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Rooms Full of Scribes

I had an enjoyable day attending the MEC 2011 Conference at Arizona State University (an ed tech conference that is in its 31st year). Part of the thrill was returning to the campus I spent 1987-1991 as a graduate student. Much has changed, but many things are the same. I was glad to track down one of my old grad school room-mates who is now a prof in the department we studied (Yo Dr. Biff! Bring your fishing rod up to the Strawberry).

The conference opened with a great keynote by Karen Cator, the Director of the Office of Technology at the US Department of Education. One can only imagine the scale of responsibility at that level, so it is even more impressive that she seems so genuine / real in person, and you can see her teacher experience in the way she talks.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

I had an odd half thought looking out at the audience during one moment of the keynote. I was noting how many people were busy taking notes- in that photo above are people note-taking on an iPad, a laptop, and good old fashioned paper. I found myself wondering about the effectiveness of pretty much half? three quarters? of the audience individually taking notes, essentially more or less the same content. Those notes then go back to various silos, files, buried folders on computers. It seems on on level a huge missed opportunity in collaboration, and super redundant of people’s energy.

It’s not that I expect everyone to be in some magical shared collaborative space, but I’d think we would have more of it. The image of scribes dutifully recording all the ideas of the orator, feels…. old.

What is the value of rooms full of scribes in a so called digital age?

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. Have you considered the possibility that these individuals were actually multi-tasking (emailing, commenting in blog posts, playing Angry Birds) & not necessarily scribing the words of the speaker? Just a thought in these wee hours of the morning.

    1. @Nancy- The ones in my immediate vicinity were definitely note taking on the talk- using things like the iPad Notes app and document editors on the laptops

      @Nate- I fully believe in the mnemonic effect, and agree it is valuable. Let me be clear that I see nothing wrong with note taking- it is that we are missing a valuable opportunity for power of using the minds of the group together when people take notes alone- they are all pretty much writing down the same things. As for your second question, good one. I repeatedly say that the way we use time at conference events are the inverse of what would be more useful- the bulk of time is for content that could be delivered asynchronously, and we only squeeze interaction in at the end “if there is time”

  2. I suspect most of them are doing it for mnemonic rather than archival reasons – hoping that by recording, they’ll process a bit deeper and, theoretically, retain more.

    Maybe they’re better at note taking than I am because, while that works for me to a degree, I find that the presentations that stick with me are the ones that engage me so deeply that I forget to take notes.

    I’d back your question up one level further … what’s the value of that in-room presentation?

    1. While we live in a world of limitless information, we still have limited attention. Part of the value of the in-room presentation is forcing participants to carve out time in their day to focus on the ideas & media being shared. While that could be done online, there is value to the forced immediacy of a F2F presentation. The opportunity to have the “stage of attention” of a group of people is a real honor, and carries with it important responsibilities to discuss ideas which matter… And are likely to provoke.

      What’s your take on the value of in-room presentations?

      1. @Wesley I see where you are going. By agreeing to be at an in room session, you have said, I will devote some energy to this experience, for both presenter and presentee.

        The value of the experience ranges a spectrum from great to awful, like many things. What I think is that we have not changed enough of what we do in that space/time to use it better. I see tons of value in being together; I do not see often that we use that well (reading email during something I could watch on a video).

        We need a lot more in terms of active conferences.

  3. I have recurring nightmares of just such a scene – I “spent” several years in undergraduate classes that were essentually exercises in analog photocopy scribing. Next overhead. writewritewritedammitslowdownwritewrite…

    I think everyone goes through that phase, though (is it just a phase)? I remember being at a conference (was it Merlot? back in the What’s the Fuss about RSS days?) where we were dutifully scribing on laptops.

    I’d like to think that people are doing it to make individual sense of what’s being discussed/presented – notes that link that to their own context, rather than word-for-word transcription of text.

    It comes down to the tension between content distribution and sensemaking. If it’s just content distribution, post a PDF and be done with it. No need for a presentation, even. If it’s sensemaking, everyone’s notes (and interpretations, etc…) are going to be different, so a shared communal notespace isn’t going to be very useful for them.

  4. If I understand your query, the question is more about how we can augment individual note taking so that it is still useful on an individual basis to the person taking them, but that they become both more widely available, and that the very act of taking them becomes augmented by the efforts of others also taking them. Right?

    We seem to have examples that tend towards aggregation of individual efforts (e.g. tagged tweets) or examples of “group” efforts (e.g. etherpad, wiki, what was that early Mac networked writing app, ecto?) But fewer in which individuals still act on “their own” but also with feedback from others doing the same thing. Maybe I’m wrong – what are examples you can think of?

    1. Thanks Scott. I wish I wrote my blog post with those words.

      Yes. It seemed to me in that room, that all the individual effort was super redundant, and that done in a networked space, people could correct each other, or add more detail (some people adding links, others commentary, etc).

      You bring a good point, I do not want to lose the positive gain for an individual’s notes.

      Examples beyond twitter? Google Wave is kind of dead. The group note taking can be done in Google Docs or many other collaborative editor. Maybe something out there with a graphic interface too.

      A single doc might get messy. Just a concerted effort to tweet notes with a hash tag and having someone take the action to archive would be a step.

  5. I am totally thinking out loud here – it would be interesting to have an app that was half “your” writing space and half the aggregated product of others taking notes that you could simply grab and insert into “your” notes and then build off of. I can think of a bunch of ways to hack this with existing tech and just introduce a particular practice, so it may be that that’s enough, but it seems to me there’s a worthwhile idea here. I want to go back now and look at Murray Goldberg’s Silicon Chalk to see what, if anything, it did in this regard, as it was fairly revolutionary in terms of using the network to augment the physical lecture.

    Anyways, just one more cool thing to think about and tinker with. As always, love your post for how it seeds the conversations and demonstrates your own process and practice. Cheers, Scott

    1. @Scott – I love the idea of a split screen, one for the collective sharing of information on the session and the other for your own personal commentary (and let’s face it, my note taking & what phrases are ‘triggers’ for me might most probably be different than what it would be for you).

      The ‘split-personality’ is available now. Simply have half your laptop screen open to a running feed featuring the sessions hashtag and the other half open to your note-taking document. I also believe that the iPad has one of those split apps (one half being a browser, the other a note-taking platform), unfortunately, for the life of me my mind is drawing a blank on its name and my iPad is home.

      1. My braincells returned! The iPad app is called PaperHelper. It splits the screen into 1/2 browser & 1/2 notetaker.

  6. You sent a shudder down my spine. ‘Yes, he’s right’, I thought. The ‘sage on the stage’ is always a place for note-taking it seems, digital or otherwise. When does it change? Hell, have you ever seen the audience engrossed in taking notes on their iPad at TED? If it’s rivetting, you’ll listen, you’ll wonder, you’ll comment to the person next to you. You’ll take notes if it is a duty to record for another, report, whatever. Maybe this is why I wriggle around when sitting in conference sessions unless they ARE rivetting!

  7. This post made me literally “LOL”. That is a great question – what are they taking notes of and why? When you commented “it seemed to me in that room, that all the individual effort was super redundant”, I immediately thought – is this what is happening in my high school history classroom everyday? Should I have my students taking notes in a networked space? A GoogleDocs shared space where they could help each other with main ideas, supporting facts, etc? What would you suggest to bring my American History classroom into our new tech-savvy world?

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