Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: April 2010 (page 1 of 1)

Reflection on using back-channel chat in class

Today we had a joint project in Science and English where students pitched a product they had "invented" which would help solve the global water crisis.  Their product had to be greed inducing and their pitch had to include some of the scientific background required to understand how their product works.

We styled the actual presentation space itself much like the television show Dragon’s Den.  This meant that one person was presenting an idea to 5 students, who had to judge the idea and based on its merits decide whether or not to fund the idea.  This meant that at any time, 5 students were involved in judging and 1 student was presenting.  Unfortunately this left the rest of the audience with nothing to do but watch.

Anyone who has worked with adolescents can tell you that 3 hours (which is how long it took to go through 30 presentations), even if it is broken into two 90 minutes sessions, is a long time for them to hold their interest, especially if they have nothing to do.  Traditionally teachers have often solved this problem by having everyone take the time to evaluate each presentation, which means that students have to be somewhat actively listening in order to do their individual evaluations.  Unfortunately this generally doesn’t work as well as expected given that even this task can be boring and students will often decide on arbitrary marks/comments for their peers, just to make sure the task is completed.

So what we did for this particular set of presentations was set up a back-channel chat for students to use while the presentations were going on.  The idea was, give the students something to do which is engaging and interesting and allows them to express their opinion.  Our instructions were pretty simple,  be respectful and remain on topic.  

The system we used is called "Ajax Chat" and it is an open source web script that we set up on one of our school’s web servers.  This had the advantage of being free, private, and easy to customize.   I made some small customizations before we used the system, for example I first removed the extra menu for users which stopped the students from being able to send private messages, switch channels, and add emoticons to their chat messages.  I kind of felt that all of these would be distractions from actually using the chat.  I also disabled sounds for the chat, as I didn’t want a whole bunch of beeping to  be going on all over the room as each student submitted messages.  Finally I created user accounts for all of the students and sent them individual emails (to do the emails I used Excel + Word + an email merge through Outlook, which was an enormous time-saver) with their unique passwords which I hoped would reduce the number of students logging in as someone else.

At the beginning of the chat, I was pretty lenient about the student’s behaviour because I knew that none of them had used this kind of technology in a school context before, and I wanted to allow them some room to experiment.  After a few minutes of a bit of chat chaos at the beginning, I started asserting control over the chat room and let them know which of their behaviours were inappropriate, and which were good.  When a student went off topic or started spamming the channel, or other types of inappropriate behaviour, I kicked them out of the chat room for 10 minutes, at first with 3 warnings, and then later with 1 warning.  Sometimes the other students would laugh about this, but generally they got it, if you broke a sensible rule using this tool then you wouldn’t be able to use it anymore.  Once the students came back to the chat room, they were better engaged and more respectful.


You can see from the part of the chat log up top that this was a reasonably successful test of back-channel chat with this group of students. Most of the conversation was on task, perhaps 99% of the comments were focused on the presenters during the entire three hours.  I feel like students really had an opportunity to express themselves, and some students who were normally a bit quieter in the classroom participated more in the chat.

The strengths of the chat room were that it greatly increased the amount of student engagement with the presentations.  I often noticed students asking clarifying questions and checking to make sure that they heard the information given in the presentations correctly.  One student even said, "Wow I learned something new today!" in response to another student’s presentation.  People also were generally good at giving constructive feedback, and recognizing how the students were doing during the presentations.

One of the problems was that as time went on, students would log out of the chat room and not come back. The noise level in the classroom didn’t increase much toward the end of the session, but it was clear that the level of student engagement was lower.  I don’t think that this is unusual for any kind of activity of this length with middle school students, but it does mean that the students who went up first got a lot more feedback about their performances.  That being said, those students got to see a lot more examples of good pitches and model their pitches after previously successful pitches.

I can see why educators have been raving about back-channel chat and am definitely planning on using it in the future, especially for situations where audience feedback is difficult to do and silence is expected, but where it can be so powerful.  I think in a regular classroom setting with a teacher lecturing up at the front, it’s easier for students simply to raise their hands and ask questions,  but in large lecture halls, moderated back-channel chat should most definitely be used.

For people interested in the customizations that made this activity work a bit more effectively, I’ve uploaded the script here (remember that 99.99% of this was created by the very generous programmers at  For the technically minded, you’ll need a web server capable of running Php files, and access to a MYSQL database in order to install this web chatting script.

Using Google forms for a “Choose your own adventure” style story

Recently I noticed that Google forms has an option to add multiple pages to a form, and to go to pages based on the responses to multiple choice questions added to each page.  It occurred to me that an immediate use of this would be to construct a "choose your own adventure" story which I always loved reading when I was a student.

The basic idea is, the students construct a story where the next page in the story depends on a decision made by the person reading the story.  Generally in one of these books the reader flips to a different page depending on their decision and so create their own version of the story. With a sufficiently advanced plot, and a long enough book, there can be a very large number of ways a story can unfold.

To recreate this in Google docs, you have to first create a standard Google form.  Navigate to and sign in, then click on "Create New" and select "Form".  The title of the form will become the title of their book, and the first large textbook becomes the text of the first page on their book.  Students may find creating a storyboard of their overall story first (including the various links between the pages) will make constructing the overall form easier.  Once they have an idea of how their story will unfold, and what the connections between the pages will be, students should start working on the form.

Google Forms - Multiple choiceWhile constructing your form, you are going to alternate between adding page breaks and adding multiple choice questions.  Adding a page break separates the form into multiple pages, and allows you to add a new title for the page and new text for each page.  Each page will also need a multiple choice question, unless the student only wants the reader to move onto the next page.  

The crux of what makes this work is the ability to add pages, and the ability of a multiple choice question to "Go to page based on answer."  In order for this to work, you have to check off this box for each multiple choice question, and link each option of the multiple choice question to the appropriate page (which appears as a drop down next to the option, if you check the box).  Students may find that they need to go back and edit the multiple choice questions, as they may add pages after they have already created the questions, or at least I noticed myself doing this.

The very last page of the form will have a submit button. If after each student has created their form, they share it with their classmates, if their classmates click the submit button, the students will be able to see the final path through their book each of their colleagues used.  They can then have fun discussing their stories with each other, and exploring ways to make their stories better.  Students can also play with the theme of their forms and choose a theme which matches their story.

For a very simple example of what this looks like when it is completed, check this very short and simple story out:


Reflection on what Education 3.0 means

What might Education for the Present look like, and how might we best support its proliferation in classrooms?

The first step in turning Education into the present is to use technology effectively. It is possible to track the progress of every child, using effective performance rubrics and know who needs to be targeted with what services, and these technologies aren’t even expensive. Instead of using standardized tests, students could have individualized education plans, which includes shared experiences and personal ownership of the material students are learning.  Rather than trying to drive every  student through the exact same curriculum, students could specialize earlier in their school career and have more choice about what content they want to learn.

What kinds of designed spaces support collective intelligence and how might these be thought of as properly educational?

Google's officesStudents need to be in contact with other people on a regular basis, like all human beings, so the regular school house is not going to be abandoned. However much more space needs to be included in these schools for students to do independent work. The school of the future may end up looking more like the progressive offices of the present.  The design of Google’s offices for their programmers are innovative and interesting, and although they may not exactly look like what you would expect a school to  look like, a lot of the features of their work space are useful for education.

What are the main challenges and risks to integration of collective intelligence tools into schools?

The biggest problem facing education right now is that the people in charge are totally unaware of the damage they cause with their ignorance and suspicion of technology. Without a willingness to experiment and find alternate modes of education, which current political will lacks, education is likely to falter.

What assumptions about learning do we need to give up if we loosen up our understandings of authorship and originality.

Remix culture is huge now, but copyright law has not caught up. Copyright law, in its essence is designed to protect intellectual property by allowing a creator of an idea to profit from their idea. Unfortunately the speed of innovation is greatly slowed down when people cannot collaborate effectively because of copyright concerns. This suggests to me that we need to change the mode of copyright so that collaboration is encouraged, but attribution is secure. The new mode of making money from your ideas will be to offer support, and to create innovative products for your ideas and maximize user interest in your product with creative marketing.

What are the silo structures in the world of education?

To me a Silo structure is a major supporting structure for education. The most important support structure we have in Canada is our provincially funded public schools. This allows all schools to operate at the same level of effectiveness, and is a serious problem with funding elsewhere in the world where municipalities are still funding education.

New social network for Canadian teachers

Just this night I started a new social network for Canadian teachers.  Although there are some national organizations for teachers already, there does not appear to be any free social networks for teachers to join.  There are some regional social networks, for example BC has an Edtech network and Ontario has a social network for teachers from their province.  This new social network is hopefully filling a void in Canada, although it is entirely possible that such a network exists and it is cleverly hidden from my internet searches.

Canadians do not have an educational secretary like the US does.  Education here is divided into provincial and territory regions and each region handles education differently.  There is some oversight from the Federal government, but it is mostly focused on specific issues, and does nothing to connect teachers from across the country.

It is important that educators join together, in large numbers we have a stronger voice.  We also need to be able to communicate with each other because it will help improve our individual practices, and this will be good for our students.  

If you want to join this network, it is free to do so.  All you need is to go to the following website and sign up.

Massively collaborative educational research

The book Wikinomics has really got me thinking about how collaboration happens in our society.  One of the area where I think massive collaboration would be really useful, but where it is underutilized is in the area of educational research.  Imagine the power of collaboration that we could have if hundreds of educators collaborated to run a research study.  I’ve written about this before, but I have a new perspective since reading Tapscott and Williams.

Let’s look  at some of the benefits of being involved in such an undertaking.

First, each educator would have their name attached to a valuable piece of educational research.  So much research in education is done with tiny sample sizes that tend to invalidate the purpose of the research.  A large sample size does not guarantee that the research is valid, it still needs to be done with care, but it does tend to reduce things like selection bias, small sample size effect, etc…

Second, we could do research on a wide variety of different socioeconomic backgrounds, different parts of the world, and be able to analyze our data from many different perspectives.  We might even have enough data to spawn multiple educational research papers on our chosen topic.  We could release our data under a Creative Commons license, and let other educators remix and look at the date in different ways.

Finally, the amount of work each educator would have to do would be a lot less.  Designing a study, collecting data, researching sources, analyzing data, and writing an educational research paper are all time-consuming tasks.  Dividing up these tasks over a larger group, even with the additional overhead of maintaining coherence in the research, would greatly reduce how much work each educator would have to do.

If you are interested in participating in such a research study, please sign up at this form.  There is no specific topic or agenda set yet, just an initial examining of the interest from the educational community.