More Than A Two-Way Conversation

The last time I read Personal Dynamic Media, I blogged about the resonance of Kay and Goldberg’s flute metaphor for the possibilities of creating and communicating with the internet and new media.  As a recovering musician with an interest in how music is created and perceived in times of political and social upheaval, I find the prescience of Kay and Goldberg’s vision for an interactive Dynabook that instantly represents and captures a composer’s input thrilling and awe-inspiring.

Today things unfolded a bit differently.  I went to class thinking about Kay and Goldberg’s insight about the connection between media, communication and learning:

Every message is, in one sense or another, a simulation of some idea.  It may be representational or abstract.  The essence of the medium is very much dependent on the way messages are embedded, changed, and viewed…..the ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided.  Moreover, this new “metamedium” is active — it can respond to queries and experiments — so that the message may involve the learner in two-way conversation. (NMR, pp. 393-394)

I’m a pretty enthusiastic endorser of the transformative potential of that two-way conversation with the computer as medium, but today I wanted more.  The class had just submitted another good set of posts about the Soviet experience of World War II, and the weekly edition of the blog looked terrific.  But I wanted to make sure that the class’s understanding of the big picture behind Soviet victory had not been left by the wayside of some excellent posts about battles, war-time hardships, and the origins of the Cold War.

So, using a variation of a method for “google-doc-ing discussion” my honors colloquium pioneered last spring, I set up several google docs and sent the links out before I headed to class.  I had asked everyone to bring their text book to class and to have reviewed the section that analyzes the reasons the Soviets prevailed.  (Years of teaching Soviet history have impressed upon me how resilient the old chestnuts about the war on the Eastern Front are.  I’ve learned that I can’t count on enlightenment and lecture to counter the mystique of the Russian winter or Hitler’s strategic errors as causal explanations for an enormously complicated struggle that was as much a Soviet victory as it was a German defeat.)

In the last fifteen minutes of class I had the students divide into groups, and claim a blank document.  Most of them had their laptops with them and when I asked them to outline the author’s thesis and the claims he makes in support of it, they began to talk, type, and flip through the book.  I had all seven documents open on my computer which was mirrored on the projector.  I watched as the outlines developed in real time over the next few minutes.  Some groups got it right away – setting up an outline which supported the author’s assertion that “paradoxically, the USSR won the war both because of and despite the Stalinist system.”  But most of them didn’t.  Some of them made bulleted lists of factors they deemed relevant (and yes, Hitler’s mistakes were on some of those lists…and that’s ok), and some of them found a minor interpretive point and used it to structure the main argument.  So I started typing questions on the docs. (“What is Fuller’s thesis?”  “What role does he say the Stalinist system played?” “Are you sure about that?”).  One group listed “not JUST the weather” as an important factor, which prompted me to write “YAY!”, and prompted them to laugh. And suddenly, we were all working really hard and having some fun.  The groups without the correct thesis went scrambling back to their books and started talking and typing among themselves.  The groups that were struggling looked at the projector to watch how a more successful answer was taking shape in another group, and then went back to their own document.  A few more minutes would have been really helpful, but when class ended five of the seven groups were on the right track, and everyone was still working. No packing up five minutes early, no shuffling and looking at the clock.  I could see on the google docs that everyone kept writing and working until I told them we needed to stop.  We will go back to the exercise next week to finish up, but I can tell that there will be more google-doc-ing group work down the line.

Yesterday I heard a colleague talk about how her daughter refers to her computer as an “internet machine.”  Today in class it seemed as though the computer/internet machine/medium “an sich” had transformed an ordinary exercise with group work into a multi-level conversation that leveraged engagement and communication in promising and exciting ways.

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