Friday, May 30, 2008

The Speed of Information

I was sitting in a classroom a few weeks ago listening to teams of students make brief presentations. The class was Social Entrepreneurship (eShip for short.) They were talking about their impending half-term projects with nonprofits. I was helping one of the teams who were looking at how to better leverage technology for small nonprofits in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont.

The professor and guest advisor were giving the teams tips on who to contact. During the tech team presentation, I was watching what the students were doing on their laptops. The advisor recommended the team contact a major foundation, who had a technology-related funding program. As he was making his comments, one of the students browsed to the foundation web site and found the relevant program page. Before he finished, she had sent the link via email to the rest of the team, who in turn were clicking to the site. The entire flow of verbal and electronic information happened real-time.[1]

Before you get in a huff about students not paying attention, and the rudeness of multi-tasking, let me tell you a pre-Internet story.

I remember sitting in my field manager’s office twenty years ago. I asked if he would check on something at headquarters for me and let me know what he heard. He said, “Why wait?” He picked up the phone, dialed his contact and got the info. I left his office with the answer and an important lesson: don’t make a to-do item of something you can do on the spot.

Do you see the parallel between what my manager did and what the students did? If you can get the information now, why wait?

My fourteen year-old takes pride in multi-tasking. I’ve seen him carrying on five Instant Messenger (IM) conversations, playing a video game with someone from Australia, and researching a paper for school at the same time. I wondered when he had time to think. The more I thought about it, the more I asked myself if the way students think today may be changing. Was problem solving changing from individual synthesis to communal answers? I decided to try an experiment with him.

I asked him how he would go about finding the answer to a problem.
“What problem,” he asked.
“One your teacher gave you, for homework.”
“Which teacher? (He is a teenager, after all.)
“How about history. What are you studying?
“The French Revolution.”
“OK. How would you go about finding the answer to this question: How many famous people were executed by the guillotine during French revolution?" (Remember, he’s fourteen.)

We were on the phone, so I asked him to describe what he was doing. His first stop was to go to Wikipedia and look up guillotine. (If you’d like to read along, click here: ) He read the first paragraph, but didn’t find what he wanted.

His next stop was Yahoo Questions. He entered “guillotine famous people.” (See ). The first answer was about a wax museum (Anyone can post answers.) He didn’t see anything else on that page that was better.

Next, he went back to Wikipedia, paged-down a couple of times and read about the Reign of Terror. Listed there were Robespierre, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, each victim of the guillotine. He then informed me that Joseph Guillotin was not the inventor, nor did he die by its blade. Guillotin died of natural causes. Bonus points.

Total time browsing, about three minutes. Fast. But very much a solo performance.
“What if you couldn’t find the answer on-line?
“Never happened.”
“But if it did?”
“I’d email my teacher.”
“What about essay assignments?”
“If it’s boring, I write a paragraph, take a break and IM my friends; then write another paragraph, etc.”
“If you’re not bored?”
“Then I space out on it.” He blocks out everything else and focuses on the mission.

So it’s not very different than when I learned how to do assignments. At least for the engaging stuff. Notice that the multi-tasking parts are about socializing and entertainment, not the work itself. What is different is how fast it happens. Whether in the class or on the home PC, finding and using the information is lightening quick. So why don’t we have more answers?

[1] For an entertaining look at laptops in the classroom, read the Doonesbury comic for April 27, here:

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