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? ūüôā

Twitter for Education

UPDATE: See also my post “How to Make a Class Backchannel”

I know many teachers and are¬†exploring using Twitter as a learning tool, both for themselves and for their students. Administrators are¬†imagining ways it could be helpful for staff development and for communicating with stake-holders. Here’s a visual to help focus the thinking a bit (click through for larger version):

I ran across this Twitter Matrix about a year ago on Mark Sample’s blog and it really helped me clarify my thinking about how I wanted to use Twitter to enhance student learning. I was clear that I didn’t want to use it just to be using it – if it wasn’t going to lead to greater learning, it was just going to be more noise for students.

I’ve been getting good results using Twitter as a backchannel during class, allowing me to engage with students in new ways. Those that aren’t ready to comment out loud during class will frequently post to the backchannel, allowing me a new way to check for understanding. And because they can post questions there that I see in the last few minutes of class, I can answer them before they leave, meaning no student leaves with misunderstandings that embed in their brain before they return the next day.

If you follow the link to Mark’s blog, you’ll notice he believes Twitter acts as a “snark valve” because tweets are “unfiltered, in effect, the same comment somebody might mutter under his or her breath, uncensored, no-holds-barred opining. Yet the students know classmates are following the course hashtag and at the very least that I am listening (and contributing) as well.¬† The backchannel assumes a Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse ‚ÄĒ using sarcasm both to show a kind of too-cool-for-school attitude but also to demonstrate that the student is in fact earnestly engaged with the material.”

How will you use Twitter? I hope the matrix leads to creative ideas. And if they do, kindly tweet me @MikeGwaltney, or leave a more lengthy comment here on my blog.

ITSC ’11 Day Two Wrap

Day Two proved to be just as rewarding as the first day of ITSC.

After the bar had been set high by Jeff Utecht in the morning workshop, Scott McDonald and Scott Elias had work to do to impress, post-lunch. McDonald’s session was called “Making Meaningful Movies”, and focused on getting the most out of digital video-making assignments. Here are his tips:

  • Keep it Simple.
  • Write Clear Learning Goals linked to Curriculum. “Start at the End”
  • Plan How to Share Movies at the beginning of the Project. Get an authentic audience.
  • Teach How to Search for Sources, or Make a Source List.
  • Be Clear about Source Citing requirements. Require they go in the Template or Storyboard.
  • Practice Demonstrating Steps in iMovie (or the application you use) BEFORE class.
  • Use Keynote or PPT to Storyboard. (Shot Sheet). Students have a Product before the Movie.

At 3:45, Scott Elias led a session called “Creating and Maximizing Learning Networks”, which presented some important research behind why networked learning is so powerful. Scott is a new Middle School principal in Fort Collins, CO, planning research for a doctorate in networked learning, so he brought a real ethos to the conversation – not that a guy with nearly 3,000 followers and more than 16,000 Tweets needs more street cred.

Being in Scott’s session was like being a kid in a candy shop – everything he was saying resonated, and fit some of my strongest current interests about learning. But Scott pushed the envelope a little bit, as he asked us to challenge some trendy notions about social networking and learning. Take for example our discussion of “hyper-connectedness” (click the image):

Group consensus on this topic seemed to be that our “always on” connectedness is neither good nor bad, but a reality of life today. Perhaps the most important thing here is awareness of it, and attention to its consequences. It was a great topic for discussion, and one that Scott challenged us to take home to our colleagues.

Besides picking up some references to academic studies about learning and social networks, I left with some ideas for reflection:

“Information by itself is meaningless – Information only takes meaning in the context of the social practices of the communities that give it cultural life.” We pick up so many bits of data through our networks, but how much of it is out of context and consequently useless? Perhaps the constant stream of information coming at educators from their PLNs seems relevant (and perhaps it all is), but it lacks meaning unless we can recreate the conditions from which it originated. Further, how many of us have stopped a colleague in the hallway at school and said “I heard this from so-and-so on Twitter” only to see eyes glazing over? Lacking the contextual understanding of Twitter as more than sharing about dinner plans or Justin Bieber, information coming from tweets is often seen as irrelevant.

“To move from social networking to social learning requires that the learner knows his colleague’s knowledge is authoritative, valuable, and available when needed.” We assume that if we put students together in groups, whether online or face to face, that social learning will result. But the truth is that the learners must be willing to “hear” and retain what their colleagues share. That means relationships of common interests and practices must be fostered and maintained. Of course, this is no different than what we know of pre-online networking. And consider this in light of the typical Professional Development events for teachers – some obvious insights here for why those events often seem like wasted time! (we considered the characteristics of good PD via chalkboard – click the image below)

“People are using technology to get what they need from each other, often bypassing traditional institutions and systems.” How much more obvious can this be than in 2011 with at least two political regimes falling in North Africa via the power of social networking? People will get the information they want via their online networks regardless of our efforts to prevent them. So what are the implications for teaching? Do we really believe that we can be the gatekeepers of information? Can we prevent students from reading, seeing, or creating media? No way. Take the other side of the coin – our access to information is limited only by the size of our networks. As our online networks grow, virtually all human knowledge is available quickly and cheaply (“the cost of information is fast approaching zero” ~@scottelias). Gone are the days when certain privileged groups held access to the power that knowledge brings. As should be obvious, democratization follows.

Another great day at #ITSC11. As you can see, this conference is not about technology.

Thanks for reading. I welcome your comments.