Asynchronous conversation matters: Part I
Tap into your students' ease for using digital communities by structuring meaningful online conversations using free tools for asynchronous discussion that center around classroom learning.
Have you ever tried to take a cell phone or Internet privileges away from a 21st-century teenager? Mayhem breaks loose pretty darn quickly, doesn’t it? Teeth gnash, tears fall, and curses are muttered. To the untrained eye watching this tantrum, you’d think that the world as we know it has ended.
Look a little closer, however, and you’ll quickly realize that losing access to online communities is the end of the world for many connected teens. Where the children of earlier generations gathered in the neighborhood to experiment with identities and enjoy each other’s company — heck, the parents in my neighborhood wouldn’t even let us kids come home until the streetlights turned on — today’s teens are so over-scheduled that there are few informal opportunities to interact away from the watchful eyes of adults. Instead, typical kids spend six hours in school each day, only to rush home for soccer practices, dance classes, piano lessons, or church youth groups. Their entire lives are supervised and structured. 1
Today’s teens still crave connections, though. They’re still trying on new personalities, resolving interpersonal conflicts, building relationships, networking, fighting, and growing together. It’s just that much of this social learning takes place online now. Instead of meeting on someone’s front porch, hanging out in a neighbor’s garage, or messing around at the local park, our kids are crafting digital communities filled with friends who “gather” and “share” electronically. Facebook pages, texts, and instant messages really do stand at the heart of the 21st-century social world. 2
Carefully examine the statistics surrounding teens and technology and you’ll get a sense for just how important digital interactions have become to the students in your classroom. While only 29 percent of the children between the ages of 12 and 17 report spending time with friends in person outside of school each day:
- 71 percent of the children between the ages of 12 and 17 own cell phones.
- 58 percent of the children between the ages of 12 and 17 use text messaging to communicate with peers. 38 percent report sending text messages every day.
- 36 percent of the children between the ages of 12 and 17 report using their cell phones to call friends daily.
- 76 percent of today’s high school and college aged students use instant messaging for upwards of 80 minutes every day — and 92 percent of those same users report doing other tasks on their computers while engaged in conversations with peers.
- As of 2007, more than half of all online Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 had created accounts on social networking services like MySpace and Facebook.
- Most check their digital profiles at least once — and many stop by multiple times — each day, connecting both with friends that they see frequently and those that they only see once in awhile.3
What’s most interesting, though, is that the vast majority of this electronic networking occurs between peers who already know one another in real life. While digital tools allow for connections across borders, most teens are using digital tools to simply enhance the relationships that they already have instead of starting new relationships. Like teens of any generation, they’re making plans, sharing thoughts, and offering guidance to one another.4 “By providing tools for mediated interactions,” writes Danah Boyd, “social media allow teens to extend their interactions beyond physical boundaries. Conversations and interactions that begin in person do not end when friends are separated.”5
If you’re a teacher determined to extend learning beyond the school day, this is great news because the chances are high that your students are already comfortable with electronic communication and interested in any opportunities to connect with the kids in their classrooms. With a bit of digital gumption, you can structure meaningful conversations using free tools for asynchronous discussions that are focused on the content standing at the center of your curriculum. And while it might surprise you, you’ll quickly realize that the majority of your students will be drawn to the school-based digital conversations that you create. Better yet, asynchronous conversations will allow you to engage marginalized students and to provide avenues for differentiated participation for every child in your classroom.6
Setting up forums for asynchronous communication is a simple three-step process. First, you’ll need to choose a service for hosting your conversations. Then, you’ll need to properly structure your discussion. Finally, you’ll need to introduce students to the differences between formal and informal online dialogue.
Selecting a service for asynchronous conversations
One of the advantages of living in a fluid digital world is that there is an almost never-ending collection of services being developed for the K-12 marketplace. Understanding that the children sitting in your classroom today will be the savvy technology users of tomorrow, Web 2.0 companies are adapting their products to meet the needs of schools and are generally willing to offer free accounts to anyone working with students. That means you have the right to be choosy — and to experiment freely — when selecting a service to host your classroom’s asynchronous conversations.
Certain features will come standard with any tool that makes asynchronous communication possible. Regardless of the product that you pick, you are likely to be able to create several different conversation strands in any single discussion. A conversation focused on the causes of hatred might have different strands focused on racism in the United States, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the attempts of the Serbs to drive Croats, Muslims, and Albanians out of their homes in the late 1980s. This is a particularly important feature because it allows students to target their participation, focusing on the concepts that are the most motivating to them.
Most tools for asynchronous communication will also allow participants to add text-based comments to any ongoing strand and to search discussions for the contributions of individual participants or for comments connected to key terms. This functionality makes it possible for users to navigate ongoing conversations easily. Finally, most tools for asynchronous communication make it possible to archive discussions for later use — a feature that allows conversations that have ended to be used as source material for future lessons and for enrichment and remediation experiences — and to keep conversations closed to your students or open to the world, a choice you’ll make based on how comfortable you — and your district — are with Internet safety.
What makes tools for asynchronous communication unique are the extra features that they offer to users. One of the most popular tools for creating digital homes for asynchronous conversations, for example, is Ning. Ning’s specialty is that it allows users to create their own blogs and to upload a wide range of digital content to share with others alongside its forums for asynchronous conversations. Moodle — another free service embraced by many schools and districts in North Carolina — offers features similar to Ning, along with the opportunity to set classroom calendars and to deliver online quizzes. Because of their enhanced functionality, both Ning and Moodle can become all-in-one digital homes for your classroom — hosting conversations, storing important files, and sharing information with parents and students alike.
My favorite tool for asynchronous communication, however, is VoiceThread. What makes VoiceThread unique is that users can interact around a wide variety of stimuli. Instead of uploading text-heavy prompts to start conversations, teachers can upload provocative images, interesting video clips, or charts and graphs designed to make students think differently about the topic being studied. For students used to living in a visual world or struggling with reading, this ability to engage around multimedia content adds motivation and encourages participation.
What’s more, VoiceThread users can add text, voice and/or video comments to ongoing discussions. Not only do these kinds of comments make VoiceThread conversations more approachable for developing writers, they add a sense of personality and emotion to asynchronous conversations that is often lacking in the text-only forums offered by Ning and Moodle. While the vast majority of your students are likely to add text-only comments to VoiceThread conversations because they are quicker and easier to post and to polish, there are certain circumstances and situations where voice and video comments will come in handy.
Before settling on a service for hosting your asynchronous conversations, be sure to contact your school and/or district’s technology services staffers. Not only will they be able to point you towards the kinds of tools that your district is already supporting — and that other teachers are already using successfully — they’ll be able to point you away from the kinds of tools that your district simply cannot support! While most tools for asynchronous conversation are safe and place few demands on a district’s technology infrastructure, you can avoid headaches and heartache if you’re willing to run your ideas by the professionals in charge of technology planning in your district.
Once you’ve selected a service to host your classroom’s asynchronous conversations, you’ll be ready to learn more about structuring successful conversations and introducing students to the differences between formal and informal online discussions — strategies introduced in the second part of this series on asynchronous communication.