Digital Discussions Get All Kids in the Conversation

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Classroom discussions are usually dominated by a few “alpha” students eager to participate. We can all envision those students. Hands stretched high, fingers waving, literally or figuratively saying, “Ooh, pick me, pick me.” But how do you get that student who is desperately trying not to make eye contact with you—or anyone else in the classroom—involved in the conversation?

Social media for the classroom may be the answer. There are a lot of interactive, real-time technology tools that can help you get ALL students talking. Consider the free social media websites, like Edmodo.com and wallwisher.com. The SCAN tool at TregoED offers limited access for free and unlimited access with a low-cost subscription. All of these are great tools to get digital conversations going while maintaining the privacy concerns for schools. Teachers establish links and projects with their students.  

When I first started using these web tools, I had students use anonymous screen names or avatars to avoid problems with student privacy laws. I found that using screen names and avatars put all children’s contributions on an equal plane. Their conversation became more focused on what was being said and eliminated any stigma regarding who was saying it.

It soon became evident that students who had never participated in classroom conversations before were willing to take the risk when “protected behind a screen name.” Students log in and give their initials, but I am the only one with access to the initials. So they were comfortable contributing  to the conversation in a way that would be documented and measurable.

Of course, “hiding” behind screen names is often a part of cyber-bullying. However, guiding the conversations, monitoring input and reviewing transcripts of discussions are all ways you can supervise the activity.  Practicing digital conversations in school even gives kids the skills they need later when their conversations are not monitored or supervised.

The benefits are tremendous.

Using engaging topics and role-playing activities in the SCAN tool, I have seen students transform from reluctant participants to vigorous commentators, ready to share their knowledge with the class. In one instance, I used a discussion prompt on whether cell phones should be allowed in school. One student who was very “vocal” and had a lot of strong opinions turned out to be a high-functioning autistic student. She had never offered her opinion before without prodding and her answers were generally inaudible. The digital discussion had given her a voice, one that I had never “heard,” equal in merit to the rest.

No judgments, no risks.

Recently, we had a student who never participated in any classroom activities. But with the digital discussion, and because the computer was a platform on which he was familiar and comfortable, he felt free to contribute. Digital conversations held synchronously during class time allow all students to put forward their points of view. You avoid the problem of dominant students voicing their opinions and the rest merely agreeing. Each student is responsible for adding her own ideas.

Often you hear of the negatives aspects of children using social media. I have found that properly supervised, social media can help us get all kids in on the conversation. 

Wozniak is director of curriculum and technology and former middle school robotics teacher in New Jersey.