Using forums/blogs/wikis to facilitate learning: A summary

As usual for me, I'm breaking away from an existing train of thought in these posts for something different.

When you work with VLEs/LMSs you deal extensively with the text-based communication tools that exist in all systems.  The 3 biggies are the discussion/forum tool, the blog/journal tool and the wiki tool.  Explaining how each can be used to facilitate learning within learning activities is a key challenge for the Learning Technologist.  What's really important is that you articulate clearly the subtle differences between these tools and what their pedagogical affordances are. 

Here are my attempts to sum things up:

Discussion/forum tool
Use the asynchronous online discusssion tool for engaging students in a text-based dialogue:
  • to facilitate a meaningful learning dialogue amongst students
  • to develop students‘ written communication skills
  • to allow time and space for tutors and students articulate clearly and thoughtfully when engaging in a dialogue
  • to flexibly engage with students
Blog/journal tool
Use the blog/journal tool:
  • to facilitate reflection amongst students
  • to facilitate individual feedback from tutor to student through private journal/blog structures
  • to develop students‘ written communication skills
  • to allow time and space for students articulate clearly and thoughtfully when reflecting on their learning
  • to flexibly engage with students
Wiki tool
Use the wiki tool for co-construct text:
  • to facilitate collaboration amongst students the editing and refining of eachothers words within a group project context
  • to facilitate co-operation amongst students through the allocation of tasks within a group project context
  • to allow time and space for students articulate clearly and thoughtfully when writing on a particular topic
There's much more to it of course.  However, I'm trying to summarise here and give the key messages.  I welcome the views of others.

Backchannels in the classroom

I thought I'd write a series of posts articulating my current thinking on different types of internet based tools and their use within education. My expertise in this area is largely based around finding things, playing with them and assessing their potential for teaching and learning. My last few posts have been based around this subject in some way or another.  However, I've not done much about specific types of tools. 

Firstly, backchannels. This is a where you use a micro-blogging or chat based tool to facilitate a text-based dialogue within a live session.  My focus here is an its potential for the classroom, but they are primarily used within conferences.  For the classroom, backchannels lend themselves to a context where mobile device are used - so smartphones or tablets or laptops. 

I would guess that many readers of this blog would be familiar with backchannels at conferences. Mostly, this would occur using a twitter hashtag - #. This is appropriate for conferences because conference organisers would want dialogue around their sessions to be public. Also, the only people that would entertain participating in such a dialogue would be active micro-bloggers and they would already have twitter accounts.  I've been a few sessions where it's been a pointless exercise to even have a backchannel as its ignored throughout.  However, I've also been to events where dialogue on twitter forms an integral part of the event.  They have people monitoring it and feeding into the face-to-face conversation.  Of course, it works best if the speakers are involved in this.

Within formal education, you want your own space for the dialogue, a space that a teacher can setup and control.  So twitter is probably not the right environment.   There are a number of services where you can quickly and easily set up a backchannel and embed or link to within your website/VLE.  The only one I've actually used in a real class situation is worked well.  There are other similiar tools like and  I nearly used as I liked the tidy interface but the 140 character limit meant I shied away from it.  Generally, you want the freedom to write more than a few words but todaysmeet and other micro-blogging alternatives still have use as its a good skill to have to articulate your points within this character limit.  I've not mentioned edmodo because this is more than a backchannel, its more of a virtual environment where a number of things can occur.

But why do this? What are the benefits? Here are some obvious points:
- Question asking/question answering
- Feedback
- Communication amongst students
- Alongside and in reaction to a spoken event, video, image or presentation

However, you can do all of this anyway using this thing called a voicebox - I hear you cry.

For me, this extra communication channel CAN add value to any learning context - it's called Technology Enhanced Learning.  The degree to which this occurs will vary from student to student.  The main logistical point is that it allows for engagement without having to wait for the end of any presentation of content - allowing the student to articulate their thoughts as they occur to them.  I have found this really powerful during conference presentations.  Being able to bang out tweets greatly increases the value of such sessions.  It's about contextualising the learning, putting it in my words so that the knowledge gets subsumed into my understanding. 

The variety comes with the comfort level an individual student has with using a backchannel - with engaging by typing short messages.  For some, they will be more comfortable engaging via a backchannel than by raising their hand and speaking.  For some, the opposite will be true.  What's important is that educators don't close their minds to tools which wouldn't suit them - your students might not be the same. 

So, you could sum up by saying backchannels:

- Engage students who otherwise might not contribute
- Evens the playing field for involvement
- Can't be dominated by the loudest voice
- Allow students to ask questions on the fly without interrupting
- Allow teachers to see and answer questions quickly
- Give teacher feedback on the level of understanding or confusion in the class
- Provides a record of the dialogue for future reference
- Demands engagement with the material to participate

An important point which should not be overlooked is the development of writing skills.  It will improve writing and a student's ability to articulate themselves quickly using text.  There's also the development of keyboard skill if laptops/tablets are being used. 

The difficult with a backchannel is in the management of it.  It's important to work out protocols for use AND how you, as the teacher, will engage with it and when.  It's important you are clear about the use and benefit of the tool.   You want to avoid false expectations and feeling overwhelmed by the dialogue.

In the only session where I setup and managed a backchannel, I found that I would have to manufacture its use.  Some valuable ideas were shared which I could then share after the session, however it didn't flow as well as I liked.  This might have been due to the room setup and the fact that we were using desktop computers but I wonder what the different would be if I was teaching children rather than adults?

Teaching without powerpoint - Using a website creation tool

There's lots to reflect on when you teach.  Rarely do we get a chance or have the inclination to do this fully.   For my role as a Learning Technologist in a Higher Education institution (Institute of Education, London, UK), I don't do a massive amount of teaching.  There is some but mostly the help and advice I provide is done informally in one-to-one meetings.  Anyway, I want to reflect on some teaching I did recently as I'm looking to improve and develop this particular session.

On Tues, 7th Feb, I ran a session called 21st century tools for teaching and learning.  I've blogged about the planning of this session before if you are interested - .  There's much to reflect on, but I wanted first to think about how I structured and presented it.  The biggest challenge with this session is the amount of different websites I ask the participants to visit throughout the day.  There are lots of different types of tools to demonstrate and practice using.  To facilitate this process I have always create a website to act as the hub for the day.  In the past I've used a social networking facility like or  However, this time I switched to a normal website creation tool.  The reason is that the social networking services are geared towards communication and don't present content particularly well.  As participants weren't really using the communication tools within the sites during the day (despite my encouragement) it seemed preferable to display the content as dynamically as I could using a tool more suited to this task.  I chose mainly because I've used it before and it allows for embedded outside tools, videos, documents etc.  So I created a website with a different page for each type of tool I was teaching about:
  • Backchannels
  • Web 2.0 technologies in education
  • Noticeboards
  • Word clouds
  • Drawing tools
  • Mindmapping
  • Collaborative bookmarking
  • Tool exploration
  • Multimedia Posters
  • Digital Story-telling
  • Choosing an online tool
  • Creative Commons/Copyright
  • Map Tools
  • Timelines
  • Game sites
  • Quick Feedback tool
  • Application first steps
Within each page I had a consistent structure of a short presentation, embedded or linked example and activities.  The activities were setup so that the participants could practice using the tool within a relevant context.  Unfortunately, I can't share this website with you.  It was paid for session so it seems silly to give away for free what others had to pay for.  However, I've duplicated the word cloud page and it's available here if you are interested in seeing how the pages were structured:

Overall, the system worked well.  Some reflections:

- Some of the ICT co-ordinators were interested in the tool I'd used to create the website. 
- I'm not sure the presentations I embedded onto each page were necessary.  It didn't feel quite right presenting from slides in this context and environment.  I would be better served simply talking about the subject matter from memory when I visited each page. 
- Having the weblinks on the relevant pages worked well and made the navigation and structure very clear for all. 
- The website serves as a resource after the session for participants.  They simply revisit the site to download anything relevant and revisit the tools I've highlighted.  They seemed to like that idea.
- I didn't give them much paper as everything was on the site.  Any presentations were added as files to download.
- The activities mostly worked well although I will reflect about specific tool-types in later posts.

Had I used a normal powerpoint I would be forever toggling between the internet and my slides it would have been chaotic.  I can recommend using a free website service like weebly to act as the hub of any workshop you do involving lots of internet based activities.