August 2007

Han forwarded an email from David Silver to the comm-grad list with four intriguing grant opportunities for digital learning.


Academic research does not rely on the Internet. While I embrace wikipedia as a beginning point for research, the thinking stimulated by wikipedia entries and other sites is insufficient as a definitive source. Knowledge is a commodity: everything available on the Web is constructed and disseminated by people with particular agendas. You may or may not be aware of the goals or intentions of web authors, and in many instances the honorable intentions of designers and creators of web-based media are subverted by the functions that software programs and technological innovations actually fulfill.

People who read your writing – whether it is online or in more traditional formats – will (should) also be skeptical of what you purport to know and (ought to) question your motives. This is why you not only need to write well – so as to maintain reader attention and interest – but you must know the scope of what you are writing about. Informed readers will know when someone is spreading baloney or spouting a personal opinion. Even alert readers can be boondoggled into believing solid writing without realizing the information is skewed or flat-out wrong!

This is why research matters, and specifically why the sources you use to build your own knowledge of a particular topic are crucial to the quality of your finished argument. University libraries have access to databases of information that are not readily available to the general public. You need to learn how to learn about all sides of an issue – including which aspects have widespread agreement and which aspects remain in contention, as well as the pro and con arguments concerning (particularly) those elements where agreement has not yet been accomplished. Understanding the relationships among all the elements and aspects of a topic or issue is the essence of critical thinking.

Writing is the most basic technology for learning about how you think. Speech may be easier (in terms of delivery, especially), but words spoken into air vanish, only to be mis/remembered. What you write records the process of your mind at work. The way you organize your thoughts, describe the issue(s) and topic(s) you will engage, and convey the logic of your point-of-view become apparent when we can read (and re-read!) your words on the page or computer screen. The goal in academic writing classes is to begin to examine the ways you put your thoughts into written language so that you can start to recognize when your writing is effective for your audience (accomplishes its goal) and when, where, or how your writing fails to reach through to your intended readers.

This may sound daunting, but in reality we will build upon and refine skills you already have. You may wish to skim this article adapted from Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life. The questions posed by its authors (Linda Elder and Richard Paul) are the same kinds of questions we will be asking ourselves and each other (you might see information from the article on a peer review sheet or self-evaluation):

What have you learned about how you think?

Did you ever study your thinking?

What do you know about how the mind processes information?

What do you really know about how to analyze, evaluate, or reconstruct your thinking?

Where does your thinking come from?

How much of it is of “good” quality?

How much of it is of “poor” quality?

How much of your thinking is vague, muddled, inconsistent, inaccurate, illogical, or superficial?

Are you, in any real sense, in control of your thinking?

Do you know how to test it?

Do you have any conscious standards for determining when you are thinking well and when you are thinking poorly?

Have you ever discovered a significant problem in your thinking and then changed it by a conscious act of will?

If anyone asked you to teach them what you have learned, thus far in your life, about thinking, would you really have any idea what that was or how you learned it?


Answer? Research!

With yourself and each other as subject and support, we will all improve our abilities to think. We will also learn how to improve the ways that we convey our thinking to others through the medium of the written word.

I am planning on using wiki’s in two different writing courses this fall, a junior level Communication course and a first-year student English course. Why use a wiki instead of in-university software platforms? The primary reason is pedagogical: one must have an audience in order to learn how readers comprehend your writing. The secondary reason is ideological: writing is – in essence – public. Writing is a medium for transposing abstract thought (perception, interpretation, knowledge) into a code that is accessible to others. Most students entering college have written only for themselves and a teacher. In this regard, young people have been trained to think of writing as an intimate activity, as a means of self-expression to known readers, or as a form of personal creativity without limit or constraint.

Learning to write well requires a range of specific skills, none of which can be learned in isolation. One must become familiar with the places where the point(s) one seeks to convey break down for the reader, and experiment with strategies for clarification. Is it a matter of organization? Diction? Assumed commonalities of experience, perspective, or belief? Is the reader an idiot or is the writing vague? Chances are high the reader is as intelligent and perceptive as the writer, but the junction between two distinct minds is not easy to navigate. Writers need to learn how to chart a course in their writing that others can follow – and not just the safe “others” of a teacher (who is supposed to be on your side, helping you learn) and classmates (who are struggling with the same requirements and conditions).

Students entering college in 2007 have probably been instant messaging, texting, and emailing friends and family for years. Many are already exposed on the internet through Facebook or other forums. Do they know what potential monsters they have created which will return in the future to haunt them? If someone seeks to present them poorly based on something that turns up in a Google search, do students have the rhetorical skill to defend their words and re-present themselves favorably? Where else – and when? – are students going to develop these skills if not in a course on college writing? Hence, the value of a wiki is that it does open student writing to a wide, random audience. Students must learn what readers who do not know them take from their writing – but this can only occur if their writing is available. At base, the unique quality of writing as a medium lies in this ability to convey meaning to people one does not know: the match between what readers understand and what the writer intends to convey is the best test of writing quality.

Although the students in each of the writing classes I will teach are at different levels in their college careers and most of the assignments will differ, some cross-pollination and skills development will be possible. Each class, for instance, will have the opportunity to create their coursewiki in their own image. Previous class samples are available, and possibilities abound. Do students learn more through a wiki forum than other kinds of platforms or programs? That is a hard comparison to make: individual students learn as much as they push themselves to learn, no matter what the teaching environment. Writing publicly opens more channels and possibilities for feedback (pro and con, “good” and “bad”, critical and supportive) than a closed environment.

Evaluations of the writing courses in which I have used wikis indicate two general themes: students believe they have worked harder than their peers in other classes, and consequently (albeit reluctantly!) students believe they have learned more.

Got this cartoon by Keith Knight via Eric and the Social Justice program‘s listserv.

The dead are the only people

to have permanent dwellings.

We, nomads of Revolution

Wander over the desolation of many generations

And are reborn on each other’s lips

To ride wild mares over unfathomable canyons

Heralding dawns, dreams and sweet desire.

Rita Mae Brown

Songs to a Handsome Woman

2nd Edition, 1973.

Baltimore, MD: Diana Press.

Imagine if we all got an ambient orb to monitor our personal energy consumption? I like the idea also of aggregating the results (somehow) and making the cumulative effect known to the world. The Wattson (now available only in the UK) has this capability according to Clive Thompson (Psst! You’re Wasting Electricity, August 2007 Wired).

Ambient Device’s EnergyJoule is elegant (Slight the Power) in comparison with the Wattson, but a) it does not (yet) measure individual home use and b) you apparently have to become a member of a demand response management group called ConsumerPowerline in order to acquire one.

Becoming a member seems to be free (I’ve requested a login, we’ll see what happens). There’s interesting info on their site (such as whitepapers) available without joining. That’s smart: we get to see the rhetoric they use to perform the ethics to which they appeal. They provide a FAQ about home use. Currently in beta-testing, the devices are mainly available in the NYC area. Perhaps within a year (?) we can begin to install them at home.

This (slightly modified) exchange of letters between a government agency and a private citizen demonstrates two writing skills. Humor is used to make the respondent’s claims more powerful while simultaneously discrediting the government agency (weaking their position). The second is the debating tactic of using the agency’s own legalistic jargon against them; in other words, the citizen responds in kind, with the same logical framework of federal and its particular language of asserting claims.

Under WordPress’ “teaching” category, I came across Learn Bayes Theory: It won’t kill you. I’m aware how much my own universe of comprehension is expanding as I absorb the math I never learned before; I totally agree that anyone with the least curiousity about how our societies run needs to have some grasp of the paradigms that drive decision-makers.

Within the “citizenship” category, more wordplay (“BeAWackerBacker”) and political posturing using inflammatory language: to see ourselves as others see us: peculiar politics. Also interesting is the blogger’s perception of a parallel between mideast and U.S. politics.

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