Chapter 4, Part 5

This is a continuation of the fourth chapter in Techniques for Effective Technlogy Integration. You may want to start with Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Letting the Kids Talk During Class

For some teachers, letting go of control is difficult. There is a fine line between guiding a discussion and controlling it. Guiding a discussion with good questions can help students reach understanding. Getting students to say exactly what the teacher wants to hear is not guiding discussion, but rather manipulation that rarely results in learning. Discussion should be lively and organic, not forced. When the person facilitating the discussion already knows all the answers have fallen into this trap at times before; facilitating a good, questioning conversation takes time and practice.

One tool that I have used both in teaching and in presenting at conferences is backchanneling. Backchanneling involves allowing participants to continue the conversation virtually. Oftentimes, this virtual conversation is projected so that it is easy for everyone, including the speaker, to see.

The goal of the backchannel is fairly simple. In many classroom discussions, only two people are participating at any given moment: the teacher and the student who was called on. Certainly, it is not like this everywhere, but it is commonplace. Backchanneling has the potential to help all of the students to move from passively to actively participating.

While it would be chaotic to have everyone speaking at once in a conversation, it can be effective practice in a backchannel when it is utilized effectively. It needs to be recognized that most students do not have much, if any, prior experience in this area, so they will need guidance about how to participate in an online discussion while also paying attention to what is going on in class.

Recently, I presented on assessment techniques at a conference in Philadelphia. The format of the session was simple. I got there early and put the desks in a circle so that the design of the room would be more conducive to conversation. While I definitely had ideas that I wanted to discuss, I wanted to meet the participants and see both where they were in terms of assessment techniques and what they felt they needed. There is a danger in not being able to meet the needs of our students when we over plan. While I would post guiding questions occasionally throughout the discussion, I was not able to participate in the backchannel as much as the other people in the room since I was trying to facilitate the discussion.

The participants used the backchannel for several things. It is worth noting that a few of the participants had previous experience with backchannels, but many did not. I simply shared the link and explained what a backchannel was; I spent no more than 2 minutes doing so. They shared resources and links, both their own and those mentioned in the conversation. They answered each other’s questions and shared ideas that directly met each other’s needs. They asked questions on the backchannel, which was projected on the wall, to help steer the discussion. We stayed 20 minutes into lunch after the session was supposed to end and still did not get to all of the points that I had planned. However, the discussion was much more fruitful and better met the needs of my session participants than if I controlled the discussion and forced my agenda onto them.

Another popular and effective way to use backchanneling is to take a normally passive activity and engage students in active learning and discussion. A common example is during a film. Films can sometimes be powerful and effective tools; when students passively watch and are not given time to reflect and analyze, though, the potential learning of a film can be floundered. Utilizing a backchannel can be a simple and easy way to have students discuss salient points and help each other to understand the importance of what is happening. Similarly, the teacher can ask questions to help get the students thinking about important concepts.

TodaysMeet ( is a profoundly simple and easy tool for backchanneling. Setting up a class backchannel takes literally less than minute. TodaysMeet can compete with Etherpad for simplest tool presented in this book; that does not mean, though, that it does not have potential to improve learning. To setup a backchannel, you simply go to the TodaysMeet website, give your backchannel a name and an expiration date, and click “Create your Room.” If you want, you can even add a Twitter hashtag and all posts from Twitter with that hashtag will be brought into your backchannel.

You will have a unique URL according to what you named your room. For example, I just made a room at with an expiration date of 1 seek. When each student goes to this URL, they just have to enter their name and click “Join.”

The interface for TodaysMeet is very simple. There is a “Listen” column where students can see what everyone is saying. There is a “Talk” column where they can add their thoughts. Messages are brief, limited to 140 characters. Students may need practice to become adept at concise messages, but Twitter has shown that authentic collaboration can take place in only 140 characters.

Here is an example of what it may look like to have students discussing a news report about the Chilean miners who were trapped for over two months. Discussion should stay relevant to the main topic, but flexible enough for the students to help meet each other’s needs.

Lastly, there are also “Transcript” and “Projector” buttons at the bottom of the page that make it easy to read all of the interactions when the discussion is over or to project the conversation onto a screen.

Students want to work together. Sometimes, they do not have the skills yet to effectively do so, so we must enable them. We enable them by teaching them first how to support and work with others; then we enable them by giving them the tools to do so. The world in which they will live and work increasingly requires that everyone be able to work collaboratively in a team environment. We owe it to our students to make sure that they can thrive in that environment.

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