Wednesday, September 26, 2018

YoTeach!

While there are certainly very effective ways to have classroom discussion the analog way -- look no further than a well done Socratic circle -- digital discourse can be uniquely powerful.  It has always been a particular specialized edtech interest of mine, going back to my U of L graduate classes in the early 2000's.  As one of my action research projects, I gathered data on college students who raised hands in class to answer questions versus their participation in online forums.  Perhaps not surprisingly, while nearly all students interacted digitally, "real" discussion in class was limited to roughly half the classroom, and only a handful of students tended to dominate the conversation.  Sound familiar?

Besides making the simple amount of participation more equitable, other advantages of digital discourse became readily apparent:

  • Because students could think and even revise their questions and observations before hitting send, the responses can be a bit more thoughtful.  However, responders can also be "trigger-happy" and the quality can be just the opposite, so culture and expectations are key here.
  • Digital opportunities opened up asynchronous as well as "real-time" opportunities to talk, expanding discussion beyond the four walls of the classroom.
  • Dominating personalities in real life become more flattened -- quiet students could sound as "loud" as their more outgoing peers.
  • Students more naturally talk directly to each other, rather than through the teacher.
  • In a real time online discussion, everyone can "talk at once," something not possible without shouting and chaos in real life.
  • Digital discourses can often be easily archived or exported.
  • Since a digital discourse creates a physical artifact, it can be formatively assessed, whether with informal feedback or with rubrics that indicate how students are meeting mastery of speaking and listening standards.
One of my favorite and free digital discourse tools was TodaysMeet.  It was around long enough (ten years!) that I actually used it as a classroom teacher for one of my videotaped National Boards lessons.   Alas, it finally closed down several months ago.  Since then, I've searched for alternatives and finally found one that is as simple (and free!) as TodaysMeet -- YoTeach!, a project of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.  (More about their "Pedagogic & Active Learning Mobile Solutions" here.) 




How does it work?  Once you go to the site, you can make a chat room in seconds.  Type your room's name and hit the "Make Room" button.  Share the room's URL, and people can join the chat instantly -- no log in or user account required, they just pick a nickname.  While technically users are anonymous, two tips: explain to students that the only way they will get credit for their contributions is if they use their real names, and advise them to use common sense digital citizenship protocol (never say anything you wouldn't in a public space with Grandma listening).

YoTeach! does offer some very helpful features.

  • By checkmarking "Avoid Search," the room will not show up in public searches, and gives you a bit more privacy.  I highly recommend this!
  • "Enable Admin Features" is also highly recommended.  By creating a password for you (unique to the room you are about to create), you will be able to do some moderation features such as mute or remove a student, get student participation statistics, switch from a chat to a voting mode (perhaps as part of a reflection at the end of the day, where students indicate the most insightful or important contributions), and more.   The only way you can make sure a room can be deleted is if you enable admin features from the beginning; otherwise, the room and its history will linger indefinitely.
  • "Room Entry Password" is another security feature to protect your students. Without a password, anyone with the chat room's URL can join. 
  • In the chat room itself, participants can do more than just text responses. You can also share pictures with annotations, or use a mini-whiteboard feature to "draw." 
  • You can export a transcript of the chat as a PDF.

Richard Byrne, edtech extraordinaire behind Free Technology For Teachers and Practical Edtech, did a great screencast video overview of YoTeach! (5:15):



How could you use it?   Here are three ideas:
  1. Create a backchannel chat while watching a video.  The opportunities for students to post questions and insights, as well as the teacher probing and clarifying, can create a rich, engaging experience beyond just passive viewing.
  2. Create a virtual after-hours office, where you help students during a scheduled time slot.  Even better would be student leaders running the chatroom doing the same function.
  3. Conduct the equivalent of a "Twitter Chat" at a certain time after class on a particular topic. This could be a remediation opportunity, enrichment, or even a flipped learning experience of content that will directly lead to work in class the next day.
Downsides?  Without the teacher having a login account, there is no way to easily save all of your created chatrooms.   (This was true of the earliest version of TodaysMeet as well.) If you close the browser without somehow saving the chatroom URL, you may have to start all over.  I'm also not sure if the ability to search "public" random chatrooms is helpful from a student perspective, since it may lead to more distractions than anything useful for a classroom setting.  In fairness, however, once a student joins a specific chat room the search is not readily apparent.  Lastly,  I wish rooms were "yoteach.com/name" (more like how TodaysMeet worked) instead of the current unusual URL address configuration.  

I wish for digital and analog discourse to happen frequently in your classroom!

Note: special thanks to Noel Gnadinger, my old South Oldham High School colleague and librarian par excellence who led me to YoTeach! in one of her Facebook posts.


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