There is More Than One Way to Write a Blog


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I’ve heard many reasons as to why people who enjoy engaging with blogs, don’t blog themselves. For some they don’t know what to share, for others there is the issue of time, while there are those who  simply enjoy reading and are confused about what they can add. All valid reasons, but I think that what is missed is what actually constitutes a blog in the first place.

The term blog derives from ‘web log’ and was initially coined to describe “discrete entries (posts) typically displayed in reverse chronological order” How it is used beyond those constraints is up to the user. In a recent Guardian Tech Weekly podcast, the comment was made that some of the most interesting things happening on apps are those who master the aesthetic and then take it to new places. In regards to blogging, Alan Levine is one person always pushing the limits and exploring the possibilities. Having said all this, I think that there is sometimes a tendency to overthink it all. To me, blogging is about sharing, with even the worst blog making us smarter, as Clive Thompson points out. This is a part of the question that Doug Belshaw posed on episode two of TIDE Talk about the idea of an ‘open mindset’.

One interesting alternative to the usual reflective blog then that seems so predominant these days is the resource sharing blog. That is, instead of writing an endless discussion of your thoughts or actions, the writing simply adds a quote or a link with a brief comment. Some examples of this include:

For some, it is merely about turning Diigo and Scoop It comments into a post, while other’s it is about putting their own spin on things.

In the end, there are many ways to give back and pay it forward. Although not everyone may feel inclined to write a reflective blog, it is a misnomer to think that this is the only means of sharing. For some it may be sharing resources, while for others it maybe engaging within a medium like Google+.

So what about you, how are you sharing? What mediums are you using? As always, comments welcome.


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Who Would Have Thought?


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The other day while getting material for my Easter bonnet I bumped into an ex-student. I taught her six years ago. We chatted as she served me. She asked how my daughter was going and whether I was still at same school. She then told me that she had started university this year, studying science at one of Melbourne’s top establishments. She then said something that startled me, “who would have thought?” We kept on chatting, before she moved onto her next customer, but it was this comment that really stuck. Obviously, she didn’t think that I thought highly of her and that her success was almost in spite of her teachers. It made me consider two things: firstly, how much do we restrict students with our perceptions of them? While secondly, what growth and potential is within my own classes that is left unfulfilled?

In a recent post, Steve Wheeler touched upon the phenomena of labelling. That act of hardening our attitudes and feeling that we know students, subsequently predicting what they will do next. As he wonders:

How often do we label our students? He’s very bright, she’s brilliant…. he’s not such a hard worker, and that one over there is a real trouble maker…. Often we spend just a short amount of time with our students before we build an impression of their characters.

He discusses two self-fulfilling consequences of labelling:

  • The Pygmalian effect where students are ascribed with great expectations often perform better.
  • The Golem effect where students seen as lazy and time-wasters will under perform.

The most dangerous thing that we do though is handover from one teacher to another. This is often where such habits are fostered and perpetuated. Another situation where habits are fostered is when we teach students from one year to the next.

Even if the subject may change and the student grow with their learning, it is so easy to fall into the trap of preconceived ideas. I was recently faced this problem with my Robotics class. I had taught some students for three years, taking them for intervention amongst other things. As I have reflected elsewhere, I had decided to simply let students make. One of the biggest challenges with this was letting go. This was not only my sense of control and ownership of the classroom, but also my preconceived ideas about students in general.

These ideas were challenged early on when one student decided to start wondering around the room. Instead of automatically requesting that the student in question return to his seat, I stopped and watched. What happened next was amazing. He went from one group to the next checking out what people were doing. Talking with them, helping them out, while getting ideas off others. He finally returned back to his team re-enthused and attacked the problem of making a fast car. Six years ago when I started teaching Robotics, this would never have happened. I would have sprouted something about safe learning environment and students’ right to learn. Feeling that as duty. Yet, ironically, in letting the student in question walk around he learnt so much more. I don’t think that this would have worked six years ago because that was not the culture I created in the classroom. My next challenge is to help students celebrate such moments themselves. To recognise the untapped potential that they come to class with each and every day.

I am not going to say that I never box students. In my view we all have fixed moments now and then. However, when I do, I would like to think that there are always those around who are pulling me up on it. For at the end of the day, learning takes a village and working together we are always better.


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The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies (TER Podcast Review)


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Something that has really influenced my thinking lately has been Doug Belshaw’s book The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. The book stems from Belshaw’s thesis exploring the topic. One of the key insights that he provides is that there is no one ‘all defining’ definition of literacy, let alone digital literacy. Rather, it is something that we co-construct based on our community and context. It is for that reason, that he uses the plural and talks about ‘literacies’.

Instead of providing an overarching definition which soon becomes hollow and meaningless, he provides eight elements to make sense of the different incidences of digital literacies. The elements are:

  • Cultural – the expectations and behaviours associated with different environments, both online and off.
  • Cognitive – the ability to use computational thinking in order to work through problems.
  • Constructive – the appropriate use of digital tools to enable social actions.
  • Communicative – sharing and engaging within the various cultural norms.
  • Confident – the connecting of the dots and capitalising on different possibilities.
  • Creative – this involves doing new things in new ways that somehow add value.
  • Critical – the analysis of assumptions behind literacy practises
  • Civic – the something being analysed

One way of thinking about at these elements is in regards to ‘mindset’ and ‘skillset’, the is a way of thinking and a way of doing. While another way is as a set of questions:

  • What are the cultural expectations and behaviours associated with different environments and contexts, both online and off?
  • What are the steps/workflow involved in properly understanding the problem at hand?
  • How is the use of these digital tools leading to and enabling social action?
  • What are the norms for sharing and engaging within this context?
  • How confident are you at connecting the dots and using different digital tools?
  • How are you doing new things and what value are you adding back?
  • What assumptions are behind the literacy practices?
  • What is the something we are actually doing and creating?

 

Although each of these elements are interrelated, they are not all necessarily at play in every instance of digital literacy. It is for this reason that they are ‘elements’ not a definition. What the book provides is a starting point for how to talk about digital literacies.

One take-away was that literacies have always had a close affinity with technology. Too often we associate ‘technology’ with computers or other such devices. However, as Belshaw points out, whether it be the printing press or using a pen to write, technology has always had an integral part to play in regards to composing and consuming texts.

Another take away was that digital literacies are not merely about what we do or how we do it, instead it is about why we do it. It is about going beyond what Mitchell Baker describes as ‘elegant consumption‘. Although the focus in schools is on ‘authentic’ assessment, whether it be creating a blog or producing a book, if this is not attached to a clearly defined why then we are missing the point. This is often one of the issues with incorporating technology in the classroom. Students create digital products with little reason as to why. This is where referring back to the elements can help highlight areas of improvement, a constant reminder as to ‘why’ digital literacies are important.


Here is a recording of TER Podcast Episode #42 with my review starting at 36 minutes:

I have also written a more creative ‘final chapter‘, which seems to be more me I think than Belshaw.


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Cultivating the Passion for Learning


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This weeks #YourEduStory prompt is: How do you infect students with a passion for learning? I find passion an interesting topic. Like Steve Brophy, I have issues with the initial question. I too think that there is a divide to open learning and learning at school. However, I am more concerned about the analogy to a disease. We can all be passionate, the thing is that passion is very much subjective. How and why I am passionate is always personal to me. Brophy touches on this when he suggests that:

Co-constructed curriculum, student interest, student questions, shared inquiry help facilitate buy in from students.

What stands out in Brophy’s statement is that we do not force buy in, but facilitate. Passion can only be fostered and nurtured. With a young plant, if you over water it then it will become water logged and its roots fail to take. Our challenge is to develop the right conditions then for learning. To provide support and structure where required, while also allowing the right amount of space for growth. Making sure that there is the right Ph levels and that the soil is turned over.

The challenge though is not to cultivate to the point of control. For as Yong Zhao warns ‘gardeners are dictators’. We need to move our focus away from tests and scores to actually providing students with a reason to be in school and do their best.  “Greatness”, according to Zhao, “comes form from passion, a lot of time and great coaching and a global connection.” Continuing in this vibe, David Price makes the point in his book Open that a, “great teacher helps learners see the relevance which drives self-motivation – why learning something will make a difference in their lives.”

In the end, we can only cultivate the conditions for growth and learning. This begins, as Alan Thwaites recently suggested, by doing “our best to see the way we instruct through the eyes of our students and hear how we sound through the ears of our students.” So maybe lets start there.

For those interested, I highly recommend watching Yong Zhao’s presentation for AITSL looking at cultivating diverse, creative and entrepreneurial talents:


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Just Make – Documenting Play and Exploration in Robotics


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I have been wondering for a while about all the hype around the Reggio Emila Approach, an early childhood program that focuses on relationships, documentation, project work, personal expression and active listening. Initially my attention was sparked by Dan Donahoo’s keynote for ICTEV13 Conference and the notion of the digital village. More recently, Cameron Paterson piqued my interest. Firstly, with a post about the links between Project Zero and Reggio Emilia through his discussion of the book Visable Learners. Then more recently in a post exploring the use of documentation in the Secondary classroom. I have been left thinking about what Reggio might offer my own teaching practises.

One of the things that stands out to me in regards to Reggio is the power of play and discovery. The idea of students driving their own projects and inquiry with the teacher providing a space and documenting the various experiences has a lot of potential. Although this could happen in any context, I saw a real opportunity through the teaching of robotics.

I felt particularly challenged by Steve Brophy in regards to letting go. In a post talking about developing a Makerspace, he explained that:

From a facilitator point of view, I purchased everything but opened nothing. I left the whole process to the kids and was constantly amazed by how much the kids would ask “are you sure we can do this?”

Although I had brought in inquiry in regards to wondering about robotics, I was still reluctant to let go of control of the building process. What I noticed in reflection was that for some students this was fine. They liked the structure that I provided. However, there were some that just wanted to explore and I was only inhibiting, rather than harnessing, this.

As I could find nothing in the AUSVels documents that specifically said students must be able to build and program a NXT Mindstorm robot, I decided instead to provide them with the requirement to ‘make’. What unravelled when I handed out the kits was amazing. Some started with instructions, others tested and tinkered. Some explored programming, others making. Some scrapped the instructions part way through, while others picked them up after some initial open explorations. Some walked around to check what other groups were doing, while others supported different groups with their questions and issues. Although I answered a few questions and found some missing parts, I just moved around and documented what the students were doing. All in all, most students demonstrated a depth of understanding and engagement at the end of the first session far beyond what I had ever seen before in a building session.

in a recent post about play, Tom Barrett suggested that:

It is not simply the timeless nature of immersive play but also the way that physical barriers, and even the rules of physics, become non-existent. They are changed, thwarted and ignored. Superpowers ON!

What was so exciting to observe in the lesson was seeing students enact the greatest superpower possible, the ability to not only learn together, but to in fact drive their own learning.


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What’s So Creative About Commons Anyway – An Introduction to Creative Commons


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Creative Commons is one of those topics which everyone knows about and when question say that they understand, but can’t really explain what it is and how it works with very much clarity. For some it is seen as a nuisance, while others see little point or purpose to it, but in regards to working within the world wide web, it matters a lot.

Basically, Creative Commons is a set of licenses that allows you to give permissions for others to use and modify your content. As is explained on the main website:

The idea of universal access to research, education, and culture is made possible by the Internet, but our legal and social systems don’t always allow that idea to be realized. Copyright was created long before the emergence of the Internet, and can make it hard to legally perform actions we take for granted on the network: copy, paste, edit source, and post to the Web.

In total, there are six different licenses made up of three different variables: attribution, modification and commercialisation. These are best summed up by the poster designed by Piotrek Chuchla, graphic designer and poster artist which can be found here. While for a more detailed explanation, watch the following video:

The question that so often remains unanswered is how does it work in practise and why is it important?


Often when we consider Creative Commons it is automatically linked with copyright and the legality of using someone else’s work. A prime example of this is outlined in Chris Betcher’s experience of using Creative Commons music on Youtube. In a series of posts he describes his battle with an artist about using a piece of music in a video he made. Even though he had seemingly sort the music out fairly through Jamendo with the best intentions, the algorithms in Youtube flagged his work and marked it as a breach of copyright. After much digging around, Betcher discovered that ‘no derivatives’ does not have to include cutting up an item, it can also mean combining it or mashing it up with something else.

This view of Creative Commons relates to appropriate use of content. This is contrast to discussion around copyright. Everything has copyright – at least in Australia – from the time that it is written down or recorded. Often conversations though end up in debates about fair use, educational purposes and substantial parts. In contrast, Creative Commons adds to this predefined right by applying to your work a license which allows you to clearly permit how you wish your work to be used. For example, if you are wanting to remix an image, then you would search for something that does not have ‘ND’ attached to it. Betcher makes the pertinent point that Creative Commons “removes the barrier created by traditional copyright.” However, to see Creative Commons only for its legal benefits misses out on its real benefit to support a community of sharing.

In an interesting post, Alan Levine laments how so much of our conversation around copyright stems from the argument “don’t break the rules.” He suggests that it is not much different to all those piracy fear campaigns. Instead of getting caught up in the ‘what’ of it all, Levine wonders where the conversations about the positive reasons as to why we do it, that is, feeding content back into the community, paying it forward and attributing where things comes from. Paul Klimpel sums it up best when he states that the main purpose behind Creative Commons is about making content more shareable. It is at its heart about creating culutre.

The next step then is how do we actually create an open culture of sharing and collaboration which allows for a greater flow of ideas and expression. For as Doug Belshaw states, “remixing, re-appropriation and riffing off other people’s work just seems to be part of what we do as human beings.” Maybe it all starts with modelling the change through our own practise. This could include not retweeting images without attribution as Chris Wejr suggests or developing a school wide policy as Richard Wells has done. One thing is guaranteed, ignorance and naivety will no longer good enough, especially as algorithms become more and more complicated.

So what are you doing? What have I missed? I would love to know. Feel free to share.


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Problem Based Learning in Mathematics – My Reflection on Back-to-Front Maths

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The other day, I was lucky enough to observe Kathy Palmer demonstrate Back-to-Front Maths, a problem-based approach which focuses on identifying and working through misconceptions. Whereas a lot of traditional pedagogical practices are about fluency, Back-to-Front is about developing a deep understanding. Going beyond learning by memory and association to understanding the why behind it all. As Tierney Kennedy explains on the website:

Back-to-Front Maths begins with problem-solving, where students explore brand-new concepts and then use their findings to derive algorithms and formulae.  It works by creating light-bulb moments for students and enabling them to discover for themselves underlying mathematical principles, rather than providing explanation-and-practice pedagogy.

The challenge is often in finding a way to disrupt students’ usual thinking so that they don’t just get the ‘answer’, but the deep process behind it. All this while at the same time making students feel that they are valuable, that their opinion matters and that it is not only OK to be wrong, but an essential part of learning.

I had previously had some experience with Back-to-Front, having used some of the tasks and activities when I ran intervention. However, it was a lot different actually seeing it being demonstrated, rather than simply having it explained in theory. Personally, I had made the error of meticulously following each step outlined in the tasks. What Palmer demonstrated was the importance of having a curious and inquiring mindset above all else. If that means picking out just part of an activity and leaving the rest then that’s fine, because what is more important is depth not breadth. This also allows for more flexibility in regards to adjusting activities based on feedback.

I had a similar experience with thinking strategies. A few years ago we had a staff meeting where we were all told that we were teachers of numeracy and given a list of strategies to support. As a English/Humanities teachers, I felt a little bit lost and although the posters went up into the classroom, I did not really know what to do with them. Something that stood out with Palmer’s demonstration was a reference to the various strategies as she taught. They were not an ‘explicit’ focus, rather they were celebrated any time a student demonstrated it, followed with the comment ‘that’s what great mathematicians do’. We get so caught up how and when to teach interdisciplinary subjects, complaining of a ‘crowded curriculum’, when really we often engage with them each and every day. The challenge, in my view, is actually being confident with the different skills and strategies ourselves so that we can clearly call them out in the classroom. At the heart of this is language and instruction.

Unlike the traditional conception of problem-based learning, which is associated with resolving a big question or problem, Back-to-Front is about providing tasks and problems which provide enough ambiguity for students to find their own way. Although the focus maybe on ‘number’ or ‘measurement’, lessons involve students coming upon their own discoveries. What becomes important then is language and how we use it. Although many of us have the tendency to answer questions with ‘yes or no’ and correct student misconceptions, the challenge is to use language to help students clarify why they think the way they do. Sometimes the best thing to do is to simply start with the initial instructions and recount a student’s explanation of things. Not only does this allow the student in question to think through their own problem, but it also allows other students who may be confused to come on board. In addition to verbalising learning, emphasis is given to non-verbal forms of explanation, such as visualising things, physically jumping them out and using different materials to make things. Having said this, Palmer made the point that you can’t put out the spot fires of misconception all the time. Sometimes you need to let a misconception through to the keeper and come back to them later with a different perspective.


In the end, my take-aways were:

  • Celebrate vocabulary, thinking and strategies in the moment.
  • Stop sometimes and do a quick vox pop to reassess where people are at.
  • Come back to the explanation of the task in a short and sharp manner whenever possible to maintain focus.
  • Sometimes it is best to come back to some spot fires later in a focus group using a different task.
  • Emphasise process over product, that is celebrate having a go, putting in effort, identifying errors and misconception, because “that’s what great mathematicians do”.

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Introducing iPads with Preps

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Introducing technology has its challenges. Although technology has been a part of who we are since cave men started painting pictures on walls, adding something new and seemingly different is often confronting to the status quo and how we think things should be.

My school recently purchased a class set of iPads, as well as one for each of the teachers. This was a bold move considering up until now we had been largely dependent on banks of netbooks. The question though is where to start. I am well aware of the need to build the confidence of staff long before you introduce them into the classroom. A point made by Richard Lambert. My question then is where should staff start. I have reflected on iPads in education before, but got wondering where do we start in the context of a Prep classroom. So I put out the call out to a few teachers I knew had experience with iPads in the Early Years.

These are the responses I got:

  • Creating an eBook – Bec Spink made the suggestion of creating a book using Book Creator and then publish it to iTunes. When I got told that we were getting iPads, this was the first thing that I thought of. I have commented on this before in regards to publishing for an authentic audience.
  • Drawing – Jenny Ashby suggested drawing with the iPads. Her first idea was to use Book Creator to take a selfie and trace the outline. Then remove the original image and recording a narrative. While her second idea was using Explain Everything to record and replay to reflect.
  • Taking Pictures – Richard Wells pointed out that simply using the camera is fun enough. I remember being told once about a school that gets their Prep students to simply go around and take pictures of objects beginning with a specific letter.
  • Recording Stories – Going beyond Jenny Ashby’s selfie stories, Michelle Meracis suggested using Adobe Voice to record social stories. I love Adobe Voice and have used it from everything to retelling a story to work on fluency to providing a guide how to do something. I have also used it with minimal support with my own three year old.
  • Rotation Station – Melissa Dunn spoke about literacy and numeracy rotations. This could be creating something, but it could also involve exploring. I love Toca Boca and the open possibilities that their applications provide.
  • Develop a Digital Licence – Sam Irwin suggested getting parents involved through the creating an iPad licence for students (and staff?) associated with big celebrations once achieved.
  • Projecting the iPad – Going beyond using Apple TV, Neil Lavitt suggested using either Air Server or Reflector to show what is on the iPads on the a bigger screen via a PC.
  • Organising the iPads – Michelle Meracis made the suggestion of replacing the background with a number, while Tony Richards suggested giving them animal names as this is more personal.
  • Sharing Information – There were a few ideas suggested for sharing information from devices. Jenny Ashby spoke about setting up a class Dropbox account, while Melissa Dunn suggested Showbie.

 

I know that there are issues with ‘quick wins‘, something pointed out by Bec Spink. I understand that to bring change you need more than a few quick wins to drive change. For example, Alan Thwaites has suggested that devices and how we use them are just another point of differentiation in the classroom. While Eric Jenson has put forward the argument that the only people you need to convince are students. For me, it starts with why. However, here are at least a few places to start and gather momentum.


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To Comment or Not to Comment, Is that the Question?

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It has been interesting following the #28daysofwriting initiative organised by Tom Barrett. The premise behind it is that committing to a month of regular posts will hopefully help develop a sustainable habit of writing and reflection. I have not participated as I feel it best to commit time when I have it and also write based on need, rather than time. Sometimes this may mean going beyond the rudimentary four paragraphs every now and then, but so be it. Anyway, I digress.

One of the observations that has arisen is the lack of comments occurring amongst the various posts. A lot of people are writing a lot of things, but not many people are actually responding. The proposal that has been put forward is a return to commenting with #28daysofcommenting. Now I am not against comments, as demonstrated by my recent post. As I have said for a long time, responding is an integral role to reading. The challenge is making this visible to others. I have issues though with the argument that ‘micro engagement has killed off the edublogging community‘. I do admit that things have changed, but I wonder if blaming this change on micro engagement is missing something more?

In a post looking at issues with education today, Peter Skillen puts forward a range of arguments. One is that there can be no wisdom and development gained in one-line. Although I think that there is plenty of drivel out there full of excessive branding, self-promotion and back-slapping, as well as enough people engaging in what Doug Belshaw describes as ‘elegant consumption‘, I argued then and I would argue now, there there is still a potential to such interactions. Going beyond being a representation of our digital identity, Twitter offers a means for sharing the main idea, writing aphorisms and generating new ideas. It provides new beginnings if we are willing to take them.

To look at this from a different perspective, Corinne Campbell made the observation that, “creativity requires design constraints”. What is often overlooked with a medium like Twitter are the constraints at play. I think that it is easy to get lost in the flow of things and forget that Twitter can just as easily be seen as a form of creativity. A point that Dean Shareski makes so well. The issue then is how to make the most of such constraints?

As I have discussed before, there are different ways to share and respond. The easiest and quickest thing to do is to simply post a title and link. Something that Barrett puts in the red zone. However, in order to develop richer communities and smarter rooms, it is wise to include handles and hashtags. For me this includes both the author and anyone who I know the topic maybe applicable to. Going beyond this, I also try and post quotes rather than titles. For one it demonstrates a higher level of engagement with the text, but it also offers a different entry point for readers.

Both Barrett and Ewan McIntosh have reflected on the halcyon days when posts would get long streams of comments, where the initial idea acted as a start for a deeper debate. (See debate over Design Thinking for a good example.) Whereas now it is more common to get a retweet, a like or a +1, with little if any actual engagement. McIntosh wonders if “anyone cares about many blog posts any more.”

This move away from commenting was brought home to me by Steve Wheeler’s reflection on his most read posts of 2014. His most read post was Learning First, Technology Second. It received over 8000 hits, yet only twenty three comments, half of which were his own responses. When quizzed on the matter of hits to comments ratio, Wheeler suggested that it is often the more emotive posts which usually gain the most interaction. I wonder if this has always been the case?

A problem I have with comments is that with a move to mobile, they just aren’t as easy as they used to be. A majority of my digestion comes via Feedly. I then save posts for commenting later. Sadly, this does not always happen.

In addition to this, commenting does not always seem as interactive as other mediums. I write a comment and it is between myself, the author and anyone else who may come upon the response. When I write using a medium like Twitter, my response is shared with whoever is viewing and is more visible, meaning the conversation has more potential. For example, I was recently wondering about iPads in Prep and put it out on Twitter:

Fifty posts later and I was left with an array of thoughts and ideas. I wonder if a blog would provide such engagement?

This is where I feel that Blogger wins out over WordPress. I like the fact that comments are connected between Blogger and Google+. Lately, I have taken to sharing comments I receive just as a way of spreading great ideas.

As an alternative, although I may not comment, I do connect. What I do is remix other people’s ideas into my own writing. They will often lay dormant, waiting, then something happens, they connect and spur on a new idea in a new context with a different perspective. What is different about remixes as opposed to connects is that it allows for multiple interactions. Pingbacks then connect back, something missing with Blogger.

At the end of the day, there are many ways of continuing the conversation, whether it be Diigo, Facebook, Google+, Voxer, the list goes on. Although there may have been a reduction in direct comments, I wonder if there has been an increase in engagement overall? I love Robert Schultz’ endeavour to comment on at least one post a day, but I think if we are to move forward then maybe we need to look more closely at the problem? Is there a new idea that needs to be unearthed? What is your take?

I encourage you to continue the conversation here.


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