Technology, Trouble-shooting, and Seeking Creative Solutions: Wherefore Art Thou, Google Chat?

August 5, 2010

Having just finished reading Jaron Lanier’s good-natured rant against those who fall into the trap of mistakenly believing and acting as if technology is human (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto), I caught myself falling into the trap.

Because I have been successfully using Google Chat as a tool for conducting interviews for writing projects as well as for delivering just-in-time learning, I’ve come to rely on it—which in and of itself is not a bad practice. The ability to type questions and receive written responses in a way that immediately produces a complete and printable transcript of interviews is a great way to assure accuracy and avoid misunderstandings.

It’s when it first began to let me down—note the insidious way the words “let me down” so easily sneak into this discourse, as if Google Chat were a friend instead of a sophisticated gadget—that I first felt the sense of betrayal usually reserved for sentient beings: “Oh, Google Chat, how could you let me down?” (Actually, the question was much more expletive-laden when it popped into my head, but there’s no need to be overly graphic here and offend both of you who are reading this.)

The problem began in the middle of an interview for the book Lori Reed and I are co-writing for ALA Editions. The colleague who was sitting across the country from me and responding to my typed questions seemed to be taking longer than usual to respond. After several moments of silence, I shifted my attention to an incoming call—which was, of course, from the interviewee to determine whether I had seen a response he had sent moments earlier. Realizing that our online conversation in the live chat box was showing up less than complete, we stayed on the phone as we attempted to continue, and soon realized that the onscreen version wasn’t conveying everything that was being stored in the transcript in our Gmail accounts. Relieved that we weren’t losing anything, but puzzled by the anomaly, we finished as quickly as we could, assumed that we had somehow angered the tech gods (clearly lower case deities), and soon went our separate ways. (An aside, out of fairness to Google Chat—see, there I go again, anthropomorphizing the tech tool; Lanier would be laughing at my plight if he could see me now—I should admit that the technology of fountain pens has failed me in the writing of the first draft of this piece; my pen just ran out of ink, forcing me to resort to the back-up technology of having a second fountain pen in hand. Let’s chalk it up to user error since I’m the one who forgot to refill the ink cartridge this morning, and return to the point of my own Lanierian rant.)

Returning to Google Chat a few days later for an interview with a different colleague, I warned the interviewee that we might need to use our (old technology) phones as a back-up if the earlier problem repeated itself. Which, of course, it did. With a vengeance.  About 30 minutes after we began, some of our transmissions stopped appearing in the live chat box, but continued to appear in the chat history. Then delays started occurring in the postings to the chat history—just a moment or two, but enough to be annoyingly disruptive. Then the chat history stopped picking up lines in no discernable pattern, but the live chat box retrieved some of what was missing from the transcript. If we hadn’t been laughing so much at our own plight, we probably would have wept. But we persevered by seeking the creative solution of combining the live chat, the incomplete transcript, and the phone conversation, and were lucky to eventually end up with the complete transcript we both needed.

This is where Lanier’s could have served as a voice of reason and good counsel if I had already been reading his book. I began turning to what he variously refers to as “the hive”—that faceless group of online collaborators whom we sometimes mistake for a single online intelligent entity rather than a loosely knit group of individuals contributing to an ongoing conversation—or  “cybernetic totalists,” or, more humanely, “the tribe.” I posted a brief description of the glitch and sought advice from others in a couple of very active discussion groups, but received no response. The hive, apparently, was asleep. I then tried to reach Google representatives online, and still had no success.

Turning to Yahoo! Messenger as an alternative, I at least was able to determine that my (non-sentient) computer was not preventing me from using any form of online chat as a way to continue my interviews. But I still haven’t completely resolved the problems Google Chat is causing. And I know Google Chat is not an enemy. Nor is it a friend. It just is. And I, apparently, am not a gadget. But I am a writer in search of solutions for the problems that the gadgets in my life present.

Now, back to the draft of that book in progress. With our without the gadgets.


E-learning, Google Chat, and Innovation

January 13, 2010

E-learning, as I wrote in an article for the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions Magazine, is growing rapidly both in innovativeness and through its unique contributions to the entire field of training-teaching-learning. And it is becoming easy to try even for those with the fewest possible resources and only the most limited knowledge of how Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools work.

An experiment with University of Nevada, Las Vegas Learning Technologies Specialist Michael Wilder and his “Interactive Media Design” course for aspiring journalists in October 2009 offers just one example of how we can more effectively use Web 2.0 tools which are right in front of us. I had, throughout the year, been experimenting with colleagues and interviewees to use Google Chat as a way of conducting interviews for articles and academic research papers I was writing. What was most appealing to me was that the typed chat format produced usable transcripts of the interviews—a tremendous time-saver and a wonderful way to assure that quotes were accurate. Wilder, who had been impressed by the results after completing one of those interviews with me, later contacted me about the possibility of interviewing me via Google Chat for his onsite students so they could see and incorporate the technique into their journalism toolkits.

A brief chat about the project led us to carry it one huge step forward: we decided to treat the session as a formal e-learning lesson for the university students while demonstrating the ease and efficacy of online chat in reporting and other forms of writing. With a copy of the course syllabus in hand and with access to online postings made by students and some of the other guest lecturers Wilder had attracted, I worked with him to create a brief, prepared written introduction to the topic.

On the day of the class, I sat at my desk in San Francisco and arrived, via chat, in the Las Vegas campus classroom a few minutes before the session began. Wilder let me know when he had finished his face-to-face introduction, and that’s when I began transferring the prepared text, paragraph by paragraph, into the live chat window and sending it in a way that gave students a chance to read the words, piece by piece, on a screen in their classroom. That part of the process took less than five minutes, and we then opened it up to a live question-and-answer session during which Wilder typed in the students’ questions and they saw my responses as quickly as I could type and send them back. What was meant to be a 20-minute experiment lasted nearly an hour.

What followed was even better: Wilder posted the transcript of the chat and encouraged the students to post reactions on the class blog. Our online synchronous learning session continued asynchronously for several days, and one of the most encouraging responses came from a student who said she had already used what she had learned to complete an online interview via Skype.

It’s clear that we are moving far beyond the days when e-learning was comprised of little more than the posting of face-to-face lessons and learning resources onto a static website. With a little creativity and a lot of planning, we can easily use resources including online typed chat, Skype’s conferencing (and typed chat) capabilities, and even a LinkedIn discussion group created especially as an asynchronous online meeting place for learners in a particular course or workshop—an idea explored by my colleague Pat Wagner—to deliver learning that is creative, engaging, effective, and memorable.


%d bloggers like this: