Teaching Students about Digital Conversations

Over the past few weeks, I’ve started to roll out a few digital opportunities for my students to engage in conversations with one another beyond school.

We’re working on developing a blog where we’re debating the quality of the books that we’re reading and we’ve got a classroom Diigo group where we’re coming together around articles connected to the topics we’re studying in class.

While it’s taken me longer to get to this point than it has in past years (a fact I attribute to teaching a new curriculum that I haven’t mastered yet), I’m jumping in with the lesson that I think kids—and Tempered Radicals—struggle with the most when working in electronic forums:

Digital Shouting gets you nowhere!

 (download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

But digital shouting—-characterized by a complete refusal to even consider the thinking of anyone else who is adding to the electronic conversation that you’re a part of—is just so much easier.  Reading through the content—blog comments, annotations, new posts—crafted by others can seem like a time consuming chore for a 12-year old.

And for self-centered politicians, overly-confident middle aged blowhards, gabillionaires with axes to grind and agendas to push, reading through the content crafted by others in electronic forums seems like a waste of time!

Isn’t that embarrassing? 

Web 2.0 tools have given us the opportunity to join together in public forums—-electronic versions of the ancient Roman marketplaces—-and to think across borders.  We’ve got amazing opportunities to stand at the intersection of ideas with one another, constantly revising and polishing what we know.  Our own thoughts can be challenged and refined by peers we may never meet.

But instead, we’ve reverted to using Web 2.0 tools to shout at one another—-to push our own thinking down the throats of innocent electronic bystanders who inadvertantly click their way to our digital homes.

Changing this behavior begins by structuring formal opportunities for students to learn to listen to one another in conversations.  We have to show them the characteristics of collaborative—instead of competitive—dialogue.  They have to see peers in electronic forums as potential allies to learn from instead of as opponents that need to be defeated.

In my classroom, I’ll use the following handouts over the next few weeks to begin teaching my students not to shout at one another:

What Can Digital Conversations Look Like

A simple step that I take while I’m teaching students to make productive contributions to digital conversations is providing TONS of samples of what good contributions look like in action.

We’ll pull comments from our current conversation up in class and score them together, looking for key traits like responding to others and asking provocative questions.

We’ll also look at handouts like this one, which highlights a strand of a conversation in a more systematic way.  Students learn quickly to identify the characteristics of quality—and throwaway—comments.


Reflecting on Asynchronous Conversations

This handout asks students to carefully reflect on the comments added by peers to our asynchronous conversation.

Typically, I’ll ask kids to complete this sheet before adding their own comments to a conversation.  It forces them to remember that listening is as important as speaking in a digital conversation.

It’s also a good tool for teachers who want to score participation in electronic conversations because it gives ’em a look inside the minds of their students—-kind of like “showing your work” in math class.


Leaving Good Blog Comments

While none of the behaviors demonstrated by good blog commenters will come as a terrible surprise to any language arts teacher—reflective thinking and persuasion through writing are skills we’ve been teaching for a long while—-they are behaviors that don’t come naturally to kids.

This handout offers students a step-by-step process for thinking about how to respond to content posted in electronic conversations.

Over time, I hope my students do this kind of work naturally.  Until then, this kind of structure serves as a constant reminder not to shout!


I guess my point is that digital tools have incredible potential to change the way that we think and learn together.  They expose us to the adjacent possible and break down the walls of isolation that prevent innovation.

But only when we’re not shouting at each other!




5 thoughts on “Teaching Students about Digital Conversations

  1. mens health

    Instead, I suspect the most likely explanation is a utilitarian one: the principal didn’t want to have to deal with potentially inappropriate costumes and the inevitable disciplinary and parental hassles that go along with that.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Len wrote:
    The handouts you have for your students are amazing. I could think of no better way to explain this process to students. The sooner students realize that “shouting” is pointless the better.
    Thanks, Len—both for stopping by and for the kind words.
    What makes things difficult, believe it or not, is that none of the skills on the handouts that I’ve included here are ever covered by end of grade exams.
    By default, that makes them useless, right?
    After all, if the skill isn’t tested and I’m judged by the results on end of grade tests, aren’t I wasting time by teaching them?
    That’s the pickle that us teacher types get into in today’s world. While we may feel strongly about the kinds of skills and behaviors that students need to learn in order to be successful, we are also constantly held accountable for results on tests that don’t ever assess those skills.
    So here’s a question to wrestle with: When you’re teaching, what will you do when you’re faced with a disconnect with what you believe is the right thing to do and what your cajoled or pressured to do by those who feel strongly that standardized tests are reliable indicators of your–and your students—abilities?
    Tough one, huh?
    I know I don’t have a good answer.

  3. Len

    Mr. Ferriter,
    My name is Len. I will be summarizing my visits to your blog for Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 course at the University of South Alabama.
    Digital shouting is certainly a problem among students, younger and older. Young students may not realize what they are doing or the possible consequences of what they say, good or bad. Older students may simply not care. The handouts you have for your students are amazing. I could think of no better way to explain this process to students. The sooner students realize that “shouting” is pointless the better.

  4. Charlie A. Roy

    One danger of web 2.0 media is that of narcissism. Too often digital forums are opportunities to just spout off instead of being a venue for authentic dialogue and learning.
    The comment sections on most newspapers are perfect examples. A great question is “when in a conversation do we wait to talk or listen?”. I’d wager the best bloggers spend more time reading blogs than they do writing them.
    I’ve always enjoyed your posts because they are so well developed. That depth probably comes from investing the time needed to fully understand the issue.

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