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Well, it’s not car bombs, but it kinda sucks. What should we do?

September 29, 2010

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.

  1. Jake Zunamon permalink
    September 30, 2010 11:38 PM

    I like this post and how you relate it to looking at things from another perspective. I am a senior and I have literally never been more stressed on a daily basis than I have been this year. My classes are killing me, I am applying for jobs, I work, i volunteer, (no, no I am not mother Theresa, but I’d like to be). All in all, I am trying to say life has been a little rough lately. However, like you say things could be worse. I mean I am overall healthy, AI have my family, my friends and I am in school. All my supposed “stresses” come from positive things. I work too much, well at least I have a job. I am applying for jobs, well at least I am in the position to do so. I have a ton of classes, well at least I am fortunate enough to be in school. Life is hard, sometimes more stressful than others and its hard to find the motivation to keep going and not just say, F this I’m done. I like this perspective because it lets me know, my life is pretty damn good and I should appreciate all these little stresses because they are the direct results of positive aspects of my life. I personally don’t use the lecture tools, but I agree with you on that too, it is pretty darned cool that kids did that. Even though this school is so big and there are thousands of kids here, people really do look out for each other, and I appreciate that cause sometimes like I have said, life is a little rough.

  2. Neil Rabinowicz permalink
    October 3, 2010 9:00 PM

    I like how you relate the problems you encountered in lecture to the material you were trying to cover. I am a very optimistic person myself, so when I encounter a problem I try to tell myself that “it could be worse.” I would never think of comparing having technological problems to diffusing bombs in Baghdad, but it sure makes it looks like a less significant bump in the road.

    When leaders experience major problems that affect many people, it is natural to stress about it while they try to find a solution. However, it is common to forget that the public is composed, among many things, of smart, talented, flexible people. Many times, it’s the public that comes up with solutions to society’s problems. When the oil spill happened, the government and BP were slow to act. However, BP allowed civilians to submit ideas on how to solve the problem before more and more oil kept spilling. While I’m not sure if the idea they used was some random civilian’s, it shows that when faced with dire situations, people will find a way to get what they want and get back on their feet.

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