The participatory continuum

I have found the time to read some of the writers that got me most enthused about teacher and student authoring (Howard Rheingold, Henry Jenkins, Dan Gillmor). Making and coding seem to dominate recent conversations, but I still believe that writing can be more easily generalized as a learning activity. The authors I list were and continue to be promoters of what has come to be called web 2.0, the read/write web, or my preference – the participatory web. I intend to visit this topic several times when I have time to write during the holiday season.

My preference for the phrase “participatory web” as an educational construct comes from the focus on participation. Learners not only receive information, but cognitively act on information. This is the core idea in constructivism (note cognitive activity and not physical activity is key). What came with web 2.0 tools were the opportunities to contribute.

Jenkins writes about the many ways in which individuals contribute to benefit others on the Internet. He notes that there are quick and easy ways to contribute. The easy options include liking, +ing, retweeting, tagging. Folks who engage in such activities for personal benefit improve the potential of online content for the entire community.

However, I think it is important to recognize that participatory activities can be positioned along a continuum. More demanding activities offer greater learning benefits to those who invest more in creating content and also provide greater value to the community. If no one creates content, there is nothing to tag, curate, or pass on to others.  In other words, creating content has the greatest personal and collective value.

My concern is that with the focus on “easy” socialization and microblogging we are missing this point regarding the value of participation at the more demanding end of the continuum. My point is that educators consider the positioning of activities along the participatory continuum personally and in terms of the activities they encourage in their students.


I read many Kindle books to assist in my writing activities. The highlighting and annotation that I do as part of the reading process is what fuels my future efforts. There are advantages to working digitally rather than highlighting hard copy or taking notes, but I fear few have a work flow that takes advantage of the digital advantages. Here is a new app I have been using.

Snippefy downloads Kindle notes and highlights to your iPad and if you make an in-app purchase will upload these data to Evernote or DropBox. One could then share this content socially. I understand there are other ways to get at and download this content from Amazon, but Snippefy makes the process very easy.

One issue you might want to consider if you decide to try this app is that you must enter your Amazon login info to gain access. I assume you can trust the company responsible for the app, but some worry others might gain access to you login info. Note this login is the means by which you connect to Amazon to make purchases. I can only bring this potential issue to your attention – I am not certain how else you could gain access unless Amazon offered an API. Update: Snippify contacted me (my posts generate Tweets) to indicate that their app stores your personal information on your iPad and not on their servers.

The two images that appear below show the app access to your books (first image) and the downloaded annotations from a given book (second image).





P.S. – I continued my search for a way to efficiently download notes and highlights after learning that Snippefy requires you use your Amazon credentials to sign in. is a web based service that does approximately the same thing. This approach either requires that you connect your Kindle to your computer using a USB cable or by using a Chrome extension. The direct connect can only access the content available on your Kindle. The Chrome approach sounds great, but the extension must be rented for $2 a month. I prefer to pay and own my software so this approach is not a favorite.


I am still searching for an ideal approach.

Holiday reading recommendations

If you are looking to find a good read for the holiday season, allow me to make several recommendations. Each of us likely has a somewhat unique way of thinking about what makes a quality read. I look for interesting ideas and some depth offered in support of the ideas. These suggestions all offer these characteristics.

H. Rheingold – Netsmart: How to thrive online
d. boyd – It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens
D. Goldstein – The teacher wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession
D. Ravitch – Reign of error
S. Martinez & G. Stager – Invent to learn: Making, tinkering and engineering in the classroom

I can save Clearly now

Sometimes you pick up an idea for a creative use you have not discovered because there has been no need to consider a situation in a different way. This is called “functional fixedness” if I remember my Intro Psych lecture on problem solving. I have used Evernote Clearly as a way to save web content I wanted to use in a future writing task to Evernote. This is the way the “extension” (I use it in the Chrome browser) is intended to work. The extension removes the clutter from a web page so that the core article is easier to read and cleaner to save for personal research (contrast the two images that appear at the bottom of this post).

I attended a session at TIES presented by a librarian and the presenter suggested that Clearly be used to save content to Google Docs. Acknowledging that this was not the intended purpose, he suggested schools using Google for Education would likely prefer that students work within the Google environment. Rather than saving content to Evernote, he had students use Clearly to isolate research material from a page and then suggested students copy and paste the content they wanted to save for later writing tasks to Google docs. I am not certain how the Evernote folks would evaluate this approach, but it does work.




Cropping video with Quicktime

Quicktime is a free and underutilized Mac resource. I prepared this video to demonstrate the use of Quicktime to crop part of a video.


Browsers and Consequences

One of the themes I seem to write about a lot is the value of competition. Competition in the market takes care of many problems. In general, the companies that do not treat customers well or who sit on their accomplishments and do not seem to improve their products or services are passed over as other companies with these commitments become apparent. For example, my support for an open Internet (net neutrality) stems from this value. For many of us, there are few or no options for how we connect to the Internet and no hence customer support and innovation suffer.

I think it is important to support competition when possible. When we lock our activity into a single service or product and do not constantly explore alternatives, we end up narrowing our own options and possibly the options available to others. I see this happening with browsers. I see this happening in my own behavior. I have the opportunity to use multiple hardware devices and we all have the opportunity to use the Internet in different ways, but I feel myself sliding into total reliance on Chrome. This may not seem like a significant issue to dwell on, but consider possible long term consequences. The different browsers associated with different companies are associated with different profit motives. Google is funded by ads. Ads are more valuable (to the provider) when targeted to users. Hence, Google benefits by knowing about you and using this information to its advantage. Apple seems more and more to have positioned Safari as the anti-Chrome. Apple makes money on hardware and I assume just maintains a quality browser as a hedge against domination of the Internet space by others. Since Apple is not dependent on ad revenue, the Safari browser can argue that it protects the privacy of users. However, because Apple is focused on its hardware, it is not as interested in creating software products that are cross platform.

This post was prompted by something I read about Firefox. Firefox was long my browser of choice, but then I found Chrome and kind of drifted away. I feel bad failing to live up to my own values. I am not certain of the existing connections between Firefox and Mozilla because this relationship seems to change with time, but the open source movement (Mozilla) has played such as a valuable role in the development of technology and I hope remains a constant hedge against total commercialization of the valuable resources we may take for granted. Hence, my suggestion for today – try a different browser over lunch.

Dangers of the we vs. they perspective

I have been reading Pure Genius (Don Wettrick) because I try to keep up on the trends in instructional tactics. What follows is not a reaction to the notion of independent projects or independent study but to an argument the author often forwards in support of the instructional methods that are proposed. I cannot  come up with an exact term to describe this argument. My best effort might be something like – “we, as the practitioners, know best”. I do not find returning to this idea on multiple occasions to elevate the merit of the rest of the book.

As one example, at one point the author says:

“Teachers know that theories can never explain a child’s lack of interest that’s caused not by a boring curriculum but by worry about his parents’ fighting.”

OK – so I am likely one of those folks who presented “theories” to future teachers. What am I to make of this statement? Before I retired, I taught educational psychology. I would suggest that it is relevant to this specific example that I also taught the introductory course in psychology. For decades college profs have used “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” to describe the various motives for human behavior noting that basic needs must be met (e.g., safety) before other motives (e.g., grades, satisfaction in learning) will influence behavior. This motivation theory is so commonly taught I cannot imagine any college student, let alone a future teacher, not being asked to consider that “not all needs are equal”. Furthermore, using academic achievement as one of the various examples to help students process this idea is very common. An example might focus on the academic lethargy of a college student who has recently suffered the end of a relationship. Hunger and violence in the lives of younger learners who struggle in school are actually very common examples.

So – theories can explain this situation and even this specific example is frequently presented to future teachers.

While I am on the subject of “theories” allow me to suggest that many use the word incorrectly. The label “theoretical” is sometimes used to imply an idea that is to vague or abstract to be useful. Vagueness and unnecessary abstraction is not to be valued, but these limitations are not predictable characteristics of a theory. Human behavior is very “theory” driven. We are both exposed to theories developed by others and form our own. We use general principles to guide behavior because life experiences are unique and we must have ways to explain these experiences to ourselves even though we have not encountered the exact circumstances before. Perhaps formal and informal theories would be one useful distinction. Science educators probably have been exposed to the concept of “naive science”. Naive science, roughly equivalent to informal theory, suggests that we all live in a world we must do our best to understand. We must deal with physics, biology, etc. daily whether we have studied these subjects formally or not. We form our own theories based on our personal experiences out of necessity. Sometimes such theories work in a specific set of circumstances but are flawed on a more general level. This means science education must no only present new ideas, but sometimes also confront ideas that have hidden flaws.

The argument I am trying to develop here is less concerned with informal and formal theories and is really focused on the value of being open to multiple perspectives. The theories of practitioners are not necessarily in opposition to formal theories. If the formal vs. informal theory argument was not sufficient, allow me to present what educators might recognize as a familiar experience. Parents, typically of students who are struggling, sometimes suggest that the teacher is not aware of the unique characteristics of their child and if even if this is not the case the teacher is unable or unwilling to adapt instruction to accommodate these characteristics. The teacher and the parents have different perspectives and see the student from the perspective with which they are most familiar or perhaps feel they must address in a general way.

I understand that appealing to group identity is a technique for making people feel good. I also understand that teaches may feel under attack and feel a need to look for support. However, taking a we/they approach as in we know and they do not is only a reasonable long term strategy when those functioning according to different perspectives are actually adversaries. In this case, I think learning from different perspectives would be more productive.