Over the past few years, it has become popular in education to broadcast the “backchannel” to students during a large class through a dedicated Twitter hashtag or some other social media app. The idea is that it allows students to make comments on the
In the life of a professor, what’s more satisfying than a successful class discussion? A classroom abuzz with ideas, students who are energized and alert, sinking their teeth into the assigned material, riffing in surprising, productive ways. Isn’t this why we got into the
The learning management system (LMS) has long been the unified platform for hosting all content and activities in an online class. While it has served its purpose well, the advent of social media has exposed its limitations. Students find the multiple steps required to log
Discussing controversial topics in courses has never been easy—for teachers or students—but in the past few years, it’s become even harder. Controversy surrounds an increasing number of topics, and the intensity of feelings associated with contested issues continues to grow. Many topics now feel so
In William Wordsworth’s well-known sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us; Late and Soon,” the titular line’s meaning hinges on two words, the latter of which may initially seem insignificant: “world” and “with.” “World” refers to human affairs; and, of all the definitions for
Discussing course content with your classmates requires a different kind of conversation than the casual exchanges that occur between students. It’s harder to talk when you don’t know much about the subject when it’s not easily understood. As result, you may find discussions with classmates
How students discuss content in courses continues to be a concern Whether the exchange occurs the classroom, in a group, or online, most of us have heard students making assertions, never mentioning evidence, feeling free to comment when they are unprepared, and mostly agreeing with
I’ve been teaching literature for more than 30 years, and nothing has struck me more during that time than the difficulty of finding just the right discussion question. It’s easy to give out information, which students dutifully take down in notebooks and throw away after
I just read a review of the literature on class discussion. It’s from 2013 so there’s more that could be included in the review, but there’s one feature of the literature that I don’t think has changed. Like so many other common teaching and learning
In his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft famously declares that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” It’s the experience of this sort of fear that
Over the past few years, it has become popular in education to broadcast the “backchannel” to students during a large class through a dedicated Twitter hashtag or some other social media app. The idea is that it allows students to make comments on the content for everyone to see, thus adding to learning and motivating students to participate and think about the topics. Some early adopters even displayed the backchannel conversations on screen behind them as they were speaking.
But many instructors quit broadcasting the backchannel because it became a distraction to the students. Our minds cannot follow two conversations at once, and while many people think they can multitask, all evidence points to this being a fallacy. We are not genuinely listening to two conversations at once, we are just alternating our attention between the conversations, and in doing so missing the information that came while we were focused on the other conversation, like flipping between two television channels every 10 seconds.
The chat function on videoconferencing software broadcasts the backchannel and similarly splits student attention. An instructor can simply turn the chat function off, but we want students asking questions and thinking about concepts while they are learning. Plus, these comments make for good discussion fodder.
How do we facilitate student active thinking during live events without splitting their attention? We don’t want to tell them to hold their thoughts until open discussion, as ideas that are not recorded are soon forgotten as the instructor moves to new topics. It is OK to jot down ideas; that is what note-taking is for. We just don’t want these notes to become a parallel conversation during the activity.
Gather and discuss
One solution to this dilemma is to adopt a “gather and discuss” approach to comments. Instead of posting and discussing in parallel with the event, students post their thoughts as they occur to them without responding to other’s posts. Importantly, they are posted by topic, not just chronologically. Then the instructor and students can discuss these by topic at designated breaks in the presentation.
This approach requires the use of an outside chat system during the event. The internal chat and questioning system in a web conferencing platform can display content only in the order it was received, not by topic. Most importantly, the instructor channels the discussion ahead of time by creating topics that act as buckets for collecting posts; though the instructor can allow students to create their own topics as well. Then the instructor shares the comment board on the web conference screen and dedicates a few minutes for everyone to look over the comments. The instructor uses this time to draw out themes for discussion, and students use it to prepare for discussion.
While whiteboards are the best tools for hosting group chats by topic, most are designed for open-ended brainstorming and, as such, give users a blank canvas. The result: a disorganized compilation of comments posted at different locations and in different formats. It’s better to choose a system that offers a template of columns that you can label and edit for channeling discussion. Here are a few good systems for that purpose.
Padlet. One of the oldest and best-known group posting systems, Padlet provides a number of options for organizing a board, with its Wall format being ideal. A Wall board is structured into columns, with the instructor just needing to enter a title at the top of each column to draw together the posts by topic. Students can post content in a variety of formats—including text, image, link, and video—and they can like each other’s posts. Padlet also recently released a Zoom integration app. See a sample board below:
Dotstorming is built on a similar principle to Padlet in that an instructor can create a wall of columns to which students post thoughts or questions. It has less functionality than Padlet, which makes it simpler to use. One nice feature is that a board can be designed to collect votes. This makes it a useful conversation starter. An instructor can ask students a question, have them vote on the options, then announce the votes and start the discussion. Beginning with a vote is a great way to activate students’ thinking on a topic and get them interested in what their classmates have to say. Note how the medical ethics example below asks who should make decisions for a patient, with descriptions and photos of the three options for voting:
Canva. A graphic design tool, Canva may not immediately come to mind as an option, but its graphic organizer templates (of which it has an incredible array) work well for hosting discussion. Instructors can choose a template design that best matches their purpose, edit it, then grant students editing access to it by sharing a link, thus turning it into a whiteboard. In the example below, I have asked students to list the relevant considerations to solving a moral problem under the moral theory that applies to it: