I had an interesting, unplanned “teaching with technology” experience last week with my First Year Seminar students. To supplement the students’ reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I adopted the exercise outlined here. Students are assigned one of 16 historical figures who took part in President Kennedy’s 1962 Scientific Advisory Committee on the use of pesticides. They were charged with researching an historical figure and preparing for an in class re-enactment of the Advisory Committee’s debate.
In preparation for the debate, we allocated one class meeting for the students to plan their debate strategy. I put them in separate classrooms and checked in on each group as they formulated game plans. All students brought their laptops so they could discuss what they researched and could individually contribute to the debate. I suggested that one student write their ideas on the blackboard. After about 10 minutes of bantering back and forth, one member of the anti-pesticides group said “Hey, lets create a Google doc so everyone can add to it and edit it.” As a Tech Fellow professor, I smiled and watched what unfolded. Talking did not cease, but was dramatically reduced as they sat in a circle pecking at their keyboards and staring at their screens. I watched one student’s screen as a 3+ page document emerged within 5 minutes. I thought, why didn’t I think of this, and felt archaic and embarrassed for suggesting the blackboard, as I went next door to the other group to check on their progress.
Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, the other group was doing the same thing! The identical idea had sprouted organically, independently and simultaneously in separate groups of digital natives. There were many smiles and contemplative gazes as they read what emerged in between bursts of typing. There were occasional comments that to a non-doc-shared observer must have seemed disjointed such as “No wait a minute, that should go first…I’ll cut and paste it.” Unlike most class meetings, I had to remind them when our time was up so another class could use one of our rooms. They seemed a bit perturbed about having to stop and I must have been grinning from ear to ear when I heard one student say, “I am sending you guys a Doodle poll so we can pick time that we can all be online to finish this.” I asked each group to share their doc with me so I could watch it develop. What emerged was a mixture of research facts, opinions on their importance and a consensus outline of the group’s strategy.
Our debate took place on Thursday. The students did a fabulous job of adopting a 1960’s view of the issues and highlighting the major points from each side’s position. They were passionate and at times I had to remind them that accusation and defensive statements were probably not constructive. The two groups ultimately found common ground and came to the same consensus as the original committees that controlled use of pesticides was the best course of action.
We ended a little early so I could ask them why they chose to use Google docs for their group strategy planning session. Unlike me, they were not surprised that the idea emerged independently in each group. One student matter-of-factly remarked, “How else would we do it?” Another said “I can type and read faster than it would take to write while listening to everyone take turns to talk.” They also commented that oral discussions are often dominated by one person, but a digital conversation was more diplomatic and democratic. I asked them if they thought it strange that they were all sitting within 10 feet of each other, yet they were not using spoken words to communicate. No one seemed to mind that the oral aspect of their collaboration took a back seat to the efficiency of the collective digital effort. One student explained that if they were in a similar group setting talking about a social or personally relevant topic “of course we would talk to each other!” However, for collective brainstorming about a topic that they had to present as a team, the use of digital technology was second nature to them.