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Spotlight on the Berkman Question Tool

A simple web tool spurs discussion and buy-in

This article was orginally posted on the Harvard Law School Case Studies Blog.

By Elizabeth Moroney

What do you get when you cross a brainstorming meeting with Reddit?

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society has taken the best of online forums and crowdsourcing to offer a simple web tool for online or blended discussion. The Berkman Question Tool is a free, open-source discussion tool in which participants can respond anonymously, with a pseudonym, or by name. It can be used for asynchronous online discussion or as a backchannel for in-person discussions. Gene Koo, Fellow at the Berkman Center, said, “It’s an effective way to keep feedback focused, direct speakers to audience interests, and potentially prevent the mic from being hijacked by that weirdo.”

Discussion leaders can create their own “instance” with a short description that frames the discussion. This frame can solicit questions or answers. For example:

  • Add a question you have about the today’s course material.
  • Please post a question you would like to discuss.
  • How can we accomplish X?
  • What opportunities does X provide? What risks?

Participants can go to the unique URL and enter their ideas, no log-in required. Then, they can vote up the suggestions of their peers.

The Question Tool is well-suited for a variety of discussion settings, including conferences, classes, and public debate. By inviting everyone to participate without certain people dominating the conversation, the Question Tool can break the ice and generate buy-in from various stakeholders. By crowdsourcing discussion topics, discussion leaders ensure that they aren’t cherry-picking or leading the conversation too much. The Question Tool provides transparency in the discussion process and a broader perspective for facilitators in service of a larger group. Participants can ask questions without worrying about sounding “dumb” or being judged based on who they are. It strips the conversation of context and bias, approaching the “veil of ignorance” on which John Rawls based his theory of justice.

Professor Charles Nesson used the Question Tool in his online case-based course called JuryX: Deliberations for Social Change. Using video chat and the Question Tool, participants deliberated emotionally charged social issues with empathy and curiosity. To learn more, see the teaching manuals for the JuryX cases: The Snowden EffectThinking BigThe Decriminalization of Marijuana; and The Color of Police Action in these United States.