The Tools Team

From The Internet: Issues at the Frontier (course wiki)
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Topic Owners: Jason + Michelle

Note: We have created three subsidiary pages geared around the three in-person sessions we conducted. They are:

Our Goal

"[Videoconferencing] is not just the next thing. It's better than being there." - Rick Shriner of Apple, talking about "Quicktime Conferencing" in 1995.

Fourteen years have passed since the statement above, and - while we've augmented IIF with a course wiki and additional high-tech tools each week - we still bothered to get together in person for two hours a week, and we expended effort and money bringing terrific outside guests into our classroom. So, while we met once a week in the real world, we used a lot of different tools to augment these interactions.

Indeed, incorporating new technology tools and assessing their value was one of the goals of this course (for a list of tools that members of the course discussed during a pre-meeting for the course, see here). As such, our job was to occasionally step back and examine the tools we were using to see if they added to the in-person experience, detracted from it, or went beyond it. We also tried to get people to think about the audience for their sessions and for this seminar in general: if we were to incorporate new technology into each week's session, who were the intended beneficiaries? The students in the seminar? Other law students? Future students? The general net-connected public at large? Freida, the hat lady on Seesmic?

Once we got our operation up-and-running, we had two mini-discussions about the use of Twitter and then about Seesmic (in fact, the discussions were far too mini, in our opinion - but for more on how we think we did our jobs and how we think others can do our jobs better than we did, see our not-so-secret Teacher's Manual below). We then led a final, hour-long breakfast recap session that was more wide-ranging and included a few points of comparison to other organization's practices, like those of TED, which we based an introductory podcast around.

This page is an attempt to synthesize and reflect on some of the ideas that emerged out of those sessions, but we've also created pages with a lot more specific information on "Twitter in the Classroom", "Seesmic", and "Lessons From TED". In sum, in our ongoing quest for meta-ness, those three pages represent our specific reflections on certain tools other groups actually used during the course, this page reflects on those reflections, and the Teacher's Manual reflects on reflecting about those reflections. Got it?

A Brief Digression As To Why We Care About Implementing New Technologies

This is not a course in philosophy, but since one of us was a philosophy major as an undergrad, permit us a brief moment to consider the big question of why it is that we care about using new technologies in the first place – why, after all, were the presenting groups asked to spend time thinking about incorporating technology tools into their two-hour seminar, rather than just asked to spend their time thinking about prediction markets or Internet regulation or the pros and cons of the Google Books settlement? It seems like there’s a surface answer and a deep answer to this question. The surface answer is that this was a seminar dealing with Internet-related issues, so we couldn’t just be expected to bring a pad and a pen to a seminar room and simply “talk” about the topics and then go home; that method might be all well and good for seminars on Medieval Legal Thinkers or The Warren Court or Human Rights Law, but it surely wouldn’t be good enough for a seminar called “The Internet: Issues at the Frontier.” We needed not only to talk the talk of technological change but also to walk the walk, so to speak.

But that answer is somewhat unsatisfying: what sort of walk will we be walking when we use these new technologies, after all? Might the walk merely be sideways? Backwards? In a circle? Or might technology allow us to walk forward in some way, to some new, better place? That’s the rub, and that potential that technology has to walk us forward is what made it worth experimenting each week.

Though "technology" has the feel of some vaguely indefinable concept, consider one definition of it that we found: technology is the “the relatively neutral means for employing scientific knowledge to bring about the ideal relations in the natural and social world that ethical decisions prescribe.” (From Scharff and Val Dusek, eds., Philosophy of Technology, at 3.) Notice how much is packed in to that definition. It turns a deceptively simple request from the Professors – try to incorporate new technology into each week’s session – into an assignment that is about nothing less than making difficult “ethical decisions” and then employing new scientifically-driven means to further those goals that might make our entire “social world” more ideal. To quote the great sometimes-philosopher Keanu Reeves: “whoa”.

So, looking back at the course, that’s the lens through which we want to view the directive to use technology in the seminar. These tools weren’t included merely for fun or so that we could familiarize ourselves with Twitter or Etherpads or so that we could go back and see our faces on camera during a webcast. Instead, these tools were included so that we could try to make our seminar and maybe even the world a little bit better: the goal was, at least in part, to figure out if certain tools that take advantage of this big, new piece of technology we call “The Internet” can have a positive value in bringing our world closer to the ideal. Of course, what an ideal world would look like is not exactly an easy question, but among the ways we think tech tools could realistically have added to the IIF experience was by increasing knowledge, fairness, democracy, focus, participation, access, camaraderie, and/or speed. Did any tools we used that pass that test?

Introducing The Table Test

To borrow a methodology from the sportswriter Bill Simmons, we think a reasonably good (if admittedly rough) way to think about some of the tools people used is by placing the tool into one of three categories:

  1. Category 1: The way we used a tech tool brought something to the table. In other words, it was a net positive experience, and any future class should seriously think about incorporating it.
  2. Category 2: The way we used a tech tool brought nothing to the table. This category can be achieved in at least two ways: first, because the tool just didn’t help that much to get us to a more ideal world, but it also didn’t set us back at all, or second, because there’s reasonable, mild disagreement about whether the tool helped or hurt.
  3. Category 3: The way we used a tech tool took things off the table. In other words, a valiant effort, but something about the experience actually detracted from the goals of the presenters. That’s not to say it wasn’t worth trying – it just didn’t necessarily work. We do not recommend that future groups use Category 3 tools unless this future group really thinks hard about using the tool in a different way.

Our List of Tools This Semester

This is by no means a complete listing of the tools that were used, and for further thoughts, the Teacher’s Manuals of each session should have that group’s thoughts on technologies they used. But here are a few thoughts on some of the more interesting tools we used:

Category 1 – Tech Tools That Brought Something to the Table

  • Videoconferencing. It’s not a new technology, but when used well (and we think of all our groups used it well, incidentally) bringing in a guest via video adds a lot to the table without many meaningful distractions. In addition to the obvious benefit – the ability to meaningfully interact with someone unable to come to Cambridge, MA – in some cases, videoconferencing might even be an upgrade over having the real deal. After all, having someone join us via videoconference forced the group to maximize the “use” of that guest for a limited amount of time, but then allowed for a seamless disappearance when we wanted to talk among ourselves. That’s much easier to do with virtual guests than real ones. We’ll note that we used two different videoconferencing technologies. Most guests used “real-deal” videoconference set-ups, with connections using “videophones” that tapped into the audio inputs and outputs and video systems of big lecture rooms. One group conducted its somewhat-shorter videoconference via Skype, using a camera built-in to a laptop. We didn’t notice a difference, either in quality or in the way in which the class could meaningfully interact with the guest.
  • Webcasting. We’re not quite sure if we maximized our use of this technology (see more here), but at the very least, we think that the chance to broadcast certain sessions adds both to the in-class experience, in terms of our being able to interact with the outside world, and adds to the general “idealness” of what IIF is trying to do, because we are able to enter into a more meaningful, participatory, possibly more productive dialogue.
  • The class wiki. Again, overall we might have been able to do more with this tool, but it was certainly a more than adequate homebase for the course.
  • Seesmic. More detailed thoughts on Seesmic are here. In the end, two groups asked the members of the class to make videos on Seesmic, and we think overall the experience brought at least a little something to the table. It got us thinking about the topic ahead of time, let us interact individually with members of a burgeoning online community, was a lot of fun to use and explore, and didn’t detract from anything the presenters were doing. That is not to say that using Seesmic or any other videoblogging tool can’t be used to even more effect in the future; we think it can, as we discuss in more detail here. In the end, we think this nascent technology has a lot of promise, and future groups should consider using it in new and interesting ways.

Category 2 – Tech Tools That Didn’t Bring Anything to the Table

  • The Berkman Question Tool. We’re not quite sure that the BQT, at least as it was used in this course by a few groups, really added much to the seminar, but it also didn’t undermine the groups in any way either. For those unfamiliar, the BQT allows people to ask questions and then vote or comment on them in real-time. The BQT has the potential to be a real boon to the class: it can shape discussion, by allowing the presenters to monitor what people might be interested in, either before or during the session; it can allow those who don’t normally participate or who cannot (because they are watching the webcast) to voice their concerns; and it can allow people to have side discussions on interesting topics, even if there’s no time to discuss during the main class session. These are laudable goals. But these goals can be undermined somewhat by the Question Tool’s potential to be a distraction during class; what may be a negative impact on in-person give-and-take, and its ability to divert the focus of the discussion. For an example of the latter, here’s an actual BQT exchange from the session on Old Laws, New Media:
Q: [I]f votes are for threads instead of arguments, won't the Will of the Class remain opaque?
Lee: Yes, when these become threads instead of mere questions, it's hard to gauge interest. Especially when the discussion deviates from the original question.
  • It’s also something a rough tool with a work-in progress feel (go here and then click "archived questions," for instance), which may turn off certain users. Overall, in a smallish seminar, it’s unclear what the driving force of the BQT was and how the class was supposed to use it. Given more focus, it could turn into a more useful tool.

Category 3 – Tech Tools That Took Things Off The Table

  • Twitter. We have a detailed discussion of the use of Twitter in this class here, but, looking back, we think the overall verdict – as evidenced by the virtual ban on laptops that began during the last half of the semester – was that Twitter was too big of a distraction to meaningfully add to the goals of the class. Perhaps focused twittering could be a workable solution, but unfiltered twittering from the entire class greatly undermined the ability of the speakers to lead a top-flight discussion.
  • Unfocussed Laptop Use. Maybe it’s heretical in an Internet law seminar to say that using laptops in the classroom is a net-negative in this seminar, but if so, we’re willing to accept the resultant shunning. Laptop use for certain specific activities can absolutely be a plus, but in a seminar like this – where verbatim notetaking shouldn’t really be an issue – the distraction factor (Gmail, Gchat, Twitter, Facebook, the New York Times, etc.) greatly outweighed any positive effects of the whole class having Internet access. Sadly, we don’t yet live in "The Matrix"; we can’t yet download electronic information directly into our brains. If we want the whole class to be engaged and invested in the discussion, they can’t be constantly distracting themselves with the Internet. We strongly recommend that class discussions be conducted without the class having laptops open, and, if people are allowed to use laptops, it should be limited to specific, discrete purposes.


In the end, we think incorporating such a variety of tech tools was a journey well worth taking. Some tools were used to great effect and showed us first-hand how Internet technology can really improve our educational experience and, indeed, our society more broadly; others showed great potential and need to be developed; still others ultimately fizzled out. Our recommendation going forward, then, is to keep trying new things but to really think hard about the best way to incorporate them. As the Internet develops, we should keep in mind that technology isn’t just good for technology’s sake, but because, when used properly with the proper thought and care, it has the potential to make our world a better place and to make us better citizens.

General Recommendations for Using Technology in the Future

Many other technologies, in addition to the ones used by our class, may be worth using in the classroom, and new technologies will inevitably emerge in the future. While we have focused our discussion thus far on the specific technologies used in our class this semester, the experience has also helped us to form some general recommendations for using technology going forward.

Future topic owners should consider the following when putting together a plan for running a session:

  1. Carefully consider the goal you are trying to achieve. Do you want to communicate with others outside the classroom? Facilitate discussion in the classroom? Form a consensus on the issues of most interest? While many that choose to take this course may appreciate the introduction of a cool new tool, remember that the goal is not using technology for technology’s sake, but for the sake of making the we interact a little more seamless or democratic or satisfying.
  2. Determine how the tool should be used in order to achieve your goal. Many of the technologies used in our class were not necessarily designed for use in a classroom. While this doesn’t mean that they do not have potential to be useful in this context, it does mean that the class may need to use the technology in a different way.
  3. Give clear instructions to participants regarding the use of the technology. In order to minimize distraction and maximize the usefulness of the technology, the people using the tool should receive clear instructions on how it should be used. Is the goal to communicate with the outside world? To answer specific questions? To open back-channel discussions with one another? To provide a lasting record of what we occurred in class?
  4. Consider the negative effects of using the technology. At least one student mentioned that taking video of the class deterred him from participation in the class discussion. Even the best tools have some sort of downside associated with their use; think of ways to minimize them.
  5. Consider limiting the use of the technology to a specific timeframe within the class period. For example, it may make sense to allow laptop use or webcasting during limited periods, but not for the whole time. When candid discussion among participants giving their full attention is the goal, we've yet to find a better technology than sitting in the same room and hashing things out in person.

The Not-So-Secret Teacher's Manual

The final section is a reflection on how we did our jobs, and, more importantly, how the next people can do it better - because if there is one thing that we can say for certain on this page, it's that a subsequent group can do our jobs better than we did.

What We Did

To begin, a quick overview of how we did our jobs. The caveat here is that, because we were both somewhat late additions to the seminar, we sort of worked this out as we went along.

  1. Our first session was 10-minute feedback "lightning" round about Twitter; see our report here.
  2. Our second session was as a small part of a general feedback lunch (otherwise initiated by the Professors), where we attempted to discuss Seesmic for a bit as well as the technology of a few upcoming groups - but we didn't get very far (more on that later). See here for our Seesmic materials, though.
  3. Our final session was a breakfast attended by about half the participants which turned into a wide-ranging discussion, but which was originally focused around improving the "Tuesday-Sunday" interactions among the group. It included an introductory podcast. Our notes on that session are here.
  4. Finally, after synthesizing those sessions and discussing the issues more on our own, we produced this page.

As is evident, we had several different methods of communicating with the class, not only via this wiki but also in person via one short session during a regular session, one short session in an optional lunch that was not "owned" by us, and one breakfast that was totally ours. We're not sure this strategy was totally successful, though, which brings us to...

What We Did Wrong; or, What You Should Do

Looking back, we think the next group should do at least two things a little bit differently, and may want to do more of a third:

  1. More individualized planning. Rather than just providing retroactive feedback, the next version of the Tools Team should try to think through how best to use certain tools with the other members of the seminar as they plan their substantive sessions. We're not sure what form this would take; perhaps it would involve individual meetings with each seminar, meetings in groups, email exchanges, or anything else. But the key is that we think Tools Team 2.0 should, from the very beginning of the seminar, start thinking about how technology should be employed for the course of the seminar in order to help groups further their goals without undermining what they're trying to do. We attempted something like this with future groups starting mid-way through the course, but by that time most people's lesson plans were already set; in addition, we hadn't established any track record of being able to do this well. For those reasons, it didn't work for us - no one took us up on our offer. But if the Tools Team in the next iteration of this course gets in early and establishes that they can really provide some value, it could really be productive to have another view from outside helping groups think about the way they want to use technology.
  2. More "quickie" feedback sessions. Among the three different ways we contributed to the course in person - grabbing ten minutes to talk about Twitter, trying to re-focus a brief discussion during a larger session initiated by the Professors, and finally having our own "breakfast session" toward the end of the course - we think the short burst of feedback worked best. Just from a practical point of view, scheduling an optional session outside of class is quite difficult; it took us several weeks to schedule our final session, and even then only about half the class was able to attend. Even more the point, though, we think that waiting for a while after using the tools and then condensing all that talk into one (or a few) discrete sessions is both less interesting and less helpful than checking in more often with shorter sessions. After all, for these feedback sessions, the Tools Team doesn't really need much time to lay out a major theoretical framework. Instead, given that (hopefully) the next Tools Team will be working more closely with each team in advance, the feedback sessions can just be short sessions to see how effective the class as a whole views certain tools.
  3. More podcasting. This is a recommendation not just for a future Tools Team per se, but also something that we think future Tools Teams should recommend as they think about what tools should be used during the course. We did one podcast for our session at the very end of the seminar, and no other groups chose to create any podcasts, either before or after their sessions. But looking back, we think it's a great way to incorporate a guest without cutting into any discussion time, and it could be a great way to share certain components of the seminar with the world at large. It's been quite successful for other educational enterprises (see iTunes U here - note that link goes to the iTunes Store), and we think this type of course could also benefit from podcasts for both internal and external communication.