Fish and Fishermen?

YouTube Preview Image

Ever felt like everyone is watching you?  Ever wondered if anyone is listening?  Ever wondered if anyone cares what you think?  In a fishbowl discussion, the answers to these questions are yes, probably and … ok, so I can’t answer the last question.

In our most recent face to face session with Jeff we conducted a fishbowl discussion on integrating technology.  Though this form of in-class dialogue had been introduced in a previous course, this time we were given the opportunity to actually take part in the process, allowing for more effective evaluation of the challenges and benefits of  implementing this tool in the classroom.

In a fishbowl discussion, there are two circles: the inner circle of fish that have a verbal discussion, and the outer circle of observers.  Peter Pappas suggests that the outer circle be given a specific task in order to keep them focused on the discussion.  Please follow the links to read more about how to set up a fishbowl, when to use a fishbowl approach, and variations in the process.

“When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward.  Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.”   This is how The Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas sums up the benefits of this activity.  With words like this to advocate for fishbowl dicussions, how could I not utilize it in my classroom?  Yet mathematics does not lend itself to debate or to controversial topics.  So rather than evaluate the effectiveness of the fishbowl as a learning strategy I decided to learn more about the backchat channel that we used in Jeff’s variation of the procedure.

To keep people engaged and to archive the fishbowl discussion, Jeff had two observers take notes in googledocs and opened a back channel chat for the rest of the observers to comment on the insights of the inner circle.  As one of the notetakers, I quickly realized my inability to effectively multitask as I tried to absorb and record the inner discussion while following the comments in the back channel.  Reading through the backchannel I found it very frustrating!  Amongst the distracted chatter an intelligent question would be posed but what followed would not be an appropriate answer.  Instead, as people were composing their responses, the chat would move on to other topics.  Though an answer would eventually be posted it would appear later in the discussion with no link to connect it to the original question.  To give you an example of what I mean, here is a sample of the chat, with names removed to protect the “innocent”.

Person 1:  I think technology only enhances their communication to our students it is first and foremost a social tool
Person 2: yeah technology brings nothing else to the table. If you have no communication skills or nothing to say whether or not you can use technogloy is irrelevant.
Person 3: Heidegger….1940s philosopher Tech is a means to an end.
Person 2: Yeah – just like a vehicle…conduit to what you actually want to get to…
Person 3: I’m so glad our school (MS) sees tech that way as well
laptop carts….I’m so glad they are gone!
Is it wrong that I’m glad first grade teachers are not using tech that heavily?
Person 4: face to face time with students is difficult with 80 students in a class, tech tools help me to have a conversation with the 80 students, rather than just one!
Person 2: You have to start somewhere though…labs > mobile units > 1:1
Person 5: B no oit is not, different needs for differnet ages
Person 3: How are you sane J? I can’t imagine…
Person 2: Mate if I were a student in a class I would be bored of this fishing
No actully I totally agree with you J…I have waaay more tech assisted converstaiosn iwth students than in a totally analog world

(Typing errors have been left in to demonstrate some of the challenges of chat.)  In this discussion, you can see the question “Is it wrong that I’m glad first grade teachers are not using tech that heavily?” is posed .   I believe the response is 3 lines later when it says “B no oit is not, different needs for differnet ages”, but I am not really sure.

Armed with this experience I went on a quest to see how hard it would be to improve the back chatting experience.  As with all things technology based, I went to my local experts, Loren and Kevin.  These two extraordinary young men are currently seniors at TAS with a passion for computer programming.  As we talked about the linear nature of the backchat, it was suggested that people tag questions and answers in a similar manner to twitter (using a #).  Though this does not change the linear nature of the chat, it does make the answers searchable.  They also suggested that a small change in programming may make it possible to view the line numbers of the chat.  If this were possible, then a responder could reference the particular line where a question was posed.  Another approach that would be possible in a short chat is for each person to number their comments.  For example, I could say “nc1…” and a responder could say “contrary to nc1, I agree with ab2 …”.  This would be a challenge, but might be worth testing out.

Stepping outside of the google chat back channel, Loren and Kevin suggested using facebook as a backchat channel since responses could be linked to a given topic.  The now defunct googlewave was also mentioned for the way you could directly connect your comment to another and it would appear as a bullet point under the original discussion.  Whengoogle finishes developing their alternative to googlewave, it may prove to be a more effective chatting tool.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the possible options proposed by Kevin and Loren.  To further develop any of them, we would have to run some trial fishbowl conversations and evaluate the time needed to improve the chat with the value gained by making the chat searchable.  Brian Bennett also suggests other chatting software that could be tested to see if it is more effective for recording the non-linear nature of a multi-person conversation.  Or, a back channel chat could be opened in any number of my classes, where students could discuss problem-solving techniques and questions brought up in class so I could see this process in action.  Hmmm … something to consider for the future!

As always, discussions with Kevin and Loren have opened my mind to a myriad of possibilities and I thank them for generously giving of their time to help me better understand technical issues!  More importantly, I thank them for always sparking ideas and letting me dream as their enthusiasm for and understanding of computers pushes the limits of my thinking.