Installing a Backchannel in My Classroom this Week

So much going on this week. As you can perhaps tell from my lower number of posts, having two of my three kids in middle school, and six classes has put a dent in my blogging time.

I'm still here, though, working to innovate with whatever time I can scratch out.

For a while I've been fascinated by the use of the backchannel. I first saw its effective use this summer when some bloggers had a skypechat during Will Richardson's session and posted it.

It is also such a great way to give a voice, and we rely on it heavily for the Wow2 show each Tuesday night.

So, this week, during a test review on Thursday, I unveiled the backchannel in the room using Meebo's virtual room feature. Here is what I observed:

  • Initially kids treat it like a playground

    This is the case with everything electronic. They treat electronic "places" as playgrounds because I think they are not used enough for "professional" reasons. Part of what I teach is to effectively, professionally use any electronic form of communications -- I call this effective "techno-personal" skills.

  • Once they realize "this is for real" most will "settle down"

    I point out that the chat has a transcript feature and that I will be going back into the transcript to review it and take a daily participation grade -- they start using it for its intention -- to enhance and record the discussions taking place in class. Indeed to provide a backchannel for class conversation. We're not "there" yet in terms of this first backchannel session was also full of exploration -- like when the student hit the number "8" and a parenthesis ) and it turned into a little smiley with sunglasses!

  • I noticed that the verbally "quiet" students were quite loquacious in chat.

    This was the part that floored me the most and that really got me excited. Every teacher has those brilliant children who just don't like to raise their hand and contribute --- these were the ones who were talking in the chat room prolifically and adding some pretty amazing material as well.

    Imagine asking, "What does this word mean?" and having a child pop the definition in immediately, or when I talk about a website, being able to pop it in the chat immediately.

    It was very useful and helpful, and I posted the chat for the students to access when reviewing for the test.

  • The verbal students did not contribute as much.

    This was the frustration -- someone would verbally say something perfect that needed to go in the chat, however, the verbally astute wouldn't really add it to the chat like I wished they would. They were much less likely to contribute to the text based backchannel.

  • It is a great, immediate way to take notes and correct thinking.

    I thought that the notes produced were good. But here is what I liked best, the fact that everyone could put their thoughts in and I could see incorrect thinking and point out fine shades of meaning. Imagine this, "Drop in the chat what you think about ___" -- then they do it, you quickly review it and talk about it.

    As much as I love group notetaking on a wiki, it is not really a simultaneous editing, contribution -- it is more asynchronous (not at the same time) and although synchronous editing is great, I think the backchannel really gives you a stream of class thought sort of documentation.
My Conclusion
In conclusion, I think that creating an effective backchannel in all of my classes is a goal that I have for this year. I can already tell that this will have the hiccups and challenges of teaching students to blog or wiki effectively, however, being able to IM is something that my husband says is a vital skill for the workplace (and in his work as an engineering manager for a Fortune 100 company, he should know.)

I wish I could use campfire (which e-mails a transcript to everyone after it is done), however, you have to pay a fee for more than 3 people and I don't care to do that for something I'm testing. I may also bring back Skype and use it to run out chats as well as hand out documents that students need. This one is still turning over in my mind.

How I did it
I just signed into my meebo account and created a virtual room. I posted it on my wiki using the embed code that meebo gives you and when the kids went to the wiki page, the chat was live in there.

I do recommend a password, however, I had to take the password off in order to get the transcript to work. I've got to see more about this feature -- I want a private room but want to be able to get a transcript as well. With the password off, I had a few people jump in that I had to kick out that weren't from the class -- so I highly suggest doing this. Also, the warn feature in Meebo was quite annoying and if a student is "warned" enough it locks them out of the chat for a moment.

Overall, although the bleeding edge of putting in a backchannel was, well, bleeding a bit, I think this is a valuable tool to bring in all students into the mainstream of the conversation.

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