Ruminations on Implications: Notes from the Thesis

I’m taking a break from writing up the implications portion of my thesis by coming over here to write some more.  I’m beginning to get to the place in my research that I have some definite things to say about what I found out.  But I’m having some trouble saying them.  Not because I know what they are – but, I think, because of what I’m using to write.  Word is not where I go to think.  It’s where I go to comply.  When I need to think about something, I come here, to a WordPress window in my browser1.

So maybe I’ll just try to do a little bit of freewriting here and see how it goes.  Here’s what I think I know right now as it relates to my research.

To start with, here are my research questions:

  • What does reading and writing for school-related purposes look like in school-sponsored online writing spaces?
  • Who is doing the writing in these spaces? The reading?
  • Are the new tools and affordances of online digital writing, tools like hyperlinks, and affordances like immediate publication and world-wide audience, a factor in these spaces?  If so, how?

While it’s certainly not a definitive collection of all the writing that’s happening in my school district, I’m going to take a guess and say that the three weeks of blog posts from the beginning of this school year that I’ve looked at in the course of my study are a good-sized sample of the public writing happening in my school district.

And, to start with, there’s just not enough of it.  In three weeks, I can count on both hands the number of classrooms doing public writing in this space.  And that leaves me with three fingers left to count other things.

Are students and teachers blogging or writing online2 in other spaces?  Certainly.  One of the limitations of my study, one that I knew would be a problem for some of what I was wondering about, was that I am limited to public stuff.  If I wanted a fuller picture of what the writing that’s happening online in my school district looks like, I need to interrogate our district’s Moodle.  I need to peer into our district implementation of Google Docs.  On Thursday, a teacher in our district started sharing a Google Docs collection with me from one of his classes.  He was excited about the number of texts they were producing together.  I’ve not yet opened the folder – but I’ve watched a hundred or so documents enter into my document list.  Sometimes in real time, I’ve seen them drop into place.

Writing is happening. But why not here?3

Here’s what I know about the writiing that I am seeing:

  • Students and teachers aren’t talking to each other, for the most part, via the blog engine.  I suspect they are talking in class, but they’re not writing back and forth in these spaces.  Three quarters of the posts I saw during the period of the study contained no comments.  Of the ones that held comments, only another large handful could be considered any sort of conversation – back and forth between the author of the post and the commenter(s).  If these students are writing because they expect an audience, well, then they’re still waiting.
  • Because no one’s responding, there’s a sense that no one’s reading.  Multiple times, I saw little snippets of text, clearly put up as tests, or left behind as mistakes, that weren’t taken down or adjusted.  Why bother, if no one’s looking – or it doesn’t seem like anyone is?
  • The kind of writing that’s being asked of students in these spaces?  Well, it’s interesting – I can break it down into three types – daily summaries, written collectively by elementary school classes; reflective essays about various topics; and responses to teacher questions.  Lots of it is writing that doesn’t require a blog.  And it’s writing that involves very, very, very little source material.  Very few quotes.  Very few links.  And the links, when they’re present, are not  embedded in the text.  They lie naked and open in the text.  And that seems problematic to me4
  • The writing that staff are doing is a little bit better5 – like students, they’re writing reflective essays, and sharing lots of newslettery information.  But I can’t be sure, from this data set, if the folks they want to reach are being reached through this vehicle.
In short, the blog engine seems to me, in this data set, at least, an utter failure underutilized tool.
And perhaps that’s an okay place to stop for right this moment.
  1. And, yeah, I suppose that means that I’ve a significant bias about blogs and the power of blogging that, if I haven’t yet, I need to be sure to disclose somewhere in the thesis. []
  2. Oddly, in my world, and perhaps in yours, the word “blogging” has come to mean anything written in a Web browser that isn’t an email, no matter where it ends up.  Isn’t that interesting?  I might be a blog snob, but that bugs me.  And it probably shouldn’t.  It’s less of a problem for me than it used to be – I don’t correct people now when they say that.  I used to. []
  3. That’s not one of my research questions.  So what? []
  4. But, again, I may well be a blog snob.  But if the potential of the “writing of the 21st Century” is that it happens online and organically and is connected to other texts and blah blah blah – suppose it’s not.  Is that *bad* or *problematic* or just unfortunate?  Or is it just so?  As I’m in the middle of arguing that we need to make sure students have the tools to do this sort of work, a body of data that suggests, nah, it’s not so important,” is a little bit problematic. []
  5. Oops – judgement again.  Might need a better word than, ahem, “better.” []
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“You Must Decide How to Read.”

From The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink:

This is an extraordinarily complex construct, because the sentence is a magical, shape-shifting monster. It blends figure and ground compactly; the gestalt has leaky boundaries limited only by your willingness to click. Note that you can kill the magic by making the links open in new windows (which reduces the experience to glorified citation, since you are insistently hogging the stage and forcing context to stay in the frame). What makes this magical is that you might never finish reading the story (or this article) at all. You might go down a bunny trail of exploring the culture and history of Bollywood. Traditionally, writers have understood that meaning is constructed by the reader, with the text (which includes the author’s projected identity) as the stimulus. But this construction has historically been a pretty passive act. By writing the sentence this way, I am making you an extraordinarily active meaning-constructor. In fact, you will construct your own text through your click-trail. Both reading and writing are always political and ideological acts, but here I’ve passed on a lot more of the burden of constructing political and ideological meaning onto you.

The reason this scares some people is rather Freudian: when an author hyperlinks, s/he instantly transforms the author-reader relationship from parent-child to adult-adult. You must decide how to read. Your mom does not live on the Web.

No.  She doesn’t.  So how do we scaffold the meaning making process just enough so that a student can move into it?

Or do we need to?

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On Writing Without Links in a Time of Linking. And Also About Collaboration

I’m sitting on my couch tonight as I write, trying to compose with my iPad. It’s a neat device – I enjoy reading, watching TV, taking notes at meetings1, and all sorts of applications. But one thing the iPad isn’t so good at is as a device for writing blog posts. I like to move back and forth between several windows when I compose blog posts, and, more and more, anything that I write. I dash hyperlinks into what I write like Alton Brown tosses salt into recipes. And when the salt is out of reach, well, it feels like I’m making a different dish.

I’m wondering if hyperlinks have happened to you like they’ve happened to me. When I write and I can’t stick a link into the text to further clarify an adjective or an adverb, to give the reader background information, or to accomplish a number of other really helpful writing tasks, well, it feels like I’m not allowed to use letters in the alphabet.

That said, well, I reckon there are still things to say without hyperlinks. So here goes.
I had the opportunity to cross Twitter paths with Steve Barkley2 this evening, as he was speaking to the difficulties of collaboration. Not the Web 2.0ish kind, as Darren Draper3 referenced during the Twitter back and forth, but actually, honest to goodness collaboration. According to Steve4, true collaboration requires two things:5 shared responsibility and feeling empowered to act.

And he’s right about both of those.

I think that, too often, I’m reading folks who would say that collaboration is so easy now. And that’s bogus. The act of sharing is wicked easy, but collaboration, as Steve describes it, is really, really hard. Incredibly hard. 6
As far as sharing goes, well, if I weren’t sitting on my couch with this handy little iPad, I might point you to Steve’s blog post, the one where he outlines some of his recent work on sharing. That post reminded me of some of the struggles that Michelle7 and I have been facing lately as we work to build and support teams of teacher around the district. It’s that work, in fact, which prompted me to tell Steve that I think empowerment comes from two places – the top down and from within. As he responded back, both are necessary for change.

I feel a bit subversive saying this8, but I really find that the best efforts for change do come from the top down and the bottom up. Simultaneously. That’s how lightning works, too. 9

Huh. I guess I can write just fine with an iPad. No problems whatsoever.10

  1. If anyone can enjoy taking notes at meetings, that is. []
  2. @stevebarkley on Twitter. Very wise fellow. []
  3. A tech director in Utah. Google him. Smart dude. []
  4. Trust me again. He really tweeted this. If only I could easily link to it []
  5. I’d cut and past his exact words, but that would require exiting this application, which might cause me to lose some text, so just bear with my paraphrase. Please. []
  6. Worth doing, though. When the necessary conditions exist. []
  7. I can’t even use just her first name in a world without hyperlinks. I’ve got to tell you that I’m referring to Michelle Bourgeois. Her blog is called “Milobo’s Musings.” Perhaps you can find it in a Google search, as I can’t link to it right now, what with the limitations here and all. []
  8. And I shouldn’t, because it’s true that there are many agents in any organization. And they all, students included, have (and should exercise) their agency. []
  9. I’d like to link right there to a YouTube video of a slow motion lightning strike. But I can’t. Not easily. Because, you know. iPad. Unitasker. []
  10. The iPad, as a writing tool, isn’t quite ready yet. Thank goodness for footnotes. []
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Hyperlinks as Punctuation?

How might you punctuate the words below in ways that create different meanings? Might hyperlinks serve as punctuation, too?

I haven’t a clue, just thinking out loud, but I can think of at least three ways to punctuate those words below, each creating very different meanings, not including hyperlinks.

You?

The words in question:

I don’t write well like you do

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Writing 1.0: An EduCon Conversation

EduCon 2.1 is coming up in about three weeks, and with it, for me, comes an exciting (and downright scary) opportunity to facilitate a conversation that I’ve been having off and on for a very long time. Here’s the description of the session:

The Internet as a medium, or way of communicating, is dynamic, complex, exciting, amazingly diverse, and, in plenty of substantive ways, pretty much nothing new. We have made connections through printed texts and oral stories for generations, other media have filled the gaps between peoples and cultures. There is, to quote a rather old text, “nothing new under the sun.” And yet there’s something about the nature of the Internet, and how it functions, that helps to flesh out a vital component of the writing process that was never quite visible before. Call it connective writing, or hypertext, or what you will, but the almost tactile connections we can make between texts and folks online are dynamic and significant. There’s nothing new about making text to text connections, but there’s sure something powerful in the representation of those links as semi-tangible things.
As we move forward into the new read/write web, I think it’s of value to reconsider both the “reading” and “writing” sides of the equation. We’ll save the reading for another conversation. Come to a session where we will revel in, and experiment with, writing and the power of language, thought, diction and connection to create and discover the world and ourselves. We’ll use some very 1.0 methodologies and some very 2.0 basic tools to think about how we write, what we write, and what we do and don’t do when we write and when we ask students to write for school.

I’m really interested, through the conversation, to move back a step, at least as far as my own self and career and knowledge of teaching and learning is concerned, and to refocus myself and my work around why I got into technology work in the first place – namely, because I saw computers as excellent creation and publication tools – they were and are very good for composition of all shapes and sizes.

I dig writing, and all the interesting writing’s being done on computers these days (or at least it’s being published via computers – Moleskines are still full of really excellent stuff).

One sideline, and perhaps even tangential, conversation that I keep thinking about is the shift to mobile devices. I’m writing this post on an HP Mini 1000, a netbook with a decent keyboard. I didn’t get interested in ultra mobile computers or smart phones or the like until I saw that I could use them to thoughtfully communicate in my favorite mode – text. (My XO is another story – while I’ve learned to type pretty well on its little keyboard, I own that machine more out of a desire to better understand a philosophy of product development and learning than out of a desire to have a tiny laptop for me to use. Oh, and supporting what I believe to be a good cause didn’t hurt, either. You could also argue that the XO created the market for the device I’m typing on. But I digress.)

I’ve written blog posts and e-mails and tweets and lots of other types of messages, posts, and whatnots on all sorts of devices. Cell phones, computers, typewriters, word processors, etc. And I just can’t function as a digital writer without a full sized keyboard.

What I worry about, in our rush to take everyone and everything mobile (and I am very much interested in mobile technology myself, don’t get me wrong) is that we’ll end up with tools that won’t really do what we need them to do. The tools themselves, as always, have the potential to shape what we think about, how we thinking about it, and what we do with those thoughts.

When I think about school and learning, I think about writing. Our learning tools need to have easy and useful ways for putting words and ideas into them as well as getting those words and ideas back out. Right now, I think mobile tools are more about consumption than they are about creation. (Thanks to Chris Craft for the right tweet at the right time to help me figure out that phrasing.)

And that scares me. In our conversation, I hope we get to talk about this notion I have that I’m certain that much of what we’re trying to do with technology today is work that we, or our predecessors, were trying to do with their technology yesterday – teach writing well. We all should be helping students develop the ability to draft and revise and edit and be their own crap detectors and learn to think about whom they were writing to, and to tailor their compositions to that/those audience(s). That basic framework works for text, video, audio, still pictures, and any combination thereof.

I hope you join me in some time spent writing, thinking, and talking about how writing remains so essential to learning and how technology, specifically the read/write web, assists us in fulfilling the promises and opportunities of strong writing communities and might be altering our societal reading, writing, and thinking paradigms. (One question of many for me on that front – What does it mean when the text that you are reading not only suggests that you consult another source, but it can take you to that source? In real time?)

I’m looking very much forward to it. I hope you are, too.

(You are coming to EduCon, right? It’s not too late to register – and if you can’t be there in person, the plan is to stream all of the great content from the event – so you can still participate.)

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WiP#0 – Talking ’bout Thinking ’bout Linking

At the risk of getting a little too meta, I’m going to be talking through my history of thinking about linking, or conective writing, today during CyberCamp as a part of our series of “Works in Progress” conversations.  I’m inviting you, if you’re interested, mostly to help me model how a backchannel and uStream conversation can be of value to a face to face group, but selfishly, too, because I’m always interested in how others are thinking about these ideas.  So, if you’re willing and able, join us at around 11:30am MST for a short uStream presentation.  All the details are on our wiki.  

Thanks in advance!

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Web Presence. On Purpose.

I’m writing this morning from the National Writing Project’s web presence working retreat, an event I’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved with as a facilitator since its inception last year.  This is the second time we’ve run the event, which is an attempt to provide some time and structure for teams from writing project sites who wish to think strategically about their web presence.  We’ll spend the weekend thinking through the identity of our respective organizations and what we can do online to both reflect and support that identity and the good work that all of us are trying to do in our various locations around writing and teaching and learning. That means lots of things to lots of people, but there’s plenty of intersection in the general trends.

The event is pretty intense, and, while designed for sites to think about their organizational web presences, is very helpful to me as I think about my personal and professional life online.  One of the big questions that we’re asking people to think about is how their web presences are a reflection of and a lens into their work.  My personal web presence should be like that, too.  But I’m not sure that it is.  I’ve got content spread around the web in a variety of places, everywhere from Flickr to Twitter to this blog to my wiki (which is desperately in need of an update or seven) to my work with other groups and schools and people.  There’s plenty of personal mixed in with the professional, and I think the boundaries between those two areas of my life, never truly separate in “real, offline” life, continue to blur and fade and shift from day to day, week to week, month to year.  (That’s a good thing, I think, for the most part.) How do I, as a blogger and a teacher and a learner and a father and a husband and a citizen, do my best to ensure a consistent presence across the Internet that reflects what I believe to be important?  Just as essential – how do I bring all of that content that sits all over the place into some sort of a coherent whole?  Or do I need to, so long as all that content in all of those places, and others, reflects the message(s) that I want so desperately to convey – that learning and writing and thinking and engaging and passionately working for the benefit of others are essential habits and skills for everyone, regardless of background, culture, or profession?

I think, too, about what “web presence” means.  Having a presence and creating a presence are not necessarily the same thing.  Being and doing aren’t necessarily the same, either.

These are some of my thoughts as I head into a pretty intensive planning process, where, if last year is any indication, I’ll learn as much, and probably a great deal more, than I’m hoping to facilitate.  This summer, I’ll be doing a three-hour session on presence tools, a class of software that are about making one’s presence known in some formal and informal ways, Twitter being one of the tools that I’m most curious about at the moment.  I also would like to explore more about digital identity, a conversation I sort of started here a little while back.  My work this weekend will continue to influence that work.  Lots to learn.  Luckily, I’ve got plenty of smart folks here to learn from and with.  We should all be so lucky.

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Thinking ’bout Linking

It was about a year ago that I wrote a piece for English Journal on teaching “blogging” vs. “writing with blogs” that was pretty much a re-hash of some blog posts that I thought were saying something. The trouble is, I wasn’t sure what they were saying. I’ve been fumbling at this one for a while.

I’ve always found something particularly special about writing online, or at least I’ve learned that there’re more options, more possibilities, and plenty of challenges that make writing online much more complicated than cutting and pasting a Word file into a text box and hitting “submit.”

But most folks that I see beginning to use digital writing spaces aren’t treating them any differently. And I can’t quite figure out why. I also can’t quite figure out how to articulate the differences, even though I think I get some, if not several, of them. And if I can’t articulate them, perhaps I can’t teach them. (Not sure about that, actually – but work with me.)

I think one good way to articulate some of the differences is to tell you a story. Here goes.

Tonight, I’m sitting in
a local cafe, enjoying a cup of wicked sweet coffee and some tunes. As I wrote that last sentence, and added the links in, I wondered how you would read it. Are you someone who clicks on any link you see in a blog post? Or are you more like me? I use a browser that shows me the URL of the link I’m pointing to, saving me the trouble of traveling here if, after reading the URL, I see that I don’t need to follow the link, perhaps because I already know the site, or I don’t want to go to the site, because I’m worried about pop-ups, or a virus, or something that I don’t actually want to see. I love that browser, except when it leaks memory.

I could continue, but I think (hope) I’m making my point. I could have written that paragraph without the links – but I would’ve need an awful lot more details to tell you as much as I did with the links. And you each will have worked your way through that paragraph differently. Some of you read and clicked and fiddled. Others of you read differently. (Oh – and here’s a minor nit – but how many of you, in that last sentence, read, ahem, “read” in the past tense? Present tense? Language is hard. But anyway.)

I don’t know what my students do/did when they see blocks of text with links. And I’m 98 percent sure that there wasn’t another teacher in my school who was thinking about how to explain that to students, much less about how they read that text themselves.

Digital texts have the potential to make a big, juicy mess of a linear experience. Or to turn a so-so piece of writing into a masterful collection of references, linktributions, and pointers to other good stuff. My hunch, a rough one, but one I’ve held for a while, is that reading and writing that way makes you (ultimately) a better reader and writer. I just don’t really think I know how to teach that way yet, or at least, I don’t know how to teach other people to think about teaching that way.

Will Richardson asked me recently (well, it was two weeks ago – but that counts as recent if you forgive me the week I spent sick. And I do.) about connective writing, and what a course on it might look like. I blame him for the frustrated typing that I’m up to right now. And the posts that I suspect are forthcoming. (And I’m thankful, too. I needed a push.)

What would such a course look like? What would it cover? How would it differ from a “regular” (I know – bogus term.) 9th or 10th grade high school writing course? How would it be the same? (Why wait until high school? I’ve been thinking through blogs as science or inquiry notebooks at the elementary school level.) What happens when we add video(s)? Pictures? Embedded widgets? I’ve got to believe that some analysis of what links do and how they do it would be a necessary piece of any such course. So, too, would be copious quoting and linking to others, building a network of classroom texts that would be added to the greater networks of the world.

I’d kill to teach that class.

Perhaps I’ve stumbled across another thesis idea. Again. Nuts.

_______
Postscript – I had thought that perhaps I’d dig into the research on hypertextual writing a bit before I started down this post. I know these ideas aren’t new. But I couldn’t help myself. I made it four pages into this fascinating article before I started writing. Worth a read, I think.

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