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May 08

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How to Make Social Networking Work

I’ve had mixed results using social networking media for class discussions. Because of that I haven’t even tried to have students use it for backchanneling. It’s hard enough to get them to listen as I give instructions and I don’t lecture all that much anyway. I’ve had this vision of engaging more students in class discussions, especially the quiet ones, by using chats, Twitter, or other social media, so that we didn’t have to call on raised hands or shush kids or talk one at a time. I sure could use some help getting ideas on how to make it work.

Two years ago I tried using my moodle to create a chat room to have a class discussion. I thought I gave kids enough time to “play” and get the hi’s and silly typing out of their system. They never did so it was very difficult to follow any thread of on topic conversation. I even had one class where an inappropriate word popped up on the screen so I shut it down. The user was anonymous so we never got the guilty party to cop to it. Yes, I know. I shouldn’t take the easy way out and have students be able to join anonymously but I always trust first. If something bad happens I use it as a teachable moment. Still sucks, though.

Then last year I tried using Twitter. With Twitter I couldn’t get the kids to tweet! They just never got into it so they wouldn’t tweet during discussions. They also wouldn’t tweet to share resources or links or ideas. Along those same lines, they wouldn’t even check their Twitter accounts! I don’t know if it was just that group of students (two classes of 8th graders) or if this is common. What should I have done?

So this year I went a different route. I was deciding between using Edmodo or Collaborize Classroom. I had read over the summer that Edmodo didn’t have threaded discussions so I went with Collaborize. I made the graphic on this post as the logo for our class Collaborize Classroom network, which I made a closed network just for our classes. (Our class blogs are open to the world.) Now kids asked me why we didn’t just use Facebook. I then asked what they mostly do on Facebook. They said, “socialize,” to which I responded, “exactly.” Yet, by my own doing, I created such a network in my classroom! Here’s how.

With Collaborize students get to start discussion topics of their own. I thought that was great because they would get tired of always responding to topics that I chose for them. I set the permissions such that I had to approve topics before they went live. Students started to play. They posted fun questions and polls for their fellow classmates and even across to my other classes. I encouraged it because I saw them engaging with our network. I couldn’t keep up. They were coming so fast and so frequently that I took off the permission thing. They were now free to post topics all they wanted. I couldn’t get one of my topics looked at because so many more exciting, fun topics flooded my Science topics before and after I’d post them. I felt like I was forcing kids to respond to my posted topics and I was.

I ended up letting the excitement wane and kids stopped posting topics to our network. I turned our network into a Facebook-like, fun, social space not the Science learning/discussion space I had intended. I am still new at this and I’m at the point where I’ve given up on this year. I’m going to try again next year and am wondering what others do. How do teachers create a functioning class social network? How do you get kids to engage with the network without having it turn into a Facebook?

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  1. Catlin Tucker

    Hi Alfonso,

    I also use Collaborize Classroom and have had a lot of success with it.

    It is important to make a distinction, as you did, about the difference between social networking outside of class for socializing and using a discussion site like Collaborize Classroom to engage in academic conversations. Academic dialogue is a new skill for many students, so I found I really needed to teach them the “dos and don’ts” of communicating online, as well as how to say something substantial in a conversation in the early stages. An increasing number of college students are taking online courses or participating in discussion boards to complement lectures, which means students need to know how to participate respectfully, supportively and substantively in online conversations.

    I used Collaborize Classroom to replace and improve 75% of my traditional pen and paper homework assignments. I did not want to add to my workload, which was already overwhelming. Instead, I posted discussion topics related to the literature we were reading to spark discussions. It was so much more rewarding to see them engage online because they were forced to really develop their ideas, make connections and ask questions. Instead of reading 150+ handouts that say basically the same thing, I actually had students surprising me with their insights.

    If you are using a site like Collaborize to go paperless or replace traditional assignments, then I would suggest you post the topics for student to discuss. If students know that the work online is replacing pen and paper work, then they will probably be content addressing your questions. This way you can design dynamic questions that utilize the different question types (variety keeps them interested…my kids love debates and ability to vote for their favorite contributions with vote and suggest), embed relevant media (great for flipping classroom with online discussions) and set expectations for participation (e.g. “once you have posted your response, read and reply to at least 2 other members of the class”).

    Once you have modeled what strong questions look like, it can be a nice evolution to allow students to begin designing their own discussion topics. I usually design all the discussion topics in 1st semester so students can focus on getting used to the online space and engaging with each other in a meaningful way. Then at the start of second semester, I have each students design a discussion question for a unit. It is easiest if you group them in smaller groups for this so that each member of the group can design a question for a unit. My units are usually 5-6 weeks so a group of 5 or 6 can each design one question. This way I can read and approve each question while giving students feedback on their design…it is hard to write a dynamic discussion question so they need coaching.

    The good news is that by the final unit of the year (literature circles) the students are designing all the questions and facilitating all of the discussions. I love that Collaborize supports this evolution to mastery, but it does take a great deal of support. I talk a lot about this slow progression of integrating technology in my book on blended learning. It is definitely a new skill set for us as teachers and for them as students!

    Good luck. Don’t get discouraged. We need to be patient with ourselves when we begin integrating technology into our traditional curriculum.

    Catlin

  2. Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez

    Thanks for the feedback, Catlin! I will definitely start differently next year. It’s so good to hear that it can work. It’s just as I thought, the students need more practice using a social network in ways they are really not used to. 🙂

  3. Lysoccer

    Hi Alfonso,
    It is quite interesting that you just posted this blog. After perusing your website, I was just about to email you on how in the world you manage all of this technology in the classroom and how you keep students motivated and participating. I was amazed you had a blog, a FB account, and other sources that were readily available.

    Thank you so much for sharing. I am very inspired by all of your posts.

    Best,
    Lori

  4. Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez

    Thanks, Lori. I often feel like those who spin plates on poles. The more plates I start spinning the more that start slowing down and falling (and breaking)! I have two philosophies that motivate me, 1) different methods will work with different students/classes, and 2) I do think it’s a good idea to expose kids to different technologies and how they can use them to learn, which will one day be to do business. Those two philosophies keep me going. :o)

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