Social Reading and the Online Classroom (Part I of II)

In an April 9, 2017, article in Salon, Martin Harris explored the potential implications of the rise of social reading and story creation. He proposed, “Our stories are going social and, as new platform technologies remake the reading experience into something increasingly interactive, we now must ask what we’re giving up in the bargain.”

With crowdsourcing of books and other social interactions regarding reading changing the creation of stories, the “quiet empathy of solitary styles,” he explains, could disappear. Social networks and the ever-present possibility of sharing over a text could reshape the reading experience fundamentally, with other audiences or connections always present.

Harris raises this cautionary tale that points to issues that also arise in the college classroom. I am not alone among my colleagues to remark upon students’ difficulty with engaging with long texts. Without any strong evidence base we nevertheless speculate about whether social media platforms are creating different expectations for textual engagement, perhaps even weakening students’ abilities to concentrate in solitude over long, technical readings.

But social reading may also present possibilities for the college classroom. By catering to how students are accustomed to engaging over texts, social reading has the potential to identify areas of student confusion; help students prepare more effectively for class; learn how to read textbooks, dissect primary sources, and identify arguments; and create engaged online spaces. In this post, the first of two, after reviewing a few tools that are available, I’ll explore how I’ve been using social reading in my online survey. In the next, I’ll discuss my use of social reading in an in-person elective.

Social reading could be performed using any number of existing tools. File-sharing in real time via Google Docs or Dropbox would allow multiple students to read and comment on (or edit) a document simultaneously. Uploading a pdf with an attached discussion would allow students to engage with the text and others as they read, with students submitting questions for discussion in class. Crowdsourced tools such as Padlet enable students to share their own links, images, documents, and summaries and comment, enabling for conversation over documents and images in multiple ways.

In my own courses, I’ve used the Padlet method above, particularly to facilitate informal conversations about books read. (I’ve had students “cast” with modern actors the characters and historical figures of various memoirs and historical novels we’ve read). It provides students with a familiar-feeling space to engage over texts that are sometimes hard to parse or connect to their own lives.

Most recently, I’ve been using the tool Perusall in my online and in-person classes. Perusall allows students to converse over a text in the side bar, ask questions (and upvote questions and useful answers). Unlike the other tools, it also provides useful algorithms and rubric-based auto grading to assess the quality and quantity of student contributions.

In my online US survey class, I went through the textbook and insert discussion questions to have students put the events into their own words. I’ve also incorporated short Bedford Document collections to help students read and analyze primary sources and create historical analysis. I’ve been gratified to be able to have this glimpse into how students are processing these historical questions. I am still trying to figure out how to identify particular areas of confusion that might not come though their questioning while also allowing space for students to figure out the information in their own words, informally. But the algorithms for evaluation have been useful in assessing student understanding, and I see the potential for the tool to not only replicate the in-person classroom, but also better identify student learning and improvement.

In the online survey, I see the social reading area as a stand-in for the in-person classroom. They receive information (the lecture/textbook), and discussion questions to help them process the information. They then apply their knowledge to primary source discussions. For longer, formal assessments, I ask reflective and thematic questions to tie the information they looked at across chapters. They also write a creative paper that uses three documents from the various readers to construct a narrative of change over time about some aspect of American life. I’m still reflecting on how I can craft these assignments to take best advantage of the social reading platform and connect to the conversations had there — that’s the next step!

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