01 November 2015

Constructive Plagiarism - The Process

Cut, copy, paste, swap, then repeat. [peterellisjones]

The Process of Constructive Plagiarism

This post focuses on the 'how', for more on the 'why' see my other post.

It is rare in my experience that anyone actually bothers to teach the skill of summarising or paraphrasing text without plagiarising it, here is one excellent but unfortunately rare example of this. Below is the process I advocate, and one I have refined over several years.

Phase 1: The Gathering... 

Prepare a (digital) space to use as a container, if your assignment is confined to text only this could just be one long word processed document, or if you feeling a little more traditional, maybe or/and a notebook full of paraphrased notes and direct quotes with enough of a bread crumb trial in terms of  references to lead you back to where you found the information. If it is a 'media rich' assignment combining different media this could be a folder containing text documents, and collections of media such as photographs and video. In much the same way as you have been having to do with text, it is likely that longer videos will need to be trimmed down to the essential elements.

Embark on a research 'safari', this means reading/viewing widely and thoroughly. Thoroughly capture any and all content that you encounter during this initial phase, this could be in the form of condensed notes with blocks of text from books you read transcribed into your own notes (I use dictation software for this, I literally read important sections from the books I read transcribe my notes word for word, carefully including citation in the appropriate format (APA et cetera, with page number references), copy and paste content from original articles (carefully cited) and websites, including provoking discussions encountered on web fora, even transcripts from video material that is of specific relevance to the area of research. When you find an article of particular relevance, a useful strategy is to follow the thread of their research, for example if they cite a particular author to reinforce or verify a point that you think is of particular importance, look up that author's full citation in the bibliography of that article and then track down that article to expand your reading material, of course you can also add to that citation to your list. When reading research articles in PDF form, the notes you compile should include your own contextual notes that you should be inspired to write in the margins if the article is any good. Better still you could add as annotations to the PDF on screen, I like to use GoodReader for this, none of space limits you have to tolerate with paper, and easily searchable later. It is also very important that you attempt to capture any ideas of relevance, this includes ideas that are directly contradicting each other, if anything seek out contradictory opinions/findings that are effectively and intelligently presented. This will come in very useful later when you come to repurpose this material for your own needs.

Traffic Light Highlighting

A common mistake when reading and highlighting source material is having an approach that is too... homogeneous. Instead of just highlighting in swathes of yellow, the following approach is far more effective, as well as providing ample basis to relate the content you highlight to your own context, as essential aspect of the paraphrasing and summarising you will need to do later.  As the name implies, you use three colours when highlighting, and get into the habit of adding a note to everything you highlight, these notes are essential later on when it comes to deciding what to do with these selections, whether you will use as a direct quotation, or whether you will cite it but paraphrase or summarise it. 

Text highlighted in green is a reference you feel is essential, it makes a significant impression on you, sums up your own position in a way that is effective, eloquent, authoritative, it resonates with your own experiences in an especially powerful way. This is a quote you will almost certainly use as a direct quotation, but one you will 'write from', to expand on why it is that you feel its content is so relevant. 

Text highlighted in red, is similar to a green highlight, but it inspires in you the opposite response. While it may still be eloquent and/or authoritative, far from resonating with your own experiences, it very much contradicts them. This is also a quote you will almost certainly want to use as a direct quotation, and one you will 'write from', to expand on why it is that you feel its content is so badly mistaken. 

As with all of your writing, any arguments you make for or against an idea will be much more effective if you can back them up with references to other authoritative sources that you have gathered; this is where the colour coding is particularly useful, as you can cite your green sources to add weight to your argument against the red sources. 

Last but not least, text highlighted in yellow sits in the middle, it may not be a reference that is one that elicits a passionate response at either end of the spectrum, but the content is nevertheless relevant, informative, helpful, useful, pertinent, and apposite. These references are likely to be far too abundant to be of use as direct quotes—a useful rule of thumb I have encountered is the rule of one tenth; if the final word length of your assignment is 6000 words, then approximately no more than one tenth of those should be used for direct quotations. In this example, once you've used up 600 words as direct quotes, you would need to paraphrase or summarise the rest and of course cite it; this is a the most likely use for text highlighted in yellow. 

Patch writing/working AKA aggregation

When the initial phase is complete you will have at least one gargantuan word processing document filled with a mind boggling range of excerpts and content that spans a wide range of material that directly relates to your assignment focus, being careful to include the original references either from the article itself or from Google Scholar et cetera. This type of document is often somewhat disparagingly referred to as ‘patchwork writing’, although this connotation is generally because it is assumed (again) that this patchwork state is ready for submission. Generally speaking, it is easy to underestimate the skill needed to avoid patchwork writing, and it is usually easy to spot; if nothing else, because of spelling/grammatical discrepancies, to say nothing of erratic 'voice'—flawless for the plagiarised sections—less than flawless for the sections added to patch the work together. The 'voice' of a patchwork essay can feel extremely dissonant.

“Direct "patchwork" plagiarism occurs when a writer copies material from several writers and rearranges that material with no attempt to acknowledge the original sources.” (my emphasis)

Here’s a good description from one of my favourite sources that you are advised never to cite in an academic article, Urban Dictionary, (along with Wikipedia of course):

patch writing
A technique of writing an essay, blog contribution or research paper by cutting and pasting large chunks of source material and interspersing these with brief connective sentences. The end result is thus a grotesque patchwork of long quotations that reveals little or nothing of the named author's own thoughts or insights [I would argue that if the rewritten text does reveal a great deal about your own thoughts and insights, as opposed, or as juxtaposed to the original author’s, then it’s not really plagiarism any more, is it?].

Source material may be referenced or, when plagiarized, either presented without [or with] citation or in a cosmetically [really? How about articulately? thoroughly? carefully?] reworded format.
Yes, this patchwork is an essential early stage, but, believe me, with constructive plagiarism, it is far from being ‘patchwork plagiarism’. Why? Because we are about to embark on the next phase, as advised by the NIU:

"What sets patchwork plagiarism apart from direct plagiarism, however, is that, in patchwork plagiarism, the writer creatively weaves the source materials together with his or her own words into a paragraph that is a mixture of plagiarized and original material.

To eliminate this type of plagiarism, you should acknowledge each source that your ideas came from and either enclose the words taken directly from each source in quotation marks or paraphrase the material into your own words.” 

The distinction between patchwork plagiarism (no citations) and document that carefully includes clear citation is what Turnitin refer to as aggregation, work that 'includes proper citation but contains almost no original work':

Citations, references, bibliography 

It is very important at this initial phase that you meticulously capture the references to all the material you wish to cite if at all possible, this can be tricky if you are using text from blogs and online fora (this can be a rich source of intelligent, informed dialogue). Which brings me to another one of my gripes, when oh when will hyperlinking be permitted as a form of referencing in academic writing? I can dream, but for now, you have to show you can play the game of tediously building your list of references and bibliography. For the most part you should be able to get the citations using the usual citation tools. While Bibme, EasyBib and EndNote et al are useful (especially for building your own more obscure references, particularly primary, not officially published sources), my favourite is Google Scholar; search for the original article and you can use the citation tool to copy the reference in the style that you need to use. You should use a separate word processed document for this, ideally in table format so that you can paste all of the references into a new row as you work through this assignment, at the end this will become your bibliography, when you sort it into alphabetical order and put a heading at the top. Another excellent tool that combines all of these processes is RefMe, tracking all of the quotes you wish to use, along with your own notes, while also creating end notes—all of which can be downloaded as one aggregated document.

Now you are ready for Phase 2.

Phase 2: reEverything


Now you thoroughly read and reread through this document, once you thoroughly understand its contents, you make a copy of this document and begin the process of evolving it from its current form into what will finally become your own final assignment. It will need to go through many iterations and versions between this point and that point, as it evolves and mutates into a document that feels like yours, as opposed to feeling like a disparate patchwork of assorted quotations and extracts. Are there words or terms used that you don’t understand? Reword or find out what they mean, then rephrase so they make more sense to you. This is where the 'traffic light highlighting' referred to above really becomes useful, identify the 10% you will keep as direct quotes and get to work on removing, or rewriting the rest.

This process of interpolation/integration/isolation/clarification is the phase where you move to a very deep level of engagement with the learning in this area, don't be afraid to interrupt this process in order to gather more material as new questions arise and new dilemmas present themselves, as you start to formulate his document into something that feels like your own stream of thought.


Now you need to start cutting and pasting and moving text around in the document to create a narrative flow, is there a story emerging from these disconnected text? You gathered them all because they resonated with you in some way, so what is the 'picture' that is forming? Look for a pattern that links these ideas, if you encounter ideas that do not align with this rationale, then those ideas probably need to be deleted, don't panic, the original text is in the original copy of this document if you decide if you need it later. Without a doubt, one of the main challenges you will face using this method is a high word count, (another frustrating element of the game, staying under word length), far in excess of the limits that you will have imposed upon you. Time and time again the challenge of practising concision will be one that will force you to make decisions about what it is you really need to say and what is superfluous.


Now you need to determine which of these sections is most critical to the understanding of your emerging rationale that you are trying to present. These should ideally be maintained as direct quotations from the original source, but of course this is highly unlikely to be an option, as most academic assignments are very critical of an overweighting of direct quotes. Exactly what they will consider an overweighting will vary greatly, good luck getting a clear answer on that one. Sections you wish to keep as a direct quote should be highlighted or formatted in bold so that you can clearly identify and contrast them from your own summaries and paraphrasing within the main body of the text that is starting to emerge.


Now you need to take the rest of the text and rewrite it so that it becomes your own paraphrase of the original text while maintaining the reasoning that prompted you to capture it in the first place. In order to be able to create a seamless bridge between potentially disparate ideas, you will need to write these connections yourself, you may find your own notes you captured in the process of reading to be particularly helpful here, transposing context from that in the original article to that within within which you work and learn also helps. If you made a point of capturing alternative/opposing perspectives during your initial research, this now becomes instrumental in evolving this document into something is more yours than theirs, that feels and sounds more like you, your voice, less like a patchwork, and a lot less like the original writers as you attempt to reconcile these different perspectives, or to align yourself with one against the other. This will require you to interpolate text and sequence it in order to be able to bridge the gaps between the various arguments and rewrite them to form a united and interrupted flow.

Again you will encounter paragraphs that you will struggle to rewrite because they were written so effectively by the original author, ideally you would quote these directly, but of course you cannot because you cannot over use direct quotes, so what do you do now? You paraphrase, so you attribute this sequence to the original writer and cite carefully, but instead of directly quoting, you paraphrase the paragraph instead as was so eloquently described by scribbr above; you will need to set the context for the paraphrased section by formulating the text preceding or following the quote or paraphrase to clarify the points you want to imply.

That's it, this is an iterative process, keep cycling through these stages until you have completed your magnum opus.
  1. Remix/reword/remove/resequence
  2. interpolate/integrate/isolate/
  3. clarification/concision/Focus/Discrimination
  4. Rewrite/rephrase/revise/paraphrase/summarise
Then do it all again ⇪ ↻

Many thanks to David Woo and Kurt Wittig for their feedback and their contributions to this post.

31 October 2015

Constructive Plagiarism - The Practice

Constructive plagiarism, or 'actually it's okay to copy and paste' is the name I give to a research methodology that I believe should be accepted, no taught, in the classrooms of the 21st-century.

Obviously the name I've given to this method is designed on some level to set alarm bells ringing, but my assurance to educators is that we need to keep our eyes on the actual purpose of the research, the learning, not on outdated (copy+paste=plagiarism) methodologies and principles which are counter-productive, and counterintuitive. I say ‘21st Century’ because if ever there was a mode of operation that needed dragging into this century it is the models and modes of academic writing.

20th Century responses to 21st Century Possibilities

These images (above) are typical of the assumptions about the impact of digital technologies on research, and assumptions about how many educators assume there students will use them. These negative assumptions litter the internet with their tones of moral crisis (just Google image search 'plagiarism'), and quite deceitful in many ways, so much pretence. Let's pretend no one has ever researched or written about this, pretend your writing is wholly original—never seen before—and totally authoritative, pretend you can't copy/paste, ... no, instead block your ears and close your eyes, and write it all as if there is nothing else out there to use as a launching point, no one else's shoulders to stand on, no revolutionary, disruptive digital technology that could and should transform how this process of learning and researching works.

When we ask students to research a topic, the underlying assumption behind traditional guidance around plagiarism is that our students are going to construct a completely original piece of writing, or create a piece of work which does not contain any content that could be found in any other format that has ever been written or published since the dawn of time. Right from the outset this strikes me as an absolutely ludicrous proposition, as the oft quoted Newton said himself "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.", the point being, as is also reiterated in the good book by Solomon, Ecclesiastes: "There is nothing new under the sun". Of course, the assumption in this context is that the primary mode of communication is text (because it generally is. Why? That’s another conversation), but you need look no further than the outstanding video series on Vimeo "Everything is a Remix" to see a powerful rationale for the kind of practices that I call 'constructive plagiarism'.


An Alternative Approach... 

Instead of this tech phobic paranoia about the impact of screens on research, I'm advocating that we embrace the ways these technologies can and should transform how our students research, particularly exploring the mutability of digital technologies. The negative assumptions behind the condemnation of students who copy+paste is that these protestors assume that this is where the process ends, rather than where the process begins. That, my friend, is the difference between plagiarism and constructive plagiarism.

The fact is that even our most supposedly original ideas and thoughts are a remixing of ideas, experiences, and content that we have encountered throughout our lifetimes and that we have either consciously or unconsciously internalised, remixed, reinterpreted and finally re-presented as our own original work. As David Woo says, “no true knowledge exists outside people: people construct individual meaning and try to agree on meaning in talking with each other”. So to set students the task of producing a wholly original piece of work is really an exercise in futility, at worst you are asking them to do the impossible, at best you're asking them to take other people's ideas, internalise them and re-present them as if they were their own, which is really nothing short of a form of plagiarism, albeit one where they make some effort to at least vaguely cite the original content.

Of course this is something we are likely to penalise them for doing, as the clearer they make the sources of their ideas, the more likely it is that their teacher will be able to discover their extent of their plagiarism. Now there is great deal more to this last point that I can't really get into here, suffice it to say that we need to build an intrinsic sense of trust, the alternative is a nightmarish ‘damned if you do, damned if you don't’ scenario where everyone loses. Students who are feel incriminated by exploiting the affordances of digital tools, such as their use of copy/paste, who then abandon any attempt at appropriate practice and start faking their citations, or skipping them completely for fear that if they leave a trail of evidence they are just increasing the likelihood that they will be ‘caught’.

Another common issue is students end up unsupported with an ‘all or nothing’ stance, ie you MUST write it all in isolation, not an empty page, if you copy and paste anything, that’s it, you’re effectively excommunicated. So we end up with patchwork plagiarism of the worst kind, not because the students have corrupt intentions or motivations, but because no one is prepared to teach them how to use copy/paste constructively.

Guess what goes in the middle... ? Image: Sean Savage.

How do we define plagiarism?
the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own.
synonyms: copying, infringement of copyright, piracy, theft, stealing.

So, let me be clear, I am not advocating plagiarism, I am advocating a more.. progressive/practical stance towards it. There is a practical compromise somewhere between the extremes of ripping off the work of others, and riffing off the work of others.

riff ‎
A variation on something.

Any variation or improvisation, as on an idea.

To improvise in the performance or practice of an art, especially by expanding on or making novel use of traditional themes. (my emphasis)



(constructive) pla·gia·rism
the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and remix/reword/rewriting them until they become one's own.

The method stems from the assumption that when completing a piece of work, there is a limit to the extent to which you can directly quote the works of others (who of course themselves have actually remixed and re-presented other work that they have encountered in their lifetimes). It is generally advisable to avoid being overly reliant upon direct quotes within the body of your work. When I first began academic writing many years ago, I made the (naive) assumption that I could literally use as many direct quotes as I needed, assuming that those would not be counted in the word count, only my reflections upon those direct quotes, oh how wrong I was! My logic, both then and now, is that rather than attempt to try and pretend I can contribute a completely authentic and original contribution to this body of work, I'd be better off to thoroughly appraise myself of current thinking around the idea and then reflect and write about my responses to the key ideas represented in the literature.

And so it was that I was introduced to the "game" of direct quotation versus paraphrasing. This enotes discussion below highlights the heart of the confusion surrounding this issue:
"In general, you will need to use direct quotes and paraphrases in a master's thesis. I would say that you will generally need to paraphrase more than you quote. What I would do is to paraphrase most of what I was trying to say. Then I would use direct quotes to emphasize the most important points that I was getting from a particular source. You want to be careful about quoting too much, lest it look like you do not understand what is being said and cannot put it in your own words."

"Paraphrasing shows how you synthesize, understand, and intend to use the material. It also shows your adviser and review committee that you can take an idea from someone or some source and reword it so that you are presenting this same idea in another way."
And that, in a nutshell is at the heart of constructive plagiarism, to paraphrase the above quote about paraphrasing, (is this a meta-paraphrase?) you take an idea from someone or some source and reword it so that you are presenting this same idea in another way.

Contrast that then, with this contradictory advice from the same discussion,
"it is probably better to overcite references than over paraphrase them. Under many circumstances, the review process of literature as well as the peer edit/ advisor editing process of writing a master's thesis also addresses the appropriate moments to paraphrase or to cite directly."

Or this, which effectively says do both...
"knowing that quotations are most important, knowing that structural and word requirements impose some limitations, knowing that other evidence that you have collected to prove your idea is also important, the answer to your question is that while paraphrasing is vital to demonstrating your understanding of a broad range of knowledge and to reviewing critical opinion and opposing arguments, you must have high quality and carefully selected quotations to substantiate the things you assert and claim. This may sound like a double-sided answer, but that is precisely what you need, a double-sided approach: You must include that which is most important (analysis and quotes) within the framework of that which is required.

So we find ourselves in a somewhat confusing situation whereby we teach our students that the body of their research cannot be just their own opinion, and has to clearly show that every idea that they wrestle with, actually already has a precedent in some other body of work, and yet at the same time they're not allowed to be overly reliant upon quoting these works, instead they have to play the game where once they have used up the amount of text they can dedicate to direct quotes, they then have to work around it by paraphrasing direct quotes to integrate them into their assignment. Or to put it another way, to make those authors' words sound like theirs. That is how we end up in the position I call 'constructive plagiarism'. Namely the skill of taking a wide range of direct quotations from a wide range of sources and authors and then remixing and reworking those into a new seamlessly integrated piece of prose that clearly summarises and represents the ideas that were articulated in the original texts clearly, but has clearly been processed through their own worldview and experiences to represent their own remix of the many sources from which they were influenced.

This is where we get into the complexity of citation, when making direct quotes they should ideally be referenced in a bibliography, when you have paraphrased content that was originally a direct quote, instead this becomes a reference. In my experience very few academics require you to distinguish between these two, in which case we move closer to the ambiguity that is represented by constructive plagiarism...

I think the folks over at scribbr sum up this quandary well with the following:


Quoting is when you literally copy a part of a text. It is wise to limit the use of quotes, as they do not improve the readability of your thesis.

Plus, if you use many quotes, you will seem lazy. Next to that, when you use a quote it can give the impression that you did not understand the source or that you did not read the entire text. It is therefore wise to use a quote only when necessary.

For example, you can use one when you want to provide a definition of a certain concept. You can also consider using one when the author has written a sentence so beautifully or powerfully that a paraphrase would diminish the quality of the text.


Always try to keep a quote as short as possible, preferably no longer than a few sentences. You can also shorten a quote; for example, you might replace a redundant or irrelevant part of a quote with ellipses (…).

However, make sure not to take a quote out of its context by, for instance, citing only one sentence that supports your research in a study that otherwise contradicts your research.


When you paraphrase something, you describe a (part of a) study in your own words. Doing so, you can fit an existing theory into your own research very easily.

However, even though the paraphrase is in your own words, the idea is still someone else’s. Therefore, you always have to cite your source when you paraphrase.

It is also important to always introduce the paraphrase. You can do this as follows: “Janssen (2008) states in his research that …”


The standout sentence to me in that quotation is "However, even though the paraphrase is in your own words, the idea is still someone else’s. Therefore, you always have to cite your source when you paraphrase." (ibid) This gets to the very heart of this game whereby they as the author is attempting to convey the idea that these ideas of theirs, are not comprised solely of their own ideas, but are an amalgamation of (hopefully many) other authors ideas over time and a range of contexts that have been repurposed to better fit their particular situation. Allow me to quote another colleague here:

“Appealing to authority makes the message digestible with less heartburn if done well. Here I picture a street fight. A direct quote is pushing Einstein out in front of you to intimidate the foes. Paraphrasing is walking out to meet the foes head-on with Einstein, Hawking, and all the other giants that went into forming the idea trailing behind making your knuckle cracking all the more convincing.” Kurt Wittig

Back over to the good folks at scribbr, who have this further helpful advice to give:

Paraphrase or summary?

The term “paraphrase” is generally used when someone describes someone else’s [words] research in their own words. However, this is not entirely correct. A paraphrase is a description of a certain quote from someone else, put in your own words. A paraphrase is therefore approximately of the same length as the source text’s quote.

When you completely or partially describe the outcome of a more substantial part of the research, it is called a summary.

There is a distinct difference between paraphrasing and summarizing. However, in general (as is also the case in many universities), both are called paraphrasing.

General tips

  • Only quote or paraphrase the authors of papers that are authoritative in their field of research. 
  • It is important that the quote or paraphrase has added value for your research. The quote or paraphrase should also fit in with the rest of the text. The text preceding or following the quote or paraphrase should clarify what you want to imply.
  • A quote or paraphrase is not complete without a proper in-text citation and entry in your reference list, formatted correctly in the appropriate referencing style.

As a case in point, if this was an academic assignment that I was submitting for formal credit, the above quotations from Scribbr would be too excessive to use as a direct quotation, so instead I would have to play the game of choosing one or two sentences and either omitting or paraphrasing the rest, and that’s just one point! Fortunately for me, I don't have to play that game here, and can just let them be, I'm excused from playing the game, and freed to focus on my learning, and wrestling with words that capture my thoughts. And so it is that the process of constructive plagiarism commences. If they have read widely (and they should) they will inevitability find themselves in a situation where they have far more content that they wish to use than they can possibly directly quote, so instead, they begin the process of paraphrasing huge amounts of content that contain essential ideas and themes, as the only other method for doing justice to these ideas they have collected would be to directly quote them, which they cannot do for the reasons outlined above.

Constructive plagiarism then, is the process of remixing and reworking swathes of direct quotes from a wide range of source material while being careful to ensure that they cite the original authors clearly, but relying on paraphrasing and summarising enough to keep direct quotes to a minimum. When they exceed the amount of text they can realistically use as a direct quotation, they switch to paraphrasing/rewriting mode. In this mode they still credit the author but they effectively re-write the direct quotation into a different tense or apply it to a familiar context so that the voice sounds more like theirs then the original author's. Unfortunately, this is more difficult than it sounds, they have to be fairly adept at writing to be able to take the voices and insights of multiple authors and rewrite them so that they sound consistently like they own. In order to be able to do this they need to understand the content thoroughly, they need to be very well read, and they need to have a thorough understanding of the context within which they are writing, which takes me to the point of this entire process, the learning.

What’s the point?

Whenever I hear teachers wringing their hands, expressing consternation over the likelihood of their students constructing written assignments through processes that seem to border on plagiarism, I rarely hear any reference to the actual point of the activity, which is surely to motivate students to research widely, to internalise what they learn, and to represent it simply and clearly in a form that allows the teacher to accurately appraise the extent to which the student has understood the exercise. If the goal really is to motivate students to learn, then we should be less concerned about the minutiae of rules around plagiarism, and be more concerned about motivating students to read widely, research thoroughly, and to present their findings and sources clearly. I believe that a student who does this, is a student who has achieved the goal that the teacher had in mind, namely to learn about the area in question, through a thorough engagement with the material, and by presenting this understanding in a format that is concise and clear.

So, how does this work?

So, you're convinced and you want to know how it is you teach students to leverage the affordances of digital tools, rather than waste time ignoring or even penalising students for using them? Great, more on the actually nitty gritty of how this process actually works, this post:

Constructive Plagiarism - The Process

Many thanks to David Woo and Kurt Wittig for their feedback and their contributions to this post.

29 July 2015

Math Bytes

Units of Measure in the 21st Century

It's always been a source of great consternation to me, that mathematics benchmarks around the world still appear to be completely and utterly oblivious of the implications of the impact of digital technologies in the world of mathematics.

To see explicit evidence of this, you need to look no further than the Mathematics benchmarks that are currently used for the teaching of measure, which are still confined purely to units which, while still useful, are no longer the most common units of measure that are are significant in the lives of people who rely upon digital technologies in their daily lives, which means most of us, especially if you're reading this.

Why is it that in schools that are blessed with the ubiquitous provision of digital technologies, one-to-one laptops and iPads, the students never learn anything about how file sizes and the measurements of these file sizes work?

There are two main reasons for this as far as I understand:
  • Almost universal ignorance on the part of teachers, who are still completely oblivious of the difference between a megabyte and gigabyte
  • An assumption that a generation of digital natives just automatically get this stuff, trust me, they don't. 
  • A somewhat naive assumption that if there is a subject area that will remain unaffected by the influence of digital technologies it has to be mathematics. 

Teach Maths for your present, and their future not your past... 

Ask yourself, how can it make any sense in this day and age for students to be able to complete their mathematics education, competent in the calculations relating to kilograms and kilometres and millimetres and litres, but not have the slightest clue about the units of measure that are fundamental to the devices that they rely on every day?

The problem is caused by this lack of awareness are profound. I struggle to envisage students who find themselves in difficulties because they were confused about the difference between a metre and a kilometre, but I regularly encounter students and teachers who are flummoxed by their their inability to understand how big a megabyte is and why they can't email that 200MB video ‘rejected by server'.

Cries of frustration abound with rhetorical questions such as, 'WHY is taking so LONG to upload/download?'

Answer? Um, because it is a 1 GB file, and you're using a 2 Mbps connection... ?

Response: :o|

Fortunately, the solution is obvious; educate the teachers and they will educate the students, but unfortunately it looks like these things will not change until the ‘official, mandatory' benchmarks change. If anything this post is a desperate plea for just a bit of common sense; do we really need a mandatory benchmark to realise that in this day and age it is absolutely essential, that our teachers, and their students are as familiar with kilobytes and megabytes as they are with metres and kilometres?

One extremely rare example of digital measures in Maths - Khan Academy

Trust me, it's not that difficult, if anything it’s actually easier to understand than traditional units of measure. When teaching measurements of length students have two differentiate between tens and hundreds and thousands, but when dealing with units of measure for file size, it's much simpler, everything is 1000 times bigger than anything before. That's it.

Put your practice where your pedagogy is...

So, inspired by Khan Academy, I put my my practice where my pedagogy is, I ran a lesson with a grade 5 class, with the single goal of demonstrating how easy it is to enable students to get to grips with this fundamental unit of measure. Essential to this was simplicity, and I know of no technology that is simpler to use, and as transformative in application as an effectively used 'wiki' space, in this case we used a Google Site, but any kind of online fora will suffice, more on the power of online 'interthinking' here.

As with all of these kinds of lessons, most of the work goes into formulating a decent provocation, one that is not too narrow, otherwise all you get is 22 responses that are pretty much identical, as every student just imitates or duplicates the previous response. The prompt below shows how this can be avoided. In terms of 'doability' this task took me about 15 minutes to set up, and while I was able to complete the activity within one lesson, and one homework, to be honest it could have run for a week if I'd had the time.


It was immediately apparent how natural this online environment is for our students, and as can be seen in the clip below, far from this being a screen dominated task, it stimulated a great deal of (on task) discussion and collaboration.  Remember these kids wrestle (usually without any help from teachers or their outdated textbooks) with file size every day, so asking them to envisage scenarios that use these quandaries as problem solving situations is not that big a deal.

Interthinking - online and offline

It's important to note that, while the activity is screen centred, the learning is not confined to the screen, the students were just as animated (I reckon more so) than they would have been if this has been presented to them as a worksheet (which it could). But the transformative difference here is that moving it to a web based interactivity (not just an activity—see what I did there ;)?) facilitate the leverage of the transformative elements of SAMMS:

Access: They can easily search for clarification on specific elements they find confusing, such as units they want to consider that are not in the prompt (petabytes anyone?) particular vocabulary, or clarification about the amount of storage associated with particular contexts they wish to consider, eg the capacity of their smartphone, their games console, memory card, tablet etc.

Mutability: In response to feedback (from peers and their teacher), students can easily duplicate and revise their posts and post a second post (by effectively 'replying' to themselves) that shows clear evidence that relevant criticisms have been resolved.

Multimodality: Of course this entire medium is multimodal, if we had had another lesson, this activity could have been expanded to allow students to incorporate image, audio and video.

Socially Network & Situated: As it is online, we can facilitate a P2P homelearn (as opposed to homework) activity. Assign assessment buddies to feedback on each others posts at home, of course the teacher can now easily monitor the quality of these online interactions, and interject, support, clarify, redirect as necessary.

I've included some examples below that illustrate how powerful this task was, and how easy it is to set up. 

Note that a great deal of the conversation (on screen and next to it) centred on wider mathematical concepts that would be relevant to the teaching of any of the traditional units of measure, eg appropriate use of units, conversion of units, and that old favourite, explain your thinking... Now that's what I call a #winwin

Below you can find a PDF of the original discussion in it's entirety, bear in mind that this is not the actual discussion, which continued to develop following this capture.

14 June 2015

Transforming Talk in the 21st Century

Does this have to Facebook? No. Does it have to be asynchronous and social?Yes.

Many skills are touted as '21st century' in nature, but the reality is that many, if not most of all them, are little more than refinements of abilities that are arguably more human than reflective of any particular era in history.

That said, there is at least one skill which strikes me an unique, maybe not unique to the 21st Century as it has been in existence since at least the late 90s, but it is unique, it is digital, and it is easily one of the most powerful, transformational applications of digital technology I have encountered, what is it? It's the ability for groups of people to interact, and interthink, online, or to frame this in the words of the title of a thesis that is a little more academic:

The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue

The above title is taken from a 362 page thesis written by a doctoral student called Rebecca Ferguson (Ferguson, 2009) that I have recently finished reading, and that is the inspiration for this post. This is not a post about the actual pedagogical practice of using this medium for learning, that is the subject of another post here. This post focuses on the big picture, the WHY medium is not only unique but actually essential, critical, pivotal, and in my experience, one of the most genuinely transformative applications of ICT that I have ever encountered.

All quotations that follow, unless specifically cited otherwise are taken from Ferguson's thesis (ibid). The original thesis is available online, here, all other works cited can be referenced from Ferguson's thesis.

What follows is a summary of the thesis, curated through the lens of the way this looks in a TELE (technology enhanced learning environment), like those that reflect UWCSEA since at least 2010.

Critical to this entire context is the uniqueness of this medium, it is essentially unlike any form of human communication that has ever preceded it, in that "asynchronous exchanges are enriched by the use of textual affordances that are not available in speech." (p4) These online asynchronous environments are ubiquitous, mainly thanks to the unprecedented rise in society of social networks, (and to a large extent email, another asynchronous social medium, albeit not as ) that are in their very essence 'fora', online communities where text based dialogue, often enriched by image and video are commonplace, and yet, despite it's profound presence in society as a whole, it is very rarely leveraged as tool to enhance learning, even within TELEs.

This post is in many ways a pleas to change that, in classrooms of the 21st century, asynchronous dialogue should be the norm, in every subject, every day, just like it is in the lives of arguable most students and teachers.

--- Page 18 ---

In the first five years of this century, the number of Internet users in the UK almost doubled, rising to 37.8 million in 2005 (CIA, 2001, 2006). For the first time, the majority of the population was able to interact, and to learn together, in virtual settings (Dutton, di Gennaro, & Millwood Hargrave, 2005). As a result, some learners and teachers who have spent years developing the skills necessary to communicate, work and build knowledge together in face-to-face settings face the challenge of adapting those skills for use in an asynchronous, textual environment.

What is asynchronous dialogue?

'Asynchronous dialogue' describes the ways in which online learners construct knowledge together in both the short and the long term without [necessarily] being co-present at the same time or in the same place."

--- Page 21 ---

Asynchronous dialogue is defined here as a sustained discussion, involving two or more people whose contributions are not expected to be produced in temporal proximity, in which language is one of the elements used to convey meaning.

--- Page 23 ---

Users of asynchronous forms of dialogue such as email and online fora make use of various structures and patterns, referred to here as discursive devices, within their communication in order to increase both coherence and comprehension.

--- Page 32 ---

Learning is fundamentally social in nature, even when individuals are separated by time and space

--- Page 35 ---

Vygotsky regarded language as the most powerful of these mediating tools and as the primary tool for thinking

--- Page 42 ---

Different media bring different resources to, and also impose constraints. Relevant factors include copresence (the ability to see the same things), cotemporality (the ability to access messages as soon as they are sent), simultaneity (whether participants can communicate at the same time or must take turns) and sequentiality (the possibility of turns being accessed out of sequence) (Baker, et al., 1999).
In an educational context, an important form of language is dialogue: a sustained discussion, carried out through speech or online, in which language is used to convey meaning. Participants in an effective dialogue are both contributors and active listeners (Moore, 1993). Through dialogue, they share knowledge and jointly construct understandings of shared experience that support learning (Crook, 1994)

--- Page 43 ---

One of the earliest recorded forms of educational dialogue is the dialectic employed by Socrates (470-399 BCE) and therefore described as ‘the Socratic method'. This was originally an open-ended dialogue, which was gradually formalised, eventually being codified by Hegel (1770-1831) as a form of logic that proceeds from thesis to antithesis and thence, eventually, to synthesis. In educational settings, dialectic is employed when people need to combine their knowledge by sharing, comparing and combining contrasting views ...

--- Page 44 ---

In schools, dialogic has been used to emphasise collaborative group work and the uptake of children's ideas, to encourage pupils to recreate accounts in their own words and to emphasise a collective, reciprocal and cumulative approach to learning (Skidmore, 2006).

Less IRF, more IDRF

Less Initiation, Response and Follow-up (IRF) [Also IRE, Initiation, Response, Evaluation] exchanges and more Initiation – Dialogue – Response – Feedback (IDRF) (Wegerif & Mercer, 1996) does not focus on the teacher's input but incorporates dialogue between students, allowing learners a more active role and supporting them in working together. (p45)

--- Page 46 ---

[asynchronous discussions help] students to participate in collaborative and critical argumentation, rather than being too embarrassed to criticise others or to state their opinions directly. Other studies drew attention to students overcoming emotional barriers such as shyness, discomfort or a lack of confidence (Ravenscroft, 2007).

--- Page 47 ---

These forms of communication may be synchronous or non-synchronous, or they may offer both possibilities; they may be text-based, audio-based or graphics-based; they may be used for group communication, for two-way discussion or for personal reflection

--- Page 48 ---

Until recently, it was rarely necessary to distinguish between physical and virtual settings and so the dictionary definitions of many English words take a physical setting for granted. The words ‘talk' and ‘dialogue', with their assumptions of synchronicity and co-presence, both make an uneasy transition to an online setting. [...] there are major differences between oral and written modes of expression

--- Page 52 ---

It is an important tool that teachers and learners employ in a variety of ways: to build social relationships, to mediate collaboration, to construct online learning environments, to supplement face-to-face interaction and to support distance learners who are working individually.

Asynchronous dialogue: distinct from writing and speech

Asynchronous dialogue should be considered as a new form of communication, rather than as a variant form of speech or writing.

--- Page 54 ---

Asynchronous dialogue, being a new language tool, has the potential to produce far-reaching changes. It is a complex blend of inner, oral and written speech, and Mercer's view (2000) is that its combination of characteristics of speech and writing makes it a welcome and valuable addition to the toolbox of language. Although it has some characteristics of both talk and writing, its chronology and its use of layout and typography mean that it has emergent properties that belong to neither. These emergent properties are not the same as those of synchronous online dialogue, which is characterised by immediacy and fast responses (O'Connor & Madge, 2001).

Five techniques

--- Page 58 ---

Build the future on the foundations of the past by eliciting knowledge from learners, responding to what learners say and describing significant aspects of shared experience:

• Literal recap: Recounting past events.

• Reconstructive recap: Aligning accounts of the past with current pedagogic concerns.

• Elicitation: Prompting the recall of relevant information.

• Repetition: Repeating responses in an evaluative fashion

• Reformulation: Presenting responses in a clearer form.

• Exhortation: Asking others to recall relevant past experiences.

Affordances of asynchronous dialogue

--- Page 63 ---

Asynchronous dialogue is distinct from other forms of communication not only because of its textual nature but also because of its unique chronology.

--- Page 69 ---

Researchers studying online learning have identified a variety of relevant affordances of asynchronous dialogue. These can be broadly classified in three groups: affordances of the technology, affordances of the medium and affordances of the dialogue.

--- Page 70 ---

Asynchronous dialogue appears to provides the classic components of cooperation and collaboration – discussion, dialogue and community – without the traditional constraints of time and place.

Martini affordances' of the technology – any time, any place, anywhere

--- Page 71 ---

Learners and educators may use a variety of technologies to encounter each other face to face or online

[Unlike face to face dialogue, online there is always a transcript of the dialogue] that can be consulted, edited and reworked

The dialogue can contain hyperlinks to other resources and dialogue, and may also have documents, pictures, sound files or videos attached to it.

Other affordances of the medium include the ability to link messages through threading

The time commitment is minimal as all of these forums use conventions that are common across online working spaces [ubiquitous in social media].

Students' asynchronous dialogue

--- Page 72 ---

Analysis of students' asynchronous dialogue (Blanchette, 2001) demonstrated that having time to consult sources and check references meant they were able to provide each other with very accurate information. Blanchette also observed that the learners in her study were more likely to ask questions, ask for clarification and seek feedback than those studied in a face-to-face environment.

When learners have time to deliberate, their responses are more likely to be focused and purposeful

--- Page 74 ---

Cooperation versus collaboration

Co-operation is a goal-centred activity (Panitz, 1996) in which different things are done by different actors in order to achieve their goal (Van Oers & Hännikäinen, 2001). It involves splitting work, solving sub-tasks individually and then assembling the partial results to produce a final output. Because the majority of the work is done individually, this way of working makes limited use of the affordances of asynchronous dialogue.

Collaboration, on the other hand, involves partners carrying out work together (Dillenbourg, 1999). It is a co-ordinated activity, the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem (Lipponen, 2002); an interaction in which participants are focused on co-ordinating shared meaning (Crook, 1999). It requires more than the effective division of labour that constitutes cooperative work. Participants must negotiate mutually shared or common knowledge in order to work together to solve a problem or perform a task together (Littleton & Häkkinen, 1999).

If learners are to make effective use of these affordances to support the co-construction of knowledge, they need appropriate skills and resources to engage effectively in online educational dialogue but may lack these if they have limited experience of online learning (Kreijns, et al., 2003). The importance of learning how to interact should not be underestimated.

Sticking to the point 

--- Page 83 ---

In face-to-face situations, learners modify their talk over time in relation to their context and their understanding of what they are doing. Because they use speech, which is ‘not simply perishable but essentially evanescent' (Ong, 1982, p32) they face the double challenge of pursuing a line of thought systematically and then preserving their understanding of what has been achieved. They employ discursive devices to overcome these challenges, shaping transient speech into shared knowledge (Mercer, 2000).

Discursive: of speech or writing, Tending to digress from the main point; rambling.

In an asynchronous setting, learners do not need to employ these devices [chit chat] to help them to remember what they have said or done, because they have access to the complete text of their past dialogue in the transcript automatically generated by the software (Kaye, 1989).

--- Page 85 ---

Argumentation, for example, can be described as ‘a reasoned debate between people, an extended conversation focusing on a specific theme which aims to establish “the truth” about some contentious issue' (Mercer, 2000, p96) and is thus task focused. Collaborative reasoning, which includes challenges, evidence and evaluation, is specifically a taught approach (Anderson, Chinn, Waggoner, & Nguyen, 1998). ‘Effective discourse' is also teacher led, being dependent on the educator to create a situation in which participants can ‘advance beliefs, challenge, defend, explain, assess evidence and judge arguments (Mezirow, 1997, p10). Accountable talk is similar, including elements such as listening, clarification, extension and elaboration (Michaels, et al., 2008; Resnick & Helquist, 1999)

Kinds of talk... 

--- Page 86 ---

Disputational, cumulative and exploratory talk in the classroom have the advantage that they not only deal with the productive interaction that helps the group to extend its understanding and to achieve its goals, but they also deal with the unproductive interaction that makes a group less likely to achieve its goals

These social modes of thinking are therefore referred to as cumulative, disputational and exploratory dialogue, rather than talk, because their characteristic elements can be observed both online and offline.

--- Page 87 ---

Disputation should not be confused with argumentation, in which conflicting views are presented, sometimes forcefully, but the intention is to reach a resolution

Cumulative dialogue is much more constructive. In cumulative exchanges control is shared. Speakers build on each other's contributions, adding their own information and constructing a body of shared knowledge and understanding, but they do not challenge or criticise each other's views.

--- Page 88 ---

Exploratory dialogue is the type considered most educationally desirable by teachers (Wegerif, 2008b). Learners who engage in exploratory dialogue constantly negotiate control, engaging with each other's ideas both critically and constructively

Exploratory talk, by incorporating both conflicting perspectives and the open sharing of ideas, represents the more visible pursuit of rational consensus through conversations. It is a speech situation in which everyone is free to express their views and in which the most reasonable views gain acceptance.

--- Page 89 ---

They are working to develop ‘a new understanding that everyone involved agrees is superior to their own previous understanding.

Conflict between learners is not necessarily unproductive because the challenges and counter-challenges of socio-cognitive conflict are important for the development of knowledge. Exploratory dialogue is likely to involve the confrontation of different approaches in socio-cognitive conflict. Such conflict may result in different views being coordinated to form a new approach, more complex and better adapted to solving the problem (Doise, 1985). In such cases, conflict and difference between individuals are brought into productive play to support learning

Improvable objects [Ongoingatives]

--- Page 93 ---

The improvable object is an analytical construct that was developed to help explain how learners are able to develop ideas over time. It is associated with the use of ‘progressive discourse'

Progressive discourse is associated with the sustained development of improvable objects over time (Wells, 1999). They also need to be able to identify, augment and maintain common ground as their work progresses (Baker, et al., 1999) and improvable objects offer a way of achieving this.

Resources available to groups can be characterised as improvable objects if they meet certain criteria (Wells, 1999). They must be knowledge artefacts that participants work collaboratively to improve because they involve a problem that requires discussion. They must act as a focus for the application of information and experience by the group. Unlike many assessed assignments, an improvable object must provide a means to an end, rather than being an end in itself. Finally, an improvable object must be both the inspiration and the focus for progressive discourse.

The key elements of improvable objects – a problem that provides as a means to an end, inspires progressive discourse and acts as a focus for the application of experience and information – can therefore all be assembled in asynchronous settings to support the shared construction of knowledge.

Improvable objects are dynamic representations of a changing situation.

Improvable objects are more akin to the rough drafts that Vygotsky (1987b) described as a powerful means of reflecting on work. Not only do they support the development of understanding by groups of learners, but they are also developed as part of that progress. They are a means of sharing and building ideas over time; sites not only for the display and comparison of different understandings but also for their manipulation and development.

Learning is fundamentally social in nature, and that knowledge is not a static entity, but is co-constructed by learners with the help of meaning-making tools.

--- Page 242 ---

Postings that are taken up, quoted and re-quoted, commented on and reposted come particularly close to being improvable objects.

--- Page 267 ---

The text-based nature of dialogue supports collation of work and also the direct and detailed comparison of different understandings.

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An important role of the tutor is therefore as a discourse guide (Littleton & Whitelock, 2004) who, by modelling skills and behaviours, can help students to develop appropriate ways of talking, writing and thinking in an asynchronous group environment. Wertsch speculates that the skills called for by online environments will ‘have a major impact on how we define success, intelligence, and other aspects of human functioning in the years ahead' (Wertsch, 2003, p903). If such skills are not identified, modelled, or explicitly taught, learners will find it difficult to make effective use of them.

--- Page 304 ---

Improvable objects allow learners to regain an important element of online study: time independence. Online learning is commonly assumed to allow students freedom to choose when they work.

--- Page 317 ---

Asynchronous dialogue can be far more detailed and complex than face-to-face talk, that to groups of learners offers affordances that are not available in face-to-face situations. [...] 

... prompting groups of learners to share knowledge, challenge ideas, justify opinions, evaluate evidence and consider options in a reasoned and equitable way. 

... increasing understanding of the skills and meaning-making tools that support the shared construction of knowledge.


Ferguson, Rebecca (2009). The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue. PhD thesis, The Open University.