The 12-Minute Shift

When you introduce people to the tools of the Web, things get noisy. People turn to their neighbors and talk, sometimes even about how to do the thing they’re supposed to be doing. (I’m talking about adults, here.) Suddenly there’s not just one idea being kicked around– the leader’s– there are ideas being lobbed in from all sides of the room. People get out of their seats to go and look at the computer screens of other people. They talk.

As part of a graduate school class I’m taking, I had to facilitate the discussion today, based on the chapter of a text we’d all read. (The expectation is that we each do a PowerPoint overview of the material in the chapter we’re covering, then lead into discussion.) I created a very Zen PowerPoint, but instead of leaping into a discussion by posing a question or putting forth a statement, I asked people to go to a Google Doc I’d created and add their thoughts, questions, comments., which we would then refer to as we talked.

Nobody moved.

I demo’d exactly how to get to the document, then how to type on it.

The Thaw-- Lake Huron, MI-- Ice, ConvergentThere was very gradual movement as people leaned to look at their computers, or at their neighbor’s. Some talking started, softly, and then typing.

I was fielding questions and moving around the room to see how folks were doing. The noise level slowly rose. The professor, retired and teaching as an adjunct for the joy of it, looked concerned, but also curious. Was this a way to do a synchronous discussion, he wondered. Not exactly, I told him. In the back corner of the room, a group was clustered around a computer, talking excitedly. The professor kept asking me about the structures and purposes of GDocs. But then so was everybody else asking me about what they cared about. At the same time.

This was all OK. In fact, it was the point. The class is about technology & sociology, and I was summarizing the kinds of shifts that have taken place in society with the advent of industry, urbanization, and technology. Shifts in power structures, for example, or in ways of finding, storing, retrieving information, or in ways of representing ideas using images, 3 dimensions, etc. Especially, shifts in who decides what is important to learn and the best way to learn it.

I should probably say that our school has just begun to phase in Google Apps. Even though faculty, staff, and students have been able to migrate into Apps since late December, I know about three people who have done it, and one of them is me. So all the writing was happening on a Gdoc within the College’s Apps domain. And suddenly the discussion turned to Apps.

Had someone noticed that the Google logo looked different on the document? I don’t know. But discussion swarmed in whole new direction. What  about Google? What was Apps, why did they have to move from one College system to another, especially if they already had a Gmail account, how could they learn about it– that was one line of discussion. The other line was why couldn’t everybody in the class migrate to Apps, bring their computer to class next week, where we would set up a Google Group for discussions, etc. This second conversation– which I did not start– is what quickly gathered momentum, pulling everyone in.

Now we were no longer writing on a shared document about technology and society, we were talking about changing the infrastructure of the class and restructuring the way we would operate for the rest of the term.

This all happened in the span of about 12 minutes.

What would have happened if one person hadn’t objected? Even though others pointed out that everyone in the College would be migrated into the new system anyway, she objected. What about her contacts? Her documents? Once again, people tried to explain. But, no. You could just see that she’d gone as far as she could down the path of new ideas, at least for today.

So the professor spoke up, saying firmly that we would continue the way we had started the semester. Then class was over.

Or maybe it was just beginning.

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Image: “The Thaw– Lake Huron, Michigan, USA– Ice, Convergent” © 2008 mdprovost ~ Prosper in 2011, used under a Creative Commons license

2 responses to “The 12-Minute Shift”

  1. I like your description of how divergent the thinking became. Adults do that really well! They bring their own experiences, agendas, interests, and motivations to bear on the problem or protocol under consideration, and amazing things happen.

    Night classes can be tough. People have worked hard all day and are then expected to do some of their deepest thinking. But when the class members find their way to the personal relevance of what is under consideration or discussion, away we go!

    Thanks for such a perceptive post.

  2. Karen says:

    Thanks, Gary. I’d be willing to bet that the ideas sprang up as a result of people being able to experiment and think and talk, all connected via those feeble tools I was introducing. (Your comment helps me see some ways I can make these little moments more clear when I write about them. Thanks!)

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