PLAYBACK: When Teachers and Students Tweet & New Media Innovations In and Out of the Classroom

Filed in: Schools, Social Media, STEM

Filed by Sarah Jackson


Photo by Raffi Asdourian.

5.13.11 | Classroom backchannels; teachers find community on Twitter; new research on e-readers in academia; and teaching kids to innovate through robotics, the Google Science Fair, and the Young Makers Program.

Backchannel in the Classroom: In a sign that social media in class may be gaining more acceptance, The New York Times had an interesting piece this week about teachers using microblogging to enhance classroom discussion. Trip Gabriel talked with educators who say that setting up a “backchannel” in their classes can encourage normally shy students to participate:

The real-time digital streams allow students to comment, pose questions (answered either by one another or the teacher) and shed inhibitions about voicing opinions. Perhaps most importantly, if they are texting on-task, they are less likely to be texting about something else.

Nicholas Provenzano, an English teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School, outside Detroit, said that in a class of 30, only about 12 usually carried the conversation, but that eight more might pipe up on a backchannel. “Another eight kids entering a discussion is huge,” he noted.

The piece goes on to detail different technologies educators from elementary school classrooms to university lecture halls are using, such as Google Moderator or Hot Seat, developed at Purdue University. Teachers of younger students often exercise tight control over backchannels, reviewing transcripts for inappropriate remarks. But advocates tell the Times the technology “can entice students who rarely raise a hand to express themselves via a medium they find as natural as breathing.”

“It’s clear to me,” said Sugato Chakravarty, a professor at Purdue who uses Hot Seat, “that absent this kind of social media interaction, there are things students think about that normally they’d never say.”

Why Teachers Tweet: But turns out teachers need a backchannel of their own. Teaching can be a notoriously isolating profession. If your day is filled with classes, it can be hours before you see another adult. A group of educators in the UK are seeking solace through weekly meetings in a kind of unlikely place - on Twitter, according to a piece in the Guardian this week.

The group, organized through #UKedChat, logs on regularly on weekday evenings to discuss questions posed by a volunteer moderator (the group is polled for topics ahead of time) that include everything from work/life balance to technology integration. Participants tweet using the hashtag #UKedChat, so educators can follow all comments as they come in.

Participants told the Guardian they found an incredibly open community of educators on Twitter, all willing to help out and share new ideas. They see Twitter as an efficient, easy way to share best practices. Some even describe keeping their laptops open to Twitter during the day and tweeting questions out to the educational community as they arise. Answers are returned within minutes.

“Most schools have a really dull, top-down culture in which the senior management try to ‘manage’ learning,” Jackie Schneider, a primary teacher in Merton, south London, told the Guardian. “But on Twitter there’s a huge generosity of spirit where teachers help out complete strangers with lesson resources purely for the love of learning.”

Learn more on the group’s wikispace or read through past discussions here.

Not Yet as Good as Book: A study of how university students are using e-readers finds that the devices are not yet meeting users’ demands in academic circles.

The findings, released by the University of Washington, were part of a larger pilot study of seven universities designed to explore the strengths and weaknesses of e-readers relative to traditional methods of content delivery.

Predictably, the research found that students need more ways to take notes and check references on electronic devices. But the study also found that for this kind of academic reading, students like to switch between reading styles—like skimming references or reviewing illustrations—before tackling the complete text. Readers also use physical cues, such as location on the page and the position in the book, to help retain and recall information. The Kindle DX, the device studied here, was not able to provide similar cues.

“Most e-readers were designed for leisure reading – think romance novels on the beach,” said co-author Charlotte Lee, a UW assistant professor of human centered design and engineering. “We found that reading is just a small part of what students are doing. And when we realize how dynamic and complicated a process this is, it kind of redefines what it means to design an e-reader.”

The Power of Play: Writing at The Atlantic, Laura Seargeant Richardson says encouraging our children to play is the most valuable skill we can give them and our country.

Richardson is a designer who has written and spoken a lot about the importance of creative play and the power of involving kids in game design. The workforce of the future is going to depend on innovation and creativity, she argues, and creating space and time for play in school is the only real way to teach these skills.

Someday, rather than measuring memorization as an indicator of progress, we will measure our children’s ability to manipulate (deconstruct and hack), morph (think flexibly and be tolerant of change), and move (think “with their hands” and play productively). Standardized aptitude tests will be replaced by our abilities to see (observe and imagine), sense (have empathy and intrinsic motivation), and stretch (think abstractly and systemically). We will advance our abilities to collaborate and create.

Read the full piece here. For more on teaching innovation, see Spotlight’s coverage of Hackasaurus jams and the Quest to Learn school.

Not How You Remember High School Physics: Speaking of innovation, we’re always on the lookout for real life examples of the kind of work Richardson is talking about. Meet Amir Abo-Shaeer, a physics teacher at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, Calif. The Los Angeles Times profiled Abo-Shaeer last month after he won a Macarthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Abo-Shaeer created the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA), a school within a school with an awesome applied science and technology curriculum that includes a major robotics component. The Times profile tells the story of Abo-Shaeer and his students, who work long and hard to prepare for the annual FIRST Robotics Competition. This year’s assignment involved creating a robot that can “pluck plastic triangles, squares and circles off the floor, locomote to a wall, and place the shapes on pegs in specific patterns. It also has to carry a mini-robot capable of climbing a 10-foot pole in seconds.” In other words, simple stuff.

Read the full story here, or watch the student-designed robots in action in the video below. The robots here are competing to shoot baskets against the school’s varsity players. For more on the competition, read “‘We Built These Things’: Chicago Teens Learn, Teach and Compete With Robotics.”

Virtual Science: You have until May 20 to vote for your favorite project in the People’s Choice Award category of Google’s first online science fair.

More than 10,000 young scientists from around the globe submitted their science projects to Google via video or slide presentation on topics ranging from cancer treatment to renewable oceanic energy. The submissions were narrowed down to 60 semi-finalists by a global panel of teachers.

I liked this project submitted by 14-year-old Luke Taylor, a student at the German International School in Capetown, South Africa. As robotics is being incorporated into more and more facets of human life, Taylor thought it was about time robots spoke human language. His project created a prototype that analyzes and translates English sentences into C-code that robots can understand.

People’s Choice winners each receive a $10,000 scholarship from Google. And if you missed registration this year, sign up here to be notified about the opening of Google Science Fair 2012.

Plus: Countdown to Maker Faire: Finally, here in the Bay Area where I live, folks are gearing up for the giant Maker Faire Bay Area coming up next weekend. We’ll be keeping our eye on what the participants in the Young Makers Program bring with them. 

We reported on their work earlier this year, and the rumor has it they’ll be exhibiting a follow-me car, an ocean-themed roller coaster and a kinetic horse. Stay tuned for more on Spotlight.

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