Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Monitoring the Backchannel

Rob MacDougall and I are putting together something new and fun for Western freshmen this coming fall, a course called "Science, Technology and Global History." Our goals are modest. We hope to cover the history of the whole enchilada from the Big Bang to the near future, while inculcating the idea that historians and scientists both need to have the same kind of critical, evidence-based habits of thought. Forget the two cultures. While Rob is figuring out how our students can work in teams online with students in South Asia, I'm left to kick back and brainstorm classroom mischief.

One of the interesting things about first year courses at our university is that the enrollment can't be capped. So we could have six students or six hundred. I've done large lectures before, and I'm not very enthusiastic about the format. I try to wave my hands a lot, because I once attended a seminar by a psychologist who studies the teaching evaluation process and he said that students rank mobile professors more highly than sessile ones. I also stopped talking every ten minutes or so to give students a chance to ask questions, but most of them seemed pretty shy. Each term, I got to know the half-dozen who did like to speak up in class.

Since I teach with a laptop and LCD projector, I've been thinking it would be fun to have a chat window running so students could provide backchannel commentary that could be seen by all. This might be something like IM or Twitter. As I was talking, I could keep an eye on the chat window and field questions that would take the class somewhere interesting. If there was a sudden storm of confusion, I could go back and unpack or repeat something. Students who read my blog could even try to amuse me by setting loose chatterbots that simulate famous historical figures. Now I suspect that some of you might be worrying that a few students would abuse the system and type obscenities or whatever. But I'm not worried, because I can always walk over to the computer and close the chat window. It's that easy. I figure that if you treat people like adults they respond in kind.

I'd be happy to hear from anyone who has tried something like this.

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