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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Skype Sample — Davidson’s Inst.’s Experience

The Davidson Institute is an organization dedicated to nurturing and teaching profoundly gifted young people (ages 5-18). The students and families it serves live throughout the United States, so the Institute has always made use of digital connections. Instead of author visits to a brick and mortar building, it provides week long Bulletin Board sessions where an author, a scholar, a professional works with students. These are asynchronous  events – the author agrees to be available for about ten hours (two hours a day for the school week), but it is up to the poster when to come to the site. In turn the students my respond at any moment, and the full exchange remains up for the week, and is then archived. The Bulletin Board thus is a cross between a conversation and a meditation – it is both an exchange of views and a Socratic tool – a set of beginnings that the students may return to and explore at any time.

            I have done something similar with a high school in Illinois, and, most recently, an online YA Lit class. Blackboard (smae as Bulletin Board) seminars work when everyone is engaged and present – when a poster can reasonably expect a response (pretty much like a blog). The Davidson folks have also tried going a step beyond posting – having live conversations where all the students call in and speak with an instructor while also viewing a related website. Their first venture into these waters was centered on a Grandmaster teaching chess – which is a perfect fit. But the school found that Ventrilo – where students could log in to the group conversation at any time during the seminar – worked better than Skype (audio only) where everyone needed to be in the group conversation at the same time (or the group would have to be re-started everytime someone joined in late.) 
Davidson’s experience made me think that the theater to film analogy might not be quite right. The shift is more like how, in the 19th century, people went to hear speakers live — at a Chautauqua or the local fairgrounds. In the early 20th they began to shift to radio — you heard a voice, but the audience was scattered. Think of an audio author visit plus website — for example, Jim Murphy has a new book on Antietam — picture a class listening to him while looking at a site on which you could trace the forces engaged in battle. Remember Google Lit Trips? A class could combine audio with exploring a Lit Trip journey. Maybe we need to ask what existing and affordable technology can do well — rather than be frustrated that it cannot always do what we wish it could.


  1. Thanks for the information. This sounds very interesting. I’m going to check it out and see if something like this could be incorporated into our classes.(Something else to make the techs and administrators nervous!)