Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

Thought JamBand Sessions

First Session

The first time my own definition of “blended learning” began to emerge was at an EDUCAUSE conference, when a group of us engaged in what Gardner Campbell and I came to call a “thought jam band”. In October 2004, at a meeting during the EDUCAUSE 2004 annual conference in Denver, a spontaneous demonstration revealed the power of intertwined virtual and face-to-face environments, the social presence that blended environments can afford to those who are not in attendance, and the high quality of dialogue that can result from such interaction.  This was enabled by a relatively primitive technology – online chat. With the suite of new communication and collaboration tools available, that three-way real-time conversation could have been five-way: the face-to-face meeting, instant messaging via a smart phone, virtual learning space, another person conferenced in via video, and a simultaneous twitter chat. And that last mode brings to mind another one – the space that transcends time, for the later discussion by other participants not available real-time (and those who had additional insights after thinking about the conversation).  Now, that’s what I call blended: across space. medium and time. My intention is to try out this kind of “Thought JamBand Session” this summer.

From the article that Brian Alexander and Pascal Kaplan and I wrote about the experience:

Several members of the Horizon Virtual Community of Practice (VCOP) were meeting to discuss emerging technologies, and Jim Gaston was briefing those in attendance about an interactive agent (a robot, or “bot”) developed by his team at South Orange County Community College District. Jim was explaining that the agent uses instant messaging (IM) networks and a conversational interface based on natural language processing to respond to student queries about administrative policies and procedures/

During the meeting, one of the VCOP meeting attendees, Gardner Campbell, was engaged in an online chat with several staff members back at his home campus, the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He mentioned Jim’s interactive bot to one of these colleagues, Martha Burtis, and sent her the URL for the project. In the chat, Martha commented about the possibility of “using these types of bots/avatars for any kind of academic use—rather than just providing general university information.” The participants in the face-to-face meeting were beginning to explore the same question at that very moment!

From that point on, off and on synchronously for over three hours, a conversation occurred simultaneously in three environments: in the face-to-face meeting in Denver; in a three-way chat among the University of Mary Washington staff; and in a shared virtual meeting space (one of this article’s authors, Vicki Suter, was taking notes about the face-to-face conversation in an iCohere virtual meeting space, where several of the meeting attendees were also posting notes and comments). One person, Campbell, was participating in all three environments and so served as a conduit between them (and posted the exchanges from the other chat window into the Horizon VCOP meeting space).

The conversation was a lively, intense, and productive discussion about the pedagogy and technology of intelligent agents for instructional use. The separate but parallel discussions were only periodically connected—a kind of syncopated pacing, via Campbell, so that they did not disrupt each other. Occasionally, Campbell would share insights between the two parallel conversations, setting off a new line of thought and inquiry in each. The quality of the combined discussion—and some of the group insights that were achieved about interactive agents, intelligent agents, and how these might be used for teaching and learning—are no less than remarkable and will likely prove the source of much more reflection and, ultimately, publication. Campbell remarked, “This was equal to a month of staff development—for all of us.”

Over the course of the next week, participants reflected on what all agreed had been a compelling, generative experience, and they continued their analysis of what had happened. Nick Noakes, one of the participants, speculated that it was a matter of pacing: neither of the parallel discussions settled into a pattern but instead accepted and incorporated the periodic dissonance (one discussion into another) in a creative, productive way. Campbell agreed but suggested that the “chat/f2f dynamic was a kind of interactive multiple-conversations event—a kind of 3D turn-taking.”

Source: The Future of F2F (an online companion to the EDUCAUSE Review article, Social Software and the Future of Conferences—Right Now.

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