The Difference that Inquiry Makes: A Collaborative Case Study on Technology and Learning, from the Visible Knowledge Project

This collection of essays from the Visible Knowledge Project is edited by Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, who served together as the Project’s Co-Directors and Principal Investigators. The Visible Knowledge Project was a collaborative scholarship of teaching and learning project exploring the impact of technology on learning, primarily in the humanities.  In all, about seventy faculty from twenty-two institutions participated in the Visible Knowledge Project over five years. Participating campuses included five research universities (Vanderbilt University, the University of Alabama, Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, Washington State University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), four comprehensive public universities (Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, California State University (CSU)–Monterey Bay, CSU Sacramento, Ohio’s Youngstown State University, and participants from several four-year colleges in the City University of New York system, including City College, Lehman, and Baruch), and three community colleges (two from CUNY–Borough of Manhattan Community College and LaGuardia Community College, and California’s Cerritos College). In addition to campus-based teams, a number of independent scholars participated from a half dozen other institutions, such as Arizona State and Lehigh University.

The project began in June 2000 and concluded in October 2005. We engaged in several methods for online collaboration to supplement our annual institutes, including an adaptation of the digital poster-tool created by Knowledge Media Lab (Carnegie Foundation), asynchronous discussion, and web-conferencing. For more detailed information, see the VKP galleries and archives at You can find pdf files formatted for printing attached at the end of each article.

Capturing the Visible Evidence of Invisible Learning

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This is a portrait of the new shape of learning with digital media, drawn around three core concepts: adaptive expertise, embodied learning, and socially situated pedagogies. These findings emerge from the classroom case studies of the Visible Knowledge Project, a six-year project engaging almost 70 faculty from 21 different institutions across higher education. Examining the scholarly work of VKP faculty across practices and technologies, it highlights key conceptual findings and their implications for pedagogical design.  Where any single classroom case study yields a snapshot of practice and insight, collectively these studies present a framework that bridges from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 technologies, building on many dimensions of learning that have previously been undervalued if not invisible in higher education.

Reading the Reader

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Many teachers wonder what happens (or doesn’t happen) when students read text. What knowledge do students need, gain, or seek when reading? Through VKP’s early emphasis on technology experimentation, Sharona Levy adapted a proven reading method of annotation from paper to computer. Through using the comment feature in Word, students’ reading processes became more transparent, explicit, and traceable, allowing her to diagnose gaps in understanding and to encourage effective reading strategies.

Close Reading, Associative Thinking, and Zones of Proximal Development in Hypertext

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How can we teach students to slow down their reading process and move beyond surface-level comprehension? Patricia O’Connor’s Appalachian Literature students co-constructed hypertexts which capture the connections readers make among assigned texts, reference documents, and multimedia sources. These hypertexts became more than artifacts of student work; rather, they became collaborative, exploratory spaces where implicit literary associations become explicit.

Inquiry, Image, and Emotion in the History Classroom

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With increased online access to historical sources, will students “read history” differently among such artifacts as text, image, or video? Questioning his own assumptions of students’ abilities to analyze historical sources, Peter Felten conducted pedagogical investigations to understand student interpretation of a variety of sources. Designing the use of visual artifacts in the classroom helped students learn not only how to interrogate and interpret primary sources, but also how to construct original arguments about history. Students’ understanding of history deepened while they became emotionally engaged with the material.

From Looking to Seeing: Student Learning in the Visual Turn

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Rather than simply using primary source images as illustrations for his course on Power, Race, and Culture in the U.S. City, David Jaffee wanted to teach his students how to interpret visual texts as a historian would. By paying close attention to his students’ readings of images, Jaffee was able to develop ways to scaffold their analysis, teaching them how to move beyond “looking” at isolated images to “seeing” historical context, connection and complexity.

Engaging Students as Researchers through Internet Use

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Effective habits of research begin early and should be practiced often. Unearthing discoveries, making connections, and evaluating judiciously are research traits valued by Taimi Olsen in her first-year composition course. Not only should these research habits exist in the library, but Olsen advocates the application of these habits in online archives hones students’ abilities to become expert researchers.

Trace Evidence: How New Media Can Change What We Know About Student Learning

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Clicker technology, often used in large-enrollment science courses, works well when every question has a single right answer. Lynne Adrian wanted to find out whether clickers could be used in disciplines which raise more questions than answers, and how illuminating the gray areas between “right” and “wrong” could help her students think critically about American studies. She found that the technology allowed her to preserve traces of the otherwise ephemeral class discussions, enabling her to analyze the types of questions she was asking in class and to track their effects on students’ written work throughout the semester.

Shaping a Culture of Conversation: The Discussion Board and Beyond

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What happens when the discussion board goes from being just an assignment to a springboard for intellectual community? Foreseeing many benefits to cultivating discussion among his English students, Ed Gallagher worked to develop frameworks to articulate why discussion is not only central to the learning process in the classroom but also beyond its walls. A higher level of critical analysis, reflection, and a synthesis of multiple perspectives turned class discussions into artful conversations.

The Importance of Conversation in Learning and the Value of Web-based Discussion Tools

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In this essay Heidi Elemendorf and John Ottenhoff discuss the central role that intellectual communities should play in a liberal education and the value of conversation for our students, and we explore the ways in which web-based conversational forums can be best designed to fully support these ambitious learning goals. Coming from very different fields (Biology and English Literature) and in different course contexts (Microbiology course for non-majors and Shakespeare seminar), they nonetheless discover core values and design issues by looking closely at the discourse produced from online discussions. Centrally, they connect what they identify as expert-like behavior to the complexities of intellectual development in conversational contexts.

Why Sophie Dances: Electronic Discussions and Student Engagement with the Arts

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Paula Berggren struggled to engage her students in critical thinking about unfamiliar art forms, until she posed a simple question on the class’s online discussion board: “Why do people dance?” She found that the students’ responses, rather than being just less-polished versions of what they might write in formal essays, warranted close analysis in their own right. In subsequent teaching, Berggren continues to incorporate some version of a middle space for student work, which not only increases students’ engagement but also allows her to observe and document their thought processes.

Connecting the Dots: Learning, Media, Community

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Sometimes the research question you ask isn’t the one you end up answering. Elizabeth Stephen recounts how a debate about the use of films in a freshman seminar led to an experiment in forming a community of scholars which could be sustained over time and across distances. Creating online spaces for students in this group to share their reflections with one another strengthened the ties among them, while allowing Stephen to analyze the multiple elements, both academic and social, which made this a successful learning community.

Focusing on Process: Exploring Participatory Strategies to Enhance Student Learning

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Confronting the challenge of improving student writing in a large sociology class, Juan José Gutiérrez developed a software-based peer review process. He required students to evaluate one another’s papers based on specific criteria and to provide constructive feedback. He found that not only did this process help with the logistics of paper-grading, but it also allowed him to adapt his teaching to address specific concerns indicated by qualitative and quantitative analysis of the peer reviews.

Theorizing Through Digital Stories: The Art of “Writing Back” and “Writing For”

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Discovering how digital stories engage students in critical, theoretical frameworks lives at the center of Rina Benmayor’s work. Through her course, Latina Life Stories, Rina asked each student to tell his or her own life story digitally and then situate the story within a theoretical context. While this process engaged students to theorize creatively, it also allowed her to document methods to recognize the quality of student work resulting in a flexible and intuitive rubric to use beyond this experience.

Video Killed the Term Paper Star? Two Views

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Two instructors from separate disciplines discuss what happens when alternative multimedia assignments replace traditional papers. Peter Burkholder found the level of engagement to change dramatically in his history courses while Anne Cross experienced new avenues for talking about sensitive subjects in sociology. Together, both professors explore the advantages and opportunities for video assignments that challenge students to synthesize information in critical and innovative ways.

Producing Audiovisual Knowledge: Documentary Video Production and Student Learning in the American Studies Classroom

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Traditionally, academic institutions have segregated multimedia production from disciplinary study. Bernie Cook wondered what his American Studies students would learn from working collaboratively to produce documentary films based on primary sources, and what he in turn might find out about their learning in the process. Students created documentary films on local history, and wrote reflections on their creative and critical process. Not only did students report tremendous engagement with the topics and sources for their projects, they also indicated satisfaction at being able to screen their work for an audience. By allowing his students to become producers of content, Cook enables them to participate fully in the intellectual work of American Studies and Film Studies.

Multimedia as Composition: Research, Writing, and Creativity

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Viet Thanh Nguyen reflects on a three-year experiment in assigning multimedia projects in courses designed around the question “How do we tell stories about America?” Determined to integrate multimedia conceptually into his courses, rather than tacking it onto existing syllabi, Nguyen views multimedia as primarily a pedagogical strategy and secondarily a set of tools. Exploring challenges and opportunities for both students and teachers in using multimedia, he outlines principles for teaching with multimedia, and concludes that, while not for everyone, multimedia can potentially create a transformative learning experience.

Looking at Learning, Looking Together: Collaboration across Disciplines on a Digital Gallery

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What does it mean for two community college colleagues, teaching in very different disciplines, to work together on a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) project?  What happens when they join together to examine their students’ work, their individual teaching practice, and the possibilities for collaborative research?  And what do they learn when they undertake an electronic publication of that work in a digital gallery?

“It Helped Me See a New Me”: ePortfolio, Learning and Change at LaGuardia Community College

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What happens if we shift the focus of our teaching and learning innovations from a single classroom to an entire institution? What new kinds of questions and possibilities emerge? Can an entire college break boundaries, moving from a focus on “what teachers teach” to a focus on “what students learn?” Can we think differently about student learning if we create structures that enable thousands of students to use new media tools to examine their learning across courses, disciplines, and semesters? Bret Eynon explores these questions as he analyzes the college-wide ePortfolio initiative at LaGuardia Community College. Studying individual portfolios and focus group interviews, he also examines quantitative outcomes data on engagement and retention to better consider ePortfolio’s impact on student learning.

From Narrative to Database: Multimedia Inquiry in a Cross-Classroom Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Study

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Michael Coventry and Matthias Oppermann draw on their work with student-produced digital stories to explore how the protocols surrounding particular new media technologies shape the ways we think about, practice, and represent work in the scholarship of teaching and learning. The authors describe the Digital Storytelling Multimedia Archive, an innovative grid they designed to represent their findings, after considering how the technology of delivery could impact practice and interpretation. This project represents an intriguing synthesis of digital humanities and the scholarship of teaching and learning, raising important questions about the possibilities for analyzing and representing student learning in Web 2.0 environments.

Multimedia in the Classroom at USC: A Ten Year Perspective

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Does multimedia scholarship add academic value to a liberal arts education? How do we know? Looking back at the history of the Honors Program in Multimedia Scholarship at USC, Mark Kann draws on his own teaching experience, discussions with other faculty members, and the university’s curriculum review process to explore these questions. He describes the process of developing the program’s academic objectives and assessment criteria, and the challenges of gathering evidence for his intuitions about the effects of multimedia scholarship. Finally, Kann reports on the program’s first student cohort and looks ahead to the future of multimedia at USC.

Looking at Learning, Looking Together

by Joseph Ugoretz, Macaulay Honors College–CUNY


What does it mean for colleagues in very different disciplines, in a community college, to work together on a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) project? What happens when they join together to take seriously their students’ learning, their learning as individual professors, and their collaborative learning? And what happens when they undertake an electronic publication of that worka digital gallery?

With the support of the Visible Knowledge Project and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, two faculty from the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY) have developed a website which documents student learning, as well as collaborative scholarship of teaching and learning–using the web as a medium to publish the process as well as the conclusions of their research into student-created digital storytelling projects.

Three Stars and a Chili Pepper: Social Software, Folksonomy, and User Reviews in the College Context

by Joseph Ugoretz, Macaulay Honors College–CUNY


The “future history of the media,” EPIC, presents a fictionalized retrospective, from the year 2014, of the history of media, news, and information. “In the year 2014,” the “Museum of Media History” tells us, “people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age. Everyone contributes in some way. Everyone participates to create a living, breathing mediascape.” While we have not reached the point predicted there, and only time will tell if we’re going to be there by 2014, there have, of late, been some significant steps in that direction. One of these steps has been the development of a constellation of online tools that can be (at least loosely) tied together in the broad category of social software.

Social software includes many communication media, but the new tools which are the subject of this essay all fit three broad descriptions. These tools are interactive, with the content created and structured by a wide mass of contributors. These tools are also interconnected, with user-provided searchable links structuring and cross-referencing that content. And finally, these tools are bottom-up and communitarian, with the users of the tools providing and benefitting from associations, reputations, and authority within a many-to-many community. The various tools of social software are an increasing presence in the online world, as well as the offline lives of their users. Four brief vignettes demonstrate this.

Four Vignettes

In Boca Raton, Florida, baby Andrew is very sick. He and his twin sister Carly, born prematurely, came home from the hospital and seemed to be doing fine, when suddenly Andrew’s hemoglobin levels started dropping rapidly. In the emergency room, doctors prepared to give Andrew a potentially risky, but seemingly necessary, emergency blood transfusion. Andrew’s father, concerned, acted quickly. With only a small amount of battery power on his cell phone, he punched in a quick Google search (he used the search terms: hemoglobin and “premature infant“) on the phone’s integrated web browser, and found an article from the American Academy of Family Physicians Journal which described Andrew’s situation exactly. Showing the link to the doctors, the worried dad got a most surprising response. The doctors quickly headed for their offices and their own computers, to do their own searching, and returned to (sheepishly) admit that this was research with which they were not familiar. And that Andrew did not need the transfusion at all.

In Vatican City, the Pope is dead. The cardinals have assembled to choose a new Pope, and the world anxiously awaits their decision. Finally the moment comes. The smoke is visible from the Sistine Chapel chimney. Within minutes, wikipedia, the online open-source encyclopedia, has an updated article on the new Pope, with a photograph, a brief biography, and an analysis of his theology and ideology. Minutes later the article changes subtly as users add information, links to other sources, and links to other wikipedia articles. And minutes after that, it changes again, but much less subtly. The photograph has changed to a new one—that of the evil Emperor Palpatine of the Star Wars movies. But within, literally, one minute, the photo is changed back to the accurate one (which is still there now), and the vandal who placed the Palpatine photo has been banned from wikipedia.

In Brooklyn, New York, a professor of art history, looking for images of sculptures and Renaissance architecture, goes to flickr, the online photo sharing service. In searching for images, she finds many of the same ones that are in art history textbooks—but with a difference. These are the images taken by people in their visits to the sites. They include awkward angles, blurry passersby, bored children, or posing vacationers, and they give the sense of scale and viewer involvement that textbook images, perfectly framed and lighted, standing in isolation on a glossy page with a caption, cannot. The professor looks at the tags which are connected to these pictures, searches for and finds more, and adds tags of her own, forming a new set of photos, a slideshow of images which are related to each other not just by content, but also by perspective and experiential context.

In Massachusetts, at a major research university, a young part-time teacher gets a phone call from her department chair. He wants her to take a look at the student evaluations of her class, which students have posted using an online system, and which she can view online. She calls up the site, enters her username and password, and starts to read. Before she has even scrolled halfway down the page, she is nearly in tears. Several students’ comments, rather than focusing on her pedagogy or communication of content, directly address her appearance, and personality, with explicit comments about her body, her style of dress, even her hygiene. Her department chair doesn’t hold it against her, or even see it, but it is in her mind every time she walks into the classroom. She does not return after the next semester.

The New Tools

These four vignettes, all of which are true, share a common theme—good or bad, they all grow out of the recent and revolutionary change in the structure of knowledge, information, research and criticism which has been enabled by the internet. The arena of online interaction and communication which the internet provides–the ability to rapidly publish, categorize, and distribute information and opinion–has allowed the growth of tools which put users, people, in control of the distribution and content of information in ways that are decentralized and non-hierarchical.

Let me describe and explain in more detail the new tools (some of which are not really so new at all, as we will see) from the four vignettes above, and then I will return to those vignettes to suggest some possible uses of these tools in the academic setting—to exploit their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.

Google is a search engine, of course, one of many since the earliest days of the Internet, but since its invention in 1996, Google has rapidly become the dominant, in fact the default, search engine. There are many reasons for this, but three in particular are relevant to this essay. First, Google provides an unparalleled scope of comprehensive coverage. The entire internet, from my daughter’s gallery of photos of her cute kitten to the homepages of the United Nations, the White House, and Exxon, are crawled and cataloged and kept on Google’s immense servers in Mountain View, California (a mundane location, although in my imagination, those servers always look more like they should be found in the Emerald City).

In addition, the index Google provides, the ranking and relevance of search results, is completely machine-produced, and machine edited. No person or group of people decides how to reference or cross-reference the items; this done by an algorithm. And that algorithm (while its exact nature is a closely held proprietary secret within the walls of the Emerald City…or Google’s campus) is the third feature of Google which makes it unique, and which places it within the realm of social software—socially constructed information and knowledge. Google’s algorithm ranks sites by how many other sites are linking to them (with more complex variables such as the ranking of the sites doing the linking)—so that it is users, in a diffuse, enucleated cooperation, who make the decisions about which results are relevant and important.

It may seem that this kind of ranking will inevitably lead to a kind of tyranny of the popular, where sites that are most important, or most reliable, are displaced by sites which provide a kind of lowest denominator of common knowledge. And that does sometimes happen. But almost mysteriously, an opposite result is far more common. The site which is most appropriate, and most valuable, frequently turns up near the top of the list of the results, so that even a worried father, with the tiny screen of a cell phone and dying battery, can find, in a matter of minutes, the exact medical journal article which the emergency room doctors have not even seen.

When the web was first “invented” in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, he wanted his system to work at CERN for collaboration, where he could put up content (research results, ideas for new projects, general announcements) for others to read and see, and modify, add to, or correct. Of course, the web itself quickly moved away from this vision and became a more locked-down environment, with mostly static pages, and a one-way relationship between creator and consumer.

But the new tool known as a wiki is a direct successor to Berners-Lee’s conception. A wiki (“wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning “quick” or “fast”) is a website where pages can be quickly and easily created and edited by users. Users do not need to know HTML, or programming, or anything other than (at most) a very simple markup language for formatting. Wikipedia (which we saw in the vignette above) is an attempt (of long standing now, with close to a million articles and over half a million registered users—and far more casual, unregistered users, since no one is required to register) to create an encyclopedia based on the concept of a wiki.

Pages can be created, edited, modified (even vandalized—as in the case of Pope Palpatine) by any and everyone. There are differences, of course, from the Encyclopedia Britannica, or from any other “traditional” encyclopedia. Sometimes these differences are negative (the openness to editing also allows an openness to vandalism) but other times they are uniquely positive. As in the case of Google, wikipedia can provide the quickest, most relevant, and often, surprisingly, most accurate results—because the terms of the search and even the content of the results of the search, are determined without centralization or imposed artificial perspectives, without a hierarchy, by users themselves. It is negotiated, shared, open knowledge. In wikipedia, the links and references between and among articles are provided by users, incrementally, with relevancies added as they are noticed, or as they emerge.

This process has recently encountered a much-publicized challenge at wikipedia, seemingly even more serious than that posed by the vandalism of Pope Benedict’s entry described above. John Seigenthaler Sr., a retired journalist, found that the wikipedia entry referring to him contained a false, and insidious, piece of misinformation linking him to the Kennedy assassinations. Mr. Seigenthaler’s response, unfortunately, was completely contrary to the philosophy and the most effective principles of wikipedia and other social softwares.

Mr. Seigenthaler responded by trying to force a restructuring of the wiki tool–rather than simply fixing the error by editing the page (and publicizing that change, bringing the community editing force to bear), Mr. Seigenthaler attempted an appeal to authority. He attempted to track down the source of the misinformation, and then to push wikipedia to cease allowing anonymous edits. He moved to lock down editing, rather than participate in the editing. While this response was perhaps understandable, it reflected an estimation of the new tool, wikipedia, as the equivalent of the old tool, the encyclopedia or newspaper almanac. Mr. Seigenthaler’s “solution” to the problem of false information actually avoided all the advantages of the new tool, and enforced its disadvantages. I will return to this theme below.

Flickr, as an image-sharing site, is also an example of social software, which uses “folksonomy,” rather than a taxonomy, to categorize and reference the items in its database. As the term implies, a folksonomy is a taxonomy which is created and maintained by users, organically, rather than one which is imposed externally and a priori. Flickr is one example of this type of system, and works similarly to other folksonomy-driven social softwares, like, furl, and technorati. In all of these, when users post photos (in the case of flickr) or bookmarked websites (in the case of and furl) or weblogs (in the case of technorati), they do not post the content into predetermined categories (Michelangelo, Hajia Sofia, David, Napoleon), they post the content first, and then add the tags (as many as they want) which seem appropriate to them. And later viewers, creating their own search paths and sets of content, can add new tags, new slices through the datasphere.

Serendipitous searching, stumbling on connections, can produce new views of the material (the human in the artwork, the experiential perspective), and connections that were not easily seen before. The Hajia Sofia or Michelangelo’s David become not only “architecture” or “Renaissance” but also “vacation” or “gaffe.”  Seeing how others have categorized and linked and cross-referenced material provides a reconsideration of one’s own categories, and leads to an encounter with new material that wasn’t even on the radar before.

In preparing this very essay, I used furl (which allows online storage of a “favorite” or bookmarks list), to keep the sites I found useful. And because my links, and others, are publicly available, I was able to see that someone who had “furled” a site I wanted to use had also “furled” other sites with which I was not familiar, but which were relevant and helpful. There was a shared search, a communal hunt for information, with people I do not even know, have never met, but who know and have found things that I need to know.

User Reviews
The last new tool I want to discuss is user reviews. These resources are probably much more commonly used, but have received quite a bit less attention as a phenomenon, than the others I have discussed above. There are many instances of this type of resource, from epinions, to the user reviews on, to and the online faculty evaluations in the case of the unfortunate professor in Massachusetts in the vignette above.

In all these cases, users (or students) have the ability to post ratings, comments, and discussion of products, websites, classes, professors, or even individual lectures. At, for example, students can leave anonymous comments about their professors, rating them in each of three categories: helpfulness, clarity, and easiness—with an added category (denoted by a red chili pepper) for hotness. The site is not sponsored by any school, it is completely independent. There are guidelines prohibiting some of what the Massachusetts professor experienced, and the enforcement of those guidelines is heavily reliant on user reports of violations. Like in wikipedia, the community itself provides the bulk of the policing and correcting.

Of course, this type of evaluation has always been possible in newsletters, or letters to school officials or paper evaluation cards, but the difference when these responses move online is significant. In online reviews, users can make their ratings and comments—and respond to one another’s ratings or comments—with complete anonymity, and with extremely wide circulation and availability.

There are huge advantages to this type of tool. Leo Laporte, the “Tech Guy” on KFI radio, a professional, experienced and knowledgeable journalist and technology consultant, explicitly admitted this in a recent episode of his call-in radio show. A user called in with a question about a set of wireless headphones. Laporte, on the air, tells the caller that he is really not sure about the answer, “but let’s check the user reviews on I think these days,” he says, “more than the journalists (and I’m a journalist myself), it’s real people who really know how things work.” As he chats with the caller, Laporte goes to the Amazon website (the clicking of the keyboard and mouse are audible over the radio) reads the user opinions, and finds that the sound quality is excellent on these headphones…but that the headphones will not work with the caller’s treasured Ipod Nano.

Because there are so many, many user reviews on Amazon, posted by real people with real experience, it becomes possible to derive a consensus, a report with some real reliability which includes an unparalleled diversity of experience from users of many levels, with many needs. On the other hand, like in the vignette of the Massachusetts professor, the anonymity and the “culture” of the web (a subject for another essay) leads to an acceptance of flaming, harsh hostility, and irrelevant or inappropriate remarks (like the vandalism in wikipedia). In the best of cases, these are self-correcting, and the holistic picture which arises from the combination of all the reviews can even be more accurate, and certainly more accessible than “expert” reviews.

The anonymity of these reviews, while it is at one level unlimited, is at another level only a partial anonymity. Even the persona, the screen name or username (which is not a “real” identity), of an online reviewer is an identifying mark, and it does allow the reviewer to build a following, and a foundation of respect and reputation. A good name, even when it is only a screen name, becomes a very valuable resource when that name is literally all a person has as a credential for being a member of a community. Every login name, or screen name, is in itself a tool, a technique to be deployed and protected.

What Can We Do with These New Tools?

So we have this constellation of tools—these new methods of creating, sharing, categorizing, accessing and critiquing content. And in all of the cases, these tools, these resources, lack a central authority or a hierarchy of editorial control. In all of these cases the content and the conclusions and the references are communally negotiated and collaboratively assembled. And our students are using these tools. They are going to use them, whether we want them to or not, or whether we have thought about them or not.

I want to present some suggestions for how we, in the academic world, the college context, can use these tools to the advantage of our teaching and our students’ learning. In looking at any pedagogical tool or technology, I think the best approach is not to try to force it into a mold which does not fit (teaching online is not the same as teaching face-to-face, wikipedia is not Britannica). The best approach is not to reject the new tool as being unable to serve the same function as the old tool. A hacksaw is not a hammer. So when you try to pound a nail with one, and it doesn’t work very well, it makes little sense to blame the hacksaw. What I am suggesting here is not ways to hold the saw while hammering, or alter the shape of the nail, but ways to use the hacksaw as a hacksaw–or the new tools as new tools.

It is the very features that make these new online tools different that provide the places where we should look for strengths, and for practical uses. These social softwares raise a collection of questions, and those are the questions from which the practicalities arise. When we look at Google and wikis, at flickr and ratemyprofessor, we have to ask (and teach our students to ask) questions which are valuable and relevant in any academic endeavor—questions which are crucial to learning. Those questions include challenges to the nature of expertise, the limitations of expertise and narrow fields of specialization. They include questions about how to evaluate information, what criteria to use when judging sources. They include standards for what is appropriate critique, what is civil disagreement and what is offensive hostility. And they include practical lessons about how to use these tools successfully–how to formulate search terms, and how to identify posters and categories which work successfully.

All of these questions and issues can become tools for use in the classroom, once they are recognized as such. Practically speaking, I would suggest four areas in which activities can be designed. First, students can, as a class activity, actually use the tools—they can post user reviews, or upload their own photos or websites to flickr or delicious, and tag them. They can edit wikipedia pages, or start a class wiki.

All of these tools are, by their nature, user-friendly. More than that, and more important for the classroom context, they are (or at least can be) public. This means that students gain the increased motivational force of having their work open to a real (and wide) audience. When a student reviews a book or a film or a product or a service (or even a professor or class) for the purposes of the course or an assignment, the audience is the professor, or at most the professor and the other students. But when a student’s work is published, in a forum which is open and has the potential to attract acclaim and attention (whether positive or negative), the responsibility for the quality, efficacy and accuracy of that work is deepened.

Another way to use these tools is to have students evaluate them—and challenge them. Testing different resources one against the other, and against the students’ own experience and prior knowledge, can help them to explore the questions of authority, and introduce and reward a healthy skepticism as well as the critical thinking skills which college students (and all media consumers in contemporary society) desperately need. Of course, this kind of challenge and evaluation can and should lead directly back into the public participation. A more appropriate flickr or delicious tag can be added to an item, and subsequently explained, just like a wikipedia entry can be edited and the reason for the edit enumerated. Similarly, when students evaluate and compare the different items in the result of a Google search, they can also explain why those results differ, and provide an alternate, human-generated (student-generated) rather than machine-generated, ranking.

Many of these new tools (wikipedia is a prime example) include resources which explicitly foreground the contrasts, tensions, and challenges in the tools. Wikipedia’s discussion page for each entry offers the perfect opportunity for students to see (and take part in) the push and pull of deciding and negotiating answers and information. In the discussion pages, authority, credibility, agendas and biases are openly confronted and debated–so that the process is visible and accessible, and open to participation. In the earlier tools, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, this process takes place only behind the scenes, and users are presented only with a seemingly seamless, complete, product.

The third practical use of these tools is one that I have been exemplifying in this essay with the vignettes I provided at the beginning. Students need to know, and must internalize, the difference, for example, between an article in a medical journal and the opinion of a member of an online community. They need to learn how to judge and apply reputation points, or recognizable standards of reliability. They need to see the way that a rating can work on a real human being, whether a student considering a course, or a professor teaching a course. They need to think about how these posts come about, and why and from whom, so that they will come to understand the rule of the extremes (reviews come from people who are very pleased, or very displeased—the middle is often excluded). The ready availability and ease of comparison of these tools permits them to serve as object lessons, as examples and instances, in the course of teaching students to ask themselves, and challenge themselves with, the questions the tools imply.

Finally, these tools can work in the classroom setting to promote and reward a feature of learning which is too often absent in the classroom.  Serendipity (I would argue), is at the heart of any learning which hopes to produce commitment and permanent attachment. Serendipity, chance encounters, the lucky strike, and the joy of discovery are feelings that every successful learner has experienced.

I remember, as I am sure most other academics do, in the days before web research, browsing library stacks, wandering related sections, and discovering books I did not know existed, even topics or genres which were completely new to me, but which immediately engaged me and which I could immediately make part of my repertoire of interests, ideas, and information. The new online tools lack the sensual element of those library searches (the flickering fluorescent in one back corner of the library, the stained carpet—forbidden coffee?—in the medieval literature section—that particular smell and lovely crackle of opening a book which nobody, perhaps, had ever before removed from its shelf).

But these tools provide more fluid and multi-faceted connections than physical browsing ever can. Online, the link from Renaissance architecture to the sociology of crowd movement to Camus’ The Stranger can be just a single click, rather than two flights of stairs or six banks of bookshelves. Because of this, the new tools can make that kind of serendipitous discovery easier to achieve, and easier to incorporate into classes and assignments. The trail of breadcrumbs which might have been necessary in physical space is automatically constructed in cyberspace, so the joyful surprise can be rediscovered by others, or analyzed for later re-creation.

Caveats and Conclusions

There are some caveats and potential problems I want to emphasize before closing. The first of them is less a warning and more an exercise for the reader. I am a professor of English. I teach writing and literature, and I do realize and have to acknowledge that these tools may function differently for different disciplines. But the exercise for the reader, of course, is to think about how the suggestions I have made, how these tools and resources, can work in your own teaching in your own discipline. The principle remains the same—look for the benefits of the hacksaw, instead of trying to make it work as a hammer. So what kind of uses can a hacksaw have in your discipline, in your academic area?

The major warning, the major possibility of abuse, is the one that is exemplified by several of the vignettes with which I began. That danger begins if students, or we as professors, or (potentially much worse) administrators, decide that, or wikipedia or Google or flickr, really are hammers. If we try to use them without reflection,  as being the same as other (objective, authoritative, traditional, edited, hierarchical, obsolete media, pick your own adjective) resources, we will be abusing them, and we will end up with a broken hacksaw, an undriven nail, or worse, a serious injury, as in the case of the professor from Massachusetts.

The title of this essay, “Three Stars and a Chili Pepper” of course refers to a possible rating at—the place where not only the quality, but also the “easiness” and the “hotness” (that’s the chili pepper) of a professor can be revealed. In thinking about these new tools, the tools of social software, reviews, and folksonomy, we need to be sure to think about how we are judging, and what we are doing with, the material that is judging us, and that we and our students will continue to use.