“How was it for you?” Students’ views of using technology to assist productive talk

by Paul Warwick and Victoria Cook

As students engage with distance learning in this time of isolation and uncertainty, research exploring how technology can develop students’ spoken language skills is now more important than ever. But what do students themselves think about using technology designed to assist their thinking when talking in groups? Does technology help or get in the way? Does it change the ways in which we might think about ‘talking together’? Given the current circumstances, we are sure that you will all have views on this; so we thought that now would be a good time to share student views on work that we had been doing in classrooms before the crisis engulfed us.

To provide some background, in schools we have been using Talkwall, a free, web-based microblogging tool that can be run on a smart phone, tablet or computer. The work is part of an international research project ‘Digitalised Dialogues Across the Curriculum’ (DiDiAC), [1] in which research groups at the Department of Education, University of Oslo and the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge are exploring how students learn in contemporary digitalised schools across three key knowledge domains – in the UK these are English, science and geography. Working in collaboration with teachers from Norway and the UK, we have explored how using Talkwall can combine with dialogic pedagogy to help productive talk and learning in the classroom. The tool itself is rather like other microblogging tools (such as Twitter) but it has been specifically designed by the research and development team in Oslo to promote productive interactions in environments controlled by teachers. [2] When using Talkwall, groups discuss a question or task set by a teacher and post contributions to a shared ‘feed’. As all contributions are visible on this shared feed, students may easily draw other groups’ ideas into their discussions. Contributions may be edited, or selected from the feed and pinned onto a group’s ‘wall’ in different ways. Please do try it out – it’s free and browser-based.[3]

A student group ‘wall’ on Talkwall

Importantly, in our work with teachers and students, we have recognised that students need to be taught the necessary skills to talk in an educationally effective way; after all, how can you expect students to use technology to support productive talk if they’re not sure what productive talk ‘looks like’? So, we’ve been using the Thinking Together (see footnote 3) ground rules in our research classrooms, employing Talkwall in a way that emphasises how to have a good learning conversation (Mercer, 2000) in addition to forwarding the ideas central to the school’s curriculum.

In research, it is very easy for researchers to get caught up in their own interpretations of what seems to be happening in classrooms. So the main purpose of this blog is to provide alternative perspectives, exploring students’ views on their experiences of using Talkwall.

In the UK, students were asked for their views on Talkwall at the end of the first stage of the project. They were remarkably honest!

Students [4] commonly reported that Talkwall was a fun, easy and engaging way to:

  1. Share ideas:

“It’s just helping other people see how groups can link. It’s like saying there’s two separate groups – that doesn’t mean they [can’t] share ideas and help each other out, right?” – Lara

Emily – “I would say it’s good for class work because the teacher doesn’t want loads of people shouting out their ideas and other people can’t hear. It’s better like to use the technology where people can see it but not say it out loud, but they know what other people are thinking.”

Tilly – “Building on Emily’s point, you can also, like sometimes in class if you’ve got your hand up you don’t have time; the teacher doesn’t have time to go round and ask everyone. So this way you can put down more ideas, because like it’s not one person talking at a time, like more than one group can add ideas to the wall at any one time.”

2. Build on your own, and other peoples’, ideas:

“You get to see what their ideas and opinions are about it, and like build on your answers with help from theirs.” – Henry

“Also sometimes it’s good to get some of the ideas that are not so good because you can build up on them and put forward your ideas.” – Emily

3. consider different points of view:

Eliza – “Because you could see everybody else’s ideas and maybe if you saw an idea maybe you’ve be like ‘oh yeah, I didn’t see it in that way before.'”

Toby – “Instead of sticking to your own like strong opinion …  you can like maybe change your mind.”

Sharing ideas, building upon ideas and considering different points of view are key elements of ‘exploratory talk’, which is a form of talk that can be used as a tool for collective learning and problem-solving, and which is central to the ‘Thinking Together’ approach that we mentioned earlier (Mercer et al., 1999; Dawes, various dates).

Students also commonly discussed the value of using Talkwall to refer back to ideas (from earlier in the lesson or from another lesson entirely). In this way, Talkwall helps to pin down ideas that may otherwise be ephemeral:

“Yeah I think it’s a good idea because when you’re just normally talking, if you’re not very good at remembering then you say a really good idea and sometimes it can go straight (over) the top of your head, and it’s good to have it down and up there so you can remember it.” – Alice

When setting up a Talkwall, students participate by using a group name. Many students frequently mentioned this when they spoke about their experiences using Talkwall, highlighting a division between those who wanted contributions to be easily identifiable and those who valued anonymity:

“They should […] pick a sensible name which shows that that’s the person who they are, and it makes it more easy for people to understand who made this point, so they can actually have a talk to them in real life if they don’t quite understand it” – Seth

“I personally think that we should use like different names, like kind of code names in a way so only you know what you are, and then no one else can judge you for it.” – Imogen

The issue of traceability or anonymity may be affected by many factors, including the question that is being discussed or the students in the class, but it certainly raises an interesting point that deserves consideration before setting up a Talkwall.

Occasionally, students used emojis when writing their contributions, which we hadn’t anticipated and found fascinating. Some students commented that they found this an unnecessary distraction, whilst others found it helpful:

“If you can’t really explain it with words, you can explain it with emojis.” – Callum

Using emojis, rather than words, is now common practice when articulating ideas and emotions (how many of you have resorted to emojis to express your views during the lockdown?); their use in this work may suggest that Talkwall, and other technologies, have the potential to transform the characteristics of classroom talk. Individual teachers would, of course, have to give careful consideration to their use in classrooms.

Students also recognised the difficulty of dealing with large volumes of contributions, for both the teacher and the students:

“It takes quite a while for everyone else’s ideas to come up and then they all suddenly come and you’re just like ‘we don’t have time to read all of this.'” – Imogen

These comments remind us that when using Talkwall it is important to ensure that students have sufficient time to engage with the contributions on the feed. It may also be appropriate to ask groups to review the feed and ensure that they are contributing a different idea before posting, or limit the number of contributions per group to ensure that users are not overwhelmed by the volume of information.

No digital tool comes without possible drawbacks. Listening to students’ opinions reminds us to be mindful of these whilst highlighting how technology may be used to develop students’ spoken language skills in novel and engaging ways. We offer this at what may be a crucial time in the developing relationship between spoken dialogue and technology, and hope you found the student’s views as fascinating as we did.

References

Dawes, L. (2008). The Essential Speaking and Listening. David Fulton.

Dawes, L. (2010). Creating a Speaking and Listening Classroom: Integrating Talk for Learning at Key Stage 2. Routledge.

Dawes, L. (2011). Talking Points: Discussion Activities in the Primary Classroom. Routledge.

Dawes, L., & Sams, C. (2004). Talk Box: Speaking and Listening Activities for Learning at Key Stage 1. Routledge

Mercer, N. (2000) Words and Minds. London: Routledge.

Mercer, N., Wegerif, R. & Dawes, L. (1999) Children’s talk and the development of reasoning in the classroom. British Educational Research Journal (1): 95–111.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/didiac/ Funded by the Research Council of Norway (FINNUT/Project No: 254761)

[2] ‘Walls’ on Talkwall are set up by the teacher and accessed through a secure PIN.

[3] https://talkwall.uio.no/#/ Note that whilst Talkwall was designed to be used when people are ‘co-located’, the website home page has advice on how to use it when people are not in the same location; so give it a go with your family, then try it with friends in other locations. (Note also that by scrolling down from the home page you will get to our materials on dialogue, which rely heavily on the work of the Thinking Together team – http://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk/)

[4] All names used in this blog are pseudonyms. In quoting the students, where the name comes first the quotes are extracts from a conversation and are linked; when they are standalone comments, the name comes at the end of the quote.

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