Software Freedom/Controlling Communication Activity

In this activity, students design, implement, share, and discuss a communications technology that defines the terms on which others can communicate.

Key Concepts edit

This two part activity is designed to be used and to build upon the concepts from the Software Freedom/Communication. In particular, it aims to help frame questions including:

  • How can the medium for communication limit, increase, or otherwise effect a message?
  • How can students manipulate a communication medium to change the terms of communication?
  • How is the way that communication mediums are designed more broadly reflective of the types of designs decisions that students can make while writing software? What are the possible repercussions of this type of design decision?

Materials edit

For Part I, you will need:

  • Pencils and papers for each student. Colors pencils are optional but might be fun.
  • A set of relatively complex pictures or photographs; one set of 3-4 photographs for each pair of students.

For Part II, you will will need:

  • Access to computers for each student in the class.
  • Access to a modified version of the Gossip IM client with support for user-specified filtering.
  • A pre-configured chat channel set as the default on each of the chat channels.

Activity edit

The activity is divided into two parts. Part I is non-technical and can be done without computers. Part II requires access to computers and to a specially modified instant messaging client which is available as free/open source software. Both issues attempt to drive at the same core concepts.

Part One edit

The teacher should explain to the students that, for the duration of the experiment, students can communicate in any way they desire except by showing each other the drawing. That may translate into gestures, faces, works, etc. They should be encouraged to be creative.

Students should split into groups of two. In each dyad, one student should be given a photograph. Sitting across a table from each other, the student with the photograph should describe the photograph to the second student. The second student should do their best to replicate the drawing on a piece of paper according to the first student's description.

After the students have finished their drawings, the student who drew should be given another photograph and the process should be repeated with the roles repeated. Things should proceed identically except that the medium of communication should be changed. This process should be repeated several times. The medium may include:

  • Over the telephone as part of homework.
  • Over IM or chat within the computer lab.
  • Face-to-face but using only gestures (i.e., no speech or words)
  • Only through written words.
  • Using written words and a pictures.

Student should reassemble in class and compare drawings within in each medium and between different mediums.

Discussion should proceed from these drawings on the nature of the communication medium and, ultimately, the nature of the quality of the final product produced with each medium.

Part Two edit

Students should be given a modified version of the Gossip instant messaging client on their computers and then asked to join a chat channel with every other student in the class or lab. Students should familiarize themselves with the chat client but should already be at least somewhat familiar with the mechanics of messaging and chat.

Students will then be introduced to the concept of filtering. Students will see how to block message by keyword and by user, how to delay messages by keyword, user, or message frequency from a particular users, and how to alter messages en route in a variety of simple ways including keyword expansion and emoticon or image interpolation.

Students will then be asked to create their own set of filters that makes the chat channel different: either more entertaining, more efficient or more difficult. They will then be asked to explain their filter to the rest of the class over the chat channel.

Students will reconvene in the class and will again briefly present their filter. They will compare their in-class explanation to the explanation they made in the chat channel. The initial presentations will have, of course, been mediated by the filters that the student wrote. Students should reflect as as group on a number of questions:

  • Did students receive messages correctly through the filter? Did they receive it completely? What did they miss?
  • Were individuals understandings inhibited or changed by the filters they wrote?

Discussion edit

Discussion should happen after both Part I and Part II but should culminate in a larger discussion at the end of both activities. In both sections, discussion should be framed and led so that students focus on key concepts in this theme. Important questions may include:

  • How is the process of changing medium similar and different from the process of adding or removing filters to an IM conversation?
  • Were some media or filters easier to communicate over than others?
  • Where there certain topics or concepts that were easier to communicate in some media or with some filters but more difficult to communicate with others?
  • How could students help make things easier or more difficult to understand by manipulating filters or changing media?

Also, students should be asked to reflect on the effect of their filters with questions that might include:

  • What sort of effect did the work with the filters have on communication more generally?
  • Was communication more fun? More difficult?
  • What sorts of communication would their filters make easier or more difficult?
  • How are the filters similar to communication technology design more generally?

Students should also be encouraged to connect the processes in the manipulation of media to the idea of censorship -- ideally if they have covered this in other work before and it does not need to be introduced again. They should ask:

  • How is the manipulation of media similar or different from censorship?
  • What is the relationship between censorship and communication technology design more generally?