Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hanging on to the Hangout

Today I was scheduled to participate in a webinar hosted by Troy Hicks, Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. Our plan was to discuss, with others from across the country, how we will be using his new book, Crafting Digital Writing, in our Summer Institute on Teaching Writing this year. When I agreed to participate, folks said to me, "We'll be using Google Hangout, okay?" I agreed. Of course it was okay! I'd figure it out!

At the beginning of the week, I went to check out an iPad at User Support Services on my college campus, as my own MacBook has a much-too-old operating system to handle Google Hangout. iPad in hand, I brought it home, charged it up, and proceeded to download the Google Plus and Google Hangout apps in preparation for my big 4:00pm curtain call today. I checked in with folks at NWP and confirmed we were ready to go.

As I sat at the RIWP with my Summer Institute co-facilitator, Madonna, and we watched the clock turn to 4:00, we waited. We checked our email and our text messages as faces and voices began appearing on our screen, the others invited to the Hangout. "How am I supposed to get in on this thing?" I wondered out loud. Madonna wasn't sure. So, she went on her Mac Airbook, and I went on my iPad. We were both frantically trying to find a link or a number or something to help us "dial in" to the Hangout, but no matter which page we visited, from the Educator Innovator page to the NWP website, we couldn't figure out how to connect.

So, the webinar was happening without me. There was Troy and the others, talking at us through the laptop but unable to see or hear me in order to know that I was ready to participate. Here he was, talking about writing digitally with teachers in the SI, and I couldn't figure out how to digitally write my way into this webinar. Minutes seemed like hours, and I heard every word of the ongoing conversation as a missed opportunity. "I feel like I'm standing outside of a nightclub and no one's letting me in," I said to Madonna, ready, after 30 minutes, to quit trying. "Should I just forget it? Are they going to think I blew them off?"

But, technology leaves a trail, thank goodness, and before long, I could hear Troy's voice through the screen, saying to his audience, "Well, it looks like Jenn in Rhode Island is having some technical difficulties," which provided a moment or two of relief, as though the principal had just realized I hadn't skipped school but in fact had gone home sick. But, still, we weren't connected. As a last resort, I logged into my college email account, found a recent email from Paul Oh containing a link and clicked the link. This one act magically transported me into Hangout, where I was instantly beamed onto the bottom of the screen with the others who had gathered at 4:00. Just as my face appeared on the screen, though, we had no audio...

And, then we had double audio, as we had somehow recorded the webinar and then were playing it back, mistakenly, as Troy welcomed me. Here was my chance, with only a few minutes remaining, but I couldn't chime in because for some reason, audio of Troy's voice, and his words from only moments before, were playing in the background on the laptop I was using, preventing him or the others from hearing me as I spoke. The scene at the RIWP during this hour was carnivalesque; we were closing every open window on the laptop, eventually closing out Troy and the Hangout only to have to open it again. We finally shut off the recording/feedback with 4 minutes to go and there I was, finally "on the air." I think I said, "Hi" and maybe one other thing before it was time to sign off. I contributed nothing but I learned a lot. I am sure I will never screw up a Google Hangout again.

My contribution to the brain trust today is that technology is hard. It takes patience, extreme attention to detail (is that a backslash or a frontslash?), repetition, failure, and public humiliation (sometimes) to figure out how technological tools work. I was either brave enough or stupid enough to agree to participate in a webinar in a format I had never even heard of, let alone used or mastered. And, in a sense, that is what I am inviting my teacher participants to do this summer in our SI: to play with technology, to use it and abuse it, to screw it up, to fail at it, to laugh at how hard it is, and to laugh at ourselves and to marvel at how easily it comes to our students.

Despite how frustrating this hour was for me today, and despite the fact that I feel a teensy bit like a technological failure at the moment, Troy's webinar invitation was, in a sense, my own little Professional Development session for the day. I tried it, I wasn't very good at it, and now I know lots more than I did at 3:00pm. Thanks again to the NWP for giving me a little disequilibrium to keep it real.