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 the Organizational Newsletter

As noted in the first post in this series, I’m trying to unpack some of my daily digital reading habits. In addition to the (semi) automated daily newsletter that comes from social media updates, there are also a regular stream (sometimes a flood) of newsletters that come from various groups.

I generally categorize and read these types of newsletters in two ways: “headline” style updates from aggregation sites like EdSurge News (agree to have them use/sell my data based on the privacy policy) and SmartBrief (agree to have them use/sell my data based on the privacy policy). Then, there are specific, often thematic issues from groups  the Connected Learning Alliance (donation), Common Sense Media (donation), NCTE’s Inbox (professional membership), ILA Daily Blog (professional membership), and Edutopia (donation). More recently, I have subscribed to Chalkbeat (donation), too.

With the daily headline-style of newsletter (EdSurge and SmartBrief, in particular), I generally skim and may pick one or two pieces to delve into more deeply. The good news for these types of newsletters is that, with my “normal” news consumption of NPR (donation) and the New York Times (subscription), many of the links go back to these sources and I have already read/heard them anyway. These aggregators do send me out to other sites, including their own, to see a bit more of the education-related news of the day. From these sources, I’ve also been pushed out to Slate’s education reporting a few times, and I am thinking about subscribing there, too.

One that I appreciate, generally focused on Michigan, but touches on national news, too, is Robert McClain’s Student&Educator newsletter. He used to request a subscription fee (which I paid for at least a year), but it appears as though it is now free (as I haven’t re-upped my subscription in quite some time). I am not even sure how I ever got signed up for this one (no easy way to do it on the site), and it is probably best to email McClain himself to get put on the Constant Contact list.

Then, there are the organizational newsletters. I do appreciate and read these in as much detail as I can, just to have a sense of what is going on in the organization (at a 30,000-foot view at least) and to better understand what other professionals with similar interests are reading and blogging about. Also, deadlines. Knowing when conference proposals are due is pretty essential. While some are little more than advertisements for upcoming conferences or online events, many of the organizational newsletters point me to interesting tidbits that I would have missed in my regular social media feed or, perhaps, echo what I’ve already seen in my feed.

None of this, of course, is perfect. Some days, like over the holidays here, I still have time to read and digest a good bit of news (general and work-related). Other days, my feet hit the floor in the morning, my head hits the pillow at night, and I barely remember what happened in between. Reading, on those days, is a bit tough. Yet, the newsletters — even just skimming the headlines — help me stay in touch. If nothing else, I can pop open a few tabs and save them for reading at a later time (which I will need to discuss in terms of using Zotero, but that is another post).

And, a final note. If it isn’t obvious already, I have tried to indicate above how I pay for these services. Good journalism, even in aggregate, isn’t free. I am either giving away my data (and some privacy rights), or paying for the service, or a bit of both.


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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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Rethinking My Relationship with Ed Tech

So, with 2019 officially underway, I am hoping that today is the first day of a year that I spend (at least some) focused time blogging. I’ve been at this since 2006, and I’ve had good years and bad ones, productive blogging periods and deep fallows. While I am making nothing even close to a resolution that I will blog 365 consecutive days in 2019, I am hoping that I can increase the overall volume of blog posts by about 50%.

As of today, I stand at 492 published posts over the years, and in recent months I have been getting pretty skimpy in terms of what “counts” as a post, many of which consist of conference session slides and hyperlinks. That’s OK. Sometimes. So, too, are short missives on a news items. Sometimes. And, it’s not like everything that I write needs to be a long, rambling, philosophical treatise. Nor does it need to be a highly polished, essay-like post. But, it needs to be something. And, it needs to be something frequent.

In some ways, this is a silly goal. In 2019, I am working on three different book projects, at least two journal articles (right now), and any number of other items including a the development of a new course on digital and media literacy and a major report that I am working on for a professional organization. In short, there is plenty of writing to do. Blogging has always been the “enjoyable” writing that I would do once all the “required” writing is done.

But, much like I have reversed course in the past few months and repositioned exercise in my daily routine, I need to fit blogging squarely in each 24-48 hour cycle. Some days, the posts may be more substantive than others, but I can at least share a link to an article with some commentary. Sometimes, it may be ideas I am working through for my books, articles, or courses. Or, whatever. The point is that I need to write and get ideas moving.

A major theme, as indicated by the title, is that I will be making a conscious effort to reevaluate, rethink, revise… re-everything… my relationship with ed tech. To begin, I am introducing a new textbook into my EDU 807 course: Selwyn, N. (2013). Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. New York ; London: Routledge. Because we will be digging into that text fairly soon in the semester, I will make an effort to share some quotes and elaborate on Selwyn’s ideas.

Again, in order to add 50% to my blog in 2019, I would need post 246 times. Whew. I’ll cut myself some slack and aim for 200, looking at a post about once every other day. So, hooray… #1 (for 2019) is done, and I look forward to getting back into blogging over the next few days, weeks, and months. Happy 2019, everyone!


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Wrapping Up a Semester of Digital Badging

Digital Badges... Still Under ConstructionThis past fall semester provided me with an opportunity to teach an undergraduate honors seminar, focused broadly on the role of technology in our personal and professional lives.

Entitled “Our Digital Selves,” I was able to work with 22 students over the 16 week semester as we engaged in some shared inquiry, some small group inquiry pathways, and a number of writing-to-learn activities that helped them engage with and understand a variety of digital tools ranging from browser extensions to the Zotero bibliographic management system.

Moreover (and more to the point for purposes of this post), we utilized digital badging as a tool for documenting performance, eschewing grades and, instead, relying on lots of formative assessment, peer review, and self-evaluation. Since the National Writing Project first became connected with the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Learning Initiative, I have been interested in badges, and will likely be pursuing the use of badges in teacher professional development this spring.

For HON 206, the purpose of the badging system was, as I documented earlier, meant to be an opportunity for students to reconsider the role of traditional grade-driven assessment practices in their learning, providing them with more flexibility and opportunities for them to work creatively with one another. As with all teaching experiences, this one had some ups and some downs.

On the positive side:

  • Badges held a novelty factor that — combined with the overall topic of digital ethnography that permeated the course — did remain relevant in our discussions and activities.
  • In pursuing the goal of digital authorship across multiple platforms and with various activities, students began to see how multimodal texts (including badges) could expand their thinking well beyond the traditional academic essay.
  • Coupled with the inquiry-based, experiential nature of the pathways, students did begin to identify themselves with the badging pathways. They called themselves “Makers,” “Adventurers,” “Hackers,” and “Writers.”
  • In the end, having some freedom and flexibility was a powerful motivation for learning. While it really wouldn’t have mattered if we had badges or not, talking about the idea of “earning a badge” is more concrete than times in the past where I have used contract grading, which feels much more amorphous.

And, on the negative side:

  • No matter how much you try to dress it up, even with lipstick, a pig is still a pig. Though the ultimate goal was not to gain a set number of points in order to earn an “A,” this still was a class, with homework and expectations for participation. Try as I might, badges didn’t change that fundamental equation. Some students completed their work on time and with a high degree of quality. Some did not. And, for all those who are worried about grade inflation, well, I am part of the problem, since they all ended up with the same grade at the end.
  • Interoperability. Even though I was using the open badge standard with the Badgr platform (read more about how Badgr evolved from the Mozilla Open Backpack, and where it is going next), I thought that it would be easy for students to share their badges on LinkedIn (not at all easy, and only as a “certification”) or WordPress (no embedding of iFrames on the free accounts). They could download the image, make a link, and share it that way, but the ease of a “point and click” transfer of the badge from being issued in Badgr to making it into a more viable, professional space simply didn’t happen.
  • Though there were some other minor concerns, the final major problem is that, even after a semester of talking about badges, showing them how their “evidence” of earning the badge is “baked in,” and that they could easily demonstrate to another instructor or employer, I don’t think that any of them (save for one) really felt like these digital credentials would help them later on.

As with all teaching innovations, I sometimes fear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I should have opportunity to teach HON 206 again in the future, and I am already thinking about some ways in which I might adapt; I think that there might be some specific ways that I can make things more compelling while also not losing my mind from issuing badges.

  • First, the badges need to be earned for (some) smaller tasks, not just the final projects. In order to earn a badge for say, “Level I” work in a pathway, you need to have the item turned in on time and to a high degree of quality. If not, no badge. You can still turn in the work and get credit for the assignment, but I need to issue smaller badges, faster.
  • Second, in a similar vein, I did about eight in-class, intensive “writing-to-learn” activities that were highly scaffolded as Hyperdoc-like activities. I think that I would have at least five of those (of the students’ choosing) become longer assignments that would include the in-class work as well as an out-of-class extension, probably a brief essay (500 words or so). Those, too, would accumulate into a bigger badge, but would be issued more frequently.
  • Finally, I need a system for them to share the badges. Perhaps, as part of the course, I have them subscribe to WordPress for four months, dropping the text book and paying for that instead. Then, I could build blogging (and reading one another’s blogs) more diligently into the course process, and I could expect them to share their badges more publicly.

So, my first go at badging was compelling and not a complete failure. My hope is that I have opportunity to try this again with undergraduates and — if I get really motivated — with my ed tech doctoral students, too.

For now, I wish that I could give all of my students a digital backpack (ala Mozilla’s original vision) for a Christmas present, so it was easier for them to share their badges and, more importantly, be able to reflect on their learning for the semester. But, that’s on my wish list for next year and, for now, I am satisfied with the gift of a wonderful teaching experience this fall.

I have more to learn about badging, and will continue to reflect on my HON 206 experience, too.


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Slides from “The Circle is Ruining My Social Life”

As a parent, researcher, and teacher educator, I am constantly trying to figure out the ways in which we frame our conversations about screentime.

  • Are we trying to monitor (police, surveil) our children’s online activities?
  • Similarly, are we trying to manage (perhaps even micromanage) our children’s online activities?
  • Or, are we trying to mentor (model, coach, encourage, discuss, and inspire) our children as they create healthy choices, both IRL and online?

The stance that we take — in our classrooms and our homes — will largely define the ways in which our students determine their own relationship with screentime.

Here are the slides and links from my opening talk during our NCTE 2018 session, “Moving Beyond the ‘Screentime’ Debate: The Intersection of Teaching, Researching, and Parenting”

  • Date: Thursday, November 15, 2018
  • Time: 1:00-3:45 p.m.
  • Location: 320 AB

Resources/Links


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