Another dot in the blogosphere?

I am not sure which is worse: Viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses or envying the seemingly greener grass on your neighbour’s lawn.

That was my initial reaction to this tweet and the SMH article linked to it.

If you peer over the fence or put on coloured spectacles, there is a risk that you lose focus on what is important.

Context is important. You cannot simply transplant ideas from one context to another. I mentioned this in a tweet conversation with someone from the UK recently.

Something contextually important is that the Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore, hires teachers and sends them over to the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore, for initial teacher preparation. The supply meets the demand simply because MOE dictates both.

Attributing credit or blame to any other factor like PISA scores, teacher employment, or teacher surplus, in some other context is failing to make a valid comparison.

Basic facts are important. If a reporter cannot get basics right, you start to wonder if the rest of the article is flawed.

For example, SMH cites a Dean in NIE as “the head of Singapore’s teacher training institute”. I left NIE just a few months ago, but I am confident that the Director of NIE is still in charge. (I can hear the jokes and gentle ribbing taking place in certain halls and circles there if the SMH article makes its rounds there.)

Research is important. The reporter and editor might have been in a hurry to publish the article, but there is no excuse for bad research.

The initial figure of “as few as 20 per cent of (teacher) applicants” getting through the interview process might be correct. The starting salaries of our beginning teachers are indeed relatively high [1] [2]. However, entry success and high starting salaries do not mean that we have the “best and brightest” to pick from.

Information on what percentage of top students from a graduating cohort enter teacher preparation can be hard to come by. But they can be found out by conversations with very-important-people or by trawling university sites that might share such data more openly.

As a professional courtesy, I am not going to share what I was provided by way of official statistics and conversations with people that matter. Suffice to say that Singapore’s teacher selection cutoff is no where near Korea’s, particularly among primary/elementary teachers.

The issues of teacher quality and placement should not just revolve around the numbers that administrators and policymakers like. Singapore does not recruit dimwits to be teachers, but we cannot (and do not) claim to lure our brightest either. We take in people with a passion for schooling and educating kids.

Passion is hard to put numbers to. But it is probably the single most important factor that keeps a teacher going no matter the salary or the teaching conditions.

So instead of getting a false impression after rubbernecking a neighbour or reading a tinted newspaper article, I suggest an unfiltered examination of context and a fine-toothed search for facts that actually matter.

I am not sure why, but a 14-year-old memory popped in my head recently.

I was pursuing a Masters in the USA at that time and many of my peers had met a Singaporean (and maybe even a foreigner) for the first time.

epic battle by demandaj, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  demandaj 

One of my group mates insisted that Singapore was in China. She said that her father travelled a lot and told her that was the case. I asked her who she would rather believe: Her father who had travelled the region or a person who was born and bred there?

She just gave me a look and asked me if I was sure.

There was no convincing her. If Google Earth or Maps was around then, I could have shown her immediately. But even then, she might have objected.

There are some people who are not worth trying to convince or change. They will demoralize you and dig in further. Pick your battles, find some other way in, or go for someone else.

While learners are diverse, kids who go to school can be divided into at least three groups.

The first two groups are obvious: Those that school well and those that fall through the cracks.

Societies favour the first group. Most kids, irrespective of who they are or what they might do, learn to be schooled. If schools are like factories, then these are the kids that pass quality control.

The second group is those that cannot make it through the factory door or are thrown out the back door. These could be kids that have special needs, end up in prison, or are marginalized in school for whatever reason. Some people label these kids non-traditional learners.

There is a third and less obvious group of learners. These are kids that find their own way without conventional schooling or despite it. These are the real non-traditional learners.

These kids are self-directed, aware of who they are, and more driven to self actualize. They are typically born into family or support structures that enable them to operate this way.

For this group of kids, school is often boring and an inconvenience to tolerate. They know where they are going or must go; they are sidetracked to school because of the dictates of society.

Why are this type of non-traditional learners emerging now? Like germinating seeds, they are doing so because certain conditions are right.

Technology enables learners of all ages to learn beyond text, reach out to experts, connect with others, and create on the world stage. These are things that schools do not emphasize enough and some even take punitive steps to prevent.

Another condition is progressive research and pedagogical innovation that reveal how we learn and explore more effective ways to teach. We have started to question established but ineffective ways of doing things and think of ways to change them.

Still another is how quickly new information spreads to educators via open and social online platforms. Take the explosion of educator tweet chats for example.

All these will help the learner of today (and tomorrow) to help themselves, define their own professions, and shape their own careers. They need not be told by the results of high-stakes assessment of their worth. They need not be told by content experts that they are unable or stupid.

Never before have learners been so potentially empowered. That might be what scares parents and teachers alike. But I hope that more adults overcome this fear and guide their kids on their journey. For like a germinating seed, there is no growing backward.

I finally got my hands on a tiny peripheral that sits in the shallow SD card slot of my Macbook Air.

It is called a Nifty Minidrive and it is an adapter for a microSD card. It is also a solution to needless problems that Apple created.

The MB Air has a solid state drive (SSD). These save space and are very fast, but they are costly. So Airs do not come with much storage space.

Instead of carrying an external drive around, you can insert a high-capacity SD card into a slot. But Apple makes the slots so shallow that part of a normal SD card sticks out.

The Nifty Minidrive allows you to insert a microSD card into it and then insert the whole thing into the SD slot so that it blends into the laptop. It is elegant and seamless.

I had wanted a Nifty Minidrive since it was a Kickstarter project in 2012. But the product availability and distribution was limited.

It would not ship from Amazon without a US address. I emailed a local distributor when one was finally listed at the Nifty website, but no one replied.

I finally took to Twitter and received a reply from Nifty within days. I asked how I could get one and provided a copy of the email I sent. I received a reply shortly after.

A few days later, I received an email from the local distributor telling me where I might find it in a local store. But not before Nifty on Twitter had already told me where to look.

I emailed the local store, but like the local distributor, they did not reply. I made the trip anyway and was fortunate that the item was available.

What are the morals of this story?

  1. There are solutions out there to problems you have in here. You only have to look. But strangely enough, the people immediately around you might not be responsive, willing, or able to help. These days, instead of intermediaries, you can connect directly with the source, experts, or gatekeepers of the information you need.
  2. Organizations, especially the ones here, like having websites with contact information and forms. More often than not, these are only for show instead of sincere intent. Some groups also make a show of social media channels and apply old school rules of one-way dissemination instead of two-way communication and multichannel socialization.

There is a lesson for learners of all sorts in the first moral and a lesson for teachers in the second.

Yesterday I shared four pedagogical considerations for backchannelling.

Today I suggest a framework, strategies, and tips on backchannelling. Caveat: Like yesterday, the content I share today is a draft of ideas swirling about in my head.

I shared this framework at a few conference talks when urging educators to leverage on social media-based learning.

Most frontal or online teaching is so focused on content delivery that social learning opportunities are banished to the periphery or are left out altogether.

To leverage on social media-based learning, a facilitator might start with the social process first and then make their way to the content through increasingly focused or serendipitous conversations.

A variation is social-content-social strategy. As I tend to backchannel at conferences, I have suggested to organizers and participants that an alternative experience could have been engaging with me on social media or a backchannel first.

Weeks before my talk, participants could tell me what issues they want me to focus on. After some crowdsourcing, they vote on the top three or five topics.

During my talk I deliver focused content that my audience wants and I can choose to backchannel or not. After the talk is over, I continue conversing with participants in the backchannel.

The social-content-social method can operate like a funnel. The topics are somewhat broad or chaotic in the initial social process. They are consolidated during the talk and may be refined during the second socialization process.

The flipping of a conference talk is just one example of leveraging on a backchannel. During a talk or lecture, a backchannel can be also be used:

  • to get an audience to answer prompted questions
  • by the speaker to answer spontaneous questions raised by participants
  • by all parties to share online resources by posting URLs
  • to provide an extended question and answer session outside the allocated time

I have written about how backchannelling places an additional cognitive load on an audience. Sometimes a backchannel can allow participants have conversations amongst themselves. This simulates note-passing and seems to be the least burdensome activity. It is very rewarding to observe audience members raise questions and have other members address them.

Finally, I offer some tips on backchannelling.

  • Check with the organizers of a talk if they are not against the practice of backchannelling. Ensure that the venue is not a wireless Internet dead spot.
  • Whether you use backchannels with a group you meet regularly or whether you spring a surprise on an audience, it is important to set expectations. I like to remind mine that everyone can see what they write and ask them to post professionally.
  • To make it easy for your audience members to access your backchannel, provide a short URL they can type and or QR code they can scan.
  • It can be tempting to leave the backchannel entirely in the background. I advise using it during the lecture or talk so that participants know that what they say there matters. Ask them for suggestions, review their comments, or answer their questions at strategic intervals.
  • When you are done with the talk or lecture, monitor the backchannel for as long as you promise your audience. Some members may post a question or comment after the fact and you should respond.

I normally set the stage by declaring how talks or lectures are boring. They do not have to be if you find ways to connect with your audience. One of those ways is backchannelling.

I hope that the framework, strategies, and tips I have shared on backchannelling are useful.

I was prompted to draft some thoughts on designing backchannel activities by @ryantracey who interviewed me for an eLearning Magazine article in April.

I have used an assortment of tools or social media platforms for backchannelling during lectures or talks: Facebook, Edmodo, Twitter, Padlet, TodaysMeet, GoSoapBox, and Pigeonhole.

Whatever the tool, the purpose of the backchannel might be to break down the one-way street of didactic delivery by creating an additional and multi-way channel of communication.

The first consideration for a backchannel should be why you want one. This could for a number of good reasons, for example:

  • getting or giving feedback
  • providing an additional platform for questions & answers
  • promoting parallel conversations
  • capturing the essence of a blended learning session for archiving/sharing
  • one-minute reflections or exit tickets

A bad reason for wanting a backchannel is to look cool or to try something for its own sake.

The second consideration might be context, which might be a mass lecture or a conference talk. These contexts have these features in common:

  • information is delivered didactically
  • the delivery is in one place and at one pace
  • the audience is present as a requirement (in the case of a lecture)
  • the audience is self-selecting (in the case of a conference or seminar)
  • the content is grey or controversial enough to generate discussion
  • the audience is expected to sit, listen, and wait for a limited time and opportunity to respond

Whether backchannels are the initiative of the speaker or the organizer, they are a means of getting around tight schedules and situations where efficiency seems to be valued over effectiveness.

A third consideration is the size of the class or audience. I use backchannels at conferences where I am a keynote, plenary, or session speaker. The largest audience I have backchannelled with was 1,200. The smallest was around 50.

If you can count the number of people present with your hands and toes, you probably do not need a backchannel. That group should be small enough for you to interact closely with them.

A fourth consideration is the features of the backchannelling tool, such as:

  • ease of use
  • chronology of text inputs
  • linear vs threaded conversations
  • audience polling
  • monitoring/notifications
  • controlled access and/or message filtering
  • expiration

Whatever the bells and whistles, it is worth remembering that backchannelling is a social process. Often the ease of use and basic text inputs are all that are required. That is why my favourite backchannel tool at the moment is TodaysMeet.

I compared Twitter and TodaysMeet as backchannels in a previous blog entry. Note: I am not paid or otherwise supported by Twitter or TodaysMeet to mention their offerings.

When in use, TodaysMeet shows user-generated text in reverse chronology (most recent text at the top). For archiving and ease of reading, TodaysMeet offers a transcript view in forward chronology.

Both views are linear so it may be difficult to follow back and forth discussions. However, this is rarely an issue because audience members are typically multitasking (switching listening, asking, answering, responding), so responses are short.

TodaysMeet does not offer polls like GoSoapBox. But you can prepare a poll elsewhere (e.g., Google Forms) and post the link in the backchannel for participants to click on.

TodaysMeet is very basic in that it does not have a monitoring or notification system. So if someone posts in the backchannel after a talk, you must keep track manually. Other backchanneling tools might alert you of a new posting.

A backchannel is meant for a select audience and members must feel they are in a safe place to share their thoughts. Tools like Pigeonhole and GoSoapBox are password or code-protected. The current iteration of TodaysMeet allows you to delete offensive or irrelevant posts.

As backchannels tend to be specific to events, it helps if the backchannels have a shelf life. Neither you nor the participants are likely to use it beyond a certain period of time. You can set what this period is (a week, a month) in TodaysMeet.

I share strategies and tips on backchannelling in Part 2 tomorrow.

It is hard to tell if this was a tongue-in-cheek or serious tweet. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

I like that there are so many education-centred chats on Twitter [sample]. These are a healthy sign of the diversity of self help, directedness, and organization among educators globally.

You can find one or more groups that suit your time zone, learning needs, or personality. You choose to participate or not.

Many lurk, some participate, and a few like Junkins step up to the plate and facilitate chat after chat.

Perhaps that is why he tweeted that there were too many chats. It can be exhausting coordinating local and international chats.

But it is not a case of having too many chats. It is trying to take on too much.

You choose to invest time and effort in interacting with people you may never meet in person, but get to meet in mind.

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