Friday, 2 January 2015

Using Textwall in the classroom

Happy New Year! This post is a little overdue but the latter part of 2014 was absolutely manic, with the busiest Autumn Term I’ve ever experienced, and finishing off my Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PgCAP) on top of that. However lots of us will still be teaching this term so hopefully it’s not too late in the academic year to be talking about classroom tools.

My institution has had access to Textwall for a little while, and last term I decided to give it a go myself.  It’s a tool which allows students to text in answers to or comments on a question that the teacher poses on the screen. Numbers are not stored and it’s anonymous, so students can comment without it being attributed to them, which I thought might be an advantage in getting students to “speak up” in sessions.

I first tried it in some seminars that I ran for one of my first year cohorts, kicking off the session by putting a question up about what concerned them about the topics we were looking at that day (using library resources, referencing and plagiarism), and asking them to text in their answers. I had no idea what kind of response I would get, but actually in every session I received lots of answers (with referencing and avoiding plagiarism being the main concern!), more than I have in the past when I’ve tried asking a similar thing verbally. The students seemed surprised at being asked to get out their phones and text, but I think that element of surprise encouraged engagement. It was really useful for me to get an overview of what the class was thinking too, and it provided a reference point for me to return to at the end of the session, to check with the students that we had covered everything.  I could see how Textwall could potentially be a great tool for gauging student understanding in a similar way; asking a question and being able to see the general response from the class – if a large number were misunderstanding something, for example, that would be a sign for me to go back over that thing.

I therefore tried it again with a different first year group, asking questions about what we had covered during the session. I had reservations about whether to go ahead with it as the group had been difficult, with a few disruptive students, but decided to try it anyway; it didn’t really work. After several questions along the lines of “Miss, is this your phone number?”, when I eventually persuaded them to text responses, I got mostly silly ones.  I learnt from this that it’s really important to gauge a group before using it mid-session (not so easy to do so if you’re using it at the start though). 

I think Textwall can be really useful in the classroom, but it is important to remember that there may be inclusivity issues i.e. students who don’t have a phone, or who have pay-as-you-go and will have to pay for the text message, so it’s not the only way we should be attempting to check understanding. And then there’s the problem of students using it to be “funny” or disruptive - you need to think in advance how you will deal with offensive or silly comments.  I will definitely be continuing to explore the potential uses of Textwall though.