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.

Beware Facebook

Great comic illustrating how modern technology can by misused/abused by our corporate elites.

Thanks to Adeline Koh of the Postcolonial Digital Humanities project where she adds this note to her cartoon:

Why the world needs humanists involved in creating and using technology. This bitstrip was inspired by this news story on Facebook users revealing private data through “likes” on the Guardian (HT Brian Jara)

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.

Convert Word to Clean HTML

Copy and paste from a Word document into Blogger or an HTML web page often is disastrous, since Word bloats everything with unneeded, copious HTML which other software has difficulty interpreting.

One can always copy from Word into Notepad, which strips out all of the HTML, and then into Blogger or your newly created HTML web page.  But copying into Notepad also removes all text formatting (bold, italic, bulleted lists, etc.) and all hyperlinks.

Alternatively, one can use an online Web app to produce clean HTML from Word. Today [3/2/13] I tested several to see which worked best.

Word to Clean HTML worked best for me.  When I copied a borderless table into Word to Clean HTML, and then copied the resulting HTML code into KompoZer (free Web page editor), the result was a pretty faithful copy of my original.  Copying the code from Word to Clean HTML into WordPress (the ‘Text/HTML’ mode of the editor) also produced a good copy of my original table.  View the result in HTML and Tables in WordPress.

Note that Word to Clean HTML does not work in Firefox, my favorite Web browser.  One must use Internet Explorer.

Text Fixer is recommended by several academic sources I respect, but I was disappointed with the results.  The code produced did indeed produce a table, but not a very attractive one.  Instead of 2 columns of equal width (as in the original), TextFixer produced a very wide right-hand column and a very skinny left-hand column.  If you are using a decent WYSIWYG web page editor, this is fairly easy to fix.  However, if you must paste the HTML code directly from TextFixer to some online Web page, you will be disappointed with the results.

WordOff is an online converter I would avoid.  In my test, the code from WordOff did not produce a table at all – it only produced a plain text list of the entries in the right-hand column of my original table.  The ‘About’ page at the WordOff website does indicate that it strips most text formatting as well as the div and span and many other bloated codes from a Word document.

HTML and Tables in WordPress

Today [3/2/13] I wanted to insert a table into my WordPress blog, but found no ‘insert table’ icon in the Editor, so I played around with developing some model HTML code for a 2 column table that I hoped I could insert in the Text/HTML mode of the WordPress editor.  I proceeded by copying a table from one of my Word files into the online Word to Clean HTML converter, then copying the resulting HTML code into the free web page editor KompoZer (so I would have a permanent record).  I then copied the HTML code from KompoZer and, using the Text/HTML editor mode in WordPress, pasted in the code.  The result turned out quite well – faithful reproduction of my borderless table from Word.

Result:  Table created by inserting HTML code in Text mode of WordPress editor

Cloud Storage Deleted-Warning your
online account could be deleted anytime as happened when Microsoft deleted someone’s SkyDrive account – no reason given.
IE 9 Better/Faster than FirefoxFirefox Shortcuts
Why VLC Media Player free when others
must pay for included Codecs.
Font Removal in Win7-how delete pesky
foreign fonts

end test – and, yes, it works just fine.  I was glad to see that the free WordPress accepted HTML code.

I then noticed that the WordPress editor provides an icon for ‘Paste from Word’ which I will try below and compare the results with my HTML created table above. As you can see, it comes in quite nicely. I also learned that one can change the text within the cells after table is imported from Word.

Result: Table Created by using the ‘Paste from Word’ icon in WordPress editor

Cloud Storage Deleted-Warning your online account could be deleted anytime as happened when Microsoft deleted someone’s SkyDrive account – no reason given. IE 9 Better/Faster than FirefoxFirefox Shortcuts
Why VLC Media Player free when others must pay for included Codecs.  Font Removal in Win7-how delete pesky foreign fonts

So I really don’t need my HTML coding method to insert a table into WordPress, but the method may prove handy for use with other online Web apps.

Piazza: Discussion Board for Classes

David Korfhage at ED: Social Media provides the following description for Piazza which might be a useful alternative to Google Groups or discussion boards on Moodle, Blackboard, D2L, etc. For an illuminating demonstration of how it actually works, see this demo page at the Piazza web site.

Piazza  describes itself as “a place where students can come together to ask, answer, and explore under the guidance of their instructor.”  In practice, it’s rather like a fancied-up discussion board.  Students can post questions for other students to answer, or post private question for the instructor’s eyes only.  In addition, the instructor can post notes (for announcements, or such like) for all students to read.  There are a few bells and whistles (for example, the instructor can “validate” a correct response to a student), but largely the purpose seems to be to encourage student interaction for purposes of mutual aid in studying and learning.

Pros: Easy to use interface.  It’s good to have a forum in which students can learn/be encouraged to ask their own questions.  Anything that gets students to take the lead in learning, rather than just relying on the teacher, is welcome to me.

Cons: If it’s really a big discussion board, why not use an existing service, such as Moodle (at my school), Edmodo, Schoology, even a Facebook group?  Does Piazza’s extra functionality really make it worthwhile to add one more site to the students’ on-line agenda?

UPDATE: The good folks at Piazza have contacted me to tell me that Piazza has integration with both Moodle and Facebook connect.  I haven’t looked into the details yet, but if so, that would at least address the concern about “one more account to remember.”  There is still the question of whether it’s worth using Piazza rather than an alternative service.  But given student dislike of Moodle, I imagine they’d prefer Piazza to Moodle, at least.

Schoology, referred to above, is a free LMS (course management system).  As an alternative to the better known Moodle, it has the advantage that can be used by just one teacher (doesn’t have to be installed/purchased by a school system) and is available entirely online.

Cross posted in my ProfPat blog.