Citation, Social Media, Technology

Initial thoughts on MixedInk in the classroom

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.

Academic Proposals, Citation, Social Media

The abstract is off and the wait begins

I just finished writing, and have now emailed off, my poster presentation abstract for UT-Arlington’s upcoming conference on “Engaging Students: The Process and Product of Effective Active Learning.” For those of you who read my earlier post on my thought process and options for presentation topic, you’ll see that I went with the “let me tell you about how I’ve gone about conceptualizing and implementing all this stuff” approach. I guess we’ll see how the conference organizers take to it.

On an unrelated note, I was disappointed to discover that the 7th Edition of Turabian has very little to say about how to properly write or format an abstract. It told me how to cite an abstract, but that isn’t doing me a whole lot of good right now as it sits in the inbox of the person (or people) who will determine its fate. The guidelines on UTA’s webpage were more helpful (e.g. “Abstracts should be between 300 and 500 words and describe the nature of the project, the primary findings, and suggestions for how the work might be generalized to other contexts.”), so I just hope that I met the criteria of intelligibility and that I don’t offend them too much through my use of bullet points. However, I did meet the word count requirement — Huzzah!

Finally, I wanted to thank those of you out there in my PLN who, either wittingly or unwittingly, helped influence and inspire my thinking about this topic. I’m sure that some of you might recognize the intellectual heft you exerted on my proposal, and for that, I am grateful. Do know that if accepted and given the august honor of being able to make a poster, (which, I might add, Turabian helpfully defines for us as “a hybrid form of presentation…which combines elements of writing and speech” (122). Alternatively, if that explanation was too opaque, she also offers the description of “a poster” as “a large board on which you lay out a summary of your research along with your most relevant evidence” (126). My sophomores found these definitions [and perhaps the need to define a poster at all] highly amusing) I’ll certainly include appropriate references and/or poster-ready shout-outs.

So, without further ado, my abstract:

Conceptualizing and Integrating Social Media into the Secondary School Humanities Classroom

My work deals with the process–both intellectually and pragmatically–of designing a humanities course, which, through the integration of social media into the classroom helps to foster and enhance an ethic of collaborative and student-centric learning. While my classes (9th and 10th grade history courses at Fort Worth Country Day) have been participatory and discussion-based, I’ve sought various methods to minimize the centrality of my approval and feedback, thereby establishing amongst the students a sense of being a vital part of a collaborative learning community. To achieve this goal, in the past few years I’ve begun experimenting with various technological and social media resources and would like to present on the philosophy behind my decision to shift toward social media, the particular tools I’ve incorporated, the pragmatics of establishing them in the classroom, and the various ways in which they can be used as a venue for student writing, research, and collaboration.

My presentation will center on the following social media tools and resources and their applicability to a secondary school humanities class:

  • Twitter — as a means of student-student and student-teacher communication; as a means for test review; as a means for collaborative research; as a means to extend the conversation beyond the classroom
  • Blogs (e.g.; — as the primary venue for student writing; as a form of electronic portfolio; as a repository for feedback from the teacher, peers, and other outside commentators
  • RSS Aggregators (e.g. Google Reader; BlogLines) — as a way for students and teachers to track and collect all student writing in a centralized location; as a quick means for evaluating assignment “completion”; as a means to share student work with teachers’ Professional Learning Networks.
  • Diigo — as a means to cull sources; as a way to “actively read” and annotate sources online; as a means for students to share research resources; as a means for teachers to meaningfully establish student progress on research projects
  • Wikis — as a centralized class “homepage” featuring calendar, assignments, downloads, etc.; as a repository for student projects; as a means for collaborative synthesis and writing

Ultimately, framing a humanities class through social media tools helps make the students’ critical thinking and writing processes become more transparent to the teacher as they take place. Ideally, incorporating these tools will enhance collaboration and communication, establish a dynamic where students are one another’s most valuable source of feedback, and most importantly, shift the emphasis of students’ learning toward the formative process rather than the summative result(s).