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Things could be worse

I’m reading A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman at the moment. It’s an amazing read, and perfectly suited to our pandemic present.

It’s a long book, so I feel justified in skipping over the occasionally-lengthy descriptions of battles and campaigns, in favour of the much more interesting economic, social, and cultural history.

As a former History teacher (and someone with an MA in the subject) I’ve always found the undue focus on political and military history a bit boring, which is why I appreciate Tuchman’s comment on how it’s the extremes of time periods that tend to be recounted by historians.

In individuals as in nations, contentment is silent, which tends to unbalance the historical record.

Barbara Tuchman, ‘A Distant Mirror’

Tuchman throws in all kinds of interesting tidbits of information, such as two-thirds of the population of Europe being under the age of 21 throughout the 14th century. Half were under 14! She uses this to explain the general lack of maturity in everyone from peasants to nobles.

Some might wonder why I’d want to read something so ‘depressing’ as the population of Europe being reduced by a third during the Black Death. After all, isn’t that a bit close to home right now? I’ve actually found the opposite is true: reading things like this make you realise that we live in much more pleasant, civilised, and reasonable times, and that things could be far, far worse


This post is Day 21 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

New to digital literacies? Read this.

Earlier today John Sutton asked for my “top few accessible reads overviewing digital literacies”. I was walking my son to his new school at the time, so responded that I would write a quick blog post later. Well, here it is.

Right off the bat I’d go for Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart. It’s wonderfully written by a (gentle) giant of the field. What I like about it is the mix of anecdote and academic research. It really is well put together.

After that, it’s slightly trickier to know where to turn – for a couple of reasons. First, the books in this field tend to be more academic than perhaps they need to be. Second, they’re also more expensive than they need to be. £20 for a text-based book is not my usual idea of money well spent. I’d rather dip into the Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy (available free online) – especially articles like Towards a Transformative Digital Literacies Pedagogy (Thomas, 2011)

Having said that, anyone who wants to get to grips with the field of digital literacies really does need to read Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel’s Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices. I enjoyed (re-)reading it. You might also want to try James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

I haven’t read everything that’s come out around digital literacies since I finished my thesis, but it’s important to realise that there’s different understanding of what the territory looks like depending upon which sector you’re in (schools, universities, formal/informal) and where you are in the world. The ongoing work of Henry Jenkins is venerated in North America so it’s probably worth reading the free MacArthur report he wrote with some others in 2009: Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.

Other than that, and perhaps some work by David Buckingham, it’s difficult to point you towards something specific. There’s some great work by Stephen Downes and by Helen Beetham, but their work is more wide-ranging than just digital literacies. Downes’ excellent presentation Speaking in Lolcats, for example, is almost an hour and a half long. You can find Beetham’s work scattered around the Jisc Design Studio (a wiki).

Finally, while I’m slightly wary of tooting my own horn, I did spend six years looking at the field of digital literacies in my thesis. While that in itself is not as incomprehensible as some academic work, I am (taking my time in writing) a more accessible version of it. It’s an ebook called The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies which you can buy it now (currently at v0.9) and you’ll get v1.0 when it’s finished. I hope that helps John and some other people.

If there’s something I’ve missed that you’d recommend, please do mention it in the comment section below! 🙂

Image CC BY-NC-SA Tyler Wilson

Reading books in front of kids is not enough.

TL;DR version: Patrick Rhone wrote a post recently about the importance of his children seeing people reading physical books. While I agree with the sentiment, it’s not enough in and of itself. They need to see us reading screens as well. Most importantly we need to have conversations with our kids about everything we’re reading.


Last month a post by Patrick Rhone was +1’d into my Google+ stream. Entitled A Time For Books it was, like most of Rhone’s posts, a thoughtful and heartfelt look at something important to him. While I have no beef with his general thinking here, I just think what he says doesn’t go far enough:

I’ve decided that I want to start being very conscious of making sure to read real books as much as possible around her [his daughter]. That she not only see them closed and on shelves but also open and on tables and desks and their places being kept over the arm of a chair. I want to ensure that we have family reading time as much as possible and while one of us is reading a book to her the other is enjoying a physical book of their own.

The idea of a ‘family reading time’ is great and should definitely be encouraged. My wife and I have, on occasion, done something similar with our son. However, what I find problematic in Rhone’s piece is his privileging physical books over things that are read on a screen:

I mean, we could be doing anything on the screen. And she knows it. She knows the Internet is sometimes on that screen. She knows that movies are sometimes on that screen. She knows that games and music are on that screen.

And, while she does know we can read books on that screen, even books for her, how is she to know the difference? How is she to pick up the physical cues that Mommy and Daddy read a lot of books? That this is what people should do. That it is something we believe passionately in. That it matters. That we believe she should read a lot of books too. Even when she is as old as we are.

Let me tell you how Rhone Junior can find out about what Daddy reads. By engaging her in conversation. Books are social objects.

I read a lot of books, but fully 75% of what I read is on some kind of screen – a Kindle, my Nexus 7, my MacBook Pro, or one of the plethora of devices we have lying around. It would be impossible for me to replace what I read on screens with physical books.

Instead of a futile attempt to turn the clock back, I suggest that parents looking to model appropriate behaviours enter into conversations with their kids about what they’re reading and thinking. I find one of the best places to do this with my son is in the car on the way to some activity like swimming or football. I’ll ask what he’s enjoyed reading and let him know what I’ve found interesting recently. Even better than that is sharing something you’re reading at the time you read it, of course. But that’s not always possible.

Tangentially related to this, I feel, is learning how to work in a distributed way. And, let’s face it, that’s almost definitely how my son’s generation will be working. In my work for Mozilla it’s imperative that I make my thinking as tangible and visible as possible – either through conversations, blog posts like this one, or physical/digital artefacts. This allows my colleagues to riff off what I’m doing and I can do likewise.

Sharing is caring. Enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious. Just seeing Daddy read a newspaper or a book means absolutely nothing in and of itself. We need to model the behaviours we want to see. I’m all for encouraging children to read – let’s just not kid ourselves that letting them see us read physical books is enough.

Image CC BY Wiertz Sébastien

Reading list for #BelshawBlackOps12

As I’ve already mentioned, in just over a week I’ll be on Belshaw Black Ops for the whole of December. During that time I want to spend time with my family, slow down a little, and read. You know, long-form stuff.

Here’s three books I’ve got queued up:

Altogether, I’ve set myself the challenge of reading 10 non-fiction books during December.

What else should I read? (and why?) It doesn’t have to be a new book, nor does it have to be about education or technology – but it does need to be interesting.

List your three must-read books in the comment section below. I’ll be writing a short review of the ten books I end up reading when I come back in January. 🙂

Image CC BY picturenarrative

Update

The following books have been recommended by the awesome people commenting below:

Also, Audrey Watters recommended via Twitter:

And on Google+ Timothy Scholze recommended:

Then, again on Twitter Jon Parnham recommended:

How to create searchable notes from books using Evernote and your smartphone.

Taking photos of books with Evernote on iOS

Note: This is an update to a previous post.

During the summer holidays before I headed to university I worked in a secondhand bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford. And then, to help support myself during my MA in Modern History I worked in Waterstones bookshop in Newcastle. I love books.

But, despite my affection for the printed word, I still prefer, on balance, reading on my Kindle. One of the main reasons for this is the ease by which I can highlight sections of text (non-destructively) which are then available at kindle.amazon.com.

Whilst I’m waiting for everything that’s ever been written to be digitised I need a solution for physical books that is:

  • Quick
  • Accurate
  • Citable

I think I’ve got that with the following system. Here’s what to do.

The Basics

  1. Sign up to Evernote. You can experiment with a free account but, like me, you’ll no doubt go Premium for the added data storage/transfer and functionality.
  2. Install the Evernote app both on your computer and your smartphone (I’m using the iOS version)
  3. When you start reading a new book, create a new notebook for it and take a photo of the front of the book. Title this first note something like Author (Date of publication) – Title, Place of publication: Publisher
  4. Every time you come across something you want to make a note on, take a photo of the text. Add any comments or thoughts you have and title it something like Author – page number(s)

After syncing, Evernote provides OCR (Optical Character Recognition) on the text of images, so you could stop here as you’ve now got searchable notes from books (as promised in the title). However, I’ve gone one step further.

Going Further

Now that the notes you want are in Evernote, it’s time to tidy them up and make the text copy-and-pasteable. Here’s what to do after carrying out steps 1-4 above:

  1. Create a Book Clippings notebook
  2. Sort the notes in the notebook to make ensure the note with the front cover is at the top
  3. Select all of the notes, click on ‘Note’ in the top menu and then select Merge Notes
  4. Type out the text you want from each photograph underneath it. Add the page number in brackets afterwards and delete the photo and references.
  5. Repeat. Yes, this takes time.
  6. Drag your tidied-up note into the Book Clippings notebook.
  7. Start reading your next book.

Conclusion

I’ve found this an extremely effective way of getting searchable notes from physical books. As a bonus, you might want to try using Evernote’s Web Clipper to import your Kindle notes so that everything’s together in one place.

Have you tried this? Have you got a different system?

Gestures as semiotic domains

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/7338692 w=450&h=360]

The above video shows hands with and without a book in them. Books have a defined user experience: there is a consistent and uniform way to open and ‘read’ them; they have a particular structure encourage certain familiar gestures – e.g. flicking through to the index or chapter headings.

Gestures, therefore, meet the three tests for a semiotic domain (implicitly) laid down by Gee (2003:23):

  1. They allow us to experience (see, feel and operate on) the world in new ways.
  2. Such gestures are shared with groups of people who carry them on as distinctive social practices.
  3. They allow us to gain resources that prepare us for future learning and problem-solving in the domain (and perhaps related domains)

If gestures are semiotic domains, explains Gee, then they must have ‘design grammars’:

Each domain has an internal and an external design grammar. By an internal design grammar, I mean the principles and patterns in terms of which one can recognize what is and what is not acceptable or typical in a semiotic domain. By an external design grammar, I mean the principles and patterns in terms of which one can recognize what is and what is not an acceptable or typical social practice and identity in regard to the affinity group associated with a semiotic domain. (p.30)

The concept of ‘gestural literacy’, therefore, would seem to be somewhat of a misnomer. Grammar may be a semiotic domain and have both internal and external design grammars, but to consider it separately from the act of reading would be to miss the point. We need holistic views of literacy that take into account embodied cognition.

References

Gee, J.P. (2003) What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (Palgrave Macmillan, New York)

Best of Belshaw

Given the recent arrival into the world of Grace Belshaw, a lack of paternity leave due to not working for my current employers for the requisite amount of time, and an Easter deadline for my Ed.D., now would seem a good time to point out that you can download (for free!) my yearly Best of Belshaw books to peruse at your leisure. They’re iPad-friendly and convert well for viewing on the Amazon Kindle and other e-book readers.

Best of Belshaw 2009 Best of Belshaw 2010

For those readers who are educators and haven’t seen the #movemeon book a number of us collaborated on in 2009, you’re missing a treat. Download them all for free or purchase them at cost price! 🙂

PS If you like my writing and want to check out the only for-profit book I’ve written so far click here.

My 5 favourite non-fiction books

  1. The Art of Worldly Wisdom (Baltasar Gracian)
  2. The Complete Essays (Michel De Montaigne)
  3. The Passion of the Western Mind (Richard Tarnas)
  4. Pragmatism (William James)
  5. Moving Mountains: the art of letting others see things your way (Henry M. Boettinger)

These are all, either explicitly or implicitly, philosophical. This, of course, reflects my background, my first degree and my approach to life. But you don’t have to be a philosopher to enjoy these works: they’re extremely readable and the ideas and wisdom they contain is of use to everybody!

Owning a Kindle means I can carry around many of my favourite books with me wherever I am. The search functionality means I can quickly find the section I’m looking for. It’s regrettable that not every work is available digitally but I’m sure Google are working on it… 😉

What are your favourite works of non-fiction?

HOWTO: Use Evernote to take notes on books.

Something I’ve started doing recently has revolutionised my ability to synthesise my reading of stuff in paper books. Here’s what I currently do – although there’s probably ways I can improve it (and no doubt something similar is possible using other devices):

You’ll need:

  • An iPhone
  • Evernote app (iPhone and desktop/laptop versions)
  • An internet connection (at some point)

What we’re going to do is to take a picture of a section of text, tag it and add contextual (bibliographic) information, and then send it off to be synced by Evernote.

0. Set up a notebook for your quotations/notes. I use ‘Ed.D. thesis’.

1. Take picture of text

Click on the ‘Snapshot’ option in Evernote. Take your photo of the text you want to capture – make sure you focus correctly!

2. Fill in note details

The title should be something that summarises what you’ve taken a picture of. Tag it appropriately. Click on ‘Append note’ and fill in citation details. Make sure you ‘Select All’ and then ‘Copy’ so that the next time you do this you can use ‘Paste’ and just change the page number!

3. Sync

Once you’ve synced it will appear in Evernote on your desktop/laptop.

4. Synthesise

With all the notes in front of you, it’s easy to synthesise your thinking. It’s fully possible to just to this on the iPhone, but it’s easier given the features and screen real-estate on desktop or laptop.

I use a Moleskine notebook and a good old-fashioned pen for synthesising (or XMind depending on how I’m feeling). It works wonderfully! 🙂

Your anti-ebook rhetoric is like a broken record.

To be honest, I’m not particularly bothered whether you, on a personal level, decide that you don’t like ebooks and you prefer dead trees.

That’s fine.

actively prefer the former over the latter, so I do mind your Luddite-style arguments attempting to castigate others whilst appealing to some kind of external, objective value. If you’re in a position of influence within an organization, then your reactionary stance on ebooks makes you a barrier.

These are the 3 types arguments I hear most often:

1. I like sharing books

That’s great! Good for you. My liking ebooks obviously makes me A Bad Person.

2. There’s just something about…

…the smell, the cracking of the spine, etc. Erm, that’s a fetish.

3. Ebooks strain my eyes

I completely take onboard your point about reading anything of any length on a backlit screen. But that argument just doesn’t stand up with e-ink screens as featured on the Amazon Kindle.

Got a different anti-ebook argument? I’d love to hear it in the comments below!

***Update*** Many thanks to ‘atw’ in the comments below who adds a fourth argument I hear often:

I like paper books because I can stick them in my purse and they never run out of batteries!

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