Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wiffiti: Backchanneling in the Classroom

Can you use Twitter in the classroom without using Twitter?

Of course you can. Sort of...

An English teacher at my school wanted to have his 9th graders participate in a collaborative activity similar to backchanneling at a conference. His plan was to show a short video clip from the novel they're studying while also displaying a Twitter-like stream next to it where students could comment.

We wanted the stream-like function of Twitter, without requiring students to sign up for Twitter. So we searched for something similar. I sent him a few virtual bulletin board ideas like Wallwisher where students could post their comments. He experimented for awhile, but those tools weren't quite right.

Then we found the perfect solution in Wiffiti! The name seems to be a cross between wifi and graffiti. Apparently this tool has been around a while, but many schools don't allow cell phone use, so perhaps that's why I hadn't heard about it before.

After signing up, you can include an image for the background on your screen. When Wiffiti sets up your page, it displays the text number and code needed to send messages right at the top. Then your students simply whip out their phones and go. If your students are like ours, they'll be so excited to have their phones out in class that they may get slightly distracted. So before you begin, you may want to go over some ground rules.

Another aspect to consider if you will be using this tool for backchanneling is that you don't want this to be the first time the students are seeing or hearing new material. Even though kids today seem to be experts at multi-tasking, the brain experts still maintain that we can only concentrate on one thing at a time. Tweeting (or text messaging) while listening to something for the first time is distracting. This group of students had already read the speech, so they were ready to watch it and make comments.

One interesting aspect is that the "tweets" will appear anonymously, but rather than a generic "student" naming scheme, Wiffiti randomly generates a name based on color and animal. So, you'll see names like DurianSiren8, Emeraldbanana3 or GooseberryToad5. Yep. And the messages bounce around the screen, which makes it extra fun!

Here's a sneak peek at what the screen looked like in our classroom. The left screen is the Wiffiti screen and the right screen is the video clip the students were responding to. (Sorry for the lines - I shot this through the door, so I wouldn't interrupt the class.)

How did it go?
The Pros:
The students said they had a lot of fun. Some students appreciated the anonymity. I heard that one student who wouldn't normally speak up in class had no problem at all coming out of her shell in this format.

There isn't another effective way to comment while listening to speech, unless you continue to hit pause and then you lose the overall effect. So, this is a great way to learn about rhetorical skills.

The Cons:
It was a little glitchy. Some students said that they had sent a messages that didn't appear on the screen. It could be that traffic was especially high that day. Wiffiti was just majorly advertised at a tech convention a day or so before that. Also, they are working on a major upgrade in a few weeks, so perhaps that is a factor?

Overall, I think this tool has a lot of potential. Here are a few other ways where Wiffiti would be useful in the classroom:
  • Brainstorming a topic. This is a great way to contribute honest ideas while remaining anonymous 
  • Quick/short math problems - perhaps a review before a test
  • Collaboration storytelling - students add to the story with each message
  • The board could even be left up an entire class period and be used for observations throughout an experiment or lesson  

I'm curious to see how other teachers are using Wiffiti in the classroom. Shoot me any great ideas. Let's hope the upgrade they're planning makes it an even better tool.