Toying with death

A virtual meeting

Clay Shirky has written a terrific piece about an experiment he did recently in virtual space. He was hosting a two-day conference on social software, and had the usual room full of 30 conference-goers chatting it up.

But he also set up a virtual meeting alongside the real one. Using ARSC (A Really Simple Chat) software and wifi connectivity, everyone in the room could chat amongst themselves — privately or publicly — while the real-world talking was going on. The result? Among other things:

… because participants could add to the conversation without interrupting, the group could pursue tangential material in the chat room while listening in the real room. It was remarkable how much easier it was for the speaker to finish a complex thought without being cut off. And because chat participants had no way of interrupting one another in the chat room, even people not given to speaking out loud could participate. Indeed, one of our most active participants contributed a considerable amount of high-quality observation and annotation while saying almost nothing out loud for two days.

Contrast this to the story in today’s New York Times about professors who are frustrated by wifi in the classroom — because students are tuning out, IMing, sending email, or the like. One could be sympathetic to the profs, noting that, as they say, it’s hard to compete with the high-stim power of the Net. Or there’s the contrary view — considering that many, many professors are stupifying boring (about 50%, during my university experience), what’s wrong with students keeping their minds active in other ways while they’re forced to be in class? As Cory Doctorow noted today on Boing Boing:

I speak at universities all the time, and I actually use the degree to which my audience is digging into their laptops to gauge whether I’m covering a topic well or losing the crowd. Profs who bore their students and blame laptops don’t get a lot of sympathy from me — if you can’t convince a room full of young people who’ve committed to a lifetime of debt in order to cram their heads with useful knowledge and skills to pay attention, it’s time to re-evaluate your material and methods.

More to the point — why don’t professors steal a page from Clay Shirky’s experiment? If all the students in class have wifi and laptops, why not create a virtual classroom alongside the real one? Encourage (and even reward) students for using the virtual space to talk about what’s going on in the lecture and raise issues? Hell, smart professors would display this stuff on the wall during the lecture, and/or monitor it themselves, and use it to enliven and enrich what’s going on. The Net has always been about letting people in liminal positions (shy but brilliant; not yet sure of themselves but talented; nonverbal but otherwise whip-smart) shine. Why not harness this vibe in our classrooms?

(Thanks to El Rey for the pointer to the Shirky piece!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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