Online Discussion in the “Real World”

At the beginning of this school year, I was thrilled to learn that our district would no longer be blocking social media websites like Twitter and Facebook.  I immediately took my class Facebook page live and activated my class Twitter account.  But before my freshman dove headfirst into the murky waters of social media, I wanted to make sure that they knew how to have a conversation online.  And in all honesty, it was the perfect opportunity to review classroom discussion decorum.  (In my freshman classes, which I co-teach with my history colleague, there are 35ish students in the class at a time.  Rules are important!)

I knew when we unblocked social media that I wanted to focus a lot this year on the importance of digital footprints.  When my freshman graduate from college they will have digital footprint of over a decade.  They are only 14 years old right now.  They can’t even fathom that!  I brainstormed a few different ways to talk about online discussions but nothing really stuck with me.  Then the NYTimes Learning Blog posted about their newest endeavor: The Learning Network Reading Club.  Every so often they planned to post an article that they felt would be of particular interest to students.  They would then ask students to share their responses to the article in the comments.  The catch?  Each response also had to reference someone else’s response.    In that way, a true conversation would be born.

I decided to use the Reading Club as a jumping off point for our online discussions.  In class, we talked about what good in-class discussions look like.  Together, we brainstormed a list that included looking at the speaker, being an active listener, responding to specific classmates, not just focusing on the teacher, and helping to move the conversation forward.  Then we talked about the different types of online interactions my students participate in on their own.  Facebook, Xbox, Twitter, and forums were all mentioned.  We talked about asynchronous discussions and how they differ from face-to-face discussions and the way they should be approached.  As practice, my students worked in groups and logged on to our class wiki where I had posted a link to a recent NYTimes article about the effects of Spongebob Squarepants on young children.  Talk about an engaging article!  My students had some very strong feelings about the results of the study!  The students read and responded to the article and we worked through a variety of technical problems.  This allowed us to talk about how to approach online discussions for school, as most of my students will take online classes in the future.  Things like “don’t leave it til the last minute!” were very important.  :)

The best part of the lesson was the homework assignment.  Each of my students was charged with reading the article chosen by The Learning Network Reading Club and posting a comment, according to the posted guidelines, within a week.  Can I tell you how impressed I was with their work?  The club ended up receiving 536 comments from all over the world, and the conversation grew organically.  Every time I checked the article I was blown away by what I read.  My own students were responding to one another and students from other schools.  Some of my students even went back, on their own, and responded a second time!  It was brilliant!  Even better?  They started applying some of the same strategies in-class, during our class discussions.  My students are responding to one another by summarizing the speaker and then adding their own thoughts.  They refer to others by name in their own comments and they frequently look at their classmates rather than just addressing the teachers in the room.  It’s fantastic!

I can not wait to see what The Learning Network Reading Club chooses next.  I know my students will be participating again and I encourage you to try it with your classes.  The Learning Network recently posted a round-up of some of their favorite responses and five of my students are quoted!  Needless to say, they were thrilled.  It’s a fantastic new initiative and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next!

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