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Here at the Syllabus conference in San Jose, we were all thrilled with our day-long visit to Stanford University on Monday and the wonderful facilities we experienced. Of special interest were the many sessions in Wallenberg Hall, home to the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning (SCIL). There we interacted in several experimental “smart” learning spaces utilizing video, large screens, and various collaborative software programs. If you can picture Tom Cruise in Minority Report, utilizing floor-to-ceiling transparent displays of visually arresting data and moving the data around by waving his arms in the air . . . well, we’re not there yet . . . but these are clearly good first steps on that path. Many attendees from other institutions were in awe of the capabilities and of their apparent cost!

In the panel discussion following most of the day, David Brown or Wake Forest University made the distinction between such “experimental” learning spaces and learning spaces designed with “proven-to-be-best” technologies. We’ll talk a bit more about some of what we saw, but this author thinks that a really inexpensive way to enhance learning in classroom space is pretty easy to introduce and quite inexpensive. I’m talking about instant messenger, IRC chat.

David first stated that he has spent probably a year of his life attending conferences of 1-3 days’ duration, and this particular day, on the Stanford Campus at Syllabus, was perhaps the one day during which he had heard more interesting and useful stuff than on any other single day – so you can get a feel for the load of information we were all processing.

Quite a bit of what we were hearing was the use of these new technologies to “make thinking visible” and to engage individuals in more collaborative groups as they explore knowledge – or argue about it. I particularly liked the way the smaller classrooms in Wallenberg had large displays connected to wireless controls and laptops that let anyone in the room with a laptop, keyboard, or a mouse manipulate the large screens – and move files from those screens to the laptops, and back and forth.

However, David then went on to say that from his perspective in the provost’s office of a smaller institution, his primary concerns in planning for technology in classrooms would be the cost of the technology and of the staff to support it. He would be aiming to build with “proven-to-be-best” technologies, the ascertainment of which he thoroughly appreciated pioneering facilities like Wallenberg Hall for breaking ground on. He had lots of good advice and most of it can be found online, as well as slides from the presentations of Steve Ehrmann (Flashlight Program) and Bob Smith (the Stanford staffer who managed the building’s planning and implementation).

Well, not to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm (including mine) for what is to come, or for the capabilities of Wallenberg Hall, but I think you can get a long way to some of the more useful functionalities by putting a wireless node in the room and letting the students “chat” during class. Pretty simple, pretty cheap!

My first introduction to “chat” during lecture was about 1998 when Harvard’s Berkman Center held its first online law class. I recall sweating it out to see if I would be among those who asked to participate, who would be invited to do so. About 150 of us were chosen to participate, and the format was that of several online chat rooms – from a large, central virtual lecture hall to a number of small foyers. In each, the professor’s lecture would come in as typed text (slowly typed) in a standout color, while others in that chat room could comment and share conversations with each other. If we had queries for the professor, we could send those to an address where a teaching assistant filtered and prioritized queries, which might be answered by the professor.

It was great fun and interesting, but the very best part of the whole thing was the chat and conversation with fellow students in the chat rooms.

Since then, I’ve had many opportunities to engage in “chat” while doing other things. Staff meetings, for example: I admit to having used chat with other staff to marshall, underground and real time, arguments and support for certain perspectives even as the verbal discussion was going on above the table! You can be mighty persuasive if you get the right kind of coordinated verbal support from others at the table in a large group discussion.

Even here at the Syllabus conference, just as at the NLII conference I attended last winter, the front rows of the plenary session ballrooms were set up with long tables at which attendees like me could use the ubiquitous wireless to be online, take and send notes, check our URLs, while we listen to and watch the presenters.

How cool would it be if anyone in the room could select a group chat to join and the comments, suggestions, and thoughts stimulated by the presentation were captured and shared. And how cheap! That’s “now” technology and easy to implement.

As recently reported in the New York Times, chat is facing a variety of reactions as it enters the classroom in unplanned ways. Maybe what we need to do is plan for it and make it happen. It’s cheap, and it g'es a long way toward offering a higher level if interactive collaboration in the classroom setting and I, for one, could be easily persuaded that it s “proven-to-be-best” technology if it’s planned for.

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