Sunday, March 29, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #6 - Chatzy

By this point in time, if you have been a regular reader of this series of blog posts, I've hopefully made a case for backchanneling in the classroom. Over the next few weeks, I'll now explore and explain some of the aspects of the different backchanneling venues out there. Comparing services can be tough, but I've tried to boil it down to a core group of issues that should help you decide on a potential service. Those qualities are as follows:

  • Cost
  • Advertisements
  • Moderator Registration
  • Embed-ability
  • Saving the chat
  • Size of chat history
  • Deletion of content
  • Moderated discussion
  • Getting users into the chat
  • Number of users
  • User registration
  • Passwords
  • Browser needs
  • Privacy/Security
The first backchannel service I ever worked with in the classroom was a service provided by Chatzy. Chatzy is a little unique in that it supports both a free and a paid service. The single biggest difference between the free and paid service is the presence of ads on the page where the students chat. Google Ads do show up at the side of the free chat pages, and while I saw nothing objectionable in my initial tests of the site, I couldn't be confident that would always be the case. For my own peace of mind, I have only used the paid Chatzy service in a classroom application.

Both versions of Chatzy share several things in common. To create a chatroom, the moderator can either create an account with the service or remain anonymous. By creating an account, you can keep a running record of chat rooms you have opened and run; otherwise, you loose the room when the chat is over. Additionally, you must go to their website to participate in the chat. The text of the chats can be saved (to a limit), only the moderator can delete the chat contents, and there are an unlimited number of users per room. Another strong positive is that user registration is not required for participants. The chat content can only be deleted by the moderator is another strong plus as is the fact that the rooms will run within any of your standard Internet browsers, including Safari. Firefox, and IE.

Users are invited in to the chat by the moderator providing a specific URL or perhaps a link off of a webpage, and that webpage's URL is so unique that it would be unlikely for someone to gain access to the room totally by accident. However, as an added layer of protection, each room can be password protected so that only users at the time of the chat will be able to gain access to the discussion. (As a further precaution, I change the room password immediately after I finish an activity so that no one can come back later and add anything inappropriate.)

Downsides of the service? Chatzy free, in addition to the adds, only allows for 10KB of a text to be saved for future reference. Pony up for the paid service, and your entire chat will be available to you up to the limit of what you paid to use. I bought a block of memory 18 months ago that I am still eating away at, so I personally find that the small fee I paid to remove the ads and keep an entire chat ($9.00 at the time) has been entirely worth it. (This is all explained in greater detail at Chatzy's FAQ page)Also on the downside, all comments posted by users are immediately visible to everyone in the room. While I listed it above as a positive, I also have to list user registration as a negative down here. Because the students only have to put in a self-created user name after they arrive to the room, there is the potential for impersonation or inappropriateness. For those reasons, I still only use the paid version of Chatzy with small groups of students I implicitly trust. However, there is always that chance...

Well, that was Chatzy at a glance. Next week, I'll talk about CoverItLive, my other go to choice of services when running a backchannel. Until then...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #5 - Student Views

Over the last two weeks, I've written a bit on the educational relevance of backchanneling, including some who see it as positive to classroom use and some who don't (via links to articles, etc.). When I have made presentations on this topic in the past, I have felt it is important to include the student's take on backchanneling and how it has been of use to them in the classroom. So, this week, let's hear from some of my former students.

The following are screen grabs from the very first backchanneling session I ever ran. At the end of the activity, I asked the kids what they thought, and here is what they said.

Thus, my students, at the very least, found themselves more engaged in the activity and took something form it they would not have otherwise. And for me, that is all the reason I need to continue with backchannels in my classroom.

I've got a few of my students on video as well talking about backchanneling. If I can get it edited and posted online, I may add that on here as well in the future.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #4 - Relevance Continued

This week I'd like to continue talking about the educational relevance of backchanneling. In addition to the coaching idea I wrote about toward the end of last week's post (students answering each other's questions and explaining difficult concepts), I'd like to talk about the other educationally relevant uses of backchannels.

Besides having students interact with each other during a content presentation, a teacher might use a backchannel to have students comment on something they are watching and make connections to what they already know. Questions could be posed to the students to see if they are understanding content in the intended way. Students could be given a heads-up ("This is going to be important!") about some aspect of the material about to be presented, so they are mentally focused on it and not caught by surprise.

On the flip side of the coin, a student can pose a question in the middle of the presentation and get an almost immediate answer to the question from his or her peers or the teacher. In this use, students can get their thinking straight and don't have to wait for the teacher to pause (which might often be much later in class) to get their questions answered. In this use, the students might not loose understanding of all the content that follows the confusing aspect they had a question about.

To round out this week, I wanted to share some other articles I located on backchannel use. Some show it in a positive light, as I see it, while some take a look at the downsides of the process. See the following links for some additional reading, and decide for yourself where you stand.

Backchannels and Mythbusting - Digital Natives Blog
Ira Socol Brings the Backchannel Forward
The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments
The Myth of Multitasking
Back Channel Use? : eLearning Technology

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #3 - Educational Relevance

Last week, I wrote about and advocated the reasons for backchanneling in school. This week, I want to take this a step further and talk about the educational relevance of backchannels.

Many of us have probably attended educational conferences where backchannels have been running during keynotes, individual sessions, etc. In this setting, the backchannel serves a number of purposes: it's a written record of the session, it's a place where participants can ask questions about the session content, and it's a place where participants can offer their insights into the content. I know that I end up with a deeper understanding of the content from participating in a backchannel during conference sessions.

One of my feeds this week delivered a post that addresses this issue of backchanneling at conferences. Although the title of the article is "How to Present While People are Twittering," many of the same benefits I've mentioned above are addressed in the post too. You might want to check it out.

OK, so backchanneling at conferences is one thing, but what about in the classroom? In my last post, I addressed the issues of student voice and increasing class participation, so I think that is part of the educational relevance. But what else is there that is a benefit? If we as educators find benefits from interacting with a presentation and participants at a conference, why wouldn't students benefit from interacting with each other during a classroom presentation. Let's face it, it is hard to explain something so that every single kid gets it on the first explanation. Why not allow the students to explain the concept to each other in a backchannel? The students who get the concept can help those who don't and in the process of explaining the concept deepen their own understanding. Of course, there is a written record of the backchannel that the teacher should review to make sure the student's thinking doesn't need corrected or adjusted. Students should never be left entirely on their own nor should the backchannel become a replacement for good teaching. The backchannel should merely be a supplement to good teaching.

How else can backchannels be used in educationally relevant ways? Next week, I'll continue this discussion, talking about some of the educationally relevant ways I think backchannels can benefit students.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #2 - Why Backchannel?

Why backchannel? The reasons are twofold: giving quiet, shy students a voice and increasing student participation.

Reaching the quiet, shy students was the reason that first brought me to backchanneling. Throughout my teaching career, I've encountered a number of students like this, and on the rare occasion I was able to break the ice, the student often had unique insights and interesting ways of looking at things. With the right vehicle, I suspected that more students might be reached and given a voice.

Increasing student participation was a benefit that I didn't consider until AFTER I'd found a backchanneling vehicle. For a number of years I had been a proponent of using Socratic Seminars in the teaching of my English class, especially literature. But to really judge whether a student knew the work being discussed, they had to be given a chance to contribute. With that in mind, my seminars had often ben limited to half my class, so about 15 students directly participating. What did I do with the other half? They listened and summarized the discussion going on, awaiting their turn the next time to be the active participant. (I did keep one seat open in the discussion group for guest participants, but again, that was only one spot shared among up to 15 students.) I've since learned that this use is often referred to as the Fishbowl Technique.

As I've implemented backchanneling, my hopes have been realized as I've used it. The first time I ran a backchannel, I witnessed 100 percent class participation with all students jumping in multiple times, and I've seen that happen many times since then. I saw students, some who had only rarely participate in class offer interesting perspectives. These kids earned additional respect from their classmates for their insights and were often looked to for their thinking in future discussions, both traditional and backchannel.