Sunday, April 26, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #10 - Skype

Believe it or not, Skype is a valid choice as a tool to use as a backchannel. While many people think of it for its ability to make person-to-person calls using the Internet, there's also an excellent chat room feature that  lends itself to backchannels.

One of the biggest upsides of using Skype is that the moderator of the backchannel invites all participants into the chat from a list of "contacts" that he or she has, so this method of running a backchannel is pretty safe; however, once in the chat, participants can then invite others in, which takes away a little of the security that is there. Cost is another big positive: it's free to use Skype. Also, there are no adds, so there aren't the worries about students being exposed to something questionable. 

The biggest downsides? All participants in the chat must have an account with Skype and special software needs installed on every computer the students will be using. Additionally, there is no moderation of the posts at all. 

Other considerations are as follows. The entire chat is accessible to all participants as long as they don't leave the chat at the end of the discussion, so they can always come back to the history to review the points covered. If a student leaves one computer, not choosing to leave the chat forever, and then logs in on another, then the chat window should pop up for further participation or for a review activity. Since Skype is a stand-alone piece of software, there are no browser dependency issues to think about. Finally, before trying to run Skype, you probably need to make sure there are no filtering issues on your network and that students can run it on their machines with their level of clearance.

As I've been working on this series of blog posts on backchanneling, I've become aware of a number of potential tools for running a backchannel, but I haven't yet had a chance to test any of those out. In the future, as I've had a chance to work with some of those tools, I may return to this tool discussion.

I'll be back next week with another installment  in the series as I move away from the tools and look at other issues that might be critical to teachers.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #9 - Backnoise & Chatterous

In past posts, I've covered Chatzy (both free and paid versions), Chatmaker, and Cover It Live. This week I will talk about both Backnoise and Chatterous.

Both services are, like most other chat services reviewed, free to both organizers and users as well as ad-free. In both cases, it is possible to embed the chat rooms on to your own web page, or you can send participants to a specific URL for access. There is no moderation available for the discussion as well; participants can post what they want when they want. Also, it is not required for participants to register to be a part of a chat, which of course makes it a great choice for classroom use but also means students have to be put on an honor system to create a real and appropriate user name for the discussion. Both services are also fairly private and secure for their users. Finally, browser support seems pretty broad for both services.

On the flip side, there are a few subtle differences between the two services. At Backnoise, anyone can start a chat at the drop of a hat; if you want to run a chat via Chatterous, then you have to plan ahead and set up an account with that service. Both services do allow for a record of a chat to be saved (up to 10 KB at Backnoise, unlimited at Chatterous), but there's a unique twist on this over at Backnoise (and unique to only Backnoise from everything I've seen): a feature called Buzzkill. The buzzkill feature gives any chat participant the ability to delete the entire contents of the chat at any point in time. I'm not sure that is a feature we want to be putting in the hands of our students. Finally, Chatterous, unlike Backnoise, does allow for rooms to be password protected if they are set to private, which affords an extra layer of security for teachers looking for that feature.

Next week will round out my survey of possible backchannel services when I take a look at Skype.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #8 - Chatmaker is another free option for setting up a backchannel in your classroom. In their FAQ's, they even specifically mention "teachers to operate an online classroom with their students" (see this link). And while free is a good option and Chatmaker is incredibly easy to set up (there is NO registration of any kind for the moderator), there a few things that prevent it from being a go-to app for me.

First, I have concerns about the ads. Most of the ads are dating or sexual in nature, which is not something I think most of us want to be exposing our students to. Next, it is unknown how much of a chat is saved for later reference. I'm not sure if you loose chat history as soon as it scrolls off the screen or if everything is saved. Further, on the surface, there is no way to save the chat history (excepting perhaps copying and pasting the entire chat).

There are also two other unknowns as well with the service. I'm not sure if anyone has the ability to delete the content or not. From my tests and experiences in the room, there doesn't seem to be, but I'm not positive. How many simultaneous users can there be? Again, I'm not sure. When trying to access help from within the chat as I tried to research these questions, a new window pops open, but nothing ever loads. I get the same response in both Safari and Firefox. Neither do the FAQs address these issues.

On the bright side, participants are invited to the chat via a URL, so you could simply provide a link off of your teacher web page. Also, that means that only folks with the URL will be able to access the chat, so that does keep your kids safe, private and secure. The fact that both Safari and Firefox are supported is another great asset to Chatmaker as is the ability to have more than one room set up at a time (each room simply has its own URL).

Back on the downside, no user password is required, so there is that lack of an extra layer of security. Users do not have to register either, which, like with many services, could allow for impersonation within the room. Finally, this is an unmoderated room, so any of the participants could post anything without first having it vetted.

So, there's Chatmaker for you. In many ways, it seems like a lot of the other services. I have two or three more services coming in the next weeks, so you know as much about what is out there as you can before you make a decision about a direction to go.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #7 - CoverItLive

The other backchanneling service I have extensive experience with is Cover It Live. Cover It live is actually considered a live blogging tool, a way to provide live coverage of an event to the masses as events unfold. But the great side feature to this is that the audience of the blog can interact with the person running the live blog, so a classroom teacher can actually use the service as a backchannel.

By starting a live blog for an activity, a teacher can post questions to the room, which is going to be made up of students, and the students can respond to the questions and issues presented to them. There's a couple of great features of Cover It Live that make it perfect for classroom use, in my humble opinion.

At the top of the list of great features: the service is currently no cost (FREE!) and ad-free...all the time. That means there is no up front cost to the teacher, the school, or the district. These are definitely bonuses on many fronts. The ability to embed the chat into your own website (from wikis to your own district website - if it accepts HTML code) is another one of the great features of the service. This feature itself ensures that your students are participating in a playground you are entirely comfortable with, and if hosted on a district sanctioned web page, walled-garden issues all but evaporate.

Moderators are required to register to use the service, which is a quick and easy process, but students are not required to, which makes the service incredible easy to use with a worries about needing an email account! To get users into the chat, simply direct them to the URL where you are hosting the backchannel. The students just have to supply a name once they arrive there in order to participate in the chat. Now, that does leave open the possibility the students will provide strange or inappropriate user names, but because the room is moderated, meaning nothing goes out to the room until approved by the moderator, I tell the students I will post no comments unless I know exactly who the user is. Yes, this does still leave open the possibility of one student impersonating another, but I also give my students some mechanism of letting me know if that has happened. And because of a built in private messaging feature, I can then directly message the offender, the message from me shows up in red on their computer screen, and the perpetrator is nabbed! If the computer screen is blank or the service has accidentally been lost, I personally would also take that as an admission of guilt, especially if it happened as I get up to take a walk around the room to look for the student with the direct message from me.

On other fronts, the chat, in its entirety, is automatically saved and available for review as long as the moderator doesn't delete it from his account. Additionally, as long as the chat remains embedded on the page where it was hosted, it is available for review as long as it is there. Thus far when using Cover It Live, I have not hit an upper limit of allowed users, having had up to 90 users in a chat at one point in time; that was three different classrooms in two different locations even.

To close out, a couple of technical notes. The moderator of a Cover It Live Chat must moderate using Firefox or Internet Explorer. Participants, on the other hand, can use any web browser, so this a fairly flexible and easy to sue in the classroom setting. (At least this was the case at one point in time. As I was drafting this post, I was unable to confirm this on Cover It Live's webpage.)

For a regular classroom setting, I highly recommend this service. Its ease of use and flexibility make it a great tool for regular classroom use.