Commonplace Books: the Social Media of Yesteryear

Tom Standage in his blog post How commonplace books were like Tumblr and Pinterest summarizes a talk by Lee Humphreys in which she examined “how people in the 19th century would share their diaries with visiting families and friends by reading aloud: . . it was only in the early 20th century that diaries and journals came to be seen as private documents.  it was only in the early 20th century that diaries and journals came to be seen as private documents”

Standage continues by comparing Commonplace Books to today’s social media:

In my forthcoming book “Writing on the Wall” I make a similar argument about an earlier form of journal, the commonplace book. This was a kind of scrapbook, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, into which people would copy items of interest to create a personal trove of valuable information.  Commonplace books that survive from the Tudor period contain a huge variety of texts, . . Sonnets, ballads and epigrams jostle with diary entries, recipes, lists of ships or Cambridge colleges and transcriptions of speeches. Collecting useful snippets of information so that they could be easily retrieved when needed, or re-read to spark new ideas and connections, was one of the functions of a commonplace book.

People would sometimes lend their commonplace books or miscellanies to their friends, who could then page through the entries and copy anything of interest into their own books. The similarities and overlaps between several manuscript collections compiled at Oxford University indicate widespread sharing of both individual texts and entire collections among students and their tutors, for example. . . Only a minority of the texts that people circulated were original compositions; most material was quoted from other sources. The same is true of modern social-media systems: posting links and snippets found elsewhere is standard practice on blogs, Facebook and Twitter, and on some platforms, such as Pinterest and Tumblr, more than 80% of items shared are “repins” or “reblogs” of items previously posted by other users.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of Commonplace Books and started compiling one of my own for the year 2012, drawing on material I had posted to Facebook, to my ProfPat blog (about digital pedagogy and teaching a course on Women and Computers), and on items recorded in my notetaking TiddlyWiki software (described earlier here).  Then it occurred to me that it would be handy to have an online version – with clickable links – as well as a printed version, which is why I started this blog.


Crowdsourcing Serengeti Photos

“After Ali Swanson, an ecology researcher from the University of Minnesota, set up 225 cameras over 400 square miles of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, she was hit by the curse of Big Data: how do you make sense of the head-spinning contents of more than a million photographs?” (Daily Beast)

To identify so many photos, the researchers decided to enlist the aid of the public.  Anyone could register at the Snapshot Serengeti Project and begin identifying the animals and birds in the photos.  Multiple identifications of each photo help ensure accuracy, although the researchers also check things over.  The project, which began in December of 1012 was so popular that by the following February two years of photos were already classified.  The project is now engaged in uploading more photos for the public to identify.

The Serengeti Project is part of a larger University of Minnesota Lion Project which  “has been studying African lions in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area since the 1960’s. At any given time, our field teams keep track of about 330 lions in 24 prides in the Serengeti, and 50–60 lions in 5 prides on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater. . . over 5,000 lions have been included in the Serengeti and Crater studies over the past 40+ years.”  (SnapshotSerengeti)  To learn more about the findings from this lion research, read the blog written at the Snapshot Serengeti web site.

The Snapshot Serengeti Lion Project is one of many crowdsourcing projects located at Zooniverse where the public can assist in such projects as transcribing weather data from Royal Navy WW1 era ships (OldWeather) to searching for planets (Planet Hunters).

Other popular crowdsourcing projects include:

  •  Transcribe Bentham, the University College London’s efforts to digitize all the unpublished manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham
  • Project organized by the New York Public Library to transcribe and digitize more than 40,000 old menus
  • The U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Phrenology Program which asks the public to transcribe note cards recording bird migration observations
  • The Sixties Project which encourages members of the 60’s generation to contribute their own personal narratives.  The project also includes online exhibits, links to primary documents, and the online journal  Vietnam Generation.

Why do men drop out of college more than women?

According to a recent study in Gender and Society (as reported in the Girl w/ Pen blog), men are less likely to tolerate high college loan debt and hence are more prone to dropping out of college than women are.  Men college drop-outs can earn a lot more money than women drop-outs, so men’s behavior makes good short term economic sense (although by midlife men college grads earn $20,000 more per year than drop-outs).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data on median weekly earning for full-time workers 25 or older, women college drop-outs earn 25% less than their male counterparts.  In fact, women need a Bachelor’s degree in order to earn as much as men college drop-outs (to be precise, women with a Bachelor’s degree earn 11% more than men college drop outs).

 Median Weekly Earnings: First Quarter 2013 (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Full time workers 25 years and older



Women’s Wages as

Per cent of Men’s Wages

HS grad, no college

$   732



Some college or

associate degree

$   866



Bachelor’s degree only





MOOC completion rates for serious students quite respectable

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with enrollments often reaching 100,000 or more are famous (or infamous) for their low completion rates, averaging around 10%.  However, it appears that serious students in MOOCs have a much higher completion rate.  According to the co-founders of Coursera, students who turn in the first assignment have a completion rate of 45%.

For students who are paying $50 for the company’s new Signature Track program—which includes features designed as safeguards against identity fraud and cheating on examinations—the pass rates are even higher, at about 70 percent.

These completion rates substantiate the anecdotal evidence that many people enroll in MOOCs as lurkers or just to see what they are like, with no intention of actually completing the course.

Source: Steve Kolowich,  “Coursera Takes a Nuanced View of MOOC Dropout Rates“,  Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired Campus Blog of April 8, 2013.

MOOCs: to master predetermined content OR to participate in active learning, content creation communities?

Are today’s best known MOOCs , those provided by Coursera, Udacity and edX, really just a 21st century textbook,  as some argue?  Lisa Lane in her Online Teaching blog claims that most “use a pedagogy that is similar to an early 20th century correspondence course – read, test, repeat.”  Because the mainstream media focus on Coursera, Udacity and edX, the early MOOCs pioneered by George Siemens, Stephen Downes anesd others are often ignored.  These early MOOCs, beginning in 2008 and often known as cMOOCs or Connectivist MOOCs, are quite different from the widely publicized current MOOC offerings (sometimes known as xMOOCs) of Coursera, Udacity and edX.

According to Wikipedia “Connectivist MOOCs are based on several principles stemming  from connectivist pedagogy. The principles include:

  1. Aggregation. The whole point of a connectivist MOOC is to provide a starting point for a massive amount of content to be produced in different places online, which is later aggregated as a newsletter or a web page accessible to participants on a regular basis. This is in contrast to traditional courses, where the content is prepared ahead of time.
  2. The second principle is remixing, that is, associating materials created within the course with each other and with materials elsewhere.
  3. Re-purposing of aggregated and remixed materials to suit the goals of each participant.
  4. Feeding forward, sharing of re-purposed ideas and content with other participants and the rest of the world.”

While today’s popular xMOOCs certainly provide opportunities for people worldwide to study everything from Intermediate Organic Chemistry to Aboriginal Worldviews (see Coursera course listings), do these well-known MOOCs really represent a revolution in education, as often proclaimed?  If we want our college graduates to have well-developed critical thinking skills and to be problem solvers, are xMOOCs the answer?  Or should we be focusing more on the project based, discovery learning characteristic of constructivist, connectivist pedagogy, whether by old-fashioned face-to-face classrooms or online courses?

It is interesting to ponder where the “Feminist Dialogues on Technology” MOOC/DOCC (Distributed Online Collaborative Course) fits in this cMOOC  vs xMOOC schema.  The feminist MOOC/DOCC (see my earlier post) is being developed as a collaborative effort by many professors which will utilize short, thought-provoking video interviews and a variety of assignments or exercises (Boundary Objects that Learn) developed by the organizing collective.  Will this course be able to preserve the more constructivist, connectivist approach characteristic of feminist pedagogy and the cMOOCs?

To learn more

  • About how connectivist MOOCs work, see About this Course by Downes which spells out how the aggregating, remixing, etc. works.  Same info is presented in a creative video “Success in a MOOC” by Dave Cormier.
  • MOOCs as Participatory Communities: My Experience with “eLearning and Digital Cultures”  in which participant claims that this MOOC  “is not designed to impart fixed facts to students; it is designed to be an experience, where students learn about digital culture by discovery and experimentation” (in contrast to typical xMOOCs which “require students to watch a series of recorded lectures and take quizzes or exams that demonstrate their understanding of the material”).
  • A Tale of Two MOOCS  has a table at end of article comparing the pedagogical methods of a very structured MOOC with a more constructivist one.

Ph.D Scandal Rocks Germany

The quality of German Ph.D’s is being questioned after several high ranking politicians have been charged with plagiarizing their doctoral theses.

In February, Annette Schavan was forced to resign as the German Minister of Education when Heinrich Heine University revoked her Ph.D on grounds of plagiarism.  Schavan’s resignation followed that of Defense Minister Guttenberg, who was also found to have plagiarized his Ph.D thesis.  The President of Hungary, with a doctorate from the German University of Semmelweiss, was  also found guilty of plagiarism and forced to resign. These and other cases of less famous individuals have led the public to believe that plagiarism is widespread.  Lawyers now hire ‘plagiarism hunters’ to see if opposing expert witnesses can be discredited as cheaters.

Why so many problem Ph.D’s?

Market demand for Ph.D status symbol.  Ph.D’s are a real status symbol in Germany, with recipients listing themselves as “Dr.” on their mailboxes and in telephone directory listings.  Individuals planning to enter politics have been known to seek a Ph.D to enhance their chances of winning – 20% of the German Parliament hold Ph.D’s compared to 5% of U.S House of Representatives.  So great is the demand for this prestigious degree that German universities grant four times as many Ph.D’s per capita as do U.S. universities.

Little Quality Control in Universities.  Germany has a system of ‘external’ Ph.D’s with little quality control.  Unlike traditional Ph.D programs in Germany and the U.S., where candidates’ work is overseen by committees, in the ‘external’ system, the aspiring Ph.D only has to gain the approval of one professor.  These external students do not take classes or seminars – they just sit at home and write their thesis.  If it is approved by their professor, they get a Ph.D.  Degrees can be obtained with only a few months work.

Although there has been a push for reform, universities have resisted calls for thesis committees, external graders, and a single set of admission criteria applicable to all candidates.  Only recently have a few universities started to use the software designed to identify plagiarized passages.


Mobilizing against Online Hate Speech

One of the more creative approaches to addressing online hate speech is the Umati project in Kenya which is dedicated to monitoring online hate speech, educating about how online hate speech can promote violence, and identifying ways that individuals and non-governmental organizations can combat hate speech.

The Umati project is one of many initiatives organized in response to the horrific inter-ethnic violence – over 1,000 killed –  following the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya.  (Another initiative is a series of “Healing and Rebuilding our Communities” workshops organized by Kenyan Quakers and others.)

Findings:  The results of Umati’s monitoring of Kenyan cyberspace (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers and video streams of the major Kenyan media)  for the Oct. 2012 through Jan. 2013 period contained several surprises (to me anyway):

  • About 90% of the examples of dangerous speech found by Umati were made by individuals who identified themselves (as opposed to anonymous commenters).
  • Analyzing the actions promoted by hate speakers, calls to discriminate against some group were the most common – over 5 times as frequent as calls to kill (the second most common).  Less frequently advocated actions included calls to forcefully evict, to beat up, to riot, or to loot.
  • Calls to take violent action were far more prevalent on Facebook than on other online venues – almost 400 instances in the 4 month period covered compared to less than 50 in comments to an online news article.

What struck me most about the Umati project was the way its report explained the different kinds of hate speech (giving examples) and how each could contribute to the growth of intolerance and violence.


The final section of Umati’s report focuses on  actions that individuals and organizations can take to reduce or counteract hate speech.  One of the useful tactics suggested is the immediate dissemination of facts to correct a rumor or falsehood likely to inflame the audience to violence.

“Such responsible online activity was exemplified during the Mombasa violence that followed the death of Muslim cleric Sheikh Aboud Rogo, when inflammatory tweets were being spread that stated that a Mombasa church was being burned. A responsible social media user took a tweetpic of the church (which was not burning) and stated, “Stop the lies!”. This responsible action helped to quell the propagation of such inflammatory lies on social media.”

The overall context of the Umati project – based on Susan Benesch’s concept of dangerous speech – unites action and speech in a useful manner.

“Dangerous speech: This is a term coined by Professor Susan Benesch to describe incitement to collective violence that has a reasonable chance of succeeding, in other words speech that may help to catalyse violence, due to its content and also the context in which it is made or disseminated. This possibility can be gauged by studying five criteria that may contribute to the dangerousness of speech in context: the speaker (and his/her degree of influence over the audience most likely to react, the audience (and its susceptibility to inflammatory speech), the speech act itself, the historical and social context, and the means of dissemination (which may give greater influence or “force” to the speech).”

The project divides dangerous speech into three distinct categories, providing a framework for distinguishing between immediate threats of violence and comments which might be less likely to be recognized as dangerous by the speaker or the audience.  This framework implicitly recognizes that different educational activities and action strategies may be needed to address each type of dangerous speech.

The categories of dangerous speech addressed by Umati are:

  • Offensive speech:  comments mostly intended to insult a particular group
  • Moderately dangerous speech: “moderately inflammatory and are usually made by speakers with little to moderate influence over their audience.”
  • Extremely dangerous speech: “made by speakers with a moderate to high influence over the crowd, are extremely inflammatory” and are likely to include calls to violent action.

Source: “Monitoring Online Dangerous Speech: October 2012 – January 2013

For the results of a different online monitoring project in the Ukraine, see the 2012 Council of Europe’s report “Mapping Study of Projects against Hate Speech Online”  (pp. 30-31)