It was pretty harrowing at around 11 pm EST, when I was here in California for the Designing Learning Futures Conference, peeking in on the Google Docs for my two courses and seeing what looked like a lot of chaos. By 11:59, they had to have, in each class, finished a collaborative, coherent essay exam synthesizing ideas from the first half of "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" (a class mostly of upper division natural and quantitative social scientists) and "Twenty-First Century Literacies" (a gateway English class made up mostly of first and second year humanists). In TYBI, the brilliant young woman who had been delegated by her peers the task of editing and posting the exam to our Word Press website on behalf of the entire class sent an SOS that she had to dash home to Raleigh where her beloved competition horse had taken ill and she was rushing the horse to the vet for surgery and didn't have wifi there and wouldn't be able to post. In Literacy21, there was a lot of text, and an urgent message that everyone should send one student whole sections that he would then edit and post. Less than an hour to go.
The previous three days had seen ferocious activity, debates so smart and candid they made my eyes smart, discussions so real and urgent I knew these students would never forget this experience. They had written thousands--thousands-- of words in answer to my innovation challenge to write and answer their own exam question, to debate it on Google docs, and then come up with a coherent, logical, synthesizing, overview essay that they felt comfortable blogging to a public site, as a representation of a class that had set its own syllabus each week, where peers had led us on amazing discussions and field trips (cyberbullying, online poker, virtual reality, mirror neurons and on and on). But sixteen students co-writing a coherent essay on a Google Doc. That's quite a challenge.
And now it was looking like nothing was coming together into a coherent essay, it wasn't happening, the final big pull together. Disaster! I wanted to intervene, tell them it was too hard a task, too much to ask, using a Mozilla-style "Innovation Challenge" as the basis for a midterm exam. Careers rise or fall on an exam grade--law school, medical school, grad school. This was too hard, I had asked too much. A pedagogical experiment shouldn't entail so much risk. I wanted to pull the plug. I typed the email.
I didn't send it. I thought about the lesson of every good parent: let them work it out. They will learn even if it doesn't work out. Teachers need to know that too. I deleted the email. I didn't intervene. I refrained . . .
And it was a very good thing I did. Other students immediately stepped in to finish the editing and to post the midterm for the young woman tending to her sick horse. Everyone learned an unforgettable lesson not just in collaboration but in trust and in human kindness and caring. Her teammates had picked her up and carried her when she needed it. In the other class, the material came in, the student did a great job pruning and editing, and it was posted to the Wordpress site with minutes to spare. And then came the email from the student who had posted the blog, at 11:59 after feverish days of incredible, intense intellectual debate, direction, misdirection, redirection, and, bingo, finally, a coherent essay: "I never knew a midterm could be such a blast!"
Really? After three days, with tension mounting, students taking busses to a classroom on one side of campus while other students were in a room on the other. Misdirection. Challenges. Ideas posited and refuted, found and lost. Behind the coherent end essays were a Prezi powerpoint, many outlines, lots of Mindmeister-style diagrams, charts, pros and cons . . . real, engaged, dedicated heated intellectual exchange. And that was the outcome. Two successful exams posted on time. "I never knew a miderm could be such a blast!"
That's the epic win. When students work harder than they ever have in their life, commit fully, and meet the innovation challenge they were set. That's a solid A, by any standard. "A blast." Let's make that A+.