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Audience Must be Curated

The advent of the "read/write" web was a boon to the conversation about voice in classrooms around the country. All of a sudden, all a teacher needed to ask a student to do was click "publish," and whatever that student had created would zoom across the world to a real audience.

This was a striking departure from the time-worn tradition of teacher assigns, student completes, teacher grades, repeat.

Here, we were faced with the possibility that student work would make it to billions of eyeballs and earholes. Their work mattered.

Or, so the common line of thinking goes.

Audience, as it turns out, is more complicated than simply saying something (even if it is said with volume and nuance). Multitudes of trees are falling in forests, and people are there to hear them. Now, the question is do they make a sound when they are trying to get attention over the din of all the other trees falling.

In the schools we need, audience will be curated.

A few years ago, I asked students to select a problem in the world they thought needed solving and identify something (no matter how small) they could do to affect positive change in that problem. This was no groundbreaking assignment. It was akin to the traditional research paper.

One key difference was the realization of the possibility of audience and the need to curate it effectively. Students were choosing topics as varied as child slavery, litter in the city, and substance abuse. Even if they posted to the open class blog, there was no reason to believe they would happen into what Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger refer to as communities of practice.

The first step in our discussion of audience curation was the inclusion of metadata in their posts. We examined the idea of tags on their blog posts as they conducted their research and how those tags increased their visibility to outside audiences. Next, we talked about links. Because the students were accumulating many sources from many places, they were sitting on piles of data to back up their claims. Whereas the traditional paper would have them including parenthetical citations and works cited pages, we discussed the power of hyperlinks in helping their audience get to the material they were referencing as well as increasing their visibility in Internet searches.

While these steps helped the students think about how they were crafting their messages for audience, it remained passive. It rested on the hope someone might be looking for what they were saying. The next step was jumping in to the conversation. If they were talking activism, they needed to go where the activists were. I asked them to find online communities that had already formed around their topic and to go and take part in the conversations that were going on in those communities. It was a step toward what Lave & Wenger refer to as "legitimate peripheral participation."

Aside from communities, students started to find other bloggers in their research who were posting on related topics. Here too, was an opportunity to curate audience. We discussed how they might craft comments on these external bloggers' posts in ways that would establish their voices as credible and important. If they could do this, we reasoned, they would increase the rate of those bloggers following comments back to the students' blogs. And, it worked. Every day, students would share with the class that someone they'd been following and commenting on had left a comment on their posts - often with questions. This had the added benefit of legitimizing the participation. They were in it.

Some of this may sound familiar to those who have had their classes send letters to the editor of the local paper commenting on a community issue. It has pieces of that exercise, but it is not that exercise. By giving students the space to have a conversation over time, to curate an online presence, and cull a body of knowledge to establish a novice-level expertise, this takes a long view on establishing deeper knowledge and seeing learning as relational.

Audience curation takes time and space. It means having conversations that ask what you want to say and to whom you want to say it. It also means students being prepared to respond to challenges to their thinking that may not care so much that they are students, but that they are thinkers engaging in real-world knowledge construction. Game must be upped.

The thing that's beautiful about all this is its contagious nature. If one assignment or project finds a real audience, then students and teachers will want to find ways for the next assignment or project to have one as well.


This is cross-posted from autodizactic.com.

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Comments

dogtrax's picture

Thank you, Zac, for this great post, on an important topic. I think the premise that we expect the audience to be there, as collaborators (either as readers or writers), is right, and the reality is often very different. Even here, at Digital Is, how many folks stop to write and comment? Not many. Sites that see themselves as a community require ways to draw the audience in and become part of the mix, otherwise you are shouting in an empty (or seemingly empty, anyway) room or talking with the same mix of people even if the space changes (that ol' echo chamber effect.)

Curating audience is a skill unto itself, and something many sites -- including Writing Project sites with an online presence -- grapple with. Your post puts this topic into perspective in a thoughtful way.

Thanks.

Kevin

MrChase's picture

Kevin, thanks for the reply. Only appropriate, given the content, right?

There's a strong element of marketing here. As you well know, schools often fall down where marketing is concerned - both on the doing of it and on the filtering out of it.

While I wouldn't deny anyone the right to passive consumption of content (here or on other sites), my most interesting conversation have come from those who (for whatever reason) have taken the time to actively consume content and jumped in to the full possibilities of blogging.

chadsansing's picture

Hi, Zac & Kevin!

The Coöp began with two folks inviting two others to found the blog. Then we decided to invite folks that could in turn invite other folks to join without consulting with us. We consulted with one another some, but increasingly trusted one another and new recruits to bring people into authoriship as they wanted to. We also opened the authoring community to folks who self-identified as ready to say something on the Coöp that was aligned to the Coöp's norms and values. From time to time, a few different community members have made strong pushes to recruit several folks "at once" to address a topic or to invite more diverse people with more diverse experiences and perspectives to write with us about mostly progressive - and often democratic - education. Our community of readers has grown with our community of authors, though a few individuals and individual posts regularly draw large amounts of attention to the site. I'm unsure of whether or not we've peaked in terms of readership, but we do go through periods of marked activity and inactivity on our authors' backchannel, which is another tool we use to curate ourselves as an audience of readers and potential commentors for one another.

At the start, we gained momentum by posting in response to one another on a schedule until that seemed too limiting and demanding of larger, sustainable, organic conversation. Then we opened up editorially and made sure every author saw him or herself as a decentralized and autonomous agent for posting, recruiting, and shaping the Coöp at whatever level of participation each desired.

These days we have a large list of contributors we consider family - no one is ever deauthorized from posting. However, we have a small number of regular authors at any given time and a smaller number of folks active on the back channel. I wonder why some stay and others go. I should post that question on the back channel. We also consider our audience members active participants in the community. We have few trolls and few people who seem passionate about moderating, so I tend to handle the moderating (not trolling) duties, though I feel the need to do so infrequently. I think being an infrequent, but strong moderator helps maintain the communal and supportive feel of the site and community, but I'm sure those I've moderated would disagree. I often wonder how sites like BoingBoing do what they do for so long while attracting a readership that mostly moderates itself. I am chasing that kind of moderation-as-audience-curation blindly. What do you think of moderation - and even banning - as curation?

Anyone involved at any level of the Coöp with more to share on our community curation should definitely chime in here.

If you have any particular questions or responses, I would love to discuss them further. I've not had much success in replicating collaborative blogs like the Coöp elsewhere, and I'm not totally sure why, so it would be great to unpack this idea of moderation as purposeful, good, rhizomatic, community-building further.

All the best,
C