How to Make a Class Backchannel


Yesterday I posted a “Twitter Matrix” for education, which generated a fair amount of buzz in the micro-blogging world. A few people sent me messages asking if I could explain how I make my class backchannel, so here goes.

First of all, I think of the backchannel as the conversation that might otherwise normally happen in class within students’ minds, or between each other. It’s the communication that happens between two or more students about their experience of class and their own learning. To be clear, classes have always had backchannels of conversation, the difference now ist that technology allows us to put them to better use. When these conversations become public, students and teachers have an opportunity to learn from each other, and questions get answered, and issues get addressed.

Here are two ways that I have used Twitter as a backchannel:

1. Make a Class Account. This year, I created a “LIVE” Twitter account for my US History class. On our private class wiki, I shared the log-in information, and students are allowed to access the account during class. Students can post anything they wish in this backchannel, and we all see it.

An advantage to this common account is anonymity – it’s impossible to know who posted since we’re all using the same acct. It’s been my experience that some students will ask questions or make comments that could be very helpful only if they don’t risk embarrassing themselves. Of course anonymity also means freedom to be malicious with the class Twitter account, so I highly recommend a discussion of netiquette and integrity before giving this privilege to students.

Creating a common class account is easy. Just think of a name, create the Twitter account linked to YOUR email address, choose a simple password (school name?), and share the log-in information on your private class website.

2. Make a class hashtag. When I first joined Twitter, I thought hashtags (# + short term, eg “#edchat”) were created by Twitter or something, and wasn’t quite sure how they worked. Well, they’re really easy – anyone can make a hashtag by simply putting # in front of a word or set of characters. Hashtags allow you to locate student tweets by searching the term. It’s Twitter’s way of organizing zillions of tweets.

In my class, I ask all my students to create an “academic” Twitter account, (they may not wish to share a personal account with class, if they have one) and then each unit I choose a hashtag that we can all use to post comments and questions (ex. #coldwar). We can then each search for this tag and see what we’re all posting and comment back and forth. I’ve also created a widget for our private class wiki that shows the results of our backchannel, so we don’t all have to search Twitter.

By using these public hashtags, we also involve people outside our class who may have common interests. If we tweet for a week or two with the tag #coldwar, we automatically find many collaborators on Twitter that may wish to answer questions, and we also learn from others who are sharing their ideas. Social Learning happens!

There’s plenty more to talk about on this topic of class backchannels, and certainly Twitter isn’t the only way to go. If you have other ideas, don’t hesitate to leave a comment here, or tweet me @MikeGwaltney. And why not use the tag #classbackchannel? 🙂

History Education in a World of Information Surplus

My PLN colleague Liz Becker (@Ellsbeth) kindly wrote yesterday on her excellent blog All Who Wonder are Not Lost: History is Dead, Long Live History about how my post about math education (“…Long Live Mathematics!“) could be applied to  history. I’m grateful for her post, and I think we’re reading each others’ minds. I’ve been meaning to write about history education in the 21st century for awhile, but am holding off. Not because I don’t know what to say, but because I have SO MUCH to say. To be clear, I am nearly at the point where I think ALL of history education needs to be rethought. In light of the realities of the 21st century, I think history education needs a complete overhaul. I’ll write about this in detail in a future post, but for now, how ’bout this for a grenade: all history classes should be interdisciplinary courses about current events, taught backwards. As I said, I’ll explain in a future post.

As a history teacher, of course it makes sense for me to say that I frequently think about what a good education in history should be. But it’s been on my mind much more than usual lately. I’ve been in a deep inquiry about what students should leave high school knowing, given that they’ll live in a world where historical facts are always at their fingertips.

Liz states the inquiry quite well in her blog post: “…how much we should shift the approach to teaching history if, through technology, students have much easier access to the facts than in the past?

As I’m sure Liz and most readers would agree, an excellent education in history should never have been construed as just memorizing facts. Yes, remembering names of historical figures and key events is important, but there’s much more to good history than that.

So what should a 21st century education in history be?

Let me start by explaining how my recent inquiry has been motivated by three things. First, I’ve noticed over the last couple years that I rarely pull a History Primary Source Reader off the shelf for my students. Instead, I find excellent sources online. I just can’t find a Reader that gives my students all the relevant primary sources the World Wide Web can. Second, my department is engaged in a curriculum review process this year that has taken us to some very fundamental questions, like: should we attempt to cover the whole history of all human time between 7th and 11th grade (when our required courses end)? should we be focused on “coverage” or on “meaning-making”? what should students know and be able to do upon graduation? is it more important they know a lot of historical facts or that they can think like historians?

And thirdly, a couple week ago I ran across this excellent TEDx talk by Diana Laufenberg. She is a Social Studies teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA, where the curriculum is inquiry-driven, project-based, and focused on 21st-century learning. Though her talk is ostensibly about learning from mistakes, I think she’s making an important point about history education. She begins by stating the obvious, but what most history education standards don’t yet acknowledge – students don’t need to come to school to find historical information:

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Laufenberg: “The main point is that if we continue to look at education as if it is about coming to school to get the information… we’re missing the mark.

Like computers can do the computing for mathematical problems, the internet is a better source for historical facts than textbooks or teachers alone. Primary sources abound on the net, and a well-trained history teacher can help students acquire the skills necessary to determine which sources are accurate and relevant, and how to make their own historical narratives out of the abundant facts.

Yes, remembering names of historical figures and key events is important, but not as essential as learning to think like a historian. Students should engage with the truly essential facts of history frequently in the process of making their own historical narratives. I can envision students dealing with tricky historical inquiries about the origins of the Tea Party movement, and coming to grips with facts about southern and rural libertarianism, for example. Certainly, students in a well-designed 21st century history course would retain important facts of history.

Much more valuable than facts is the ability to do historical inquiry – to formulate questions in response to problematic facts, research, then analyze and evaluate conclusions in light of the facts, and create one’s own historical interpretation. Or, to tweak the process slightly, to evaluate historical claims using information literacy skills.

Of course, teaching students to think like historians is not a revolutionary notion. Even those conservative voices advocating old-style “coverage” pedagogy claim that too is their goal. They lecture about a topic, then require students to read much of the same information from a textbook at home, before finally providing the key thought-provoking essay prompt: “Assess the validity of the claim that Jacksonian Democracy was about empowering ‘the people’.” Yes, to respond to the prompt is to think like a historian, for a moment.

But the problem of doing history this way in an age of information-surplus is that students spend much of their time as passive audience members, ingesting information, rather than grappling with it to find their own voices. Let’s be clear – it is inconceivable that students won’t have access to lecture information in the future: Wikipedia has every fact that I’ll cover in my AP U.S. History course this year, and if students want to hear an expert lecture they can always find one on iTunes University from Berkeley or MIT. So instead of coverage-style lecturing we need to use the very valuable classroom time to engage in deep inquiry about historical and current problems. Teachers should create powerful essential questions that require students to master information literacy skills they’ll need in a digital age, and to master historical inquiry. From these questions, students will behave as historians, researching, analyzing, evaluating, and creating DAILY. Isn’t that more valuable critical thinking than the odd essay question every few weeks between lectures?

Liz Becker and Laufenberg and correct. The 20th century history classroom has to change. In a world of information surplus, we must recognize that good history education must transform students into power information critics, able to evaluate claims and build their own truths from myriad facts.

Math is dead. Long live Mathematics!

Recently I watched a TED talk which got me thinking about Mathematics in a way I hadn’t before. To cut straight to the video, scroll down.

Let me be clear at the start of this post: I’ve had a difficult relationship with the academic subject area called “Math”. I did well in it until high school, when math work became a fairly complicated process of memorizing and calculating. I wasn’t very good at committing formulas to memory or at seeing how they had application to anything real.

So I became a Math Dropout as an upperclassman in high school, surrendering to the complexity of Trigonometry and Pre-Calculus. I instead doubled up on History, Social Science, and English classes and joined that group we call “Humanities kids”, or the ones who aren’t “good at math.”

From what I can tell, my experience in math class isn’t unique. I hear many students say that math is hard – they get long lists of problems to solve using complex computation, none of which they see as relevant to their lives, and by the time they’re in 10th grade many start self-identifying as “dumb” when it comes to math.

That so many students leave high school thinking they aren’t smart enough to understand math is really a shame. “Mathematics” comes from the Greek máthēma which means learning, study, and science. It is a way of deducing truth – an absolutely essential human ability. Yet when a smart 17-year old kid says to me “I can’t do math”, I never think he’s really telling me “I can’t learn”, or “I can’t think scientifically”, or “I don’t know how to seek truth.” Rather, I think he’s saying he isn’t good at calculating answers from book problems. The capitulation to the false dichotomy of smart/dumb in math is in fact a misunderstanding of what math actually is. But it is a misunderstanding that I hear math teachers and policy-makers reinforce all the time. How has education so tragically misunderstood math?

Conrad Wolfram explains in his TED talk that math education has become nothing more than a multi-year practice of hand and paper computation. He suggests that what we need is a return to the understanding of what math actually is: a way of thinking quantitatively to solve problems:

Mathematical thinking is an important way of problem-solving in the real world. Math education should take both common and extraordinary problems humans encounter today, and teach how these can be seen quantitatively: “Should I buy a house?” “What is the most sustainable way to power our city?” The 21st century may require more quantitative thinking than any before it and yet we rarely present math in real-world terms in education – most high school math classes spend an inordinate amount of time (or all the time) in computing answers to book problems, and never get to the bigger picture of using math in a real world context. Math has been reduced to simple computation, divorced from its larger purpose and removed from real-world context. Is it any surprise that many smart people conclude math isn’t for them?

Wolfram suggests that by using computers to do Step 3 above, we can free up math education to be more effective and authentic to its purpose. Computers are an incredible tool for solving numeric problems, so why not use them? Why shouldn’t a Calculus class be about learning how to use it in the real world of Engineering, where engineers use computers all day long?  If Engineering is about using math to solve real-world problems (i.e. “How can we better build levees in New Orleans?”), why don’t we create math classes where students use computers to do the time-consuming computational steps thereby freeing up their time to focus on identifying, quantifying, applying, and verifying?  Wouldn’t math be a more engaging and wholly valuable experience if it mimicked the real-world? I agree with Wolfram that we must revise our thinking of what math education should be. Much less time should be spent teaching computation and much more time should be outside the room, finding real math problems and testing solutions for them. We must transform math class so that it becomes a place where the focus is on learning to identify those real-world problems which might have quantitative solutions, and to suggesting and verifying solutions for them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying computation is not important, rather I am saying that computation is an essential process for which a powerful tool has been created, and should be used. There are basic abilities and concepts of computation which must be mastered, of course. But when math education recognizes that computers can do the more complex and difficult computation and therefore help the larger quest for solutions to meaningful problems, I think math class will be transformed into a more authentic version of itself – a discipline that is engaging to students and preparatory for real life. It will become a discipline that doesn’t leave so many smart people tragically mislabeled as “dumb” or under the delusion that math doesn’t matter.

Enjoy Wolfram’s talk. I welcome your comments.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Social Media and Response Tools lead to Improvements in Learning

Sometimes those of us who are on the cutting-edge, innovating with new tools are thought to be a little too in love with technology, and not focused on student learning. Here’s a school in Hemet, California that is showing how Web 2.0 and an audience response system can lead to improvements in learning.

In an effort to fully embrace the technology that students use constantly away from school, Tahquitz has gone high-tech this year, employing multiple Facebook and Twitter accounts, Wiki pages and even texting the answers in class as a way to engage students into a new way of learning.
Sitting inside a U.S. history class last week, students were shown questions on a projection screen and were given four possible answers, each with a corresponding six-digit code they could text. Quickly, they tapped out the code for what they thought was the correct answer, and in real time a graph showed the percentage of those who guessed each answer, changing as more texts rolled in.
But beyond allowing students the novelty of texting in class — which keeps them engaged and involved — the new teaching method creates instant responses, enabling the teacher to completely understand how many students grasp the lessons.
At one point, responses were divided almost evenly among four potential responses, prompting teacher Hugo Gorosave to stop the high-tech lesson and have students open their books and read about the topic. In the past, students’ glazed-over looks and fear of answering incorrectly, thus not answering at all, would have caused the instructor to keep on going without realizing he needed to pay extra attention to a certain point.
“It’s not about the teacher saying what they taught today,” Roe said. “It’s about what the students learned today.

“Either we get on the leading edge of technology or we will be obsolete in five years.”

Read more at www.pe.com