Teaching Conversation with Kifi

My best teaching has always sprung from a spirit of creativity. And creative teaching means taking risks and wildly experimenting. Sometimes my little experiments succeed and become regular classroom practices, and sometimes they crash and burn. Swings and misses, strikes and gutters. That’s my motto.This past semester, I had a success that both helped my students and drove home an important aspect of teaching and learning for me.

I’ve long used discussion posts on in-house online learning platforms in my classes. I value the act of expanding the classroom space beyond the constraints of our 50 minute hour, and these posts have been one way in which to accomplish that.

I’ve also long been underwhelmed by results. I feel like students benefit from regularly writing, but I also feel as though it becomes a rote activity that sometimes doesn’t encourage the kind of dialectical process I want to see my students engage in.

This past semester, I stumbled across a social bookmarking website that perhaps offers an antidote to these monological failings.

Kifi (www.kifi.com) came to my attention through a Facebook ad and I was initially intrigued by its uses as a bookmarking site to rival my Pocket account. I have the tendency to throw everything that interests me into my bookmarking service and then God sort it out later. Over time, this has become a burden when it comes time for retrieval. Kifi allows users to create discreet, topical libraries for their “keeps” and I welcomed this with great enthusiasm.

As I played around a little, some of the platform’s other features began to strike me as potentially valuable teaching tools, and I soon saw the potential to improve on my traditional discussion board posts. What follows is by no means an exhaustive how-to. Go to Kifi’s own website for that, please (here). I just want to talk about how the service encouraged an ongoing dialogue between readers, writers, and their ideas.

Kifi allows users to share online articles with other people through its browser extensions. In addition to this, the browser extension opens up an on-screen space in which to comment directly on the article in question, and even provides the means to quote specific passages of interest. This all has the feel of a Facebook conversation, but one targeted to users with specific, detailed interest in the article at hand. Trolling and hyperbolic posturing are therefore reduced.

Having asked my students to join the experiment with me, I quickly incorporated Kifi into our research process. Here’s how it worked:

My students’ semester-long research projects were focused on controversies within higher education (of their own choosing). This is, of course, an interest I share, so when I found an article that struck me as useful for a particular student or group of students, I would:

  • send them the article through Kifi.
  • use the “look here,” quotation feature to draw their attention to specific passages of interest
  • explain how I think the article contributed to their projects
Students were then able to respond to my comments and our conversations were recorded in the Kifi interface.

To say I was pleased with the results is an understatement. Students who participated in my experiment maintained an amazing amount of engagement with their projects, and I can only attribute this to the ongoing conversation, the dialogue, that Kifi facilitated. I should also mention that Kifi also has smartphone apps that allow for use in the classroom as well. As I develop this tool for my classes, this versatility is welcome.

I have no financial stake in this company or this product (it is a free service at this point), but I have had the opportunity to speak with some of its developers and it is clear to me that they are interested in Kifi’s potential as a classroom tool, among its other uses.

Kifi has been a great find, but there has been a deeper lesson in this for me as a teacher. I always know that conversation is a vital element of learning, but this experiment has tangibly demonstrated it for me. If we are to be worthy of all our whining about disengaged students, it is our responsibility to find ways to engage them in conversations larger than themselves. Making use of resources like this is how I attempt to do so.

I will heartily continue this experiment in the classroom, and, in addition, I welcome any reader of this blog to connect with me through Kifi and continue our own conversation. My Kifi link is https://www.kifi.com/danny-anderson
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