Evernote for Reading and Writing (Episode 19)

Notebook Collection

How do you organize your reading life? Today, we’re talking about how to use Evernote for writing and organization. Both Jason and Kevin use Evernote to write notes, keep lists, organize daily writing, and keep track of our digital books. You can even use evernote to organize your ebook reading notes as well.

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What’s a MOOC Got to do with It? (Episode 18)

Today, Jason and Kevin talk about MOOCs. You might be wondering: What’s a MOOC? I can assure you it’s not a horned animal from Middle Earth, nor is it something Sarah Palin shoots from helicopters. MOOCs are massive, open online courses. They give some promise to our higher education system in need of reform. But MOOCs aren’t perfect, and they certainly won’t replace traditional higher education anytime soon.

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Do Schools Kill Creativity? [Video]

Schools Kill Creativity

Recent education debates center on testing and classroom development, and in higher education, on MOOCs. But is the real issue that schools kill creativity through standardization?

Schools Kill Creativity
“Empty Classroom” | Max Wolfe | flickr

In this 2006 TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson talks about the role of creativity in our modern economy. In particular, he points to how schools prioritize academics, and certain types of academic programs, over creative activities.

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Friday Reads: “The ‘down-grading’ of American Reading?” by Bufo Calvin

friday reads banner

Over at I Love My Kindle, Bufo Calvin has a fascinating analysis of a recent study that shows American students are reading simpler books. Here’s an excerpt from the study:

“…the complexity of assigned texts has sharply declined, from about [grade] 9.0 in the early 20th century to just over 6.0 in the early 21st century. This finding echoes other studies that have concerned policy makers about whether students are presented with sufficiently challenging material to help them prepare for college and career.”

Scary, right? American students are reading at a sixth grade level and are not leaving school ready for college. No doubt this issue must be addressed in our schools.

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Homophone Check and Grammarly: Automating Grammar Instruction

Fountain pen/Flickr Creative Commons/Luigi Crespo Photography http://www.flickr.com/photos/crespoluigi/3334034672/
Fountain pen/Flickr Creative Commons/Luigi Crespo Photography http://www.flickr.com/photos/crespoluigi/3334034672/

As a college instructor, I’ve struggled with teaching grammar in the classroom. For various reasons, grammar instruction is de-emphasized in college writing, and the focus is on higher concepts like rhetoric and analysis.

There are times when I need to teach grammar. I do a lot of one-on-one conferencing with my students to help them improve as writers, but I’ve never had a way to let them check issues on their own.

Recently, I’ve discovered two tools that have helped me introduce grammar concepts to students without having to dig through textbooks: Grammarly and Homophone Check.

Both tools allow you to copy and paste essays. They will check for grammar issues, highlight them, and explain the concepts further. While Grammarly focuses on style, spelling and plagiarism, Homophone Check finds homophones and explains how they are used correctly.

Both tools are excellent. When I used Homophone Check, it highlighted every homophone. If I floated my mouse pointer over any of the  homophones, I’d see a description of each similar word used in a sentence:


This tool is especially helpful for students who deal with spelling or word choice issues. I’ve found this is a very common problem.

Grammarly gives a report and prompts you to sign up for a 7-day trial. You can use the service for those 7-days, but after that it costs $19.95 a month. That’s quite expensive! Homophone Check is free, which makes sense for a service like this.

Both of these tools help with editing as well. If you’re a writer who struggles with basic grammar and spelling and don’t think your word processor’s built-in grammar tools do enough, these sites will help you. If you’re a teacher, these tools will help you explain concepts to students who might not understand them without seeing it.

Homophone Check is particularly helpful because homophones are a persistent problem for some writers. The site’s visual tools help writers understand the concepts on the spot.

I like both these sites because it helps emphasize basic grammar concepts without “fixing” them for the student. That’s why these tools will help writers learn the concepts, not just erase mistakes.

Teachers, writers, editors: what other tools do you use? Let me know in the comments.

(Disclosure: Jason Braun, a writer and editor here at Critical Margins, created Homophonecheck.com. I have no direct affiliation with the site beyond knowing Jason and liking his product. Grammarly is a site I use, but I have no affiliation with it except as an enthusiastic user.)


In the margins of books and digital culture (#edcmooc digital artifact)

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy Mates [creative commons]
Image courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy Mates [creative commons]
I’m at the end of my E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. For our final project, we’ve been tasked with creating a digital artifact. This artifact needs to address some aspect of digital culture and education.

For my digital artifact, I started something that I hope grows into a much larger project: Dancing in the Margins of Digital Culture. I ask these questions: how has reading changed in the midst of digital culture? How have readers returned to a time of marking up and sharing books?

I’ve written extensively about this topic before. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.) I believe strongly in social reading online, and as tools change, these reading experiences will get better.

To make this project, I used two digital tools: Tumblr (to host the project, and for future expansion) and Storify (for the “marginalia narrative” I created). You can view each part separately, or as one large post, as linked above and below.

I’d like to hear from readers about this. What do you think of the project? Where/how can we expand it? I’d like to make this collaborative, and I’d also like to include my Dancing in the Margins pinterest board once I learn how to embed it on tumblr.

For now, this project will be an extension of Critical Margins, not a replacement. I’ll be here writing away for a while!


#EDCMOOC Digital Artifact: Dancing in the Margins of Digital Culture

MOOC, day 1: Utopias, Dystopias, and Digital Divides

Paulo Friere | flickr creative commons user catherinecronin
Paulo Friere | flickr creative commons user catherinecronin

My MOOC starts today, and last night I took some time to get familiar with the site and see what the course schedule is like.

To recap, this is my first-ever MOOC. I signed up for the E-Learning and Digital Cultures course on Coursera.org a couple months ago because I like the concept, and it fit with my professional and personal interests. Since signing up, I’ve met some of the course participants on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ and participated in a live Twitter chat this weekend.

There’s been a lot of anticipation and excitement surrounding this MOOC. (Last time I checked, there were over 62,000 students enrolled.) During my conversations, I’ve met a lot of fellow educators who want to know more about the future of education on the internet and what “digital culture” means.

That’s what I’m most interested in as I begin this course: how do we define “digital culture”? Does such a concept exist? Or, is “digital culture” really just “culture” now?

This idea of the “digital” is in opposition to “analog” or, I guess, “In Real Life” (IRL) culture. Digital also suggests access to technology — a digital culture can’t exist without the digital stuff we use to connect to it. But what makes a meaningful “digital” life? Is it possible to have a digital life without access to technology?

After clicking around on the course site, I felt a sense of anxiety because even though I know I’m a digital native, it took me a while to get used to the course offerings. There is a lot to do in this course. I will have to learn new technologies and familiarize myself with digital recording equipment and course wikis. I do OK with learning new technologies, but for those first few minutes, I felt overwhelmed.

Then there’s the course material itself. I’ve survived grad school, so I think I can handle the material. Yet it’s a lot to get used to. There will be readings each week, course discussions on Twitter and Synchtube, and at the end of the course, I’ll have to create something with digital tools. It’s a lot of new stuff for me.

The first two weeks of the course deal with technological determinism, the concept that technology drives social and cultural change. We are asked to contemplate whether digital technology sets up utopian or dystopian communities. After reading this first prompt, I thought about how vast and otherworldly our digital lives have become in the last two years. We live such a large part of our lives online that we have to make the effort to disconnect.

But what about students who don’t have access to the technology, who live on the other side of the digital divide? Can they understand this concept of digital culture? As I acquainted myself with the course, I realized what it must feel like for a new college student in one of my courses. I use a lot of technology in my classroom. I require students to log into and use Blackboard, an online educational platform used by many traditional universities.

What must it be like for those students? They not only have to navigate the new culture of higher education (and figure out how I, the teacher “fit” into this culture), they have to learn new technology. In some cases, they may not know how to use the software we make them use in the course.

This is sort of how I feel right now. I’m attempting to understand the MOOC culture, not only in this particular MOOC, but in general. I have to learn new technology to take part in this new culture. I also have to put aside my old views of education, the view of it leading to degree completion or better employment. This MOOC is here for my fulfillment, and all I gain from it is a sense of community and a feeling that I have challenged myself in some way.

My first time with a MOOC

Image from flickr Creative Commons, user giulia.forsythe

On a whim last October, I signed up for a MOOC on Coursera.org. For those not familiar with the term, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, and it’s just that: an online course open to the public. Coursera.org brings together a collection of MOOCs on various subjects through partnerships with a collection of Universities. Essentially, by taking a Coursera.org MOOC, the student is able to access these courses for free. Open access is an important component in the MOOC movement, and it’s also a movement many scholars are taking very seriously.

Coursera.org doesn’t offer degrees or official accreditation from the host Universities, but they do offer a certificate of completion from the instructors offering the course. This gives the student “bragging rights,” but it also shows a willingness to legitimize the course for the student, even if the student isn’t getting a degree or a grade at the end. Over time, some type of accreditation system could be implemented in these courses.

There is much debate about the role of MOOCs in higher education. Many in higher education are skeptical of their lasting power and see the MOOC movement as a fad, and others are hostile. Obviously, MOOCs are incredibly disruptive to the status quo in academia, and many wonder if MOOCs will weaken the value of higher education.

As a recovering academic and current adjunct instructor at a state university, I see some value in keeping certain aspects of the traditional university intact. For example, the traditional university provides structure, credibility, and (in some cases) funding for cutting-edge research. For many students, this provides enough value for the time and money spent on a degree.

Yet it appears that MOOCs disrupt the university in all of the right ways: they extract the core value of higher education (knowledge and discovery) for anyone to access. While a degree might help some people start a career or attain mandatory qualifications, the university, as structured today, is too insular and doesn’t represent our interconnected and networked ways of living. The MOOC, however, allows for access to education via the internet, and it does without the debt or the long-term time commitment.

Why would I take a MOOC now? I don’t really know the answer to this question, except that I’m curious about what it’s like to take a course in this way. I chose a course that will relate to my profession, and I hope it will be successful.

I will blog about my MOOC experience while it takes place, but it doesn’t start until January 28. (By the way, the MOOC I signed up for is called “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” so feel free to join in if you’d like.) Until then, here are some of my goals:

  • Use the MOOC to network with other like-minded individuals
  • Gain new skills related to digital technology and culture
  • Be open-minded and curious about the material
  • Take a critical look at the role of the MOOC in the next few years: is it a fad, or does it have staying power?

One MOOC is not enough to judge its value, but I hope that by going through this process, I’ll start to rethink what it means to gain knowledge in the 21st Century.