It was the final stretch before the new semester, the week when I shuffle course materials into digital and paper readers. It was also the week in which I launch my course blogs. That day, a tweet from Steven Levy caught my eye.
— Steven Levy (@StevenLevy) August 4, 2014
Epic indeed. David Carr is a media reporter at the New York Times and now was also teaching at Boston University, using Medium for his syllabus. Medium describes itself as a “networked publishing” company. Part blog platform, part content and publication hub, it combines simplified writing tools with good typography and design, and an easy ability to add images and video. The images and videos that unfurled as I scrolled through David Carr’s text gave the feeling he was leading a journey, not just teaching a class — and for as clichéd as that may sound, it’s true. He told the syllabus as a story. And how many syllabi do that?
I was excited. I immediately started working on my own on Medium. The next day, I launched Information Landscapes and Data Cultures for my advanced seminar.
Information Landscapes and Data Cultures examined the impact of architectures of information and data on our everyday, physical world. The class drew from readings in media theory, architecture, history of technology, art and design. The approach is different than what many journalism students have taken previously, and asks them to read and do some unexpected things. They made glitch art. They created their own design fictions. And each week, they responded to a prompt — a Mission, as I called it — a creative essay interpreting the theme of the week.
A new model for student writing
Using Medium opened up a different model for student writing. Using a platform that freely integrates text, images and video encourages a different kind of writing than students usually do on blogs or in short essays and reading responses. It allowed students to reach out into their digital worlds and pull in multifaceted material to help them tell their stories. Let’s face it: no student loves doing a weekly reading response, and equally, we don’t love grading them. While I’ve been delighted with some courses and the student blogs (such as the work of my first-time bloggers in Media Fluency for the Digital Age), blogging can feel perfunctory. The students don’t love their blogging assignments, giving them less attention than they do their papers or exams — and it’s hard to blame them. For many class projects, there’s no real audience beyond the class, and the blog dies when the class ends. Medium has an audience beyond just our classroom.
Using Medium changed the nature of what students wrote from assignments into storytelling. We started a collection on Medium (of which the syllabus is a part), and the 16 students published their 10 Missions over the course of a semester. The net result: somewhere around 160 different perspectives on topics such as how we determine if a machine or object is intelligent, or what an interface is, given that an interface can be a door or a car key, not just something on a computer. Each student produced at least a few excellent, creative responses, making for more than 30 good reads on the topics of the course. Take, for example, PhD computer science student Alper Sarakaya’s excellent piece on artificial intelligence and sentience, “The Measure of a Man,” which spurred a hearty discussion on how we know when machines are intelligent. Or Anna Lynn’s final paper that she refashioned for Medium’s audience that looked at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and its atomic age anxieties. Or Simon Smith’s reading of New York’s landscape… no wait, it’s the digital landscape of Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto. I produced a collection of favorites, midway through the semester.
For the discussions led by the students on Wednesdays, the discussion leaders each week published a Medium article bringing their own interpretation to the topic, inserting other examples into the discussion, and then running the class off of the Medium page. They bring an especially creative interpretive lens to the endeavor: we have watched old industrial films, cartoons, glitch art demos, music videos, TED Talks, and part of a Star Trek episode.
Granular commenting that makes sense for teaching
Medium also allows for commenting at the word, line or paragraph level, not just the level of the post. For teaching purposes, this allows me to give feedback at a more specific level, much more like how I would give feedback when grading a paper. It’s up to them whether to make comments public (or to allow them at all: one student opted out). While I didn’t require it for the class, in the future, I will ask students to comment on each other’s stories.
Medium extends the work of the classroom into a broader network: the “networked publishing” model I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. It is connected to a user’s Twitter or Facebook account, and there is not a password-protected, private mode that could be restricted to a classroom or a university. This was an attractive prospect for our course but also a calculated risk. But what if a student wanted to keep his or her work plausibly obscure, as most college assignments are? How might a student opt out? Might Medium be able to capitalize on the educational work we’re doing in some manner? What is Medium’s larger game? Founded by Ev Williams and Biz Stone, the founders of Twitter and Blogger, surely there is something big at stake. This piece by Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic gives a critical overview of Medium’s emerging strategy. And while Medium extends the reach beyond that of a traditional blog, that reach is not appropriate for all classrooms. But in the case of this advanced undergraduate and graduate seminar that investigated bridges between the digital and physical worlds, and that took place in a school of journalism, Medium fit the bill in a way that other blogging platforms did not.
Just as I am circumspect about the right blogging tool for the job, I make blogging platforms a subject of inquiry in my classes. In this case, we beamed in Gabe Kleinman, Head of Product Marketing at Medium (in the past, I’ve Skyped with Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic, which makes WordPress). Bringing in these individuals gives the students insight into what it takes to design a platform and the decisions that go into the features that they use, and engenders a closer connection to the platform they’re using — it isn’t just a neutral container, it’s something that people and companies make.
The right tool for the right kind of class
While Medium was great for Information Landscapes & Data Cultures, it isn’t the right platform for every kind of class. I still will continue to use WordPress for the 400-student Intro to Mass Communication class I teach that has 11 teaching assistants because it is effective for managing content and sharing information. I will also have my students in Media Fluency for the Digital Age use WordPress this semester, so they have a more traditional group blogging experience. In the Data Visualization course I taught in a previous semester, I required the students to create Tumblr blogs because of the platform’s ease in blogging and reblogging images, which I asked students to do as they sought examples of data visualizations and documented their own work.
Other universities including Stanford, NYU, MIT, Cornell, Boston University, and even local community colleges are using Medium, and Medium is pleased. Gabe Kleinman (who spent two years co-leading design powerhouse IDEO’s education practice), is keenly interested in what Medium can provide for academic audiences. He writes, “Medium is for thought leaders,” it is a “(public) learning platform” and it “enables you to engage with (new + existing) audiences in new ways.” (Disclosure: he linked to the Information Landscapes syllabus and collection in his story).
The best thing is that Medium made this more than a syllabus, more than a class blog. It made it a narrative. It made a breathing archive of what we grappled with and how we got our heads around these issues. Students wrote more honestly than they have on other class blogs, and engaged more freely and deeply with the subjects. It got us away from the slog of the blog, energizing us all.
Molly Wright Steenson is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication. She is an architectural historian and historian of technology writing a book about architecture and operating systems.