Yesterday marked my first opportunity to have students work on a collaborative editing assignment using the website MixedInk. I hadn’t planned to get my students working on the site quite yet; however, on Monday, I had a very productive and interesting conversation with Vanessa Scanfeld, the founder of MixedInk, who generously shared an hour of her time with me (on Labor Day, no less!) to talk about potential uses for MixedInk in the classroom and how other educators have employed it.
The interesting thing about MixedInk, which I didn’t realize until my conversation with Vanessa, was that she designed MixedInk not with educators in mind, but rather as a tool to foster civic engagement and get citizens writing effective, persuasive letters to their elected representatives. I should have realized this fact earlier when watching the tutorial video, which uses the hypothetical example of Mayor Quimby’s campaign in order to demonstrate the website’s functionality.
In spite of its original intentions, MixedInk worked really nicely in the classroom context, and I’m excited to see my students’ final collaboratively-drafted response, which I’ll get this weekend.
However, before I get to conclusions, I suppose I better outline what precisely I assigned them to do. Presently all the students are curating their own blogs, and for homework they were assigned to respond to a question related to their reading in chapter one. The textbook we’re using is quite interesting in the author’s embrace of an argumentative voice and his willingness to eschew an objective tone — its definitely unique. To highlight this point, I had the students respond to the following question:
How does Fernández-Armesto’s description of humans throughout the chapter (e.g on p. 9 “In this environment…”particular kind of habitat”; p. 14 “Creatures like us…”) reflect a different treatment and tone toward humans than the one typically found in history texts (and popular culture)?
Before answering the question for homework and posting the response on their blogs, the students spent the day in class collaboratively researching sources that would help provide a counter-balance to Armesto’s treatment and offer a more “human-centric” description of prehistory. Students scoured Google, Bing, and some database resources and posted the pertinent webpages they found to our ad hoc research repository at Today’s Meet. That night the students went home and responded to the question, drawing on the resources that each class had compiled and posted to the Today’s Meet website, and then posted their final responses to their blogs.
In class the next day I had all the students take their final blog responses and submit them as drafts on MixedInk. The students then spent the next 20+ minutes of class reading through one another’s posts and offering comments and criticisms — an area where I’m already seeing increasing depth and detail, which is really great. After that period for peer feedback, the students were then offered a contest/challenge: Re-write your post, drawing on the phrases and ideas of your peers, to create the best possible response to the question.
Students then embarked on creating their “remixed” response to the questions, and because of the inter-linked nature of the submissions on MixedInk, when they wrote a sentence similar to one of their peers, they would see that other sentence pop up and have the option of including it in their draft. The dynamic way in which MixedInk matches like ideas and phrases is really neat and illustrates to the students the variety of ways in which an idea or argument can be expressed.
After completing their remixed drafts, students submitted their revised work and we embarked on a “rating” period, where the students read one another’s writing and then rated each response on a five star scale. The rating period will close this weekend, and by Monday morning I’ll have a “winning” draft from each class. This draft will serve as our model for discussion of the question and how to structure a persuasive, well-substantiated response to this type of question.
I made a few initial observations during this first roll-out of Mixed Ink in class. First, students were very quiet and attentive when reading one another’s posts and offering their classmates constructive criticism. It was very nice to see this level of attention and focus given to their peers’ work. However, my second observation is that after we transitioned to the remixing phase the noise level increased and sustained focus seemed harder to achieve. Perhaps this dynamic developed because of the unfamiliarity with this type of task in contrast to peer editing, with which most students are familiar. Alternatively, the students perhaps started engaging one another in verbal conversation as they shared whose work they were drawing from and how they were employing it in their own essay. I don’t yet have any definitive thoughts about why this occurred, but I’ll be interested to see if something similar develops the next time I use MixedInk. Perhaps the remixing process is one best done at home as writing, and constructing an argument, is more effective when one has a greater opportunity for quiet and sustained focus.
Perhaps the most interesting observation of the day about MixedInk came from one of my students who immediately noticed the different ethics of writing in academia versus writing in the public, political sphere. While the website encourages an author to pull sentences and material from other authors, it only recognizes and notes the original author when one pulls verbatim text. However, often good ideas come from others, but because one has a different writing style or way of expressing the idea, an author will paraphrase or reformulate a sentence. In doing so, the original author that one pulled from is not recognized in the final product because the language has been so drastically reformulated. The student wondered if one should cite the original author even when not borrowing a phrase verbatim.
I think the point is a good one, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to engage in a conversation about the ethics of historical writing and the particular importance placed on citation and recognition of one’s intellectual and research influences. For this initial foray I didn’t have students worry about citing their peers, as I see this initial experience as being more about learning the website’s functionality and how one approaches this type of collaborative writing experiment.
In conclusion, I’m excited about MixedInk and think it has a lot of potential usages in any writing-intensive course. I’ll try to post an update about the final product once it comes in and we have a chance to discuss it as a class.