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!

David Warlick at 2 Cents Worth (via Will Richardson who comments on David's post) provides a starting point for assessing blog posts with two sets of five questions in assessing blogs, one for the blogger and one for the reader. The blogger questions are:

- What did you read in order to write this blog entry?

- What do you think is important about your blog entry?

- What are both sides of your issue?

- What do you want your readers to know, believe, or do?

- What else do you need to say?

With just a little rephrasing, the reader questions become:

- What did the blogger read before writing?

- What was important about the blog entry?

- What were both sides of the issue?

- What do you know, believe, or want to do after reading the blog?

- What else needs to be said?

I like these questions because they provide feedback to students that help them consider, as David says, "broader aspects of the issues being written about." And I especially like the one about reading. Too often, students expect to write only from their own experience without reading, without understanding others' perspectives, without weaving those perspectives into their writing. However, I would change that question to:

- What are the different sides in this issue?

This rephrasing moves students from an "either-or," "us-them" mentality to a more nuanced picture fitting the complex reality of life.

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.

Often, I wonder, Why don't my students get it? Why don't they see what I see? Perhaps it's because they're not looking where I am.

Well, just the other day, I wasn't looking where I should have been. Trying to find my car, I zig-zagged through the parking lot, turning my head left and right. Where was my car? I couldn't find it. I finally stopped, looked left and right again, didn't see it, but just as I started to walk again--I looked down and there it was: one foot in front of me. If it'd been a snake, it would've bit me.

Similarly in language "seeing," I remember while in Istanbul I once asked a minibus driver in Turkish if he would go by Mecidiye. Each time he answered, "No speak English." On the third time, an elderly man behind him leaned forward, saying, "Türkçe konusuyor" (He's speaking Turkish). And then the driver could understand me. He had been listening for English, not Turkish. He hadn't been hearing where the other passenger was hearing.

And the converse is true, too. We don't understand why our students don't get it, because we aren't seeing where they're looking. To be able to see with them (and they with us), our most valuable skill may be that of listening to our students, listening to understand what they understand, in order to build a bridge between our understandings.

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 del.icio.us 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?

Apparently, as I read Harold Jarche's response "Who are the experts?" to my critique of his earlier posting, there is some misunderstanding of my points. I thought I would clarify them. I'll do that below, first covering two interesting comments he made. One was:

I am only as good as my last project. Knowledge workers are like actors, we are only as good as our last performance. For a fleeting moment, we may be viewed as experts, but for not much longer.

Many of my students, and I imagine many people, would like to think that after a certain amount of training, they become an expert and there's no need to continue learning. But in our fast-changing world, having Jarche's attitude of being only as good as one's last job is the sort of perspective that keeps us learning, which seems to be ever more crucial for survival nowadays.

How can teachers and educational institutions help students acquire this sort of attitude? I think that one way is modeling it, making transparent the fact that we are always learning and to share how we are always learning with our students, making it a natural, pervading aspect of the classroom and school. For example, this past year, I have had my students blogging, and in the past I have had them keep learning journals, journals contained with observations of their learning. I also maintained a blog separate from this one for my classes. Mostly, I used it for examples of what they needed to do and recaps of what we've covered in class. However, I didn't include anything I was learning. So, this coming year, I'm considering how to include what I'm learning--perhaps new theories, perhaps new ways of teaching--and comment on it in class, drawing them into a conversation that compares my learning with theirs. Any comments? Email me. I'd appreciate it.

Another point Jarche made that's worth thinking about is:

my greatest asset is my network. Perhaps individual expertise is gradually being replaced by collaborative expertise.

Although I wouldn't quite say that individual expertise is being replaced by collaborative expertise, not enough attention is paid to the notion of collaborative expertise with respect to education.

Both types of expertise have existed for quite some time. In earlier times, the activity of hunting could include two roles: noisemakers and slaughterers. The noisemakers would beat drums or other items to drive the animals towards the hunters lying in wait, who would kill the animals when they approached.

The need for more complex networks increases according to the complexity ot the activity. Consider the activity of health care. A hospital's activity, for instance, is distributed among many people, each of them occupying particular niches and no one of them knowing every aspect of every other niche and task in the hospital. The different levels of expertise are interdependent, and both the "collaborative expertise" of the hospital and the expertise of its members are needed for health care activity to take place.

We see the same phenomenon in educational institutions with teachers, other staff, and administrators. What's interesting to me is that similar to the role of patients in a hospital is the role of students in schools. That is, patients are usually treated as if they had no expertise, or knowledge, and likewise, students. Students are often treated as receivers of content rather than creators of knowledge. Just as important, students are often considered mostly as individuals rather than as members of networks or ecologies. Just as patients are not considered part of the community of health care practice, neither are students considered as part of the community of knowledge creation.

In their book, Wenger, McDermott, and Synder posit that there are seven principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice:

  1. Design for evolution.
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
  3. Invite different levels of participation.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces.
  5. Focus on value.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement.
  7. Create a rhythm for the community. (p. 50)

As they note, these are principles, not a "recipe." These principles were oriented towards business organizations. I'm not quite sure how they would apply in an elementary school with respect to students. As we move into middle school, high school, and college, they seem to be more applicable. For now, I'll limit myself mostly to the college level.

What sorts of structures facilitate schools to become communities of practice? One would be to facilitate student (and teacher) reflection on class and school practices, whether through open discussion, an anonymous suggestion box, as part of student self-evaluations throughout the semester or year, and so on. That would also require a certain flexibility and open-mindedness on the part of teachers, staff, and administrators to consider student input seriously and invite them into implementations. Otherwise, the students are not really a part of the community.

Along these lines, our classrooms often operate as self-contained entities, making the "learning" that occurs in it irrelevant to and not valued by the students. More needs to be done on taking the learning outside the classroom and bringing outside reality into the classroom, to turn the classroom into a living network that interacts with other networks. Technology can help facilitate the blurring of classroom boundaries. Will Richardson, in his book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, mentions how his high school class corresponded with Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees (and other books), and they wrote an online study guide for the book, which at the printing of his book had already received more than 1.5 million hits.

Regarding our networks and our students' networks as great "assets" in designing our classes to be communities of practice is a notion well-worth considering if learning is our focus.

Clarification of points

Jarche wrote:

Dr. Nelson feels that experts are necessary, or “learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.” He says that experts should proceed with humility, but that experts are necessary for our field to progress.

I did not tie a lack of experts to derailing or stopping learning. Rather, I said a lack of critical thinking can derail or stop learning:

To learn, to engage in critical thinking, we need to play both the "believing game" and the "doubting game." With respect to a flattened learning economy with no experts, there's been too much reliance on the believing game. It's time to play the doubting game: instead of "echoing," we need to question our common "refrains." Otherwise, learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.

Nor did I claim that experts were "necessary" for progress. What I did say was that experts existed, and given a choice, most people would prefer to be advised or taught by an expert than by someone who knows no more than they do. Applying this to education, of course, I want my children to be taught by teachers who know considerably more about teaching than the average person walking down the street.

Jarche quotes me,

There are two false assumptions here. One is that subverting hiearchy results in no experts …

The second is that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”.

and claims:

Without heirarchies, no authority can tell us who is the expert. ...

Personally, I know that hyperlinks subvert heirarchies. ...

By subverting traditional business heirarchies ...

On hyperlinks not subverting hierarchies, Jarche seems to equate subverting "traditional" hierarchies as equivalent to getting rid of all hierarchy. Citing Mark Bernstein, my point was that old hierarchies are simply replaced with new ones.

Not having an authority to tell us who is an expert does not mean that there are no experts. When I think of what an expert is, my thoughts are close to this definition from Dictionary.com; an expert is,

A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject. ...

a person with special or superior skill or knowledge in a particular area.

It seems obvious, at least to me, that some people, compared to others, have much more knowledge or skill in certain areas. As I mentioned in my post, if I want my car fixed, I go to a mechanic who has "a high degree of skill in" fixing cars.

Jarche talks about patients who co-manage their health with their doctor. I'm one of them. Even so, unless I have strong reason not to (and in that case I get a second opinion or a new doctor), I defer to the doctor who has 4 years of medical school, 3-5+ years of residency, and often 10+ years of practice. It's possible that I may "get the scoop" on my doctor on a particular disease. Even so, is it realistic to compare my 1-2 (perhaps 3-4 or more) weeks of research on a particular illness with the 15-25+ years of experience of my doctor? In what way has my several weeks, even months, of research flattened the doctor's 15-25 years of experience and made us equal?

So, I keep wondering, Why does Jarche (and others) say, "I'm no expert"? Is it some sort of self-effacement? Some sort of anti-intellectualism? (See, for example, Todd Gitlin's review in The Chronicle Review of Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.) Or, are people following Socrates' lead, proclaiming, "I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing." I have to admit, the more I learn, the less I seem to know. Still, one thing for sure, if a consultant says they know nothing and a potential client believes them, that job is gone.

Harold Jarche, an independent consultant in Canada, writes on "The relevance of the learning profession" and has quite a few good comments, such as:

Democracy is subversive and so is the Web. In a connected world, every learner brings his or her own network with them. Learners no longer integrate into the educational system, they connect their network to it - if they want to. How relevant is an educational system that does not allow learners to connect their personal, professional or vocational networks to the “system”?

I like the assertions that education needs to be relevant and that learners need to connect their worlds to the world of educational institutions. Here are some more good thoughts:

As a learning professional, it’s time to take a stance. Enabling learning is no longer about disseminating good content. Enabling learning is about being a learner yourself, sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm and then taking a back seat.

These are important premises of good teaching. But, Jarche goes one claim too far:

In a flattened learning system there are no more experts, only fellow learners on paths that may cross.

Are there really "no more experts"? When I want my car fixed, I go to a mechanic. When I need my body repaired, I go to a doctor. When I have a question on Tinderbox and have become so frustrated that I'm banging my head on my laptop, I go to Mark Bernstein.

Of course, there are experts. Out of an ideological zeal for egalitarianism, however, the Internet crowd, along with many educators, love to chant the mantra "there are no experts." But this is only grouptalk resulting from too much groupthinking. As Jarche himself says,

Most bloggers (including me) have been echoing the Cluetrain refrain that "hyperlinks subvert hierarchy".

There are two false assumptions here. One is that subverting hiearchy results in no experts. There's simply no evidence for such a claim--not to mention that one can just as easily imagine a diversity of experts occupying a variety of niches even in a flattened ecology.

The second is that "hyperlinks subvert hierarchy." Mark Bernstein has effectively responded to this asssumption in "Do Links Subvert the Hierarchy?" He notes that although links can break hierarchies,

there's no evidence that these links don't simply form a new hierarchy -- or even recreate the old one -- although there's no particular evidence that they do.

Yes, learning needs to be relevant. However, relevance does not exclude either hierarchy or experts. All other things being equal, is there anyone who, when they want to learn something, prefers to go a peer instead of an expert?

Perhaps I've overreacted. Perhaps what Jarche primarily meant is that teachers should assume the "humility" of those who learn beside their students rather than the "arrogance" of those who hover over them with authority or expertise. Certainly. Still, I have heard this claim enough times to know that many believe that there are, or should be, no experts in the "teaching profession."

To learn, to engage in critical thinking, we need to play both the "believing game" and the "doubting game." With respect to a flattened learning economy with no experts, there's been too much reliance on the believing game. It's time to play the doubting game: instead of "echoing," we need to question our common "refrains." Otherwise, learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.

Last September, Inside Higher Ed had an article on Kentucky outsourcing grading in its community college ("Outsourced Grading"). Now Lynn Thompson reports on its occurrence at high schools in Seattle ("School districts turn to paid readers for grading student essays", Seattle Times):

In the Northshore School District, some English teachers don't spend much time reading student papers.

In the Bellevue School District, some don't even grade the papers.

Both districts now rely on paid readers to evaluate and in some cases grade student essays in English classes; Seattle's Garfield High School is piloting such a program this year. The use of readers greatly reduces teacher workload and gives students more writing practice, but the trend raises questions about teachers' roles in inspiring and guiding students' work.

Although feedback can guide students' work, it's not clear how giving grades inspires or guides their work, unless one is considering them as reality checks. The real question, as noted by Stephen Miller, president of the Bellevue Education Association, is:

"All English teachers would agree that students become better writers by writing more. But is writing many essays more important than personal feedback from your teacher? We don't know the answer," he said.

But even this question assumes teacher feedback to be more personal than that of an outside reader. My questions would be, Is the feedback from the teacher significantly better than the outside reader's? Is feedback from the teacher on 1-2 essays more effective than an outside reader's feedback on 7 essays?

Much of the response against outsourcing reading and grading seems to be some sort of out-of-touch-with-reality smokescreen. All agree that high school teachers simply do not have the time to read, comment, and grade more than one or two essays a semester when teaching five 30-student-classes a day. Yet, Carol Jago, co-director of the California Reading and Literature Project, asserts,

What's lost is how teachers get to know their students through their writing. And students no longer know the audience they're writing for.

Most compositionists argue that one problem is students always writing for the teacher rather than a real audience. So, it's not clear how moving away from an undesired audience, the teacher, to an unknown one, is much worse. As far as getting to know students through their writing, is it really possible through the apparent limit in high school of one or two essays? More importantly, how do teachers keep informed about their students' writing?

According to Lance Balla, a curriculum and technology coach for the Bellevue schools,

the district built into the program several checks to keep teachers informed about their students' work. The teachers develop a scoring guide for each assignment and read three out of every 30 essays. Readers and teachers consult after each set of papers is graded, and teachers are expected to use the readers' comments to look for common problems and if necessary, adjust their teaching.

I'm not sure how well this works, but I do like the idea of adjusting teaching according to outside feedback. When teachers are the only ones commenting, there is no potential dissonance to help move teachers to reconsider their approach to writing instruction. In addition, the extra time from not grading can perhaps be applied toward those students who need the most help.

From the Inside Higher Ed article, Douglas Hesse, board chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and professor English at Illinois State University, argues against outsourcing grading, saying that

grading was not a function that should in any way be removed from the faculty members. The process of reading a paper and evaluating it, Hesse said, is crucial not only for assigning a grade, but for thinking about how to work with a given student, for evaluating whether certain assignments are achieving their goals, for revising lecture plans, and more.

Hesse's points make sense to me at the college level, although I imagine that not all professors take the extra time to work with students and re-evaluate their pedagogy. For those who don't, it just might be a waste of money to pay other readers and graders. For those who do, reading and grading would seem to be good channels of feedback. I'm not sure that we should simply assume, however, that this feedback should be considered sacrosanct. I'm listened to experienced composition instructors who suggest ways of limiting the time for grading and commenting on papers to 15 minutes. I wonder how effective 15 minutes of feedback can be for the student, or for the instructor. Would doubling the amount of time significantly improve the effectiveness of the feedback? Perhaps not. Perhaps 15 minutes is enough to set students to moving in the general direction of better writing.

I suppose I have more questions than answers on outsourcing grading. But as my previous posting on "Learning takes place in an ecology" implies, grading takes place in an ecology, and what was appropriate at one time may require re-inventing to remain relevant to students, teachers, educational institutions, and the communities in which they are embedded.

Richard Garner (" School with no rules is forced to lay down law because of spoilt pupils", Independent) reports on how Summerhill has lately had to enact rules for its students.

For years, Summerhill, the "free" school founded by the philosopher A S Neill in the 1920s, gained notoriety for its pupils skipping lessons, outdoor bathing in the nude and voting for their own school rules. It was, in fact, the very epitome of the kind of liberal progressive school so frowned upon by education traditionalists such as Chris Woodhead, the former schools inspector.

Now, in a new book, its current head, Zoe Neill Redhead, the founder's daughter, reveals the school is having to adopt a more disciplinarian tone towards its current pupils, who have been so pampered by their parents, she says, that they no longer know the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Such a situation highlights that change is inevitable and that change in cultures can undermine traditional approaches to educational development. Unlike "The Three Tradesmen" who in seeking solutions to their city's imminent demise were chained by the materials of their trade ecologies, Ms. Redhead apparently has moved away from aspects of a completely libertarian approach to education.

As with Redhead, it usually takes a crisis to shake us up and take a new look at an old subject. As they say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." However, sometimes waiting for a crisis can result in a catastrophe. From complexity theory, any single change in an environment can, at least theoretically, trigger a cascade of interactions that result in the emergence of a new ecology (or the destruction of the old one). Consider, for example, the effect of digital media on print books, as noted in Motoko Rich's article "Digital publishing is scrambling the industry's rules" (New York Times).

Right now, education appears poised on the edge of a crisis. Barbara Ganning on her talk at the UK's First Edublogging Conference points to "the deepening divide between what students need and what schools allow." Ganning seems to be one of those small changers who may trigger others in the system to change.

Let’s face it. It’s hopeless for us to think we can change a behemoth like our educational system—it reflects, after all, the fine fix we find ourselves in, and because it very elegantly keeps those with power in power. And so what we do for the time being will continue to be tense, strained even—except with our students in the classroom and on the blogs. They can practice for citizenship at the very least in a learning culture that fosters empathy on the part of the powerful and privileged, and a voice and a say as well as important skills and connections for those clumped into the faceless middle or the marginalized reaches. As M. Scott Peck tells us, “It is our task--our essential, central, crucial task-- to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed.” (The Different Drum) We can take a page from civil rights and women’s rights movements.

Ganning believes that blogs can help us in our learning endeavors, writing, "Because learning is both a social and solitary activity, it is important to have both collaborative and personal blogging spaces."

In other words, learning takes place in an ecology. We need to give more thought on how to structure the interactions of social and individual learning to faciliate learning at both levels. Otherwise, one or both can collapse.

"Teacher in Development" writes about the death of a program in his post "Reinvent or Die":

2006 saw something different. A disconnect between program and staff. A disconnect that I didn’t notice until a month or two ago. Interest and staff "buy-in" seem to have parted company, but the program marched onward.  

I just had a meeting with my bosses about it, and they are feeling the same: the program seems to have lost it’s usefullness. I sort of felt the same way, but didn’t know if I wanted to come to terms with that.

That comment sounds quite similar to the disconnect between "interest and student 'buy-in'". He also notes that even great programs don't last forever unless they're relevant and ends with

Reinvent yourself, your programs, your lesson plans, your class content, or find yourself in the place of being irrelevant.

While re-inventing yourself, keep in mind that relevance means keeping one eye on individual learning and the other on the ecology of learning.