Archive for the ‘Social Media’ Category




Teaching With Facebook

posted: September 27, 2011 by

image by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget

Social Media and Course Cohesion

This semester I have a large class with online and offline sections. How to bring them together, so that the e-students would feel connected, not isolated online? Feeling out of the proverbial loop is one of the most oft-cited challenges for distance learners. Traditionally, a face-to-face classroom, “requires a disciplined commitment from the students to actually participate in the learning activities and reach out to others in the class,” observes Cory Stokes, director of the Technology Assisted Curriculum Center, in charge of testing for online courses. In an online course, the onus is on the student to be self-disciplined enough to engage in self-study, often without the benefit of a class community to drive engagement and interest.

Research shows that there is a correlation between social presence and student success. When students feel connected to a community of inquiry they are more enthusiastic, motivated, and they perform better. If that engagement, communication, and awareness happens continuously and in real-time, as it does in a face-to-face classroom — all the better.

So I decided to take my teaching to the one place where students naturally connect everyday, all day: social networks. First I socialized the learning management system (we use Moodle) by creating discussion boards for on-demand threaded conversations in a secure, gated community. Then I looked to Twitter and Facebook as more public and familiar places for members of my “bricks” and “clicks” course sections to sync.

Teaching on Facebook and Twitter isn’t going to be an option that makes sense for every instructor, but here is why it is working wonders to create a sense of social presence in my class:

P2P Effects. On the Facebook wall, students do peer-to-peer mentoring, troubleshooting, and Q&A at every hour of the day and night. I check into the course social channels several times a day, and yet often by the time I see the Facebook wall or Twitter hashtagged conversation, issues and solutions are already being shared without input from the prof. Not only is this a great example of generous community spirit and peer support, but it’s also self-directed learning on-demand. Since research shows that many students strongly prefer to learn from their peers, this is a good opportunity to enable positive peer effects. As a bonus, “students become partners in blended learning” to borrow an insight from a study at The University of Wolverhampton (<– link opens PDF).

Crowdsourced Curriculum. In the threaded discussions and on the wall, students post links to this week’s lecture topic — before and after the in-class lesson or online-webinar schedule. Put differently, my students scoop my lecture topics and Facebook them!  They scoop my case studies and newsworthy tie-ins and tweet them! Students are plugged into the news and they have high-traffic platforms on which to share the most intriguing stories. There’s nothing that delights me more than this crowdsourcing effect, as students work together to make the material relevant for each other (and thus easier to learn). “If Generation Y likes to do one thing, it’s to share cool, creative, funny and quirky things with their friends,” concluded a recent survey (<– link opens PDF) of millennials’ social media consumption habits by L2ThinkTank.

Network Effects. Sharing course information on Facebook and Twitter means that it is automatically distributed not just to registered students, but to students’ entire social graph. A course tweet is sent to all followers, a Facebook post to the course page is also on one’s personal Facebook profile. This distribution of status updates means that course-related conversations (online and presumably off) happen far beyond the webinar chat rooms and lecture halls. Unlike the formal learning management system, which keeps discussion posts behind a wall (what happens on Moodle stays on Moodle, so to speak), the network effects model of social media amplifies students voices across their personal networks. I’ve found this online word of mouth virtually guarantees that enthusiasm for the course (and enrollment)  remains high year after year. But more importantly, it allows students to demonstrate their membership in, and contributions to, a learning community—in a very public, and sometimes even positively viral way.

These three ideas are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are hundreds of ideas for teaching with Facebook. Of course, not all students use these social platforms. Having a course Facebook page instead of a course Facebook group enables non-Facebookers to read all posted content, and likewise, Twitter is also accessible without a site membership.

Although there is a lively debate ongoing about using popular social networking as teaching tools, my experience encourages me to agree with studies that show social networking enhances student performance and enriches learning experiences both inside the online or offline classrooms and elsewhere on campus.

There are many other tools and techniques beyond Facebook and Twitter for using social media to create social presence, including this roundup. However if your goal, like mine, is to meet students where they are, and leverage their familiarity with social communication for educational purposes, then Facebook,  Twitter, and YouTube are the obvious channels of choice.

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Teachers and Digital Dirt

posted: January 10, 2011 by

image by OnTask“If you are a great teacher in the classroom, then you have a drink at a local bar, yes, that’s your own time and it’s your private life. But if someone sees pictures of it or reads about it online…”~ Dale Slagle, superintendent of schools at Frontenac, Kansas.

Cheers to the social web and being an educator without an “off switch.” No broadcasting blackout dates for teachers it seems, instead we are the quintessential “always-on” types, posting our “digital dirt” (for example, having a drink?!) 24/7 online for friends, family, parents, administrators and students.

“Teachers are role models…public image is important,” rightly observes Slagle. But should educators be allowed some privacy on Facebook?

Privacy and Lifecasting

Wait, there’s no privacy on Facebook! There are profile privacy settings which are notoriously complicated (as one teacher who lost her job found out the hard way). So much so that today the safest route is probably to assume that data posted on social networks (or emailed, or transmitted online in any way) is never secure, never deleteable, and certainly not private.

And as we all know, tagged photos and videos also grow legs. Always be vigilant, Googling, deleting, and untagging self-representations of anything that would not be appropriate in an interview setting, advises David Hogard, assistant director of career services at Pittsburg Kansas State University. His comments are directed to students and faculty.

Google Thyself is certainly great advice, even though it’s not always possible to get information removed from the web. But wouldn’t it be safer to avoid participating in Facebook, Twitter, and the like, altogether? Seems logical when any hint teachers might have a life outside the classroom (such as visiting a local bar) can potentially derail a career trajectory. But in fact not making a digital impression can also negatively impact your professional development. No one trusts a blank slate, as they say.

Digital Whitewashing vs. Digital Literacy

Instead of mass deletions in an ill-fated attempt to erase yourself from the web, educators could model for students (and peers) how to craft a well-rounded, work-life balanced e-persona online. Having some evidence of your hobbies and habits (booklists, video and music playlists, Facebook page “likes”), and social proof indicating your cultural, community, and professional connectivity (blogrolls, Twitter listings, Facebook group memberships, sports info and event photos), can be an advantage in light of “HR 2.0″ and all kinds of social recruiting. Consider that “you’re always sort of job searching, in a way,” said Hogard. Fair enough. Even for the tenured it’s worth considering how having a rich and relevant online persona enables network building, collaboration, and communication too.

While no one would argue against removing truly compromising/generally unflattering photos and other online data, totally whitewashing your e-presence as an educator can send the message that you don’t “get” the social web, and are lacking in digital fluency. I’d point to the ever-growing heap of research about socialnomics, social proof, the rise of the trust economy, and the importance of personal brand audits to back up that statement.

However the article I quoted above citing Hogard and Slagle indicates that it may be the administrators who are most likely to adopt an über-conservative approach (delete everything! post nothing!) to the social web. Instead, they should be demonstrating thought leadership on this issue and encouraging responsible, creative, and professional lifecasting. Is it time to organize/lobby for a workshop on your campus about professionalizing your digital footprint? If you’ve already had one and if any of the materials are online please consider sharing them in the comments. Thank you.

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Categories: Higher Education, K12, Social Media
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Using web 2.0 in your classroom

posted: October 5, 2010 by

I’ve had a few posts recently on using social media in the classroom (such as Facing Facebook, and Blogs and Wikis,  and Backchannels).  But these are only little windows into a large, and growing, body of literature on how to use these tools in education.  The trend seems to be much stronger in K12 education settings than in college, but I believe that there is some overlap between the uses in the two realms.HOW2NS

One particularly useful resource is the web 2.0:  New tools, new schools and the companion book, web 2.0 how-to for educators, published by International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).  The first is more of an overview and best-practices manual, whereas the second is a directed guide on how to use the tools in your classroom. Both are written by a professor of education and a technology in education specialist.

From the ISTE website:

What can Web 2.0 tools offer educators? Web 2.0: New Tools, New Schools provides a comprehensive overview of the NEWTOOemerging Web 2.0 technologies and their use in the classroom and in professional development. Topics include blogging as a natural tool for writing instruction, wikis and their role in project collaboration, podcasting as a useful means of presenting information and ideas, and how to use Web 2.0 tools for professional development. Also included are a discussion of Web 2.0 safety and security issues and a look toward the future of the Web 2.0 movement. Web 2.0: New Tools, New Schools is essential reading for teachers, administrators, technology coordinators, and teacher educators.

Download a sample chapter here.

And regarding web 2.0 how-to for educators,

Web 2.0 How-To for Educators explores the very best online collaborative tools available today (including blogs, wikis, and social networking) and Web 2.0 applications (Skype, Google Earth, Wordle, and more) that make a difference in education. Using a simple formula for each concept, the book describes what the tool is, when teachers should use it, why it is useful, who is using it, how you can use the tool, and where you can find additional resources. Practical examples from educators around the world offer an abundance of ideas, and the recommendations for further information and comprehensive lists of Web 2.0 tools and applications will be valuable resources as you integrate Web 2.0 technology in your classroom.


Here are some additional tips on web 2.0 tools especially for your own learning (which is how I recommend getting started), here are a few things to play with, courtesy of an article in The Science Teacher by Eric Brunsell and Martin Horejsi:

RSS Readers / personalized home page.

Websites and blogs often have syndicated feeds that you can aggregate into your own one-stop personalized news feed.  Some good readers are:

Social Bookmarking Services

I’ve only gotten into these recently, but the ability to tag bookmarks for easy searching and categorizing seems to make a lot more sense than the folders that live on my Firefox browser, which never quite seem to allow me to find what I’m looking for.  Diigo lets you create folders and add comments. Some often-used sites are:

Google Docs

I can’t sing the praises of Google Docs enough.  It includes an online word processor, much like Word, but you can share documents with others and make real-time collaborative edits.  You can create polls using Forms, have students fill in lab results into a collaborative spreadsheet, or work with each other on a collaborative presentation.

Online Concept Mapping

I hadn’t heard of this tool before reading the article by Brunsell and Horejsi, but I’m a big fan of concept mapping both to assess and to enhance learning.  Apparently webspiration is a tool to do this online, and it’s got a public beta version.  But it looks like it’s moving to an online subscription sometime soon.

Video Websites

You can find tons of useful video for your own learning or your students.  For example:

Other tools to get you thinking…

I’m a big fan of starting with the goal, rather than the tool, but there is something to be said for getting an idea of what’s out there, and getting inspiration from there.  So, here are some other tools listed that might be of interest:

  • Glogster.  Interactive online posters using text images, video and audio.
  • PhotoPeach. Online slideshows combining text and images.  Might be used to document field trips, topical presentations, or lab procedures.
  • VoiceThread. Like PhotoPeach, but with a voice option.
  • ScreenToaster or Screencast-o. Capture what is on your screen to narrate presentations or other guides for students.

Again, a big old tip o’ the chalk to Brunsell and Horejsi for compiling the helpful list that inspired this post!

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Facing Facebook: Social media in and out of the classroom (#aaptsm10)

posted: August 20, 2010 by

Your students are already using tools like Facebook and Twitter.  In fact, they’re often using them when you’d rather they’d be doing something else (like paying attention in class). How can we turn the potential obstacles of Web 2.0 and social media into an opportunity for effective teaching and learning?

I recently gave an overview talk at the American Association of Physics Teachers, sharing some techniques instructors are using for communicating with their students and each other, including class blogs, real-time aggregated conversations in class, tweeted answers to student questions, dedicated YouTube channels, wiki-based class contracts, and more.  I did a lot of research for this talk, and wanted to share the fruits of my labor on this blog.  I argued that by using these tools, rather than ignoring them, we can help students gain social media literacy skills.   Thus, we may choose to leverage social media to promote conversation about things that we care about, using platforms that students find familiar and fun.

Below is the Prezi that accompanied this presentation.  I recommend you open this in another window to watch, while you read this blog post.  First of all, it took a lot of time to make it, and I think you’ll enjoy it!  Secondly, a visual is always helpful in getting a sense of the landscape of ideas, and I was very careful to make this presentation a concept map of a rather broad area in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

I also recommend you check out the Diigo list of social media links that I made for the presentation — here you’ll find examples of class blogs, research articles on social media, and more.  It’s a really useful list.

1.  Students’ Use of Social Media

Students are using social media a LOT.  They’re a different kind of student than we were.  Some startling statistics that I found while researching the talk:

  • Teens spend as much time on social networking and websites as they do watching TV!  This was the bastion of education back in my day.
  • 73% of teens and young adults use social networks (from Pew study)
  • 80% of young adults are on Facebook
  • The average Facebook user spends more time on Facebook than on Google, Yahoo, YouTube, and Wikipedia combined.

Interestingly, most young adults don’t use Twitter.   They like the Facebook status updates, but the microblogging of Twitter hasn’t caught on in the same way.

So, they’re using social media – this is an opportunity for social learning, right?

Not so much.  The Venn diagram of how they’re using social media, and what we want them to learn, has very little overlap.  For the most part, social media and the web is serving as a distraction from their studies, rather than a support. [read more]

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Supporting Students’ Sharing Stuff

posted: July 8, 2010 by

image by Spencer FinnleyOkay yes, that was a silly alliteration in my title, but the truth remains: GenY students love to share information via status updates, and as blogger Josip Petrusa puts it, “we’re all looking for something to share.”

Not just anything makes the cut as status-update-worthy of course, just those tidbits that are deemed sufficiently “’cool’, ‘funny,’ and anything else that would make us look good,” Petrusa observes.

Adding value to one’s social networks by being the first to “break” news, becoming known as the go-to profile for new music, making people laugh, posting the best photos—all of these acts are about amassing cultural capital in a social computing economy.

So where does teaching enter in?

Teaching students how to find “cool” funny, odd, interesting material online, then building social platforms for this exchange to take place among classmates, even incentivizing the P2P activity by connecting it to course assessments—that’s how teachers actively support student sharing.

Any professor knows how to connect their course content to current affairs, interesting historical twists and turns, strange but true trivia, shocking stats, and key players. When we share some of that insider perspective on the course topic, those tasty shareable bits, our students gain a deeper understanding of the topic. Moreover, spicing up a lecture by designing it with these kinds of “hooks” will pique student interest, making it more likely they’ll redistribute the information along their social graph.

And there are other ways for teachers to support an academic culture of sharing, and increase student engagement in the process. We can of course build a course wiki, or social net (such as Ning) or launch a Facebook page as the platform for sharing.

And technoprofs can teach students intelligent searching strategies.

The real wizards at intelligent search logic are the librarians, and this has been true long before computers came to campus. Arranging for a librarian subject specialist to do a guest lecture or workshop for your class will help make students aware of how to avoid information overload, increase relevance of results, and optimize time spent online. This, coupled with some old-fashioned tips on how to become a better researcher, (something any faculty member should have expertise in) will add value to the course for share-minded students.

A second idea to create a sustained culture of sharing is to give students a hands-on workshop (or assignment) on social listening strategies. This will make them far more efficient at filtering the web. From free resources like Social Mention and Google Reader’s RSS organizer, to professional tools like Radian6 and MeltwaterBuzz suites of tools, social searching is a truly useful skill for individuals, as well as businesses and organizations. How to get students interested in the wonders of SEO and SERPs? Start with a bit of social listening about their personal digital footprints and online reputation.

By leveraging millennial students’ media habits and desire to share, and increasing their effectivity at it, faculty can activate the classroom while teaching 21st Century digital literacy skills. Good sharing practices and pedagogies build links between the online and offline worlds, from the lecture hall to the community beyond, and strengthen ties between students and their friends and families.

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Web 2.0 in the Classroom: Blogs and Wikis (#ISTE10)

posted: July 4, 2010 by

One of the roundtables that I went to at ISTE was about an interesting research project that tracked how teachers and students used wikis and blogs in the classroom — Web 2.0 in the Classroom, Blogs and Wikis. What’s nice about the research-base of this presentation is that we got to see not just how things might be used, but what was actually used, and how people found it helpful.  This was mainly aimed at K12 educators, with some lessons for higher education as well.  Unsurprisingly, most teachers had trouble, at first, using these tools in a way that genuinely promoted student learning.  But there’s a learning curve to using new tools.  He found several main themes in how these tools were helpful.

1.  Virtual class space.

For one, these tools allowed teachers to create a virtual class space, thus providing a digital repository for all things school-like, such as assignments, handouts, and resources.  If a student was absent, he could go to the class wiki to find them.  Teachers embedded useful tools into the class website, as well.  MyUdutu is one such course authoring tool, which lets teachers embed interactive worksheets and other items.  Quia lets you create your own online quizzes and games.  Here are some example uses from some of the teachers he interviewed:

  • A history teacher used a wiki to serve as test review for the AP.  Students collaborated to create and review topics that would be on the AP, ending with a final site that was a useful review site for the AP.
  • A lanaguage arts teacher created a wiki for students to share opinions and reflections about books they were reading.
  • One teacher had a class blog and posted discussion questions for students to comment on before class.  For example, before reading “Flowers for Algernon” she asked students to comment on the provocative question, “What is intelligence, and does it matter?”  Students had a lively debate on the blog, and came to class prepared to learn about this story about a developmentally disabled man and his pet mouse.
  • Students would hold blog debates about a topic.  Students really liked these, and felt that they could participate even if they were too shy to speak in class.  “One middle school class told us of a very headed blog discussion they had over the question of whether the Iditarod dog sled race was animal cruelty or not.” they wrote.
  • One middle school art teacher first helps students learn to give and receive criticism about their artwork.  Then, a student posts a digital image of recent work, gives a self-critique, and then other students post feedback.

These examples were successful because they were authentic and had a clear objective — a final project, or sharing of information for future assignments.  One failed project is noteworthy — the teacher asked students to create a wiki about skin diseases, with each student covering a different disease.  Students did not engage in any discussions on this project, because there was no real reason for them to care about reading, and commenting, on each others’ posts.  Similarly, individual student blogs were not very successful, in part due to logistics of maintaining many separate blogs and commenting structures, but also there was little incentive for students to participate in the discussion.

2.  Communication

Social media tools also allowed teachers and students to have relationships and conversations that extended beyond class time.  Wikis, for example, can be collaboratively edited outside of class.  Students can comment on blogs as part of an at-home assignment, and teachers can bring up those comments during class or respond to them from home.

Some examples of out of class communication were:

  • One teacher made a class blog where students would post comments and questions as they developed their project (a “digital story”).  It became a useful message center to post requests for help and comments.  They used it mostly during the class period, however.
  • A foreign language teacher created a travel blog, and asked each student to write an imaginary blog post about their visit to a spanish speaking country.  The goal was to get students to write in spanish.

Both of these project highlight one aspect of blogging in the classroom that was challenging for teachers — the reverse-chronology listing of posts in a blog.  This makes it difficult to access previous postings, but both of these projects didn’t require students to find and use previous posts.

A failed project in this study makes clear one of the teachers’ concerns — that for privacy and anonymity. One teacher tried to make a blog about bullying and asked students to blog about when they had been bullied or had bullied someone else.  But students did not want to share this information in a public space, and did not contribute freely.

One a similar note, students didn’t really care about posting a blog post to the entire world – they cared more about communicating with people in their local community or classroom.  They care about what those people think.

3.  Making and Producing Stuff

Another theme was that students could make online books, voice commentary and the like through Google Docs and Blogster (for writing), Audacity (for audio), Newsmaker (for making your own newscasts) or Flipcameras (to make video).  The good point about these technologies was that it limited the amount of time that kids spend on production, since kids can get (over) engaged in that.  If you want to focus on the content, insist that kids do their project in just one take.  These types of tools barely need any editing, so that’s very helpful in this way.

If the technology tool wasn’t easy, teachers didn’t use it, they found.  Blackboard, for example, is difficult to share documents with others.  So they use Google Docs instead.

So, some of the take-home messages are that:

  • Most teachers are using web 2.0 to create a virtual reflection of their classroom.  Students can find resources and a virtual community online.
  • The task has to be an interesting topic, where kids have a stake in it.  “Facts about skin disease” doesn’t fall under that rubric.
  • Using blogs to reflect on one’s own learning, or to have a discussion, were useful.  Individual student blogs didn’t.  The best blogs were whole class blogs, where a teacher would post a question and students would respond via comments.

Daniel Light (the presenter) shared his very detailed paper with a review of how teachers used many of the different tools and techniques discussed in this blog post.  Download that here: Web 2.0 in classrooms

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Backchannel: Let everyone speak (#ISTE10)

posted: July 2, 2010 by

I just came back from the largest ed-tech conference in the world:  The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) was in Denver.  The program was a feast of thoughtful applications of technology (though admittedly, with its fair share of gizmo-esque stuff too).  I had hoped to liveblog from the conference but, well, between dipping into the firehose that was the twitter stream (1000′s of tweets per day at #iste10) to see what the best talks were, or to get key URL’s from other presentations that I wasn’t at, and taking notes on all the great content, well — the blogging had to wait until after the fact.

If you want to see some of what the conference had to offer, here are some of the places to look:

  1. The Ning site (with threaded discussions that anyone can join)
  2. ISTEvision has streaming video of several sessions and plenaries
  3. Snag presenters’ handouts and websites from their session websites.  Search for topics you’re interested in here.
  4. Take a look at that Twitter #iste10 tag here.
  5. My materials from my workshop “Make Clickers Work for You” are here. I also have a Ning discussions group on clickers in the classroom you can join.
  6. Search for other bloggers writing about ISTE10.  Here is a list of 5 blog posts recently sent out over the blogosphere.

The first session I went to was called Backchannel:  Let everyone speak, about using a backchannel in the classroom.  A backchannel is a conversation that can happen “behind the scenes” — just like those twitter conversations that I was following during peoples’ presentations.  It can be used to help participants or students discuss what they think about what’s being presented, or make other commentary.  As you can imagine, a backchannel can go awry, when participants hijack the discussion by posting negative comments.  Apparently this happened at the opening keynote at ISTE10.  I wasn’t there (and the twitter stream is too long to get down to the relevant tweets), but apparently the guy was tarred and feathered on the Twitter stream for essentially reading his Powerpoints and making claims that people didn’t agree with.  This clearly points out the need for a code of conduct for backchannel conversations — a list of rules that participants should play by.  For what it’s worth, ISTE did post a code of conduct but sounds like it was ignored in some of these conversations. Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in your classroom, where the code of conduct could be something that you could share (or even co-create) with your students.

How might you use this in a classroom?

  • One participant used this when student groups were giving presentations to the class to collect questions or check for understanding
  • To have a dialogue during a seminar
  • To have a completely silent conversation
  • To discuss a movie clip while the movie is running
  • Students can post relevant links or online information related to the lecture or content
  • Students can ask questions or offer suggestions for how the discussion might go
  • To indicate whether the lecture should pick up pace or slow down.  (You can do this with iClicker, by leaving voting open so that students indicate whether it’s too fast or too slow, on the fly; or with a cool tool Students on the Move using a joystick to provdie this feedback).

So, why should we give students a voice like this?

  • It gives students an opportunity to engage.  Especially with large classes or passive students.
  • You can hear from multiple students at one time
  • Students can build off each others’ ideas
  • We benefit from the experience and insights of others in conferences — students can do the same in a classroom.  This turns the classroom into a community of learners
  • Students are used to multitasking, and this draws on that experience and preference of the digital natives
  • New dynamics arise in the classroom that wouldn’t happen in a public discussion
  • Students can amplify certain comments (like in a re-tweet on Twitter) and steer the discussion

When shouldn’t we use a backchannel?

One thing that I noticed when we were all using the backchannel in this conference session was that we became very quiet.  All participants were focused on their computer, rather than on what was happening in the room.  It turned us inwards, towards the conversation, rather than outwards towards each others’ physical presence.  This can sometimes be good, but you certainly don’t want to use a backchannel when you want students to be more engaged in the physical classroom dynamic.

Another thing to be aware of is the idea of cognitive load.  If there is too much going on at any one point, people have trouble attending to it all.  There is a nice research summary of cognitive load as related to backchannel here.  She suggests that backchannels could increase cognitive load (reducing learning), but that the additional interactivity could also have a positive effect in terms of learners’ ability to engage with the material.

What tools might I use?

  • Coverit Live looked like a really neat tool.  You can chat through its interface, and all tweets with a specific tag will also be fed directly into that conversation.  You can moderate comments — which can be a key feature.  The best thing is that this is archived, so you can review the conversation later, so it acts as a documentation of the conversation
  • There are several other tools that are reviewed here.
  • Hotseat was developed by Purdue University and is reviewed by Derek Bruff here.

Some other links about backchannels:

ADDED 8/1/10

I recently found two posts with some other good tools for Backchannels:  Shoutreel (private or public chat areas), and Five Platforms for a Backchannel, both from Free Tech for Teachers.

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GenY email fail?

posted: June 7, 2010 by

Last month came big news that Hotmail is getting a major facelift.  Bloggers and press releases touted the new and improved, feature-rich, free webmail service as the Next Big Thing. But do millennials care about Microsoft’s latest and greatest email, even the super “hot” variety?

A couple of years back, Boston College made headlines when it opted to cease distributing campus email accounts to the incoming class.  The rationale?  Officials found that the accounts were very much underutilized, which meant email was an inefficient and unreliable communications tool for faculty and administration to use.

Why did students fail to regularly check their email?  Boston College identified two reasons: “because their life is somewhere else,” and “because they already have well-established digital identities before they arrive on campus.”  We know where those developed digital personas are: Facebook and MySpace.  They’ve been there for a long time.  “I need (Facebook) everywhere I go,” said one teen entrepreneur and panelist at the Mashup 2007 conference, “but I log into e-mail only once a week.” Yep, 2007.  Her comment was in response to a question from the floor—posed by a Microsoft executive.

There are several reasons behind this communications shift, including millennials’ need for instant gratification—something that email really can’t deliver. The bottom line is nicely summed up by ArtsTechnica: according to teens and twentysomethings, “email is for old people.”

The GenY trend away from email is everywhere, as students opt to use social networking and texting as their primary communication tools. Stats showed that in 2009 email sites were getting 40% less traffic than they had just five years earlier, while socnets were enjoying an almost 90% increase in visits over the same period.

Implications for Higher Ed

So, because they offer far more instantaneous and mobile-ready, status updates and SMS has been edging out email among millennials for years now. That means that faculty and administrators need to get social-media-savvy if they want to connect with the study body in any sort of timely and regular way.

Yet for the most part, colleges and universities are reluctant or refusing to get on board, and with the exception of some early adopter technoprofs, libraries, and admissions offices, are resisting launching Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.

So too do individual faculty from GenX and Boomer cohorts too often dig in their heels and refuse to compromise/cater to students’ communications preferences, habits, and skills. On the flip side, other professors are integrating these tools into the classroom experience, including at Bay College, Purdue and Georgia State. They are getting super-sized student buy-in for their trouble.

But realistically, for those who are not about to start tweeting and texting their students, email is the next best thing. To that end, using web-based, mobile-ready email services (such as Yahoo! mail, Gmail, and Hotmail) is the best solution. Unlike campus-based email accounts which expire upon graduation, these private e-services travel with students over the long haul. Of course, whether or not students will check these email accounts with any regularity depends largely on ease of access, mobile usability, and service relevancy—the latter of which has everything to do with whether their friends are using them too.

If professors, administrators, staff and parents want their GenYs to “get the message” it’s important to think strategically about which communications channels the digital natives are frequently using.  Because, let’s face it, media habits are hard to break, and not just for millennials. The alternative is for the “old people” to stubbornly opt to send messages on channels we think kids should use, or those that are most convenient for us to use, and then getting frustrated by emails that go long unread.

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Tech fasts: millennials unplugged!

posted: April 6, 2010 by

Recently in the news, a professor at The University of Minnesota gave her class a unique assignment: “Five days without media or gadgets that didn’t exist before 1984.”  That means no iPods nor smartphones, no Facebook nor Twitter.  How did the students respond?  With moans and groans.

In fact the assignment just described isn’t very unique at all. It is part of a trend of “technology or media fasts” that GenX and Boomer teachers assign to Gen Y students. The pedagogical goal underpinning tech fasts goes something like this: by signing off Facebook for a week, or refusing to use a cellphone, these everyday technologies will be made “unfamiliar” to the digital natives. As a consequence, ideally, the millennials unplugged will be enlightened about the role that information and communications technologies play in shaping their experience and knowledge of society and culture.

Not that far removed from course policies that ban the use of laptop computers or cellphones in the lecture hall,  requiring students to sign off digital services and put down their high tech gear is at base designed to discourage multitasking and inspire focused, critical thinking. Tech fasts are intended to increase a student’s self-awareness about personal media use habits.

Putting students on digital diets

We might ask: do college and university students, twenty-somethings in general, fail to think about their reliance upon digital media for education, entertainment, communication, and cultural participation? Do students in higher ed today fail to articulate about the place of mobile technologies, social networks, and digital media in their lives?

Not my students. In fact, no awkward (and some would argue, unethical and heavy-handed) tech-fast assignment is necessary in order to get students passionately engaged in excellent discussions, reflecting, critiquing, questioning, and contextualizing their everyday media use. All we need to do is create opportunities for them to share and discuss, online or off. I would venture to suggest that GenYers know far more about the enormous and intimate role that tech and digital media plays in shaping their identities, experiences, imaginations, and cultural arrangements–far more than most of their GenX and Boomer professors do.

On the other hand, there are some interesting, positive and powerful outcomes that could result from media and tech fasts. These kinds of “unplug” assignments would be an excellent demonstration of the pleasure associated with everyday media use rituals and habits—albeit through denial. Not being able to connect to information, friends and family, or to access one’s personal data, calendar, schedule, eBooks, notes, music—certainly this cultural disconnect will cause a serious level of digital pain, confusion, and cognitive dissonance. Consequently the “tech-free” course assignment would be a useful, highly personal, experience-based illustration of the digital divide, and what it means to be offline and without access to ICT tools and services.

How important, effective, and innovative is it for professors to ban technologies from students’ educational experiences and everyday lives? Is the impact worth the educational experience? Faculties are divided, and both sides of the educational technology debates are passionate and deeply invested in their perspectives on the place of media and computers in higher ed. Somewhere in the middle are the students themselves.

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Disruptive technology? Students & their smartphones

posted: March 25, 2010 by

3363714747_c649336ef3(2)That students use text messaging, mobile web-surfing, and social media sites in the classroom is not news. Prohibited or not, the behavior is commonplace, according to self-reports from students who admit to using SMS even during exams. “Students feel texting is no big deal….even without the teacher’s approval it is common for students to text under their desks or even in their pockets,” reports one student newspaper in California. Not surprisingly, some professors feel differently about the textual distraction, and are often offended, confused, or even threatened by the loss of control. As such there’s a constant stream of case studies in the press about generational clashes over unsanctioned mobile media use in the lecture hall.

Not long ago, the issue was students using notebook computers in the lecture hall to surf the web and visit MySpace and Facebook during class. As a result, some professors opted to turn off the wi-fi and ban laptops. However, mobile phone use is far more difficult for instructors to control and shut down. Today most students have cellphones and smartphones that are web-enabled and complete with data plans for dedicated, private, and reliable service that stays up regardless of whether the prof throws the switch. This handheld computing is causing more technopanic on campus.

As reported by Inside Higher Ed, a professor at Syracuse University is so offended by students who find their cell phones more interesting than their professors, that if he “catches a student sending text messages or reading a newspaper in class, he’ll end the class on the spot and walk out.” Recently one high school teacher in Wisconsin had his perpetually-texting 14 year old student arrested. At University of Texas, El Paso, one professor is so disturbed by what she considers disruptive mobile technology (students texting while she lectures) that she confiscates phones and suggests we might consider a ban of cell phones while learning, similar to some cities’ and states’ prohibitions against the use of cell phones and texting while driving.

While “some teachers ban cell phones and laptops on sight, others figure, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” observes reporter Jennifer Brooks at The Tennessean. Indeed, many instructors and professors who strongly believe in the potential of educational technology take a far different approach to texting and surfing millennials. Some design classroom activities using cell phones and pedagogical projects involving mobile social networking. As recently reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Todd McCann, an instructor at Bay College in Michigan, uses SMS to remind students of upcoming deadlines. When he launched the service, approximately 70% of his students opted-in to receive the text messages notifying them of upcoming paper due dates and the like. McCann commented that, rather than resisting new communications and digital technologies, as many of his colleagues do, he was instead opting to meet students “where they live“—in other words, to offer students support online. Also in Michigan, this time at the high school level, a pilot project (funded by a $250,000 grant from Verizon) using cell phones resulted in students’ achievement scores increasing by an average of 25 percent.

Students’ fascination with mobile communications technology is leveraged at many universities where mobile app development is part of the curriculum. This is timely because, as Malcolm Brown, director of Educause Learning Initiative recently observed, “Mobile technology has indeed arrived,” in higher education, “but are we ready?”

The answer at Abilene Christian University in Texas is a resounding YES, as the school prepares for the spring 2010 launch of Apple’s iPad. Increasingly, professors and students alike want to be connected “wherever they are,” said George Saltsman, executive director of the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning, because “we are becoming an increasingly mobile society.” ACU wants to be a leader in “understanding how mobility works in education and in society.” Likewise at The University of Illinois, professors were recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore how mobile technology can enhance undergraduate students’ learning experiences.

From texting to tweeting, many educators are investigating how to leverage millennials’ preexisting technical savvy when it comes to mobile and social computing for educational ends—rather than fighting what appears to be a losing battle for control over a disconnected classroom.

image credit: woohoo megoo on flickr

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