Where Are My Readers?

global handsTo answer my question of where my readers are I must break down my answer.

I can look at site analytics for this and other blogs I write on and find where they are geographically. Serendipity35 now has more than 104 million reads, so the countries listed in the stats are quite diverse. But still, most readers are from the U.S. and other English-speaking countries (primarily Canada, England, and Australia) but there are a good number from beyond.

hits by hours
Hits By Hours

Last month (July 2019), this site had 332,051 "hits." That averages to 10,711 hits per day, and they come at all times of the day (see image at right) which tells me that visitors are coming from all parts of the globe. Someone is probably reading this right now, just like you.

I will sometimes take posts from my other blogs  and cross-post them as "stories" at medium.com/@ronkowitz  and on linkedin.com/in/kennethronkowitz as "posts" and sometimes as "articles."

I started doing this to see if I would get more views on my other blogs or if the articles appeared on bigger sites (like LinkedIn or Medium). What I have found is that my biggest audience is here and I would like to think that some readers have been following the blog for several years.

Re-posting on other platforms gives me additional information about readers. For example, analytics can tell me what search term they used (and which search engine they used) to find that article. If my post here about engagement in online courses received half of its traffic from searches for "social presence" and "gamification," I probably should consider posts about those topics or writing about the nexus of those three topics.

This kind of information helps me get a better sense of another "where" which is where my readers are in their interests. That "where" crosses borders. 


The Rules of Engagement

online courseI was reading an article with suggestions on how to get more social media engagement on the same day that I was doing a Quality Matters (QM) review of an online course. The QM rubrics ask a reviewer to consider student engagement. Social media marketing and higher education may seem very different, but the engagement objective is certainly shared.

I decided to walk through the article's suggestions with an eye to online courses to see how much crossover I would find. 

The article says there are three rules of engagement for social media: Be Consistent. Ask Specific Questions. Include an Element of Fun.  I'd have to say I would like to see all three true in online courses. 

Having come from the K-12 world before higher ed, I learned quickly that consistency in my teaching was critical. That was true about lesson presentation, grading, discipline and all the rules that are on the syllabus and that come up throughout the year. Consistency builds a kind of trust in student expectations. It helps avoid situations where you might be accused of treating some students better or worse than others. My middle school classroom had a pretty much daily routine that became so natural that when I did depart from it my students immediately noticed it. That can sound a little boring and occasional "inconsistencies" and spontaneous teachable moments are certainly also needed.

As a reviewer of online courses, I try to put myself in the place of a new student in the course and I often find that instructions for assignments and even discussion questions are just not very clear. Ask Specific Questions is very important. Teachers know that a question in a classroom such as "Are there any questions?" or "Does everyone understand that?" are terrible ways to elicit responses and a terrible way to check on learning. 

Including an "Element of Fun" sounds great and yet I know that if I suggest that to many professors I will get a doctoral stare from them. Sadly, I have learned that there are too many teachers who think that real learning should NOT be fun. In fact, they seem to associate suffering with learning, as in the equally stupid mantra of "No pain, no gain." The best learning experiences are enjoyable ones. That's why gamification became a hot topic in education. It's not that everything in a course should be like playing a video game, but what makes games on and offline engaging should certainly be considered.

Create a Club-Like Experience. "Club" isn't the right word in education, but online you will often hear that you need to build an online "community." Social media sites are very good at this. They gain followers who check sites every day, post, like, and comment. Isn't that what you want in your online class community? 

I always tell the faculty that they need to personalize their courses and that they need to have a social presence there. Video is a great way to do this with things like a syllabus and course walkthrough video using screen capture and your voice. You should also let students see you. The experience shouldn't be like hearing a voice on the radio that you can't attach to any actual human. A short (less than 5 minutes) welcome video for the course is easy to record using anything from your phone to whatever your school provides. It can be shot in your office or from your couch. But what if it is a video of you at the park with your dog, or you in your lab on campus? Either is more interesting and would also present another side of you.

Beyond the rules, there are also many tips and suggestions to increase engagement. One suggestion is to encourage conversations with audience triggers. The "trigger" term might trigger things associations like pain points. These sparks(?) for conversation have nothing to do with the topic of your content or your primary value but use the personal likes/dislikes of your audience. Of course, you first need to know those likes/dislikes. Then, you can use hobbies and other interests, such as movies, pets or sports, as a pathway to content. (This might be your entry into "fun.")

Using visuals is hardly new in presenting in face-to-face situations but it is still lacking in many online courses that are very text-based.  (BTW, putting text on PowerPoint slides is NOT visual - even when you insert some gratuitous clip art.)

There are plenty of articles on increasing engagement online ( a few below) but I am suggesting that you also look to how engagement is encouraged online by advertisers, game makers and the stars of social media.







The Books We Teach


In 2015, Columbia University’s Open Syllabus Project wanted to learn what books are being taught. Using data from over one million syllabi from university websites worldwide, they came up with a list of books that have been most frequently taught over the past decade. Since the, they have added another 5 million syllabi.

Would you be surprised that the top titles on the list did not change significantly? I am not surprised. Actually, I would not be surprised to discover that our reading lists haven't changed in the past 50 or, in some cases, maybe even 100 years.

This is not a list of just American colleges. "Classics" such as The Republic and the Communist Manifesto. There are not many titles on the list that I couldn't have found on my reading list as an undergrad almost 50 years ago.  

open syllabus

You can see interactive visualizations of the data at https://galaxy.opensyllabus.org/

The “traditional Western canon" dominates the top 100. Plato’s Republic is at #2 and The Communist Manifesto is at #3, and #5 is Frankenstein. Then, there comes Aristotle’s Ethics, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sophocles’ Oedipus, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” These titles have remained pretty stables over the years.

Who holds the top position? It is the slender writing guide Elements of Style.  

The top 50 is heavily male-dominated. However, some novelists make the list, including Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Anne Moody, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Alice Walker.

The most-taught books tend to fall into either philosophy, literature, textbook, or guidebook. The entire list includes 165,000 texts, so there is variety. And nothing every book is "classic" since there are newer titles in areas like gender studies, media studies, digital culture, and environmental studies.

This is different from the list of the most influential academic books compiled a few years ago, although there are some shared titles. The Prince and The Republic are on this list too. It makes sense that books considered to be "influential" would make the syllabus list. But this list was made by academic booksellers, librarians, and publishers. On this list, the top spot went to Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Here are some from that list of 20. 

  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
  • The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Should we interpret these results as meaning that faculty are stuck teaching the same things over and over? If so, why? Because they are "classics"? Because the faculty are a bit lazy about preparing new material? Because it is what is expected by their department or academia?  That data doesn't answer these questions. 

Wikipedia, Ants and Stigmergy

herring swarm

Swarming herring

I like to discover new words, new fields of study - new things in general. My new one for today is STIGMERGY. According to Wikipedia (an apt source or the definition, as I will explain) is stigmergy is a "mechanism of indirect coordination, through the environment, between agents or actions.” That is not a very clear definition.

The concept of stigmergy has been used to analyze self-organizing activities. Those activities cover a wide area: social insects, social media, robotics, web communities, and the wider human society.

One principle of stigmergy is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. This can explain the way an ant colony operates. It can also explain how Wikipedia articles are created and changed.

Social insects, like ants and bees, have long been a model of collaboration. Global knowledge sharing through asynchronous collaboration is a newer example. I believe I may have heard this word a or concept more than a decade ago when "Web 2.0" was a new and much-talked-about idea. Now, I hardly ever hear Web 2.0 mentioned - and that's not because we got past it and into Web 3.0.

The word is not all that new. It was coined in 1959 by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in reference to termite behavior, from the Ancient Greek stigma, "mark”, “sign" + ergon "work”, “action."

You might hear the word used in a conversation about swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence (SI) is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial and it is employed in work on artificial intelligence and applications such as cellular robotic systems. It has been studied in the natural world in ant colonies, bird flocking, hawks hunting, animal herding, bacterial growth, fish schooling and the somewhat scary world of microbial intelligence.

The World-Wide Web is the first stigmergic communication medium for humans. The earlier telephone and even email don't count as stigmergic communication since they are only readable by the people on either end. Stigmergic communication means the messages are readable by everyone. And radio and TV don't fit the definition because they are read-only mediums for most people (until the Web emerges and the read/write of Web 2.0 takes hold). 

Wikipedia with its millions of contributors is an example of stigmergy. Its editors are a good example of how these traces of articles and edits left in the wiki environment stimulate the performance of a next action, by the same person or a different person(s).

I discovered (or possibly rediscovered) stigmergy from an episode of the playswellwithothers.org podcast with guests Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and Clint Penick, an ant researcher and assistant research professor in the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University.


"Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: Definition and components"