The online book club is a fairly new concept to me, and one that I have been exploring through a variety of channels.
My first exposure to an online book club was early this year, when I came across the book club that is run by Bryan Alexander. Bryan is a futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, and an altogether lovely guy. He has been running his version of an online book club since 2013 according to his Book Club page, but it was only last year when he shared the reading of Soonish, by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith that I became aware of it.
Bryan leads his online book club by setting an approximate schedule for interested readers, and by blogging his way through each title according to this set schedule. Others are encouraged to read along, posting their own thoughts, responses and comments via whatever channel they choose (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Linked In or GoodReads). These contributions are united by a shared hashtag, which Bryan uses to draw together participants (and to identify all posts on any particular title at any time). Unlike most face to face book clubs, it is possible for the author of the book to also join the conversation (if they are social media users) and for people to join in from any part of the world, and at any time. Anyone who is interested in any of the books previously shared by the book club can call up the comments at any time by doing a search for the appropriate tag.
The online book club and connected learning
A book club styled in this way is a great opportunity for connected learning. There are many features that align with the Connected Learning Framework.
To begin, the online book club features the three elements (previously known as contexts) of connected learning. It is interest powered, based upon relationships and offers opportunities for learning. Let’s examine these more closely.
- An online book club is interest powered
This is obvious. You would not join with others to read a book that you had little or no interest in. This is especially so in an informal online book club, where not even a regular face to face meeting with others encourages you to keep reading if the book is just not doing it for you. The strong ties of a small, face to face book club might mean that you feel obliged to read something you are less interested in (after all, they may have read your suggestion). However with the online, informal book club, weaker ties means that it is only when there is real interest that one might choose to contribute their thoughts.
2. An online book club is based upon relationships
This might seem to contradict what was just said above, however I don’t believe so. An online book club is still based upon relationships; just not the same type as you might experience face to face. After all, if there was no exchange and dialogue about the book, you might as well be reading it by yourself. The relationships in an online book club are possibly much more flexible and based upon what is being discussed rather than upon personal like or dislike for the person who is sharing their thoughts (as you probably have never met that person in real life).
Another type of relationship that might develop through an online book club experience is the identification of connections between different interpretations of the book being read. As readers may come from many different backgrounds and from all over the globe, it is possible that there may be many different ways to understand what is being read. Hence each individual’s relationship with the content of the book may form part of the learning as it changes and builds on the insights that others may offer.
The older version of the Connected Learning Framework called this context/element ‘peer supported’. I think that the new term, relationships, offers a broader lens. Peer support is important for young people, which is where the framework was initially empirically based. However as the framework begins to play out in a wider sphere, it becomes clearer that it not just peers, but the support and scaffolding that others in the participatory culture provide that identifies a connected learning experience.
3. An online book club offers opportunities
The book club as structured by Bryan Alexander has a focus on technology and the future. The titles that are shared range across fiction and non-fiction, and are obviously chosen as much for the enjoyment they will provide as for the learning that they offer. The opportunities that an online book club creates is not only in the way that individuals can learn from others who are scattered across the globe, but that also the technology provides a level of accessibility not previously possible in a physical reality. This book club is not limited by time or space. You do need to get a hold of the book, and you do need access to the internet – but you don’t have to get yourself to a particular venue once a fortnight or month. You don’t have to bring along a snack or a drink, organise babysitting or meals for the family before hand, or find that one evening that everyone is free. There is the opportunity to connect with and to share your thoughts to a wider audience (which might even include the author!). The previous incarnation of the element ‘opportunity’ was ‘academic orientation’. It is equally valid here. Each book provides a learning experience, and depending upon the content, may even encourage civic action. Of course, an online book club could easily be run based on a fiction book that is purely a source of entertainment – but even then, there would still be opportunities to connect with people unlikely to be encountered in day to day life.
Connected Learning Design Principles and the Online Book Club
It is definitely possible to create a connected learning environment based around a book club using the design principles outlined in the framework by Mimi Ito and her colleagues. Everyone can participate due to the low barriers to entry created by social media. Not everyone might be able to purchase the book, but the great thing about having a book club that is distributed geographically is that it is possible that not every library copy has been borrowed in a particular branch! Ebook distribution through platforms such as OverDrive make titles more accessible than ever.
Learning happens by doing when participants are encouraged to contribute their thoughts and responses to the book in any format that pleases them. What about a podcast reflection, video feedback, an infographic of characters or events or even a photo montage of the emotions evoked? There are so many ways that readers can share their responses to reading as a part of an online book club, and not being limited to a single platform makes this even more likely/possible.
I find that the schedule of a book club reading means that challenge is constant. While an online book club schedule is far less rigid, having dates set to have parts of a book read by helps me work through a book that I might otherwise place less priority on. The encouragement of seeing what others have shared, and the desire to be learning and reading with others means that a flexible schedule keeps readers on track and engaged (but also means that if life gets in the way, it’s no big deal).
Finally, having an online book club scattered across the internet, connected by tags/hashtags means that everything is interconnected. In the case of Bryan Alexander’s book club, I believe that Bryan holds the strands together, and this role is kind of essential. The interconnectedness happens when individuals play their part by tagging their thoughts – but someone (or an automated script of some sort) needs to bring all of this together – the metacognition of the group. I have observed from the sidelines as Bryan skillfully weaves together different participants’ contributions to the latest book club reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.
The Twitter Book Club
Earlier this week I was invited to participate in a slightly different kind of online book club. This one is based on Twitter, and encourages readers to start reading the chosen book on a set day, and to contribute to Twitter thoughts, ideas, jokes, book snaps, photos…anything… based upon the ten pages read each day. Each participant adds the chosen hashtag to their tweets, so that everyone else can find the contributions. I was eager to join, and as the book was Maryanne Wolf’s treatise on digital reading, titled Reader, Come Home, I was very interest driven! Sadly, one of the drawbacks of the open, everyone can participate, globally flat society we exist in is that businesses don’t always work this way. Ironically, the book on digital reading is only available in Ebook format to certain countries, and Australia is not one of them. I could purchase the hard copy, but it wouldn’t arrive by post until 17 September – and the book club will be almost over.
However, I have made my frustration (politely) known to both the publisher and the author via Twitter, and we shall see what happens (I’m not holding my breath!). I am considering it a reminder of the barriers others face every day – those who are on the other side of the digital divide. While the online book club can traverse many boundaries, there are sadly some walls that are yet to crumble.
The online book club – a connected learning experience?
At this point in time, I think yes – however my interaction thus far has been limited. Have you been involved in an online book club? Did it exist within one platform (e.g. Twitter or Goodreads) or across many, like Bryan’s? Which would you prefer, and why?
Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., & Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected learning: an agenda for research and design (9780988725508). Retrieved from Irvine, CA, USA.: http://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/Connected_Learning_report.pdf