March 27, 2010

In #1b1t lies a proof of concept for microblogging for group annotation

Wired.com writer Jeff Howe has proposed a giant Twitter-wide reading experiment he's calling One Book, One Twitter, where everyone on Twitter (or a great big gob of people) read and tweet about the passages they're currently on. The topics code #1b1t (an example of a "hashtag") is Howe's proposal, and you can follow the latest discussion online if a series of disconnected 140-charater texts tapped out by people reading a book on their own is a discussion.

Ah, but the last clause is the key here: can Twitter or other microblogging services provide an opportunity for collective discussion of a text? In theory the answer is "sure, of course," but would that happen in practice? I've thought about this with regard to teaching, since the term "mobile learning" has usually had passive interpretations: listen to a lecture anytime! anywhere! Okay, I think, and where's the interaction? Oh, but we can do better: you can click on screens and get more lecture anytime! anywhere! Thanks, but that's not a substitute for intense discussion.

In the past few months, I've spent a bit of time thinking about the role of "collective exegesis/commentary" and possible tools to conduct it anywhere, anytime.


In theory, what I'd love is to see some capacity for a student who is reading some material (a novel, a primary source in a history class, etc.) to respond to questions using a cell phone and have that text message be collected for the class purposes, or to read the collective responses. Don't tell me that a smartphone can do that with browser capacities; most students don't have smartphones, and the interfaces are often clunky at best. I want any student with a dumb phone to be able to send text messages that can be collected by a secure service for a class and have some way for it to be sorted by text location (by the service or a relatively simple manual post-submission step).

There are at least two sides to that: tools and practices/culture.

Tools

What's needed in terms of tools is

  1. a way for a student to use either an SMS service or a simple browser interface to enter responses
  2. a way for teachers to provide prompts/some coding to tie comments to specific parts of the text or questions

I think the only SMS-to-secure-environment tool is ShoutEm, a proprietary microblogging site where you can set up private groups. (Several CMS packages such as Blackboard and Moodle have ways to broadcast text messages to students, but I'm not aware of modules that allow students to submit texts to Bb or Moodle modules. If I'm wrong, please let me know of the modules in comments!) Edmodo is the simplest CMS interface I'm aware of and has a good reputation for K-12; certainly it would be navigable with a smartphone, though there's no SMS-submission route that I'm aware of.

For the tagging/sorting, one could use two possibilities right now, either a hashtag system that a teacher uses tied to prompts or a set of QR-code symbols in the margins (or on a question sheet). QR codes linking to website URLs are reputedly very common in Japan, and if I remember correctly, you can construct QR codes that would start a text message (with the hashtag, yes).

Application: a student in a high school English class could be reading Hamlet at home along with a teacher's question sheet. Suppose the teacher has a list of questions ordered by scene, and I suspect most such sheets would inevitably have a question about the "providence in the fall of a sparrow" speech (act V, scene ii). Say it's the 11th question for that scene. Next to the question is a QR code and below it a hashtag: #hamlet5.2.11. The student opens her cell phone, starts the QR program, and takes a picture of the QR code. The cell phone automatically starts a text message to go to ShoutEm (or someday a CMS that allows incoming texts) with #hamlet5.2.11 already entered as text. She answers the question and sends it off. On the other end, a teacher looks in the entry box (whether it's a microblogging stream or a module inside a CMS). I could imagine teachers doing a lot of different things with the responses (probably starting with a simple sort by hashtag), and my instinct might be to pick a range of responses for a few questions and start out the next day's class with very, very different responses to several questions and asking students to decide who's right.

Or think of an undergraduate cultural anthropology class, where an assignment might require a student to observe a common gathering place on campus or in the community and answer a bunch of questions designed to teach students ethnography skills. Again, the answers could be in the form of microblogging, and that allows a student's growing field notes to be examined by a teacher between notebook-submission rounds.

Those are two possible uses, and they ignore the fact that U.S. cell phone users don't generally have experience with QR codes, QR programs are easier to find for some cell phones than others, and a lot of students do not have either cell phones or home access to the internet. And that raises the issue of ...

Culture

One critical question about such dreams is whether people will use the tools at hand, or whether a critical mass of people will. In observing how hundreds of students have responded to technology challenges in college classes in a wide range of ways, I agree with Siva Vaidhyanathan that "digital natives" is a dubious concept, and the idea of having students send text messages as way of promoting engagement with text is something to be tested empirically rather than assumed.

First question: are there any such examples? I thought of two possibilities: discussions of Talmudic commentary and Protestant Bible study. It turns out that you can find services that will text you individual  lines from some Bible (if they're 140 characters or less!), but I couldn't find examples of people engaging in SMS textual engagement in the wild (so to speak). That was depressing; if a few long-established commentary/discussion communities had never experimented with SMS commentary (there's plenty of stuff on web pages, just not much microblogging), that didn't bode well for what I had in mind.

So One Book, One Twitter (#1b1t) is another proof-of-concept test, this time with a more highly-motivated group. We'll see (maybe) if #1b1t engages a critical mass of readers, engages them with something more than superficial text, and is a novelty phenomenon or something that gets repeated.

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Posted in Teaching on March 27, 2010 12:54 AM |