Spritz, Modes of Reading, and Why Open Matters

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” – Woody Allen

I’ve been using speed reading software for several years now (in combination with more traditional methods) to skim non-fiction books over the weekend.

These aren’t like the older programs, which aim to train you to read normal books faster. Instead, they assume you’ll be reading/skimming through your computer or phone. The way they work is they translate text into a stream of words that flash up on the screen at high rates of speed one word (or one phrase) at a time. They are useful for a number of reasons (including how well the method works on a small smartphone), but what I’ve found most useful is (Woody Allen jokes aside) they really do allow you, after some practice and when used as a supplement to other methods, to read quite a bit more material.


Dense material or fiction isn’t a great fit, and the method works best when you have a more traditional presentation to complement it, but if you are looking to read/skim something along the lines of the history of vocoders, or scan a popular treatment of the causes of the housing crash, they work well, and allow you (with some effort) to increase your natural reading speed. They also provide an interesting experience in that reading becomes an intensely focused experience punctuated by pauses for reflection and integration — which sounds like what reading should be but often isn’t (in fact, the biggest drawback is probably that the process is exhausting). However, if you want to just read “normally” (which most of the time you probably do) they do provide a great way to scan the text you are going to read at 850 wpm, develop some questions, and then go back for the slower, traditional read.

If you want to see how this works, check out the newest entry into the market: Spritz. Or plug some text into Spreedr. If you are still interested, check your phone’s app store for the dozens of apps you can find in this area (I’m partial to AutoReader 3D, but usually use it in its non-3D form).

Caveat: I’m not arguing you’d want to use this method all the time. But once you try this, you can’t help but wonder if this might be useful to students. Most students wouln’t use it to read, but it could be an great tool for students looking to quickly review a work, or students looking to pre-read a work before a deeper treatment. As the wearable computer market expands — primarily through wrist computers but also through other devices — it’s also likely that this is a fomat that will allow reading on these smaller screens. Whatever it’s likely niche, the existence of such things highlights that it’s an exciting time where we have a chance to rethink the nature of reading itself.

Unless, of course, you have an ordinary closed textbook. Because the one thing you’ll require if you want to try this is access to non-DRM’d text.  Just as you will if you want to use text-to-speech software. Just as you will if you’d like to use a third-party annotation tools, or use your phone’s “Share to” function to tweet out segments. And what’s the chance of getting your hands on non-DRM’d text from Harcourt-Brace?

Whether you can use this particular type of app isn’t likely to make or break you in 2014. But it shows how a fundamental problem with closed texts is that they cannot keep up with the advances we’ll be seeing in the reading, annotating, sharing, and remixing of texts over the next few years. And if they can’t keep up in 2014, how are they ever going to keep up in 2020?

The fundamental trade-off we’ve been sold — that we accept closed texts in exchange for quality text and interface — is increasingly becoming a fiction. It’s only a matter of time before people catch on.

Current Design of the Federated Classroom Wiki as of Today

I’m realizing some of the design description of the Federated Classroom Wiki on Hapgood is out of date. So here is how it is currently working (or soon to work based on some scheduled coding). This is the process you would use as a user.


  1. Install! Your institution installs Dokuwiki on a server, on a PaaS, or other vehicle. Wherever you want with whoever you want. (You can do any step here as an individual as well, just dealing with institutional case here).
  2. Extend! Your institution installs the two custom plugins I’ve written (federation and clone) and the freely available gitbacked plugin
  3. Federate! You go to the federation GitHub site (e.g. https://github.com/timmmmyboy/federated-wiki, though you can make others). You fork it, add your self-named folder to it (ex. UofUT, UVU, NIU, UMW, whatever), then issue a pull request to accept that change. You point this new folder to your dokuwiki pages folder (via gitbacked). There’s some finessing here that Tim will show in a screencast soon, but what you’ll end up with after Tim’s magic is done is a system where your changes to your wiki will flow into the subfolder. Then all pages from all federated wikis will flow into a special subfolder/namespace of your wiki called alternate. This will be searchable by people with editing permissions (although you can set permissions up any way you want, really).


  1. Search! Now you are about to write a syllabus, or assign your students to write an article. You think — wouldn’t it be nice to just tweak a syllabus, or give my students an article to *extend*? You go and search the :alternate: namespace for federation content you can use. You find some great articles your students can improve, and a syllabus that is a good starting point.
  2. Clone! You clone the articles and the syllabus to your public wiki/course namespace. The revision record follows the documents so that attribution is taken care of.
  3. Edit! You tweak the documents to your own needs. You write additional documents.
  4. Feed Forward! Here’s the neat part — because you are federated, feed forward isn’t actually a step. All the changes you make feed back into the federation as alternate versions of the documents you cloned. The person whose docs you cloned gets a message in their revisions history that you cloned it, and is automatically pointed to your revisions to see if they are useful. Your other original docs you made also flow back to the federation. The next person who searches will see your alt-versions and new documents, and maybe end up cloning those. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

There are possibly classroom systems which already do similar things, though I’ve never seen them do this well. The fundamental difference here is the structure that makes it possible. This is not a service that everyone has to agree on to be a part of. It’s a federation — you have absolute control over who is in your community and what they can do and where your instance lives and how it’s branded. You are self-governing, an island. But on the back-end the architecture creates a system of sharing by default that gives you the benefits of working with a community without having to make institutional or individual compromises. The contract is simple– all this stuff will flow to you if you let your stuff flow back. Think of it sort of like torrenting — you get your download speed by letting others download from you.

There’s lots of reasons I’ve come to feel that this point is crucial for the expansion of higher ed collaboration, but that’s another post.

Five Uses For the Federated Classroom Wiki

Ok, I’m playing around with the name of this thing Tim and I are building. If you’re not up to speed on the Federated [something or other to do with education] Wiki, you might want to scroll below and catch up. Or just start with the screencast of the proof-of-concept. Keep in mind when looking at these things, a key idea is that this is *not* all living in a single service on on a single server. You “federate” by linking up your instance of Dokuwiki (set up however you like, locked down or opened up, whatever) to the GitHub repository on the backend that syndicates federation content out to federation members. It’s this combination of local institutional control with a deep infrastructure of sharing that makes the Federated Classroom Wiki different from other stuff you may have seen.

If you’re up to speed, here are some uses I’m imagining.

1. Syllabi and Other Course Design Content

This is the simplest case, really. You’re putting together a class on Cultural Anthropology or English Compostion. You search across the federation find class materials you like and clone them. You edit them for your class and your version feeds back into the system as a complement to (not replacement of) the one you cloned.  As with all Fed-classroom-wiki operations, an edit trail is preserved in the revisions history even though you may host your wiki on an entirely different server. The person whose syllabus you cloned will also be able to see that their work has been cloned, and see if they want to integrate your changes.

2. Technical Instructions

Writing technical intstructions for students (here’s how you’ll use Soundcloud etc.) is a huge waste of time. Usually 95% of the instructions are generic; the remaining 5% has to be customized (do you keep your material public or private, how do you submit work to this particularly class, what features am I particularly pushing you to use). At the same time, pointing your students to generic documents and saying “Hey read these, but ignore the parts where they talk about feature x, and read the parts about feature y with issue z in mind,” is not a recipe for success either. Seach the federation for a step-by-step sheet, clone it to your classroom site, add some quick modifications and you’re done.

3. A Safety Zone for Producing Public Content

This was actually my initial concern and still has some of the greatest potential. I work with a couple faculty who believe in the idea of putting student-produced scholarship on a public wiki, and want to feed their student’s stuff out into the world, and even get comments back. But they have two big concerns:

  • Students need a “safe space” to construct the material, particularly if the material is sensitive or controversial (say, a course on human sexuality). Engaging with a public audience too early in the game can kill student experiementation and confidence, and in the case of trolling can destroy the joy of the class. So they don’t want the traditional open wiki.
  • Secondly, they are grading students on their work, so outside editors changing things on students is not good. What they need to see at the end is the student vision of the subject.

The response to these issues has generally been to make a wiki that is closed to public editing or comment. Unfortunately, this robs the wiki of its special powers. By closing it off, no one can build on it, and the wiki becomes just another sad little ghost town of aborted effort. With the federated approach, you set your wiki to be directly controllable by you (only students can edit and comment on your instance) but you syndicate the content out to the rest of the federation to build on, comment on, and carry forward. Students are able to see what others have done with their content, and integrate those changes if they choose, but the classroom wiki always reflects their specific vision.

4. Building Online Civic Architecture

One of the great ideas of the mid-aughts that has yet to achieve take-off velocity is the idea of students building out their local online civic architecture. The projects I’ve seen around this are really cool — student clubs mapping out community resources on google maps, GIS students documenting the wildlife around local waterways, sociology students researching the causes of homelessness in a county and writing up a report for local lawmakers, history students documenting local landmarks. Unfortunately, these efforts are often fragmented and rely on students producing independent sites from scratch. With the federated wiki students would be able to look for exisiting efforts in their state and extend them. For instance, they could start by cloning a voter information site from another community, then researching and modifying that information to fit their own community. Additionally, since cloning is easy, the material the students from different classes produce could be cloned into a central community space when they are finished.

5. Low Maintenance Cross-institutional Collaboration

This is one of my big ones. We are constantly looking for ways for us to collaborate cross-institutionally, and most of these ways are coordination heavy. But what if my Public Health and Water class and your Hydrology class just federate? My class looks at your stuff and pulls in what is applicable to our Public Health and Water site. You do the same with our content. In the end we have two wikis — a hydrology site with special insights into public health, and a public health and water site with a surprisingly good grasp of hydrology. Other interaction might grow out of this — Skype conferencing, cross-course presentations or twitter interaction, etc. But to start you don’t need a raft of meetings, grant funding, or course releases. You just need to find a class in your federation that is doing related work and ask your students to try and integrate their stuff.

Learning Is Not One Thing

Jared Stein has an excellent post up on a point that is near to my heart. People in the humanities who criticize flipped classrooms often don’t realize that their class is already flipped. The reason why they don’t get “flipped classrooms” is it does not solve a learning problem they have. They’ve been able to teach this way since the invention of the written word, more or less, and it’s been a prominent form of teaching in the humanities since the creation of mass market publications. On the other side of the equation, we have a set of people in the sciences who often have highly motivated students who just need a process explanation for a skill, and they don’t understand why humanities professors aren’t jumping up and down with excitement about video lectures. We have people in K-3 working to teach reading to disadvantaged populations telling people looking to make math relevant to ninth graders what they should do. And every week another professor publishes something about their miracle class, never dealing with the fact the last miracle class covered offered an entirely different prescription.

Analogies are dangerous things, but being educated is in some ways like being healthy. And teaching is in some ways like the practice of medicine. Students are in one state of capacity and a series of events happen that push them into another state of capacity. We call the delta on that “learning”, the difference between the two states.  But despite the gerundic look of “learning”, it’s not a thing like “running”. It’s not a chemical process, or even a thing one “does” in any real sense. It’s just the difference between two states, like “healing”.

People miss this. People get to thinking learning is a very specific type of action that we are trying to help students do better, that there is some atomic theory of learning. But ultimately the only thing that truly holds  together “learning to change a tire”, “learning how to think like a geographer”, “learning how to do long division”, “learning the importance of imaginary numbers”, and “learning to love again” is that all concern a change in capacity and behavior. They are unified, certainly, but in the way that recovering from flesh wounds is related to surviving cancer or suppressing panic attacks.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for a unified theory of learning (any more than I would argue that there is no place for a general study of medicine). There are many connections between what we call “learning”, and finding the common ground between them is helpful. But so much of the insanity of the chatter in this space is due to people believing learning is a thing. It’s not. And it doesn’t really make sense to enter the general discussion about education until you understand that.