Electronic ‘backchannels’ at conferences are commonplace these days. But are we ready for teachers who try to incorporate backchannels into their classroom instruction?

Earlier this month the New York Times profiled the use of classroom backchannels by Iowa teacher Erin Olson and other educators. The article has prompted 144 comments to date. Here are the 5 ‘most recommended’ comments as of this morning:

  1. I'm speechless. How many ways can this be wrong? It needs to be explained to teacher Erin Olson that teachers should be encouraging students to extricate themselves from all the electronic gadgetry and to pay attention. You know, expand their capacity for patience and thoughtful consideration. How can they be twittering their thoughts on something that they're not paying attention to? And they're not. Nor are they learning how to interact well with other people, unless this teacher foresees a brave new world where people never actually talk to each other. Children need an alternative to the seduction of technology, not adults pandering to it, and them.
  2. As a university professor, I disagree with the students who believe the technology "gives them a voice." It allows them to hide behind the technology and provides a false sense of security. Part of our jobs as educators is to teach effective communication in multiple forms - listening, speaking, and writing. If technology allows a substitution for verbal communication, it is a failure.
  3. The ability to form coherent and insightful thoughts and convey them in a spoken manner is a skill that is developed in traditional spoken discussions within the classroom. The introduction of a verbal media to do so detracts from this. While proponents of this technology induced discussion point out that this allows for an easier flow of thought for those students who are not outspoken, allowing them to replace verbal communication with written snippets discourages and delays the development of spoken fluency, a skill needed in the professional world. . . . In addition, mediums such as Twitter are restricted by a character limit. Students will be forced to phrase their thoughts in such a way that adheres to these character limits, thus naturally edging these "conversations" to be far shorter. Although this allows for an increase of per word efficiency, there is only so much one can do when debating a topic or novel with 255 characters per comment, leading to either bland abbreviations or a disjointed series of statements. The emphasis on pure text also eliminates the intangible dimensions of a spoken conversation (tone, pitch inflection, body language etc.). . . . In the end, while using this technology might be nifty now and move past some personality barriers in the classroom, students are on the losing end of the deal in both spoken development and thought formation.
  4. Educators should stop with the gimmicks and superficial, and step back and work on the fundamental principles we have that do not required technology. And yes technology 'is going away' if you ban it from he classroom, period. . . . Want to get your kids to get comfortable talking in class? Ban phones and laptops, even at college level (I do and the class loves me for it). Require participation from the get go and make the environment psychologically safe to express any opinion. Go around the room, from day one. Everyone has to talk. Cold call. Get students to make small on their feet presentations. Require them to stretch a bit. . . . The point isn't just to get them to participate, but to get COMFORTABLE participating. That will stay with them for life, and be actually useful in real life where one can't just participate in anonymous forums or behind a screen on twitter.
  5. No. Just...no. Simply because something is easier doesn't mean it is preferable. This is especially true in academia. It is the teacher's responsibility to teach these children how to communicate in an adult fashion; how to own up to your ideas and defend them in a public setting. Allowing students the passivity of such tools inhibits their development as mature thinkers. Whether in high school or college, students must learn these skills. What are they supposed to do in job interviews? There are few professions for which a command of spoken communication is not central.

The first somewhat positive comment on the ‘most recommended’ list is #8. And the next positive one is #14. And so it goes…

Many technology bogeymen are invoked. For example, one commenter said, “The generation that is still in school today has taken technology to a new level, replacing face to face interaction with a digital facade that allows for all sorts of perversion.” Another said, “Currently, many students are unable to articulate their opinions aloud. Educators should be concentrating on this lack of ability or else we will be witnessing a silent generation with enlarged thumbs.” And another said, “They're shopping for shoes.”

In response to Erin’s use of what looks like a classic ‘fishbowl’ conversation technique, one commenter said, ”Even the photograph of this English class adds a sense of impersonality to the learning environment.” Another said, “In a few short decades, these students will be running the country. I have to wonder, if an unexpected solar storm were to knock out Twitter, Facebook, and texting, would these folks be able to have an actual conversation and deal with the crisis, or would we all just die?” And so it goes…

As we incorporate new and varied technology tools into our classrooms, they not only have to make sense to us educators but also to our families and communities. How well are we doing at explaining what we’re doing (and why) to those that we serve?

Image credit: Wall o’Tweets