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Intense Togetherness: Paper, Screens, and Reading

Screens aren’t paper: obvious, but intensely forgettable. Since I’ve found my way into a very odd class this semester—an investigation of paper as technology—I’ve been remembering this more often.

Early Sunday evening, my dad and I got lost in Allston. More than once, I subtly blamed this occurrence on my sadly un-smart phone. (“If only I had an iPhone, this never would have happened!…”) As we walked along, stepping gingerly over sidewalks covered in icy craters, I thought about the conversation we’d had earlier in the day about the special qualities of paper. Though I feel a certain fondness for paper, the list I generated was nowhere near as extensive as his, which included the following advantages:

-Can go from having a very small surface area (perfect for tucking way) to having a very large surface area (unfolded, perfect for reading.)
-Disposable, or at least easily replaceable. (Unlike the devices we casually carry around, worth hundreds or thousands of dollars each.)
-Pleasantly tactile. Also, easy to view in daylight.

Though this topic has a lot to do with the class I happen to be taking right now, it also has everything to do with a bigger question: what comes next? With the news swirling around these days—imminent death of newspapers, the impending arrival of the new Kindle model, and the constant intrigue of Digital Natives and how in the world they get their information—the showdown between screens and paper is here.

Last week, Sarah wrote about one vector of this situation—the Kindle, and the question of whether it’s convenient or too convenient. Sarah ended up concluding that the lo-fi impulse is worth following, at least on occasion. But here’s what I’m wondering: will Digital Natives twenty-plus years younger than us even have a lo-fi impulse?

One clue comes from an article by the excellent Virginia Heffernan, whom Sarah also cited. Heffernan, sitting down with her 3-year-old son to “read” an e-book via laptop, is confronted by her son’s acute awareness of the screen-paper divide. The story finished, her son remarkes that “It’s not a book…It’s more like a movie or a video.” Heffernan realizes, then, that “My immersion in the Kindle is not (to him) an example of impressive role-model literacy. It’s Mom e-mailing, or texting, or for all he knows playing video games.” The activity of “reading,” for her son, is tied to intense togetherness: something he already senses and understands. “Reading” is when you set everything else aside, remove distractions, and spend quality time in each other’s presence. Bringing a device back into the picture is more than counter-productive; it’s nonsensical.

With the advent of RSS readers and Twitter and Tumblr, I’ve found a universe of to-do lists that, at last, I can actually make progress on. When all that’s required to check something off the list is to read it, then that—that’s something I can do. And usually it is what I do, first, before anything else. The satisfaction of accomplishing something (anything) is often enough to carry me forward into whatever task comes next. Just as often, though, it’s enough to pull me under into the ocean of information that the internet harbors.

Like Sarah, I’ve been trying to take time for lo-fi. The more I try to read on paper, though, the more I find I still yearn toward the connectedness I feel on the screen. For me, as a hyperdigital college student, Twitter and Facebook are the places where my far-flung friends and I “make time for each other.” When I read a sentence that strikes me, whether on paper or on the screen, I can’t help but want to share the moment. Heffernan and her son sit on the couch together, reading picture books; I sit in my dorm room, reading about typography and catching myself reaching out to my keyboard.

Screens and paper, and the possibilities and constraints behind them, lend themselves to different architectures of experience. The information we pull in has a great deal to do with what we’re thinking; what we’re thinking has everything to do with who we are. To share that with one another seems vital; the technology that enables it, incidental.

Digital Learning: Sharing is Caring?

I recently found out about the snazzily named RipMixLearners, a student-run Open Courseware Project out of the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Unlike MIT’s OCW, the project is run from ground-up, with the initiative coming from the students rather than the institution. It’s really quite amazing what the students have been able to do and the impact that they’ve had. Aqeelah, one of the contributors to the site, gave some examples on the Sharing Nicely blog:

Students from Zimbabwe had been asking her for materials on Natural Medicine, and complained that they couldn’t find anything online. She pointed them to the resources that her fellow students had compiled, and which she had been using for a few weeks…
When the lecturer spilt coffee over his computer and lost all of his data, the students provide him with a backup of his lecture notes, which they had stored online. I can just imagine how the students loved it.
Finally, the site became so popular with other students in the class, that they started demanding immediate upload of the notes. Complaints rolled in if the materials had not been uploaded within hours after the lecture.

It’s very interesting to hear about these projects around the world Because there is more institutional and infrastructural support for this kind of project in the United States (whether open or not, lecture videos and notes are usually made available online at most universities), student initiatives have been more focused on sharing student work – notes, solutions, and even old exams. There’s a preponderance of online note-sharing sites: Course Hero, Knetwit, PostYourTest, Koofers to just name a few. This kind of sharing isn’t really what different than borrowing a friend’s notes or the passing along old exams, but the Internet allows it to exist on a much larger scale.

If that description causes a moment of pause, it’s because there are two issues are play: copyright violation and academic integrity. (Full disclosure: I blogged about a couple of my classes on a website called, which is currently undergoing changes to become more of a collaborative note-taking site.) A Harvard Crimson article on cites both Harvard’s general counsel’s copyright argument, “Under the federal Copyright Act of 1976, a lecture is automatically copyrighted as long as the professor prepared some tangible expression of the content—notes, an outline, a script, a video or audio recording.” and issues of academic integrity from the Student Handbook, “Students who sell lecture or reading notes, papers, translations, or who are employed by a tutoring school or term paper company, are [liable for disciplinary action] and may be required to withdraw.” What’s potentially problematic about Course Hero, Knetwit, and PostYourTest are that they incentivize the upload of material through some sort of point system, sometimes redeemable for cash and sometimes for more access to the website’s resources.

Sharing knowledge, the warm, fuzzy ideal that underlies the open course ware, is easy to support but there are thornier issues when sharing solution keys and old exams. The intellectual property argument certainly doesn’t support this sharing and could there also be a detriment to learning as a whole?
I wonder if the availability of solution keys feed a kind of “get the answers and the answers only” kind of mentality – an unhealthy focus on the solution rather than the process. As a science major, most of my homework is weekly problem sets, which always include a few long and involved problems in the mix. The thing with these hard problems is that there are a finite number of them because as hard as they are to solve, they are also hard to write. Canny students can usually find the solutions online, whether in freely available old exams/problem set solutions or more involved digging through archived course sites and the world wide web.

Say I find the instructor’s solution manual to my math textbook online – is it okay for me to use it? To copy my homework? To check my homework? If it’s freely available online, am I really taking advantage of an unfair edge? But there’s also, arguably, the karmic payback, when it comes to an exam and one hasn’t really learned the material.

The explosion of sharing that comes with the Internet creates new tools for Digital Natives. How these tools will be utilized and how they will change the education landscape remains to be seen.

What does it mean to be a student in the Digital Era?

Today I would like to play the devil’s advocate for a bit. Two weeks ago I saw two vídeos that I found to be disconcerting. The vídeos discussed learning today, and raised several issues regarding DNs and how they relate to technology.

The first vídeo is introduced by the following quotation:

“Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment, where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented classified patterns subjects, and schedules.”

As the vídeo goes on, many ideas are introduced. Among them is that computing can be incredibly controversial and ubiquitous: on the one hand, we have the possibilities of the Internet and technology in Education, and on the flip side, we have DNs suffering to keep up with their studies, having to be multi-taskers, using their free time to read thusands of webpages, write e-mails, and surf social networks such as Facebook. The vídeo seems to endorse the idea that although the 19th century saw scarcity of information as a problem, maybe having too much information did not solve the problems per say, but just changed how these issues are perceived and dealt with.

The second vídeo is more education driven. Although it also refers to how DNs have to think today, in learning environments where students are bombarded with information that their professors might not even be aware of. This vídeo reveals the extent to which technology can become a negative force, how it creates new challenges in the way we think, and finally, it portrays how unprepared most of us are to deal with such situations.

In addition to this, we must also take into consideration those who have no access to such technology. As we think of solutions to better engage learners who are imersed in ubiquitous computing, we leave victims of the digital divide aside, increasing the distance between those who have access and those you do not.

What has changed for students since the 19th century? Anbd to what extent are these changes positive? Up to what point do students benefit from the use of technology in their lives, before it becomes a hindrance to learning, rather than an aid?

– andré valle

Guest Post: Digital Natives, Digital Classrooms

Today, we’re delighted to publish a guest post from Eleesha Tucker, National Volunteer Coordinator for the Constitutional Sources Project. –Diana Kimball, DN intern

On October 15 I attended the Born Digital discussion at the Google offices in DC where I was interested to hear Professor Palfrey’s perspective, but found myself even more engaged when he would defer to Sarah and Diana as the resident Digital Natives.

I hope to contribute to the discussion as a Digital Native myself with experience as a teacher in a digital classroom. For the school year following college, I taught high school history to juniors and seniors at The Walden School of Liberal Arts, which is a public charter school with an expeditionary learning philosophy. Walden provides each student with access to a personal laptop while in the classroom and on an individual checkout basis for homework. I would call it a digital school. Most lessons in each subject used the laptops, once a week students met in mentor teacher groups to check their grades online from the school’s website and an overwhelming majority of students had Internet access at home, though it was not a particularly affluent area. One hundred percent of my lessons connected somehow to the Internet, either by my personal preparation or by how I designed assignments. Because of the student performance in their assignments by their research or through their presentations projected from their laptops, I realized there is a possibility that the increased digital engagement could be changing student learning styles.

At Walden, one science teacher often joked about hosting the Walden Olympics, where one event would include the student browsing on a laptop, listening to his lecture and then taking a test on the delivered material. This stemmed from his allowance of laptops during his instruction as long as they performed well in assessments. I wouldn’t let students browse their laptops when I was lecturing. It made me too jealous for their attention, but perhaps my colleague understood something I didn’t regarding a changing trend in learning style. At home, these students would listen to their iPods, write a paper, browse the Internet and text a friend almost simultaneously; then, we would expect them to be one track during their schooling hours.

Born Digital has debunked the myth that Digital Natives are dumber than preceding populations, but I’d be interested to know how the digital world is affecting learning styles. Instead of identifying students as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, perhaps we should identify students as a hybrid of them all: digital. If students thrive at home in an environment of high stimulus, perhaps the methodology of sitting at attention with eyes on the teacher is contrary to the evolving needs of the population that teachers are trying to reach. It should at least be a possibility brought to teachers’ attention so they can consider it when designing assignments and managing the classroom.

Eleesha currently is the National Volunteer Coordinator for the Constitutional Sources Project, which created and continues to add to the most comprehensive online library of constitutional sources, found for free at Within the next six months, Web 2.0 technology will be added to surround the certified library and she is in the process of designing this new technology to meet the needs of the Educational Community. After ConSource is well established for the education community, she plans to return to the classroom.

Things to Make and Do: ‘Fresh Brain’ and the Community Conundrum

This week’s theme is creators, and it’s one of my favorites: I love thinking about the ways that incredibly simple tools empower young people (empower everyone, really) to create or comment upon art, and find their audiences, and grow as artists and critics. So yesterday, I plugged simple search terms into simple search engines—”mashups,” “teens,” and finally “teen video mashups.” The first link, out of 172,000, just happened direct me to project I can’t believe I’ve never heard of: Fresh Brain.

Setting aside its vaguely zombie-tastic name, Fresh Brain seems like an amazing venture. It’s a nonprofit aiming to “[enhance] the education and development of our youth in the areas of business and technology by providing hands-on real world experience.” via The site is still in beta, but it seems to be modeled as a sort of 21st-century digital manual on “Things to Make and Do.

Accordingly, Fresh Brain is divided into projects. In fact, the link I followed in the first place led me to a a single page for the “Teen Video Poetry Project.” The project instructions direct the teenager to “write a poem about something important to you, shoot or mashup video that relates to the poem, add your voice over reading the poem with optional music background and special sound effects.” Instead of projects requiring sewing machines and scrap paper and mounds of felt, today’s rainy-day activities encourage Digital Natives to explore digital tools and use them toward creative ends. It’s a great idea, and a great resource for parents, teachers, and students alike.

What I’d like to explore for a minute, though, is the relative quiet of the website as it currently stands. In spite of an entire section of Fresh Brain devoted to “Community,” the forums have been silent for over 7 weeks; the blog posts are sparse, and seem to come primarily from one or two people. Clearly, the staff of Fresh Brain recognize that half the fun of creation is showing your work to a big audience. And a “community,” however elusive that term may be, can provide that built-in audience—consider, for instance, YouTube. Fresh Brain is building a space, filling it with resources, and seeding it with good ideas. But nothing will happen there unless Digital Natives choose to spend their time on the site.

Ultimately, I don’t think that’s the most important thing here. I truly believe that Fresh Brain’s most important role is to provide a point of entry for Digital Natives who are ready to make the leap from consumer of digital content to creator. If the creations go elsewhere, filling up channels on YouTube and photostreams on Flickr, then that’s proof of success—not of failure. The goal of Fresh Brain, as far as I can tell, is to help teens grow and then to send them off into the world with a greater sense of their own creative agency. If the site is bare, that only indicates that people are by and large finding what they need. And that is a good thing; worth, even, the sacrifice of an engrossing and everpresent “community.” Sites that aim to make millions off of advertising are motivated to lock Digital Natives into walled gardens. Sites that aim to educate Digital Natives are motivated to let them leave as quickly as possible, equipped with new tools and a new sense of possibility.

If you do take a look at the site, we’d love to hear what you think. What project ideas would you add to the site? What do you think of the importance of “community” for creators? What things have you made and done online?

Digital Media and Learning HASTAC Competition

McArthur’s Digital Media and Learning HASTAC Competition has announced their 2008 Innovation in Participatory Learning Awards and Young Innovator Awards. The awards support individuals and institutions at the forefront of participatory learning:

Participatory Learning includes the ways in which new technologies enable learners (of any age) to contribute in diverse ways to individual and shared learning goals. Through games, wikis, blogs, virtual environments, social network sites, cell phones, mobile devices, and other digital platforms, learners can participate in virtual communities where they share ideas, comment upon one another’s projects, and plan, design, advance, implement, or simply discuss their goals and ideas together. Participatory learners come together to aggregate their ideas and experiences in a way that makes the whole ultimately greater than the sum of the parts.

This is a great award that supports students and teachers of all ages

to think boldly about “what comes next” in participatory learning and to contribute to making it happen.

For past winners, check out the 2007 Winners Hub, featuring projects like Critical Commons, a fair use guide for educators, and Black Cloud, a participatory pollution monitor.

Also check out social media guru Howard Rheingold, one of the winners, who has been running a HASTAC forum on participatory learning on Seesmic. In the Social Media Classroom Co-labrotory, Howard Rheingold explores the idea of participatory learning with the new HASTAC Scholars explores the affordances of SEESMIC (think YouTube video with responses running along the bottom as the video plays to highlight the conversation) as a learning tool.

For more on the HASTAC awards, check out their website and request for proposal.

Studying Online (Part II)

Last week we introduced you to David Kosslyn, who is starting up a website, StudyBuddy, in the hopes of bringing together digital natives online to study together. There David talked about his hopes and aims regarding the project.

In this week’s video, produced by Kanupriya Tewari, we are going to look at the implications of StudyBuddy; from cyber-bullying to the loss of face-to-face interaction.

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Watch part one here.

Come back next Wednesday for more multimedia on online privacy, cyber bullying, digital activism and more!

And check out freshly released Born Digital!

David Kosslyn: Studying Online (Part I)

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So far we’ve explored many areas of a digital native’s life – from privacy, piracy to digital information overload- but now we bring you the more positive efforts that Digital Natives are making. It seems that everything is accessible online in today’s world- then why not studying?

We sat down with David Kosslyn, a rising sophomore at Harvard, who along with two other friends, is starting up an online academic networking site named StudyBuddy. We talked to him about issues that this may bring about for non-digital natives but also about how studying online can either aid or hinder a digital natives learning process.

The following video, produced by Kanupriya Tewari, is part one where we explore the aims and accomplishments StudyBuddy hopes to acheive.

Come back next week to watch part two of David’s story!

Navigating Privacy

cross posted from John Palfrey’s blog

Jonathan Zittrain and I are headed up to seacoast New Hampshire to be the “curators” of the IAPP’s new executive forum, Navigate, for the first few days of the week. It’s a beautifully organized program and a terrific line-up. It promises to be provocative and a lot of fun.

Privacy turned out to be a major part of our research into how young people use new technologies differently from their parents and grandparents. In our book, Born Digital (coming out in the next few weeks; and now the book’s website from the publisher is up), we started with a single chapter on Privacy and ended up with three: Identity, Dossiers, and Privacy. (Berkman summer intern Kanu Tewari made a video rendition of our Dossiers chapter; and the project’s wiki has a section on Privacy.) I look forward to testing those ideas with a bunch of privacy pros who will no doubt help to refine them.

As a special bonus: They’ve partnered with the MindJet people — makers of MindManager, which I love — to document the event and to extract key themes in an organized digital format. I’m looking forward to learning some MindManager tricks.

A Day at Sub/Urban Justice

I had the good fortune to be able to spend half a day last week with the participants and staff of Sub/Urban Justice, a group of individuals and organizations “committed to transforming suburban and urban communities by supporting youth to develop a social justice perspective”, thus endowing them with leadership skills that will allow them to make positive changes in their respective school and communities. The Sub/urban justice summer program which takes place three times a week for three weeks, aims to break down the barriers that separate community like class, race and gender, and so create an equitable society.

The summer program works by discussing three topics (class, race and gender) individually for one week each and holding a number of activities that revolve around those issues. Coming from a country like Egypt, which is predominantly Muslim, sexual harassment and gender discrimination are day to day issues that women have to deal with. Thus, activism in relation to gender was a perfect place to start my experience in the program. The day started off with a simple discussion of terms relating to gender which may be difficult to define. I was suddenly swept into a gust of terms and definitions like ‘androgynous’, the difference between sex and gender and gender mutual pronouns like ‘zie’ (in place of he/she) and ‘hir’ (in place of him/her). Usage of these pronouns on a daily basis is a good place to start ones quest of becoming a more gender tolerant person because – as one participant pointed out – many cultures and languages (like Spanish or French) instill the use of addressing a whole group as male even if only one male is present.

The first activity was a process where participants, including myself, were asked to analyze where they perceive they fit into in categories like gender expression, biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. This led onto a discussion of where those issues could overlap and an interesting story of a man who believed he was a lesbian arose – thus depicting a complicated overlap in his gender expression and sexual orientation. The group then broke up into three different affinity groups based on how they perceive their gender- as male, female or androgynous. I joined the female group where the conversation was very similar to that of a group of friends sitting together to share their thoughts.

Recollections and experiences, where women have had to always think twice about their attire and the way they express their gender so as not to compromise their safety, were brought up. Topics – like sexual harassment, the way males use disrespectful terms towards women without a second thought, why women put each other down – which we all think about and are acquainted with but never discuss, were brought to light. I was deeply impressed – never had I witnessed anyone discuss such intimate topics with the ease and comfort of these women. And not just discussing, but tackling – the participants came up with solutions and requests that they would put out to men they know so as to improve the way with which women are perceived and also treated. Upon regrouping for feedback, I realized that this comfort extended to the others as well. While the males affinity group voiced their unease regarding the way males are always expected to take certain steps first (like ask a girl out on a date) and so are at times given responsibility they do not feel comfortable with, the androgynous affinity group discussed the issue of unisex bathrooms and other such day to day issues they have to deal with – all issues which we witness but never speak about.

And it is this relaxed, comfortable and welcoming atmosphere that is the real highlight of the Sub/Urban Justice program. My initial intention when going in had been to find areas in the curriculum where Berkman could help integrate digital tools. However, to the contrary, when going in and experiencing the program for myself I actually felt that a computer would simply ‘spoil’ the purity the program currently maintains.

Surprised? Well, so was I.

-Kanupriya Tewari