Discussion boards, student talk and classroom crowdsourcing

Leslie Fox’s AP English class is a crowded room. When I arrive in class to work with her and her students I have to stand until everyone is seated in the hopes that an empty chair will remain when the bell rings. The room warms with the body heat of shuffling, backpack-laden seniors. Sometimes, when all 39 students show show up, I sit in a folding chair behind the last row. With my computer crowded on my lap and my elbows pinched to my sides, I type notes furiously to record my observations for the coaching conversations between Leslie and I after class. At the front of the room, a table reserved for small group work seats in her other classes seats 7 students jockeying for elbow room.

This crowd is a cause for celebration. Rangeview High School, a large urban high school in Aurora, Colorado, allows any student who chooses to take AP classes. As a result of this open door policy, nearly a third of this group does not have stellar transcripts. But they’ve chosen to take this rigorous, college prep course option. At a large high school in my urban district, the celebration is that this diverse group of kids in this room work just as hard at closing the achievement gap as any teacher.

In conversation Leslie worries about the students’ abilities relative to the course difficulty. The school’s progressive policy allowing equitable access to AP classes means she has to work harder to support her class moving through texts and projects, all with an eye toward the Advanced Placement test that might give these students college credit in return for their hard work this year. Since I’m here to help with instruction and instructional technology, I get to think with her about how we use tech tools put this crowd to work learning. How does crowdsourcing look on this scale, in a room where simple logistics like attendance and seating arrangements force a teacher to think about crowd control?

As part of her instructional practice, Leslie encourages students to discuss a common text in an online forum. She’s found success with her Moodle discussion boards and has a comfortable process for responding to the work. The discussion board is one way she “crowd-sources” the thinking meaning making process in a text.

Here’s a screenshot of the written student discourse In addition to this written, discursive meaning making opportunity, she also provides class time for groups to discuss orally.

When I talked with Leslie early this year about some of the goals and questions she had for incorporating technology in her instruction, she wrote that she hoped to use sound files to capture the discussion work students did in small groups. She wanted to ensure that students used the time productively and purposefully.

In our first attempt at working toward this goal, we asked students to synthesize their twenty-minute discussions into three-minute recordings synthesizing the most important point. Students spent the last few minutes of class going back to their notes and speaking into netbooks, laptops and cell phones.They uploaded the resulting files to Soundcloud.com, a social network where users share and comment sound files, mostly remixed music.  

She and I listened to a few recordings in search of some exemplars. We quickly found a few we thought showed that small groups used discussion time well- their synthesis seemed to advance the group’s meaning making process in the text.

Here’s Luke’s sound file. He synthesized by referring to his notes for the discussion. Though it sounds at times during this clip that he’s reading, he really spoke off the top of his head.

With exemplars identified, I asked Leslie to compare the written discussion forums she’d done before and the sound clips and then think about what students needed next and what possibilities this work suggested. She responded with a concern:

It’s a matter of time.  If I had the time, I would go back and carefully analyze the files and the discussion boards more thoughtfully and hold the kids accountable for what is there.

Since Leslie’s concern shows a type of “crowd control” problem, I suggested that we try a crowd sourcing solution.

Instead of Leslie listening to every recording to judge the merits, the students would do that. Instead of grading the sound files, we demonstrated for students how to insert written comments in response to the audio file. When we reviewed what we found when
we sent students back into the work looking for successes to comment on, we found a lot to celebrate.

Here’s my favorite. In this example, students’ written comments, timestamped in the audio, highlight the strengths, build on strong ideas, and offer a contrasting opinion.

The comments that resulted from in our experiment in crowdsourcing probably surpassed what the teacher would have had time to do and put the success seeking and thinking work where it belongs, with the same senior English students who signed up for the hardest English class available to them, regardless of what their transcripts said.