Digital texts and materials have been increasingly used in college classes. In this episode Jenae Cohn joins us to explore some of the affordances of digital texts and discuss strategies for effectively engaging with digital material. Jenae is the Director of Academic Technology at California State University Sacramento and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading, which has been recently released by West Virginia University Press.
- Cohn, J. (2021). Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading. West Virginia University Press.
- Christina Haas (1997). Writing Technology: Studies In The Materiality Of Literacy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 1996
- Smale, M. A. (2020). “It’s a lot to take in.” Undergraduate Experiences with Assigned Reading. CUNY Academic Works. 1-10.
- Smale, M. A., & Regalado, M. (2016). Digital technology as affordance and barrier in higher education. Springer.
- Power Notes
- Kalir, R., & Garcia, A. (2019). Annotation. MIT Press.
John: Digital texts and materials have been increasingly used in college classes. In this episode we explore some of the affordances of digital texts and discuss strategies for effectively engaging with digital material.
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 Jenae Cohn. She is the Director of Academic Technology at California State University Sacramento and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading, which has been recently released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series on teaching and learning, edited by James Lang. Welcome, Jenae.
Jenae: Thank you, Rebecca. Thanks for having me.
John: We’re glad to talk to you again.
Jenae: Such fun.
John: And we’re really glad to see your book out. When we last talked to you, you were finishing it up but we didn’t actually get to see it. So this time, we’ve had a chance to actually read it before talking to you.
Jenae: Oh, I’m so thrilled you’ve had a chance to read it. It’s so exciting to get to talk to people about it, finally.
John: Today’s teas are… Are you drinking tea?
Jenae: I am drinking tea today. I’ve got an English Breakfast tea.
Rebecca: I’ve got a Scottish afternoon tea. So, do you have something for the evening, John? [LAUGHTER]
John: No, I actually have English Breakfast tea from Tea Pigs, which is a new tea company for me. It was a gift.
Rebecca: That’s an unusual choice.
John: It’s very good, actually.
Jenae: I’m always up for new tea recommendations. I have a whole tea shelf. I was really born ready for this podcast. So I am wishing I had some Sleepy Time now to complete the full…
Rebecca: I know, right?
Jenae: …section of daytime to nighttime. That’s alright, it’s still morning here for me. So, I wasn’t quite ready for that yet. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I go straight for the afternoon, even in the morning. So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Skim, Dive, Surface. Digital content has been really increasing in our college classes for some time. And there are some affordances of digital content that print content doesn’t have, like OER and some accessibility features, etc. Can you talk a little bit about some of the affordances of digital content?
Jenae: Sure, I’d be glad to. And I love that we’re starting from this place of affordances., ‘cause I think often enough in our teaching, we can make choices about what we use based on our prior experiences, or what we found comfortable. And I would love to see us having a measured conversation about what we get when we make these choices, to be really mindful about the kinds of choices that we make. So, to me, one of the greatest affordances of thinking about adopting digital text is their flexibility. Digital texts can be modified and they can be transformed on different kinds of devices and using different kinds of applications. So when you’re encountering a printed book, something that publishers and writers really love is that you can really control the experience. And sometimes there’s real pleasure in seeing that really controlled experience. But, for a student, for a teaching context, being able to modify the size or the shape of the text, to modify the spacing, to be able to cut and paste and remix things, that can really be of tremendous benefit on the learning side of things. Rebecca, you mentioned equity-based concerns around digital reading as well. And I think that’s, to me, the hugest motivation to doing this work. We know that, according to EDUCAUSE data that’s been collected for years, we know that mobile device usage in college classrooms is nearly ubiquitous at this point. Mobile devices are not a luxury device, they are the standard device that students use. And they’ll often choose to use a mobile phone for their learning more than a laptop, more than buying scores of heavy textbooks. So the more that we can make our learning experiences accessible on mobile, the easier it is for us to be able to reach students who, again, may not have access to more than one device or who may not have the budget to be buying all their books, who might be doing a lot of their learning on a bus on their way to campus, for example. When people start repopulating campuses, one thing I think we’ve learned in the Covid-19 pandemic is that mobile phones were often a more stable source of WiFi internet connection than home wireless access was. So we also knew that from a kind of a download access perspective too, mobile really provided a lot of touch points that made access to materials even easier. But I sometimes struggle to read on a mobile phone. That’s not how I learned to read. But there are some things that I read all the time on my mobile phone. So the more that we can think about, again, what’s possible in those spaces, the transportability, the adaptability, the flexibility, the more we can start to think inventively about how we’re distributing and thinking about access in those spaces.
John: You mentioned mobile devices as a platform for student reading. And that’s especially true for first-generation students and students from lower income households, who face some of the greater challenges in being successful and continuing their studies. So I think that adds to that equity component, And one of the reasons we’ve been pushing for this on our campus… and I think this is true everywhere… is that, in general, text in digital format is easier to distribute to students through the LMS so they have day one access, where if you have physical textbooks, generally students have to pay for them, and sometimes that’s a bit of a struggle for students in coming up with the funds to require textbooks. And certainly with OER, but with digital materials in general, you can have them there so that all students start from an equitable standpoint.
Jenae: Absolutely. It’s a great point that often our OERs are digitized, which makes them more affordable when we’re concerned with student budgets. Not all digital texts are affordable, but the other piece I’d like to mention here, that I think I always appreciate underscoring is that a lot of libraries have way more access to digital collections through the kinds of publication packages that they purchase. I think we forget about the amazing resources our librarians are thinking about. And so many of our librarians are educators who are being really thoughtful about what they’re procuring online, there’s also this real potential if we’re willing to accept that good, deep, close, mindful reading can happen on screen that we really get this world of new things that might be opened up to vis-a-vis collaborating with our librarians, and thinking about what kinds of types of texts or resources might be really well suited for the kinds of educational goals we might have.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that I discovered from doing some interviews with students about their experience learning during the pandemic, is that access to textbooks was actually a really big problem, because some of them depended on course reserves and things physically in the library. And then when they went home during remote learning, and then maybe even any online courses afterwards, they just had a lot less access, because, previously, they might have shared a physical book with other students even so that it was more affordable,
Jenae: Right, absolutely. I think libraries had to be really creative in giving students that access that maybe we took for granted, when we were thinking about the campus from a brick and mortar only perspective. And especially when it comes to books and reading, we kind of come by the attachment to the printed books quite honestly. Decades of survey research suggests that students and faculty alike prefer and find, or at least think that, they read more effectively by print. Librarians have researched this, literacy scholars have researched this, neuroscientists have researched this, and they’ve all basically found the same result. So I think there’s been a lot of behavior that has been driven around that data. And I don’t mean to suggest that we should ignore that data, I think there’s probably lots of people who do read more closely and more analytically when they have a paper book in front of them. I don’t think that data means that it’s impossible to read in a digital space effectively well, we really just have to be thinking about strategies that work for it and assignments that are aligned.
Rebecca: As a designer, I appreciate the physical artifact of a book. And I was really, really, actually very resistant to reading online, but wasn’t for pleasure, which is really weird, because I’m a digital designer. I design websites, I design apps, that’s the kind of design I do. And I was really resistant to that for all of those kinds of emotional reasons probably. And it wasn’t really until the last couple years that I started using a digital format for more scholarly work or research. I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner. I’m discovering all of the affordances that I should have known as a designer who designed things digitally, [LAUGHTER] it’s just you get into habits and you don’t think of these things. So can you talk a little bit about some of the reasons why students find reading digitally more challenging than in a print format?
Jenae: Sure, there are a number of things that come up when students read online. One of them is what rhetorician Christina Haas studied a long time ago, back in the early 90s, actually. So we’ve been thinking about digital reading for quite some time. But she found in some small scale studies of student reading behaviors online that students lost what she coined “text sense” this ability to sort of locate and recall information based on where they appeared spatially. So one real challenge is when you read online, and you’re moving from kind of the logic of a codex, a traditional printed or bound book, which sort of moves from left to right in a certain kind of way, is a linear narrative order. When you move from that to what is typically sort of a scroll when you read on a screen, that creates a different sense of spatial awareness of where you might find that information. So it can be harder to remember, for example, where a certain key point was made, where you don’t have the materiality of paper to dog ear a page, for example, to create a kind of tactile difference in where you find information. That can be a challenge. So you do have to come up with some new strategies for simple memory and comprehension recall. The other research in this space, again, especially from cognitive psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that in small time studies people of all ages, young and old, do tend to remember information better from print, again, especially if it’s short recall, because of that text sense, that ability to really quickly and nimbly place where information might be found in a book. Another challenge to reading on screen that students might have that they might have been used to in print are some strategies around annotation as well. I think that, in a lot of contexts, students have learned how to use a highlighter or a pen to underline or mark where important information is on a page. And it’s not always immediately obvious where you might do that annotation work online, unless you have learned about tools available for markup. So I’ve always been surprised when I’ve worked with students at all kinds of institutions… every place I’ve been in, there’s always this range of what students just know about how to markup or read digital documents. Some students know all about PDF editors and readers. Some students know about browser extensions or add ons that might allow them to annotate web pages. But many don’t. Many think that the only way that you can mark up a text is by printing it out. And this isn’t just students, faculty, professionals, people all over are still learning. I don’t know that, for whatever reason, there’s necessarily widespread awareness of what it really can look like to manipulate texts that are not designed to be manipulated,…again, especially documents like PDFs that are stable, that are designed not to be necessarily changed. So there is a certain amount of scaffolding that we would need to do with students to help them understand exactly how they can directly engage with or build upon that affordance, and as we discussed at the beginning of this conversation, to have that real flexibility to modify and engage with the text and make it their own.
John: And students at some point in their educational career had learned how to use highlighters, and they were given highlighters by their parents at some point. But as you said, they’ve never been taught how to mark up digital documents. One of the things you suggest is that that’s probably something that we should work with them on in our courses. Are there any suggestions of where that should occur? Or is that the conversation, perhaps, we should all have with our students when we’re giving them digital text?
Jenae: Right, I think there’s a couple things we’d want to engage with students on and not take for granted. And I would maybe even take one step back and just engage students in conversation about what it looks like for them when they read in academic context. To your point, John, I do think that many students have been equipped with some of the skills to do basic markup in print. But some didn’t even get that. Maura Smale, who’s a librarian and researcher herself,has a great article about reading, and she surveyed a bunch of students and the quote that still really stands out to me, she talked to one student who said “In college reading is your problem.” And that quote, really still just sticks out to me, because it just goes to show that, I think,as instructors in a college setting we can take for granted that students have learned this academic skill to be able to figure out what to do with the reading. And as instructors, I think we need to be challenged to think really critically about what we also want students to be doing with that reading. Do we want students to read for content uptake? Are we wanting them to learn key terms, critical definitions, concepts? Are we asking students to do what a lot of humanities faculty call close reading, which is trying to unpack language and see what we learn from language choices? Are we wanting students to read like writers, that is, are we wanting them to read to emulate certain conventions in the discipline or the field? So there’s a lot of reasons why we need students to read. Sometimes we don’t always articulate this. So I would say that one thing we could do with students is to make explicit what our intentions are for the reading task as well. And to also ask, “What have they done? What strategies have worked for them? What have they found useful?” Just as you might ask them to do the same when they’re starting a new writing project, we want to think about the genres of what they’re reading and how those genres might shape the kind of actions that they take. Then when you start thinking about media on top of that, then we can start to open up to what strategies, tools, or resources might make those ways of reading possible. So just as an example, if you’re wanting students to read closely, just read for language moves, to do a close reading, those kinds of markup and annotation tools might be extremely useful for, say, color coding a document for certain kinds of moves or patterns that they’re noticing in the language. But if you’re wanting students really to read in a more curatorial way, that is wanting students to read for research, pull out a bunch of main points, put them together, come up with their own argument or analysis, maybe that highlighting is still useful, but there might also be tools like citation managers, bookmarking tools, heck, even a really good word processor, using the sort of capacity of the word processor to copy and paste and bring things over to make a kind of collage of new ideas. These are other kinds of tools we can leverage as reading tools. But again, we’ll have to think about why those tools might be serving our purposes successfully. And it won’t always be obvious to students what those hacks are. Sometimes they’ll come up with new things and ways to do it, but until we make explicit the ways that we are inviting this reading work, it won’t be clear how to really adapt the media in any way.
Rebecca: And I think one thing that comes up in your book, too, is the idea that there’s a lot of tools to handle a lot of these different techniques, some only work on one platform, which might not be the most optimal choice. But sometimes that’s all you have, and that you need to find a suite of options that are available across different platforms and things like that, because we don’t want students who have to read, perhaps, on their phone to feel like they’re not included or that they don’t have access to things and that there are tools available but they may not be aware of them. I’m always surprised even for students not realizing that there’s an Acrobat reader for their phone and that they can have things read out loud to them with a pretty easy free tool.
Jenae: Yes, text-to-speech applications are so transformative for so many students, text-to-speech applications are the perfect example of “accommodations for some” are “accommodations for everyone.” As long as we, to your point Rebecca, make those options really visible, we can really empower students to figure out what works well for them, that we don’t need to get too rigid in our conception of what’s possible. I was worried that some readers would see all those tool options in the book and think, “Oh, that’s so overwhelming. I don’t want to have to learn how to use six different things, so I don’t know how to recommend to students a whole suite of things that I barely use any of them myself.” And so I do encourage readers or listeners who are feeling that way, or having that reaction, to just know that they’re not alone in doing this work. I would say there are resources on your campus that you can tap into to learn what some of the options are. A lot of institutions do have some really good local tools and solutions that go beyond the kind of private or free options that are more well known and well recognized. So I really tried to steer away in the book from naming particular tools where I could, that’s one really good way to date your book, and make it not very useful after a small sliver of time. But I do have an appendix with some contemporary options in case people really just want the list of tools. But I would encourage collaboration, not just with other colleagues in your department or your discipline, but again, I’m really pushing hard for libraries today. [LAUGHTER] Libraries are really great places to talk to about these tools, IT offices, teaching and learning centers. And I suspect that listeners to this podcast are already tapping into those resources. But it’s a good reminder that staff and faculty on campus can really partner on some of these initiatives. And these offices are there to do the research, to create the infrastructure that makes these different options available to everyone.
John: One of the things that economists have often noted is that when new technologies appear to do things that were done in a different way, in the past, people generally try to do the things in the same way. So when, for example, water power was replaced by internal combustion engines, and then later by electric power, and so forth, people initially were using the same basic systems where there was one central mechanism transmitting power to different locations in the building. And it took decades and in some cases, centuries, to fully exploit the new technology. I think the same thing happens when we have new ways of teaching. When people first started teaching online, they initially tried to replicate all the things they did in the classroom, whether they worked well in the classroom or not, they tried to come up with equivalents, and it took a while for us to come up with more effective ways of teaching asynchronously. I think maybe the same sort of thing is happening here. And that initially, the first thing people wanted to do were to be able to highlight and to be able to put bookmarks in digital text. But as you’ve suggested, there’s a lot more that you can do when text is in a digital format. What are some of the ways in which digital reading environments can transform the way in which we engage with content more effectively than occurred when it was in a fixed print format? You’ve mentioned a little bit about that. But I think there’s several other things you talk about in your book.
Jenae: Yeah, I have the most affection for the chapter where I cover 1000s of years [LAUGHTER] of media history, which was also the hardest and most painstaking chapter to write, because I was terrified that I would misrepresent all the complexity of book history. But in any case, we can get back to that at some other point.
John: Before we leave that, though, that was one of the things that really struck me, where you mentioned talking about how when people were first reading, they were reading aloud as the normal default mode of reading, because that’s how communications had taken place in the past. And there was concern that reading silently would result in learning less than by speaking the text aloud. And it struck me that that’s happened so many times with any new technology in education or ways of engaging with content.
Jenae: Yes, I think it’s really easy to forget that history. And to forget that books are a new technology. Books themselves, as a ubiquitous technology, are only a couple hundred years old. That’s so mind blowing. I could not stop geeking out over that [LAUGHTER] as I was working on this book, to realize that so many of the assumptions about reading and writing I have held so dear, are very contemporary assumptions that in… gosh, just like the 16th century, the 17th century, orality was really the primary means of distributing information, of comprehending information. Memory was the most valued component of being a literate individual… that is so different in the moment we’re in now where we want to sort of ossify ideas in a very linear form, which is really what a Codex, the printed book, privileges as a technology. There’s a very iterative relationship between media technologies and what we value in our thinking. And something that struck me in writing this book are the cyclical patterns in which our technologies and assumptions we make about our technologies change our assumptions and values about what good learning is, or what acceptable sociability is, or what acceptable learning behaviors look like. And so the same thing is happening in a digital moment where because reading on screen looks different than reading on print, it’s less linear, it’s less controlled, it is less bound… there’s a pun there… is less bound to a certain isolated knowledge space that the author kind of creates. Those things seem like they are less rigorous and less scholarly, when, again, those perceptions of what rigor is and what good reading is. It’s a social construct that’s bound up in the material conditions of how we learn.
John: But even going back further, the book itself was seen as something that would cause us to lose the memory skills that people had from trying to memorize things directly. People objected to books, they objected to reading silently. And we’re seeing exactly the same objections to digital reading. I thought that whole section of your book was fascinating. And I learned a lot from it.
Jenae: Oh, thank you, I’m so glad. [LAUGHTER] Again, it was the portion of the book that I feel like was definitely the last practical part of the book. But maybe as a humanist, in my own training, I really enjoyed that process of getting to tell a very, very, very slivered slice of that history, because really, there’s no way I could really capture centuries of scholarship. But I felt like we needed to have some context to recognize that what we’re struggling with is not new, I think it’s easy in narratives about technology to just focus on the novelty, to focus on what’s shiny and different. And as a technologist, I resist that too. That really, when we’re thinking about technology, I like to shift the conversation more into thinking about space, and about behavior, and about activity, and less about what’s the latest, greatest gadgetry for the sake of gadgetry? I realized I never answered your question. It got us started on this about what we could do differently with digital reading. So I’m happy to go there.
John: So what are some of the new ways of engaging with content provided by digital formats.
Jenae: So I think there’s a handful of things that are really, I’d say, uniquely possible in digital environments. And I’ll frame what I’m about to describe in terms of the digital reading framework that’s really at the heart of this book. And so there are five strategies for digital reading, that they’re broad strategies and, in many ways, the strategies that you could use for reading in any media, but I call them strategies for digital reading framework, because I think you can uniquely map some affordances in digital environments to the strategies. So for example, one thing that’s really unique about digital environments is how easy it is to curate… curation is the first part of my framework… how easy it is to curate lots of different pieces of information, and bring them together. You can, of course, do curatorial activities in print by, say, organizing index cards, or putting together a filing cabinet of articles and information. But online, you can curate even more of a detailed level. So, for example, there are activities I really like to do with students where we use things like tags, you know, metadata, that users generate to create clusters of information. So, if you invite students to tag, for example, a collection of articles they’re finding for research, they can start to see what key topics or terms might be shared across sources they might not have otherwise seen, if they were just trying to index that. You could put together broad buckets of information under those tags much more easily with citation management tools, for example, or you could go even a little bit more old fashioned and use bookmarking tools for this in your browser. You have bookmarking tools where you could create folders that are basically topical tags to sort things. You can even do it on a desktop if you want to do this offline, you could create folders that are organized by subject headers or tags to put things together and create collections of resources. That’s one thing I think is unique is its ability to bring a lot of information together. The other thing I think is really unique and exciting about working online is the second part of my framework, which is connection, which is this easy ability to link lots of different pieces of information together. Again, you could do this in print when you look at the references section of a printed out article or the works cited of a book. You can find them there, but when you’re online, it’s so much easier to generate and follow hyperlinks from one website to the next or to look at a citation trail and see who has cited whom and see how particular ideas are connected to each other, or even at the sentence level to see whether a reference to a particular person or place can be connected to encyclopedic information about that person or place to deepen your knowledge of things that are referred to in the text itself. Let’s say there’s also a description of an image or a graph, you could find the illustration of that and make that connection between the visual and the textual to create a more multimodal experience as well. Again, all possible in print, just easier and uniquely accessible to do when you’re doing this work digitally, I’ll say one more thing that I think is unique about working digitally. And I’m gonna veer a little off from the framework here, but we can return to that if you’d like, but that reading digitally can be even more nimbly social, and more easily shareable. With print, the best ways that we can share ideas are by talking about this, as we’re doing now. Of course, if you go to a used bookstore, you might find some good books that have written annotations of people of yore in them, which always feels like a wonderful discovery. But online, there are all kinds of tools where you can annotate together in real time. So this can be done in something as simple as a Microsoft Word document with Track Changes where you can share back and forth, a Google Doc, a lot of people use now as a really easy way to annotate in real time, and of course, there are specialized tools that make social annotation visible as well, Hypothesis is a very popular one, Perusall, is another popular one, Power Notes is another popular one. There’s a whole suite of things now that are really encouraging students and faculty to work together to make their thinking really visible and social in one text. And I think all those movements have such transformative potential to spark conversation, because reading really is about having a good conversation.
John: I’ve been using Hypothesis in a couple of my classes now for the last three years and students have just found it so incredibly engaging, and that they’re reading things so much more deeply and having conversations right in the text, which is so much more informed than when they were working on a discussion forum online talking about it, or even when we had class discussions about it. My students have generally responded extremely positively to that social annotation process.
Jenae: That’s wonderful. I’m glad to hear it. There’s good scaffolding that needs to make that happen. Your social annotations can turn into a discussion board quite easily. Without the framing, there’s a potential to highlight part of a text and have someone comment and someone else say “I agree.” But, the book actually offers some strategies. It sounds like you’re doing this brilliantly, John, if you’re getting really good results from your students. I’d be curious to hear how you’re framing it because that’s always, I think, the challenge. And in the book, I do talk about some things you could ask students to look for, simple prompts, not just highlighting moments that are important, but also inviting students to ask questions, or inviting students to look at which parts are sort of popular when you do look for things that are important or interesting. So there’s a lot of different ways you can frame that task.
Rebecca: I did that trick with my syllabi during the pandemic, to get students to make sure they’re looking at the syllabus and doing a careful reading of the syllabus and see if there was any policy questions and things and encourage questions about it. And we ended up having some really great conversations as a result of essentially annotating the digital version of the syllabus.
Jenae: Yes, that’s a great assignment. Remi Kalir has some great articles about annotating the syllabus. I don’t know if that was part of your inspiration. And Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia also just wrote a great book about annotation from MIT Press that I think is really… someone’s listening to this and thinking, “Oh, I want to learn more about annotation.” My book is one starting point there. But their book is a much deeper dive into just annotation as a learning practice.
John: We’ll include the citation for that in the show notes.
Rebecca: When we start talking about social annotation, one question that may arise for folks is privacy issues and ethical issues about sharing and making something that historically we might be thinking of as being a private experience more public. So can you talk a little bit about some of these ethical issues around digital reading?
Jenae: Yes, I’d be glad to. And in the third part of my book, I address this conversation in a lot more depth. So this will be sort of a thumbnail sketch of thinking about the real ethical dimensions, as you put it, to digital reading. So, when it comes to social annotation, in particular, we have to be, I think, really thoughtful in our framing about what we’re asking students to share. One thing I would suggest is, as instructors, if you’re going to ask students to use any kind of annotation-based software, (A) to make it really clear to students who will see it. So with most social annotation tools, you can control the privacy settings to make sure that certain annotations might only be visible to the class community. But as an instructor, there is, I think, a little bit of responsibility on you to do that research and to make sure you understand before you ask for mandates and tools, that you know, where students data is going, when they enter it into any kind of cloud-based platform or internet-based platform, in particular. I think this is where tools like Google Docs, especially, get into very dicey privacy-based territory, because Google, in particular, we know has a track record of… especially if you’re using an instance of Google Docs not managed by your institution… that data is owned… all of your written data is owned by Google and is used for optimizing their ad services. So I think before we just sort of uncritically adopt these tools, we have to think about the implications of what we’re doing and give students the option to opt out. Social annotation can be really powerful and really transformative. But there always needs to be ways for students to contribute if they don’t want to have their words online or they don’t want to use a platform. Even if it is private to the class, we still always need to let students make evidence of their work private, because ultimately their thinking is their intellectual property. But it’s also just we want to make sure students have the agency to decide where and how their thinking is made visible. So I would say the other thing we want to think about with digital leading too is where we’re asking the students to read. I think we can forget that every website we go to on the internet is tracked, whether that’s the browser based cookies, if we’re using a university proxy network, a VPN, the University knows [LAUGHTER] where we’re going on the internet. Again, that sounds a little scary, but it’s true. That’s just the reality of the connected world that we live in. It’s not necessarily dangerous, but it could be. There’s always sort of potential for data to be weaponized in ways that we need to be cognizant of. So I would just say that, for as many possibilities as there are, there are also risks that we need to assess and be mindful of. And I realize one reaction to this risk is let’s just go back to paper [LAUGHTER] and forget about it. Why put ourselves into the surveillance network that is the internet for our learning. But there are real risks to reading in print too. There’s less permanence. If I spilled my tea on this book, this book work is no longer accessible to me. It’s like paper’s actually a very fragile technology that way. There’s a reason that some people’s whole jobs are to be preservationists of print materials. So we have to kind of weigh the risks and affordances. And again, give our students choices where we can. So that might just mean, again, as an instructor, letting students for example, if they don’t want to annotate publicly, they could probably easily do the annotation in a Word document and send that to you privately to have it be an offline document, they can even expand their thoughts on a print book and take a picture. If they’re really insistent on doing that, that’s still a kind of digital reading, in a way, even if they’re using a print-based technology to do the optical work of scanning the words on a page, they can again, snip a picture, send it to you, and keep the digital infrastructure intact. And I think encouraging questions… If you as an instructor don’t know what the privacy policies are on the technologies you use, again, partnership with your IT office that looks into information security concerns all the time, your accessibility office that might also be thinking about the risks associated for students who might not always be able to use particular technologies, these are all things that can start to be thinking about when we design these activities and work in these spaces. It might not all happen at once, and that’s okay, too. I think it’s always good to experiment and think about what’s best for maintaining an active learning environment. But these are considerations that we don’t want to ignore, and it might just take our own continuous learning and our own continuous digital literacy development to really make sure we’re understanding just what we’re doing when we’re asking the students to work online.
John: You mentioned that that’s especially a concern with Google tools that are personal Google tools that you might ask students to use. But when you work with Google Apps for Education, there’s generally an agreement where the educational institution owns the data, which provides more privacy protection…
John: …and Google agrees not to use that in any commercial manner.
Jenae: Yes, that’s a great point. And so it’s certainly worth, if you don’t know, if your institution has a Google for Education license, this is just something to look into. Because to your point, John, the kinds of licenses your institution manages centrally may impact the ways in which student data is used. And yet another example of this… if your institution matches certain tools to protect logins behind Single Sign On authentication for your tool, so students have to log in with their university username and password, that also usually suggests a greater level of security than say a student has to create new accounts and logins to use the tool. Even more risky is if certain tools invite students to create an account with their Facebook username or other social media kinds of connections. If you’re looking to expand your students’ reading behaviors to some tools, it’s always worth just thinking about, “Okay, what are the access points my students will have to engage in to use this? To what extent is it disconnected from our university’s existing infrastructure? And what are the risks of moving further away from the infrastructure or using it?” And again, if you don’t know and you have questions, this is really what a lot of experts on campus are happy to talk to people about to understand those choices more clearly.
John: And even if there is a Google Apps for Education agreement, not all the apps that are provided may be subject to the terms of that. I know, in the SUNY system, there was a core set of apps that were negotiated. And then many other apps such as YouTube were not part of that agreement. So, use of that, or at least at SUNY, is not subject to the same set of protections as are the core apps of the educational platform, though, it is worth exploring, as you suggested.
Jenae: Yeah, I know, it’s kind of in the weeds. And sometimes it’s like, “Oh, gosh, all the legal and technical stuff is super complicated, it’s kind of frustrating.” But I think there’s also really, again, exciting potential to learn with your students. The world we live in now is a world where we both have access to so much more and once more things open up more risks just emerge. just kind of part of living in an interconnected world. And so I think that being curious is a really great habit of mind. And so sometimes I get down these conversations, I too can feel a little bit like, “Oh, it’s so annoying that we have to ask all these questions.” And yet I try to approach it from a perspective of curiosity. And that was part of my motivation for writing this book, too, was just being really curious about imagining what would happen if we really developed a clear understanding of what we get when we do our operations in digital spaces. What’s possible there, and how do we explore that in ways that are engaged and thoughtful and attuned to the material conditions of the world we’re in?
John: One of the nice things about your book is you include a set of activities that you can use in classes to help students engage more effectively with digital content. Could you share, perhaps, a couple of those?
Jenae: Sure, so this can kind of bring us back to our framework a bit. So maybe I’ll share a couple activities that we haven’t talked about yet. So a third component of the framework is “creativity.” And so these are activities that really inspire students to create new ideas based on what they’ve read. We know that reading is mentioned to inspire new thoughts and develop new ideas. So one activity that I think has a ton of potential is one that I call “visualize that” where we ask students to create some infographic or a map of what they’ve read and invite them to really take a step back. Again, doing this online isn’t possible in print. You could have someone draw an infographic. But there’s a lot of tools where students can easily create shapes, create maps, you could do this in your cyber tools, you could use this in explicitly designed mind mapping tools. And if you have students who can’t use these visual tools, or for whom visuals was not an especially effective way to learn, I found a good workaround is actually students create a spreadsheet, like an Excel spreadsheet, where they map connections between ideas to take a step back from the reading itself. So I think that’s one activity that is really exciting for reading digitally. Another one is in the contextualization section of the framework, which really invites to think about not just like how a text exists on its own, but why it exists, who wrote it, etc. So there’s one really simple activity that I call “the journalistic investigation,” gathering the who, what, where, when, why… which, again, you could do this in print, but what’s really nice about doing online is you could have students basically create a shared resource where they work together to gather: “Okay, what do we know about this author? Who are they? Where do they come from? Why do we care about them? Why did they write it? What are the contexts in which this book, or this article, or this piece of research exists?” …and to really inspire students to see text, not just kind of as a floating isolated thing that came from this author’s genius brain, [LAUGHTER] but that exists in a particular context. And that can really shape the way they understand that past.
Rebecca: Thanks for all those great ideas, Jenae, and really thinking through all of these different considerations of reading online and reading digitally. I know that everyone that picks up a copy of the book will find many nuggets within the pages that are far beyond what we talked about today. But we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”
Jenae: Yes. So one thing relevant to this book that’s next is that I will be at the Distance Teaching and Learning Conference hosted by the University of Wisconsin – Madison in August. I’m really honored to be one of the invited speakers of that conference where the theme is what’s next. And the topic for me is “what’s next is text.” So making the argument that as we think about futures of online learning, after a year of working remotely, that we really can take a step back to be thinking really critically about what we do with text in online spaces. I think a lot of folks got really into video and audio and the online moment, all of which is wonderful. And yet text is one of the most accessible, flexible, ways that we distribute content and engage with learning and learners if students don’t have access to high bandwidth, internet speeds using chat and using text-based tools really has tons of potential. So I’m thinking about expanding some of this work into, I would say, an even broader conversation about low-tech online learning is kind of where I’ve been really interested in going next with some of my work and thinking about how we kind of strip out the, I think, intimidating overhead of really high-tech gadgetry when we talk about teaching grant technology to remind ourselves that teaching with technology actually involves a lot of tools that are extremely low bandwidth, extremely easy to use, and can be really transformative and have a really high impact. So I don’t know what my next big project is, but I think I want it to have something to do with like low tech, high impact. I haven’t decided how yet. But immediate next is that conference. I hope to see some people there.
John: It’s great talking to you and we hope when you do come up with that next thing you want to address, that you’ll join us back on the podcast again.
Jenae: Oh, I hope so too. Thank you so much again for having me, always such a pleasure to speak with both of you, John and Rebecca. Thank you.
Rebecca: Thanks for your time, Jenae.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.