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Backchannel chatter is the use of any type of texting communication by students while a lesson and/or discussion is in progress.
Previously, this texting was frowned upon by educators and looked upon
as a distraction. After all, students are expected to be respectful and
pay attention to the discussion, each other, and, above all, the
teacher, right?


In previous classes, I experimented with allowing the students to use Google chat. It was an interesting
experience, but really had no point. I was determined to find a way for
students to communicate during class without losing focus. Over a year
ago, I had bookmarked Today's Meet in Diigo.
I hadn't given much thought to it until I saw a twitter post over the
summer about a college professor using Twitter as a discussion tool in
her classroom. Monica Rankin, a History Professor at the University of
Texas at Dallas, found a way to increase class discussions by giving
everyone a simultaneous way to answer, comment, and be heard.


Rankin inspired me to find a way to imitate this in my own classroom. I
considered that in an oral discussion students are limited in there
responses - in a text discussion, responses are only limited by the time
it takes to key in the comment or question.


As with any online experience, I prepared the students with my expectations of
use and proper netiquette. Today's Meet allows for the chat to be set
up in increments ranging from two hours to one year. I boldly chose one
year, keeping in mind that I would not be allowed to delete student
posts and that no sign up is required to post (only typing in your
name). I expressed that we would be using the chat as a professional
tool and that students should log in with their first name only (their
real names - there was some goofing around as they learned the tool). I
let the students know that the chat was there for class discussions:
sometimes we would use the chat in place of oral discussions, and
sometimes they would use it to discuss another angle of the classroom
discussion during an oral discussion. Either way, it was agreed that
students would stay on the general topic when using the chat. Students
were excited that they would be able to look back at the posts
throughout the school year and were equally excited that at the end of
the school year, all of the posts would still be there.


The first few days using Today's Meet were a little hectic. I had to
reteach the expectations of using the chat and model the use of it by
projecting the chat during discussions. I verbally commented on posts
and commented at the end of each class to praise students on their ideas
and remind them again of expectations of use. After using the chat for
two and a half weeks, I have been amazed at the level of discussions
that have been produced. I use the same chat for two accelerated junior
English classes, and the students from each class look back at previous
posts to see what the other class discussed. Students have begun to
comment more freely about their thoughts and opinions of the literature
and the literary periods through the chat. Backchannel discussions have
started over angles of the literature that I had not intended to
discuss. Occurring simultaneously with the oral discussions in the
classroom, I was excited at how easily the students slipped back and
forth from the online conversation to the oral discussion. There was no
reason to be left out of a discussion, either one. I acquired the
feedback that I craved when I set up my lesson: did they "get it"? Did
they understand the writing style of the literary period? the culture of
the literary period? how the culture, historical events, etc. shaped
the literary period and vice versa? YES!!! . . . and I had documentable
proof that I could show to my colleagues like a giddy kid showing off a
birthday present saying, "Check this out! Isn't this awesome!"


The most rewarding moment so far happened in today's class. The oral
discussion was bombing . . . I couldn't pull the comments out of them.
The awkward silence that I let occur . . . the one that usually gets
someone to step up and comment . . . grew into unbearable moments of
deafening silence. I announced that the chat seemed to be having a much
better discussion going than the oral discussion, and that we were
going to continue our discussion in the chat. I went over to my laptop
and fired off a few questions and began having discussion with several
students simultaneously. The discussion blossomed into the level of
intensity that I had expected from the oral discussion . . . then . . .
surpassed it! Students were watching me type on the screen and were
answering my post before I could even click the "Say" button. They were
responding to other student comments - asking each other questions -
praising each other's comments/opinions - WOW!!


I would score the chat and backchannel chatter experience with Today's Meet as a
huge success. Students were provided with a tool to make their voices
heard, to be active participants, and proved that they could handle the
responsibility that comes with posting online in a public venue. What
if they didn't have that venue? What if?

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Comment by John Langley on October 2, 2010 at 11:17pm
I love Google - I tease my students that "Google is taking over the world" - which is okay by me. Students have been using Google chat for a couple of years for backchannel chat (mostly without teachers knowing). While some of us agree that using backchannel chat without the teacher knowing is still awesome, some teachers are freaking out about it. It's time for educators to adjust to today's student.

I like using the chat as an obvious means of discussion. The students really like that I set up the Today's Meet chat for one year so they will be able to look at the transcripts of the chat throughout the year. In one of my morning classes, oral discussion is forced, and the English Chat we set up is way more productive than having an oral discussion. I also like that students can answer simultaneously and comment on each others answers. Wow! Discussions get so much more meaningful!
Comment by Orlando Falvo on October 2, 2010 at 6:51pm
That's great, although my county would block my-site if I set up a chat site on it. We use Google doc's to back channel. I went to GD one night to see how a project was working and I found my students chatting with each other. I did not know that chatting was one of the features on Google docs. It was very cool.
Comment by John Langley on October 2, 2010 at 3:22pm
Today's Meet is an online site where you can create your own chat site - http://www.todaysmeet.com

There is no downloaded software required. It takes less than a minute to set up your chat site, and all students need is the url that is created. I put the link on my classroom website, and students jump right to it when they get into class.
Comment by Norman Constantine on September 27, 2010 at 3:05am
Is Today's Chat a special piece of software or did you just use Googel Chat?

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