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Findings? Probably Not for the Classroom

posted: 12.6.11 by Traci Gardner

[Commonplace book], [mid. 17th c.]I really like the idea of the Findings site. Users post quotations from what they are reading (with personal notes, if desired) and collectively build a giant collection of clippings and annotations.

The site immediately felt readerly and familiar to me. It reminded me of my own handwritten journals, filled with quotations and related comments from my readings. These days, those journals are all in a box and I never add to them.

Between carpal tunnel and my digital habits, I never get around to hand-writing quotations in a journal anymore. When I do happen upon a quotation that strikes a chord with me, I just save it to Evernote. If it’s a short enough quotation, I send it out on my Twitter accounts. Very occasionally, I write a short post about it on my blog.

Findings seems like an online alternative where I can gather quotations, add my response, and save them to review later. That the Findings site stirred these feelings in me isn’t surprising. When I looked for more information, I found that the designer, Steven Berlin Johnson, did extensive research on commonplace books for his book Where Good Ideas Come From, which I wrote about last year.

In his post Introducing Findings, Johnson explains how commonplace books inspired his Findings project:

The other thing that would be fascinating would be to open up these personal libraries to the external world. That would be a lovely combination of old-fashioned book-based wisdom, advanced semantic search technology, and the personality-driven filters that we’ve come to enjoy in the blogosphere.

Findings is not just an online commonplace book however. There is a social aspect to the site, with friends and followers able to read the quotations and ideas of one another. Findings is, I think, Johnson’s attempt to build a sort of online salon, like those he describes in his video Where Good Ideas Come From.

This social layer increased my interest in Findings. I could just Tweet or blog about a quotation, but Findings streamlines and simplifies that work. Further, Findings feels to me like it is trying to build a fertile space for developing ideas, as Johnson discusses in his video.

I could see potential for a tool like Findings in the classroom too. Students could choose highlights from readings, add their own annotations, and post them online for others in the class to read. If they were working on group projects, they could share their research finds easily using Findings. As they read texts for class (whether a piece of literature or an essay), they could highlight quotations and respond on Findings.

As I investigated the possibilities of the site with this classroom use in mind, however, I was disappointed. The site allows you to “find” your quotations on the Web or on a Kindle. There is a smooth bookmarklet system that allows you to highlight and add notes easily—but only if the original text is on the Web or on a Kindle. I can find no other way to add a quotation. The site’s FAQ explains:

Currently, only the Amazon Kindle is supported. This is because no other ebook platform provides access to your highlights and annotations from outside the device. We look forward to supporting other platforms as this data becomes available across more platforms and devices.

So much for those of us who read our ebooks on a Nook or iPad.

I might overlook that shortcoming, but that leaves no other way to add a quotation unless it exists on a Web page. I cannot even type out a quotation I want to add. Okay, I guess I could type a quotation, publish it on a page on my Web site, and then add it to Findings, but, um, really? If I’m going to go to all that trouble, I might just as well write a blog post in the first place.

I also found that it was difficult to collect specific, related annotations. There is no systematic tagging mechanism. Students could add their quotations easily, but it would be hard to find all the clippings that relate to their project. You can find all those that relate to a single text (e.g., a book or Web page), but not, for instance, all the clippings about a group research project.

The wide social aspect of the site makes it difficult to see the quotations written only by their friends as well. If you look at the annotations for a text, you’re going to see all the annotations, not just yours and not just those of yours and your friends.

I’m also a bit unsure about all the affiliate links to the texts on Amazon. Is this site really a giant affiliate income project for someone? I’m not positive I want to promote that kind of project as the expected tool for classroom sharing.

So what’s the bottom line? If you want to see the buzz about a current text, Findings could work, but as a classroom tool for sharing ideas, it is too limited. Don’t get me wrong. I do like the Findings site. I like Johnson’s ideas, so I wanted to use this site when I realized he was connected with it. I love its look and feel. Once I looked at the site more closely, however, I realized Findings probably isn’t for the classroom, at least not right now.

That means that I’m still looking for the killer group-sharing app for the classroom. I like Evernote for personal notes, and I can share notebooks and post from Evernote to Twitter or Facebook. Still, Evernote doesn’t feel like a public, shared notebook in the way that Findings does.

I could ask students to share quotations on Facebook, but I don’t like taking over that personal space with their work for class. They could post to Twitter and use hashtags to share with groups, but the 140-character maximum severely limits students’ ability to share quotations from what they read. They can only share significant passages if they are short and need no context.

More and more, I think that this may be a gap in the world of online apps that is still waiting to be filled. I don’t have time to build the killer group quotation-sharing app this afternoon though. Does any teacher have that kind of time? Probably not. So I’m still hoping to find a solution instead of breaking down and building one.

Do you have a great way to share quotations from e-books, print, and Web sites? I’m eager to find the right tool, so please share in the comments!

[Photo: [Commonplace book], [mid. 17th c.] by Beinecke Flickr Laboratory, on Flickr]

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Categories: Teaching with Technology
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