Blinkist-style book-club activity: manageable book-reading

I recently talked to a colleague whom I am assisting in the redesign of her popular public health course, a part of a professional graduate degree. As we were planning, I mentioned that one big difference between my graduate programs (both at MA and PhD levels) and the program she is teaching in is that professional students focus almost entirely on reading articles, scholarly papers, and case studies, but they hardly ever are asked to read and discuss books. Yes, I mean complete, substantial-length, non-fiction books. Reading books is an acquired taste, and a learned skill: unlike an article or a journal paper, they usually exist at a more popular, less specialized level; at the same time, books usually paint a significantly broader, more nuanced and layered picture of the topic they address. Keeping track of different parts of a book, multiple examples, and sometimes markedly opposing views presented (in good non-fiction books), and yet, at the same time not losing track of the “big picture,” is a skill, something that no-one is born with something that must be practiced and developed over time, or it doesn’t just magically materialize. I was wondering – could we change that?

We excitedly discussed briefly that it would be great (beneficial to students, innovative) to do some sort of a book-club approach in a graduate class. Then, we moved on to other topics at hand (redesigning module one and two…). But the thought stayed with me and over the next two week it’s been coming back. spinning like a stuck record in my head: Could it be done? How? What would be the benefits but also dangers and downsides? Would it overwhelm busy, stressed, and often overworked students, most of whom are adult, working healthcare professionals with a career, full-time high-pressure job, and a family at home? I remembered one of my grad courses in the School of Journalism, where we had to read one book per week, and we’d discuss it in class. Each title was related to current events, defined as what has happened in the last decade… most book were journalism at its best… And yet… it was grueling. At some point most students just gave up and would skim the content, to know “more or less” what each book was about. Soon, small informal groups developed in which people would swap summaries and ideas, often as a substitute for careful reading, perhaps not something we were supposed to do… but no-one said explicitly we couldn’t do this, and no-one asked the professor, and we’d plod through the semester pretending we’ve read it all…

And then it struck me: what if my colleague and I designed this kind of “cheat” right into the assignment, liberating students from feeling like they were cheating, and yet giving them all the benefits of having been acquainted – even if in only general terms – with several important full-length books during the 15 weeks of one semester? I also immediately thought about one of my favorite subscription-based apps called Blinkist. I am an avid book reader, and usually read 3 or 4 non-fiction books per month. Since getting my PhD in lit., I have mostly decided I had read (and taught) most of the really great literature for a living, for quite a while, and in a complete reversal, I hardly ever read fiction now… But I read all kinds of popular non-fiction books. And here we enter another gray area, because when I say I read them, I don’t really read them – I listen to 95% of the books using Audible app, combined with audio books available through my local public library app (called Libby). Listening to library books is liberating – if I run into a bad one ( = uninteresting for me – it may objectively be a wonderful book in every other way), I just quit, return it, and move on to the the next one; but with Audible subscription it’s not quite as easy – each book costs real money, and while it’s usually a heavily discounted price, still it’s not negligible and adds up quickly. I can’t afford to many duds. To avoid picking things that are disappointing, I started using Blinkist – if offers well-written, very condensed summaries (not reviews) of books, available as text and audio recording. Each book is summarized in about 15 minutes or less, and divided into 1-2 minute chunks or chapters called “blinks.” This approach has allowed me to get detailed previews of a large number of books, even when I do other things (walk by the lake; go grocery shopping; or driving around), all without committing too much time or money. I usually pick a topic, and then pick 4-6 best-selling book summaries related to it (Blnkist has a decent search function), and then I just listen to all of the summaries with moderate-to-medium focus; I usually wind up picking one of these (the one that is the best match for what I’m interested in) and actually listen to a full version of it on Audible.

What if for the purpose of this particular public-health course we took the hybrid Blinkist/book-club approach? We would divide students into groups that would match in number the number of books we wanted students to become familiar this semester. Each group (I’d call tem “blinkist working groups”) would divide their assigned book into 5 manageable sections, and agree to what they were exactly (each does not have to be of equal length, and can follow natural breaks in the book, such as chapters). Then, one week they’d read the section (chunk), and post its summary (370-400 words, about 1.5 standard page) to discussion by Thursday; by Sunday, they’d read other people’s summaries (of the same content they had just read and summarized) and respond to one or two noting (1) things that they themselves missed (but the other person included); or (2) things they included because they thought it was important (say why?), but others didn’t; or (3) other notes of interest that highlight different points of views or understanding, focus, stress, etc. It would be useful for students to see how others read the same text perhaps slightly differently, and they could stick to their summary, or adjust it slightly, incorporating some good ideas from others. The following week, they’d have until Thu. to post their edited/amended/improved summary (same as before, but edited – 370-400 words) as both readable text and an audio recording to their book-club group (in which each person is reading a different book). By Sunday, they’d respond to one or two other people with comments or questions on how the summarized content relates broadly to public health – is it applicable? indirectly applicable? not at all? why yes or why not? (original posters should answer some of these by Thu of the following week). And on Monday, the process would repeat… until the books were read and discussed. By the end of the semester all students would have read one book in-depth, and engaged with good summaries of several other relevant books – they would also get to keep the summaries for future listening or reference! They may even get interested enough to pick up one of these books and actually read it themselves.

There are several benefits to this approach – let me list them:

  • students learn a good, useful skill – carefully summarizing content and presenting it to a professional group (in his book on generative learning, Fiorella lists summarizing as one of most effective types of learning activities)
  • students get to practice the ability to summarize information without immediately interjecting one’s own opinion – trying to just present data and info, objectively, and not to react is a useful skill in science, and needs to be practiced more!
  • students get accustomed to using their voice and technology (audio recording) to communicate with others; by comparing their own summaries and those of others, at meta-cognitive system level (see Marzano’s taxonomy of learning objectives 5-A and 5-B) they can develop an understanding how they are doing compared to others, and what – if any – adjustments might be needed.
  • by reading other students summaries of the same content students notice their own point of view and can reflect if the differences in perceptions are the result of different interests, experiences, biases, and how this observation translates into their professional practice setting – and is it always a good thing. Faculty can gently nudge students to reach some of these milestones during informal conversations during synchronous sessions…

Here is a “course map” timeline layout of this (set for a 15-week semester, so it can easily accommodate a holiday break or midterm(s):

I had some concerns – chief among them was the amount of time commitment… But I figured out that this would have a cost of about 3 hours of total work per week – here is the calculation (using the RU-CWE estimates) for total hours over a 2-week read-post cycle that would be repeated 5 times over the semester:

  • 1.5-2.5 hours every two weeks (week 1): listening or reading; depending o individual preferences, I’d encourage students strongly to consider the audio-book version, or – even better a combined kindle+audio whenever the amazon Whispersync for Voice technology is available for specific titles. Most books are 7.5-12 hours long in unabridged audio versions.
  • 1.5 hour every other week (week 1): posts and replies to original posts (keeping in mind post limit set at 300-400 words or 1.5 standard page, and half-to-full page replies at 130-250 words, the total is calculated .
  • 0.5 hour every other week (week 2): answering discussion questions briefly.
  • 1.5 hours every two weeks (week 2): read / listen to 2 posts and replies
  • 6 hours TOTAL over 2 weeks (3 hours per week)

Now all that’s left is to pick the book list… so many choices!