Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Vegas Principle

In the ever-changing world of the Web, there is one constant.  I call it the Vegas Principle:  What happens here, stays here.  Despite the public service announcements warning teens to "Think before you post" and my senior students not recalling a world without the Internet, I found this week that I needed to remind them of this simple principle. They may be digital natives, but yet do not know the lay of the land.

The lesson became very clear when I introduced students to Etherpad, a web-based word processor that allows people to work together in real-time simultaneously.  In hindsight my introduction was a poor one. I might have demonstrated all of the features of the site first, including the timeline feature that replays all of the versions and revisions--every keystroke participants make. Rather I went with the let's dive in method.

My plan was to have students type in their answers to their homework all at once and we could see them all projected on the interactive white board in the Etherpad.

Before I knew it a couple of students profaned the pad.  One girl, apparently not realizing that her text was going to be visible to the entire class typed "f*** this class."  And her friend across the room started with "m***** f*****." The next line was a lewd reference to male anatomy and appeared just as the projector bulb warmed up the screen.  A quick reprimand and the type disappeared--and not.

What students did not realize was that Etherpad was recording all of the keystrokes and who made what contributions every second.  Not wanting to encourage a replaying frenzy I left out instruction on this feature till I could see it for myself and divine who said what.

Disappointed to find my two honors girls used such language recklessly, but even more so to find these were the very first words they used with a technology of which they had no familiarity. I do not believe they meant any of what they said but was disturbed at the disregard for context. The next class got the pre-demonstration and I got no mishaps; rather I captured a new timeline to demonstrate the feature the next day, complete with lecture on my two-fold concerns: profanity and the archival nature of electronic data.

Sounding the alarm and warning that electronic media does not ever completely delete information, that it is likely to be found by others whom we might want to impress (referencing cautionary tales of grad school denials and job recruiters), and that as much as we must embrace technology, we must do so with our best selves.  "So if you can't imagine doing this with your mom, grandma, priest, employer, and future children (or the 'creepers' out there) looking over your shoulder and being proud, it's probably an indication that you ought not." I had the impression that such was some new information for these students. (Refer to the Ad Council for educational materials on "Think Before You Post": Bulletin Board, Everyone Knows Your Name.)

I continued in the mantles of both school master and literacy coach to question my students' use of profanity, to spend such low and practical words haphazardly as first utterances and with no good use.  I chastised them for the "mal-or" of their tongues and implored them to save such "gold" inherited from the Old English for a time and place that called up a worthy purpose.  This view took off some edge of my prudishness, as they considered my idea of saving such words for something apropos.

The lesson came home for the errant class, and especially for the recreant girls, who saw the other class' timeline play out every keystroke the next day. Whoops!

In retrospect, I'm glad we dove in and picked up an important lesson, more salient than the answers to the homework.

As for Etherpad?  It is a helpful tool in the classroom as designed.  Students can work simultaneously in a workspace and then convert their work into a printable, publishable document.  The timeline feature offers a record of process and notes who contributes what. The only downside is only sixteen users can contribute at a time.  And there is no delete button, per se; you can revert to a previous time, deleting all subsequent revisions. But this is all likely to improve as Google has purchased Etherpad with the intention of incorporating it into Google Wave

You just might want to have a talk about the Vegas principle pre-use.

Image credit: "Vegas Principle of the Web" created with ImageChef. "Etherpad Screenshot." By Charles Youngs. Creative Commons License: Non-commercial reuse allowed with attribution.

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