21st Century Learning | Q&A

The Back Channel in Web 2.0: 5 Questions with Cheryl Lemke


Cheryl Lemke said schools need a "Web 2.0 application layer" consisting of tools that let students interact and create.

For Metiri Group CEO Cheryl Lemke, "Web 2.0" isn't just a nebulous label for the latest and greatest online technologies; it's emblematic of the collaborative, participatory skills and instructional practices that she sees as crucial to the 21st century teaching and learning.

The Metiri Group has been conducting research and evaluations into every major education technology movement of the last decade for the United States Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and numerous state-funded programs. Lemke has most recently turned her attention to the effective use of technology in 21st century education, a major aspect of which is Web 2.0.

For this interview, Lemke shared with us what she considers one of the driving principles behind Web 2.0 in education--the back channel, where students interact, collaborate, and create to learn in new ways.

Lemke will be speaking at two sessions on these topics at the FETC 2011 conference, being held Jan. 31 through Feb. 3, 2011 in Florida: "Critical and Creative Thinking in a Web 2.0 World" and "Using Web 2.0 to Increase Student Engagement in Learning."

THE Journal: "Web 2.0" is one of the major themes at this year's event, but it has become a rather nebulous phrase. Does it just mean "the latest Web technologies?"

Cheryl Lemke: Web 2.0 is dynamic and interactive. That's huge. What it means is that people will not only be posting things online, but they'll be interacting and creating groups that discuss and debate things. As they do that, their understanding of the whole topic improves as well. It's a kind of collective intelligence that results through interactive participation.

THE Journal: What does an educator need to do to develop learning strategies around Web 2.0?

Lemke: One of the things educators need to do is take a look internally at the technology available to them. At this point, the vision should be that there's a device for every student--at least when they need it. It doesn't mean that it's always one to one and they have it 24/7, although that's certainly optimal.

A lot of districts are looking at student-owned devices coming into their schools. But my sense is that they need to look at the technology. Do they have the infrastructure and access that students and teachers need? And then they need a layer that they've never really had before--a Web 2.0 application layer so that there's an opportunity for students, teachers, administrators, and others to actually create wikis, create blogs, get into back channels, create an environment that's participatory, have access to various collaborative tools.

Oftentimes it's not the formal ones set up by the district or school that are really powerful. It's the informal ones that are set up by the users. I can't say enough about getting the students on and enabling them to have those conversations.

I was just in a school earlier this week where the students were using the back channel. As they were, for example, watching movies, there were some guiding questions that they had talked about before the movie started in the classroom. And students were using the back channel to comment on what they saw, what questions they had about it, and share their reactions.

It's difficult to get students to take notes. Then the idea flies by as the movie is going. But when they're multitasking, as in this case, they can actually do that. As a result, the teacher is able to see what they understand, what they don't understand, what they're observing, and what they're missing. That's one small example, but it's certainly one where you put the technology into the hands of the students.

THE Journal: Could you define what you mean by back channel?

Lemke: A back channel is simply an environment where there's an online chat environment or an online threaded conversation. For example, some schools use Twitter as the back channel with hashtags. So students would be twittering with 140-character comments as they're watching this movie. The hashtag holds that group together as a group, so that the teacher can search for that hashtag and see all the comments students were making.

THE Journal: What's the value for the students doing that?

Lemke: A couple of things. It's a way of making observations and commenting on the observations. It's also a way of checking their perceptions against the perceptions of their peers: "I'm thinking this, but maybe somebody else is thinking something totally different when they see that." It makes visible what people are thinking in ways that we've not been able to do before.

THE Journal: Where are the most significant opportunities for Web 2.0 in education currently?

Lemke: There are some significant uses of Skyping that really open up the classroom internationally or even across the district in ways that excite and motivate students. It can be Skyping with a museum curator, with peers across town.... People who are learning Italian can be Skyping with native speakers in Italy. There are a variety of ways to do that. That's an exciting process.

Another one is certainly blogging. One purpose might be that they've done some significant investigations through research, they're writing up their findings, and they're putting up their findings and getting reactions from people, be it from the local or global community.

Another one that I've seen teachers use is with using blogging as journaling as an opportunity to be meta-cognitive, if there's a rubric. Students document every Friday the progress they've made in the work they're doing. And they're actually trying to meet the high points on that rubric: Which ones do they think they've accomplished, and which ones are they still working on and will get to next week?

Lemke will be speaking at the FETC 2011 conference in January and February 2011 in Orlando, FL. Further information can be found on the FETC's site here.

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