A Google Jockey Helps Get Students Engaged

And what in the world might a Google jockey be? In a first-year seminar on environmental sustainability, the Google jockey was a student who surfed the Web for material related to the discussion topic or lecture and then displayed that material in real time to the rest of the class. In this case, the student was a senior biochemistry major described in the article as “bright” and “engaged.” But don’t rule out this interesting strategy if you don’t have this kind of student preceptor at your disposal.

The authors of the article referenced below arrived at this strategy when they realized that students lacked “a rich set of mental images” related to the topic being discussed. (p. 254) They thought that adding images (including cartoons) might more effectively engage students and provide a visual context for the course material. And the strategy was even more successful than they anticipated. Keys to its success were a high-speed Internet connection and a fast computer. The student mastered the technique very quickly—in part, the authors think, because she was bright, but more because students have high technical literacy. The student did not have any special computer expertise or training before the strategy was launched.

Also contributing to the success of the strategy was the willingness of the instructor (one of the authors) to give some control of the discussion to the Google jockey. This lesson was learned the hard way. When the instructor asked the student preceptor to locate a particular kind of image, that made it difficult for the student. Now there was a “right” answer. It worked better when the Google jockey selected the images on her own, probably because students are more likely to pick images meaningful to fellow students.

A number of students in the class indicated they would like to try being the Google jockey, and toward the end of the semester the instructor experimented with letting other students play the role. Those students found it was not as easy as it looked. Having a student familiar with the content and having one who had worked previously with the professor did add to the success of the strategy.

With all the recent research on how students don’t multitask nearly as well as they think they do, perhaps a strategy like this is distracting. If students are looking at the images, then maybe they aren’t listening to the professor. After four class sessions with the preceptor acting as Google jockey, 92 percent of the students reported that the images contributed to the discussion. Forty-two percent said they could be distracting. By the end of the semester, 90 percent of the students agreed they could better cope with the images. At that point none of them said they were distracting.

The authors do acknowledge that a strategy like this depends on course content. They don’t see it working well in a highly structured, content-heavy course. But for a seminar, maybe in courses for nonmajors, it’s an interesting option that proved very successful in this course.

Reference: Pence, L.E., Greene, E., and Pence, H.E. (2010). Using a Google Jockey to Enhance Classroom Discussion. Journal of Chemical Education, 87 (3), 254-255.

A Google Jockey The Teaching Professor, 25.5 (2011): 4.