CommentPress, Social Reading, and Pedagogy

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Do you think that the sorts of projects you’ve been working on, because they get away from the production-only, or read-only state of media, enable the kinds of change you’ve been discussing?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: I think so. I would love to start a publishing company which promotes social reading.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: What do you mean by “social reading”?

Permalink for this paragraph 1 BS: “Social reading” is a broad term comprising a range of behaviors. At one end of the discussion you have sites where people share their reading lists and engage in discussion about books. And at the other, online texts which enable readers to carry out a conversation literally in the margin. We began experimenting with this sort of group social reading five years ago when we published McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 under the rubric of “the networked book.” When teachers and professors saw GAM3R 7H30RY, they asked for a tool they could use to try out social reading in their classes. which led us to develop CommentPress.

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We all grew up with the sense that reading and writing are solitary behaviors — pretty much what you’d expect in an era which puts so much emphasis on the role of the individual. The shift to networked digital culture enables a move toward increased collaboration. And it’s just in time. I feel that the problems facing humanity are so complicated that individual effort is not sufficient. We need to learn to focus many eyes on a question. And it turns out that reading together online enables people to think together.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 I’m not suggesting that we’re going back to an era of reading aloud to each other; social reading can be asynchronous. I may read by myself for an hour, but I’m going to write notes in the margin and respond to the comments of friends and colleagues. When we asked seven women to read Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook together over a six week period, I followed their discussion carefully. Even though it’s a book I know well, I was amazed how much I learned from their discussion; they focused on aspects I had never noticed and had opinions I had never considered.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Interestingly, teachers using CommentPress experimentally all reported that it changed the boundaries of the classroom; that a conversation which began in class continued as the students did their homework together in the margin and then picked it up seamlessly the next day back in class.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Actually, that brings up something I wanted to ask you about, which is what you see as the types of things we should be teaching in, say, the writing classroom. Should we be teaching students how to write multimedia compositions? Should we be rethinking our notions of literacy?

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BS: My thing about teaching kids multimedia literacy is that it should start in first grade. Every first grader should be given a flip camera and whatever else they need. I mean, kids are fluent as viewers, but they’re not fluent as makers, and I think there has always been a tendency to think that you give the kid a camera when she’s in 9th grade; I want to give it to her when she’s in first grade. I wanted to give TK3 and Sophie to kids in 7th grade. You know, have every 7th grader start writing in Sophie and by the time they’re seniors, you’re going to have brilliantly multimedia literate kids. It hasn’t happened yet.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 I think that the valence in our society is to make people good consumers, not good makers. People don’t see what to me is the obvious value of getting kids, early on, to start expressing themselves in more complicated ways. And I think that’s because our society doesn’t really value that. I’ve worked very closely with a teacher up at Dalton for years. And the work she’s done with her students is amazing.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 Despite her success, she can’t even get one other teacher at the school to use the tools. And this is a school where each kid is issued a Macbook. The IT department is very supportive, but the other teachers are resistant; they’re just not comfortable yet with the idea of adapting teaching methodologies which shift the dynamic of classroom interaction. I trust that you are training a new generation of teachers who might feel differently about this. Some of this stuff just takes time. I’m just impatient.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: But some of the objections I hear when I’m talking to colleagues about this kind of thing are that, “Well, if I’m going to start teaching students how to film, use a flip camera, and edit the video, and put together some sort of video composition, I’m spending time teaching them the tool rather than actual content.”

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BS: I think that’s a fair objection. History class or literature class shouldn’t be the primary place for teaching kids the tools of multimodal, multi-layered expression. But I think it’s ridiculous today for an elite institution not to require a course where students learns how to express themselves in complex media. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 It’s one of the aspects of the IML/USC [Institute for Multimedia Literacy at USC] approach I strongly disagree with. They’d get a history teacher to teach a class at IML, and most of the class was spent teaching the kids how to do Flash. I thought that was wrong. That was my argument against Flash, in favor of Sophie, because I knew we could teach them how to use Sophie in an afternoon, and they wouldn’t have to spend their time learning something as complicated as Flash. I never came close to winning that battle.

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