Books (or book derivatives) as a social focus for learning

I have encountered a couple of posts in the past couple of days that identified a potential new role for books (The Chronicle, The Atlantic). Coursesmart has developed an approach allowing faculty members to scrutinize how students are “processing” the books they assign. It is interesting to contrast the analysis from the two sources I link – one presents this as a way for faculty members to reach out to students who are poorly engaged with the assignments and the other proposes this as a way to “catch cheaters”. Different spins on the same data mining opportunity. The data are no different than those which any of us reading a Kindle book generate – the highlights, notes, and pages viewed. The difference is in perspective – a Kindle book keeps track of the pages I have moved through and presumably read and saves this location via Whispersync so that I might find myself at the same location on a different device. Likewise, I can visit kindle.amazon.com and read my notes and my highlights. Allow the instructor to have access to these same data and you have the situation described in The Chronicle and The Atlantic.

A couple of months ago I proposed using these exact same capabilities but in a different direction. What if the instructor read the textbook and made his/her notes and annotations available to students? Student to teacher or teacher to student, these capabilities are already available with Kindle books should those who read a given book make the effort to share with others reading the same book.

Are there potential problems? Sure – students may interpret this situation as the instructor checking up on them and the instructor may fear that students will complain should he/she fail to highlight something that appears on a test. Such is the case with a social situation – one must share something or the situation is not social. What is shared could be abused or manipulated, but the sharing is what may also open up new opportunities. Share your course notes and another student may use the notes to identify holes or misunderstandings in their own notes. Share you course notes and another student may decide it is not necessary to go to class. The issue may come down to whether we would rather offer a superior experience with the potential that some may take advantage and not do their share or to offer a lower quality experience to all.

The idea of using a book as a starting point for shared experiences appeals to me. Imagine a more sophisticated version of the highlighting and note-taking system that combines the input of multiple participants (pretty much what Kindle does now). What content is most frequently highlighted or annotated? This is pretty much the logic Google uses to identify more important online resources; i.e., what pages are most frequently the target of links from others sites.

I think these ideas that pretty much take advantage of content already internal to the existing book and are just the beginning of “the book as social focus”. What about those who relate to a book by adding extensions to the book? What if the notes added to a Kindle book are substantial or offer links to sources not identified by the author? ? My use of the word “focus” may provide the wrong impression. Perhaps a book is merely a starting point and what could build from this point would be something significantly more advanced and valuable. I tried the “starting point” idea some years ago and my interpretation at the time was that people were still looking for a focus (lots of use, few contributions). Perhaps we have changed and when I have time maybe it would be worth trying the participatory approach again.

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