As the year comes to an end, I thought I’d get in the “Tops of 2011″ spirit. Instead of sharing the top movies or songs of the year as often happens, I decided to share the 8 most viewed posts from the 8 Blog for this calendar year. 2011 was a great year for the 8 Blog. The site had over 13,000 views from people around the world. I continue to be humbled by the response to this blog and I wish all of the 8 Blog readers a Happy 2012!
Google Docs just keeps getting better! For those of you who have used Google Docs, I’m sure you already appreciate its ability to allow real-time collaboration in online word processing documents, presentations and spreadsheets. Used in educational settings, Google Docs can be a tremendous tool to help groups of students work together on projects and to allow them to edit the work of their peers.
One of the challenges with Google Docs, however, is that there is no real clip art or image library. I know this may seem like a minor feature, but for many educators, this is a deal breaker. If students are using Microsoft Office applications, for instance, they have access to a full library of copyright-free images to support their work. If they are developing a document, they can easily incorporate images without searching the web or worrying about determining the copyright status of an image they’ve obtained. Until recently, Google Docs did not offer the same functionality. To incorporate an image, a student needed to upload one of their own or search through Google Images to find one, which could expose students to undesirable material. Google Docs has alleviated these challenges by incorporating stock photos into their Office suite. Now, students can search through an online library to find appropriate images that relate to their topic and simply click to include them. It really couldn’t be any easier. To access the stock photography features, however, be sure that you’re using the new version of Google Docs. That’s one of the best parts of using a service like Google Docs. New features are constantly being added without the need to purchase anything. In the current economic climate that many schools face, free educational tools that offer a wide range of services are critical.
As class sizes continue to grow, educators are exploring new ways to connect with students and engage them in classroom discussions. For instance, “clickers” are becoming more popular as assessment tools in classrooms. Clickers function like game show response systems and can provide real time data on what students understand and what they are struggling with. When used effectively, clickers can be great tools to interact with a large class of students. One of my reservations about clickers, however, is that the system is fundamentally built upon the educator asking questions (usually of the multiple choice variety) and students responding. While this type of classroom discourse can be beneficial for students, I feel we need to create more opportunities to dialogue with students in large classes, allowing to students to ask their questions and contribute to the discussion.
One technology-based solution is called a “backchannel.” A backchannel is the practice of having an online conversation alongside a face-to-face presentation. Backchannels are hardly new but the tools are becoming easier to use and more mobile. For instance, I’ve attended a handful of presentations recently that used TodaysMeet to allow attendees to discuss concepts and to ask questions during the presentation. TodaysMeet is easy to set up and works with smartphones, laptops and iPads. Simply name your backchannel room, select how long you want the room to be active and you’re ready to go. Once the link is shared with students, they can begin contributing to the backchannel during a classroom lesson after they’ve created a backchannel alias.
While the backchannel is a viable solution for creating discussions in large classes, I want to caution educators who may want to jump into the backchanneling world. Many students are not used to this type of communication and may struggle at first with how to use the tool effectively. Although it may be easy to technically participate in a backchannel, using the space for real productive dialogue may take some time to develop. Educators may want to outline some basic ground rules beforehand to help guide students to use the backchannel appropriately. Once these ground rules are set, however, students may respond positively to the backchannel platform and may find having an “alias” liberating. The backchannel may free them to ask questions they may be less comfortable asking in the face-to-face environment, especially when they’re sitting a big classroom with a large group of students.