Back-channel communications during university lectures

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Do you, or would you, allow your students to send instant messages to each other during your MIT lectures?  See the following article (excerpted below) from today's New York Times:

In the Lecture Hall, a Geek Chorus


Over the past year, as wireless networks have been introduced in hotels, university auditoriums and conference halls, people with laptops have realized that they do not have to sit idly during the presentations.  Some people, of course, ignore speakers entirely by surfing the Web or checking their e-mail -- a practice that has led some lecturers to plead for connectionless auditoriums or bans on laptop use.

But others are genuinely interested in a lecturer's topic and want to talk concurrently about what is being said.  They may also like to pass around links to Web sites that relate to, and may refute, a speaker's point.  For them, wireless technology allows a back channel of communication, a second track that reveals their thoughts and feedback and records it all for future reference.

-- Alex Chernavsky, July 24, 2003


The real innovators in this area of whom I've aware are the folks at Harvard Law School, e.g., Charlie Nesson and Jonathan Zittrain. They have all kinds of semi-structured server-based systems to mediate teacher-student and student-student interaction. One of their good ideas is a bboard where every student is forced into posting and every posting has a designated responder who must respond. This way the discussion isn't dominated by a few loudmouths. In the classroom they use IM so that the students can send the teacher proposed questions or discussion points. Then the teacher selects what he or she thinks is the best one. They like this better than calling on someone and potentially having the discussion go off track.

Would this work for 6.171? No. MIT students don't carry laptops around, by and large, and the university doesn't provide lightweight computer systems at each chair (I wish they did!). Also it wouldn't be that big a change. 6.171 lecture hours are devoted primarily to student presentations and discussions amongst the students. The stuff that I used to say in lectures I put into the online textbook (Internet Application Workbook, not the old and moldy Philip and Alex's Guide).

But anyway I think an unstructured chat room or general IMing is not nearly as useful as the Harvard Law School semi-structured approach.

-- Philip Greenspun, July 24, 2003