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Redefining the (digital) Classroom

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Today's Meet is Yesterday's Backchannel: Getting Chatty with Google Moderator

"Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside the primary group activity or live spoken remarks." - Wikipedia

That's what Wikipedia calls backchanneling... I call it "sanctioned note passing." However you describe it, if you haven't tried using a backchannel as part of your teaching practice, I would definitely recommend it. From students discussing the lecture and asking questions to allowing all students to interact with a "virtual presenter" brought into a classroom through video conference technology, a backchannel offers a myriad of opportunities. We've also used a backchannel frequently when presenting at conferences so that participants can interact with one another, comment publicly on the content and ask questions of the presenter

Many use the amazing and free website, Today's Meet, which you can see on the right. Today's Meet's interface is somewhat similar to Twitter. You start by entering your name and clicking "Join." Then you have 140-characters to say what's on your mind.  Here are some of the fab features of Today's Meet:

  • Personal URL - You can create a chat "room" with whatever name you want - "Ms. Smith" or "3rd grade chat". This name appends to "todaysmeet.com" -- i.e., "todaysmeet.com/mssmith". The nice thing is that you can set when the chat room name expires / closes... so it can be used by someone else. This allows for many more choices when creating your "chat room" name.
  • No login necessary - kids and participants don't need email addresses or accounts.
  • 140 Character limit - this can be a pro or a con. While it's limiting, it also forces folks to be succint and get to the point. 
  • Archivable - You can print or save the stream of discussion

While my colleagues and I have used Today's Meet for a some time, there are many other options for backchannels - Edmodo, Schoology discussions, Twitter itself. However recently I've been trying to get more folks to try out Google Moderator.

This is a free platform that allows you to backchannel with a group of students or participants, set up a discussion forum or an FAQ board. Why do I love it? Why should you try it? Here are few of my favorite features and use cases for the classroom:
  • Direct threaded responses - unlike the discussion streams in Edmodo, Today's Meet or, for the most part, Twitter, you can have easily visible threaded responses to questions, comments and ideas. 
  • Voting on comments - you can vote - positively or negatively - on questions, ideas and comments. This helps you crowdsource what students agree or disagree on. I love this for Socratic Seminars / discussions. I've used it with a middle school teacher to discuss a novel the kids were reading -- they had to discuss the motivation of a specific character. As they suggested their ideas, students agreed or disagreed with their comment via this voting tool. Moreover, they were able to reply directly to the comment with text evidence explaining why they did or did not agree. Bam!
  • Attaching YouTube Videos - I know not everyone has YouTube open in their districts, which is unfortunate, but if you are lucky enough to have it open, you can not only attach a YouTube video to the moderator description - but also allow students to attach videos to their responses. This is great to add another layer to the discussion. You can prime your students with a video of a current event report, or a science phenomenon. Then students can create their own screencasts, talking head videos or even full multimedia presentations to respond to the discussion / forum prompt. Imagine you ask students to come up with a 30 second PSA about water conservation. You start with an example of a PSA. They create their own on iMovie or even the YouTube.com/editor. They submit their PSAs to the moderator. Then students can respond directly to these videos, vote on their favorites or add ideas for improvement. Bam Bam!
  • Sorting responses by popularity - You can sort the questions based on which had the highest votes. This is great when using Moderator as a Q&A board. I got this idea from Hank Thiele, who used Moderator as an FAQ forum when his district was going 1:1 with Chromebooks. He allowed parents to ask any questions or concerns they might have and then responded to each with threaded replies. I used this idea not only with my own adult learners and colleagues in PDs, but also with students. I helped one of my teachers use Moderator in her math class. As she taught, and students had questions, they could hop on the moderator to backchannel and ask questions. After school, she responded to each. The great part was that students were taught to first scan each other's questions before asking a new one. They up-voted a question if they saw it was the one they had planned to ask. The teacher could then see common confusions and misconceptions - knowing whether kids needed a simple small-group check in or the whole class needed further instruction.
  • Series and Topics - If you really take to Moderator and start using it frequently in your classroom, you will find that you have many different moderator chat streams open. Not to fear! Google has anticipated this! Moderators are created in Series. This is an overarching idea or theme. For example, you can have a series called "Fractions" or "European History". within a series you can create sub categories: Topics, Events or Meetings. Topics make the most sense for a classroom - for example under "Fractions" you could have "Adding and Subtracting with Like Denominators" or "Ordering Fractions". Each of these sub topics have their own moderator chat stream and unique URL. Events and Meetings make more sense for PD or adult learning. I've seen many examples of using Moderator for book clubs or Home Owner's Association meetings -- use cases where "Events" and "Meetings" would come in handy.
  • Moderation - You can moderate questions / responses. This can be tricky. While I have definitely experienced the inappropriate comment coming up in a backchannel when I used it with my 5th graders, there's something damaging about moderating an open stream of discussion. I found that I lost some trust with my students when they felt that what they said could be "censored". However, if you want to scaffold some particularly feisty adolescents into the wonderful world of open communication, this little tool can come in handy.
  • Change the tone of the discussion - Moderator also allows you to change what it is your students or participants are submitting. When creating your series, you have the choice between questions, ideas or suggestions. With the simple change of this terminology, you can create a discussion board, QA board, idea board, or suggestion box.

There are some cons to Moderator, of course. You need a Google login to use it - ether a district GAFE domain Google account or a public gmail.com account. Some folks also are so used to their own back channel, the added features confuse them. However, despite this, I would recommend checking it out. After all it's free - what do you have to lose?

If you'd like to learn more about Moderator, here is a quick YouTube tutorial I created.


  1. Hello Jennifer,
    In Google Moderator, are those who post responses to a question able to respond directly to responses or only to the main question?

    1. Yes - you can reply to responses! It's an option in settings.