One of the big advantages of having students work in random groups on vertical non-permanent surfaces is that it so well facilitates the movement of knowledge between groups. When groups get stuck, they can passively look to the work of others to get a hint – whether that hint is a type of notation, a way to organize data, a partial solution, or path to a solution. Alternatively, if a group is done, they can passively look around the room to get an extension from another group. If this passive interaction with the work of other groups is inadequate, a group may choose to more actively engage with that group by asking for help or interrogating them about things they have seen in their work, but do not fully understand. Whether passive or active, this gathering of hints and extensions creates a type of knowledge mobility that is instrumental in helping keep groups in flow as they work through series of curricular or non-curricular tasks.
In an online environment, we can still do random groups, and there are several proxies (Jamboard or Google Slides, for example) that emulate non-permanent surfaces. The problem is that none of them allow for the same level of passive interaction that a glance over your shoulder in a face-to-face classroom affords. That is, all the digital non-permanent surfaces require a group to actively go looking for ideas or extensions – whether this involves flipping through Jamboard pages, or Google Sildes, or crawling around some of the larger digital collaborative workspaces available to find where another group is working. This, we have learned is significant. It is not that groups look for ideas or extensions passively OR actively. It turns out that they look for these resources passively THEN actively. That is, they don’t actively interact with the work of others unless a passive interaction failed to provide what was needed. And if the passive interaction is impeded, as it is in an online environment, so too is the active interaction and, with it, knowledge mobility.
In an effort to re-instill the ability for students to passively acquire ideas and extensions in an online environment I created, something I call, a knowledge feed – which is just a Google Doc that students keep open on their desktop while working in a collaborative platform like ZOOM, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams. This Google Doc is then populated with screen captures of the work of various groups, hints, and extensions.
Initially, this feed is populated by things the teacher finds interesting and thinks may help others. But over time students will begin to add screen captures as well as responses to some of the teacher’s prompting and, before long, this document begins to grow as the number of hints and extensions multiply. A student with even a sliver of this feed open on their desk will be drawn to the changes in the document and will be able to passively refer to it when their group finds themselves stuck or done.
Early results from teachers using the knowledge feed is that it is not only fruitless to try to maintain some sort of order to the feed, but it may actually be counterproductive. If the feed is perceived to be to perfect, students are apt to not want to contribute their initial ideas to the document. Let the students drop in their ideas wherever they want. Scanning the chaos of a not perfectly maintained knowledge feed is really not that different from scanning through the multitude of ideas present on the vertical non-permanent surfaces around the room.
Thoughts? Examples? Stories?