Freed-Hardeman University Develops CONTRIBUTE, an Innovative Backchannel Solution Designed to Enhance Classroom Conversations

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Contribute takes collaboration beyond simple backchannel communication by providing moderators a rich set of features to enhance the participants’/students’ experience in a presentation/classroom. Contribute will add to the teaching and learning process and provide a way for those that are often timid in class, as far as speaking up or contributing to the teaching and learning process, a way to do so in which they are more comfortable. Everyone can share thoughts, files, document, videos, feedback, etc, in real time as well as archive the system for later review.

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Contribute in classroom session.

“In class discussions, normally only a few students participate. In our chat session on Contribute, everybody shared ideas. Students who were normally shy in the classroom really opened up and posted great comments. "

Building on the success of the innovative iKnow Application suite, while taking another step toward creating the most technologically advanced classroom in higher education, Freed-Hardeman University has developed a new backchannel application called Contribute.

“The ability to maintain real-time online conversation alongside live spoken presentation is an ever-growing trend,” said Michael Plyler, university webmaster and creator of the product. Backchannel applications can help guide presentations by taking advantage of digital infrastructures that include wireless connectivity and devices.

“To build on the success of our iKnow Application Suite, we decided in the summer of 2010 to build a backchannel application for use in the classroom,” said Plyler. “Our expectation was to create a way to capture ‘everything else’ going on in a presentation that wasn't coming from the speaker. We also wanted to make it easy for participants to add to the conversation that goes on in the backchannel.”

Contribute, launched August 23, 2011, takes collaboration beyond simple backchannel communication by providing moderators, or in the case of Freed-Hardeman, faculty members, a rich set of features to enhance the participants’/students’ experience in a presentation/classroom. In addition to the main backchannel "stream," Contribute also offers these tools (modules):

  • Who's Online (quick view of all participants)
  • Favorites (personal bookmarks of participant posts)
  • Twitter (allows hashtag searches to supplement current session)
  • Links (repository of all URLs posted)
  • Word Cloud (presentation discuss tool)
  • Polls (audience response system)
  • Replies (display of all replies to user posts)

Participants can also "ditto" stream posts, embed links, files and images that create more meaningful, productive conversations in the backchannel.

In order to provide greater accessibility, Contribute allows Freed-Hardeman account logins, Facebook account logins and Google logins. Users can also create a native Contribute account.

Contribute users can create their own backchannel session, send themselves archives of sessions they have participated in and it also allows users to use mobile devices to add to the conversation. The application works well on any desktop, laptop, iPhone or iPad.

During the development of the application, faculty were involved in providing feedback and offering valuable suggestions. Several of the modules can be attributed to faculty involvement during the design and development process.

“The simplicity of Contribute is what makes it a powerful engagement tool,” A.B White, instructional technologist, said. “Contribute enables participants to focus on the conversation, not the user interface. The tools that allow participants to examine the conversation and draw conclusions are simple to use as well. Above all, the application makes it easy to include a small group of individuals, a class of students or thousands of people located around the world in the conversation."

As with many of the applications created for the iKnow initiative, students were heavily involved in the development process. "I feel that helping to develop this application allowed me to see how the courses I've taken in my career at Freed are truly useful,” Lance Williams, senior computer science major, said. “The experience has been tremendous for me in understanding the difference in homework and real-world work. I had to deal with harsher deadlines and tougher problems, while knowing that my work didn't only affect me but also the potential of this program and all its future users. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of seeing through the design, development, testing, releasing and updating the app. It has been a great experience."

“Contribute is an excellent example of the development that takes place at Freed-Hardeman University,” said Mark Scott, vice president for technology and innovation. “We strive to create emerging technologies that incorporate tenets of Web x.0 products that allow for collaboration and expanding of the learning experience. I believe we are pioneering several avenues that will recreate the pedagogical approach faculty members take toward the classroom.”

"I'm excited to see how Contribute will benefit students,” said Ethan Kershaw, web intern and avid Contribute user. “I believe that having an outlet to collaborate with classmates will be a useful tool. While Contribute will be great for classroom and learning enhancement, it doesn't have to be limited to a classroom setting. Whatever your project, event or need, you can use Contribute to organize your efforts."

Dr. Greg Massey, chair of the history and political science department, used Contribute in place of a traditional face-to-face classroom setting. “In one of my senior-level classes, we chose not to meet face-to-face, but instead discussed a book we're reading in a session on Contribute,” said Massey. “In class discussions, normally only a few students participate. In our chat session on Contribute, everybody shared ideas. Students who're normally shy in the classroom really opened up and posted great comments. We appreciated the flexibility of Contribute, which allows us to bring outside sources into our discussion. At one point in this class, I posted a link to an Internet article, the students read over it, and then we discussed it. I plan to incorporate Contribute in all my classes. In addition to using Contribute in discussions, it will help me assess whether my students are getting the main points of a lecture.”

Dwina Willis, director of the pre-professional heath arts program, also found Contribute to be extremely helpful as a review session for a test. "I used Contribute as an online review before an exam,” said Willis. “Students, who might not have asked a question in class, felt free to ask questions in this format. They could even ask for clarification and receive real time answers. I plan to use this format again when it's time to review."

Contribute is open to anyone who would like to try it as part of their teaching or presentation process.


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