While this discussion is critical, it takes time and space. Class sessions – particularly those of the fifty-minute variety – go quickly. It can be difficult to provide space for and sustain deep discussion. Even when we do so, many students are reticent to participate, even in small groups. Some students may need more time to let ideas percolate before diving right into discussion. This is certainly true for me. This is where online communication tools can enhance and extend the ways students experience discussion in our courses. They aren’t all created equal, however.
Affordances and constraints of digital communication tools
All tools - digital or analog – have both affordances and constraints. A typical hammer, for example, is well suited for pounding in nails. Less so for breaking up a concrete patio. Even less so for cutting paper. While this is a bit of a silly example, it illustrates how each tool has specific characteristics that make it very useful for certain tasks. For other tasks, it can often achieve more harm than benefit.
The same is true for different types of information and communication technologies. PowerPoint is demonized by many as an educational tool – see Edward Tufte’s excellent essay on the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. While digital slide presentations have been known to lead to “death by PowerPoint,” tools like PowerPoint do have key affordances. For example, a strategic instructor can leverage the ability to integrate multiple forms of media to provide students with multiple representations of the content, a key Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principle. When overused or used in ways that disengage students (e.g., reading directly from 65 slides during a fifty-minute lecture), the constraints of the tool come to the fore.
Choosing the best digital communication tool for your needs
Over the last few years, I’ve been exploring different options for sharing course content and for encouraging communication both during and between classes. I’ll do a separate post on the affordances and constraints of different course management tools, but for now, I’ll focus on communication tools. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of different tools, services, and apps that I’ve tested and implemented in my courses. Throughout this exploration, I’ve concluded that there is no one best communication tool for university teaching. Different tools have different strengths – and constraints. Below I explore three different tools and my take on what they are particularly well suited for in terms of student and faculty communication.
- Threaded discussion fora – The BlackBoard (or any other LMS) discussion board is probably the most common (and maybe overused) tool to support student communication between classes. There is no doubt that these tools embedded in all major learning management systems provide great opportunities for extended and substantive discussion in the classroom community. With this tool, the instructor, discussion leader or students can post discussion prompts that students can respond to in asynchronous fashion.
Typically these prompts are connected with course readings, serving as a means for students to discuss their impressions and questions while simultaneously giving the instructor the opportunity to track their participation. In addition, faculty can also begin to identify trouble spots for students, misconceptions, and areas that they may not need to go into depth if students seem to have mastered the salient points. Threaded discussions work well when you want to encourage substantive conversations that may appeal to more reflective and thoughtful students. They can also be somewhat redundant for both teachers and students when the prompts don’t encourage divergent thinking.
- Social sharing services – The polar opposite of threaded discussion boards is a social sharing tool. Twitter is the most common (more than 300 million active users in the first quarter of 2015) tool used for social sharing. Other similar services are also available (e.g., app.net and Weibo in China). With Twitter, the instructor or students can share posts of no more than 140-characters. When you tag a post with a custom class “hashtag” (e.g., #educ300), users can search Twitter for the particular hashtag to see all the posts.
Social sharing services like Twitter are great for sharing quick notes, resources, or ideas. Using an open service like this enables students to make connections with other users on Twitter outside the class. For example, last year I encouraged students to Tweet questions related to UDL by using both the class hashtag as well as the commonly used #UDL tag. Within minutes, users from around the world, including @CAST_UDL (the official Twitter account for the group that created the framework) had commented on my students' Tweets and answered their questions. This ability for students to connect quickly with their classmates and other interested individuals is a key strength of Twitter and other social sharing sites.
- Informal posts/replies – In contrast to a threaded discussion which allows multiple levels of threaded replies to a single thread or post, other tools are less formal and work more effectively as an opportunity for the instructor or students to share an idea, resource or question that may or may not elicit a response. These tools work well for quick bursts rather than extended, substantive discussion.
I’ve recently come across a great tool to facilitate this type of discussion – Pi. Pi is a tool that works both in the Web browser and more commonly on smartphones and tablets via IOS and Android apps. With Pi, students or the instructor can quickly create and share a post that can include text, links, and file attachments. I’d say that it falls squarely in the middle of a threaded discussion and a social sharing tool like Twitter. Your posts can be longer than the 140-character limit of Twitter and replies are visually and spatially connected more clearly than replies in Twitter. Another difference is that Pi is a closed community. The instructor creates classes within the tool and invites students to join. This closed community may encourage more open discussion within a class. While you wouldn’t want to try to support a long, detailed discussion of a topic, tools like Pi can support less formal and more organic discussion than a full throttle threaded discussion.
So, which tool is best?
My firm conclusion is that there is no one best tool to support student communication. Do you want to encourage informal sharing within the class community? Try Pi. Do you want to connect students to people and resources beyond the classroom? Try Twitter. Do you want sustained and deep discussion? Try a discussion board. Like with any tool, your pedagogy and learning goals should drive your tool selection.
How do you use digital communication tools in your courses?
Please post your comments below.