This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Jenae Cohn joins us to discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment. Jenae is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang.
- Cohn, Jenae (2021, forthcoming). Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
- Carillo, E. C. (2017). A writer’s guide to mindful reading. WAC Clearinghouse.
- Pedagogies of Care (Sneak Peek) – video trailer – website
- Plato (360 BCE). Phaedras
- Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.
- Mueller, D. N. (2009). Digital underlife in the networked writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 26(4), 240-250.
- Smale, M. A., & Regaldo, M. (2017). Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier to Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Smale, M. A. (2020). “It’s a lot to take in”—Undergraduate Experiences with Assigned Reading”. CUNY Academic Works, 1–10.
- Lang, James (2020, forthcoming). Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Basic Books.
John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Jenae Cohn. She is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Jenae.
Jenae: Thank you for having me.
John: Our teas today are:
Jenae: I have got a white and green tea blend with jasmine today. It’s really delicious.
Rebecca: That sounds good. I have Scottish afternoon tea
John: That’s a little bit stronger, isn’t it?
Rebecca: I like it. It’s good.
John: And I am still drinking English Breakfast tea.
Jenae: A black tea crew. I respect that in the afternoon… a little pick me up.
John: And it’s grading time here so I need the extra caffeine.
Jenae: Yeah, I get that. Makes sense.
John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your book, Skim, Dive, and Surface. Could you tell us what motivated your work on this topic?
Jenae: Absolutely. I have always found great solace and inspiration in reading. I’ve considered myself a reader for my entire life, and I noticed as a reader when I was in college that I largely depended on tried and true techniques for remembering content from reading: from highlighting and note taking in the margins to drawing little doodles and scribbles. And when I transitioned to graduate school, when I was getting my PhD, I was reading longer, more complex texts. And at that point, I really didn’t have the resources to be printing everything out hundreds of pages of reading a week, to do those techniques that had served me so well as a college student. So I think at that point forward, I started thinking a lot about how does our media, how do our spaces for reading, shape what we’re able to glean from a reading and how we’re able to orient ourselves to the really critical task of reading and being readers. And this became even a more acute kind of question for me when I started teaching first-year composition, and I saw my own students struggling in the same way that I was struggling as a graduate student with trying to get through really new and challenging complicated texts that were changing our orientation, not only to reading texts, but just being readers. And so I kept mulling over this for years and years, and my research kept dancing around it. And then by the time I got to my job at Stanford, it really struck me that it was the time to start writing a book that would help people recognize and see these real distinctions, but not from a language of a deficit model, and not from the language that was kind of coming out the 2016 moment that Google made us stupid, or that smartphones are bad for our brain, like those dialogues are still happening, much to my great dismay, but to actually provide sort of a more open and inclusive and, I think, kind of compassionate take on the possibilities of reading across spaces and finding promise and hope for readers to be more flexible in different ways of reading, especially when it comes to academic context.
Rebecca: I find your work really exciting because I was always an avid reader, even when I was young, but when reading academic texts, it’s a really different kind of reading, like reading fiction is really different than reading an academic text. And I remember when I was in sixth grade, I had an intervention because I was struggling with our Global Studies class because I had really poor reading comprehension on the topic. And I was lucky that a family friend happened to be the reading specialist and helped me out. But otherwise, no one had taught me how to read those kinds of texts, and I really struggled.
Jenae: Oh my gosh, I love that story, Rebecca, because it really speaks to how your context can shape your behaviors and how you approach that task. And I love that you’ve even worked with a reading specialist. I think we take for granted that if you can read in one space, you can read in another space. You are an avid reader and able to really dive into fiction, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily could read those more technical texts or texts that were speaking to different audiences and engaging with different purposes and it’s easy to take for granted, especially at the college level, that the students will have sort of equal proficiencies if they’re able to like technically read, but we know when we get to higher ed context, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Rebecca: So, like me, I think a lot of students don’t get training on how to read academic texts or critical texts when they’re in K-12. So what do you recommend? Or how do we help students transition to college reading?
Jenae: I think there’s a few ways we can begin. First, I think that what college instructors can really do is help demystify the purposes of reading. I think that a lot of instructors, and I’ve done this myself, assume that just if you say, “Okay, read chapter one of this book,” everyone will understand what the purpose is of reading chapter one of the book, but that’s not necessarily so, especially since in different contexts and disciplines those purposes for engaging with a particular chapter article might be really different. And I think as instructors too, we want to think about what we want students to get out of the reading. Do we want students to be reading for content? Are we trying to help them understand a particular concept and how that concept might be in dialogue with something from an in-class discussion or a lecture, or something else, or we want the students to read what we call reading rhetorically, or I want them to read to understand the strategies an author’s using to communicate a claim. So in writing classes in particular, rhetorical reading might happen when we’re trying to understand a particular historical context or moment that might be shaping how an author might be orienting to a topic, to kind of understand the context around that reading, or understand the writer’s writerly moves. So someone who’s also trying to read to understand a written genre might be another thing we need to help students understand when it comes to purpose. So, in the sciences, you might have students read a scientific article to understand: “This is standard format in the scientific article structure: the introduction, methods, description, results.” There’s always sort of a standard pattern to that. That’s all to say, I think just making our purposes clear is Thing number one, Thing number two, that I think instructors could do to help students really develop a stronger sense of being a reader, is to also help them understand different approaches to note take, and to think about how they glean important pieces of information from a context. And different students will do this in different ways. So I certainly wouldn’t recommend a prescriptive, like note-taking model that everyone has to do. I think that it over determines a certain kind of thought process. But there can be a moment, and I think a lot of instructors don’t think of themselves as having to teach academic skills, but it can be really valuable to make explicit: “Here’s the skill you’ll need to develop to do this work.” And to have an open discussion with students: What do you do? Why do you do these kinds of behaviors? How does this help you learn? And to make that really explicit. These are just starting points. The real expert on academic reading proper, I would point you to Ellen Carrillo, she has a great book for college students called Mindful Reading. Ellen Carrillo’s work about really bridging students to academic reading skills is like the best place to start for instructors who want to start at the foundation of what it means to help students read. I cite her a lot in my book because I think her work is really quite foundational to this thinking,
John: As you noted, the type of reading skills vary quite a bit by your discipline. Reading a chemistry article is very different than reading a math paper or reading a novel or reading poetry. Should each discipline include something about teaching students, what’s important in reading in that discipline early in a student’s career?
Jenae: Oh, I think that would be tremendously helpful if, in an intro course, that was a part of the unit. It would help students recognize what it means to be a professional in that discipline too, which can also help students I think, from the level of choosing a major and deciding what academic conversations they want to remain a part of in terms of their career. I think that many students, and I know I was this way in college, don’t tend to see the subjects as communities. We call these discourse communities: mathematicians, chemists, compositions, they’re all part of different discourse, communities that have different goals and functions and ways of communicating and behaving. So the more visible we can make those sorts of tacit understandings of how people communicate, the more we can demystify a bit of a hidden curriculum around how disciplinarity, how intellectual thought, operates. And I think that can be really exciting for students to see “Oh, people who are in math and chemistry, they have a way of talking. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid. [LAUGHTER] It doesn’t mean that I can’t get it. It just means that it’s a community that I don’t know yet, and that I want to understand better through accessing and unpacking what it means to be a reader or a writer in that space.”
John: You need to know the language of the discipline to some extent to be able to participate in the conversation.
Jenae: Exactly. That’s a great way to sum it up. I was like the “too long, didn’t read” version of what I just said.
Rebecca: I think another space where you’re switching contexts is between the physical environment and the virtual environment, which many of us are experiencing maybe more intensely now [LAUGHTER] than we had in the past. I know that while I was on sabbatical, doing research, I found myself doing a lot more reading online in digital format than I ever had before, because our physical library was closed. [LAUGHTER]
Jenae: Yeah, how was that for you?
Rebecca: At first, I was really resistant and I read every single physical book that I had first. So, I could take notes in the margins and things that I was used to and accustomed to doing. But I’ve recently read a couple of texts on my Kindle and really love that I can highlight and take notes there and then end up with a digital file that’s searchable. It’s actually way more useful, but I had never really been forced into trying a new way of reading.
Rebecca: So, I think it’s interesting to start thinking about how do we help students take advantage of some of the affordances that a digital environment actually has, rather than just the resistance. And one of that, for me, is like moving from reading from my computer to a Kindle, which has the e-paper, which is a little better in my eyes and it’s a little more comfortable of a reading environment, but then taking advantage of those tools and techniques that are built into some of the software that’s available.
Jenae: Absolutely. You’ve pointed out several really great affordances to digital reading, where you’re able to archive your notes in a particular space, organize them, create certain kinds of like topical categories for the notes that you’ve got from your Kindle. So, you’re already opening up so many of the wide world of possibilities, especially when it comes to academic reading, in your own experience of having the library closed up for you. So, I really enjoyed hearing your thought process around that.
John: But if students haven’t done much academic work prior to coming to college with e-texts, the skills that they had, as you mentioned in the intro to your book, in terms of dog-earing the pages and using highlighters and so forth, might not translate as easily unless they’ve perhaps learn to adapt with those. Rebecca talked about the ability to take notes and index them, but students don’t always know how to do that. And one thing that complicates it a little bit is they may get their books in different formats, some may be on a Kindle, some may be in Blackboard or Canvas or some other learning management system, and others may be PDFs. So how do we help students with that transition?
Rebecca: And also maybe faculty? Because sometimes I think that’s a barrier, too. [LAUGHTER]
John: I think that’s probably a more common barrier… we’ve had some people give us all sorts of interesting explanations of why books are better, most of them based on neuromyths that have been debunked for decades. But there is this perception that the tangible nature of a book makes it better in some way. Just as, you know, the book was seen as being bad when it was first introduced, because it weakened the need for people to develop their memories. I think people feel the same way about electronic texts. So how do we get past those barriers on the part of faculty and students?
Jenae: Right. Wow. Lots of good questions nested in that one question. And I will say that in the first part of the book, I talk about history, affect, and neuroscience as kind of categories of ways that instructors, in particular, might find their own resistances or anxieties, as I put it, reflected. John, when you mentioned that people once worried that the book was going to destroy memory. And Socrates and Plato had a famous dialogue about this in the Phaedrus. Right, that’s like an anxiety that’s just been really… there’s historical echoes actually all around the world that I detail in the book. That was a really fun section to write because I love history, too. But anyway, I’ll get to your question here, which is how do we help students make this transition? And again, I think we have to unpack that in a few different ways. And one is sort of starting with meeting both students and faculty where they are, engaging, I think, in some dialogue around “Why do you like a paper book? Why do you like to use a physical highlighter? Why do you like to doodle in the margins?” We’ll learn interesting things, and in the book, I do a little bit of a lit review of some major surveys that have been done around faculty and student perceptions of reading on paper and reading on screen and I’ll offer the really like two-minute gloss version of that, which is that the stated reasons these surveys have found is that, for both students and instructors alike, it is familiar. And there’s a perception that it’s better for their memory and attention. And you’re right, John, too, that some of that comes from neuromyths. Some of it just comes from feeling. A lot of the surveys are about, again, to the affect point, “I like the way the book feels in my hand.” “I like the weight of the book.” People, and this is my favorite, would even say things like “I like the smell of the pages.” And that’s all about feeling, that’s about emotions and the cognitive work are tied, of course. And I actually thought really distinctly of Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s work about this, that we can’t unpack the emotions from the learning itself. So all that’s important. So I say you have to start the dialogue there with your own local community and there might be some echoes of that national conversation. And so recognizing why you feel those ways might also help you to see how those feelings or how those perceptions translate into lived experience. A lot of the studies on moving students from print to digital environments are also focused on the memory and retention. And studies have mostly found that students do tend to remember more when they read on paper, but it’s because they don’t actually have strategies for reading in digital spaces. So, something else we might do is, to return to the earlier part of the conversation in some ways, at least, make explicit that there are strategies they’re using in the first place: “Wow, you really like to use the highlighter? What are you doing when you use the highlighter? Oh, you’re pointing out the most important parts of the section? Why is it important to find the most important parts of the section? How are you doing that? What do you do with that information?” Once you find those most important parts, then once you isolate out those skills and what you’re doing with them, we can think about: A. not just how you replicate that in a digital environment, but what a digital environment does differently. So, this is also, I think, part of the conversation needs to include making explicit what the affordances are of a digital environment beyond the fact of it being on a screen, recognizing that paper is a technology. And just as much as that laptops’ are a technology, your Kindle’s a technology. The other technology that I’ll throw in where I think students are doing a bunch of reading these days as their smartphones, I’ve had instructors tell me, “Wow, I’m so horrified that my students are doing all the reading on their phone,” and my response is “Well, especially now on this COVID-19 moment, our students might not have access to laptops that work that are as fast as their 5G network on their phones.” So, I think now more than ever, we have to be really accommodating in thinking about where mobile, and where the affordances of mobile, fit in… What kinds of applications and tools are available across these spaces to, again, both replicate the great labor and thinking around print, but that also take advantage of the easy abilities to link content and connect content across different spaces, the ability to curate and create collections of information across different spaces, and that ability to tag and sort different sets of ideas to see relationships and connections between ideas. This is just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of possibilities. I will say I recognize the constraints, I think, of digital environments. We can’t ignore things like screen fatigue. Rebecca, you talked about getting tired, your eyes getting tired reading on a screen, I feel that too. The blue light that emits from screens is really exhausting for our brains. I think probably everyone’s experiencing this even more in our move to living on the internet and our COVID-19 moment. So, I think part of this is also figuring out what are the strategies for avoiding fatigue. And in some ways, this can be good for our learning too. It might inspire us to take more breaks, to work in shorter and more concentrated bursts of time and to recognize and have a clear purpose in mind by working within those shorter bursts of time as well.
John: We’ve just been talking about faculty resistance to reading on mobile devices. But, faculty also often seem to have a resistance, back in the days, a long time ago, when we used to be in the classroom at times. There used to be this resistance to students using mobile devices in the classroom. Would you like to talk a little bit about how students, perhaps, might be using mobile devices in ways that may not be as negative as faculty might expect them to be.
Jenae: Yeah. Isn’t it funny how like mobile bans and laptop bans feel like that was so long ago at this moment of recording? Yeah, there’s a big chapter actually in the book about laptop and mobile device bans, because I think that context might come back again. We’ll see. So anyway, yes, there are number of, I think, productive things students are doing with mobile phones in class. One is that students might be using mobile as really their faster internet connection. I will say that mobile networks tend to be a bit more reliable than even if you are face to face. On-campus Wi Fi networks can be very unreliable. And it can certainly be more reliable than students’ home networks. But in the context of class itself, it might actually give students a more stable connection, which can mean greater access. From a learning and engagement perspective too, what students also might get from mobile that I think is really exciting, is the ability to do really flexible note taking and archiving of work. So mobile apps have the real benefit of being able to use your finger or a stylus to actually draw and annotate and nimbly really respond and react in real time. I actually have an activity in the book where I even suggest that instructors create an assignment where they think of students working through their reading as they might create like an Instagram or Snapchat story, where they can take quick screenshots with like emoji reactions from different parts of the book as a way to engage with it. So I think that our students have found really creative ways to engage. They might not realize that those are creative ways to engage. There’s actually a lot of literature that shows that sometimes students get a little uncomfortable when instructors try to like make their class like “My class is cool, it’s like Facebook for learning.” So I don’t know if I would go that direction. But rather, it’s really saying, “Hey, here are tools you can use to do the things that are really good for your learning,” rather than saying, “Learning is just like Facebook,” which makes some students feel a little bit like their lives are getting too uncomfortably blurred. I’ll say one last thing about the mobile phones in class, which is that for many students who are either working from home or staying connected to the family, it’s important to recognize that students might be needing to connect with people outside the classroom during class. That might seem like a distraction, but for many students, if they are caretakers, for example, they might need to be reading off of their phone, to also be checking to see “Okay, does my parent need me right now? Does my sibling need me right now? Does someone else I’m caring about really need me to stay connected and engaged during class?” Some people refer to these behaviors as being part of the digital underlife. Derek Mueller has a great essay about this concept that I think is really valuable. Maura Smale, I should say, and Mariana Regaldo have done really great work on how students are thinking about mobile as sort of lifelines to the world outside. So, I think that the benefits to mobile happen both at the learning level, but also the access and connection and inclusion level. And I don’t know, man, I don’t think we need policing of how our students are engaging with devices in class, as part of the work of showing compassion, I think, towards our students, is trusting and recognizing good intent. And if students don’t want to engage, they just want to disconnect, even if you ban the devices, maybe they’ll doodle and zone out.[LAUGHTER] So, like there are lots of ways to be distracted and the device is sort of a red herring in a way for that, in my opinion.
John: I found many ways to be distracted as a student long before there were cell phones. So, I fully agree with that. And it can also be a good indicator, if the instructor is walking around and sees a lot of students doing things that aren’t related to the class, that maybe there’s not as much engagement there as you might like.
Jenae: Yeah, exactly.
John: One of the differences between an e-text and a book is that generally the book doesn’t have pop-up messages that might interrupt your focus and attention. Most mobile devices, though, do. What can we do to help students perhaps better manage the distractions that they deal with when they’re reading on a mobile device?
Jenae: So this is tricky, because our brains respond to novelty. And of course, mobile phones have been designed to be addictive. [LAUGHTER] With all those pop-up notifications and things that fire off our endorphins. There’s a concrete tip, right, like encourage students to disable notifications for certain kinds of apps. Not all of our students know how to do that. I think, there is often assumptions too about a traditional college-aged student, or I’ll put traditional scare quotes in the air that our students between 18 and 21 know everything about all digital devices, because they are… and I just love this expression… digital natives… not a real thing… it doesn’t exist. [LAUGHTER] Because even if you’re born when technology’s invented, it doesn’t mean that you are adept at it in every single context and environment. So, I think offering some explicit, just tactical, infrastructure advice around that. The other thing that’s not a technical piece, that’s a cognitive piece, again, to help students recognize their purpose in reading too. So when you veer away to check a notification from your reading, why? Is it because you’re bored? Is it because the text is confusing? Is it because you simply just want to read the notification? Just recognizing and making clear what your intentions are as you’re reading can also be a way of managing attention. The other thing I’ll add around distraction, I think it’s important to recognize that attention does not look the same for every student, either. There are some students who I think actually read really well when they’re multitasking, so to speak. The example I go to is when teaching composition I always have students who work with like 5000, tabs open, approximate number, and they’ll often sort of flip between those tabs, and as an instructor I often asked about students; workflow, cause that’s just of interest to me. And many students will share that they’re looking at Wikipedia for an encyclopedic explanation of something they’ve read, or they’re looking up a word in the dictionary, or they’re looking for an image that illustrates something the book described. So sometimes that ability to kind of flip between different things might look like distraction. It might look like it’s not on task when, in fact, it very much could be tied into the task. Of course, those tabs could also be, you know, the latest TikTok stream, or whatever students are watching right now, which of course, can divert attention and isn’t particularly good for memory. But, I think that mindfulness about why they’re reading and why they might click a notification, just making that explicit, right. And rather than just being some sort of a punishment for the sake of being a punishment, or a better way to put this is rather than just sort of deriding the action as a given… really unpacking the assumption that distractions always bad, and thinking through what does it really mean to be distracted? And I suspect Jim Lang’s newest book on Teaching Distracted Minds is actually going to be a really helpful complement to some of this conversation, too. So I think that’s another text I’m really looking forward to reading as part of this conversation as well.
John: We are too and we’ve actually scheduled an interview with him in a few months when it’s closer to coming out to talk about that book.
Jenae: Oh, fabulous.
John: We’re very much looking forward to it, and I think many faculty will be.
Jenae: Super relevant.
Rebecca: I think related to some of the distraction stuff that you’re talking about to is format, and that digital texts come in different formats. And the idea that students are not digital natives, that they don’t just somehow magically know how to use technology unless we’re showing them how to use it. I found that showing students how to take advantage of accessibility features and alternative formats and the ability to make their text reflow, and things like that, has really opened doors for students because they just didn’t even know that those features were available to them and really changed how they experienced texts or other media on their devices, because they could really change how they could actually consume it or interact with it.
Jenae: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up accessibility features. Because, you’re right, that text to speech features, screen reading features, even the visual accessibility features that are part of digital technologies… even just understanding where the alt text is… and where, like, image descriptions might be, makes a difference for all learners. This is of course part of a universal design for learning philosophy, that when students are aware, to your point, Rebecca, of the technologies available to them, it’s all students who benefit from that because it gives them multiple models for engaging with those ideas. It gives them multiple models for potentially representing ideas themselves. And so the book really actually deals with UDL philosophies, at its core. I almost had an entire chapter dedicated to UDL. And then as I was revising it, it’s like, I can’t even have just one chapter. This has to be strung into every chapter in this book. And to me, that’s the most compelling reason to encourage students to read in digital spaces, the most compelling reason to encourage faculty to overcome, I think, sometimes resistant perspectives about what digital reading doesn’t offer is, think about the range of students you’re seeing, their ranges of circumstances, their ranges of thinking about the world. And when you open up all these new possibilities for reading in digital spaces, you get to include so many more people who maybe never thought of themselves as readers, right? Who weren’t those avid readers reading their paperback books in the bathtub at three in the morning. That was me. It might be just a different group that you get to bring into the fold and who get to maybe experience reading as they might have never thought of reading before. I found like a million think pieces that were like “Are audio books real books?” Does it mean something to read an audio book, and I did a little bit of like a forehead slap. “Of course, reading an audio book is reading a book. It’s still reading.” But when we disparage based on media, we just exclude so many potential people we could just bring into the fold of being readers and finding people who want to be excited about reading.
John: So besides the accessibility and the UDL nature of this, there’s also some advantages, I think in terms of perhaps the cost of digital readings. College textbooks have grown in price fairly dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years to become a much larger share of college costs. So, by encouraging that, aren’t we also perhaps making education at least a little bit more affordable?
Jenae: I hope so. And certainly the OER movement is really tied to these conversations about accessibility. So, yes, I think that the more we can point students to digital resources that might reduce those kinds of costs, we respond to a major faculty concern. Surveys from EDUCAUSE and the Babson survey group actually suggest that one of faculty members’ major concerns is this very question of affordability. So, if we could be more open minded about the ways that we teach certain academic skills, we kind of kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. We manage to kind of help solve the affordability piece, while also expanding out accessibility options. And I think OERs could be even more powerful as a resource, if we help students understand how to leverage them beyond the ways that they might just read a website, which if you look to research and usability studies and user experience, a lot of people read websites in what’s been called like an L-formation, like the eyes sort of scan only a portion of the page. It’s not really reading in depth. And that’s because people have certain behaviors or attitudes about what they’re trying to find on a website. And you can spend hours and hours thinking about the user experience of website and where you place the pieces to draw attention to the most important pieces of information. And so that’s a matter of training, right? We know that website genres invite certain kinds of reading. So, if we open it up to students, we say, “Hey, you’re going to be doing all your reading online in this OER, that’s a more affordable option. How will you identify the important pieces? What’s going to be your behavior through this text? This isn’t just like reading the website for the news. It isn’t just like going on your Twitter feed. This operates in a very different way. Here’s how we can leverage that and not just sort of feel like we’re following the same patterns we do with other pieces of kind of flattened out web content. So, I deviated a little from your affordability question, but it got me thinking about the UX side as well.
Rebecca: I think one of the exciting things that you discuss in your book, but also capture in the infographic that you are including in the Pedagogies of Care project are some really interesting ways that students can read in a digital environment that allows us to make connections and interact with other people and other texts. Can you talk about some of the ways that we can use digital texts that people don’t always think about.
Jenae: Sure. So, I have a framework that’s at the core of the book. I don’t call it the five C’s for digital read, I call this the digital reading framework, but it is the five C words. So, some of the strategies include connection, curation, contextualization, creation, and what I call contemplation. And so some things people might not think about is when I think especially with connection and curation. We’ll start with curation, that’s actually the first item in the framework. Reading is always an act of curation in many ways. When you take a text, unless it’s just something you’re reading for fun. I should say reading is always an act of curation in an academic or a learning context, because you’re trying to sort of parse out what pieces of information or what examples are the best examples to help me make a claim, remember an idea, draw a conclusion, whatever the case might be. And so with a digital text, what you can do is you can make that curation process visible by… and this is simple… this isn’t even high tech: copying and pasting parts of your text into a taxonomy of your own design that helps you to see “Oh, right, this collection of quotes is really about this topic that I’m learning about in my class.” “Oh, wow, this text A and text B are both speaking to content area one.” You can really bridge that much more easily than on paper when you might have to, you know, an old school technique would be to make like note cards, where you write down the quotes and their different paper books that correspond to these topics. It’s a great strategy, but pretty cumbersome and time consuming, and difficult to manage if you don’t have access to print books, like the moment we’re in right now. So, that might be one strategy that is exciting, I think, for a digital environment, especially. I’ll point to creation as another example. So one of the benefits of being in a digital environment is you can really manipulate text easily. And that goes to everything from modifying fonts, especially if you’re just reading something off of like, an HTML regular old website. You could copy and paste that text into any word processor, you could change the font colors, shapes, sizes, to create different kinds of taxonomies. and customize that more, even in text like a PDF document that you can’t customize the design of text itself, you can still lift parts of that text, you can convert it into different file forms to modify the appearance as well and create something new for you a different kind of map, that’s not just limited to highlighting and doodles, but is actually dealing with and manipulating the words themselves. You can’t lift words out of a print book. So it’s kind of cool to think about what could you do if you could take these words. In the creation chapter I give an example of an activity where you could even create like a visualization of the text itself or create like an audio guide through your text, or maybe you lift those words and create word clouds or mind maps to see relationships between ideas that way. I’m sort of riffing abstractly here because I think you would do this differently depending on different concrete disciplines and contexts. But I think that the framework itself offers lots of different options that I point out the creation and creation categories in particular because in many ways it is the most unique for the digital context and might be the most surprising to people who might think of reading as just a process of underlining, and maybe leaving notes in the margin. There’s a lot more ways to think about and play with the ideas you get from text than just like “This idea is cool” or like “I have a question here.” You could expand a lot more and do a lot more and do a lot more to make text dynamic, I think.
John: One of the things I’ve been using in a couple of my classes for the last couple years is Hypothesis, where I have digital versions of some readings, generally working papers and studies, within the LMS. And then students go through and annotate it and tag it, which kind of forces them, I think, to analyze things a little bit more deeply. And they can comment on each other’s and so forth. And it’s been a really useful tool, which wouldn’t work very well with a physical text.
Jenae: Yes, I love the collaborative component of a tool like Hypothesis, too. It makes reading social, which is something we also lose out on sometimes, unless you go to a used bookstore and you find like the treasure of a book that has someone else’s old annotations. That’s like one of my favorite things of all time. I miss used bookstores in our COVID-19 moment, I have to say. But, Hypothesis, it’s like getting to uncover that treasure of seeing how someone else thought of something, to make it clear that no one text exists in isolation, that you always necessarily need to have text together. I always feel reluctant to cite myself, but I’ll do it since I’m talking about my book in this podcast, anyway. I actually wrote a book chapter all about social annotation in an edited collection about marginalia, that I think speaks to exactly what tools like Hypothesis do. There’s actually a ton of great tools on the market now that do similar things. Perusall is also really good for doing what Hypothesis does. It’s a bit more of a closed system than Hypothesis. It doesn’t exist on the open web, it kind of locks it into a class community. I think there are pros and cons to that. PowerNotes is also a really cool tool that’s new on the market, where students can also collaboratively comment on each other’s. It’s not annotations tied directly to the text, but you comment on annotations in an outline view. So, it kind of privileges how students are rearranging ideas and building them into a topically formed outline. In the book, I have an appendix of tools that will be current as of the writing. Unfortunately, in any book about technology, the instant you publish it, some of it’s obsolete. So I tried really hard in the book not to get too tied to particular tools, because I wanted the concepts to be sort of translatable, because the sort of secret to this book is it’s about digital reading. But really, it’s more about having an expansive attitude to what it means to be a reader in the first place. And it happens to be responding to digital media as the technology that is most prevalent and most centrally part of our lives right now. But I think it’s really valuable to talk about particular tools to make this more concrete. That’s why there are tools in that appendix. And John, I love that you’re using Hypothesis. Have you tried out that too, Rebecca, or other kinds of annotation tools like that?
Rebecca: I haven’t, but I’m looking for an option that will allow us to also comment on images and layout.
Rebecca: So there’s some limitations to Hypothesis in the ways that I would want my students to use it. So, I haven’t quite found the best solution yet for what I’m hoping I can get in place for the fall?
Jenae: Yeah, I really would like to see a tool that does better image annotation too.
John: That might be an interesting application of VoiceThread, for example, where students can put the image on the screen and either put text notes to it or annotate the image directly, or just talk over it.
Rebecca: Yeah, it’s really like Hypothesis and VoiceThread need to like talk to each other and make a tool that combines some of the features of both, [LAUGHTER] because I like the fact that you can go to an actual web page and interact with something in that space where it was designed, because the design piece of it is actually important to me, and it’s dynamic nature, rather than just taking screenshots. So, that’s where I’m finding limitations in the tools currently.
Jenae: VoiceThread is a great recommendation though, John for engaging with multimedia. I love that students too can comment with either text or audio or video. And this conversation’s really speaking to the importance of space and making options and opportunities available. And to Rebecca’s point about limitations, it’s also important from the instructor side to know… Rebecca, it sounds like you have a really clear sense of purpose, what you want your students to do. It sounds like you have that too, John, and that’s where we really want people to begin… this is my technologist side speaking… we want people to begin with their own pedagogical purpose, with their goals, before they start selecting tools. That’s the danger in this conversation about digital reading is that we start first with foregrounding the tool and don’t think about the why. So I always like to begin with that purpose piece. It’s important to go down the features rabbit hole, because part of how we shape the environment. But, we also don’t want ta decision to adopt novel things for the sake of adopting novel things.
Rebecca: I think the foundation of compassion in the work that you’re doing is really important too, because it really is a very inclusive perspective in who’s involved in reading, why we’re reading, and it’s against the deficit model. I really appreciate the idea that there’s like a future of reading that’s exciting and new, and we can all be a part of it, that really supports this moment today. And I’d like to hear a little bit more about some of the compassion pieces of your work if you would be willing to share them.
Jenae: Sure. So, I’d say put up like the UDL piece that kind of gets strung throughout. This compassion piece to me gets threaded throughout the book in the same way that I think my work on UDL, or grappling with UDL, gets threaded across the book, because I think a student-centered philosophy is inherently compassionate. If you’re thinking about who’s going to be a part of your learning experience on the other end, and recognize that students are really bringing good intent into the classroom… when you start from that space and saying, students are the ones experiencing this learning. And for the most part, we have to trust our students to want to come and and have agency in their learning experience. I think something that’s important when you center compassion is recognizing, too, that not every student is like you. I know for me as a really enthusiastic reader, it’s easy occasionally to feel disheartened when students don’t like to read, or don’t want to read, or don’t do the reading. At the end of my book, in my conclusion, I talked about hearing lots of hallway conversations as an instructor about “Oh, I’m so upset. My students never do the reading. They don’t like to do the readings.” and that can feel sad because we want people to feel as excited about what we assigned to them as we feel about it. A third thread in the book then is sort of saying, “Hey, when you can open up your practices, you also help students come at reading where they are.” a student-centered design philosophy says, “You’re going to find your own enthusiastic pathway in here.” And we also need to recognize as part of the compassionate philosophy, also a forgiveness side of like, “If you don’t like this, this isn’t what you like, that’s cool, too.” I was never a strong STEM student. And so I remember in college, I never put very much time… I took like the dinosaurs class for my science class, which I thought be like the easy science option. It was not. I’ll just say that. That was like one of the hardest classes I took in college was the class on dinosaurs. We had to identify dinosaur bone structures. [LAUGHTER] That was really tough, but I can still tell you the different kinds of dinosaur hips, just saying, if you ever want to know, that the dinosaurs have two different kinds of hips. So, I learned things but that’s not to say that like I did the bare minimum in the dinosaurs class to learn the dinosaur bone structures. And I think that we have to accept that our students like that our classes might not be the class, this might not be their major, this might not be what they’re passionate about. So, the more options that we give, to helping them kind of get into this, the more we can again, recognize, see, appreciate, where they are at different moments. One last thing I’ll say about compassionate courses in our current moment, where we’re all sort of forced to be remote, this compassion is even more important. So, I see understanding the possibilities of digital reading as yet another way to include students who might not have preferred to read on screen, but who find they’re forced to because they don’t have access to printers to make paper copies of their readings, they don’t have access to the library, because every library everywhere is closed. And so, a part of this is saying, “Hey, you can still get what you need. Do what is motivating you right now, even if you don’t have access to these materials, rather than kind of falling back to this model of ‘being online is deficient.’ ‘Reading digitally is deficient,’” and saying “Look, it doesn’t have to be, and it might not still be your preference.” I mean, I think lots of students at this moment are going to appreciate face-to-face instruction even more. Many might find a lot to love about remote learning, it’s going to be a range. But again, the more options we can give, the more we show compassion to the different circumstances and needs that might be shaping our student experiences. So, kind of a long answer to that question, but there’s a lot to unpack there too. I think.
John: We always end with the question, what’s next?
Jenae: So a few things are next, given that the book will not be out until sometime in early 2021, I am designing right now as workshops and webinars around components of the book that I’m hoping will make certain pieces sort of portable and accessible in the meantime, since as at the time of recording, a lot of colleges are deciding about remote learning options, hybrid learning options, HyFlex learning options, so I’m hoping to tie in some conversation about digital reading with designing in different course models and how we could design learning activities around reading and writing that might be aligned with some online course design work. So I’m really, really excited about thinking through those possibilities. Another component, and I don’t know if this is a piece of writing yet, or something else. But a big piece of the book that I had to cut was about how digital reading operates in the service of developing digital literacy. I’m really interested in thinking about how, in our moment of being more connected and more remote, how colleges can better support students in acquiring digital literacies of various kinds, whether this is using different kinds of software applications for learning, or whether this is just becoming sort of more aware and critical of the infrastructures and tools that shape our reading experiences. I have a chapter in the book that’s all about kind of the dark underbelly of EdTech and the ways in which, even with adopting new tools, we need to be mindful of the lifespan of digital archives as in things that are on the web live forever. [LAUGHTER] And there’s still a lot more awareness raising we need to do and questioning we need to do of people who design EdTech solutions to make sure that we’re remaining cognizant of student safety and privacy. And as instructors, we need to know how to ask good questions about data collection, even around work like reading that might feel like it’s sort of innocuous and not terribly invasive. It still could be, depending on what students are reading or what they’re commenting on. So, I do think that there’s more work, I would like to do that interrogates how we help students become more aware and more critical of the infrastructures in which texts are available to them. And on the instructor end, I’d like to help think about how instructors themselves might develop the literacies to also be able to question and adopt ethical solutions for reading as well.
John: I’m really looking forward to reading your book, and I’ll put it on pre-order as soon as it’s listed somewhere. And we will share a link to your infographic and any other things you referred to in our show notes.
Rebecca: Yeah, I’m looking forward to reading your work and also your new work that you’re thinking about and ruminating over and also the workshops and things that you might do related to your book prior to your book coming out. Thanks so much for joining us.
Jenae: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.