The Reading Level of Your Readers

ErnestHemingway

As a blogger, I am kind of guessing about who are my readers. I know where they come from geographically and I know how they find me in a search and what articles they read and other analytics. I don't know what their reading level might be and every writing course will tell you that you "need to know your audience."

I make some assumptions that readers of a blog about technology and learning are mostly educators and so I further assume that they have a high school and above reading level. But how do you determine the reading level o what you are writing?

If you write in Microsoft Word, it is simple to use two major readability tests that are built-in: the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

For the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level statistics to come up in the “Spelling & Grammar” review of your content, you will need to enable those statistics. To do this select “File” then “Options” next go to the “Proofing” tab and check the box that says “Show readability statistics.”

Flesch-Kincaid scores are readability tests designed to show how easy or difficult a text is to read. This score is given in two different ways. First is the “Flesch Reading Ease” number which ranges from 0 to 100. With a score of 90-100, your writing could be understood by an average 11-year old and a score of 60-70 could be understood by average 13 to 15-year olds. A score of zero to 30 means your writing could be understood by a university graduate.  A bit counterintuitively, the higher the score the easier the writing is to read and comprehend.

For comparison, Time magazine averages at a score of 52 and the Harvard Law Review falls somewhere in the low 30s.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level applies a reading grade level to your writing. I learned many years ago that most general news articles in The New York Times have a tenth-grade reading level. Romance novels have about a fifth-grade reading level. 

I ran a recent article here through the test and got the results shown below. The Reading Ease score is about 55 and a Grade Level a tenth-grader in the middle of sophomore year. 

readability statsYou might think that score seems to be low for a post I am aiming at educators, but many sources will recommend that ease of reading in order to boost your numbers and even in your emails and communications. I know that some researchers have said that your response rate varies by reading level. The article linked here claims that emails written at a 3rd-grade reading level were optimal with a 36% boost over emails written at a college reading level and a 17% higher response rate than emails written even at a high school reading level.

When Microsoft Outlook and Word finish checking the spelling and grammar, you can choose to display information about the reading level of the document using the Flesch Reading Ease test and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. You can also set your proofreading settings to flag things like jargon, which is often what pushes ease aside and pushes readers to leave.

This may sound like advice to "dumb down" your writing. I don't think it is that. The English major part of me is reminded of Ernest Hemingway's journalistic simplicity. You can still get across deep ideas in simple language. I like the Einstein quote “Everything should be made as simple as possible,
but not simpler.” 

Wikis in a Pandemic

wiki code

The code behind the Wikipedia article on the history of wikis

The first wiki was created in 1995 by Oregon programmer Ward Cunningham who named it after the "Wiki-Wiki" (meaning "quick") shuttle buses at the Honolulu Airport. They were meant to be web sites on which anyone could post material without knowing programming languages or HTML.

The most famous wiki is still Wikipedia which officially began with its first edit in January 2001, two days after the domain was registered by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. This fact comes from, of course, an article on Wikipedia about the history of Wikipedia

Wikipedia didn't get huge numbers of visitors immediately and it certainly didn't gain acceptance in academia for at least a decade. (Some might argue that it still isn't accepted by faculty for student use, especially when it is used in a copy/paste manner - but that's a different topic.)

I've been writing about wikis on and off since this blog started and a search on here shows 100+ mentions of "wiki" with about a third of those being actual posts about wikis. Most of that writing was in the first 15 years of this century, but I have seen some reemergence in wiki use among educators lately.

Back in 2005, I started getting into using wikis. Tim Kellers and I made one in order to teach about the use of wikis - particularly the use of open-source wiki software. It was what some would call a metawiki - a wiki about wikis.

Wikis were part of the Web 2.0 movement. when we started to think about the Internet as a place where we could build and contribute our own content rather than just read and consume.

In 2005, we were mixing wikis in with the somewhat sexier 2.0 tools like podcasting, blogging, and the photo and video sharing sites that were popping up. Then came social media and everything changed again.

That metawiki that Tim and I made 15 years ago no longer exists since neither of us is still at NJIT where it was hosted. It served its purpose which was to demonstrate to others how wikis are built, grow, get damaged and heal. It looked a lot like Wikipedia because we used the same software - Mediawiki - that was used to build Wikipedia. [Note: The wonderful archive.org did crawl our pages and you can see an archived version of our Wiki35 there.]

Brother Tim and I were doing workshops on blogs, podcasts and wikis which were three things we were sure were going to change corporations and education. Blogs and podcasts are still powerful and still growing. Wikis? Not so much.  

People often described wikis as "collaborative web sites" and they were being used for things like project management, knowledge sharing and proposal writing. The benefits of this collaborative approach include reducing daily phone calls, e-mails and meeting time as well as encouraging collaboration. The Internet research firm, the Gartner Group, predicted in 2006 that Wikis would become mainstream collaboration tools in at least 50% of companies by 2009.

Midway between that prediction, I wrote in 2007 that by my calculation technology generally moves into the world of education in dog years because it seems to take about 7 years for widespread acceptance and usage. This is in comparison to the world outside education, especially if the business world.

It's not that you can (or should) use the application of new technologies in the commercial world as a gauge for what we should be doing in education, but schools certainly lag behind industry and home users in adopting and adapting technology.  

By 2015, I was writing more about the disappearance of wikis and the devolution of Web 2.0.  My own use of wikis as tools in my teaching was also winding down.

I had been using Wikispaces with students as a collaborative tool. I assigned students to work in a class wiki and also had students create their own wikis using that software. But Wikispaces started to shut down and was gone by 2018. Now you can only read about it on Wikipedia.

It has been five years since that post and I don't think I have written anything significant in the interim about wikis. Some people are still using wikis and Wikipedia is in the top ten most visited websites on the Web, but I don't see people building wikis for education (and perhaps not in corporations either).

Blogs like WordPress and DIY website services overtook wikis as free or low-cost ways to put content online in pretty packages, though few of those are collaborative in the sense of wiki collaboration.

I no longer work on any wikis other than editing Wikipedia and I don't think Tim does either. But just recently, amidst all the scrambling to get courses online due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic, I saw a few examples of wikis in education that make me think that we haven't completely hit the DELETE key on wikis.

One example is at coursehero.com with a Comparative Anatomy and Physiology course in which Dr. Glené Mynhardt has students create a wiki page on one specific animal phylum. In an article about the course, Explore More in a Survey Course with a Build-a-Wiki Project, Mynhardt explains how she uses Moodle which allows for page creation using easy cut-and-paste and drag-and-drop commands.

One missing wiki element in Moodle is that it does not allow public access which is key to the original intent of wikis. Mynhardt says “Students can view each other’s wikis, but I can’t share them with colleagues or [the public], and the students can’t share them outside the course,” so educators who want to make the work public may want to use other web page–building options. It's not Mediawiki but using these wiki tools that are in a learning management system like Blackboard or that tool in Moodle or in collaborative software such as Sharepoint or simply creating a content page in Canvas and allowing students to edit the page is a way to bring the collaborative wiki experience to students. And in this time of students sheltering at home and working online more than ever, collaboration is an important element of learning.

Reading on Screens Revisited

1935 ebook idea
An electronic book as imagined in 1935

I recently came across an article in Smithsonian magazine that was rather deceptively titled "The iPad of 1935." The illustration above comes from that article and originally appeared in the April 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine. At that time they were thinking that since it is possible to photograph books and also project them on a screen for examination, that perhaps this would be the way we would read. Their illustration is probably closer to watching a PowerPoint presentation than an iPad, but the idea of putting books on a screen is not just an idea of the 21st century.

That article made me do a search on this blog to see what I have written about ebooks. In 2012, I wrote about digital textbooks ("Can Schools Adopt Digital Textbooks By 2017?") I should have revisited that article in 2017 to see what had come to pass. In 2020, I can say that publishers, schools and students have adopted ebooks and digital textbooks, but there are still plenty of books on paper being used by students.

That 1935 contraption uses a roll of miniature film with pages as the "book." It reminds me of the microfilm readers I used as an undergraduate in the library. As the article notes: "microfilm had been patented in 1895 and first practically used in 1925; the New York Times began copying its every edition onto microfilm in 1935."

It took about 70 more years for handheld digital readers that we use to come on the scene and the transition is still taking place.

Though I have an iPad and a Kindle, my home and office are still filled with paper books and magazines. I would say that the bulk of my daily reading is done on a screen but the screen is on my phone and laptop. When I have taught college classes online or on-site, I have offered texts as ebooks when possible as an option. I still find that some students prefer a Gutenberg-style book on paper.

That 2012 post of mine referenced an article about the then Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski issuing a challenge to schools and publishers to get digital textbooks to students by 2017.

In 2012, there was a "Digital Learning Day" where there were discussions on transitioning K-12 schools to digital learning and using technology to transform how teachers teach and students learn inside and outside of the classroom. They issued "The Digital Textbook Playbook" guide which went far beyond textbooks and included information about determining broadband infrastructure for schools and classrooms, leveraging home and community broadband to extend the digital learning environment and understanding necessary device considerations along with some "lessons learned" from school districts that had engaged in successful transitions to digital learning. The 2012 playbook can be downloaded and it's interesting to see what has changed in the 8 years since it was written. Those changes would include a new administration with different objectives from the Obama era.

The playbook defines a "true digital textbook" as "an interactive set of learning content and tools accessed via a laptop, tablet, or other advanced device." Being that this effort was on K-12, the perspectives of key users was students, teachers, and parents.

 

Steven Spielberg, Dinosaurs, Oscars and Degrees, Netflix and Coursera

Oscar StatuettesFilmmaker Steven Spielberg has been having an argument with Netflix. His tenure as Governor of the Academy that oversees the Oscars ends this summer, but his very public feelings about Netflix has become an issue in the motion picture industry.

Netflix is just the biggest name in streaming services and Spielberg isn't happy with this disruptor of his industry. He is all for protecting the traditional film studio pipeline and the Oscars that prioritize theaters over living rooms. He would like to see movies made for streaming services be excluded from the major categories at next year’s Oscars. He thinks that Netflix movies (and really ones from Amazon and other companies) should compete for Emmys, not Oscars.

“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” he told British ITV News in March, 2018. “I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

Roma, the film that was up for Best Picture, was the focus of a lot of this debate, was at the center of his argument this spring. The film lost in that category to Green Book, but it won Best Foreign Film, and Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director, so it certainly had a big impact this year.

graduationNow what does this have to do with education and this blog? I do tend to view a lot of things through an education lens (pun intended). It is how I have lived my adult life. 

I love movies. I got my MA in communications with a concentration of film and video back in the late 1970s when video was already taking the place of film. In my earliest teaching days, I taught students to cut film. It was a literal cut on a piece of film stock. At one time we even cut videotape that came on reels. By the 1980s, we were editing video by copying and pasting it to other videotape and the reels became VHS tapes. Analog became digital and though my students still did some animation frame by frame using Super 8 film cameras, we knew that would end soon.

I would compare Spielberg's argument with the arguments about disruptors that we have in education.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is a good example. Going back to 2012 (the supposed "Year of the MOOC"), there were many similar arguments being heard. MOOCs will destroy traditional universities and degrees. Online learning will become free. The quality of MOOCs is inferior to credit-based online courses from universities.

Universities were movie theaters. Roma was a MOOC. Coursera was Netflix.

In the 7 short years since the MOOC got its big push, they have changed, been adopted by traditional universities and adapted to their own purposes. They didn't destroy traditional colleges or college course or degrees. They did disrupt all of those things. All of those things have changed in some ways, and they will continue to change as the MOOC and its evolved offspring appear.

SpielbergIs Steven Spielberg a dinosaur?

He has been at the technology edge for all of his career. Yes, he prefers to shoot on 35 mm film if he can, but when he needs the video technology, such as in his Ready Player One, he goes that route. 

As an Academy Governor, he is in a place where he feels the responsibility to protect the movie business, which he clearly loves. That includes the traditional distribution vector of movie theaters. Theaters have been threatened since the arrival of television in a big way back in the 1950s. So their dominance for distribution has been threatened for more than 60 years. But theaters still exist, though in reduced numbers.

Streaming services like Netflix are a big competitor, but so are Disney and other traditional studios that want a piece of that streaming money and may care less for their theater share of profit which has been shrinking over the past few decades.

Spielberg is a dinosaur in that he wants the old system to continue. he prefers the status quo. If he was a professor or college administrator, he probably would have opposed MOOCs.

Probably, as with the MOOC, both theaters and streaming films will continue to exist. Each will influence the other, but streaming and MOOCs will not disappear.

It is understandable that Netflix wanted Roma to be considered for an Oscar, so it put it in theaters for a limited release to qualify. there are some people who are willing to pay for a film in a theater on that big screen with an audience, even though it will appear on their television set in their living room if they wait a few weeks. But Netflix makes its money from those streaming subscriptions.

Actually, it is kind of a myth that Netflix "produced" Roma.” Netflix had nothing to do with “making” or even funding “Roma.” That is actually the case for many of the shows and movies labeled as Netflix Originals. They buy films just like the other traditional studios. Participant Media financed Roma. It was shot by Cuarón’s production company. Any of the traditional studios could have acquired Roma and put it in theaters. A black-and-white film in Spanish is not as appealing to many studios, even if the director has a good track record.

If I use Coursera, the world’s largest massive open online course (MOOCs in some ways) with a learner population of nearly 40 million, as my educational Netflix, I would point out that their courses are really courses made by traditional universities. The universities are the film studios. Coursera is their distributor.

If Spielberg fights to keep things "as is" then he is a dinosaur.  There are still education Spielbergs who don't want online courses at all. MOOCs are certainly something they don't want to be considered for credit toward a degree. Credits and degrees are the Oscars of higher education. 

It is still evolution more than it is revolution.