sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘Howard Rheingold’ Category

omg I just talked to Howard Rheingold

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 16, 2010

You can keep your Robert Pattinsons and Miley Cyruses and whichever other beautiful prepubescent sexy people you young people idolize these days. My idols are people like these folks:

That guy in the lower lefthand corner is Howard Rheingold, who is by just about all accounts one of the kindest, happiest, most curious, most fascinating, most colorful, and most thought-provoking media theorists around. (If you want proof, take a look at this little gem of his writing.)

Because Howard is kind and supportive of other aspiring intellectuals, I’ve had email conversations and twitter conversations and blog conversations with Howard. There’s this interesting feature of the new technologies that swell around us, see: They efface the distance–perceived and real–between our idols and our selves. If you’re patient enough and quick enough, you can use these new technologies to climb right up on the pedestals your heroes are standing on and tap them on the shoulder.

And today in a webchat I got to talk to Howard–with my voice–about crap detection, participatory culture, and pedagogy. It. Was. Awesome.

It may soon enough be the case that the structures and norms that allowed us to toss up celebrities and intellectuals as cultural heroes–well, it may soon enough be the case that those structures crumble, leaving our heroes in the rubble at our feet. I’m young enough to hope it’ll happen in my lifetime but old enough that I may not be able to fully shake the notion of the celebrity as icon. After all, I grew up alongside this:

And yes, I know that a huge chunk of Americans have never even heard of Howard Rheingold (or Lisa Delpit or Paulo Freire or Jim Gee or Henry Jenkins or Yasmin Kafai) and that these people don’t count as ‘celebrities,’ as least not in the “zomg the paparazzi are everywhere” sense. I don’t care. As Intel explains, our rock stars aren’t like your rock stars.

Posted in academia, academics, awesome, blogging, fannish, Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, Jim Gee, joy | 2 Comments »

blogging as a pedagogical tool: some initial ideas and a request

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 30, 2009

I’m hoping to crowdsource some brainstorming about the pedagogical potential of blogging on learning. Lately, in my work with Dan Hickey’s 21st Century Assessment Project, I’ve been thinking tons about how integrating blogging in the formal English / Language Arts classroom might build a rich new media environment for ELA students. I’ve started a provisional list below but am hoping that others (most importantly for me, people who have worked with blogs in their classrooms) can offer ideas for additions to this list.

First of all, it’s worth noting that my approach to the value of blogging for teaching and learning in Language Arts is deeply informed by the work of a number of teacher-researchers from several fields. Most notable among these are Paul Allison, whose chapter “Be a Blogger: Social Networking in the Classroom” (in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom, by Anne Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran) offers a glimpse into the day-to-day workings of a blogging-focused ELA curriculum; and Sam Rose and Howard Rheingold, who have devised (and made publicly available) an enormous set of resources for teaching in and through new media platforms.

My approach is also informed by my personal experience as a blogger–really, to be fair, as someone who is willing to squeeze out nearly anything in order to make time for posting. By even my most generous estimate, I spend far too much of my time blogging–unless you account for the formative value of blogging for someone like me. I am convinced that the intellectual and identity work required for me to maintain this space has led directly to my growing prowess as a researcher, reader, and writer. You cannot convince me otherwise; so do not even bother trying.

My experiences and the reading I’ve done about the value of blogging for learning informs everything that comes next.

Characteristics of blogging that support new media literacy

Reaching a wide(r) reader base
It’s important to note that blogs differ in purpose from many seemingly similar writing platforms. It’s obvious to most that a blog is different from a personal journal, in that while many of us may hope to have our journals read by a larger public some day, blogs are actually intended to support wider readership. The majority of blogs are public (meaning anybody can view them) and taggable, and they come up as legitimate sites in web searches.

Blogs also differ from forums, chat rooms, instant message programs, and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Of all of these spaces, blogs are generally the most polished, the most text-based, and the most supportive of extended engagement with a single idea.

Shifting from intended audience to intended public

This idea is ripped from Howard Rheingold, who (tapping into some Habermas) writes that

[m]oving from a private to a public voice can help students turn their self-expression into a form of public participation. Public voice is learnable, a matter of consciously engaging with an active public rather than broadcasting to a passive audience.

The move here is away from the “please read what I wrote” approach to “please act on the ideas I’ve written down here.” The regular practice required for building and maintaining a blog’s readership helps to crystallize this shift and helps writers to see there is a broad, if constantly shifting, group of people whose interests align with the broad, if constantly shifting, ideas of a blog. Though the intended public is largely invisible (we have generally only met a fraction of our blog’s readers), consistent practice in finding, drawing in, and engaging this target public makes them less transparent.

Blogs as (genuine) conversations
When I taught college composition lo these many years ago, I always tried to argue to my students that all writing is a conversation–that when we write, we take up ideas that were presented by other writers before us and try to present something new that might be of interest to people who care about the kinds of things we write about.

The argument always felt hollow to me. After all, college students are typically only eavesdroppers. Only a handful of people will ever read what they’ve written, and often the students don’t really care all that much about the assigned writing topics anyway. Add to that the artificial motivator of the ever-elusive ‘A’ and you have a recipe for calamity.

But blogs–now blogs are authentic communication spaces. They really are. Anybody can get almost anybody to read a blogpost and, if the post is engaging enough, to comment on the post for all eternity to see. This very fact ups the ante some: Getting the spelling of someone’s name suddenly matters an awful lot. Making a concise, well supported argument has real, potential consequences: A strong enough argument gets people to sit up and notice. A strong enough argument gets people to act.

A move toward increasingly public spheres of participation

An increasingly participatory culture calls for participation that’s ethical, reasoned, and publicly accessible. After all, the widespread takeup of the spirit of participatory culture requires that we all act in ways that keep the barriers to participation low, the potential for contribution high, and the mentorship possibilities readily available to most or all participants. This can only happen to the extent that all or most of us are willing to operate, to express and circulate our ideas and creative works, in public online and offline spaces. Since so much discourse will increasingly happen in public spaces, it only makes sense that we use the ELA domain to prepare students for engagement in those public spaces.


Blogs as spaces for fostering both traditional and new media literacies

For language arts teachers, blogging presents a fairly obvious avenue for preparing learners for engagement in public spheres of communication, since blogs align nicely with the traditional purposes of the ELA classroom. As a group of readers engage in deep analysis of their own and others’ blogs, they have to think about issues like tone, style, genre, punctuation, word choice, and organization.

The extra toy prize is that students also get to learn about the characteristics of online writing, including what danah boyd identifies as the four properties of online communication (persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability) and three dynamics (invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of public and private). As my colleague Michelle Honeyford put it, “they hit all the standards and get to learn about online participation for free.”

Confronting the ethics challenge
Nobody’s arguing that we should sign every sixth grader up with a Blogger account. That would just be silly. Media scholar Henry Jenkins is fond of saying that the role of educators and parents is not to look over kids’ shoulders but to watch their backs, and scaffolding learners toward participation in increasingly public spheres allows us to do just that. Lots of teachers (including the famously brilliant Becky Rupert at Bloomington’s Aurora Alternative High School) start their students out by having them post to a private space (she uses Ning) but having them analyze writing from more public spaces. This way, they have a kind of new media sandbox to try out and engage with the norms of online communication before actually being held to the higher ethical standard, with deeper potential repercussions (both positive and negative).

That’s all I have for now, though I would love to hear from you on the list above. What have I missed? What am I ignoring? What struggles are linked to bringing blogs into the classroom, and what challenges have you encountered if you’ve tried to do so?

I hope for this to be a multipart post that will include thoughts on the following categories:

  • Affordances of blogging as a new media writing technology
  • Challenges to integrating blogs into the ELA classroom
  • Resources (including lesson plans, other writing on this topic, etc.)
  • Assessment guidelines for working with blogs

If you have thoughts on any of the above, I’d love to hear from you. If you have any trouble posting comments (I don’t know why, but some of you have) please email me at jennamcjenna(at)gmail(dot)com.

Posted in assessment, blogging, creativity, Dan Hickey, education, Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, literacy, new media, participatory culture, schools, social media, writing | 10 Comments »

awesome: social media classroom

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 15, 2009

A letter of support for Howard Rheingold’s Open-Source Education Project
I’ve been participating in a pair of hosted communities at Social Media Classroom (SMC), an open-source web service that offers social media tools for educators and students. If you’ve been following my posts on sleeping alone and starting out early, you probably already know that if it’s open source, I’m gonna be on it like Henry Jenkins on fan practices. (For proof of my open sourceness, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Actually, though, it was the experience of working with SMC that led me to my open-source fervor. When I first joined the community, I didn’t even really know what the open source movement was. The experience convinced me that open source software and its younger cousin, open education, have tremendous potential for teaching and learning.

Okay, first, some background. As the main site points out, Social Media Classroom was started by Howard Rheingold, through a HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Arts Collaboratory) award, and is supported by lead developer Sam Rose, among others. The Drupal-based service can be installed for free, or SMC developers will host a community site for people who don’t want to install their own.

Okay okay okay, that’s the background, but here’s what’s awesome about the project itself: It sets up a goal of opening up education by offering spaces for sharing, collaboration, and remixing of class content via forums, blogs, wikis, chat, social bookmarking, widgets, and a load of other features. The “Invitation to the Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory” offers this description of the project:

It’s all free, as in both “freedom of speech” and “almost totally free beer.” We invite you to build on what we’ve started to create more free value….This website is an invitation to grow a public resource of knowledge and relationships among all who are interested in the use of social media in learning, and therefore, it is made public with the intention of growing a community of participants who will take over its provisioning, governance and future evolution.

To that end, we’re launching an instance of the Colab as a community of practice for learners and teachers, educators, administrators, funders, students of pedagogy and technology design, engaged students who share a common interest in using social media to afford a more student-centric, constructivist, collaborative, inquiry-oriented learning.

Not to beat a potentially dead horse, but: promise, tool, bargain, you guys. The promise comes in showing community members that their engagement matters. Clay Shirky argues that in order to get a social group off the ground, the founders need to engage as much as possible (or as much as is required) to convince the community that their participation will be noticed and will make a difference. Focusing on the photo-sharing site Flickr, he argues that building up a critical mass of engaged members took a lot of early legwork:

Like the proverbial stone soup, the promise would be achieved only if everyone participated, and like the soldiers who convince the townspeople to make the stone soup, the only way to hld the site together before it reached critical mass was through personal charisma. Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr, said she’d learned from the early days that “you have to greet he first ten thousand users personally.”

When I joined Howard’s SMC group, I posted an introduction to myself which got a near-immediate response from Howard Rheingold himself. I was all, “omg Howard Rheingold TALKED to me! *swoon*” And you know what happened next? I headed right back in to join in on other conversations on the site–because, after all, HOWARD RHEINGOLD WAS PAYING ATTENTION. The community is still small enough that a core group of participants are able to recognize and engage with each other in a highly personal way.

For Howard, promise and tool appear to be linked. As a new-ish open source project, SMC is not perfect; but as my sensei Dan Hickey has pointed out, “open source software succeeds by failing”–and Howard and Sam have been enthusiastic about getting community members to identify problems and offer suggestions. In fact, my experience is that if you point out something that’s not working, they fall all over themselves to try to find solutions. This means that part of the promise of the site is that members can help refine the tool itself. (Hey, Howard and Sam: Do you think you could add a “search” feature so I can find past posts more easily?)*.

Okay, that’s promise and tool. The bargain is something like this: We’ll offer you a space to create a vibrant, active collaborative learning community, and we’ll respond quickly to problems or suggestions; and your job is to fill in the vibrancy, the activity, and the collaboration. Which is exactly what’s happening in the SMC site for two of Dan Hickey’s classes in the Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. (Alert readers may remember that this is the program I’ll be joining as a doctoral student in the fall.) What’s neat about this space is that even though the classes are held in a physical learning environment exactly 1008 miles from my house, I get to participate in discussion about the readings, join in on collaborative activities (like working together to build a pathetically measly Wikipedia entry describing the field of Learning Sciences), and–if I write something especially awesome, get included in class discussions even though I’m not actually present. To quote Eddie Murphy, What a bargain!


A map depicting the shortest route from my house to Indiana University

In making the graduate-school decision, I recently talked with a third-year doctoral student at a school other than IU. She told me that she recently got into an argument with a professor and challenged a key idea he presented about education.

“…and I realized,” she said, “that I’m starting to feel like I can engage with professors, like I know enough now to challenge them.”

Maybe I’m just too mouthy for my own good, but though I haven’t officially begun doctoral work yet, I’ve been challenging–engaging with, asking questions of, pushing back on ideas of–professors on SMC for the last year. What I didn’t realize until talking to this student is that my experience is not common.

And this is what’s neatest about Social Media Classroom: It’s a space for thinking about how participatory culture and social media can change how we think about expertise, knowledge, and community. It’s no longer that a handful of experts can, should, or do hold expertise in their head and dole it out as they see fit; in a participatory culture, knowledge is distributed across media environments and can be accessed by people who buy into the promise, tool, and bargain of those social spaces.

It’s working, so far. So far, it’s working. And it’s why my crew (Dan Hickey, IU doctoral student Michelle Honeyford, ELA teacher Rebecca Rupert) and I are planning to work inside of this platform in the service of exploring Spreadable Educational Practices. Keep an eye on this space for updates on our work on SEPs, that most awesome of projects.

[Update: as proof of concept, Sam Rose responded to my request to add a “search” feature within minutes of my publishing this blog. The beginning of his response:”Thanks Jenna!! FYI, there is a search feature up at the top if the site (over to the right) :-)”]

Posted in academia, awesome, blogging, Clay Shirky, Dan Hickey, distributed cognition, education, Howard Rheingold, open education, open source, participatory culture, Ph.D., social media, spreadability | 4 Comments »

If you’re reading this, you’re my public

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 11, 2009


I’m obsessed with my new blog. I spend hours devising tactics for directing traffic to it, then I pore over the results over at Google Analytics, where, for example, I can learn that on the first day in the existence of sleeping alone and starting out early, my site had 16 unique visitors and a total of 33 visits (I assume that the 17 extra visits all came from me). I’m aiming upward, upward, upward, and directing my energies toward herding the cats my way.

Why do I care? I mean, other than for the obvious reason that if I’ve spent all this time carefully and lovingly crafting a blogpost I want people to read it? The short answer is that social media makes us consider, and target, our intended audience in more complex ways.

New media guru Howard Rheingold has written about the participatory potential of blogging, explaining that “[b]ecause the public sphere depends on free communication and discussion of ideas, it changes when it scales—as soon as your political entity grows larger than the number of citizens you can fit into a modest town hall, this vital marketplace for political ideas can be influenced by changes in communications technology.”

As bloggers are well aware, the potential is enormous for scaled-up communication via digital technology–but in a real sense, the true potential is never fully realized. It can’t be: Among the constraints and affordances of new media technology is the fact that it enables nearly anyone to become a mediamaker. Cutting through the noise, reaching all members of one’s potential public, is possible in theory but futile in practice. We don’t any of us live anymore in a world where we can expect the person living, working, or studying next to us to have read the same news stories as we have, even though we all have increased access to the news.

That doesn’t mean we can’t try; and, in fact, Rheingold and others point to the “generative” power of public voice in a new media context. He writes:

In one sense, public voice can be characterized not just as active, but as generative—a public is brought into being in a sense by the act of addressing some text in some medium to it. Michael Warner has argued that any particular public (as distinguished from “the public”) comes into being only when it is addressed by a media text, rather than existing a priori—“it exists by virtue of being addressed.” By writing a blog post about an issue, a blogger brings together people whose only common interest is the issue addressed, bringing about “a relation among strangers” that would probably not otherwise exist. Creating a wiki about a local issue has the potential to precipitate a public that can inform itself, stage debates, even organize collective action.


So far on this blog, I’ve published a poem, written about <a href="http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com/2009/02/ive-just-learned-about-breast-cancer.html
” target=”_blank”>boobies, spoken to my hope for the future of academia, and, now, pleaded for readers. I’m not yet sure who my public is; not yet sure what type of action I’m interested in engaging my public in, other than alerting them to my take on some things that have attracted my attention.

I wonder if I’ll experience this blogging thing like I experienced teaching when I was new to the profession. Often, especially in my first few semesters, I would bluster into the classroom with some vague idea of what I wanted to do, what I wanted to teach; it was only after the class was over that I was able to work out what I was doing and how well I’d done it. I’d go back in the next day armed with just that tiny bit of extra awareness and confidence, which led to increased awareness and confidence, and so on.

For now, I’ll just settle for readers. Please read my blog. You can also comment on it if you like.

Posted in blogging, education, Google, Howard Rheingold, new media, participatory culture, social media, teaching | 4 Comments »