Thursday, December 08, 2005

Experimenting Matters -- Why Everyone Needs a Sandbox

In my job -- Director of New Media for a college textbook company -- one of the dangers we face is overthinking a new idea. So we might have a new idea for an interactive WWW activity, something we haven't done before.

A meeting is called. The idea is pitched. And then sometimes --not always, but often enough to notice-- the idea falls apart because the right questions are asked too soon: who will use this? how? is this for a teacher or a student? how will they know it's there? what should we call it? what will it look like? what will it cost?

All of those, and more, are important questions.

But they're not always the right question. Especially since very often they're asked before it's possible to know the answer. So much of what my company is good at is knowing how to make really good books and certain kinds of media. There's a lot of expertise on what teachers want and students will use in certain types of print and electronic media. But there are so many new things we don't know about. The mistake sometimes is to ask the same kinds of questions we can answer about print and older forms of new media where we have experience with the media and the questions.

Because we can't answer the questions, the projects languish, fade, get set aside, seem to unreal, impractical and outre. So nothing happens and good ideas never get beyond the 'what if . . .' stage.

I think teachers do the same kinds of thing to themselves sometimes -- the form a committee in their heads when they're thinking of trying a new technology in the classroom or new teaching idea with a technology. They think 'what if. . .' then jump to how, when, why and where too soon. Each thing that can't be answered becomes an obstacle -- how will this help students learn? how will I explain it? what if it doesn't work? is it going to be too much work? -- and given enough obstacles, a good idea becomes a daunting thing.

So my goal -- my New Year's work resolution -- is to build sandboxes, places where ideas can be played with, tried, and dropped. Sand is great. It shifts, it sifts, it moves. A little water here and there and it can be sculpted. But it's just sand, so if it doesn't work, you try something else.

I want a sandbox for ideas, where ideas get first pass in a sandbox, not a meeting. I want editors to have a resource where if they get an idea, they can mock it up, do a prototype, see what it looks like. And then if they think they have something, call a meeting. Only have the meeting in the sandbox, where others can see the thing in action, push the idea, see what it does or might do.

I wish for a sandbox.

I wish a teaching with technology sandbox for every instructor. A place where they can try an idea. I also wish folk the courage to try without worry about whether something will work exactly as imagined. I wish upon people a willingness to fail, to be wrong, and to have fun failing and being wrong because they're learning from trying.

Experiment. Play in the digital sand. Ask your students to play too. See what happens. Start small, make it low stakes, and see what comes of it.