Thursday, January 29, 2015

Give Written Conversations a Chance

Back Channels. Discussion Forums. Twitter. Oh my!

A teacher recently asked me about students using online discussion forums. This teacher was wondering out loud if this was a 21st century skill, since it hadn't been discussed anywhere in the teacher's professional reading. This conversation made me reflect on when, in the real world, students will have the need to have rich written conversations using expressive language, rich vocabulary, and probing and clarifying questions. I didn't have to look far.

I am part of an online community that numbers greater than 3,000 individuals. The only thing that bonds us is the town in which we live. Our politics, religious beliefs, and sports teams differ. However, there is always something being discussed amongst "friends." Just after my traditional conversation about written conversations, this community was going through some self-reflection. 

Two of the most frequent contributors, without fanfare, had voluntarily left the conversation. They had had enough of what had gotten "ugly." This virtual water-cooler had turned into the wild west, and members had stopped self-policing. The virtual self-reflection had us wondering if frequent contributors were no longer policing themselves because they feared public humiliation or could it have been that they thought the name-calling and threats would be directed at them.

The only reason anyone knew that these two individuals had left the group was because of a comment made by someone else. Thank goodness! As a result, a valuable discussion took place - all as a written conversation. Questions were asked to clarify what had happened. Probing questions were asked about the proper way to interact online. Group norms began to emerge or be challenged. 

Students are part of such communities outside of school, even if educators are not. I propose that one of our roles as educators is to teach our students to be good digital citizens. (See the ISTE technology standards for students.). As I watched the conversation unfold, I couldn't help but think about the valuable learning opportunity to students. How would they respond to the questions that were addressed?

  • Should trouble-makers be removed?
  • Should those who are hiding behind false identities be exposed?
  • If verbal attacks are made, should the attackers be banned from the group?

In any community, online and in-person, negativity is always going to take place. Online communities seem to provide those would not ordinarily speak up with a venue to vent. It's as if sitting in front of a computer screen and keyboard empower the individual. However, just like in-person, one negative comment often breeds another. In a short time, the bullies begin to tag team. What seems like condescending and rude to one person may be funny and joking to another. The most significant difference with online negativity is the fact the comments are in writing and have a long shelf-life.

How can educators model appropriate behavior in an online forum? According to recent research, students should be writing 13-18 times a day -- not just in English class but in every content area. A written conversation on a topic is a way to do just that. Discuss current events. Explain how you solved a math problem. Take on the persona of a character in history, math, or science and have a written conversation with a contemporary using academic vocabulary.

Sometimes those who are part of a written conversation will have the ability to add humor to serious topics, simply because they are writing. At the same time, this venue can also provide bullies with the opportunity to attack those who don't warrant an attack. This makes this environment uncomfortable for those who don't regularly participate, and it can even become uncomfortable for those who do. 

Back to our students…When the characters disagree, they have to figure out how to express the disagreement. When a student's solution makes no sense to another student, they have to respectfully challenge the solution. Providing students with opportunities for written conversation may empower the quiet ones in a positive way. Not providing them with opportunities for written conversation, I believe, puts them at a disadvantage. 

They need practice to prepare them for the readily accessible opportunities they will have to have written conversations as part of online research, the college application process, commenting about books, music, and restaurants, and recommending (or not) local business people. They need to have the chance, in a controlled environment, to think about things such as:
  • What does it say about a written conversation when those who actively participate in it - or those who simply read it - consider leaving because of a few and forget that there are nearly 3,000 others who rarely contribute?
  • Should written conversations be policed by other members of the group?
  • When the opinions in the group disagree with your own or get negative, should you step away for a while?
  • When an online community is by invitation or request, should members consider it a privilege to participate?

So, why do adults participate in a virtual water cooler? In my example, it could be that it's a wonderful resource for happenings, information sharing, and community networking. During difficult weather, it has been a lifeline. The number of dogs lost and then found because of this network is amazing. The number of casseroles made for the homeless is awe-inspiring. Opportunities for reputable small businesses to build up their clientele are regularly available.

The things these grown-ups have grappled with are the same things, I believe, your students could grapple with if given the chance to participate in a closed group of their classmates.

  • Challenge your own thinking; challenge another's thinking: 
    • Is it wise to block people you disagree with? 
    • What could you learn from them? 
    • What questions could you ask them, to better understand their point of view? 
    • How could you share your point of view without alienating others? 
  • Be civil: When someone disagrees with you, name-calling and threats are unacceptable. 
  • Be supportive: 
    • When someone is being questioned about their beliefs, have their back, even if you disagree with them. 
    • Civil discourse is key. 
    • Support those who stand up for each other, even when it's difficult. 
    • It's hard to speak up, when you are concerned about being the next target. 
  • Consider perception: 
    • When thoughts are put into writing, it can be hard to decipher tone. As a result, bantering may be perceived as a slight. A joke may be taken seriously. 
    • Sarcasm is not always read the way it is intended. 
    • Write with intent. 
    • Be mindful of what you are writing and the tone that you are using. If it is misconstrued, clarify what you meant. 
    • Perception is reality, and you may not have a chance to explain. 
  • Take it with a grain of salt: 
    • Writers may not have given a whole lot of thought to what they've written. Five minutes from now, they may wish they had never written it. 
    • Respond; don't react. Give yourself some breathing room before you respond. 

And why is it important that students learn this? In the real world, they could be writing in an environment that includes many "lurkers" who read but don’t write. Those lurkers could be a next-door neighbor, a business associate, a teacher, a principal, a college admissions officer, or a friend with different political beliefs. This is the world in which they live. They simply need to learn how to be good digital citizens. As educators, we need to give them practice.

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