Digital publics and participatory education

Brian J. McNely, Christa B. Teston, Garret Cox, Bolutife Olorunda, & Noah Dunker
Published Online: Oct 15, 2010
Abstract | References | Full Text: HTML, PDF (2.6 MB)


This article—a collaborative exploration between instructors, students, and members of the broader, digital classroom community—explores how the strategic incorporation of sociotechnical networks and digital technologies facilitates literate practices that extend the classroom in productive ways.  The article builds toward coauthors’ reflective practices (Schön, 1983), or “participatory perspectives”, had during an undergraduate English Studies course at a mid-sized, public, American university.  Specifically, participants argue that these literate practices afforded not just information sharing, but the opening up of a traditional classroom to include broader digital publics and collaborative knowledge work (Spinuzzi, 2006).  Toward this end, we ground literate practice in scholarship that attends to public writing in online spaces, and theoretically frame our argument using Jenkins et al.’s (2006) principles of participatory education.  We then detail the specific curricular approach deliberately designed to create digitally connected publics and end with generalizable significance of coauthors’ participatory perspectives.

Keywords: Blogging, Google Reader, knowledge work, participatory education, publics, Twitter


In this article we explore specific literacy and learning practices enacted in and through the confluence of traditional classroom instruction in post-secondary education and our intentional and strategic inclusion of broader public participation.  We write primarily from the disciplinary perspective of Rhetoric and Writing Studies, and our work is concerned first and foremost with understanding how sociotechnical networks afford the surfacing and tracing of literate activity and collaborative meaning-making (McNely, 2009; Teston, 2009).1 To that end, we are interested in fostering curricular and pedagogical experiences that leverage these sociotechnical networks in novel and productive ways.  We are specifically interested in curricula that opens our classrooms to non-traditional interactions, while encouraging our students to explore and engage in public discourse and participatory culture (Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robison, & Weigel, 2006).  Moreover, our pedagogical intent is to encourage interactions that foster collaborative inquiry beyond classroom environments.  This article embodies the promise of such collaboration, since as coauthors we are comprised of Rhetoric and Writing researchers at two different institutions (McNely and Teston), undergraduate researchers in Creative Writing and Construction Management (Cox and Olorunda), and an Information Security professional (Dunker).

Physically and temporally distributed, we joined in collaboration under the rubric of an upper division English Studies course at a mid-sized public university in the Midwestern region of the United States.  The capstone course for students in their final year of studies, ENG 444 is an open topic seminar, and was constructed as a course on Rhetorics, Places, and Publics (see the syllabus for more information about what was expected of students) during the time period described in this article.  Our goal was to explore the complex interactions between discourse, the social construction and social production of public places (Low, 1996), and shifting understandings of public and civic life.  The curriculum was grounded in theories of epistemic rhetoric and moved toward investigations of the ways that rhetoric shapes public spaces, subjectivities, and sociocultural interaction.

A key part of the curricular approach, therefore, involved intentional forays into public spaces—both material and digital.  While explorations of local publics were crucial to this approach (via activities such as observational note-taking in public spaces), we focus here on the ways that sociotechnical networks enabled student participation in broader digital publics—specifically through continual student engagement and conversation within Google Reader, our collaborative course blog, :: repurposed :: , and backchannel interactions on the microblogging site Twitter.  Work on our collaborative course blog was very much structured as a public writing project from the outset—all student work created in conjunction with the blog was and still is fully public and available at any time by anyone.  Students were given an opportunity to choose a pseudonym for the public writing they produced, but most chose not to do so.

Students in the course were positioned as knowledge workers from the first week of classes, and we draw upon broader trends in distributed knowledge work as a means for informing our curricular and pedagogical approaches (for example, see McNely, 2010).  The notion of knowledge work has received increased attention in recent years, growing out of research in Professional Communication, Technical Writing, Activity Theory, and Management Studies (Spinuzzi, 2006; 2007).  Spinuzzi (2006, p. 1) defines knowledge work as “work in which the primary product is knowledge, information that is continually interpreted and circulated across organizational boundaries”.  He also argues that knowledge work “tends to be organized in distributed, heterogeneous networks rather than in modular hierarchies” (2006, p. 1).  A key component of knowledge work, therefore, is its distributed quality.  Indeed, our students increasingly work with information sources that are varied across geographies, cultures, and disciplinary and professional domains.

Spinuzzi (2006, p. 3) argues that “knowledge work demands different sorts of texts, and it also demands different ways of thinking about how those texts are produced, received, and managed”.  Following Spinuzzi (2006, p. 3), we argue that students-as-knowledge workers “need to become strong rhetors”, they need to “understand how to make arguments, how to persuade, how to build trust and stable alliances, how to negotiate and bargain across boundaries”, and how to do so within publics that shift and overlap.  We see work in participatory culture (Jenkins et al., 2006) as especially congruent with a knowledge work approach; in ENG 444, we were specifically concerned with the constitution and role of networked publics (boyd, 2008) in knowledge work and participatory culture.

Methodological perspective

The findings described herein—findings that we hope will have theoretical and pedagogical significance for our readers—are not necessarily the result of a carefully designed investigative study aimed to explore the affordances of incorporating sociotechnical networks and digital technologies in an undergraduate English course.  We understand that one method for obtaining and analyzing data about this particular pedagogical approach would be to conduct pre- and post-test investigations of students’ growth as writers or thinkers, or to survey students’ overall attitudes about the course or its content.  These methods, however, assume a kind of pre-experiential intentionality—an intentionality we did not possess—to treat students as data points and practices as evidence.  That is, the effectiveness or usefulness of this one particular pedagogical approach, while technically ‘anecdotal’ for the strictest of quantitative methodologists, was happened upon or realized over the course of participants’ experiences.  ‘Data’ or ‘evidence’, therefore, needed to be acquired in situ and from actual participants themselves.

In order to make claims about best practices relative to this particular pedagogical approach, participants’ reflections on their experiences during participation—or at least after having just had them—were the richest and most authentic data points available.  We embrace, therefore, as a kind of methodological perspective on our findings, Schön’s (1983) germinal construct, “reflective practice”. Schön (1983, p. 68) argues that, “when someone reflects in action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context.  He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case”.  As researchers “in the practice context”, representative student and community participants in this course became researchers of their own activities, and are therefore coauthors of this article.

In particular, Schön’s (1983) “reflective practice” is a way for participants to intentionally and deliberately reflect on their activities in order to improve future action and practice.  In this way, our findings and practices within this particular curriculum may be generalizable to some extent, beyond our situated experience.  Because computing and working in and among social networks is a fairly ubiquitous experience for many of the undergraduates in this particular institution, it became imperative that they be intentional about constructing new narratives from their experiences using the very sociotechnical networks and digital technologies central to the framework and goals outlined for the course.  Schön (1983, p. 61) argues, “Through reflection, [one] can surface and criticize the tacit understandings that have grown up around the repetitive experiences of a specialized practice, and can make new sense of the situations of uncertainty or uniqueness which [one] may allow [oneself] to practice”.  One way to encourage this kind of surfacing and criticizing of experiences is by asking participants from the course to write reflections about their practices.  In this article, however, such reflections are not merely data, but in the context of knowledge work and participatory education that we detail below, they constitute coauthorship.  Our argument for participatory education therefore culminates with participants’ reflections on their practices—what we’re calling ‘participatory perspectives’—as practical accounts that precede a theoretical dénouement.

In this article, we articulate our experiences in fostering curricular and pedagogical approaches that promote student knowledge work in digital publics beyond the classroom as a way to instantiate a more participatory form of education.  We see this work as contributing to the scholarship of teaching and learning with digital media.  We begin by first reviewing relevant scholarship that theorizes about and provides examples of blogging as a literate practice.  Next, we move to a discussion of two important trends in digital culture and education: participatory activities and the notion of overlapping publics (Marks, 2008; boyd, 2008).  We then describe the frameworks of participatory action that enabled specific literacy practices in ENG 444, and offer unique participatory perspectives of the educational experiences had by participants from within the curriculum, the university community, and distributed, digitally connected publics.  Finally, we argue that the confluence of traditional learning, participatory knowledge work, and digital publics can promote sustainable sources of inquiry, literate activity, and guided discovery (Clark & Mayer, 2003).

Blogging as a literate practice

Davies and Merchant (2007, p. 167) argue that “the production and consumption of blogs is seen as a new form of social practice…a practice which reconfigures relationships and can engender new ways of looking at the world”.  Indeed, there is no shortage of scholarship in teaching and learning from a wide range of disciplines that outlines and describes the pedagogical affordances of incorporating blogging activities as part of students’ educational experiences (see, for instance: Barton, 2005; Brownstein & Klein, 2006; Glogoff, 2005; Lamb & Johnson, 2006; Penrod, 2007).  Presently, this social, literate practice is incorporated into more than just hybrid or online courses—blogging has become a central part of many face-to-face classroom experiences as well.  In this section, therefore, we explore scholarship from a wide range of disciplines that attends to the definition and nature of blogging activity, and we identify the need for an expansion of the ways that blogging is theorized about as literate practice.  We describe how some scholarship tends to characterize blogging as a literate practice in ways that are more ecological (Barton, 1994) than participatory.  We evidence this by identifying how some scholarship overemphasizes the value of individual bloggers’ authorship and underemphasizes the role of audience as little more than voyeurs—all at the expense of cultivating broader participatory communities of practice.

Many draw on Merchant’s (2006) definition of blogs as “online journals which are regularly updated, often with fairly brief postings” (quoted in Davies & Merchant, 2007, p. 178).  Accounts on behalf of a wide range of educators who use blogging activities in the classroom describe said activities as affording students an opportunity to pair individual reflections on content in and beyond the classroom with prior, personal experiences (see, for instance: Brooks, Nichols, & Priebe, 2004 and Xie & Sharma, 2004).  This kind of an approach is also confirmed by what little empirical research exists on the topic of blogging as a literate activity.  Specifically, Herring, Scheidt, Bonus and Wright (2004, p. 1) performed a genre analysis of a corpus of randomly selected blogs and found

Less evidence than expected of blogs as interlinked, interactive, and oriented towards external events; rather, most of the blogs in our corpus are individualistic, even intimate, forms of self-expression, and a surprising number of them contain few or no links.  Based on the profile generated by the empirical analysis, we traced the historical antecedents of weblogs back to hand-written diaries.

Some scholarship does, however, champion the incorporation of blogging in the classroom by citing as justification more than just individual students’ opportunities for journaling or reflection.  Some argue, for instance, that blogging facilitates: a stronger sense of classroom community (Blanchard, 2004; Glogoff, 2001), the nourishment of citizenship (Tryon, 2006), a “blurring of public and private modes of writing” (Fernheimer & Nelson, 2005, p. 1), and experiences in writing for “real and responsive audiences” (Sorapure, 2010, p. 60; see also Beach, Anson, Kastman, Lee, & Swiss, 2008).  What is problematic in many of these characterizations of student blogging is not necessarily that there is an absence of community, but that community is characterized as little more than audience in a performative sense.  So while Downes (2004, p. 15) rightly argues that blogging is, or at least should be, “more than the online equivalent of a personal journal”, he goes on to argue that blogs are “in their purest form, the core of what has come to be called personal publishing”.  Assumptions about blogging as a literate practice implicit in the above characterizations grant student bloggers little more than an amplified sense of “authorship” (Wrede, 2003); they do not necessarily or intentionally draw on the potential power of participatory knowledge-making.

Problematic in the above characterizations of blogging activity is not the blogging activities themselves, but the underlying theoretical assumptions that inform what blogging as a literate practice is and can be.  Blogging as a literate practice might be defined as a form of writing that is explicitly characterized as both individual and social.  One of the constructs frequently invoked in Rhetoric and Writing Studies as a way to better understand the complexity of literate practice as at once individual and social is Barton’s (1994) ecological metaphor for literacy.  For Barton, understanding literacy as an ecology is a way of accounting for “the interrelationship of an organism and its environment” (1994, p. 29).  Barton’s ecological metaphor, while affording us terms like “ecosystems, ecological balance, diversity, and sustainability” (1994, p. 31), assumes that “the structure and patterns in a community are the product of processes at the level of the individual” [emphasis added], and that “change occurs at the individual level: the consequences but not the mechanisms occur at the community level” [emphasis added] (Barton, 1994, p. 31).

While some scholars are, in fact, explicit in their characterization of blogging activity as ecological (see, for instance, Lindgren, 2005; O’Donnell, 2006), Barton’s metaphor for literacy is implicit in the ways that scholars champion the individual student blogger as the originator or sole author of diary-like reflections that are then put on display to a broader online audience for consumption and, if insightful or controversial enough (Krishnamurthy, 2002), warrant comment and discussion.  Theorizing about and practicing blogging activity based on an ecological model for literacy positions writers and readers as little more than performers and voyeurs, respectively.  If we are to take advantage of the “reconfiguration of relationships” and provide students with opportunities for “new ways of looking at the world” (Davies & Merchant, 2007, p. 167), the communities in which blogging practices take place, and not just bloggers’ individual, digital identities (Clark, 2010) must be accounted for.

If online spaces, according to O’Reilly (2005), “harness collective intelligence”, and, according to Sorapure (2010, p. 60), “empower users through the formation of communities and the mass publication of user-generated content”, then theories about and practices of student blogging need to reposition students as more than self publishers of online reflections (Lindgren, 2005) and community as more than passive readers of said reflections.  We identify a space in the existing scholarship, therefore, for practical models and future empirical investigations of the ways that blogging as a literate practice might be reconceived of as an opportunity for participants from a wide range of disciplinary and professional paths to merge around shared interest in current events, ideas, and places—what Clark (2010, p. 28) might call “the cultural and social imperative of ‘the now’”.  We aim to move beyond an ecological approach to blogging as a literate practice and embrace in its place the kind of recursive, symbiotic relationship characteristic of public, participatory knowledge work.

On publics and participatory education

In contradistinction to Trimbur’s (2000) argument that traditional classroom models of writing instruction infantilize students, a knowledge work approach constituted at least in part through explicitly public and participatory writing experiences assumes a very different understanding of student agency and situatedness than those described above.  Yancey (2004, p. 310) considers more intentionally-deployed and deliberate public writing and knowledge-making practices by asking: “if we believe that writing is social, shouldn’t the system of circulation—the paths that the writing takes—extend beyond and around the single path from student to teacher?”.  We see blogging activities as capable of facilitating the kind of robust pathways Yancey describes, but we argue that many instantiations of course-related blogs have only minimally opened such pathways—between students in a single course, for example.  Yancey (2004, p. 311) ultimately calls for curricular and pedagogical practices that position students as “members of a writing public”.  In this section, we explore how characteristics of participatory culture can inform curricular and pedagogical approaches that help students tap into more robust pathways, thereby entering into meaningful learning opportunities with distributed and overlapping publics in and through their writing work.

Jenkins et al. (2006, p. 7) provide the foundation for an understanding of participatory culture; they define this phenomenon as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what people think about what they have created).

Jenkins et al. (2006, p. 3) suggest that some of the potential benefits of participatory culture include “opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude toward intellectual property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the modern workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship”.  Perhaps most importantly, Jenkins et al. (2006, p. 3) argue that “access to this participatory culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum”, an indication that participatory activities must inform curricula and pedagogical practice in networked educational endeavors.  We contend that this view of participatory culture may be productively articulated with the knowledge work approach described above, where participation is always already grounded in literate activity—particularly in writing work.

A participatory approach to education, therefore, must be enacted—at least in part—in digital environments that are explicitly and unabashedly public, thereby facilitating an immersion in all that coincides with public participation—from the problematic to the positive.  Warner (2002), Marks (2008), and boyd (2008) all invoke the concept of overlapping publics to varying degrees—a useful construct when attempting to describe distributed interactions inculcated in participatory learning environments.  This concept connotes the complexity of digital communication, where individuals are situated at any moment within multiple, overlapping, public social structures that may both circumscribe and foster rhetorical agency.  Boundary objects—“artifacts or ideas that are shared but understood differently by multiple communities” (Morville, 2005, p. 119)—may act as pivots for social interaction among differing publics in participatory learning environments.  More importantly, boundary objects’ appropriation and reuse can provide opportunities for exploring the complexities of digital publics.  Interactions around boundary objects such as blog posts are marked by a kind of conflation and collision of different perspectives.  These conflations and collisions of varying perspectives may facilitate opportunities for new meaning-making.

We live in a time when the sociotechnical infrastructures for enabling participatory educational experiences in broader publics are, as Shirky (2008, p. 54) suggests, “ridiculously easy” to establish and maintain.  But bringing together participatory activities that yield generative interactions between and across overlapping publics is much more challenging.  In our experience as coauthors, an awareness of overlapping publics began on Twitter, where tweets served as boundary objects for three of the coauthors (McNely, Teston, & Dunker), all of whom were previously unaffiliated individuals in three different states and two different professional domains whose diverse interests fostered productive exchange.  “The culture of Twitter is all about participation in a large public square”, boyd (2009, p. 5) argues, and our experience—and this very collaboration—is a result of such public participation.  Ideas exchanged on Twitter have recursively informed our respective approaches to teaching and learning within digital culture.  Using Twitter as our persistent backchannel (McNely, 2009), we began with a two-pronged strategy for incorporating participatory activities in ENG 444: (1) deploy Google Reader as a way to foster continuous conversation and student inquiry around course content, and (2) invoke a markedly public blogging approach as a way to explicitly encourage participation from beyond the confines of the course.

Frameworks of participatory action

We argue that blogging becomes part of a broader public conversation when posts are timely, topical, and of interest beyond the insular academic concerns of a given course.  We also observe that many of the most successful blogs are group efforts—blogs such as BoingBoing, Huffington Post, Mashable, etc., and we contend that in order to build a significant public audience a consistent stream of quality content is crucial.  A decision was made, therefore, to build as a class a single, group blog rather than many atomized, individual blogs.  Motivating students to create timely and topical posts that appeal to public audiences while also addressing course content, however, is a different kind of challenge—one that can be met by pairing student inquiry with guided discovery (Glogoff, 2005).  Our curricular approach, therefore, is to deliberately deploy tools in ways that both foster individual inquiry and guide collaborative discovery.  This approach also requires that we build opportunities for inquiry and discovery into the daily activities of the course in a way that simultaneously addresses the challenges of building a blog audience.  We’ve found that including Google Reader as part of our blogging activities is an effective way to accomplish these goals.  In this section, we describe the framework we used to enact participatory knowledge work in overlapping publics.

Launched in 2005, Google Reader is an aggregator that pulls content from the web into a user interface via Really Simple Syndication (RSS).  Known as a ‘feed reader’, Google Reader is one of many similar web-based applications that allows users to drive content (in the form of RSS ‘feeds’) to a single location, rather than having users consume content across many different sites on the web.  In 2007, Google engineers made Reader more explicitly social, adding commenting and note-taking features as well as the ability to share items publicly with others, both within Reader’s interface and to a special URL (see Figure 1):


Figure 1: Screen capture of publicly shared items in Google Reader

In May of 2009, Google added the functionality of ‘Reader Bundles’, collections or subsets of RSS feeds targeted to specific purposes, topics, or themes; users could then subscribe to a bundle with a collection of predetermined feeds.  For example, a user could subscribe to a news bundle that was automatically and continually updated with feeds from top news sources and blogs.  When preparing for the 2009-2010 academic year, we saw an opportunity to create specific bundles for our courses.  For ENG 444, the course Reader Bundle delivered content around the theme of Rhetorics, Places, and Publics via feeds from architecture blogs, the blog of the academic journal Space and Culture , and spatially-oriented websites such as Ballardian.  The 444 Reader Bundle became one of the main sources for students in the course and was positioned alongside required books and articles.  Students were asked to wade into Reader on a frequent basis (preferably daily) and inquire about or investigate the ways that current posts and articles might relate to our more traditional course content and in-class discussions.  In this way, the Reader Bundle was crucial to the structuring, execution, and participatory nature of our public group blog.

The syllabus for ENG 444 did not specify that blogging would be part of the course.  Instead, a writing assignment called ‘Exploring Places and Publics’ asked students to create content that was timely, topical, related to the course content, and explicitly public—in that it ‘lived’ somewhere on the web.  Students discussed among themselves the best options for meeting these requirements, and eventually decided that a group blog would be the best platform for their work.  They also determined the scope of the blog’s content, chose a name for the blog by popular vote, and were involved in design decisions.  Encouraging the class to use Posterous as the blogging platform allowed for easy group posting with particularly low barriers to participation for students not familiar with markup languages or content management systems, and yet the application had a malleable interface for making custom design decisions (see Figure 2).  Students were asked to commit to a specific day for their posts, so that content could be spread relatively evenly throughout the week, giving our audience consistently updated content to explore (for examples of student work created as part of this public writing project, please see :: repurposed ::—in particular, representative posts from coauthors of this article, students Garrett Cox and Bolutife Olorunda, and community participant Noah DunkerGoogle Analytics allowed us to track visits to :: repurposed ::, thereby providing students the opportunity to see how their work became increasingly relevant to our public audiences.  We looked specifically to successful sites like BLDG BLOG and City of Sound as our models, taking a rhetorical perspective toward our explorations of space, place, and publics.


Figure 2: Screen capture of our group blog, :: repurposed ::

In our estimation, the combination of Google Reader and our group blog is what enabled participatory action.  Since the early 1980s, scholars in Rhetoric and Writing Studies have argued that writing can and should be a form of meaningful student inquiry (Lauer, 1982).  Our ongoing challenge is fostering that inquiry—making our course content relevant and applicable to diverse student interests.  While there is no foolproof way of doing so, we argue that Google Reader provides a mechanism that can help many students make connections between course content and continuous public discourse by way of strategically selected feeds (Garrett Cox’s participatory perspective in the following section of this article explicitly articulates this point).  Guided discovery through Reader’s notation and commenting features allowed us to make ongoing, targeted connections between timely and topical feed items and course content (see Figure 3).


Figure 3: Screen capture of Google Reader’s note sharing affordances

Perhaps most importantly, Reader’s social features allowed participants to share items with each other that might be of interest to students in the course.  Reader allowed us not only to provide a steady stream of timely and topical content that often made its way directly into the course blog, but it also acted as additional boundary object wherein shared interests from overlapping public perspectives merged, simply because it wasn’t only students involved in the ongoing discussions that took place around such content.

At this point, we would like to revisit Jenkins et al.’s (2006) definition of participatory culture in light of our experiences with Reader and :: repurposed ::.  Jenkins et al. (2006, p. 7) define participatory culture as one “with low barriers to artistic expression and engagement”, where there is “strong support for creating and sharing” content with others.  We argue that :: repurposed :: provided a space where all students could publicly explore items of interest around the course theme with extremely low barriers to participation.  Students were not simply remediating academic work for a blogging platform, and were instead writing about things that genuinely interested them within the broad scope of rhetorics, places, and publics.  Moreover, students were explicitly sharing their work with intentionally broad public audiences, most often as a function of producing and responding to timely content.

Jenkins et al. (2006) suggest that participatory cultures have mechanisms of informal mentorship; not only were we regularly involved in guiding discovery through Reader and through specific posts to :: repurposed ::, but guest posts and comments from professionals in fields such as Architecture , Geography, and Educational Technology also enriched our experiences with the course blog.  Perhaps more importantly, in-class peer-to-peer mentorship—in a knowledge work model—saw students more familiar with markup languages like HTML and CSS helping those with less familiarity to create more effective posts.  Some students who have since completed the course continue to post to the course blog.  Here, we see students as taking advantage of what Glogoff (2005, p. 3) characterizes as the “extension of contact between instructors and enthusiastic students through a topical blog” which, he argues, “could provide a practical way to mentor and encourage exceptional students to continue their studies in relevant fields”.

Finally, Jenkins et al. (2006, p. 7) contend that a participatory culture is one where contributors “believe their contributions matter”, and where they “feel some degree of social connection with one another”.  For students in 444, one of the most thrilling activities later in the semester was viewing Google Analytics data for our site (see Figure 4).  As our posts grew in number and sophistication, so did our audience.  Since the official launch of :: repurposed :: in October of 2009, the site has had over 5,000 unique visits from all 50 U.S.  states and 71 countries.


Figure 4: Screen capture of Google Analytics data for :: repurposed ::

On two separate occasions, posts were featured on StumbleUpon, creating large spikes in traffic.  There can be little doubt that students believed their work mattered—they were able to see it in daily visits to their site, and they felt a sense of pride in their community of knowledge workers for making their writing matter far beyond the classroom.  Perhaps the best indication of the efficacy of our frameworks of participatory action is the sustainability of the site.  As was mentioned above, several students continue to contribute to the blog—a full six months after the course ended (at the time of this writing)—despite the lack of any immediate or obvious exigency for doing so beyond the desire to be a part of an ongoing participatory community.  When former students see things that inspire connections to the course’s content, they post about it.  Certainly, student contributions occur less than they did during the course, and it is likely that many students will not post again.  But this does not diminish the fact that what they created is a sustainable web presence that continues to see posts and engagement from participants and an involved audience.

Participatory perspectives

As we argue above, integrating Google Reader, a group blog, and various face-to-face and digital backchannel conversations directly addresses several of the key characteristics of participatory culture as defined by Jenkins et al.  (2006).  Through our interactions in Reader and on :: repurposed ::, students (represented here by coauthors Garrett Cox and Bolutife Olorunda), faculty (Brian McNely and Christa Teston), and community members (Noah Dunker) alike facilitated sharing and knowledge-building in explicitly public and collaborative ways.  The following participatory perspectives explore, from our collective yet situated positions as members of an intentional and distributed “community of practice” (Shirky, 2008), the particulars of this kind of public, loosely coordinated, participatory knowledge work.  These participatory perspectives, as we mention above, were not created as part of the course, but instead as part of our reflective practice in collaboratively writing this article.

:: Garrett Cox :: A View from Inside the Curriculum

My involvement as a student in ENG 444—Ball State University’s capstone class for students studying English—differed greatly from all previous courses I had taken.  As an English Creative Writing major my previous courses consisted of literature survey lectures and writing workshops.  Being introduced to Google Reader and the use of RSS feeds in ENG 444—and combining them with blogging activities—was nothing short of thrilling for me after six previous semesters of more traditional learning environments.

The students in my capstone class were asked to create Google Reader accounts in order to follow shared items curated by the instructor (McNely) on topics that were relevant to the class.  Subscribing to Reader and the ‘444 Bundle’ allowed students to follow over twenty RSS feeds specifically chosen for the course.  It was suggested that we use updates from the feeds to structure some of our posts for the class blog.  I instantly became interested.  Structuring the class in this manner allowed me to actively participate in course ideas outside of the classroom, encouraging me to build on what I learned in class and on my own—to synthesize ideas and share them with my peers.  Being encouraged to participate in the course this way made me feel as though I no longer had to wait my turn, raise my hand, and wait to be called on during class.  My ideas and involvement in class were no longer limited to two and a half hours each week; instead, I was able to participate in course-related content on my own terms, developing ideas throughout the week.

My eagerness to engage with novel means of informing myself through inquiry and sharing led me to post to our blog more frequently than once each week (all that was required of students in the class).  I began posting at least twice per week—sometimes more—blogging about interesting video clips, images, and ideas I had found through the course Reader bundle and other RSS feeds, tying them all back to concepts we discussed in class.  Another aspect of exploring ideas through personal inquiry while using Reader was that it allowed me to learn through and across various multimedia platforms.  I consider myself a student who more efficiently learns with audio/visual instruction; being in a course where the physical classroom opened up to more immersive media environments catered directly to my needs as a student.

Despite my fascination with this particular learning method, there was one constraint that I felt hampered my learning, or, rather, didn’t allow for as much learning as might have been possible.  Because the entire class was adding posts to the course blog, we didn’t have time to discuss each individual post and the ideas on which it focused.  Generally we would cover one or two of the more impressive blog posts, then move on to other course material.  I’d like to think that if more time was spent working through the ideas that the class generated on the course blog—and specifically discussing them as they related to the course and to each other—that there would have been greater opportunities for inquiry and learning.  This, however, would most likely demand a large portion of class time based on the number of students in the class (18), so it would only be realistic with a smaller class size.

An interesting part of the course, which didn’t come up until midway through the semester, was the participation of bloggers who were not officially part of the class, but who participated through Google Reader, Blackboard, and Twitter.  Dr.  McNely brought to the class’ attention that a computer lab attendant, Bolutife (Bolu) Olorunda, had become interested in the course and eventually started learning and blogging alongside the rest of us.  For me, this reinforced the concept of a community of practice and the ideas of knowledge work (Spinuzzi, 2006; 2007) discussed at the beginning of the semester.  The fact that someone who wasn’t always present and wasn’t required to take the course was interested enough and able to keep up with key ideas through both Reader and his personal inquiry into course concepts made this class stand out.  And it wasn’t only Bolu who participated in this way.  We were able to incorporate the work of other professionals into the class, making their ideas accessible to us via the class blog.  Essentially, we had several highly qualified professionals give abbreviated guest lectures through blog posts.

Overall I believe that if I would have encountered this style of participatory teaching and learning earlier in my college career I would have been able to expand on the already vast amounts of knowledge that I encountered as an undergraduate.  Inquiry, as it relates to learning and personal discovery of ideas and connections with course content, is what students need more of in academic environments.  In an age where students spend countless hours staring at screens outside of the classroom, they continue to encounter predominantly traditional learning environments while in the classroom, where books and lectures are the norm.  The ability to incorporate students’ interest in and use of technology and collaborative public platforms allows for much greater flow of knowledge and information, which is an extraordinary benefit.

:: Bolutife Olorunda:: A View from the Edges of the Curriculum

Education is a resource with varying degrees of potential that far too few fully attempt to maximize.  As an undergraduate Construction Management major, I sat at a desk every Thursday evening from 4-8 P.M.  for the duration of the fall semester, working as a computer lab attendant for university Technology Support.  The lab where I worked happened to be used by an upper division English class—ENG 444—every Thursday evening from 5:00-6:15.  The first thing that immediately caught my attention about the class was the teaching style the instructor had chosen to use.  He played the role of observer and guide as opposed to the traditional teacher and lecturer, allowing students to discuss and derive their own ideas from the articles they read.

The class discussed varying topics: rhetoric and strategic public discourse, information relative to data, non-linguistic forms of communication, and my personal favorite—the use public space from both the designer’s and user’s perspectives.  Being intrigued by the style of teaching and the diversity of such topics, I listened intently and took notes for the first few weeks of the semester.  I personally feel that self-directed learning is critical because I have come to the conclusion that schools and other educational centers can only offer so much during allotted class meetings.  To truly become knowledgeable about differing subjects, it is of the utmost importance that one informs oneself through other resources.  A prime opportunity to do that seemingly fell into my lap; therefore, I tried to take as much information as I could while sitting though those Thursday night classes, working through those ideas on my own during the rest of the week.

While I was able to make some connections with the course content through my active listening on Thursday evenings, it proved difficult to fully grasp broader concepts mainly because I did not have access to the course readings.  One Thursday, I asked the instructor for more information on the class, and I expressed my feeling that it was different from every other English class I had taken in the past.  After further discussion, he offered to give me access to the Blackboard site used in conjunction with the course, giving me an opportunity to download articles and other course content.  I diligently read the articles and tried to make connections to the notes I had taken during previous class discussions.  Because I was not a student in the class, I was not being graded; this gave me the ability to work at a slower pace than was required of the other students in the class, an advantage for me as I meaningfully worked through the readings.

Another tool that proved very effective in increasing my level of participation was Google Reader, which was fairly new to me.  It was probably the most helpful resource for communication to the class.  Students constantly checked Reader for posts that were curated in the course bundle, and they were able to read instructor and community comments about how certain shared items related directly to course ideas.  The posts covered a wide range of topics and provided information not only for the class, but also for student learning beyond just this one course.  Posts included topics on software, presentation styles, new technologies, social networking sites, and above all, discourse—what the students in class defined as “language-in-use” (following Faber, 2002).

Instructors have a lot of information that they simply cannot pass out in the time slots available while still following a given curriculum.  Google Reader can be used to distribute timely and relevant information to the class beyond the constraints of a textbook.  The course blog—:: repurposed ::—coincided with the information sharing practices in Google Reader; it became a means to discuss varying topics centered on space and its relationship to public use and ever changing environments.  I had never seen a class incorporate a blog as a platform for the students to express their ideas, thereby enabling those ideas to be open to the general public.  Students did not just write a paper or an article to be graded only by the instructor, but instead placed their ideas ‘out there’, sharing them with the world.  It was obvious to me that the students were creative and took pride in these activities.  I genuinely loved the blog and constantly checked it to see what new items were posted.  The chance to write on the blog was a unique opportunity to comment on topics I felt pertained to the general ideas of the class.  It also further enabled my participation by increasing my direct involvement with the enrolled students.

Although my experience was positive, it was not without certain barriers to full participation and involvement.  I was not an ‘official’ part of the class; I was a member of the larger university community given a unique opportunity to explore a course that was of interest to me, but for which I was not registered.  Because classes were scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and because I was only present on Thursdays, I often had some difficulty in grasping core ideas.  At times, the class seemed vague and I felt as though I was always playing ‘catch up’.  At best, I participated in some of the activities, I read the articles on Blackboard and Reader, and I read the blog posts of the other students while writing some of my own.

However, about halfway through the semester, students began using books as opposed to online articles on Blackboard; this also increased the difficulty of my attempts to follow in-class discussions because I did not have access to those books.  The problem I had was not in understanding the topics they discussed, but in understanding the reasons for the students’ perspectives.  Additionally, I did not participate in the in-class discussions, which further limited my ‘official’ participation in the class.  That being said, I found that most of my thoughts and opinions were shared and shaped by my interactions with the students.  The class was one of the most interesting classes I’ve been a part of during my educational career, and it still boggles my mind that it was a class where I was not an officially registered participant.  Despite all of this, I view it as one of my most important classes.  It has definitely had more of an influence on me than the majority—if not all—of my prior classes.

:: Noah Dunker :: Distributed Community Participation

My core passion and career is in the field of information security research.  I’m constantly learning how to learn more efficiently.  For the last three years, I’ve used Twitter, Google Reader and other sites as high-performance tools for self-directed learning.  I live in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, hundreds of miles from the university discussed in this article.  I originally met the instructor of ENG 444 (McNely) through a mutual friend on Twitter who lives in California.  Participatory networks such as Twitter can easily scale out to become a sociological mesh network2—an efficient hive-mind of unidirectional, bi-directional and redundant connections for getting information from thought-leaders and collaborating with peers.  Experts at the fringe of my personal mesh will often chime in after overhearing part of the conversation via a mutual node, and they sometimes become an integral part of my network and daily research.

I use Google Reader, therefore, on a daily basis to assemble and organize many different sources of data.  When Google added features allowing users to easily share content among friends, I happened across McNely’s Google Reader stream.  I found many of the items shared to be interesting, akin to what I was used to seeing from him on Twitter.  The commentary added to many of these items often highlighted publics, rhetoric, and writing studies.  Knowing his role as a university professor, this didn’t surprise me at all.  Often, he used course numbers (such as ‘444’ or ‘213’) in his commentary as well, which led me to suspect that I was at the periphery of a social mesh comprised partially of university students.  I was sharing things in Google Reader that I thought would catch his interest, only to see the same content get turned around and shared with his classes.  I got the feeling that I was both contributing to a class discussion and partaking in some of the course’s research and reading to a certain extent.

It wasn’t until a few months into the course that I asked for some details on the workflow of the classes.  I was offered the ability to publish content to the blog created by the students, and I pulled its content and several other course Reader bundles into my own Google Reader subscription feed.  I thoroughly enjoyed my participation and I was learning new things.  In fact, I’ve continued this trend beyond the course.  The use of Google Reader has a unique side effect of pulling examples of classroom material from the real world and current events.  Not only does this mean that the class has fresh content every semester, but it has sharpened my senses.  As I go throughout my day, content that’s relevant to the courses catches my eye quite easily.  Essentially, this style of learning promotes distributed publics to coalesce through technology.

Since there were multiple platforms being used in these courses, I occasionally felt disconnected from the students and the material covered in the classroom.  This can be explained by my location at the fringe of the online infrastructure used for the course.  I only knew my virtual classmates’ names through their contributions to the blog and I didn’t receive any direct input on my Google Reader contributions from other students.  I hadn’t been formally introduced to the students in a productive way.  I happened upon only the Google Reader part of the course on my own.  There may have been other, public-facing aspects of the course that I missed due to the time frame and method of my participation.  Having a blog for student participation is a great idea, but I think there are more options for fostering distributed collaboration as well.  A blog or feed of regular course notes and homework could be operated by an instructor or teaching assistant.  Asking each participant to write a bit about themselves on the student blog at the beginning of the semester would make things more personal.  Twitter lists for each course could contain students’ Twitter feeds, if they wish to be included.  Live video conferencing technologies limit distributed participation based on schedule and convenience, but there is likely a lot of value in using platforms that allow students to collaborate digitally and share thoughts and course notes with one another.

Conclusions, problems, and future directions

boyd (2009, p. 6) argues that the proliferation of social media platforms and activities are “reshaping publics”, and our contention is that publics and participatory culture can likewise reshape educational curricula in meaningful ways.  We acknowledge that more explicitly public forays into participatory cultures—through tools such as Google Reader, Twitter, and course blogs—are not without significant challenges.  In this final section, we discuss the potential for approaches that articulate theories and practices of knowledge work alongside participatory culture, potential problems with such approaches, and future directions for empirical research on literate activity in participatory education.

Perhaps the most important development to come out of our ongoing collaboration in ENG 444 is the articulation of knowledge work approaches to curricula and pedagogy with Jenkins et al.’s (2006) figurations of participatory culture—an articulation built directly into the curricula.  Both approaches necessitate concerted interventions into public discourse, where audiences shift and overlap among multiple disciplinary and professional domains.  Our experience indicates that students, rather than feeling stifled by such environments, instead thrive and respond in compelling ways.  Moreover, their engagement in digital public platforms where “their contributions matter” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 7) simply would not have been viable had they not been constituted in and through explicitly public writing work.  That public, literate activity, we argue, resulted at least in part from metacognitive explorations of course content within the broader context of guided, public discovery instantiated by strategically curated feeds in Google Reader.  In other words, it is the explicit articulation of multiple factors—positioning students as knowledge workers, facilitating participatory educational experiences through frameworks and tools of literate action, wading unabashedly into public discourse—that maximizes the potential for such approaches.

As our participatory perspectives and reflective practice indicate, however, these approaches are not without problems.  Students working from within the curriculum may feel as though their work is perhaps valued differently than traditional genres, because their public writing is subject to different kinds of scrutiny—from peers and publics.  And while we argue that incorporating participation from the larger university community and digitally connected publics has significantly enriched our experiences, it is clear that those distributed participants felt less connected, a circumstance that caused some anxiety.  We certainly also acknowledge that the tools used to constitute our framework of participatory action are malleable and imperfect.  Additionally, immersion in online participatory networks brings with it the possibility of potentially negative experiences—experiences commonly related to privacy issues (Barnes, 2006; Lenhart, 2005) and what some refer to as ‘cyberbullying’ (Beran & Li, 2005; Huffaker, 2006; Li, 2007).  We acknowledge these issues as potentially problematic, but we argue that issues of privacy and cyberbullying might occur more frequently when students’ blogging activity is more personal, or diary-like, than explicitly and collaboratively attendant to issues related to the course’s curricula and timely and topical content.

The participatory and public instantiations of the networked curriculum described in this article contributes to the scholarship of teaching and learning by introducing and supporting articulated approaches to knowledge work and participatory education, the deployment of online collaborative tools for learning, and unabashedly public writing work.  The very artifact itself and what it represents—an entire semester of work enmeshed with reflective practice and public engagement between students and non-students—an artifact that is sustainable and evolving, represents some of the promise of participatory education for the scholarship of teaching and learning.  This article isn’t concerned ostensibly with what we did in our classrooms; instead, we hope to have engaged and theorized about networked publics through our reflective practice, describing curricula and pedagogies that engage public participation through sociotechnical networks that extend far beyond the confines of the traditional classroom.

Finally, performing a kind of meta-analysis of scholarship that attends to blogging as a literate practice yields a wide-ranging collection of arguments, most of which are based on personal experiences and anecdotal evidence.  While we have tried to ground the curricular and pedagogical approaches described above in a rigorous theoretical framework—one that pairs scholarship on knowledge work and participatory culture—we can certainly see the need for empirical studies that investigate the ways this particular approach makes students better rhetors and facilitates ongoing, productive participation in a knowledge-building community.  In this sense, we argue that our reflective practice methodology is potentially generalizable.  Specifically, we imagine that someone could replicate the practices described herein and perhaps, through pre- and post-test methods, conduct an investigation of the ways students grapple with and benefit from being uniquely positioned as knowledge workers in participatory, online communities.  Implications for theories about students’ rhetorical agency, writing in online spaces, and distributed cognition are only a few of the ways these kinds of studies might contribute to a working body of scholarship that moves blogging as a literate practice beyond individualistic, unidirectional, ecological models.


1 Following Nardi & O’Day (1999, p. 21), the term “sociotechnical networks” reflects an understanding of technological tools as carrying social meaning, even as “social understanding, values, and practices become integral aspects” of the technologies themselves.  Occurring within networks of relations, the term ‘sociotechnical networks’ evokes the complexity of much contemporary online communication.  This notion is now a familiar one in the fields of technical and professional communication; see, for example, Spinuzzi (2007).

2 In IT, ‘mesh networks’ are those where individual nodes can route information to other nodes, and can act independently.  They can connect to whichever nodes are closest, and can aid in the ‘viral’ spread of information through redundant links.

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Author: SocMedia Research Bibliography | First Praxis
7 May 2011 03:05:19 AM

[…] B., Teston, C., Cox, G., Olorunda, B., and Dunker, N. (2010). Digital publics and participatory education. Digital Culture and Education, 2(2), 144–164. (journal […]

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