One of the students in my planning class asked me to share the blogs and news I was reading for my own professional development. I wanted to go beyond merely sharing my blogroll, and give some thought to the process that I go through to try to distill some valuable learning from my own blog reading time. In order to do that, I needed to slow down and read blogs more mindfully during one session, watching myself and being more aware of my actual thought process as I clicked through the blogosphere. (I had lots to work with, since I’d been out of town for 4 days with only Blackberry access to the internet.)

I began my reading session after getting back with Gardner Writes, required reading for anyone with an interest in academic computing at the university level. Gardner is a multi-talented commentator who is quick to identify emerging themes and memes that others often miss. He’s also actually involved in teaching undergraduates, which brings an air of pragmatism to his posts.

On this day, Gardner had linked to Chronicle Wired Campus blog entry pointing to an essay by Robert Johnson, CIO of Rhodes College, in the Christian Science Monitor. The original blog posting had thoughtful response from Malcolm Brown, the Director of Academic Computing at Dartmouth.

The discussion was relatively familiar–particularly in view of our reading of The Social Life of Information . Like Brown and Duguid, Johnson was trying counter the excesses of the “infoenthiasts” and to point out that books bring benefits to the educational experience well beyond their value as “info containers” and to show that books have important contextual elements that go beyond the information encoded on the pages.

Yet by its very nature the online world is geared to deliver quick facts. Because eyes quickly tire of gazing at a computer screen, serious contemplation is discouraged….A book, on the other hand, conjures up images of comfort – sitting before a fire, perhaps with a cup of cocoa, maybe sprawled in a porch glider or propped up in bed. Such environments encourage frequent pauses to reread an especially engaging line or contemplate what one has just encountered.

As Gardner notes, Johnson promptly “falls off the elephant on the other side by insisting that the screen experience cannot in any way rival the print experience, which is one of great involvement, physical comfort, life-changing depth, and so forth.” Malcolm points out to key three assumptions that undermine the validity of the essay.

  1. One is that reading on screen tends to be superficial while reading a book tends to be deep.
  2. Another assumption is that one cannot read for sustained periods of time from a screen and that one cannot read from a screen in a comfortable location.
  3. “[reading books] encourage frequent pauses to reread an especially engaging line or contemplate what one has just encountered.

Reading these postings triggered a memory in me that I tried to quickly capture as a follow-up comment to Malcolm’s:

I think that Malcolm is right on target in his assessment that there is nothing inherent in the design of laptops that keep them from being used in deep (as opposed to superficial) reading, for sustained periods of time with appropriate time for re-reading and contemplation.

I recently spent a rainy Sunday reading an e-book in preparation for an ongoing discussion we were having in a SACS working group about the connection between undergraduate general education and scholarship at the graduate level. I found a fascinating e-copy of Larry Cuban’s, How scholars trumped teachers : change without reform in university curriculum, teaching, and research, 1890-1990. in the library catalog. This is serious scholarship, with a carefully articulated argument and lots of notes and references. I spent the afternoon reading it on my laptop, clipping notes, and making follow-up references, just as I previously had with thousands of hard cover volumes in the past. (Stopping periodically for some hot chocolate.

Three things will make the enjoyment of spending an afternoon with a laptop closer to that of reading a challenging hard copy book.

  1. The publishers need to find a business model that allows libraries to make this kind of resource available at a reasonable cost through libraries. More resources like this need be available to the end user for free and for less than it would cost the library to obtain and house it. If the “long tail” holds, publishers may find themselves better off providing libraries with very cheap subscriptions to books that are such limited interest.
  2. The screen needs to be twice as sharp. The book I read was on a 15″ Powerbook with a very sharp screen and the four hours passed just fine, but there are several epaper and electronic ink technologies out there that could make the reading even easier.
  3. The machine needs to run cooler. Finding sharper low-power displays should provide machines that are a little lighter and aren’t so hot.

These three changes are likely within the next five years and should trigger an explosion in the use of electronic books in higher education.

I didn’t post the response because the post was pretty old news by the time I had gotten to it. (I finding that I chicken out on commenting on people’s posts more often than I was a aware; I’ll explore that in more depth later.) Even though I didn’t use that post immediately, I’ll probably do some additional research on epaper and other alternative displays and use it in a future talk or presentation.

Turning Reading into Professional Development

One thought that’s come to me during this reading session is that there’s a difference between reading blogs for pleasure and reading for professional growth and development. When reading for professional development, I’m trying to find posts and comments that help me to analyze complex issues more effectively or to synthesize general models, theories or other generalizations from the mass changes that are taking place in the higher education environment. I’m planning to use those insights in making decisions about new initiatives or programs or in developing better ways of communicating about changes in higher education that are being driven by technology.

Generally, reading for professional development only happens when when I write something down–like the never-posted comment listed above that may find it’s way into a future presentation. (This notion of professional reading/development is another one that I’d like to explore in a future post.)

I found one other useful item in my reading of Malcolm Brown’s comment:

The hard question is whether some measure of shelf space must give way to provide room for new learning engagements and strategies. That’s one that each institution must wrestle with and find its own answer.

In the introduction to his essay, Robert Johnson referred to the removal of the books from the University of Texas Undergraduate Library. I had clipped this article and put it into my You Be the Dean file for a possible exercise for the week on digital libraries. If I decide to develop that topic further, these will be useful, recent perspectives to use in developing that class assignment.

There was also a great quote on the future of libraries that I’ll probably make use of again.

In a May New York Times article about the trend in higher education to build “digital learning laboratories,” Geneva Henry of Rice University’s digital library initiative in Houston, Texas said, “The library is not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared. It’s having a conversation rather than homing in on the book.”

Learnings about Blogging for Class

When I read for professional development purposes, I’m much more intentional than I am when I’m just scanning blogs for general information. For me this is a valuable investment of my time that goes far beyond merely “surfing the web.”

  1. I’m looking for ways to tie things that I read as examples of broader theoretical ideas that we’re working with in class–like connecting this explicitly to the Social Life of Information
  2. I’m looking for generalizations that I can use in the future for speeches or presentations–like coming up with “three things that will have to happen for e-books to become mainstream.” I’ll continue to read and research to flesh out that topic now that I’ve made it more explicit by writing it down. It’s sort of a semi-public note card.
  3. I’m looking for concrete examples I can use for class activities–like the You Be The Dean exercises or real life (or at least life-like) class problems.
  4. I’m looking for future blogging topics. Here I found two: Reluctance to post comments and fleshing out this notion of blog reading and professional development–particularly for those of us graduate programs in practice areas like higher education.