Better edchat tools and tactics

Since I have been critical of the value of “edchats”, I thought it appropriate I do more than criticize and offer potential ways the group experiences could be more beneficial.

I have fallen into analyzing educational technology experiences in terms of tools and tactics and this approach may be useful here. The idea is to consider the potential of the tool (the specific service or application) and tactics (the strategies of use). My assumption is that the general goal is professional development – the acquisition by professionals of new knowledge and skills. The existing tool is Twitter and the tactic is participant responses to a series of approximately 10 questions within an hour block of time.

Assumed advantages of tool (twitter) – free, easy to learn, large installed base of users

Assumed advantages of tactic (I am having a little more difficulty here) – educators are familiar with a question and answer format

One interesting issue associated with social media is that once a platform (tool) has attracted a user base, new and better tools fail to gain participants because individuals are reluctant to migrate for fear their social connections will be lost. I think this is the case with Twitter in the education community. I think Twitter has inherent issues because of the brief comments it allows. This limitation, in my opinion, leads to rather shallow interactions. It may be a great way to learn about new things via links, but it is not a tool suited to meaningful, synchronous discussion.

The edchat format (the tactic) has taken hold and it seems popular to have such chats. There is a certain momentum here. There is also the issue of doing it like everyone else. Conformity seems to limit a consideration of both tool and tactic.

I tend to look at this setting as if it were a class I was facilitating. As educators, does the typical edchat generate the type of interaction you would want to see in your class. What would you change?

How to improve edchats:

Prepare beyond review of a lengthy series of questions. Either come up with 2-3 questions of greater depth or offer a common preparation task (read this post, read this book, etc.). Perhaps the moderator for the week should either find a resource or write a position statement. I also find the questions and topics to be too general. As an academic I understand that since we are frequently described as being abstract and not getting the level of actual application this would seem a strange concern, but review chats and see what you think. The questions seem to generate few specific suggestions or examples. When a specific detail is provided (often via reference to a recently popular book or author) just exactly what this reference is to imply for the classroom.

I see very little interaction. Sometimes a response from another participant is praised, but there are few reactions, counter examples, requests for clarification, etc. If this was a FTF classroom, the typical edchat would be similar to choral responding rather than a discussion. I would propose these limitations are the result of both the tool (lack of room for depth) and the tactic (tool many questions and responding without preparation).

Some comments on tools. I admit at this point that it is difficult to isolate tool and tactics. I think moving beyond Twitter would be helpful. Blogging before discussing might be helpful. Taking a position on an issue before interacting can be productive. Give some thought to your position before you are tainted by what others have to say. Offer an example. Process your own experiences and externalize a position for others to consider. A moderator and other participants might then use these comments to request clarification or note differences of opinion.

Beyond the inclusion of pre-session comments, I think it is time to consider other tools. I have always had access to discussion tools and I see greater opportunity for depth in synchronous commenting and responding in using these tools. I understand that folks enjoy the social experience of Twitter chats, but I think it important to think carefully whether group socializing is the primary goal.

I am not familiar with all of the tools available to educators. Does the state offer a general set of tools (a discussion option, a blogging option)? I think groups should more actively consider other tools. For example, Slack  offers some interesting opportunities. My concern with so many such tools is that the jump between the free and the lower paid version seems so great.

Summary:

1) Reduce the number of questions and give more thought to the type of questions used

2) Have a pre-session expectation for preparation of some type. I think expecting a product is always helpful related to this preparation is always helpful. Somehow, the popularization of “flipping” various education experiences should apply here.

3) The moderator needs to encourage more give and take rather than limiting “discussion” to call and response. As I have already suggested, existing positions statements that can be contrasted would be a great place to start. I understand the concern with how stating a different position will be received, but the generic positive reactions add little.

4) Consider other technology tools. What about Google hangouts? etc.

5) Generate a discussion summary (perhaps the moderator or a designated discussant). Did the summarizer learn anything?

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