The editors have struggled with a dilemma in preparing this report. The work that the students did is significant and insightful and should be presented clearly and succinctly. But, their work would have been impossible without the use of sophisticated electronic brainstorming tools and the reader needs to appreciate the significance of that process. This preface attempts, with the scenarios below, to explain the electronic brainstorming process to those who have not experienced it first-hand.
Consider this objective: You are asked to conduct a brainstorming session with 15 students to determine the 10 most important inventions or discoveries in the history of mankind. You may consider scientific, social, economic, industrial, political, or other implications. After determining the 10 most important items, develop collaborative comments on the significance of each item and prepare a list of the comments in order of significance. You have one hour to complete your work.
Scenario #1: Standard classroom with 15 students and 1 hour. As students call out their contributions, someone records them on the board. In a typical class of 15 students, 5 students will make most of the suggestions, 5 students will not utter a word, and the remaining 5 students will contribute only a handful of ideas. It will take 45 minutes to generate 10 to 15 ideas because each idea will invoke discussion and will be challenged and/or defended by the participating students. You will have the collective work of only 5 to 8 students, at best. Five to 10 students are completely bored. The ranking and voting will lead to more arguments. Time will expire with hurt feelings, no consensus, and no report.
Scenario #2: Same classroom, students and time. To cut down on the arguing and discussion and predominance of a few students, students will all shout out their ideas simultaneously and the teacher will record them on the board as she hears them. The teacher will require much interchange with students for clarification. More ideas will be generated than before but during the ranking and winnowing process, the same arguments will prevail. Same 5 students didn't say a word. Again, no consensus, frustration, and no report.
Scenario #3: Same students, each of whom has a personal laptop computer that is connected to all the other computers. The computers are equipped with special software for electronic brainstorming.
Step 1: The room is silent as each student anonymously and simultaneously enters additions to the growing list of ideas that appears on each PC monitor and on a public projector screen. In 10 minutes, more than 120 ideas have been generated. A few will be duplicates. The students are inspired by the collection of ideas growing at 10 to 12 per minute. Some of them thought of ideas that they had never considered before. All participated in the non-competitive and non-threatening exercise.
Step 2: The 120+ ideas are transferred automatically and electronically by the facilitator to another computer tool used for ranking ideas. Each student is asked to score each idea on a scale of 1 to 5 based on "least important" to "most important." Five minutes are spent voting, including tabulation of results.
Step 3: The top 30 ideas are then selected and transferred to another ranking tool and each student is asked to select only 5 of the 30 items that he thinks should be part of the final list. Less than 5 minutes is spent in this multiple selection process. Again, the results are tabulated automatically, instantly.
Step 4: The top-10 ranked items are then transferred to a Topic-Commenter Tool and they appear on each screen as a set of 10 "electronic index cards" with a different topic at the top of each card. Students click on any of the cards and enter comments about the significance of each topic. Each student can make as many comments as he chooses and he can see the anonymous comments of all other students. The students generate 80-100 comments about the top 10 topics. This activity takes 20 minutes.
Step 5: The comments are then transferred to a ranking tool and the students rank the comments for each topic in order of significance by voting with their mouse. This takes 15 minutes for all ten groups.
Step 6: The top 10 topics and the ranked comments for each topic are transferred to Microsoft Word and a report is printed for each member of the class and for the teacher. This step takes 5 minutes. This hour was spent without a single word being exchanged defending an idea or challenging the conclusions of the group. Every student recognized that true consensus was achieved and that the ideas were evaluated on their own merit and not on the persuasive skills of the proponents. In fact, this hour was spent without any conversation whatsoever other than casual comments between tasks and the presentation of instructions for the next task.
This is exactly what our 15 students did as a training exercise to learn how to use the computer-based tools for collaboration.
They repeated this process numerous times during the two day session as they explored the issue of school violence from different perspectives and produced the results of their collaborative thinking as shown in this paper.
To produce the results contained herein would have taken days and days of mental wrangling, arguments, persuasion, discussion, threats and untold frustration on the part of the students using the traditional meeting format. It's entirely possible that this collaborative effort would have been impossible using traditional methods.
The student comments below illustrate their reaction to using the computerized collaborative tools described in Section 2.
"I've really enjoyed working on this topic of school violence without having to argue my side in order to get a word in. Much time was definitely saved in the process and the group actually stayed on task, which is really difficult to do in a regular meeting."
"As a shy person, I really liked the anonymity of the program which allowed me to contribute to the discussion a lot - something I would normally be hesitant to do."
"I am a very opinionated person, and naturally, I think my views on things are correct. I found this process ideally suited for dealing with people that are so stubborn. The anonymous voting allows for the best idea, as viewed by the majority, to prevail."
"This process is ... immensely beneficial because it allows many options to be explored simultaneously. In turn, one person's idea can trigger a useful solution. People can truly expand on ideas, and develop them to the fullest potential."
"It surprised me ... when I participated in this project and realized how many people can work together in this method without there being so many clashes between personalities and ideas. This process deserves more credit than I originally gave it."
As you read this report, consider that this group of students generated over 800 discrete ideas in 5 different brainstorming sessions, none of which lasted more than 10 minutes. They participated in some 20-25 voting or ranking sessions lasting an average of 6 minutes each. They probably spent a collective 2-3 hours in 9 to 10 elaboration (topic-commenter) sessions where they built supporting ideas and comments for each of the ranked and selected topics. Section 3 of the report contains their Collaborative Thinking on School Violence. Section 6 contains the raw, unedited results of their brainstorming efforts.