- About Ira David Socol
- Freedom Stick and Firefox Accessibility
- The Change.Org Posts
- IdeaChat 11 February 2012
- Counting the Origins of Failure
- Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
- Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I
- Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II
- The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone
- "Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children
07 November 2008
Bringing the "Back Channel" Forward
Whenever you "teach," there is a "back channel." It has always existed in every classroom, every lecture hall, every on-line learning environment.
It includes, "Hey, what did she say?" "This sucks." "I don't understand." "That's stupid, why doesn't he answer the question?" "Do you know how to do this?" "When is that paper due?" even, "C'mon, come to the party with me tonight."
In other words, students are talking, or passing notes, or rolling their eyes at each other as you talk, or asking for answers, or help, or complaining, or wondering, or wishing you'd get to stuff that somehow connected the topic to their interests.
I really began to appreciate the value and potential of this back channel a couple of summers ago taking an International Education course. Every time some claim was made Google searches exploded across the room, followed by emails: "That's not true." "Go this link." "The UN says this..." And after that burst of activity someone would interrupt the class with a new data set or collection of opinions.
Powerful, powerful stuff.
So I wondered, could I create a dedicated Twitter-like stream that would make this back channel public? Bring it from the back to the front? No, not just me, many of us have wondered the same thing - including Google, who has built Google Moderator to do something very similar if you are in a school using Google Apps for Education (which will be my next post).
The idea was to allow this stream to run in parallel with the primary classroom experience. Make it quite public. Almost - but-not-quite - central. And in my case, to make it incredibly easy, do-able without registrations or log-ins.
So on Tuesday I tried this in my undergraduate class. I used Today'sMeet which is the creation of my son - so this is very cool. I set up an extra laptop and a second digital projector, aimed at a wall alongside the big screen, and I posted the link.
The first few posts were simple. "Hi" "Hello" "What's This?" But within fifteen minutes it had accelerated wildly. There were "tweets" (if you will) about the stuff in the class, and questions, and doubts, and worries. There were "procedurals" - "where's the sign in sheet?" "Is the due date still...?" There were requests, "I wish he'd talk about..." There were concerns, "This is distracting me" "More than Facebook?" "About the same" By the time the class session had ended, over 200 comments in all.
Every few minutes I looked up at the screen and checked the conversation, and typically I adjusted the discussion, or picked up on a question being asked there, or commented on an answer or a comment. In a big class it gave me real access to far more students than I can possibly get by watching for raised hands. And it let me - and the class - hear from many who never raise their hands. Honestly, I could even judge, much more clearly than usual, what was connecting and what was missing. As an instructor - I loved it.
OK, yes, I know this is a highly controversial idea. On Classroom 2.0 one teacher, not an anti-technology one, says of an experiment like this: "Kids today are fritzy enough without trying to listen and do several other things at the same time. To me this is the consummate use of technology to no real benefit and it plays right into the scatteredness of many kids today. It allows students to talk throughout the entire presentation. I just don't get it. I may not be articulate enough to explain myself but I just keep thinking of Leno's comment to Hugh Grant after Grant's dalliance with a lady of the night...."What were you thinking?"'
But on another blog, another teacher references using another "chat room" technology: "It also demonstrates the power of the backchannel. I personally believe that the backchannel is the greatest unharnessed resource that we as educators have available to us. It does not threaten me nor bother me that you learned as much if not more from the backchannel the other night -- in fact, it makes me feel great that I facilitated the connection." So, as in everything else, there's a range of teacher response.
But what I watched was student response. In the room Today'sMeet began to overwhelm Facebook and Email use in the room. The distraction technology became engagement technology, just as using polleverywhere switches mobile phones from distraction tool to engagement tool. And we all learned more using this than we would have without using it.
And that's not even touching on the ways this kind of technology supports the shy user, the user with speech issues, the user having trouble with the English Language, the user who'd rather be able to think through and even edit a statement or question before asking it.
Today'sMeet is free, requires no registration or log-in. Just create a room and point your students to it. To see an example - our conversation on Google Apps - look here.
- Ira Socol