Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Backchannel Discussions

Ever wonder what your students are thinking while you are teaching? Backchannel discussions are the way to get student thinking at the forefront of your lesson!

Wikipedia defines backchennel as :

"the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks. The term was coined in the field of Linguistics to describe listeners' behaviours during verbal communication, Victor Yngve 1970.

The term "backchannel" generally refers to online conversation about the topic or the speaker. Occasionally backchannel provides audience members a chance to fact-check the presentation."

So often when the teacher is speaking (or a student), the other students are disengaged. They may be thinking about something else. We don't really know. Providing your students with a backchannel to discuss what you are teaching in real time gives them a way to engage in the discussion, while at the same time, it gives you a way to KNOW that they are on task and part of the lesson.

Some examples of backchannel discussions:

1. While discussing literature in class, invite a group to discuss the book at the front of the room, while the rest of the group has a discussion on the backchannel. Encourage them to fact check the group, offer their own insights, and provide additional resources. Consider projecting the backchannel discussion in real time.

2. Have students report about their science experiments as they are doing them. One group reads about a problem another group is having and shares a solution. Another group finds a new way to approach the problem and shares it with others. Meanwhile, the teacher benefits from seeing how students are processing the information.

3. During a debate in Civics, students are fact checking and providing feedback about the debate as it happens. Students are engaged, digging for sources to support arguments, and persuading one another to one side or the other.

Some tools that can be used for backchannel discussions:

1. Twitter

2. Chat

3. Google Groups


5. Students blogs

Friday, June 4, 2010

Using Digital Tools to Facilitate Learning Teams

I have been a fan of Bill Ferriter, who blogs at The Tempered Radical, for a long time. Not because I always agree with him, but because he always makes me think.

His recent post on Using Digital Tools to Support PLCs got me thinking, mostly because we have been having the same conversation here. We have a few classes at our Summer Tech Institute in August that focus on how technology can facilitate our learning teams. We have some phenomenal teachers that will share ways that they use MOODLE, Google Docs, and video conferencing to share data, discuss student assessments, develop common assessments, and much more.

Bill does such a nice job of explaining how he and his team are using a wiki to accomplish this same thing.

"Over the past six years, my own learning team has had to learn how to coordinate the following actions:

  • The development of common assessments.

  • The development of shared sets of essential outcomes.

  • The publication of shared sets of lessons and materials.

  • The organization of team-based collections of web sources.

  • The organization of team-based websites for communicating with parents and other interested parties.

  • The development of team-based approaches and philosophies about key issues like remediation, enrichment, grading and homework."

Our learning teams are working on the same actions. Often, I hear people complain about the time, energy, and organization needed to make their learning team work effectively. This is true, but, like Bill, I believe that technology can increase productivity and save time. Having an online repository for resources means fewer meetings, less chance of losing materials and recreating them, and less chance that people use outdated material because that is what is in their file cabinet.

I encourage you to read Bill's post (as well as his follow up posts in this series) and consider signing up for a Summer Tech Institute class!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Can you learn literacy from a textbook?

After reading about this course about Critical Literacies, it really got me thinking about how we teach. We use textbooks and assign chapters to be read. We all come to class having read the same thing and then discuss it. Sound familiar? Well, I have to admit, I don't get it.

In my world, no one assigns me what to read. I have to go find it. I have to sift through gobs (yes, this is a technical term!) of information and find the most relevant, accurate, non-biased, current information. I love the design of this course. It basically breaks the course down into four categories:

1. Aggregate - Give students access to lots of information and give them the opportunity to practice the skill of focusing their search and finding the best information. Don't just tell them what to read, show them where to go to find the information. Teach them how to search, analyze sources, and choose the best information. This is a skill that will be essential to their future!

2. Remix -  Give students practice organizing the information they find, consolidating information from multiple sources into one place. Ideally, it should be a place where the notes can be easily shared, like a blog, social bookmarking site, MOODLE, or some other place.

3. Repurpose - Give students experience communicating their learning using tools that allow them to publish their ideas. Teach them to create new learning from what they have absorbed. No more regurgitating knowledge. Students must redesign what they learn into new products.

4. Feed Forward - Let students share their learning. We live in a society in which sharing is easy and powerful. We should be teaching our students about how to do it effectively and responsibly. They have a digital footprint. We should be helping them design it.

I can predict some of the questions and concerns that people will have. How do you hold a discussion when everyone has read something different? How do ensure that what the students choose is authoritative and accurate? How do you control where they go to make sure they don't get off track?

As I see it, those are the fundamental questions for research today. If we don't tackle them, are we really teaching research skills? Research is challenging. We don't do our students any favors by avoiding the challenge and making it easier.

So here is my challenge to you: Start the fall with a list of resources. Give your students the freedom to select which sources are best. Let that freedom feed a discussion about effective research practices. Then help your students lead discussions through online publishing tools.

Thanks to Rita Kop and Stephen Downes at for their great idea!