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Assignment: Low-Tech Research

Here’s an assignment I recently developed and tested out on a group of students and faculty that asked them to do research without using any electronic devices. It worked quite well, and I plan to incorporate it into my classes in the future, though I will probably expand it a bit so it becomes a two-class exercise rather than trying to fit it into one. I think the extra time to think and reflect will be helpful.

It’s essentially a library activity (my classroom is in the library), but it raises interesting questions about how and why we use technology, and the effect of that technology on our lives.

The first of the five questions to research is pretty specific to my own university. The others are more general. In creating questions, I was trying to come up with items that would be pretty easy to do a Google search on but rather confounding to think about without access to the internet.

I broke the class into groups of 3 or 4. That’s a manageable size for this activity. Much larger would be unwieldy, much smaller wouldn’t get some of the benefits we discovered: they had to problem-solve with each other without resorting to their phones. Multiple groups said they hadn’t had so much personal interaction in group work in a long time. (This was one of the only responses that really shocked me.)

I should add that it was a lot of fun having faculty, staff, and students together working on one activity. It’s a rare opportunity, and got me thinking that we should seek out more such opportunities and make them less rare. The diversity of experiences and knowledge was a real pleasure. (We discovered such things as the generational line between people who know what microfiche is and people who have never heard the word before in their lives.)

I only gave the participants 15 minutes to do their work. It was enough time, though in class I will probably bump it up to 25 minutes, because I had a pretty research-savvy group.

Here’s the handout I gave them:

Low-tech research [handout]

For this assignment, you will be doing research without any electronic devices. No phones, no computers, no people using phones or computers for you.

You can go anywhere in the library during this assignment. You can use anything that is not an electronic device. You can ask for help from anybody in the building, but they cannot use an electronic device.

Choose one of the questions below to research. It’s important that you seek out not only a question that interests you, but that is DIFFICULT for you. If somebody in your group knows the answer already, that’s not going to help you test and develop your research processes, which is the goal of this assignment. What’s important is that you learn things about research, not that you get a quick answer. Indeed, getting a quick answer is more a sign of failure at this assignment than success.

Questions to choose from:

1. Who was Nathaniel Peabody Rogers and why was he important to Plymouth, New Hampshire?

2. What is something that happened in Kenya within the last week?

3. What was the weather on today’s date 100 years ago?

4. What is a good way to make caramel?

5. What are the annual migration routes of yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia)?

(Here is the activity as a Google document that you can easily adapt and print as a handout.)

Reflecting on the activity

When the participants returned to the classroom, I had them write individually for 5 minutes about their process: What did they do, how did they do it, what obstacles did they encounter, how did they approach those obstacles?

Once they had done some writing on their own, I had them share their reflections with their group and compare them. Did they emphasize the same things? Did some people pay more attention to certain parts of the process than others? Why might this be?

Then, they worked together to create a unified group statement of their process and experience, which they then shared in full class discussion. This proved to be lively, because the groups had different levels of experience, but all found significant challenges. It was an exciting conversation.

Finally, I asked them to think about which of these skills might be worth teaching to other people, and how they might be taught effectively. What did we learn that was worth holding on to?

Image via Flickr by Bookfinch