On the January 21st edition of the New York Times President Obama’s Inaugural Address was published online—in a unique format. This format was described by a faculty member of DePaul’s WRD program as the way that writing was supposed to be in this day and age.
As shown in the screen capture above, this report is different from the traditional form of commentary, where comments are inserted between quotations. Instead, it took full advantage of Web technologies to include text, video, and annotation that can be delivered selectively through a click. If you mouseover the text, the play button appears, giving you the option to view the associated video, and by clicking on the highlighted text, you activate the annotation field that provides you with historical information, background, and context related to the text. A video index serves as a break-down of the topics addressed in the speech.
To readers like me, this annotated report carries some education value, because it links the past with the presence and connects the apparent meaning of a statement with either the history behind it or the significance in front of it.
It reminded me of those “busy” textbooks I once owned as a teenager.
It was twenty-some years ago when I was a high school student in Harbin, a city in the far north of China. Higher-education institutions were classified into three levels: national primary, local primary, and regular colleges. At the time, the number of institutions at all levels was limited, which made the competition for admission extremely fierce and brutal. Among hundreds of applicants, only five could be admitted. The only determining factor was the score of the college entrance exam, a nationwide test deployed every year on July 7th at the same time throughout the country. With dreams of becoming a college student, every high-schooler my age studied hard, but few were getting any help on how to study smart.
In the summer of 1987, when I received my admission letter from Beijing Broadcasting Institute, an old classmate approached me for help. She didn’t pass the minimum requirement for college and was about to start another year of preparation for the same exam.
Instead of offering any advice, I lent her two boxes of my old textbooks. They were the books I used for all the courses of the social-science track: history, geography, political science, Chinese, English, and Math. In China, high-school students were divided into the social and the natural science tracks in their sophomore year. She and I were both on the social science track.
After going through my textbooks, this classmate told me: “Had I seen those before, I never would have failed!”
So, what was so magical about my textbooks? Those 5-by-7-inch books with black-and-white prints and cover pages wrapped with thick paper (to avoid wear) were as plain and as old as the others. The only difference is that when you opened them, you found that the pages were a whole lot “messier!” Every page resembles the New York Times Inaugural Address—except, without the technology to hide the annotation. All the margins were filled with notes.
Those notes helped me “thread” the topic: for example, if the paragraph described the development of the silk and textile industry during the Song Dynasty, the note would be a short-hand reminder of the same industry in the Tang Dynasty and before it. As the chapters moved on, it gradually built a vertical view of the beginning and development of the silk industry in China, and once we started to cover world history, the notes started to include a horizontal view of textile development in other parts of the world during the same period.
Besides the notes, many of the black-and-white images were colored, especially the ones in the geography books. It was not done for cosmetic reasons—the coloring process helped me visualize the connection between objects, such as the shape of a province and the adjacent countries of China.
Now in retrospect, I question the value of my secondary education: out of the two big boxes of books that I annotated and memorized, how much information was retained? The answer is not much. But on the other hand, those high-stress and high-pressure years in high school forced me to explore ways to store and process large amounts of information in a very short amount of time. I did it by drawing pictures, inserting notes, and building connections. Those annotations were like the stone-age version of the hyperlink—and it proved the power of learning by connecting.
Learning is defined by connectivism as a process of creating connections and elaborating a network. It was once experienced as such by me as a high schooler; it was then demonstrated as such by an online report. And now shouldn’t it be designed as such in that class of yours?