Teaching and Learning (Digital) Literacy in Higher Education

This morning, I am honored to present for the College Reading Educators during one of their session at the New York State Reading Association’s annual conference. My talk will focus on the idea that, without question, learning continues to change in the twenty-first century. Higher education faculty have always valued the teaching of reading, writing, and thinking — and see that our very notion of what it means to be literate is evolving. How, then, do we enhance and extend traditional literacy practices in this digital age? This brief talk will provide some background on Dr. Hicks’ work as a teacher of digital writing, connected reading, and critical thinking for both undergraduate and graduate students, many of them pre- and in-service teachers, at Central Michigan University. Links from the presentation are embedded in the Google Slides and include the following:

Scholarship

Tools for Connected Reading, Digital Writing, and Disciplinary Thinking


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Peer Review in Public

This afternoon, partially as a way to procrastinate from my own writing and partially because I was genuinely interested in the invitation, I participated in an “open review” of Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia‘s forthcoming manuscript, Annotation. Their open review process will continue through August 23, 2019, so jump in! They request that commentary adhere to the following, all good advice for any scholarly dialogue:

Civil. We can disagree. And when we do so, let’s also respect one another.

Constructive. Share what you know. And build upon ideas that are relevant and informative.

Curious. Ask honest questions and listen openly to responses.

Creative. Model generative dialogue. Have fun. Contribute to and learn from the process.

Having read hundreds of academic articles in the past 20 years, as well as offering blind peer review for dozens more, as well as blind reviews of probably two dozen academic books, I thought that this would be interesting. (And, again, I was procrastinating on my own writing, so an engaging intellectual task that can carry me away and still feel like I am getting work done is always welcome). Here are a few things I learned while reviewing their book which, again, you, too, can contribute to through August 23rd.

My Stance as a Reviewer

When I offer peer review to academic articles and books, I am typically using the “track changes” and commentary features in Word or, in some instances, by offering comments and edits on a PDF (my favorite tool for doing that is the iOS app Good Reader). I typically frame these comments as direct suggestions to the author(s) of the article/manuscript I am reading, and I engage in a professional, yet conversational tone.

With my review of Annotation today, I think that I maintained some of that approach, yet I knew that my comments would be captured, in perpetuity, in Kalir and Garcia’s public version of the document. While I didn’t hold back with questions and concerns, I did realize that I changed my tone. Whereas I would try to be explicitly clear in comments and questions (perhaps even providing examples of what I was aiming for with unclear writing) in blind review, I didn’t want that to be part of the public record.

For instance, in the example below, I offered a comment that could spark further dialogue amongst others reading the text, pushing toward some broader implications for teaching and learning. At other points, I was replying to the comments already made by others, and I would specifically say something like “I agree” or “Along these lines.” Also, at points, I directly wrote to Kalir and Garcia in ways that I could do so with colleagues I know, and would be comfortable saying in front of a group of others.

Screenshot of Specific Comment on

My Commenting Style in an Open Setting

Yet, still, it felt strange. In the first few chapters, there were some other annotations/ors, yet they fell away. Even those that remained were offering suggestions for links, not the generative kinds of peer review that (I hope) I have always aimed to offer in the peer reviews that I complete. For instance, I would describe problems and ask questions like:

  • I may simply not be reading this right, but making the comparison of submitting an expense report in relation to the openly annotated future just didn’t ring for me here. Sorry, but perhaps you could find a different example?
  • This is an interesting example, but I don’t know that it fully draws out all the ideas that you mentioned above related to “shifting social norms, changing financial and organizational incentives, and evolving scholarly practices.” Perhaps you could reorganize around — and particularly elaborate upon — these three ideas in relation to SciBot?
  • This is an important, if technical, point, and deserves some elaboration. Why is it important that some are built into the browser, whereas others stand alone. And, for that matter, why have you not mentioned OneNote, Evernote, Google Keep, or SimpleNote anywhere in the text, and especially here before you launch into the important questions you pose below?

By the end of the process — which took me just as long as any other book review — I began to wonder/wander, leading me to other directions.

Reflecting While Reviewing

Of course, during a normal review, the kinds of internal dialogue that I have with myself may make it into the first draft of my comments, but I usually do some editing before a final draft heads off to the editor. Here, I figured that Kalir and Garcia’s invitation to be civil, constructive, curious, and creative would welcome some of these thoughts.

As I went through the process, and saw fewer and fewer reviewers in subsequent chapters, I got discouraged. While this is no fault of the authors, and I know that they have extensively shared their open manuscript, welcoming reviews, it does make me worry a bit about the hive mind, and whether the power of collaboration and collective intelligence is, perhaps, not as powerful as we might hope. A few of my musings, especially as they relate to why scholars may choose not to participate in an open review:

  • This [vision of social annotation and scholarship] is aspirational, and I appreciate it. Yet, I think that you can elaborate more on what actual changes would need to happen to make it a reality. Be specific, and talk about faculty workloads, department/college T&P requirements, and the ways in which “open” is still perceived as subpar.
  • And, yet, there still seems to be reluctance, or at least lack of widespread acceptance [of open review]. For instance, in your attempts to make this manuscript open and accessible (which I applaud), I am still wondering how many total scholars will participate. Even for those of us who saw the invitation to begin with, a gentle nudge was in order for us to participate. And, in the end, I don’t know that my review of this manuscript will “count” on par with doing a review for an established journal or publisher when (and if) I include it in my promotion materials. Of course, for me at least, this doesn’t matter as much as it would to a junior faculty member who needs to decide whether to spend a few hours trying to write her own work, or to participate in a “normal” editorial review board/process as a blind reviewer for an established press/journal. Both of those actions are rewarded in the academy. As much as I respect Remi and Antero (and that’s why I am doing this annotated review), the simple fact of the matter is that I am doing this because I care, not because it will “count.” These are part of the material reality of academe, and I don’t know how we will change that, even with open annotation and peer review. At the end, there is only so much time in the day…
  • So, I have held off until now, but I have to ask… and only partially in a cynical manner… Like the tree falling in the forest, does an annotation really make a sound (ripple, impact, effect, etc)? That is, I appreciate your utopian vision, yet I wonder if you might want to reign it in a bit here. Sorry… not trying to pop the bubble, especially after nearly two hours of reviewing and annotating your manuscript, but I am just being realistic. The first few chapters had a few annotators. Now, here at the end, it is just me. And you two, as the authors. Are we really connected to a “robust information infrastructure?” Or, are the three of us walking alone in the woods?

In the end, I appreciate the opportunity to do this review, and to pause here to reflect on the process. I struggle both with how to structure class discussions in digital spaces as well as how to be a social scholar, so reading Kalir and Garcia’s manuscript was serving many more purposes for me than merely procrastinating on my writing. I am hopeful that the ideas I have offered to them (and those who might continue to annotate over the next month) are helpful. And, of course, I will continue to think about practices of annotation in my own scholarship and teaching.


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Reading the Individual Newsletter

In the first post of this series, I outlined some of my general reading habits, and in the second, and third, I was thinking about some of the (semi) automated or organization newsletters that I get on a regular basis. Without bots or a whole team to help move things along, I am always interested in the ways that other educators put together their regular newsletters (as I think about if and how I might choose to create one of my own).

There are three that I receive — and read — regularly. Let’s look at each in turn:

Monica Burns’ Class Tech Tips

Snapshot of Class Tech Tips Blog
Snapshot of Class Tech Tips Blog

Monday afternoons at 3:45 EST, right at the end of the school day, Burns’ Class Tech Tips hits my inbox. In the top segment of the newsletter, she points directly back to her blog, and each of those posts are usually about a specific teaching strategy and/or tech tool. Concise and focused, she makes it clear when she is getting compensation for affiliate links, and promotes her own books. Still, she makes a point to send the reader toward freely available content, both on her blog as well as other education-related sites. To that end, I appreciate that she is both promoting her own work in a reasonable way, sharing openly-available resources, and still figuring out ways to monetize the blog.

More importantly, her voice speaks to the harried classroom teacher, though not in an immediate, “do this, get that” kind of instantaneous reward kind of way. For instance, one post on the use of Adobe Spark (and a subsequent webinar she offered for free) provides at least four different lesson ideas, all of which could be a one-day, one-time lesson or extended in useful ways. In short, her posts are timely and useful, and they help me see what is happening in the day-to-day conversations about educational technology.

Tom Liam Lynch’s Gradgrinds

Snapshot from a Recent Gradgrinds Blog Post
Snapshot from a Recent Gradgrinds Blog

A longtime friend and colleague through NCTE, Lynch’s writing has always fun to read and provided me with critical insights on the role of technology in education, specifically in ELA. Every Tuesday morning at 7:00, Lynch shares his latest thinking on recent articles and updates on projects. I appreciate that he offers these quick takes, and his headlines and taglines usually capture the gist of things. For instance, in “Is TV to Blame for Older People—Not Youth—Falling for Fake News? A Study Suggests Yes” he points to an article in the Atlantic and cites a Pew report. Good stuff, delivered in an intellectually humorous manner (coupled with a screenshot from the Simpsons).

In fact, it is interesting to me to see what, if anything, Lynch reports on that I may have seen earlier in Downes’ daily updates. If both of them are talking about it, and I hadn’t read it yet, I will be sure to go back and open the link. Many posts are a “less than a minute” read, yet in that short space Lynch points to other resources and usually leaves me with a more substantive idea to ponder or question to ask. While there are a few too many “Share Gradgrind’s with a friend or colleague” notes peppered throughout the newsletter, I understand that could be just a part of the normal template he uses. He, too, notes that he uses affiliate links.

Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel

Snapshot of Thought Shrapnel Newsletter
Snapshot of Thought Shrapnel Newsletter

Though I have only met Belshaw briefly at an LRA event, I do appreciate his perspectives on digital literacy and, of course, through his regular Thought Shrapnel newsletter. As another educator and scholar who uses MailChimp, it makes me wonder if that might be a good option for me to explore next. Also, in a trend I am seeing many other places, Belshaw makes a clear call to “become a patron” through Patreon. Hitting the inbox at 1:30 AM EST on Sunday mornings, I can expect to see some insights from Belshaw each weekend, though he has taken a break during December.

In terms of the content, Belshaw’s commentaries are normally longer, sometimes quite a few paragraphs with embedded quotes and hyperlinks. These, from what I can tell, are not a verbatim repeat of what appears on his website, so it is good to see that the content here is different from what I would see in an RSS feed or daily aggregated newsletter of some kind or another. Also, I appreciate the insights that he offers and new directions in which he points my reading. Like Lynch, I may see a link from Belshaw that was earlier reported by Downes, and it makes me want to ensure that I have my browser ready for more tabs.

For each of these newsletters, I would like to say that I devote as much time to reading them as the authors who composed them put into the writing process. However, I know that this simply isn’t the case, even when I am able to devote time to reading through a full issue of any one of them. Still, as I have tried to note throughout this series, I appreciate what these colleagues offer and, though I am not quite at the point where I am willing to click through on sponsored posts and affiliate links (see my own policy on this), though I do begin to wonder if I should. I pay the professional journalists for their expertise… so, shouldn’t I pay my colleagues for their expertise? I am still struggling with this.

At any rate, this dip into my daily digital reading habits has been helpful for me as I think about how I triage my inbox, make use of other news sources, and reconsider how I might set up my RSS feeds again in the new year. For this next week, I will be shifting my focus away from reading all the daily news and, instead, into a book that I will be using with my EDU 807 students this semester, Neil Selwyn‘s Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times.


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Reading (and Writing) the Daily Newsletter

With the magic of RSS and automated workflows, the daily newsletter has become a tool for many businesses, organizations, and individuals to update their followers. There are countless numbers of these newsletters, and just as many opinions about whether or not they are effective. For the moment, I’ll leave those debates to others and say that, for me, a small number of daily newsletters from a few trusted ed tech individuals helps me stay on top of ed tech and literacy trends. (I’ll discuss organizational email updates/newsletters in a later post.)

There are two that I will focus on for this post, one an ed tech advocate (Tony Vincent) and one an ed tech skeptic (Stephen Downes). This brings (some) balance to my daily perspectives on ed tech, and it is interesting to think about how each blogger approaches the task of creating the newsletter. It also raises important questions for me about the diversity of ed tech opinions that I get exposed to on a regular basis, and reminds me that I need to pop my filter bubbles from time to time. Still, these are two newsletters that represent my daily intake, and I want to explain how I read each one.

Snapshot of Tony Vincent's Nuzzel Newsletter
Snapshot of Tony Vincent’s Nuzzel Newsletter

To begin, Vincent’s Nuzzel Newsletter, much like my own, appears to be an automated collection of his own blog posts and other items that he has accessed via social media. According to Nuzzel, the services offers “personalized news discovery and curated newsletters for busy professionals, via web, mobile apps, messaging bots, and email newsletters.”

When I first started using Nuzzel two years ago (first issue: 12/31/16), I took time each night to actively curate my own newsletter, prioritizing specific news items and adding (light) commentary. Since then, I’ve fallen off the wagon, and the issue auto-generates. I do get some feedback from colleagues who subscribe, so I know that what I share matters, and this exercise again reminds me that we are all constantly creating digital identities, and I need to remember that Nuzzel is part of mine.

Back to Tony Vincent’s newsletter as an example… as a fifth grade teacher and ed tech advocate, I do subscribe to his newsletter and have it delivered to my inbox each day. While I could, potentially, go into the Nuzzel app or have a tab open in my browser for daily check-ins, I still live my daily work life via Gmail, so having the newsletter pop up in my inbox makes it real. The snapshot below gives a sense of what the newsletter looks like (though this is the web version, from the link I clicked on the email version). A few points to note, many of which might be obvious, but are important to consider from both UX and “reading strategy” perspectives.

The role of the hyperlink to the original article, the name of the original source, the date, and the image all appeal to the reader in terms of basic reading and skimming strategies. If I were looking at a newspaper or a non-fiction book, these would be the types of things that my eye would be drawn to, and the types of things that we would instruct students to look for, too. By having the date of initial publication for each item, I can make some quick judgments about currency (though “older” does not always mean worse, or better). Also, by clicking on the link (from email at least), a new tab pops open. This isn’t quite the same when reading from the “web” version, as it moves from the Nuzzel page to the link in the same tab. Multiple tabs… yet another strategy that I employ when reading (and something I could force using an extension if I wanted to mess with it).

Back to the content of the newsletter. Vincent sometimes has references to his own blog, and other items are posted without commentary. Again, I can’t throw stones here, because my Nuzzel feed is similar. Sometimes just having the links, without commentary, is enough. When I see that Vincent has posted a link to an article, and then I see that same link coming from others, I can make a judgment about whether I want to spend dedicated time reading it (as compared to just getting the snapshot view of it). So, reading his newsletter is a quick task, and I admit that I often don’t even scroll through it, just peeking at the top 2 or 3 articles mentioned. I am sure that readers of my newsletter may read in a similar manner.

Snapshot of OLDaily by Stephen Downes
Snapshot of OLDaily by Stephen Downes

By contrast, Stephen Downes (personal Twitter and OLDaily Twitter) offer me a different kind of insight on ed tech news. Though the scrolling screenshot here doesn’t really capture it all that well, you can see that Downes posts links to about 5 or 6 articles each day, but the text on the side is not an excerpt from the article itself. Instead, it is Downes’ commentary, which I find to be both humorous and insightful.

Clearly drawing from his critical and philosophical stance on ed tech, Downes shares his thoughts on almost anything even tangentially related to educational technology, including commentary on a commentary about the Netflix sensation, Bandersnatch:

Netflix’s Bandersnatch is an example of the branched scenario format that has been in use in e-learning for a number of years. They’ve done a very nice job of it, adding some new twists (such as remembering earlier chances to add variability (cereal choices, music choices) in later scenes. On the other hand, a lot of the choices felt forced, as the program kept directing me back to the main storyline. The article says there are five outcomes; maybe, but I would imagine we’re all getting more or less the same experience. Anyhow, good article on an interesting experiment.

Needless to say, I spend a bit more time on Downes’ newsletter each day, often popping open multiple tags in the process. How he is able to read — and write — so much each day is a bit beyond me, though it is aspirational (as I am aiming to reach a goal here in 2019!). Each newsletter does feel the same in the sense that the format remains consistent, but they are each unique. Because of his commentary, you can tell when he is feeling optimistic… and when he is feeling ornery.

In each case, I find value in the newsletters. Some days, even when opening the tabs to read later… well… I just don’t get a chance to read everything later. But, in conjunction with other reading that I will describe in my next few posts, these two types of newsletters provide me with  a sense of the ed tech zeitgeist on a daily basis. I trust the sources, for different reasons, and value what each can offer.

With that, I am curious… what are the ed tech/digital literacy related newsletters to which you all subscribe?

What am I missing that I should be getting in my inbox each day?


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A Snapshot of My Daily Digital Reading Habits

In order to rethink my relationship with ed tech, I need to start by thinking about what my current relationship entails. My goal is to blog for about 30 minutes a day, so this creative constraint/daily deadline will keep me focused. For this week, I want to focus on how I read about educational technology (and, by extension, digital reading, new literacies, and other related topics). Of course, I try to stay on top of the normal news, too, and sneak in some pleasure reading from time to time. Yet, I am going to focus on the aspects of my daily patterns, mapping out an arc of what I do in a typical day in order to stay on top of ed tech news. In short, my reading patterns look like this:

  • Wake up/breakfast time: Quick scan of social networks, especially if I have been tagged, and to see what Nuzzel has automatically generated in my own daily newsletter (which is intertwined with my Twitter)
  • Daily triage of the inbox: here, I parse out email updates that I want (as compared to the countless promotions sent by the companies and services I use). There are three general genres of email updates that I pay particular attention to. While the amount of time I spend on any one of these items on any given day may be small, they each offer some insights that are useful and often having me clicking open anywhere from 2 or 3 to 8 or 10 new tabs for later reading.
  • I then usually attack the day’s email, which, for purposes of this series of blogs posts, I will not count as “reading,” since it is quite utilitarian.
  • Later in the day, depending on the academic work that I have at hand, I will do additional reading, returning to the tabs that I have opened and diving into Google Scholar or my library database. Sometimes those tabs stay open a long time. I’ll write through that problem more, too.

Over the next week, I will explore each of these sources in a bit more detail. I will also describe some reading strategies that I use, hearkening back to a series of posts that I did while Kristen Turner and I were working on our Connected Reading book (here, here, and in a six-part series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). I also want to make a concerted effort (as I have many times over the years) to get back into RSS reading, and to think about how I use Zotero to keep track of my reading. I am thinking that there must be a better way to do all this, and perhaps I can think through it with a concerted effort in January. And, with that, I have hit my 30 minutes(+). So, I will look forward to writing a bit more, later in the week, about how I am using these reading practices and what I may be able to do different in the year ahead to be more focused and efficient (at times), as well as more substantive and with intention (at other times).


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Creating MINDFUL Readers and Writers

MINDFUL Graphic
Image Courtesy of Heinemann

Based on the book that I wrote with Kristen Hawley Turner, Argument in the Real World, one of the tools/strategies that I have been sharing in workshops this past year is the “MINDFUL” heuristic for readers and writers as they engage in academic arguments with, through, and about social media.

When we were wrapping up the book in early 2016, even before “fake news” and “alternative facts” became a phenomenon, Kristen and I designed this heuristic to fill in the gaps that we felt existing website evaluation checklists were missing.

In short, those checklists and other tools were created in the early days of the web when we – as educators and information consumers – generally placed the onus of responsibility on the creator for being accurate. This, of course, was a holdover from our view of the printed word having gone through extensive review and editing in order to be published. The power of books, periodicals, encyclopedias and similar sources came from the fact that they were curated by experts.

Yet, with the abundance of material emerging on the information superhighway, educators, especially librarians, knew that careful editing and peer review weren’t happening all the time. We needed to create a way for students to understand that some creators were thoughtful and accurate, while others were misleading or creating an outright hoax. So, we  held those creators to task by engaging with such checklists as readers so we could bring a critical eye to what we were reading/viewing. We also encouraged students to never trust a blog, or Wikipedia, or other sources that were not well-vetted. (Of course, we have since changed our tune. A bit).

At any rate, website evaluation checklists worked okay, for a while at least.

However, this was before the vast majority of us became content creators in the Web 2.0 era. Blogs, wikis, and other forms of media were being created at a constant pace and, unfortunately, with different audiences, purposes, and degrees of veracity.

More recently, through social media,  we are all creators, curators and circulators. Our roles as writers have changed. The role of the reader – as someone with agency and perspective in the online reading and writing process – also needed to take responsibility for the types of arguments being created and perpetuated.

What Kristen and I wanted to do, then, was to rethink this instructional strategy of website evaluation. We came from the stance of helping students –as both readers and writers of social media – to recognize that (borrowing from  Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters’ book title) everything is, indeed, an argument.

Retweets and likes are, despite the disclaimers, endorsements. And, by extension, arguments. The way that we see evidence presented in social media matters because it will inform our own stance, as well as the perspectives of others with whom we engage. We create arguments through the act of liking, retweeting, reblogging, or otherwise endorsing, let alone when we create our own updates, tweets, or blog posts.

Rethinking the traditional website evaluation tool meant that we need to consider the challenges that new media, new epistemologies, and new perspectives all bring. In other words, it was no longer enough to simply read the “about” page, do a WHOIS lookup, or even try to understand more about the language/discourse being used on the page/post.

We needed something different. Hence, MINDFUL.

We wanted to help teachers, in turn, help their students slow down just a bit – even a nano second before retweeting, or a few moments when crafting an entire post – and to think about how arguments in digital spaces are constructed, circulated, and perpetuated.

I think that MINDFUL is helpful in doing just that. Below, you will find slides that I have been using over the past few months as well as links to additional resources I discuss in the presentation.

Additional Resources

  • Argument in the Real World Wiki
  • Our post on the Heinemann blog:  Seriously? Seriously. The Importance of Teaching Reading and Writing in Social Media
  • For the MINDFUL elements
    • Monitoring our own reading and writing means that we must be aware of and account for  Confirmation Bias. Of course, helping students (and ourselves) to do that requires a number of strategies, which are outlined in the rest of the heuristic.
    • Identifying the claim means that we must separate the opinions that someone offers from the facts that may (or may not) support the claim. A refresher on Fact vs Opinion from Cub Reporters is a useful place to begin, even for adults.
    • Noting the type of evidence and how it supports the claim is useful. As a way to think through different types of evidence – In the claims they can support – it is worth taking a look at the Mathematica Policy Research Report “Understanding Types of Evidence: A Guide for Educators
    • Determining the framework/mindset is perhaps one of the most difficult elements for anyone, especially children and teenagers, to fully understand and accomplish. Without taking a full course of study in critical discourse analysis, a few resources that are helpful include the idea of Sam Wineburg’s (of the Stanford History Education Group) idea of  “reading laterally,” explained here by Michael Caulfied. Also, using sites like AllsidesOpposing Viewpoints in Context, and Room for Debate can help. Finally, there is the Media Bias Fact Check plugin for Chrome and Firefox (which, of course, has some bias, and questionable authorship). But, it’s a start.
    • Focusing on the facts requires us to check and double check in the ways that researchers and journalists would. Despite claims to the contrary from those on the fringes, sites like SnopesPolitifact,  and FactCheck are generally considered to be neutral and present evidence in an objective manner. Also, there are lots of objective datasets and reports from Pew Research.
    • Understanding the counterargument is more than just seeing someone else’s perspective and empathizing/disagreeing. We need to help students understand that arguments may not even be constructed on the same concept of information/evidence and in fact some of it could be one of the 7 Types of Mis- and Disinformation from First Draft News.
    • Finally, leveraging one’s own response is critical. Understanding the way that fake news and other propaganda is constructed  and circulated will help us make sure that we do not fall into the same traps as  writers WNYC’s On the Media provides a Breaking News Consumers Handbook for Fake News that is, of course, helpful for us as readers and viewers, but could also be a guide for what not to do as a writer.

My hope is that these websites/resources are helpful for teachers and students as they continue to be mindful readers and writers of social media.


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4C’s Collaborative Comprehension Activity

Image by Anna Demianenko from UnsplashThe past week has found me presenting to both pre-service teachers (three times!) and to fellow faculty (just once), and with each audience I shared the same activity: the 4Cs for Collaborative Comprehension.

Adapted from Ritchhart, Church,, and Morrison’s Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners, my spin on this particular lesson invites students to collaborate using a Google doc as a space to engage in shared reading of a particular text. As they note in their book, “[T]he 4C’s routine allows for a rich and fairly complete discussion of a text nonetheless, each step can be used as a standalone discussion,” and “[a]s students become familiar with the routine and expectations, it can act as a protocol to structure student-directed discussions of the text” (144). 

There are a number of reasons for why this particular reading, writing, and thinking strategy is well-suited for an adaptation using Google Docs:

  • We know that reading is a social experience and, unfortunately, we also know that students are not likely to read – at least with a deep level of comprehension – their homework. While this activity does not solve all the reading problems that students may have – and they most certainly should still be reading outside of class – this does emulate the types of thinking that good readers will use while engaged with the text.
  • We know that writing, too, is also a social experience and can have many purposes. With this activity, writing is a tool for thinking, and asking students to write both individually and collaboratively allows them to see one another’s thinking unfold, in real time, and in a low-stakes environment.
  • We know that thinking – and, in this sense, I mean thinking like a disciplinary expert – is a skill that must be modeled, rehearsed, and assessed. In order to help students understand the ways in which we might approach the text, we need to make the actions that we undertake explicit and clear.
  • Finally, as a way to incorporate technology in a purposeful manner, I taught this as a lesson that was designed for a collaborative group work session that students would engage in during class time. That said, once students become familiar with the routine, they could likely engage in some aspect of this protocol outside of class time and come prepared with their writing done in the Google Doc.

Thus, the idea behind the activity is to have students engage in a shared reading, document their initial thinking – in this case, by connecting to the text, challenging the text, identifying key concepts from the text, and recognizing how the text is asking you, as a reader, to change – and develop a consensus about the most important takeaways from their shared reading. And, they do so using the collaborative technology of Google Docs.

As you’ll see in the instructions embedded in the document, each group will make a copy of this initial template. What’s important to note is that you – as the instructor – could make any modifications to the thinking that you want students to do. Though I like “the 4Cs” as a nice, alliterative phrase to describe what students are doing, you could certainly invite them to do any number of other learning tasks such as interpret, examine, or evaluate.

I begin the activity by ensuring that each student in the group, typically groups of four, has a role. I talk through the different tasks with them, give them a moment as a group to decide who wants to do what during the reading, and then I ask, “Who’s my connector in each group? Who’s the challenger?” Who’s identifying key concepts?” and, finally, “Who’s thinking about changes?” Depending on the particular class, as well as the reading that I am asking them to do, I may do a little bit more of a discussion about the text in order to prime the pump. However, the main goal here is that students jump in to the reading activity with their particular lens (connect, challenge, key concept, change) in mind.

Additionally, before sending them into the reading task, I ensure that at least one person in the group is comfortable making a new version of the Google Doc template and then sharing that new version with their group mates. Thus, each group has their own copy of the 4Cs activity and are then able to write ideas in their squares while they are reading. If it is a group that I feel would benefit from the task, I may also suggest to them that they find relevant sentences or phrases from the article and copy/paste them in to the Google Doc, with appropriate quotation marks. They can then use these segments of the text to make further connections, invite other challenges, identify key concepts, or indicate where the author is encouraging the reader to change.

Then, it is time to have everyone begin reading. As they read, I set a timer for a modest amount of time (usually about 5 to 7 minutes with an article such as the one linked here: “A Month Without Sugar“).  As they read, I encourage them individually to take notes in their group’s Google Doc. Then, after they have had sufficient time to read, I invite them to continue the “silent” conversation in the Google Doc. Once it appears that most students are done with the reading as well as with their writing in Google Docs, I invite them to engage in a face-to-face conversation with one another around the table.

Depending on my goals for the particular reading and how this activity fits into the scope of our overall course of study, I may have students offer comments upon one another’s documents, I may have the groups write a summary, or I may have individuals summarize the main ideas from both their reading and the small group discussion. There are many possibilities for formative assessment, depending on whether the article is being used mainly for getting their thinking started, or inviting them to delve much deeper into a topic we have been studying for a long time.

In talking with the pre-service teachers as well as with my fellow faculty members, a number of interesting extensions and adaptations came to light:

  • The activity could be redesigned with different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy or cognitive tasks in mind for the 4Cs, it could be used for different genres of reading material, or it could be reconfigured around entirely different articles for each group that they could then bring to a larger, whole class discussion.
  • The activity could also be done out of class, inviting students to thoughtfully read and annotate the article as well as to write their brief response, then coming prepared to class and ready for discussion.
  • The activity could also be done with entirely different kinds of texts including images, paintings, charts, videos, or other forms of media as the basis for response.

Again, the main purpose of this activity is to invite all students to read actively – with a particular perspective in mind – and to bring that perspective to their shared conversation about the text.

Yes, this is an activity that could work perfectly fine with pencil and paper. Still, as many of the pre-service teachers and faculty with whom I worked this week have noted, engaging in this activity with the use of Google Docs allows them to see one another’s thinking unfold in process.

It is a very visual reminder of the fact that we all come to a text with a slightly different perspective and yet can still glean meaning from the text when engaged in substantive conversation.

Update, 4/15/17: Minor editing for a typo


Image by Anna Demianenko from Unsplash

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