So, in (7th Grade) Media Literacy last time, we tried a “backchannel” experiment. The theme for the day was “What is beauty?” – we normally look at pictures of photoshopped models and products, talk about who defines what beauty is in our culture, and discuss whether or not we should be comparing ourselves with photos of people who don’t actually exist.
This time, I decided to experiment with the “chat” feature on Moodle by setting up a conversation that the students could participate in while they watched some short movies about beauty, and a power point with some quotes to respond to. I explained what a backchannel was (I described some examples from the ISTE conference), and that we were going to record our thoughts as they entered our minds while we watched. We also talked about staying on topic, and saying things that were appropriate for school. I even let them know that I might be showing some of the chat to other teachers who were thinking of using this technique. I was hoping to see them raise some opinions, or give some examples of what they were seeing, make comparisons, etc. but mostly I wanted to see how they would do with it. I let them all do “shout outs” to test the chat feature, and told them to take that opportunity to have a few seconds of off-topic conversation.
We settled in. It took us all a while to get a conversation started. I found that about half of the class really got into it and had some interesting side conversations. Of the other half, some made statements that were off topic, and some of these comments pulled others off topic as well. The people that stayed on topic had meaningful exchanges. But by the end of the 15 minutes or so that we were in the chat, there were a lot of off-topic statements being made, both in the chat and aloud in class.
I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted, but I did take the moment to discuss what had happened. Some students mentioned that it was really hard to follow the real conversation because they had to sift through all of the off-topic conversations (some were quite silly!). I asked them what they liked and didn’t like; what worked and didn’t work. I then asked them what would make it a better experience. “Staying on topic; not making personal comments about people in the class; not being distracting” – all things that I heard.
So it was frustrating for me, because I didn’t really get what I hoped for, but I think that the “glorious” part was that the group itself had a nice exercise in critical thinking, empathy, and reflection. They figured out what would make it a better, more useful activity.
Conclusions from this experiment:
1. It’s very important to let them “play” for a few minutes and get the off-topic stuff out first.
2. I needed to be in the conversation. Unfortunately, the power point and videos were playing from my computer. Next time, I’ll bring in my laptop and converse on that while the movies play. I needed to be setting the tone for the discussion right off the bat.
3. Some questions to focus the discussion might have helped.
4. If we had more time to practice this type of activity, we may have more success. I’m happy that I have a class like this that I can experiment with, but it is only meets weekly for seven sessions.