Tools for Successful Digital Conversations

So an interesting email landed in my inbox today.  Anita—an adjunct professor at Kent State and an admitted tech noobie—asked:

I teach an undergrad education course for preservice teachers (also some grad courses for teachers), and want my students to post threaded discussions.

I also need to upload files–both word and pdf, probably even ppts. Has to be a free site. I don't want to use vista or blackboard anymore, which is provided by the university.

I used nicenet. org for a focus group I ran (working on my doctorate), but it doesn't allow for uploading documents. Greatly limited in that way.

Any suggestions?

Here was my reply.  Figured it might be useful to you, too—regardless of the role that you’re filling:

Hey Anita,

Good to hear from you and glad that you're fooling around with online conversations for your students.  The more frequently that they get involved in those kinds of actions during their own education, the more likely they are to integrate digital conversations in their own classrooms.

A few years back, I facilitated a conversation between a good friend who teaches college classes here in Raleigh and her students on technology integration in the college classroom.

She was frustrated because she'd required students to post reflections on a class blog and then leave comments/have conversation with one another in the comment section of each post.

While she was excited about the project because it served multiple purposes—she wanted to introduce students to blogging and reflective thinking all at once—-her students saw it as an extra task to pack in to an already full schedule.

The conversation became pretty animated when the topic of Facebook came up.  "If you watched what we're doing in Facebook," they pleaded, "you'd see that we're already having these kinds of reflective conversations! 

“Your site just feels like more work to us.  Why should we have to go to a special place to share thoughts about class when we can do the same thing on Facebook."

Interesting, huh? 

Her students weren't opposed to reflection OR to learning to use digital tools for meaningful conversations.  They were opposed to being forced into yet another community that they didn't have the time or energy to intellectually invest in.

What's the moral of the story?

The chances are great that your students are already Facebook users—-most college students are, after all—and that they check their profile pages about a dozen times a day.  That means they're already comfortable with (maybe even excited about?) the tool. 

More importantly, Facebook is a daily web destination for them already—instead of a new place that they have to remember to visit—-which increases the likelihood that they'll stop by the conversations that you create.

Now, I don't know whether or not Facebook is a great place for posting the other content bits that you're interested in posting—-PowerPoints, documents, etc—simply because I don't use Facebook very often at all! 

If it DOES allow for that kind of content sharing, I'd say post away.  Keeping all of your content and conversations in the same place increases the efficiency of your class for your students, and efficiency is key in today's digital world. 

But if not, the best tool for sharing those kinds of materials—especially for someone new to digital tools—is Dropio (  What makes Dropio unique is that you can make posts to your free website directly from your email inbox. 

So if you had a handout that you wanted to share with your students, you'd just attach it to an email message and send it to your site's email address—which is generated automatically by Dropio when you first create it. 

Cool, huh? 

Just like Facebook conversations are valuable to college kids because they're already familiar with Facebook, Dropio websites are valuable because they allow posts to be made directly from your email inbox—-something that digital novices are already comfortable with.

Does any of this make sense? 

Basically, my argument is that the most successful digital efforts start with a knowledge of the kinds of tools that your prospective audiences are already invested in.  Why try to recreate digital communities using new tools if our students are already creating digital communities with existing tools?

Now, if your university won't allow you to use Facebook to interact with students—which is, unfortunately, a reality in many schools and districts across the nation—you can explore these popular services which look and feel a lot like Blackboard in action:

Ning (  Ning has become the tool of choice for educators interested in creating social networking sites for their classrooms and/or colleagues. 

Some of the best educator professional development sites are built from Nings—Classroom 2.0 ( is probably the biggest example—and most districts don't block Ning sites. 

That means using Ning with your students will introduce them to a tool they can use in their own classrooms later.

Tapped In (  Tapped In was one of the first social networking tools that I ever had the chance to play with and it remains a good free option for educators. 

While it is a bit clunkier than Facebook and Ning, it offers all of the common features—opportunities for asynchronous discussions, opportunities to post documents and materials—-AND it makes instant messaging possible between class members that are in the same place at the same time.

Moodle (  Moodle is another service that many schools and districts have embraced as a course management tool. 

While I've never used it, from what I hear, it's a free version of Blackboard.  Whether that's a good thing or not is something that you'll have to decide! 

The advantage of using Moodle is that your students will gain experience with a tool that's unlikely to be blocked by the firewalls in the districts that they go to teach in. 

Hope this helps!

9 thoughts on “Tools for Successful Digital Conversations

  1. Russgoerend

    I’ve reflected on how I use Twitter and Facebook (as they’re the only two social networking sites I use on a regular basis) and I’ve realized that I do try to keep my personal and professional contacts separated.
    It’s not the personal and professional conversation that I keep separated, though. I talk about my personal life with my professional contacts on Twitter. I don’t talk as much education stuff on Facebook, though. And I’m not really sure why. I wonder what my high school friends who know me as someone who did not enjoy school at all and really didn’t spend much time thinking about it would think about me being so passionate about education now. Would it be celebrated? Would I be seen as annoying? I think the worst case scenario for me would be for them not to care.
    I wouldn’t want to be forced to use Facebook for a class because I think it’s a mess of a tool. I’ve never met a Moodle site that made me want to come back. Same with Ning. But, that just makes me think about how I don’t enjoy online-learning as a student. That’s as a student, not to say that online-learning is a bad thing. I just remember hating using Blackboard and WebCT in college. I’m a hands-on, face2face let’s-have-a-conversation kind of guy.

  2. Jenna

    I had a professor use the idea to create a facebook page for class instead of using another tool – failed miserably. In my experience, students want to keep their social and academic lives separate – they do NOT want school intruding on facebook, the tool they use to escape from academic for a while.

  3. Mahmud Jamal

    I have been teaching English for years, and started to use CALL two years ago. I use nicenet ICA. I found it helpful for writing class.
    But I was startled when a student of mine asked if nicenet ICA is a blog. I don’t know the answer… Could you help me?
    Thank you.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    It’s really interesting to see how committed we all are to keeping our personal and professional lives separate simply because I’m not sure that same commitment exists in anyone under the age of 30.
    Think about it: My thoughts on using Facebook as a tool with college kids isn’t built from my own opinions. The college kids that I mention in my post were truly adamant that creating more than one home for their social networking—a powerful form of learning—-was crazy.
    They wanted conversations in Facebook, not me—and certainly not my colleague who was having so much trouble getting her students to join together in digital reflections on the blog that she’d created.
    This blurring of the lines between personal and professional lives is also a characteristic of the Net Generation that Don Tapscott writes about in Grown Up Digital.
    Essentially, what Tapscott found in the thousands of surveys that he delivered is that Net Geners want professions that are an extension of their personal lives. They’re increasingly combining these two spheres—and taking real satisfaction from those opportunities.
    Combine that reality with the fact that colleges are already creating a Facebook presence at rates that exceed Fortune 500 companies—-87% of all college admissions departments are using Facebook pages/groups as recruiting tools—and you’ve got to wonder why we shy away from what seems like a logical step.
    The answer—it seems to me—is because we’re trying to impose our own beliefs and practices on our classrooms.
    Now, that’s life, right?
    Sometimes ‘adults’ do know best, and our students—college or otherwise—should get some instruction in the importance of separating their personal and professional lives.
    But if we’re going to willingly ignore the advice that our students are giving us about the kinds of digital tools they’re motivated to use AND evidence about the changing nature of Net Geners in the workforce, let’s not be surprised when the result is disconnected and frustrated kids.
    Any of this make sense?

  5. Catina

    I would have picked a wiki site. Users can set up the site to email them whenever a comment is made or every certain amount of hours or days.
    Word is nings are no longer free, and Facebook doesn’t allow one to upload documents. As far at the “privacy” issue, users can classify your friends in to lists (i.e. students/family/friends/etc.) and post only to certain groups, but that could get cumbersome. Also the user would want to be careful when posting pictures since albums default to status of “everyone” being allowed to see.
    I do agree with the idea to meet them were they already are–maybe a tweet or status post that a new discussion is up would be good. ON the other hand, they are taking a CLASS for goodness sake, and just as we don’t all jump at the chance to read or complete projects, online discussions are part of the class!
    Another random thought: if she has to put her syllabus in Blackboard anyway, she should go on and use that tool. It has everything she wants to use.

  6. gasstationwithoutpumps

    I think that setting up a separate site for a class is essential, as most students don’t want to mix their social and classroom lives. I’ve not used Moodle, but I have tried forums, wikis, e-mail lists, and other mechanisms.
    The wiki is the best if you have substantial content to upload that needs to be organized. I had a choice of dokuwiki and mediawiki, and chose dokuwiki because of the ease of limiting input to those with accounts on the system (mediawiki favors cleaning up graffiti after the fact).
    A forum is best for classroom-like discussions, where someone asks a question of the teacher or the class, and everyone needs to hear the answer.
    E-mail lists were unsuccessful—students were willing to have private e-mail exchanges with the teacher, but not e-mail to the class list.
    I’m not very impressed with ning as a tool—perhaps because the only ning group I’ve been part of had pretty lame content and an awkward user interface.

  7. Techczech is a great suggestion. I use it for sharing materials with students all the time.
    But, Moodle is NOT a free version of Blackboard. It is an Open Source *alternative* to Blackboard. Also, it is probably great overkill for a single class. I’d recommend DrupalGardens or even WordPress in combination for documents and media for media. WordPress has the added advantage that it’s really easy to take your data elsewhere.
    For more advanced educators who can access hosting, I’d say, have a look at ScholarPress (classroom management built on WordPress).
    BTW: I agree with the comment on Facebook. The rules against faculty getting too closely involved in the social lives of students are there for a reason.


    If I was a student and was told I had to use facebook for class, I would be very unhappy.
    Facebook is for my family and friends. It is not for professional relationships.
    When I took a class this summer we were required to have a google account. I have had a google account for years. My concern was that I use my Google account for political activism. I did not want to be accused of politicing on School District time.
    Turned out to be mute, because I had to use my school address. Sometime in the past I used it to set up a google account that I forgot about. So I use that account for school business, and my other one for my poltical activities.
    I want a clear seperation between my personal and professional lives.

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