Well, it’s not car bombs, but it kinda sucks. What should we do?
Today, my students were frustrated. Classroom technologies failed, in mysterious ways, and lots of students were left baffled and annoyed. Ironically, or perhaps not, this was in a lecture about the dirty hands problem. (That’s the idea that anyone who has power over others will have to make decisions that are both required and still wrong from some perspective.) The fault is certainly mine, although my version of “the dog ate my homework” is that I’m using technologies I paid some serious money for but which the university doesn’t yet support.
Here’s the problem: I broadcast my lectures live on the internet and allow students to watch them from anywhere they are. They can still participate, using LectureTools, so they are not missing on the very important aspect of interaction. Today, the video feed of the broadcast worked fine, but the audio failed. I’d like to imagine students’ seeing my slides and seeing me moving around the room would be enough, but unfortunately that’s not so.
In other words, folks at home — or at the coffee shop, or wherever — missed the lecture.
I taught a version of this course a year ago. It involved the same technology I’m using this time: the now standard slideware presentation (I don’t use evil worthless piece-o-crap PowerPoint, by the way, but Keynote), operating my broadcasting software, and monitoring LectureTools participation. At first — well, for a long time — it felt almost overwhelming. It’s still not easy to keep up with everything. But a year and a half ago, I saw Hurt Locker, that Oscar-winning movie about a team of bomb defusers in and around Baghdad. It was a helpful contrast when I felt I was getting flustered or overwhelmed by what was going on in the classroom. I could always tell myself: OK, I’m not defusing car bombs in Baghdad. There ain’t nothing in what I’m doing that has stakes like that.
And that’s what I told myself today, too. Technology failed, but no bombs went off, and nobody died. There’s a lot of value to that perspective, but it misses the fact the students want and deserve something better than what I’m delivering at that point.
The solution? The students themselves.
The folks watching from away obviously were confused: they were getting no signal. None of the standard paths of communication worked. What to do? Well, they switched to the chat channel we have within the course’s learning management system (a homegrown and somewhat rickety system called CTools) and asked for help. Students inside the lecture room responded. Problems weren’t fully solved — because of me — but the students among themselves developed a system of informing one another.
The day was meant to be about the problem of dirty hands. It was also about cooperation. Pretty darned cool.