Technology that helps (and hinders) good communication

Last week I went along to an event for Science Week. It involved five school students giving short presentations about their science projects and Queensland’s Chief Scientist speaking about the future of science. It was inspiring – particularly for the children in the audience, who were given a glimpse of what science can offer.

The communication technology used to support the event caught my attention – partly because the surroundings were deliberately high-tech, and partly because the technology didn’t work seamlessly with the content. I found that the technology distracted from, rather than supported, the content of the speakers.

The venue was new and fully equipped with learning technologies. Imagine a lecture theatre designed as ‘theatre in the round’, then stretch the space to the shape of an eye, and you’ve captured this venue. The audience sat in six long rows, facing each other across the centre of the room. The speaker was off to one side, in a relatively unobtrusive position. Six large screens were above the audience’s heads, three on either side. This setup meant that the audience and the screens were dominant, while the speakers receded into the corner – hardly an ideal set-up for a presentation. Most of our speakers were savvy enough to get out from behind the lectern, and make use of the space in front of the audience.

The screens above our heads showed three different images – a static statement of the speaker’s name and school, the speaker’s PowerPoint presentation, and an audience feedback system called GoSoapbox.

GoSoapbox was promoted to the audience at the beginning of the night as a great way to get involved in the presentations, by posing questions and making comments in real time. A group of younger students with tablets kept themselves busy by contributing their thoughts. For me, this brought three problems:
  • The constant movement on the screen was distracting – there’s nothing quite like movement on a screen to grab your attention, even when you’d prefer that your attention wasn’t grabbed
  • The comments and questions were mostly irrelevant – like ‘Wow’ or  ‘Will artificial intelligence take over the human race?’ and ‘Science is about unanswered questions. What are your questions?’
  • The speakers mostly ignored the comments and questions, so the input from GoSoapbox existed independently of the rest of the session.

I felt that GoSoapbox was an example of technology being used for the sake of technology. It’s one of those systems that could be wonderful – if used with deliberate purpose and thought, and used just for part of a presentation. But when it’s used as an add-on, it’s nothing but a distraction.

One of the students made a wonderful effort of acknowledging the questions posed on GoSoapbox, and he really showed how powerful the technology could be as a way for speakers to respond to audience questions (and a way for the audience to pose questions anonymously). But even in his presentation, it would have made sense to show GoSoapbox for just some of the time, because of the distraction caused by the moving screen when he was trying to deliver some content.

The Chief Scientist rather endearingly spoke from handwritten notes with no AV support. It was a lovely example of how technology isn’t needed by people who know how to engage their audience. But in situations when the speaker chooses not to use AV, wouldn’t it be nice to turn off the screens and turn up the lights, so that everyone can appreciate the engagement that the speaker is trying to create?