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Distance learning and digital technology: Adapting a microblogging tool to develop online collaboration

Written By: Victoria Cook and Paul Warwick
6 min read

The sudden shift towards distance learning has led many teachers to seek out a variety of distance-learning tools, such as Google Classroom, Skype or Zoom. These tools bring many benefits, but their efficacy as a partial replacement for face-to-face teaching is undergoing a severe practical examination in a time of crisis. In our ongoing research into the ways in which digital technology mediates classroom dialogue, we focus on how students can collaboratively share and discuss ideas when using digital tools remotely. Here, we explore how one microblogging tool, Talkwall, designed to engage students in collaborative classroom interaction, might be adapted to collaborative learning at a distance. And as teachers continuing to make decisions about which online tools to use, we explore students’ perspectives about using technology designed to assist their thinking when talking in groups.


We have previously discussed the ‘Digitalised Dialogues Across the Curriculum’ (DiDiAC) project in Impact (Cook et al., 2019). As a brief reminder, this is an international project in which research groups at the University of Oslo and the University of Cambridge are exploring how students learn in contemporary digitalised schools. The research and development team in Oslo developed a free, web-based microblogging tool, Talkwall, to promote productive interactions in environments controlled by teachers. Talkwall is similar to other microblogging tools, such as Twitter; when using it, groups discuss a question or task set by a teacher, and post contributions to a shared ‘feed’. As all contributions are visible on the feed, students may easily draw other groups’ ideas into their discussions. Contributions may be edited, or selected from the feed and interactively arranged on group ‘walls’ in different ways.

Part of the project has been design-based, improving the tool in consultation with teachers in both countries. In the research, we have explored how Talkwall is used within the context of a dialogic pedagogy, typified by extended student contributions and the co-construction of knowledge (Mercer, Hennessy and Warwick, 2017). In the UK, having collaboratively established ‘ground rules’ (Mercer, 2000) with their students to encourage productive classroom talk, teachers have used Talkwall to successfully develop communication, critical thinking and collaboration within subject learning (Cook et al., 2019).

Adapting the use of Talkwall

Whilst Talkwall was initially designed to facilitate talk in the classroom, like many resources it has recently been adapted for distance learning, serving as a common point of reference for both the teacher and the students during synchronous video conferencing on platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet. Students join Talkwall using a secure PIN, and groups using the same nickname can share a wall. This is perhaps the key element in using Talkwall for distance learning; individual students are linked into groups simply by having the same group name. The teacher can share their screen, for example, through Zoom, to display their wall and the students’ walls, allowing everyone to view the contributions. This enables students to easily share and question each other’s ideas (Cook, Warwick, Vrikki et al., 2019), supporting ‘exploratory talk’, a form of talk that can be used as a tool for collaborative learning and problem-solving. Central to the ‘Thinking Together’ approach (Dawes, 2008, 2010, 2011), exploratory talk encourages students to question, evaluate and critique ideas; this is usually face-to-face but can now be achieved, to a considerable extent, digitally.

When using Talkwall, both in the classroom and remotely, it is important that students have a shared understanding of the purposes and practices of talking in groups. To encourage productive dialogue, it may be helpful to establish some ground rules for talk that mirror those for face-to-face interactions and set a clear ‘dialogic intention’ (Warwick et al., 2020) for Talkwall’s use. A guide for using Talkwall when the participants are in different locations is available on the website.

Students’ perspectives

But what do students themselves think about using technology designed to assist their thinking when talking in groups? In the UK, students in the research classes were asked for their views on using Talkwall. This work took place in classrooms of course, where the children were working in co-located groups of three. Nevertheless, some of their conclusions have resonance for any situation in which children are collaborating using digital tools.

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

  • Share ideas:

Lara: ‘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?’

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.’

  • Build on your own, and other peoples’, ideas:

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

Emily: ‘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.’

  • 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 ‚Ķ you can like maybe change your mind.’

In encouraging students to engage collaboratively with one another, Talkwall can widen participation, as students engage with each other’s ideas (Cook et al., 2019). Important processes in this engagement are sharing ideas, building upon ideas and considering different points of view, key elements of exploratory talk

Students also 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 (Hennessy, 2011):

Alice: ‘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.’

In such situations, the students’ contributions are digital artefacts that act as both ‘staging posts and launching pads for evolving dialogues’ (Hennessy, 2011, p. 484), turning transitory ideas into external objects that can be discussed by teachers and students (Wegerif, 2013).

Discussing working in groups, there was a division between students who wanted contributions to be easily identifiable and those who valued anonymity:

Seth: ‘They should [‚Ķ] 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.

Imogen: ‘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.’

The issue of traceability or anonymity may be affected by many factors, including the students in the class or the topic under consideration (Freeman and Bamford, 2004). Clearly, the students’ comments raise an important point that the teacher needs to consider before setting up a Talkwall.

No digital tool comes without possible drawbacks (Rasmussen and Ludvigsen, 2010). Students recognised the difficulty of dealing with large volumes of contributions, for both the students and the teacher alike:

Imogen: ‘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‘.

It is therefore important that both students and the teacher have sufficient time to engage with the contributions on the feed when using Talkwall. During the research, we noticed some teachers asking groups to review the feed before posting their contributions to ensure that they were contributing different ideas, whilst others limited the number of contributions that each group could submit.

Listening to students’ opinions suggests that technology may be used to develop collaboration in novel and engaging ways. Given the possibilities for incorporating Talkwall into various video conferencing platforms, when we cannot physically be together, hopefully we can continue to find creative ways to think together.

All names used are pseudonyms.

Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How might these approaches be useful in your own context?

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