Last night I used my favorite feature of Google Plus – the Hangout – to do something a little different in my Theory & Practice of Emergency Management class at Western Washington University. If you’re not familiar with the Google Plus Hangout, it’s basically a web-based multi-site video-teleconference platform that allows up to ten locations to participate simultaneously. [Given how well it works and the fact that it’s free, I’m surprised it hasn’t received greater attention so far.]
The whole thing was fairly experimental. I meet with the class twice a week for an hour and 50 minute sessions, during which we discuss a different aspect of the emergency management field. Most of the assigned readings address how a particular subject is supposed to be done from a “theoretical best practice” perspective, and then in class we discuss the who, what, when, where, how and why the theory is or isn’t reflected in practical application. But at the end of the day, the only perspective the students get outside the readings I assign is mine, and as stunningly brilliant as I am, I wanted them to get some alternative viewpoints.
One tactic I’ve employed fairly consistently is to bring in a guest lecturer now and then. This is a great opportunity for the students to hear from important voices in the local emergency management community. Last quarter, the Director of Washington State Division of Emergency Management (and current President of the National Association of Emergency Managers) Jim Mullen did a guest stint, which the students really enjoyed. Director Mullen is a strong supporter of the Disaster Reduction and Emergency Planning Program at the school, so while his willingness to travel all the way up to Bellingham for a 140 minute conversation wasn’t surprising, it was nevertheless very appreciated. But as valuable as these local perspectives are – I still wanted to tap into the wealth of knowledge I was benefiting from personally via my #SMEM (social media for emergency managers) contacts.
Fast forward a couple months. I starting the quarter knowing this was absolutely something I wanted to try again, and thus was a little more on the ball this time in identifying and lining up potential guest speakers. My goal was five participants, each offering a different perspective, from different parts of the country. I will also admit, I wanted to lean more toward the younger end of the spectrum – because frankly – my students are all within a year or two of entering the job market, and I wanted them to hear from people who might have some insight or personal experience to share in that regard.
Given the challenges I had securing participants last time, I invited six individuals of exceptional caliber, fully expecting at least one and maybe two would not be able to participate for one reason or another. I toyed with inviting several others – but too many would be cumbersome – and honestly I wanted to keep the rest of the names in reserve to invite for a future class’ Hangout.
So imagine my surprise when all six very graciously said, “I’d be happy to.” It was the perfect mix:
- Heather Blanchard, co-founder CrisisCommons.org
- Cheryl Bledsoe, Director, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency & President, Washington State Emergency Managers Association
- Aaron Collins, Sr. Risk Control Manager, Starbucks Coffee Company
- Alicia Johnson, Resilience & Recovery Manager, San Francisco Department of Emergency Management
- Justin Kates, Director of Emergency Management, City of Nashua, NH [at 23, possibly the youngest Dir. of EM in the country]
- Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director of NetHope
We all got connected about 4:10pm (Pacific), and having already provided everyone’s bios to my students, launched right into the Q&A. I asked each panelist to state where the worked now, how they got into the field, and what they liked most / least about it. Oh – and keep your answer under 3 minutes. When you’ve got six people, the time/answer management ratio is important.
I’d asked my students to read the panelists backgrounds, and prepare some questions I could have at the ready once my opening question was done. I don’t know if it was shyness, confusion, or something else, but none of the 17 or so students had any prepared questions ready to go. So I free-formed it, and just asked questions I’d be curious about if I were in the students’ shoes. As the insights starting flowing off the screen, all of sudden students starting scribbling down questions and bringing them to me. First a single question, then two, then multi-part questions, then a whole page from one student…
It was awesome. One or two of them were actually antsy as they waited for their question to be asked.
Ideally it would have been nice to let the students themselves ask the questions, but the technology made that an awkward proposition. One of the neat features about the Hangout is that the main or “big” screen automatically shows whoever is speaking – or rather speaking the loudest. Having said that, if one person is speaking and another starts typing (oh yeah – there’s a chat window participants can use simultaneously – more on that later), if the keyboard is particularly loud, the mic would pick that up and put the offending typist on the “big” screen. Similarly, if the students starting commenting or shouting out questions… well… it would be easy for minor mayhem to ensue. Fortunately, the system offers the ability to mute not only your own mic, but that of the other participants as well. But the practical implication was the students needed to provide me with the questions, and then I’d un-mute, ask the panel, and re-mute.
Alright – enough about the ugly technical details. Everyone was having such a good time, we continued on past the pre-designated endtime. When it finally was over, all the panelists stated they definitely wanted their co-panelists’ contact info, and offered their own email addresses to the students in case they had additional questions that they didn’t have a chance to ask. Once we’d signed-off and the students were packing up to head out the door, all of them expressed how much they enjoyed it, and at least a half-dozen of them came up to tell me that was one of the coolest experiences they’d had in school.
Wow. What teacher wouldn’t like to hear that.
Now, roughly 24 hours later, I’m still on a little bit of an emotional high, but confounded at the same time. I mean, conceptionally it’s pretty simple – bring in outside voices to add value to your educational program, using readily available, inexpensive technology. It seems sort of like “so what – why does this feel like a big deal?” Maybe it’s not. But I can’t deny the nagging sense I’ve crossed some sort of boundary – or perhaps instead, that a boundary is merely melting away as we continue to explore how to utilize the new tools and technologies becoming increasingly ubiquitous and accessible. If I can facilitate this kind of experience for my students using little more than a web-camera, an internet connection, and the generous time of a great group of smart people – what’s not possible anymore?
So maybe I’m not really the coolest teacher on campus. But I sure felt like it last night.
[a final note: I have to acknowledge Gisli Olafsson, who participated from a hotel in Spain, Madrid – where it was 2:30am his time. He was on the hook himself to get up that morning and teach his own class, so as one who thoroughly enjoys my own beauty-sleep, I owe you a special thank you!]