of good writing, critical thinking, and learning, which in turn are primary constituents of education. RSS is the future of education in ways that we have just begun to imagine. For more on RSS, read Mark Glaser's "Your Guide to RSS", which also has links to other good resources.

Much of my posting on comments on blogs has been that they often end up confirming biases, primarily those in the original post. However, they can also simply confirm the commenter's biases.

On David Warlick's post for questions on blog posts, he noted that the conversation can be "polarizing". Indeed, it was. Rather than reflecting on what was said and building on it, quite a few commenters and trackbackers, chained to their previous experiences, reacted. Not that there weren't good ideas contained in the comments. Having comments from a variety of perspectives--college professors, K-12 teachers, IT managers, and others--helps to provide the "disconfirming evidence" that can facilitate reflecting on one's own "chained" perspective, as long as one can brush away the tone of the comments to see the content.

As noted in "Rethinking Comments and Trackbacks", although trackbacks should provide more time for thought than comments, it seems that the content of the post (along with the author's expertise and the comment's tone/register) has more to do with the nature of the response: reflective vs. spontaneous, confirming vs. disconfirming, building constructively vs. destructively tearing down, and so on. So, I'm still pondering whether it's better to enable or disable comments. There's the hope of more disconfirming evidence, but that can be obtained just as easily through trackbacks. There's also the realization that Seth was apparently right when he said that comments "changes the way [one] writes". Perhaps, this is part of what learning is about.

There is also the beauty of the blog, of one's thoughts. Mark Bernstein wrote,

Comments let idiots deface your weblog, and that's intolerable.

Although Haloscan has the comments in a separate window, thus creating a distance from one's weblog, and lets one delete comments, which controls the problem of idiots, one still needs to monitor them. Hmm. Time to go back to the pondering board.

Although I use Tinderbox, a note-taking tool, primarily for taking notes, generating ideas, and my weblog, I have been considering how to use it with my classes in terms of class management and curriculum design. Keith Burnet (via Mark Bernstein) has some ideas on using Tinderbox for curriculum design in math:

My hope and summer project is that by refactoring the Maths topics ruthlessly, I can get to a set of small hard nuggets of Maths (a sort of irreducible set of base vectors) that can be rearranged and strung together in different combinations to suit the learning styles of all the various students we see at College. To continue the analogy with Extreme Programming, I hope to associate a class time factor with each note so that you can ‘price’ a route through a topic quickly.

Some months ago I brainstormed topics in GCSE Intermediate Maths with students and a selection of textbooks. I am now beginning to group the grains together and establish links between the topics. So far we have a mind map for the Shape module with three different kinds of link:

  • A contains B (red)
  • A is related to B (blue)
  • A contrasts with B (snot green – the colors can be customised)

Soon I will be able to add a fourth kind of link – StudyNext – that will provide a thread through the material. Perhaps there will be a number of threads to suit different learning styles.

Here's a screenshot of his project:


As Keith notes, the ability to re-arrange the ideas and threads linking them in a visual conceptual map allows "structure and relationships ... to emerge," thus facilitating curriculum design. Fantastic!

As I mentioned in my last post on commenting, Seth Godin was seen as arrogant when he disabled comments on his blog. Some asserted that blogging was about the conversation. Although I earlier said that it wasn't about the conversation, in a way, it is. More precisely, it's about the social relations between people that conversation enables. In looking at how Seth's post triggered a blogospheric uproar, we might consider how his post violated people's perceptions of the social relationships "required" in blogging from the perspective of social relational models, a theoretical model for social interaction posited by Alan Fiske, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Fiske proposes that four relational models in various combinations govern all social interactions. These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Although I've posted before on these social relations (see "The Internet and Ownership" and "Academic Blogging"), it's been a while. So, I'll review those models and then look at how they can explain people's reactions to disabling comments.

Communal Sharing is a relationship among a bounded group of people in which members are considered equivalent and have equal access to the group's resources, such as in the case of family members having equal access to the refrigerator regardless of who purchased the food or students having equal access to library resources regardless of whether they are on full scholarship, paying in-state tuition, or out-of state tuition. In communal sharing, people identify with their group and conform to its characteristics and behavior.

Authority Ranking is a linear, hierarchical relationship in which one person is above or below another person instead of being equivalent. The higher person has more privileges, status, and control, while the lower person is entitled to protection and care. It is not a matter of power, which is an asocial relationship, but of a social model that supports legitimate authority. Those in subordinate positions grant their leaders authority. That authority may be allowed in one situation but not in another. For example, students generally follow a teacher’s rules and directions. However, it is not uncommon for students to disagree with their teacher when they hold expertise in a particular area. In ESL (English as a second language) writing courses, for instance, graduate students accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but may reject content corrections in discipline-related papers because they consider themselves to have more authority with respect to their discipline. And Authority Ranking can co-exist with Communal Sharing as in the case of parents in a family.

Equality Matching is a relationship in which there is a one-to-one correspondence in the transfer of resources, often with a delay in response, such as when a someone extends a favor, which is expected eventually to be returned in kind. Unlike in Communal Sharing relationships in which accounts are not kept, they are in Equality Matching. Consequently, if too many favors are owed, an Equality Matching relationship can turn into an Authority Ranking relationship.

In contrast, Market Pricing is an exchange of resources based on proportionality, that is, a ratio or rate, such as exchanging goods or services in return for money. People want to get the best deal for themselves, or at least a fair deal.

In any particular action, more than one of these are usually operating, although it is normal for more than one to be more prominent than the others.

In addition to the social relational models, there are also asocial models in which people either ignore others or use others as a means to some end. Having evolved and emerged from psychological mechanisms, Fiske’s social relational models are the building blocks of cultures. Just as the four building blocks of DNA account for the diversity of species, so, too, do the four social relational models account for the diversity of cultures.

When we look at the many comments about Seth Godin, one word that comes up is "arrogant." Why? The tone does seem flippant. By itself, however, such a tone from most bloggers wouldn't have triggered such a response. More likely, the response resulted from his violating the Communal Sharing model. Although the blogging community does not have a uniform opinion on commenting, the overwhelming majority believe that to be a blog, it should have comments. Previously, bloggers had access to posting their opinions at Seth's site, and now they don't. Previously, they were part of Seth's "bounded group," wide-open as it may have been. Now they aren't. By unilaterally disabling comments, Seth was also violating the Authority Ranking model. That is, he was perceived to be acting from a position of authority that they did not grant (when not granted, it is considered an abuse of power). The combination of breaking off from the community and asserting authority, both actions violating social relational models, led to the blogging community's strong reaction.

Seth, on the other hand,might have been treating it as a Market Pricing relationship: He figured that the uproar would increase his traffic and was worth the backlash, thus an attempt to make the best deal for himself. Or, perhaps as he wrote:

I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them.

Just looking at his previous post on "On how to get traffic for your blog", you can see 113 comments and 76 trackbacks. Plus, Seth often writes 4 or more posts in a day. Commenters expect some interaction, as EFL Geek wrote:

If an author choose to disable comments I think that is fine, I don’t really support it, but that’s a fair choice. What bothers me is that authors who have comments enabled but never respond to any comments by their readership.

It doesn't seem likely that anyone would expect that Seth would respond to all commenters. Still, it's rather easy to imagine that he may have thought that he wasn't getting a good enough deal out of the comments to make it worth his while to keep them and respond to them. It's also possible that an Equality Matching model played some part. That is, when someone comments on your blog, you feel the obligation, as Seth said, to respond in kind. Obviously, he couldn't do so, and rather than feel uncomfortable about not fulfilling the social obligation of matching the comment, he simply withdrew from the conversation that maintained the relationship.

When people use different social relational models to their interactions with one another, conflict is likely to ensue. However, although the people involved may attribute their reactions to a variety of causes, they are governed unconsciously just as much, if not more, by underlying psychological mechanisms that guide social relations.

Obviously, these mechanisms can affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Just consider the aversion of many students to peer reviewing essays and the social relational models that are likely underlying that aversion. However, that's a topic for a later post.

Have you ever complained about a student who either ignored your feedback on their paper, or because they completely deleted that section and replaced it with something new because they didn't understand how to respond to your feedback?

I used to do that. Nowadays, I tend to smile, because I notice more and more that I do the same thing as my students. As I mentioned earlier, I was having trouble getting trackback to work correctly because Haloscan had a limit on the number of characters for a trackback URL. So, in Tinderbox, I switched from the URL to an ID I created for each post to form the basis of the trackback URL, an ID that should have been unique for each post. For some strange reason, I was getting duplicate IDs. Rather than try to figure out how to solve it, I just deleted the ID and went to the date created for each post. Seems to be working. Sometimes, deleting and replacing with something new is a good short-term strategy. And, sometimes, we are more like our students than we realize.

Recently, my son and I read The Old Woman and the Eagle. In some ways, it reminds me of the recent spate of comments on Seth Godin's post "Why I don't have comments". Here are some excerpts concerning an eagle who landed at the front door of an old woman, who said,

"Oh my, what a funny pigeon you are!"

She figured he was a pigeon, you see, because although she had never seen an eagle, she had seen lots of pigeons. ...

[Despite the eagle's protests, the old woman continued.]

"Nonsense!" said the old woman. "I've lived for more years than you've got feathers in your wings, and I know a pigeon when I see one."

This story, like the Three Tradesmen in "Chains of Experience", illustrates our natural disposition to be chained to our experience. We read people who have seen lots of blogs and are saying, "I know a blog when I see one. They must have comments." Like the old woman, their argument is based on personal experience, not on thoughtful reasoning. Consider, for example, this excerpt from a curriculum consultant:

At least Godin turns trackbacks on which, if you’ll look, has generated quite a bit of discussion and I suppose is part of the conversation. It just comes across as arrogant. (a term that comes up quite a bit in these trackbacks)

“it changes the way I write”…. that’s the point. Writing for yourself is important but I believe blogs are about conversations and not simply individuals writing their experiences and ideas. I don’t write for everyone and hope I’m confident enough to write about what matters to me but also consider what matters to others. It’s like going to a dinner party and only talking about things you like and not allowing others to share their thoughts. A blog without comments is more like a diary and that’s just what we as educators are trying to dismiss.

For someone who is supposed to be cutting edge he’s pretty old school.

This excerpt is rife with fallacies. Trackback is "old school" while comments aren't? Seth Godin is arrogant, an ad hominem attack that doesn't address the arguments of, Is a blog without comments a blog? Or, Is blogging only about one type of conversation?

Another point is some "educators" are trying to "dismiss" other types of conversation. Now, I'm at a loss for why certain educators are dismissing diaries, but in the field of composition and rhetoric, many instructors promote journals (i.e., diaries) as a way of getting students to observe and reflect on their learning. Check out, for example, the Learning Record Online, a portfolio system in which "observations" and self-"evaluation" are pillars of the portfolio system.

A third point is that he "believes" blogs are about conversations and "supposes" trackbacks can be part of the conversation, implying that trackbacks are not much of a conversation. In other words, real conversations can take only one form, that is, via comments. One of the commenters on this consultant's post stated, "I won't read a blog without comments." Imagine someone saying, "I won't read a book without comments." Such positions are not based on logic but emotional "belief" systems.

Belief systems, like that of the old woman's, can hinder people from engaging in critical thinking. The sanctity of a "comment-enabled conversation" precludes entertaining the notion of "comment-disabled conversations." It's rather ironic in a way. We talk about the value of diversity all the time, but when it comes to innovation with respect to diverse forms of conversation, many are resistant, as seen on this issue.

It would be nice to have some empirical data comparing trackback posts to comment posts to see if there is a difference that makes a difference, to see which type of blog has more confirmation bias or more measured discourse to an extent that it outweighs social expectations concerning blogs. And we would need to see if there are differences with respect to the subject matter of blogs (and even emotional involvement). As we turn to blogs that entertain more subjective interpretations, the potential for confirmation bias increases while that for measured discourse decreases. This occurs regardless of whether posts occur as comments or as trackbacks (again just look at Seth Godin's post with its trackbacks), which makes me wonder if the subject matter has a stronger pull toward confirmation bias than does the post format.

As mentioned earlier (I wrongly attributed the post to Richard MacManus, the site's owner, but the author was actually Ryan Stewart, a guest blogger writing about RSS Readers), comments do seem to work on some types of blogs, in particular on blogs that offer solutions to practical problems, that have more facts than opinions, that have points easily proved or disproved, whose subjects do not require much reflection. But do comments work as well on more subjective type blogs, blogs whose topics more easily invite shallow comments or confirmation of biases?

Let's ignore the controversial topics and blogs and focus on education blogs, at both teacher/researcher and student levels. At the student level, my experience in first-year composition has been that student comments are generally supportive without offering constructive comment. Many ESL students do not feel comfortable offering constructive critique in general, and in such a public forum, they likely will feel more uncomfortable. Trackback offers some distance, along with the notion that rather than critiquing a post, they would be creating their own perspective on the topic. Whether trackback on direct comments, students need some direction. Anne Davis gives a few pointers with respect to her fifth grade students in "Significant Comments".

At the teacher/researcher level, I perused different blogs to get a feel for how comments seemed to be going. EFL Geek, out of 718 posts, had 1313 comments and 50 trackbacks. So, it's only about 2 comments per post, certainly not overwhelming as on some blogs.

Over at weblogg-ed, I looked at the first 30 comments. The overwhelming majority of comments were in agreement with Will's position, sometimes adding a twist on it, but mostly agreeing.

At Creating Passionate Users, we see a different picture on one post, "Intuition", which had 15 comments when I looked at it. Three comments added nothing, but the majority added some point that was slightly new or gave a different perspective.

At "Half an Hour," Stephen Downes writes about "Adults and MySpace". It's a long article: 1758 words. It has two comments, one with 78 words that doesn't add much, and another with 280 words that adds new insight into the issue of adults on MySpace.

It's interesting to compare Will's post on Stephen's article. Will's post was only 219 words (not including the quotation from Stephen), fewer than even the long comment on Stephen's article, but it drew 8 responses, including one that I would call a trackback, as it was a link to the author's lengthy essay (1084 words) in District Administration, an online magazine for administrators. Of the other 7 comments, 4 added nothing at all, 1 added nothing really, 1 ranted, and 1 asked a question that might be further explored. But none questioned Will's concluding sentence:

The dirty little secret is that we as a society are all up in arms about MySpace not because it’s not safe but because it’s making visible the extent to which we are failing our kids.

As a parent, I might get upset about MySpace and I might feel that I'm failing my child, but it would never have occurred to me that I was upset because my failing had become visible. It seems that confirmation bias buttons were pushed instead of critical thinking ones. Stephen's article is much more nuanced, and the one response corresponded in kind to those subtleties. Apparently, the content and nature of the post, even when on the same topic, affects the comments.

Initially, my focus was limited to the structuring effect of comments and trackbacks with respect to confirmation bias. However, from these few and non-randomly selected examples, as Daniel commented, "there is no real dichotomy". Instead, it's multi-dimensional with the context, the author, the audience, and the subject all playing a role in the quality of comments and trackbacks.

In an earlier post of questions on blog commenting, I asked,

What would the blogging community be like if the majority of bloggers moved to a "measured discourse" mode of commenting on the ideas in other blogs? Would we learn more? Would we become better, more thoughtful bloggers? Or not?

Perhaps the analogy of the maturing brain might be a suitable answer. That is, children's brains have many more neurons than adults do. Part of brain development is the pruning of unneeded neurons and circuits. From Philip Seeman on "Brain Development" in the Journal of American Psychiatry, we read:

The developmental task of childhood years from an anatomic point of view is to prune and to select the most useful (perhaps the most used) neurons, synapses, and dendrites to preserve for the adult brain. This process of pruning continues through the early teen years. Presumably, the pruning is accomplished "wisely." This would mean that synapses that are most important to survival and optimal function flourish whereas useless connections vanish.

The structural media of commenting has some effect on the nature of those comments. Still, whether via comments or trackback, a development of "measured discourse" in blogs might have the effect of pruning less useful biased sound bites, resulting in "optimal" thoughtful discourse. Probably, that will never occur. Despite the desirability of engaging in thoughtful discourse and learning, people are social beings and find it difficult to escape from social relations and expectations. I'll talk about that in a later post.

Although I can see trackback pings in my Haloscan account, trackback hasn't been showing up on my posts because using the URL as the trackback ID goes past Haloscan's character limit. I'm now trying a numerical ID system. It seems to be working for new posts I make (not the ones before today), as indicated by the test trackback you see when clicking on trackback.

Once in a while, when I face some puzzle in writing and posting to my blog, I wonder why I continue to use Flint, a Tinderbox template to create my blog instead of an application made for it like Wordpress. The learning curve is steep, and the license is not inexpensive. Tom Webster ("Blogging with Tinderbox" via Mark Bernstein) reminded why I like Flint for my weblog:

I recently went back to deciphering Flint, which is a collection of macros and templates to turn Tinderbox into a pretty robust weblog generator. Ever since Radio Userland I have liked the idea of maintaining a weblog locally and then only needing to upload html to a remote server with no server install necessary--easy to keep my thoughts on my laptop where they belong, and very simple to publish what I want to publish. I realize that you can accomplish the same thing with a weblog client like Ecto and any garden-variety weblog app, but Tinderbox's ability to replicate a post-it board full of non-linear notes is brilliant and irreplacable. Why does this matter? Look at the popularity of tagging as an organizational scheme for modern blogs. Tagging has become popular precisely because 'chronological' and 'hierarchical' just don't cut it as organizing principles for the giant spinning cork ball of the creative mind.

Tinderbox, however, lets me link any old note to any other old note, and back again--so my notes can be organized like index cards spread out on a table, regardless of how my weblog reads. That makes it much easier for me to revisit things I might have missed, and keep "back burner" thoughts percolating for when inspiration strikes. It also lets me maintain a private weblog and a public weblog all in one Tinderbox document--a highly usable intersection of Wiki and weblog, all searchable and linked on one big canvas. Again, though there are other apps better suited for weblogging, there are none better suited for brainstorming and organizing my thoughts--and now all I have to do is drag a note from one part of my drawing table to another, and it is published (or not). When you can truly live within Tinderbox for everything, the tool itself stops being visible and starts becoming a natural extension of your thought process and not just a "blog tool."

Tinderbox has yet to become a natural extension of my thought process. It takes time to master it. Still, I like the potential for using one application for brainstorming, taking notes, re-combining them, and generating new permutations of concepts that I might not have thought of otherwise. Once mastered, Tinderbox is a great tool for thinking and learning. The weblog is just an extra benefit.

Here are some other articles on Tinderbox:

Matt Neuburg's review: Light your fire with Tinderbox
Matt Neuburg for creating web pages: Creating Online Help with Tinderbox
Tom Webster: Problem Solving with Tinderbox
Tom Webster: More Problem Solving with Tinderbox
Doug Miller: Miscellaneous posts on Tinderbox
Ted Goranson on outlining: Deep Tinderbox
Alastair Weakley: Using Tinderbox for writing

i just came across two sites giving good advice on how to use (and not use) blogs in the classroom. James Farmer has two posts, one on how to use blogs and another on how not to use them. And Doug of Borderland comments on Farmer's posts.

On how not to use blogs in education, Farmer's main points (my summary of his summary of his paper "Blogs @ Anywhere: High fidelity online communication") are:

  • Don't use

    • blogs as "discussion boards, listservs or learning management systems"
    • group blogs
    • blogs for something they're not made for
  • And don't forget RSS

On how to use blogs in education, the main points are to use:

  • blogs "as key, task driven, elements of your course" (that is, provide structure and purpose)
  • assessment that promotes, or at least allows, personal pursuits and expression
  • blogs for what they are good for
  • blogging tools that work (Farmer covers 9 major multi-user blogging tools here.)

On not using group blogs or blogs as discussion boards, etc., at the university level, Barbara Ganning has a different perspective. See her BlogTalk paper, "Blogging as a Dynamic, Transformative Medium in an American Liberal Arts Classroom", in which she discusses her use of blogs in the classroom, including a class blog that ties together students' individual blogs, communication, and class management.

Doug supports Farmer's main points with his own experience, although noting that more centralized management systems are appropriate for younger learners. Along these lines, he notes the need for more conversation on using blogs in elementary schools, giving several examples, one of which is more teacher oversight at the lower levels:

Mainly, younger kids have a very different notion about private vs. public information. I know this is an issue for all students, but younger kids have a harder time recognizing personal boundaries. A kindergartener, for instance, would be far more likely to tell her classmates that her mother is in jail than would a 5th grader, for instance.

It makes sense to use technology for what it does well and also to take into consideration the age and background of the students. Not paying attention to this point may result in little impact on students' involvement or learning, as Farmer, based on his reading of others' use of blogs in education, asserts in his paper:

While the resulting feedback indicated a degree of satisfaction and no objection to the use of blogs, there was little to indicate any significant shift in student perceptions and activity in the learning environments. While it is beyond the scope of this examination to argue hard and fast rules, this could be attributed, along with other factors such as the nature of assessment, to the use of blogs as collaborative areas without the use of aggregation.

There are quite a few comments on Farmer's pages, indicating that the environment affects the implementation of Farmer's guidelines. With respect to foreign language learners, in particular, we need to be careful. Still, let me emphasize Farmer's point on keeping RSS in students' minds. As he says,

Ignore RSS at your peril: Probably the biggest mistake that adopters tend to make is to ignore RSS or just through it a casting glance. The problem is that these people aren’t bloggers and just don’t understand. Without RSS blogs would pretty much just be extensions of geocities pages. Your learners are NEVER going to surf each others sites everyday and the majority of them won’t even go to that funky web-based aggregator you set-up.

RSS, or news, feeds are like subscribing to a newspaper or magazine: it comes to you instead of you going to the corner store to buy a copy. Why use news feeds? Well, mainly (1) to save time and (2) to be exposed to a variety of opinions. More concretely on time, you, and your students, can subscribe to all of the class blogs and other blogs of interest so that instead of clicking on 10, 20, or more different sites, all new posts are aggregated at one's own site (and perhaps another aggregation at a single class site). On the latter reason, you and your students can create search feeds for news groups and news (via Google News or Yahoo News) and for websites and blogs that can keep a current flow of information on topics related to class studies, projects, or personal interests. Participating in knowledge networks is crucial for students to develop an awareness of audience, competing values, and diverse perspectives, which, in turn, is essential for learning to write thoughtful and complex responses to and essays on an issue.

For more info on news feeds, see my brief introduction here. For an introduction on possibilities in higher education, go here, and for different RSS platforms, read "RSS readers: best of breed picks". And, again, be read Farmer's article.As Farmer notes,

The development of knowledge through learning to self-publish and comment on postings that adhere to the protocols and norms of behaviour in the chosen communication network is expected to enhance the learners’ reflective, meta-cognitive and written skills as well as management of their learning.

In a nutshell, the combination of blog writing and news feeds helps connect students to one another and to others outside the classroom, creating networks of learning that promote reading, writing, and critical thinking.

Will Richardson writes glowingly about the new beta release of the web browser, Flock"

I’ll agree with Clarence…Flock is my new browser of choice, and that just after a few hours of playing.

When Will likes something this much, it must be good. He likes Flock because it is an all-in-one tool: browser, blog editor, uploader to and flickr, news aggregator, and more.

I tried out the blogging and RSS functions. What's nice about the set-up is that you can choose to see the RSS feeds as either one column or two, as headlines alone, headlines with excerpts, or in full. And for blogging, with a single click, you can open the entire article up into a post. This is quite useful if you want to keep it in sight as you write about it and also you indent areas you want as quotes and delete the rest. (Hmm. One problem here might be with students who who neglect to indicate sources.) One other nice thing is that it comes with the graphics in the article. You can see how this works in my blog for my students. I tried it out there with Flock because I use Tinderbox for this blog. I could use Flock, but the new post wouldn't come back to my Tinderbox file on my computer, so it would erased the next time I use Tinderbox.

As good as all-in-oneness is for a professional technophile, it's even better for students who are just being introduced to blogging and other social applications. Rather than having to go to one website to blog and others to read and to respond to--along with having social bookmarking, photo sharing, and drop & drag capability--they can do it all from one place. Having everything together not only reduces the "confusion" and the "hassle," as some of my students have complained, but also makes it easier for students to see the connections between their writing and their reading, and to read their classmates' writings and others, because they're right in front of them as they begin to blog. The juxtaposition of many readings, along with one's writing, can help to facilitate elements of critical thinking, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Although Will is considering leaving Bloglines for Flock, that may not work with our students (despite what I just said above). Will has a laptop, so he carries his browser settings with him everywhere. Students who only have a desktop at home (or no computer at all) wouldn't be able to use Flock's capabilities on school computers without letting others have access to their settings, that is, if the school granted them access to do so. That may change if Flock becames a portable app like Firefox. (See this page for a suite of portable apps.) In the future, perhaps no one will have a computer, only a portable drive. For now, however, I think I'll play a little more with Flock.

Daniel Mangrum in his post "Comments “On” or “Off”?" wrote:

I’ve been in a sort of dialogue with Charles on the issue of having comments enabled or disabled on one’s blog. His post on the question makes for a good read. I approached it with the assumption that I should come away either convince or unconvinced, but now I see that I don’t have to be either.

Although I'm mostly convinced, I'm still muddling my way through quite a few questions.

We mostly agree that enabling comments in a blog is to provide interaction between writers and readers. Is such direct interaction, however, the best form of interaction? As I mentioned earlier, much depends on the blog's purpose. For educators and learners, learning should play the prevailing role. Daniel himself wants to "improve [his] teaching", or in other words, learn to become a better teacher. In such a case, Which form of interaction has greater potential to facilitate learning? Direct comments on one's blog? Or, an exchange of "measured responses" at a distance? In what ways can the environment affect this choice? In what sorts of environments would it be better to enable comments? To disable them?

Daniel, like most of us, doesn't "see so much traffic ... [that we are] in danger of being over run by inane commentary". In such a case, does simply having any traffic (i.e., direct comments on one's blog) outweigh the possibility of confirmation bias? Although most blogs never become one of the Top 500, obviously some do. If the traffic became too much, would it be possible to turn off comments without creating a backlash, as Seth Godin has done? Or simply not respond to comments without creating alienation (see, for example, EFL Geek's comment here).

With these possibilities plus others mentioned earlier, why do people prefer direct commenting on blogs? The main rationale that comes to my mind is the motivation that comes from social interaction. One of the three pillars of Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory of motivation is social relatedness. We are simply more motivated to do something when we have a positive relationship with others. But why would that positive relationship prefer direct comments to "measured discoursed" at a distance? Is it that one seems more "immediate" than the other, and so closer in social relatedness? Or is it simply that it is easier to have a conversation when everyone is in the same room, that is, on the same blog?

Daniel wrote that my blog is about my learning. It is. However, learning is facilitated through social interaction, and the rate of my learning depends considerably upon the rate of learning for all bloggers. Consequently, whether or not comments are enabled or disabled should take into consideration the effect on the blogging community, or more specifically for this conversation, the educational blogging community. What would the blogging community be like if the majority of bloggers moved to a "measured discourse" mode of commenting on the ideas in other blogs? Would we learn more? Would we become better, more thoughtful bloggers? Or not?

The environment affects all of these points. Daniel's blog, for instance, doesn't include trackback. So, I'm not able to provide a link to his blog on my most recent comments on his post. If I wish to increase my range of interaction with others on this topic, others who are reading his blog, then I must use his comment feature to lead them to my posts, where my blog, which disables commenting, enables trackback, which lets me and others know that they've linked to your post and provides the address of their post.

Actually, it's no more difficult to interact via RSS feeds and trackback than it is through direct comments. Haloscan is a free service that provides not only commenting (which I've disabled) but also trackback. For RSS feeds, one can use Bloglines, if an online service is preferred, or one can download free applications, such as RSS Bandit (for PC users) or NetNewsWire Lite (for Mac users). Using news readers saves time. Instead of clicking on each blog individually to see whether or not someone has posted, new posts are automatically delivered to one's news reader. For more on RSS possibilities, see my brief intro with resource links here, and for more on RSS readers, read Richard MacManus' post last week, "Rich RSS Readers: best of breed picks". Richard's post seems to be a good counter to my position, a post where the comments work well. What's the difference between this sort of post with comments and the ones I've been talking about? Or is there a difference here that makes a difference?

As the purpose changes, so does the environment. How would answers to these questions change as we consider having our students use blogs?

Not having comments means I don't get the point of blogging, at least according to The Carnival of English Language Teaching:

Bloggers who don’t allow comments seem to be missing the point, don’t you think? I started to add this guy’s link to the blogroll but stopped when I realized that he doesn’t allow comments at his site [italics are mine; original has strikethrough] you have to e-mail your comments to him directly as opposed to the normal way through the blog. Recently, I found myself back by his blog and couldn’t resist sharing this post about the value of hard work versus student IQ. I guess you’ll have to send the guy an e-mail or just keep your opinion to yourself.

Clicking on the link, you can see that I'm the one "missing the point." With all the emphasis on blogging as social software, as a way of interacting with others, as a conversation, you might easily agree: This guy is missing the point. Not too long ago, I would have agreed. After all, there is something to be said for comments building on one another. On more than one occasion, I've been in a face-to-face group discussion in which one comment triggered another comment triggered another one and so on until what emerged was much, much better than the initial comment.

So, why don't I allow comments now? Actually, the initial reason is rather mundane. At first, I did have Haloscan commenting on my previous blogs here and here, but I had problems implementing it, no doubt due to density on my part, and so commenting slowly faded from my mind. More lately, I've thought about having the time to respond to many comments, unlikely as it may be that this blog would ever become a Technorati 500. Even so, I would feel obligated to participate in a conversation that I began or at least read it. There would be the ones that, thoughtfully disagreeing, would make me think, but there would also be the many that would simply join a chorus of agreement, a sort of social feel-good bonding that does nothing but promote confirmation bias (see below).

A few others have a similar position. Author Seth Godin recently posted (via Mark Bernstein, creator of Tinderbox) "Why I don't have comments":

I think comments are terrific, and they are the key attraction for some blogs and some bloggers. Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them. And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters. I'm already itching to rewrite my traffic post below. So, given a choice between a blog with comments or no blog at all, I think I'd have to choose the latter.

I doubt that Seth can escape from including some anticipation in his posts, but if you want to read more about the pros and cons, Seth has quite a few trackbacks to bloggers mostly "conning" on his not including comments.

Mark Bernstein goes further than Seth and argues against including comments on a weblog:

Comments don't belong in weblogs.

The measured pace of weblog response, and the distance between rival weblogs, makes measured discourse possible. Comments let idiots deface your weblog, and that's intolerable. Because you can't tolerate it, you have to do something. And that means the idiots have to do something, too.

For example, Kathryn has been doing some interesting sleuth-work on last month's mysterious African rent-a-coup, and so her weblog has been immersed in spam, bickering, and legal threats. (You know it's getting complicated with you see Comments (158) | TrackBack (0) )

Mark is arguing against comments because of flame wars, which can destroy a blog. Still, as Angela Thomas, a lecturer in English Education at the University of Sydney, responds in "Commenting on Academic Blogs", flame wars aren't as common on blogs like mine. Yet, academics are not immune to them. Margaret Syverson in her dissertation (now the book "The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition") reported on the Gulf War's effect on an email discussion group:

In 1991, a collegial group of social scientists sharing ideas in a computer forum became embroiled in a bitter conflict about the Gulf War, which threatened to destroy long-standing research partnerships and nearly terminated the group.

Moreover, any blog can receive comments from fictitious bloggers, as Mark Glaser at Mediashift writes in his article "Bloggers Must Be Vigilant Against Astroturf Comments":

The issue came up here on MediaShift when a number of people (or what appeared to be a number of people) expressed their opposition to Net neutrality legislation. Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press , did a little basic sleuthing to find a coordinated campaign by various blog and forum posters who gave talking points from telecom companies opposed to Net neutrality. I followed up and wondered whether this campaign was indeed coming from telecom companies or people they paid.

While I have seen a lot of evidence pointing toward certain individuals who post time and again against Net neutrality, I haven’t found a “smoking gun” that proves without a doubt that this campaign is paid for by telecom companies. But it does speak volumes that none of these individuals would respond to my queries or those of other bloggers interested in this topic. If they are not being paid, and are not working in a concerted effort as it appears, then why not at least deny it?

Glaser ends by noting the imperfection of commenting systems, stating:

The best defense we have is to check and double-check what people say, and work together as a community of bloggers to out the people who would try to use sock puppetry, astroturf or other means to deceive us.

How many of us have the time to "check and double-check"?

Actually, I'm not expecting flame wars or astroturf comments on my blog. They aren't the main reasons I don't allow comments here. My main reasons, as odd as it may sound at first, are linked directly to my blogging goal of learning.

First, there's something to be said for "measured discourse" at a distance. I read the post at The Carnival of English Language Teaching, reflected on it for quite a few days, and am now responding on my blog much more thoughtfully than I would have done by dashing off a quick sound bite (and I was motivated to learn and implement HaloScan's trackback system). As pleasurable as social interaction is (and I do enjoy comments as much as anyone else), learning is more important. And I learn more when I take time to reflect.

Second, a measured response at a distance can dilute the effect of confirmation bias. In his book "Cognition in the Wild", Edwin Hutchins, a cultural anthropologist at UCSD, writes about confirmation bias, "a propensity to affirm prior interpretations and to discount, ignore, or reinterpret evidence that runs counter to an already-formed interpretation" (p. 239). When communication is "too rich" in a network, the confirmation bias tendency leads to groupthink rather than a diversity of opinions. For networks to avoid groupthink (and also solipsistic-individual-think), they need two modes of communication:

Where there is a need for both exploration of an interpretation space and consensus of interpretation, a system typically has two modes of operation. One mode trades off the ability to reach a decision in favor of diversity of interpretation. The participants in the system proceed in relative isolation and in parallel. Each may be subject to confirmation bias, but because they proceed independently, the system as a whole does not manifest confirmation bias. The second mode breaks the isolation of the participants and exposes the interpretations to disconfirming evidence, the goal being to avoid erroneous perseverence on an interpretation when a better one is available. This mode trades off diversity in favor of the commitment to a single, interpretation that will stand as the new reality of the situation. (p. 261)

Consequently, blogs with comments are more likely to develop confirmation bias than blogs without comments because they are not sufficiently independent. (Flaming also confirms biases because emotion overrules reason. See my brief posts on reasoning here.)

In contrast, a blog without comments is in a mode of being somewhat isolated and in parallel with other blogs writing on similar topics, while at any time, the blogger can break that "isolation" and get "disconfirming evidence" by using search engines, RSS feeds, email, Technorati, trackback, pingback, and so on. Thus, blogs without commenting sections can more easily promote a diversity of interpretations that may lead to new ways of thinking about blogging and or other issues. Naturally, no-comment blogs may lack reflection while blogs with comments may have diverse, reflective responses. However, most comments on blogs tend to be social and supportive (or perhaps flaming) rather than substantive: They seldom challenge us to think out of the box. Thus, the structure of no-comment blogs in parallel has a greater potential to promote learning.

Back to "missing the point." "Missing the point" implies that one size fits all, that a blogging conversation can take only one form, that all bloggers have the same purpose in blogging. But they don't. Bloggers occupy different niches in various ecologies and have different purposes. Some blog to participate in social interaction. Some do it to enhance their business or be their business. Others simply like to write. Others still have more than one purpose. And so on. Direct comments on a blog might support some goals, but not others as well. It's not "about the conversation," as Matthew Ingram and many others claim. It's about the blog's purpose. The "conversation" plays a supporting role, and its form should serve the blog's purpose(s).

For me, as my blog's title states, the purpose is learning rather than confirming my biases. For educators and learners, shouldn't that be the point?

For an extensive list of Web2.0 software, go to IT Redux (via the DEN Blog).

Sudeep Bansal has a good list of Essential Freeware for the PC User.

Another comprehensive list of freeware can be found at 121 Space.

Steve Froemming has a list of Academic Freeware.

And for a short list of freeware for Mac OS X, go to "Open Source Mac".

On Wednesday at the NJTESOL-NJBE Spring Conference, I presented an overview in blog format of different web 2.0 tools for enhancing classroom instruction (i.e., blogs, wikis, RSS, Flickr, social bookmarking, and podcasting). I plan to keep it up on the Internet as a website (not blog) resource. You can find it here, grandiosely entitled "The Web 2.0 Classroom".

From the Deloitte website:

According to a report launched today by Deloitte, the business advisory firm, by 2010 more people around the world will use a growing number of technology products and services more often, in more locations, and for more purposes than ever before.

Although the report says the teacher of 2010 won't be replaced by technology, it also states,

The best teachers may have become global 'brands by 2010, thanks to advances in connectivity. This elite group may be lecturing to a collective class of thousands, using a combination video, conferencing, streamed audio and podcasts as well as the traditional lecture theater.

The elite are already online:

"Stanford University is making hundreds of Stanford podcasts available free to anyone through Apple Computer's popular iTunes Music Store. The podcasts include lectures by the university's professors." (Chronicle of Higher Education, cited at "Present")

Harvard professors, too, are podcasting via iTunes (Lulu Zhou, "Harvard Offers Course via iPod", The Harvard Crimson)

And forget the thousands. It's millions. Ken Carroll, at his site, "plans to deliver language learning to millions through podcasts, cutting out teachers and classrooms (Glyn Moody, "Now you're speaking my language", Guardian). Like Stanford and Harvard, ChinesePod—along with JapanesePod101, TOEFL Podcast, ESL Pod, and many others—are available free via iTunes.

One potentially good thing about online resources for learning languages is that they are scalable: There's no need to progress according to an entire class, semester by semester, year by year. Instead, one can progress at one's own pace, as fast or as slow as one has time to expend on learning. And it's not clear that teachers and classrooms will be bypassed, but rather, their form and activity will change. Teachers might become more like coaches: supporting, advising, and fine-tuning students' language learning.

Another advantage is that huge pools of resources can mean a huge variety of topics that appeal to all students' interests, facilitating their persisting in language learning.

Perhaps the best advantage is the social interaction. From the article on ChinesePod:

There is also a formal Chinesepod blog, and a wiki, where users are invited to contribute entries related to Chinese and China. Every part of the site encourages users to join the conversation. "We obsess to feedback: what are the users saying, what do they want, what are their problems," Carroll says.

All this feedback is pored over by the 30-strong production team, who use it as the basis for future daily podcasts. After the scripts are written, and the premium exercises generated, Carroll and his co-presenter, Jenny Zhu, record all the podcasts for the week, each in a single take. "We even leave in mistakes because it's more natural, it sounds warmer," he says.

The next stage of Chinesepod aims to put the user more firmly in control thanks to another Web 2.0 idea: content tags. "Say you were going to visit China in six months on business," Carroll says. "You could come in, test, find your level, and say: I'd like business-oriented lessons for an elementary [user]." Creating a customised curriculum will be possible thanks to the modular form of Chinesepod, which consists of self-contained podcasts, each dealing with one topic and lasting about 12 minutes.

This sort of interaction can fully involve learners and provide quick feedback promotes interest, commitment, and thus learning. Moreover, this is a good example of a process technique of education. In "Coping with complexity: educating for capability" (British Medical Journal), Sarah Fraser and Trisha Greenhalgh, two professors of health care, apply complexity theory concepts to educating for capability (a concept similar to autonomy) as opposed to educating for competence. They define the two terms as:

Capability is more than competence

Competence—what individuals know or are able to do in terms of knowledge, skills, attitude

Capability—extent to which individuals can adapt to change, generate new knowledge, and continue to improve their performance

Summary points for their article are:

  • Traditional education and training largely focuses on enhancing competence (knowledge, skills, and attitudes)
  • In today's complex world, we must educate not merely for competence, but for capability (the ability to adapt to change, generate new knowledge, and continuously improve performance)
  • Capability is enhanced through feedback on performance, the challenge of unfamiliar contexts, and the use of non-linear methods such as story telling and small group, problem based learning
  • Education for capability must focus on process (supporting learners to construct their own learning goals, receive feedback, reflect, and consolidate) and avoid goals with rigid and prescriptive content

Note especially the authors' last point that supports ChinesePod's approach on having blogs, wikis, and tags with which learners construct their own learning and receive feedback in a process that focuses on and promotes the emergence of learning.

This is only the beginning, and I can't imagine the end.

Not really liking the site design from yesterday, I've decided for a lots-of-whitespace-is-better look, at least for now. Items still needing work are the footer, the extra white space under the sidebar, the About and Contact pages, and my RSS feed.

On the footer, Mark Bernstein, Tinderbox's creator, thoughtfully emailed me some ways to keep the year and months on the same line. The simplest method is just to maintain the archive lists myself instead of having them generated automatically by Tinderbox. I'll probably end up doing that way, as it's fairly straightforward and easy, but for someone as absent-minded as myself, I may at times be a month or two behind.

On the extra white space, there should be a way to have the posts lower than the last element in the sidebar to extend to the right margin. Sounds like an "if-then" condition from my one fortran course in 1984. But two decades and several languages later leaves me in a fuzzy, even a non-memory, condition of being unable to write an appropriate "if-then" condition.

At the bottom of my concerns is the lack of proper formatting for the footer on the About and Contact pages. Of a little more concern is my RSS feed: Unlike the Atom feed, the RSS feed doesn't validate, although it does work with NetNewsWire. Perhaps I can fix it after my presenting next week at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference and NJTESOL-NBJE Spring Conference

If anyone has suggestions, I'd appreciate an email.

Due to logistics, Tinderbox weekend is being moved to September 30 (or perhaps October 28), but Mark still held an informal discussion for those wanting to attend on Saturday. And it was great!! My understanding improved on quite a few topics, such as debugging, importing, exporting (even to MS Word), exploding text, attributes, aliases, agents, and so on. Of course, it's still a rather shallow understanding, I'll need to start playing with these items to make that learning real. Right now I'm looking at changing my footer. I'm also playing with the CSS in my blog design. I've changed the background colors and fonts. I'm not satisfied with it, but it's a good beginning in confusion.

Richard McManus of the Read/Write Web has a list of lists on things web2.0.

Gil Klein reports on the use of iPods in "Teachers Turn Nuisance into a Tool." In composition:

"The students are drawn in because they see the bells and whistles," said John Stewart, an English teacher at Gunston Middle School in Arlington County. "But it really helps them with their writing, basic logic and the fundamentals of composition."

Students eagerly stay after school to work with Stewart to create podcasts of their poetry, essays, and just the sounds of their lives. They mix music, sounds and words.

For English language learners:

The big advantage has been for English-language learners, Conner said.

The teacher creates a podcast of vocabulary words. The students download it into their iPods and can listen to it over and over. They can make their own recording of the words and compare their pronunciation to the teacher's.

Every week, students are given 20 vocabulary words to learn, Conner said. Before they used iPods, the students might on average learn 40 percent. Using the iPods, she said, they now average 95 percent.

Combining math and music:

"You can get material to students just in time at a level they need," he said. "They can go over the content again and again. And if you put math lessons to rap music, they can have fun."

iPod-toting students are in the Education Corral, facing off and learning their subjects.

HigherEdBlogCon is looking at the use of technology in Admissions, Alumni Relations, and Communications & Marketing this week. Presentations and links included:

Monday, April 17, 2006: New Media in Admissions

The Teeming Web
Case Study: Blogging and Podcasting for Student Recruitment
Freshmen Reveal Their Secrets: The Mansfield University Podcast
Student Voices Online: Podcasts as a Department Marketing Tool

Tuesday, April 18, 2006: New Media in Alumni Relations

Alumni E-Networks: Using Technology to Engage Alumni and Constituents
Online Networks: A New Tool for Alumni Relations - How Third-Party Social and Business Networking Sites Can Benefit Alumni Communities
Social Networking: What Is It and Where Does It Fit in the Alumni World?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006: New Media in Communications; Resources for Further Learning

Podcasting Agriculture News
Using Wikis to Facilitate Communication, Collaboration, and Knowledge Sharing Among Admissions and Administrative Personnel
How Can I Learn More About New Media?

Special: Links to More Applications of New Media in Higher Education

Communications and Alumni
Advanced Organizational Communication
“What’s hAPPening!”

Library and Information Resources
The FLICC/FEDLINK Environmental Scan wiki

Teaching and Learning
College v2
Jason Heath’s Bass Page
Skate of the Web

The ESL Program at Kean University received an ELMS (Education of Language Minority Students) Grant from the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education for the purposes of implementing software to help our students to learn English. One software program that we acquired is Citation

In the grant team's discussions of how to use this software, we have focused on its notetaking capabilities to improve students' reading and writing abilities. Some of our ideas include having students take notes on everything related to the class: lectures, readings, activities. Others were summarizing readings, excerpting importation quotations, and responding to the summaries and quotations. We also considered having students review their notes at the end of the semester (and also throughout), reflect on them, and use them as a springboard for an essay on their learning.

Although Citation is convenient with respect to searching and writing up references in different styles, actually, all of these activities can be done without Citation. We'd like to use Citation in a way that takes advantage of its capabilities to move beyond simply replicating print possibilities. If anyone has any thoughts on to be innovative with Citation, I'd appreciate hearing them.

Last week at HigherEdBlogCon held quite a few good presentations on libraries and the potential for using blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS, IM, etc.

Susan Herzog taught Blogging 101, providing a good overview of the use of blogs in libraries, including a bibliography page on blogging and much more.

John Blyberg wrote "Patrons in the driver’s seat: Giving advanced tool-sets to library patrons." One tool among many he mentions is a virtual card catalog that allows users to share their personal card catalog with the public, something like, but with "vintage-looking catalog card[s]." Other tools include wi-fi, RSS, and even AADL-GT, a gaming tournament.

There are 13 other presentations for this week: too much to report on, but well worth the time to read. Here's a breakdown of the sessions by title:

Blogging in Libraries
Blogging 101
Subject Librarian 2.0? - ‘The Song Remains the Same,’ It’s Just a Cover Song Using New Instruments
Blog Applications At a Small Academic Library

Podcasting in Libraries
Podcasting 101: the Basics for Librarians
Learning to Speak: Creating a Library Podcast With a Unique Voice

Leveraging Web 2.0 Technologies
Blogs, Wikis, and IM: Communication Tools for Subject Specialists
An Online Research Toolkit - Exploring Web 2.0 for Library Research
Using RSS to Increase User Awareness of E-resources in Academic Libraries

Issues in Libraries
Open Access for Teachers
Upon the Shoulders of Giants – Building Library 2.0 Together, From the Platform Up
Web 2.0 and the Small College Library: How to take over the World

Making Information Work Harder
Building a “Wall of Books” From a Library Online Catalog
Go Where the Patrons Are: Outreach In the Age of Library 2.0
Google Maps and You: Five Steps To Including a Google Map On Your Website
Patrons in the Drivers Seat: Giving Advanced Tool-sets to Library Patrons


I had to return early from the Conference on Teaching, Writing, & Technology, but that one day yielded some interesting thoughts.

Kathleen Yancey, (Professor and Director of the graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition at Florida State University), started the conference off with her talk, "Composition as Material Practices: What That Means and How That Means for the Teaching of Writing in the Early Twenty-First Century." One notion that caught my interest was that "different portfolios create different kinds of students." She compared print portfolios to being like a book, a finished product, and digital portfolios to being gallery-like with multiple paths that may not have conclusions. I think this claim has some validity, but is it necessarily so? Having a digital background could easily influence how one approached creating print portfolios, and vice versa. Even so, I will start thinking about how I might introduce my students to the notion of portfolios not having conclusions for all of its paths but rather being an ongoing exploration.

Yancey quoted Alan Luke as positing a "need to 're-invent' the discipline" and herself for a "need for a new vocabulary" of "texts/technologies/circulation." The likelihood of "re-inventing" a discipline is remote. Nevertheless, having this attitude of always seeking new ways of seeing and doing is crucial to learning, and sometimes having new vocabulary, even if for almost the same things, can help one achieve a different stance from which to see things anew.

In another sessions, Laura McGrath (Assistant Professor of English, Kennesaw State University), discussed the need to prepare students for different rhetorical situations, audiences, products, and purposes for a new global society. In doing so,she broke down learning objectives into three types:

Functional = create blog and blog intries; integrate images and hyperlinks

Critical = think critically about the power of communication technologies as well as their dangers

Rhetorical = assess available communicative possibilities; write for real readers;master conventions of Web writing; make appropriate choices in terms of presentation/style, tone, content; develop understanding of how ehtos is created, communicated, and maintained

This is a useful breakdown of keeping objectives in mind when designing one's curriculum. I wonder a little about the "critical" perspective. Up front, I think developing a critical awareness of anything is an ongoing process and a bit of exposure to it can help stimulate its development. But I imagine that a developed critical awareness depends much upon content knowledge, in the case of communication technologies, not only how they are used in a variety of ways in depth but also how they intersect with societal practices. As compositionists, we tend to be more aware of communication technologies but, again I imagine, considerably less so in other disciplines, simply due to our lack of content knowledge. When I take this perspective and then consider the time constraints in a course and student needs for functional and rhetorical understanding, I'm not sure how much time can or should be devoted to helping students develop a critical perspective. I often wonder how much of our perspectives in curriculum design is affected by where we are in our own intellectual growth, neglecting to take into account the path and time required to reach our present outlook.

In the same session, Tara Shankar (M.I.T. Media Lab) introduced her spriting tool. (Sprite = speaking + writing.) From the abstract of her dissertation defense:

Spriting in its general form is the activity of speaking "on the record" that yields a technologically supported representation of oral speech with essential properties of writing such as permanence of record, possibilities of editing, indexing, and scanning, but without the difficult transition to a deeply different form of representation such as writing itself. This thesis considers a particular (still primitive compared to what might come in the future) version of spriting in the form of two technology-supported representations of speech: (1) the speech in audible form, and (2) the speech in visible form. The product of spriting is a kind of "spoken" document, or talkument. As one reads a text, one may likewise aude a talkument. In contrast, Shankar uses the word writing for the manual activity of making marks, while text refers to the marks made.

Shankar found that spriting facilitated peer collaboration with elementary children throughout the revising and talking process unlike the one-time (or few times) collaboration of writing. In fact, the children showed a sophisticated sense of genre and language while spriting. It allows students who lack writing skills to develop their understanding of language, organization, and other genre skills crucial to formal education, and as Shankar states, "spriting can serve as a stepping stone to writing skills."

In an earlier posting, I asked, Should we blog in the classroom? One aspect of answering in the affirmative is looking at the social aspect of learning. That is, when people work together, play together, learn together, it's simply more engaging, interesting, and motivating. Katrina Rinaldi, a high school senior, has written quite a few articles on student perspectives on technology (in Students of Explanazine). In her article Students on Student Technology -- Why We Like Xanga (Part 1), the social dimension of technology and learning is prominent. Her article is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some excerpts:

Human contact. Something every human yearns for -- especially teenagers. ... Thankfully, with Xanga, when you can't be with your friends physically, you can at least browse their thoughts online as well share your own ideas.

Xanga is an online blogging site that now also allows you to accumulate a social network. ....

I prefer Xanga to Myspace because it's more personal. ...

The main attraction of Xanga for me and my friends is the ability to write and post your own thoughts and ideas, quotes and passages from books, or even pictures. You also get to read your friends' posts, and comment on them. Xanga certainly helps us understand each other better -- you learn to see people differently when you really understand where they are coming from and how they think.

Xanga is also an amazing resource for keeping in touch with friends. ...

Interaction with friends is necessary for friendships to continue, and Xanga is a great way to make that interaction happen. It works if you're separated by continents, or simply stuck inside because of weather or punishment. I think it probably seems like time wasted to parents, but a good deal of the time teenagers spend on Xanga should be considered social interaction. While that may not seem like a huge thing to some parents, but believe me, it is.

There's not much to add here, but for me Katrina highlights the need for teachers always to keep in mind how to build communities of personal interaction and friends in the classroom. In my readings, I see a lot about the need for interaction and the social, but little about "friends."

Friday morning, I'll head out to a two-day (actually two half-days) conference at the University of Amherst Massachusetts: Conference on Teaching, Writing, & Technology, K-College

New technology is providing new venues for writers and for teachers of writing, offering us all exciting possibilities and different perspectives on what writing is, can, or should be. As tech-savvy students post blogs and teachers engage with new software to organize their courses and share student writing, technology challenges our definitions and practices of writing instruction. The Conference on Writing, Teaching, and Technology, K-College, will be an opportunity for teachers from all grade levels to share ideas, methods, and projects on integrating technology effectively into the writing classroom.

Kathleen Yancey and Charles Moran will be featured speakers. A couple of sessions will focus on first-year composition and one will look at the use of weblogs in the classroom. Looks like I'll have an opportuntiy to learn.

In a few weeks, our English Department will have a poster session on "Best Practices" in teaching. Mine will be on using blogs and wikis. Of course, I present the usual rationale for using blogs and wikis, but for me the highlight of presenting this poster was reviewing my students' blogs and seeing again how they were able to tie their writing into their own interests. One of my students, for example, has an active interest in things Japanese, applying the name "yukiseguchi" to her blog. She wrote about how to wear a kimono ("Flutter your sashes") and geishas and inserting great images, too.

Despite appreciating my students' posts, one thing still troubles me: Few of these students continue to blog after the course ends. Nancy McKeand (Random Thoughts) asks, Why aren't we all blogging?. There's no easy answer, but it's unlikely that we're all made from the same mold. Some like sports, others music, and others, still, video games. One of my students moved from blogger over to myspace, where she is still active.

Perhaps we shouldn't worry about whether students like blogging or continue to blog. When in high school, I enjoyed basketball, but I didn't like the speed drills. However, they were great for developing my stamina. And perhaps that's how we should consider blogging. That is, Is there some benefit from blogging? Besides, we could also ask how many of our students continue to write essays after graduating. Should we, then, stop requiring essay writing? Hmm. I'm assuming that writing essays has some benefit. Does it?

NewsForge (via LifeHacker) has a good tutorial for using Audacity to master podcasts:

Open source software makes podcasting easy -- too easy. Listening to a playlist of first-timer podcasts can leave your ears ringing from sudden changes in playback volume. The problem is audio mastering. Recording sound is simple, but mastering that sound -- compressing volume differences, maintaining a decibel ceiling, and similar operations -- is anything but. Fortunately, an open source tool offers everything you need for mastering podcasts and other spoken-word recordings. Audacity is well-known among podcasters on all platforms for its ability as an editor; here are some tips and tools for mastering and adjusting volume, aimed at podcasters, but they could apply to anyone who needs to produce a spoken-word recording under less-than-perfect conditions.

For a listing of Web2.0 awards of over 300 web2.0 websites in 38 categories, visit here. It's a great round-up of not only the well-known sites like but also less-well-known ones.

The Economist has an excellent article "Open, but not as usual" on the strengths and limitations of open-source software.

However, it is unclear how innovative and sustainable open source can ultimately be. The open-source method has vulnerabilities that must be overcome if it is to live up to its promise. For example, it lacks ways of ensuring quality and it is still working out better ways to handle intellectual property.

But the biggest worry is that the great benefit of the open-source approach is also its great undoing. Its advantage is that anyone can contribute; the drawback is that sometimes just about anyone does. This leaves projects open to abuse, either by well-meaning dilettantes or intentional disrupters. Constant self-policing is required to ensure its quality.

Thomas Leverett of Southern Illinois University, as part of one of his TESOL 2006 presentations, provided this site with many good links to a variety of web resources covering podcasting, audio and visual files and storage, weblogging and videoblogging, and others.

Leverett also posted on the web his paper "Daring to Enter the Blogosphere." This site also has quite a few links, some the same as above but including many others focused on weblogs.

New web tools are just popping up all the time, with many of them free or offering free versions.

News Alloy is an online news reader (still beta) that may, according to Michael Arrington at TechCrunch, become a "cult favorite."

Learner Blogs offers free blogs for K-12 students.

Stikipad is a new browser run wiki service (via Educational Weblogs).

Nuvvo, an LMS, receives a fairly favorable review from Jason Plunkett.

The BBC now has a site called The Feed Factory that has their RSS feeds arranged by category, and it introduces readers to RSS technology (via Tim Lauer).

This site – the Feed Factory – is an introduction to the RSS feeds that are available from You can use the Feed Finder on the left of this page to find some of our recommended feeds from across the site. When you are browsing around, if there's a feed available, you will see the RSS logo (below) somewhere on the page.

This site has considerable potential in bringing topics of interest to students.

Antone Gonsalves of Techlearning (cited in Ray Schroeder of Educational Technology) reports that the $2 billion a year the U.S. government has spent since 1998 on creating school access to the Internet has had no effect on learning according to a University of Chicago study.

I'm not surprised. If technology is used as if one were in a traditional classroom, then why would learning change? For technology to promote learning past that of the traditional classroom, it must move past the traditional student-give-coursework-to-teacher-and-teacher-returns-to-student-the-product, in which there are no other participants. Technology, as noted in the previous post on classroom blogging, has the potential to create networks of learning within the classroom and across classroom boundaries, with classmates and others, thus creating real audiences and interactions that promote analysis, synthesis, and perhaps even engagement.

A teacher on Remote Access speaks of the need for students to acquire networks of learning:

In this era, we need to ensure that time is spent teaching kids how to evaluate and validate personal nodes and networks for academic purposes. A tool such as technorati may be a starting point to help get kids "up to speed" quickly for a certain set of concepts being worked on in a classroom. This may be a key. We need to learn how to create flexible learning networks for short periods of time. We need to learn how to teach kids the skills they need to quickly acquire a network and apprise themselves of a set of places they can look to for information. This is completely new and something teachers have not had to be concerned with in the past, but it is definitely a skills for our time. The ability to first of all locate nodes of information and second of all evaluate their usefulness and truthfulness for our needs is something for us to begin thinking about with the kids in our classrooms.

How are/will/can blogs change academia? Weblogs in Higher EducationDennis Jerz, and Henry Falwell of Crooked Timber all have something to say about this. Fallwell, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Blogging sacrifices some depth of thought -- it's difficult to state a complex thesis in the average blogpost -- but provides in return a freedom and flexibility that normal academic publishing can't match. ...

blogs can improve the circulation of ideas in a field, by highlighting new, interesting papers and giving brief descriptions of their contents. ...

Most important, the scholarly blogosphere offers academics a place where they can reconnect with the public. ...

Both group blogs and the many hundreds of individual academic blogs that have been created in the last three years are pioneering something new and exciting. They're the seeds of a collective conversation, which draws together different disciplines (sometimes through vigorous argument, sometimes through friendly interaction), which doesn't reproduce traditional academic distinctions of privilege and rank, and which connects academic debates to a broader arena of public discussion. It's not entirely surprising that academic blogs have provoked some fear and hostility; they represent a serious challenge to well-established patterns of behavior in the academy. Some academics view them as an unbecoming occupation for junior (and senior) scholars; in the words of Alex Halavais of the State University of New York at Buffalo, they seem "threatening to those who are established in academia, to financial interests, and to ... well, decorum." Not exactly dignified; a little undisciplined; carnivalesque. Sometimes signal, sometimes noise. But exactly because of this, they provide a kind of space for the exuberant debate of ideas, for connecting scholarship to the outside world, which we haven't had for a long while. We should embrace them wholeheartedly.

The notion of a "collective conversation" is compelling, offering the promise of an egalitarian conversation, of a better conversation, of a better academic exchange. Yet, as Falwell notes, only "seeds" are present. Most bloggers, especially academic bloggers, write as in a closet with others opening the door but rarely. Moreover, the opening of doors over time will likely follow a power law, with a few being read by the many. In what ways is that "collective"?

So, why blog when we can just keep a private journal of our academic musings? This collective conversation, nascent as it may be, is obviously a social activity. Referring to Fiske's social relational models (communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing), several models appear to be interacting (depending on the individual, one may be more prominent than others). One is the desire to belong to the "conversation" of academia, which is rather difficult to do as a newcomer. Established names appear more frequently than newcomers, and not all have equal opportunities to participate: For example, compare teaching loads of research institutions to those of teaching institutions. A second may be the desire to increase one's authority by decreasing the control of established bottlenecks of conversation, such as journals. In a sense, one is also marketing oneself, attempting to get a better deal in terms of recognition and status. Perhaps over time as a network of conversants is established, equality matching becomes active.

Note that Fallwell's article speaks of a collective conversation that discusses and debates ideas and knowledge, an academic idealization. Fiske's theory suggests that social relational models are driving academic blogging, an implementation of an instinctual reality. To be continued.

For Mac researchers wanting a tool to integrate "visual arts, design and theoretical research," check out txtkit (via Ulises Mejias):

txtkit is an Open Source visual text mining tool for exploring large amounts of multilingual texts. It's a multiuser-application which mainly focuses on the process of reading and reasoning as a series of decisions and events. To expand this single perspective activity txtkit collects all of the users mining data and uses them to create content recommendations through collaborative filtering. The software requires Mac OS X 10.3 and Internet access.

Michelle Meyers talks about the iPod and God:

A lot of people worship their iPods. Now they have a new way to use their iPods for worship.

That is, iPocketBible lets iPodders read "Holy Bible, New Living Translation," listen to it, or do both.

As mentioned in the previous entry on social bookmarking, software is changing the way people interact with others and even when by themselves.

Question: How will these technologies affect social interactions? Will there be more or fewer interdependencies among individuals and groups? Will they create more flexibility or more stability?

A new software tool Digg combines elements of social bookmarking, RSS feeds, blogs, and more. From their site (via Ulises Umejias):

Digg is a technology news website that combines social bookmarking, blogging, RSS, and non-hierarchical editorial control. With digg, users submit stories for review, but rather than allowing an editor to decide which stories go on the homepage, the users do.

It looks like the building blocks of the different software tools are gradually being integrated into one tool that will facilitate more reading, more writing, and more interaction. It will be interesting to see what sorts of links and networks will emerge from making technology easier and especially more social.

Question: How will these technologies affect educational institutions? Will there be a move from a more authority ranking relational model to one of the other relational models?

Google now offers RSS and Atom feeds. Remembering previous entries on public domain, copyright, and "intellectual property" rights, note their terms of use:

We invite you to make noncommercial use of Google's RSS and Atom feeds on your website subject to these terms, Google's Terms of Service, and the Google News Terms of Service. If you incorporate our feeds onto your website, please also:

  1. attribute the feeds to Google News.
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In Discover (via Kelly Creighton), Steven Johnson, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Feedcovers the positive effects of video games on learning. Essentially, they operate on the "competence principle"; that is, they bring learners to the higher edge of their competence and challenge them (rather than the lower edge and boring them). In addition, there's instant feedback on their performance. According to the article, video game players "see the world more clearly" and are "consistently more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively."

This edge of competence reminds me of the edge of chaos, where complex systems arise out of chaos or restructure via a phase transition. And the notion of challenge fits in well with the motivational theories of Deci & Ryan and Lepper & Malone (see July 14, 2005 entry). Apparently, we're seeing a cross-domain phenomenon that complexity theory will be well suited for unifying. I wonder how that can further our understanding of learning theory and pedagogy.