Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #13 - Other uses of a backchannel

I promised this blogpost for the middle of June after school was out.
No excuses for it's tardiness except for the business of summer
vacation. Since school is begining to start back up, I thought I would
get back to uses of backchannels beyond my classroom.

First off, silent discussions seem to be a use of backchannels across
curricular areas. In my building, I'm aware of this technique being
used in another English classroom as well as a Social Studies
classroom. These two classrooms also use the technique for true
Socratic Seminars, allowing two simultaneous yet parallel discussions
to occur.

Outside my school, I've heard of foreign language classes using a
backchannel to write a story together on one day and then go back and
critique their grammar the net day. Art classes critique and discuss
works of art. Science classes observe and record details of scientific
experiments. Chemistry class post an equation and students explain how
to balance the reaction. Math classes post word problems or equations
and students explain the process used to solve the problem.

What I'm trying to show is that the possibilities are numerous, and
might only be limited by your imagination. Additionally, these uses
could span both middle school and high school. Give it a try with any
of these age groups for a truly engaging lesson.

This will be the last in the regular ongoing series of posts on
Backchanneling in the Classroom, but as I try new things or hear of
other uses by educators around the world, I'll share those as
additions to this series. Stay tuned. And if you have just recently
found his blog, check out my posts from earlier in 2009 on the subject
as well as my K12Online Conference presentation on this subject. You
can always contact me online if you have questions or need further

Monday, June 29, 2009

NECC Notes

This was my first (and ironically, it will be my last...more on that later) trip to NECC this year. Having only been to some regional and the state level conferences in Pennsylvania, I didn't quite know what to expect. After my first day and a half, here's what I can offer as insights and what is working for me.

I'm traveling with my good friend Lori S., and if you can, I really recommend that. It is someone you can immediately discuss things with and react to when things come down the line. It's even better if you have similar agendas, which Lori and I did on this trip.

How did I pick my sessions? Looking at all the offerings and goings on, it could easily have become a daunting and overwhelming undertaking. Fortunately, Diane K suggested searching for topics of interest. So I'm checking out sessions on Language Arts/English, iPods/iPhones/phones in the classroom, and Interactive whiteboards, and so far, that's keeping me just busy enough. At this point, we are even having a little bit of a hard time finding some time to do some sightseeing around town!

And finally, my general take on the sessions. They've generally been good. As always, there have been some hits and some misses, but my goal in each session was to come away with something: some insight, some revelation or something I could implement in the classroom tomorrow if necessary. So far, that's been the case with my session.

So, why will this be  my last NECC? Because next year NECC is becoming the ISTE Conference. I'll certainly be attending another conference in the future and look forward to seeing what ISTE 2010 will be like in Denver!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #12 - Activities part 2

I know that in my last blog post, I promised that this time I would write about how some other teachers are using backchannels, but I've had a neat experience with one of my classes I just need to write about. I will return to the topic of other uses of a backchannel just as soon as I can get to it: hopefully next week but perhaps not until school has let out in two weeks.

I came into a situation about a week ago when about one-third of a class was not prepared for our scheduled Socratic Seminar, so I had to alter my plans slightly but very quickly. I decided to just involve all of my students in the backchannel discussion I had planned, and since I had already set up a CoverItLive session for the activity, I decided to just to go that route rather than changing to a more open  backchannel platform at the last second.

I came at this with the premise of having a silent discussion with the kids, but most times when I run a silent discussion, I use Chatzy. I post a question and the responses can just fly. I don't have to moderate, and I can just watch how things develop. Since I had the CoverItLive session all ready to go, I needed to stick with that platform, and it struck me to try this alternative form of the silent discussion.

I got all the kids that were ready to participate in to the session and posted my first question. These students had backchanneled with me before, so they were used to the software and the process. Here's how I changed things up: I told the students to go ahead and answer the question posted but that they wouldn't see any of the answers for at least 5 minutes. At that point in time, I would post (after screening) all of the answers to the questions, giving the students time to read all the responses that had been generated. I then asked this follow-up question: "Reactions? What do you think of the above posts? Anybody screwed up? Anybody really hit the nail on the head? Thinking anything new?" I also schooled the kids on the Twitter style of directing a message at a specific classmate, and boy, did I get some interesting follow-up discussion as students challenged and questioned as well as reinforced and praised their peer's thinking. It was a good, solid discussion.

And I had to ask really deep questions as well because the process was taking longer than a normal Seminar with all the reaction discussion that was happening. I was forced to choose my questions more carefully and ask about what I really wanted to see if the kids were getting from the novel. You know, the time was well worth it though. My slower processing kids had time to gather their thoughts and didn't have to worry about who was going to get to answer the question first. What a wonderful way to differentiate instruction!

The kids seemed to love the new format, but just don't take my word for it. Click on the following links below to see both the two discussions and the feedback I solicited after the first of the two Seminars.


Of Mice and Men CoverItLive Discussions (links to my class wiki)

Feedback after 1st Discussion

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #11 - Activities part 1

What kinds of activities can you run with a backchannel? In this week's post, I'll speak exclusively to the ideas I've come across within my building. Up next, I'll talk about the ideas others have come across for using a backchannel in the classroom.

One way a backchannel  can be used is as another layer during a Socratic Seminar. I found, especially with my larger classes, that I could only effectively engage 10-15 students (an inner-circle) in a Seminar and really gauge whether or not they read a novel or other work. In a normal class, that often left me with another 10-15 students (an outer-circle) who were left with a strictly listening activity. I could have the outer-circle take notes on what was being said, but that didn't allow them to interact with the text. However, with a backchannel in place, the outer-circle could now react to what the inner-circle was saying, ask questions of each other, and from time to time even discuss their own question independent of the inner-circle. This got ALL the students in my class involved and thinking about the chapters or text assigned. One aspect of this I personally found to be cool was when I could then take a discussion from the outer-circle and pose the question to the inner-circle to see what they thought of the issue that had come up.

Another use of a backchannel  is for a totally silent discussion. Again, this is a discussion based on something the kids had read, and often times, if I have a really good question, there is only one question posed to the students at the start of the teaching period; otherwise, they guide the discussion, answering the core question as well as posing off-shoot questions for the remainder of the class period.

Finally, I know that teachers have started to run backchannels during movies they show in class. I had personally given up showing students movies and videos a number of years ago because of the difficulty in finding an engaging and meaning activity for the viewing. With a backchannel, the students can ask questions about the movie or video that is confusing to them. Sometimes I answer the question; other times, the students answer each other's questions. The backchannel can also be used to garner student feedback, check for understanding, or preview a difficult or important concept. While I'm still not a huge fan of showing video clips in class, they are at least a more meaningful and engaging affair now that I have the ability to run a backchannel.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reflection & Growth

I surprised myself this past Friday when I tweeted the following: "Well, KTI [Keystone] summit staff was not meant to be once again, and oddly enough, I'm much more at peace with that this year than I was a year ago."

It was surprising because, and I'm no longer ashamed to admit it, I was devasted a year ago when I received the same news for the same program. And I was serious about my message. I'm happy for the people selected to be on the Keystone Summit Staff and at peace with the fact that I'm not.

Not on hour later, another Twitter contact messaged me that a presentation she had participated in on backchanneling had gone well, and she was sharing the link to a recording if it (If interested, click
here to watch the recording).  Why was this important to me? She got into backchanneling based on my K12 Online Conference Presentation from last fall and a subsequent conversation we had at EduCon 2.1 in January. Because of my work, I had encouraged someone else to expand on my ideas, explore new aspects of backchanneling, and share with her colleagues in the state of Maine. Then I got to thinking: This wasn't the first time this had happened.

Twice before, I have chatted with educators about the concept of backchanneling. In one case, I talked with a group of preservice teachers exploring the use of technology in the classroom setting. In the other, a gathering of teachers in Canada, on their own time nonetheless, were also exploring practical uses of backchannels.

Much of this post, I suppose, could come off as self-promoting or self-serving; however, in thinking about all of these occurrances, I realized I am teaching and I am sharing. My audience is just taking on a different venue than what I once perceived as important. 

So I really am OK that I'm not going to be on the Summit staff. My educating will continue in various other venues as the opportunities present themselves. My message to you: Do whatever you can, whenever you can. You never know when you will touch lives.

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.