Real-time lecture input using Google Docs

As a lecturer, I constantly struggle to optimize audience engagement while teaching to the level of the learners. What added value does my lecture provide beyond the learner simply reading a textbook chapter on the topic? Am I covering topics that are too basic or too advanced?

What's been done?
  • I have seen a few multi-day CME conferences end each day by answering anonymous slips of paper with questions from the audience. Great idea, but more engages audience AFTER rather than DURING the talk.
  • I have used the audience-response system (ARS) that allows audience members to vote on multiple-choice questions. Cool engaging concept, but requires some tech setup and equipment.
  • I have heard of people using Twitter feeds in the background on a second projector keeping track of audience conversations and questions. I can imagine that this can be quite distracting, especially not managed well.
A nifty trick: Use Google Docs in realtime

Recently at our residency conference, I gave a talk on Acute Limb Ischemia. Since our EM residents are so easy-going, super-smart, vocal, and ready to try anything, I felt safe trying out a new teaching approach.

After presenting a brief sample case of a patient with acute leg pain, I displayed a URL link to a public Google Docs page that I created the night before. To eliminate technological barriers, I made this page completely public. That means you don't need a login to view or edit the document. I then asked the residents to input either a burning question that they had or an important learning tip about acute limb ischemia.

See the page:

What happened after I gave out the link? You could see the residents immediately typing away on the screen (see below). Each user had a different cursor bar color. Letters were flying across the screen throughout the document in real-time. It was totally amazing. For instance, there were 5 users on this screenshot.

At the upper right corner of the screen, you could see how many people were actively viewing the document.
At the end of the talk, I read aloud the questions and launched into my talk. I specifically referenced the questions when I got to the appropriate areas in my lecture and spent an extra minute more than I had planned focusing on the issue. And finally, at the end of the talk, I returned to the questions on the Google Docs page to make sure that all questions were answered.

Overall, I think this approach went over surprisingly well.

Some reflective thoughts:
  • This real-time, free-form approach requires audience members to be online.
  • Only 50 people can edit simultaneously.
  • This approach is a great way to engage the learners and for me to assess their baseline knowledge. Because the questions can be submitted anonymously, no one has to feel shy or stupid for asking what they might consider a novice question.
  • The approach is a little risky, as a speaker, because you may not be able to answer the questions. Fortunately, there was always a resident or faculty member with the answer.
  • There is definitely the uncomfortable feeling of not being able to plan exactly how your talk is going to turn out. As a speaker, you have to be flexible.
  • You have no control of what the audience writes. If you are really concerned about this, you can have a "patroller" to watch for inappropriate comments. In this case, the residents policed themselves.
  • Caution: This document is at risk of being deleted by any user. Because document access doesn't require a login, anyone with the link has total administrative control of the document.
Has anyone else used Google Docs or other interactive feature in their talks?

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