Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Backchanneling (more accurately, "to use a backchannel") is a method for allowing an audience to respond to, comment on, and reply to a presentation, whether live or not. This takes place online through one of several methods and allows the presenter the ability to get instant feedback about their presentation or respond to questions raised.

For example, while a student gives a presentation at the front of the class, his or her peers can use the backchannel to write critiques or ask questions. This information could be projected while the student gives the presentation for immediate feedback, or could be saved for the end as a Q&A session.

Why use this approach instead of just asking questions the old-fashioned way? Here are some benefits I can think of:

  1. In presentations with a large audience, everyone can pose a question and time limits are not an issue. The time it takes to field the questions and answer them is lessened because the questions are waiting for the presenter to respond to immediately.
  2. Some of the better backchannel clients allow users to up-vote a question that everyone deems relevant. This reduces redundant questions and engages the audience.
  3. Shy or introverted people have a voice. Those who might normally be reticent about posing a question or adding a comment may feel less pressure in an online format. Conversely, those who normally steal the show are put on an equal footing with those who never speak up.
  4. Comments and questions can be saved for reference later.
Some pitfalls:
  1. Every person in the audience needs an internet enabled device (laptop, tablet, phone, etc).
  2. Too many comments at once can be overwhelming and confusing for the presenter or the audience.
  3. The process can be distracting to users, wherein they are more interested in the novelty of the backchannel rather than the substance of the presentation.
  4. The general distractibility of the internet (are students listening or are they playing Fruit Ninja?)
Obviously, the teacher and students must come to a mutual understanding of the purpose of the backchannel and lay out any consequences for misuse.

So, here are some of the ways people can backchannel:

Best (specifically made for backchanneling)
  • Google Moderator: Hey, Google makes everything! I just found this today. Haven't even tried it, but it looks like the audience members can up- and down-vote comments.
  • Very similar to the above. Comments can be rated.
  • Todaysmeet: No ability to vote on comments, but it is very fast and simple. Sort of like a private, open Twitter (no need to sign up). Limited to 140 characters per comment. Good for keeping a running conversation going.
Good (not made for backchanneling, but can suffice or offer similar functionality)
  • Google Drive (Documents, Presentations, and Spreadsheets): The presenter can display a document or presentation, and the audience can add comments or use the chat function for feedback if they are shared to the document. This isn't the best backchannel method, but it is good in a pinch.
  • Twitter: Many educators use this approach. Every audience member will need a Twitter account. The presenter and audience should think of a unique hashtag (e.g. #Lat101Rev) and whenever anyone tweets a relevant comment, they must include the hashtag. Members can then filter tweets by that hashtag to see all the comments. Keep in mind that any followers of any of the participants will see all of their comments, so this isn't good for private or sensitive material. This can be spammy to others who follow you since they will see all your comments.
  • Edmodo: This is kind of like Facebook (need I even explain?) but filtered for only student use, and with some nice add-ins for including media and other materials. The audience would need accounts and would need to join the same group. 
  • Facebook/Google+: Probably the worst solution to this problem, but nevertheless can get it done. The audience would all have to friend each other (I think? Unless you set up a Page for the topic being discussed, in which case anyone can subscribe and comment.) Google+ might be more fluid, as it is a sort of hybrid of Facebook and Twitter.
I'm sure there are more methods out there, but those are the big ones. The idea of backchanneling is more important than the specific method you use. In fact, you could even go low tech and have the audience use whiteboards to write comments during the presentation.

Please comment if you have an interesting ideas for how to use this method, or if you have any questions.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


No, this isn't some new racial epithet, nor is it the plaintive mewling of a speech-impaired cow. Rather, a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course.

The concept isn't particularly new, but it is starting to approach critical mass. The idea is that people can take courses from the comfort of their homes, completing assignments at their own speed. The creators of these classes, usually tenured professors at various universities throughout the world, are able to reach tens of thousands of people in a single course. And did I mention they are free?

I recently read an interesting article by Clay Shirky in which he compares MOOCs to established universities as MP3s were to the record industry: the open nature, cheap/free cost, and ability to consume only that which is desired (as opposed to buying the "whole package" just for a few choice tidbits) have all created a challenge that the "establishment" must address.

My point here is not to get into a discussion about whether or not higher education is doomed (though that is an intriguing discussion, perhaps saved for another time.) Rather, I'd like to say that I've participated in a MOOC firsthand, and it was pretty cool.

I took a 7 week course that introduced me to computer programming. I learned about the Python language and how the syntax worked. I spent perhaps 1-2 hours a week on watching videos, doing formative quizzes and exercises, and I completed a final exam. 

This particular course was offered through the University of Toronto. I received no credit in the traditional sense, but did receive a "certificate of completion" which is awarded if a student earns at least a 70. The prideful part of me wishes they would also print my final score (98.2 FTW), but this is not the case.

[[** Edit: I'm sitting here writing this and all of a sudden NPR's "Weekend Edition" starts with a piece about MOOCs. 9:30am 11/24/12. Divine providence.

** New Edit: I'm finishing up my piece here at 11:30am 11/25/12 and I run across this article. It seems that this topic is hitting the mainstream news at exactly the same time as I am pondering it.]]

OK, so deeper ramification aside, why should we (specifically middle- or high-school teachers, in particular) care? I see MOOCs as useful in two primary ways.

  1. Professional Development: We can expand, review, and deepen our knowledge of our own subjects and interests. They help to keep us engaged in learning. They humble us to remember what it's like to be a student again.
  2. Student Enrichment: For the students who absorb everything you say like a sponge and can never have enough, you can steer them to these courses for even more knowledge. A mature high school student could easily handle the workload of these courses if it is a subject that he or she enjoys. 
  3. [[Edit: Thanks to my wonderful wife Ilana, a music librarian at Boston Conservatory, for this additional piece of advice. 12:20pm 11/25/12]] Career Exploration: For those students who may be interested in a new or unexplored career path, MOOCs provide a good, low-risk environment for testing the waters.
So I saved all the useful stuff for the end. How do you access these MOOCs? Here are some of the more well known venues:
  • Coursera - This is the MOOC I used to take my programming class. It was very straightforward. I think it offers the most diversity in offerings (humanities, sciences, math, computer science, etc).
  • Udacity - Both Udacity and edX have more limited options than Coursera. They focus mainly on math, computer science, and "hard sciences" (i.e. physics, chemistry, etc).
  • edX - See above.
  • Khan Academy - A slightly older MOOC and perhaps most well-known. A man set out to create tutorials for his nephews and ended up creating a giant infrastructure of videos. I think this is more or less arranged as a library of information as opposed to specific courses one may take. Focuses mainly on math, science, and economics, but it is starting to branch out.
  • MIT OpenCourseWare - These are videos offered exclusively through MIT. Essentially they have made videos of professors lecturing, and included the notes and some quizzes. Strong focus on math and sciences, though some humanities are also present.
One thing you may notice is that most of these sites heavily lean to math and the sciences. Coursera, and, to a lesser extent, Khan Academy and MIT OCW, have more humanities. I think this may be part of the structure of these classes. Humanities tend to focus on good discussions that take place in a face-to-face context. Though one can certainly blog or interact via message-boards, the immediacy and nuance of a classroom discussion can be lost in the virtual world. That said, I hope these MOOCs branch out some more, because humanities are an important part of a well-rounded education (full disclosure: I am a Latin teacher and think humanities form the foundation from which good technical thinking must emerge.)

That about wraps it up. I will be interested to see how the political and philosophical ramifications unfold concerning this free access to information. But for now, I am content to say that these courses are great resources for the curious and autodidacts of the world. scientia omnia vincit!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why grade?

As I sat here all day grading tests and making sure all of my students' grades were in order before the grade submission deadline, I couldn't help but ponder the significance of these letters I was attaching to people.

Why do we assign grades? I suppose they are to provide a concise snapshot of a person's understanding at a given point of time. The problem with this is that learning is fluid, and grades are static; it is like trying to take a movie of your life by snapping a photo once a week. It may show some overall trends but the nuances are completely lost.

Another problem that arises is that students seem, on the whole, to have lost sight of the forest for the trees. A grade should be a tool, albeit a poor one, to track progress, but it seems that for so many students it is an end in and of itself. The attainment of the letter matters more than the reason (i.e. understanding and internalization of a concept) for that letter.

I see in education at the moment a couple of strands that attempt to address this issue. On the one hand, there is the idea of "gamification." I won't profess to be an expert on this subject, but at its core, it seems, is the idea that people are naturally imbued with a need to gain status and rank for their achievements. As in a video game, where experience points and medals are awarded as a person progresses through levels and does various tasks, the "gamified" classroom awards experience points and medals for tasks done relating to the subject matter.

The other strand is the idea of standards-based curriculum and the use of rubrics. Students should be able to clearly see expectations and strive to attain them. In fact, these two strands are not dissimilar; each views education as a series of steps, with checks and balances to make sure students don't go too far off course.

But this is my concern; these approaches are still external motivators. The gamified classroom may make the process of learning more enjoyable and engaging, but the student is still striving for those "experience points" and medals. The rubric may clarify the inner working of an assignment, but the student is still thinking "what can I do to get that 3 or 4?" We've swapped out the grades of A, B, and C for new set of codes.

And here is my point. I think true learning is undefinable by its very nature. True learning is internally motivated, born out of intellectual curiosity and a need to know "why?" The true learner doesn't stop to ask what their grade is; the only thing that matters is knowing enough to ask more questions. These are the people that become creators and innovators (take, for example, Bill Gates, who dropped out of college.)

This sort of curiosity can't really be objectified or pinpointed to a rubric. Imagine a rubric strand that asked a teacher to rate a student's inner drive and curiosity. Until we develop the ability to read people's minds, this is untenable.

So I come back to my initial question. Why grade? I would like to hope that it is the view of every educator that they be able to instill that intangible curiosity in all of their students. And, if grades are the only vehicle to even attempt to surmount the insurmountable, I'd rather have a rickety wagon than nothing at all. But I also wish there was a better way to get students to see that its not the grade, stupid, nor even the subject matter, but the thirst for learning.

With that, I leave you with this gem from Ted-Ed:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

How to create a group in Aspen

An Aspen "group" is essentially a dedicated webpage or portal for specific people to see. You can create groups for classes you teach, sports that you coach, or clubs that you advise. At the moment the most obvious purpose to create a group would be to allow your different classes to see important information like upcoming assignments, announcements, and the like.

This doesn't really replace a good website through Weebly, Google Sites, or Wikispaces, but it supplements those and allows students to very quickly see some information when they visit their Aspen portals.

Lastly, excuse my pauses, stuttering, "um"ing, and the like, as this is my first foray into the wild world of "vlogging." Please don't hesitate to leave some comments if you need any clarification.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Grade Cam

Grade Cam isn't exactly new to anyone at EGHS, but I thought I'd still write about it for anyone else who might be interested.

Essentially, this service replaces Scantron Sheets to make grading multiple choice questions very fast. Students bubble in sheets that the teacher copies off. When the students are finished, they can show the sheets in front of a webcam or document camera, and the service grades the sheets. It also can produce reports that explain class statistics, which is great for modifying future teaching.

That said, the service isn't exactly looking to the future; in the end, I envision assessments becoming more digital and less objective. Students of the future will need to create authentic products and objective tests will eventually go the way of the Dodo. This service is a stopgap between the ways of the old and new.

Link here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ted Ed

Some of you may be familiar with the "Ted Talks" series, which is a collection of talks and presentations from people in various fields. These talks are often very engaging or cutting edge, and often create good places to start discussion.

Ted-Ed is a subset of these talks, and what makes them great is that they've been animated. These are more engaging to students. Further, each of the videos in Ted-Ed contains some good supplementary materials in the forms of post-viewing quizzes and discussion questions. The creators of this website have created a turn-key solution to flipping; if you do not have the time or expertise to create your own videos, you can use the ones on Ted-Ed and you can assess student comprehension via the quizzes and discussion material.

Currently there are a limited amount of videos, and many are not subject-specific, but focus on broader ideas. These are definitely a nice way to access the meta-structures of learning and to open up interdisciplinary discussions.

I highly recommend this site as a supplement or introduction to your own flipping adventures.

Link here.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Just found out about this website. It finds and reviews websites and web tools that pertain to education. Seems very well put together and should be a first stop if you are looking for specific tools or reviews.

Link here.

Hello world

Hello everyone,

This is my first foray into the world of Blogging With a Purpose. My purpose is to spill out onto the digital page those ideas, inspirations, follies, insights, arguments, and epiphanies which pertain to, in no particular order:

  1. Technology for technology's sake
  2. Technology as a tool for learners
  3. The ramifications of technology on society and children
  4. The nitty-gritty and "how-to" of making all the new gadgets and software work
  5. Merging the old (e.g. Latin) with the new (e.g. the flipped classroom.)

My hope is to help clarify certain topics, offer assistance and guidance to those who want it, and engage in meaningful discussion about where the world is going with an eye to where it has been.

nota bene: si colloquium habere Latine mecum vis, posis. temptabo respondere Latine quamquam hoc facio male.