Symtext: Teaching and the WWW

This is an example of a Symtext course window, as shown at

This is an example of a Symtext course window, as shown at

In her post, “Is the WWW useful without a negotiation between databases?”, cstelman reflects on the ways in which the searchability of the internet is intrinsically linked to its usefulness. She posits Google as a sort of database of the internet, through which we can search and locate what we need.  Furthermore, she highlights how websites such as wikisource, with their annotated, hyperlinked editions, create their own form of database to create an edition of a text that is both internal and external. These ideas, along with her nostalgic, parenthetical remark recalling Alta  Vista, has sparked some thoughts about the past of the WWW, and its future.

My generation is the first generation to have the internet at our fingertips throughout our entire post-secondary education (although in my residence room at Brock University in 2008 there was no wifi – which shows just how quickly things change). I cannot imagine attending university without the internet, yet it often seems like professors are nostalgic for the days when student’s did not have technology so readily available.  The constant pedagogical debates about technology in the classroom, coupled with harshly worded undergraduate policies on “appropriate” use of technology in the classroom, shows that there needs to be a conversation about the role of the digital in the humanities classroom. Having been both an educator and a student, I realize that professors and instructors are up against a host of distractions that come with the technology their faculty suggest they use. Instead of constantly blaming the students for being distracted (on Facebook, Instagram, etc..), I think technology in the classroom simply places the onus back on instructors. Student engagement is a large part of teaching, and the more engaged students are, the more likely they are to remain undistractable. Furthermore, if a student can get away with being on Facebook through every lecture of the course and still pass, perhaps instructors need to increase the level of difficulty. If, across the board of academe, students realized they could not pass their courses while surfing the WWW, I imagine they would taper their use of the internet in class.

Furthermore, using technology in the classroom is not simply posting readings online. Shifting the medium from paper to screen, does not mean you are teaching with technology. Symtext is a company founded to “make it easy for universities, colleges, and businesses to offer learners the ideal of mix of instructional materials”. Their company essentially creates a blended media, digital course pack of not only textual articles and chapters, but also multi-media (i.e. video, podcasts, prezi’s, etc…). They also take this digital space further, by creating a section for “self-authored and student-generated content”. This opportunity shows that symtext has realized the fluidity of the digital coursepack, as student work can be added anytime – the coursepack can be consistently changed to suit course needs. In addition, this section puts some responsibility on the students to use and embrace the aspects that the digital medium offers, which physical textbooks cannot. For example, students are able to annotate readings in a way that either allows others in the class to view their notes, or not. This would be extremely helpful when doing a course reading for a presentation, as all students could read the presenters notes along with the article to direct their attention to the points the discussion would be covering. This seems to me, like it would lead to lucrative and generative classroom discussion.

Do you think Symtext would work in practice? Should we focusing more attention on finding the positive effects of technology in the post-secondary classroom?

For more on this topic, see Symtext’s  “The New Learning: Digital Technologies and Post-Secondary Education


This entry was posted in Week 4: Text, Wikisource, Wikimedia, WWW and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Symtext: Teaching and the WWW

  1. olivia.harris says:

    Having never heard of Symtext before, I found this post very intriguing. It is true that some educators assume basic use of technology in their course is satisfactory in the rise of the digital age, but we cannot forget that today’s generation has grown up with digital classrooms as well. Take schools with SMART Boards as an example, or even schools that had enough funding to provide students with laptops – technology is something that is not only used in the classroom, but is sometimes integral to the learning experience.
    The prevalence of technological aids in a classroom setting (and the advancements in the types available) is what makes Symtext so intriguing to me. This company recognizes that the onus is on the educators to engage students through whatever forms are most relevant. On the page link above, they rightly suggest that “one size does not fit all”, pointing to a tendency in education to follow a pre-approved strain of teaching. But learning strategies must increasingly pay attention to the different formats available for spreading knowledge and veer outside the traditional confines of academia if scholars and educators want to remain relevant in the digital age.

  2. julie.morrissy says:

    I read this article recently on a website called “Teachthought”. It suggests ways to incorporate technology in pedagogy, and it is an interesting read in light of this discussion.

  3. cleda.choi says:

    I completely agree with Sidney on this one! I, like Olivia had never heard of Symtext before, but it seems like the direction we need to be moving towards in post-secondary education. As Sidney mentions, not only would the fluid textbook/course pack allow professors to change readings as necessary but also allow for greater student engagement with the course materials. I think it is crucial for universities to increase student engagement in any way possible, especially in light of increasing class sizes. Having sat in a classroom among 1,000+ fellow students in my first year of undergrad, I can tell you that it is very easy to feel disengaged. Cost is another issue that should be addressed. Is Symtext more affordable than print textbooks?

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  5. sydney.tyber says:

    Cost is an interesting facet of the discussion to address, specifically when discussing academic reading in the humanities. Often, Professors attempt to keep course costs down (in my experience, anyway) and offer links to readings, which does not count as “distribution” by copyright law, meaning that the rights to the text do not need to paid for and therefore students can access course readings for free. While this is a welcome shift at the beginning of the term, often keeping the cost of books for a semester very student-friendly, it comes with a host of issues throughout the semester.

    First, there are Professors who think they are doing students a favour by offering readings this way, while simultaneously giving themselves a pat on the back for integrating technology in the classroom. However, they then request that students print out all the readings as they do not want laptops in class. These Professors often assign larger amounts of reading (I’m assuming this is because of the access being free), and leave students to print upwards of 500 pages over the course of the semester. At $0.07 per page for printing at the university, the cost rounds out to approximately $40.00, plus the time it takes to sit and download each article or reading from various databases using a poorly optimized institutional library search engine (or so I hear…!). Four hours and $40.00 later, I certainly would have rather paid $60.00 for a course pack.

    Second, I find that coursepacks often (but certainly NOT ALWAYS) reflect the preparation level of the Professor before the course begins – they must create a syllabus and prepare the readings significantly before the course starts. Although this doesn’t work with some courses, such as our digital publishing course which is highly student-driven, more traditional courses would certainly benefit from the professor preparedness required by the creation of the coursepack.

    Finally, we need to investigate why university’s are using such poor platforms for the integration of technology in the classroom that they purportedly strive for. Take Blackboard software for example, which is both the main educational software used in North American post-secondary institutions, and also the target of much abuse online. Profit is my natural response, and seems to corroborated by the Chronicle of Higher Education. So then we have to ask: are institutional profit and digital education in anyway reconcilable?

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