This post is co-authored by Allendale Columbia School Librarian Judy Van Alstyne. Make sure to check out her blog Data-Sifting and Bookgerms.
So, I missed Tech Tuesday. Report card writing took up all of my time the last few days, but now I’m back.
One problem we tried to address this year in our Digital Literacy class was how to improve the participation of students who don’t normally contribute verbally. How can we fairly give a student a grade for class participation when we only give them one way to engage in discussions?
What is the point of participation? Is it to check in with students to see what they understand? Is it to provide opportunities for students to voice their thoughts and opinions? Is it to provide fuel for discourse in order to deepen and broaden the class discussion? And then why grade a student’s level of participation? Does the grade work as an incentive? For those who dread speaking up in class, perhaps it is not a strong enough one. Ideally, the discussion topic would be interesting enough and the methods of participation non threatening enough that incentives aren’t even necessary. Certainly there are a number of issues surrounding this topic (please feel free to comment below).
So, we presented this problem to our 7th graders and they all agreed that the current method (raise your hand and speak out) isn’t a great way to get everyone involved in the class discussion. Since our class centers around the appropriate use of technology, we asked the students to try solving the problem using a technology tool (we have an iPad 1:1 program in our middle school). After a full period of research and brainstorming, the students were not making much headway. Judy (my co-teacher) and I decided to give them a few examples of what a backchannel might look like. Here is what we tried:
TodaysMeet – If you haven’t experienced TodaysMeet, it’s a simple tool that can be used in pretty much any environment when you want to encourage people to discuss in a chat format about a presentation as it is going on. It can be used to accompany movies, inspirational talks, class lectures and discussions, just to name a few (feel free to add other ways you have used TodaysMeet in the comments section). Some do find it challenging to follow both the presentation and the comment log concurrently. The kids definitely liked experimenting with TodaysMeet, although there were several off-topic comments. The comments weren’t inappropriate, but they were distracting, and they had the tendency to derail the discussion somewhat. For the most part, TodaysMeet was used as intended and the kids certainly enjoyed it.
Padlet – Padlet is simply a web-based private “wall” where invited participants can post comments in text boxes. When you create the Padlet “wall,” you can customize the look and simplify the url so students can type it in easily. Students can log in and have their names attached to their comments automatically or students can just comment while adding their names as they go. One disadvantage with using Padlet as a real-time discussion tool is the need to refresh the page often to see all the new posts. Also, if several are posted at once, or students don’t refresh often enough, the posts tend to get cluttered and overlap one another. Students again enjoyed trying a different tool and we had some similar issues with silly comments, but overall, they did enjoy using it.
Post-it Notes on the wall – Pretty self explanatory and not tech related. We spread Post-it notes and pencils on the tables and told students to get up and stick them on the wall in front of the classroom. We read them aloud as quickly as possible and tried to relate the discussion around the notes as they were posted. We had far fewer instances of silly comments with regular notes. The kids really loved this and participation was higher than either of the tech tools we tried. It was busy, messy and somewhat loud at times but engagement was very high. And no one could “impersonate” someone else, as they did with the tech tools, so that those silly comments would get attributed to the wrong student.
So we did have issues. Neither of the tech tools were seamless to integrate into the classroom. There were some minor technical glitches, most of it related to student error, which slowed down the process. While both TodaysMeet and Padlet do work on an iPad, they are web-based tools that can be glitchy in a small browser window like an iPad. Using them on a computer is much easier.
We did not find a definitive answer to the problem of how to engage all students in class discussions, but students do agree it is a problem worth solving. Throwing technology at it didn’t fix it. But with more experience, students would get better at using the tech tools more effectively, and once the novelty wore off, more appropriately. So, we wouldn’t abandon the use of tech altogether. And who is to say that the discussion need be limited to class time? Perhaps that is where tech can play the greater role. But without a doubt, finding more ways for students to respond in class discussions beyond the traditional, raise your hand method, is absolutely 100% necessary.