John Jones

West Virginia University

The Book Test

Children reading on couch

image via Jeremy Hiebert

In my most recent post at, I suggested that one way of identifying overreactions to digital technologies is to replace the technology in question with a book.

I want to propose a test: How would we react to the worrisome, antisocial behaviors Hall notes in her essay if we simply replaced the ipads in her descriptions with books?

For example, this is how she describes the moment when her students first received the devices, but with the references to tablets replaced by references to books:

“I placed a book into the outstretched hands of each of my third-grade students, and a reverent, text-induced hush descended on our classroom. We were circled together on our gathering rug, just finished with a conversation about “democratic citizenship” and “library safety” and “our school district bought us these books to help us learn, so we are using them for learning purposes.” They’d nodded vigorously, thrilled by the thought of their very own books to take home every night and bring to school every day. Some of them had never owned a book before, and I watched them cradle the clean, uncreased covers in their arms. They flashed their gap-toothed grins — not at each other but at the open pages before them. That was the first of many moments when I wished I could send the books back.”

Review of Baron’s ‘Words Onscreen’ at

People reading on the subway

image via: Nate Edwards

In my July post for I reviewed Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen. I wanted to like the book more, but I felt Baron’s approach lacked the kind of detail that would justify her generalized comments about screen reading. Hopefully other researchers will step into the public space that Baron has occupied with this text and give us a more nuanced evaluation of our society’s transition from print to digital reading.

We are not yet cultured to digital reading as we are with reading print — we are still training ourselves to manage the new distractions produced by our devices and becoming literate in the navigational affordances of digital texts.

Acknowledging this is a difficult task, one that is not solved by calls to relegate our serious reading to ink and paper. I’m committed to the idea that the material form of information affects how that information is accessed and processed. From that perspective it is not simply fair to ask how one material formation of the book (or any text) affects how we process its content, it is essential. However, such a study should actually pay attention to the material formation of those books — the interfaces, the modes of access, the availability of content, navigation, and all of the other unique features that constitute the distinctions between different media. When these issues are ignored, any claims about “digital reading” become so general as to be useless. In attempting to address everything, such claims end up addressing nothing.

“Let’s Ban Bans in the Classroom” at

Professor lecturing in large lecture hall

My latest post at is now live

Put as a question, why must we ask the 21st century to wait outside our classes? Is it just to protect the lecture? We know what a classroom designed around lectures, notes, and quizzes can do, and it is not impressive. Shirky may be getting the best out of the students in his lectures by forcing them to leave their laptops behind, but maybe both he and they can do better. Perhaps by embracing the new forms and structures of communication enabled by laptops and other portable electronics we might discover new classroom practices that enable new and better learning outcomes.


“Programming in Network Exchanges” now available (paywall)

Image of tweet by Congressman John Culberson from July 2008: “I just learned the Dems are trying to censor Congressmen's ability to use Twitter Qik YouTube Utterz etc—outrageous and I will fight them”My article “Programming in Network Exchanges” has been published by Computers and Composition. It is behind a paywall (hopefully not for long) but the abstract should be visible.

Abstract: This article asks whether or not Manuel Castells’s (2009) programming, or the act of setting the goals and values of a network, influences the rhetorical and compositional potential of networked writing. The author argues that as networked writing becomes more prevalent, researchers must investigate not only the ways in which traditional rhetoric and writing present themselves within networks, but also the particular features of networks that uniquely determine the rhetorical impact of the form, or, as Ian Bogost (2007) put it, “how inscription works” within networks (p. 24). The case study for answering this question is a network exchange that occurred on Twitter in July 2008 after a sitting U.S. congressman stated that the leadership of the House of Representatives was attempting to censor the use of social media by House members. The author examines the over 1,700 messages in this exchange to determine both the nature of this network’s program as well as if this program affected the rhetorical and compositional features of the exchange.

That study on note-taking with laptops doesn’t mean what you think

Student taking notes on laptop during a classroom lecture

My latest post at

What Mueller and Oppenheimer discovered in their experiments is that laptop use correlates strongly with taking verbatim notes, and, as was already known, verbatim note-taking is well-known to be less effective than note-taking that synthesizes and summarizes content. However, both the authors of the study and media reports argue that these results are somehow determined by the use of laptops.

To support this claim, some media reports latched on to the second study, where laptop note-takers were warned about the danger of verbatim note-taking but tended to take verbatim notes anyway. As Meyer stated, “you can’t successfully warn someone to keep them from taking verbatim notes if they’re using a laptop.”

This is nonsense.

Image via Tulane Publications

Update: New DMLCentral Post: Are MOOCs An Extension of Academic Publishing into Teaching?

detail from MOOC infographic
image credit: The Chronicle of Higher Education

My latest DMLCentral post is on for-profit MOOCs and how they profit from unpaid university labor:

academic publishing traditionally works in this way: a researcher is paid by a (frequently public) university to create research. The researcher then publishes this research as an article in a academic journal, some of which charge the researcher for this privilege, a bill which some universities help to pay. If that journal is published by a for-profit publisher, the article — bundled together with others — is then sold back to the university library for the university community to access. To recap: the university pays a researcher to produce research, then, after that research is given away to a for-profit publisher for free, buys that research back from the publisher. This seems like a silly practice for universities to subsidize, but it is good business for the publishers, who make profits in the range of hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. My concern with for-profit MOOCs is that they will adopt a similar plan. Universities will pay their teachers to develop and teach courses — sometimes paying them extra to turn those courses into MOOCs — and that labor will be given freely, or at a reduced cost, to MOOC for-profits who will, in turn, sell it back to the university or sell it directly to college students.

This morning, I learned that West Virginia University, where I work, has signed a deal with Coursera that seems to justify my concerns. Here’s the update I added to the post:

Update, 5/30/2013: My employer, West Virginia University—along with nine other universities or university systems—just announced a partnership with Coursera to develop MOOCs and offer them to students.

According to the press release, WVU will initially offer Coursera courses for free and without credit. However, the Chronicle of Higher Educations has published more details about the contracts involved, which it reports are “pretty much identical.” Here is the relevant bit about what Coursera will be charging universities

In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for “course development.” After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.

Apparently, these deals are structured to incentivize universities to make these courses more “massive”: as the university adds more students, its cost will go down, but tuition charges to those students will stay the same.

It also appears that this structure largely mirrors the one I have described above: universities will pay their employees to create courses, give those courses to Coursera, and then Coursera will, in turn, charge the university for the privilege of allowing it to offer those courses—for which the university has shouldered the costs—to their students. The only difference from academic publishing seems to be that the university keeps some of the revenue, in this case the extra tuition money it charges students.

SPIR, #IR13 article, “Creating Networks Through Search: PageRank, Algorithmic Truth, and Tracing the Web,” now available

In October, I presented at the Internet Research 13.0 Conference on algorithms and networks. My paper, “Creating Networks Through Search: PageRank, Algorithmic Truth, and Tracing the Web”, was included in the conference proceedings, Selected Papers in Internet Research, and is now available for reading. The abstract is below.

This paper analyzes PageRank, a key feature of Google’s search algorithm, showing how its primary function is not to identify quality Web pages but rather to identify hubs within a network defined by the Internet’s link structure. While PageRank’s method has been compared to the process of using the wisdom of crowds to determine quality, by relying on network effects to identify hubs, the algorithm does not allow users the independence and diversity necessary for crowdsourcing to be completely effective. For these reasons, Google and other search engines cannot be simply understood as information providers, for their role in defining the network structure of the Web makes these search companies the holders of a significant form of network power: programming. However, users can offset this power by becoming switchers who actively connect networks in order to diversify their information sources.

New post: “Online Learning and Teaching Writing”

Online Learning Bus

My latest blog post at, “Online Learning and Teaching Writing”, is up.

… when teaching writing, neither an audience of teachers nor an audience of peers can be the solution to good writing. Rather, the solution is to teach students writing that is situated in real (or simulated) contexts with real audiences and feedback. The future of projects like Coursera, if they are to be successful educational alternatives to the traditional college classroom, is to harness the collective intelligence of the Web to connect students with these audiences. What the Internet has proven with resounding success is that it can connect writers with real audiences.

image via: James Bridle