Digital Dialogue

What impact do opportunities for electronic conversations have on student engagement in the middle grades classroom?

We live in an increasingly digital world. Email, instant messaging, and other forms of electronic communication are becoming commonplace and are rapidly replacing more traditional forms of human interaction. Students who have grown up knowing no other form of communication are increasingly fluent with and motivated by digital dialogue. Despite these changes, few K-12 classroom teachers are using technology as a communication tool with the students in their classrooms.

Our county recently provided access to Blackboard, an interactive Web platform, for all of our teachers. The most intriguing feature of Blackboard is the discussion forums enabling teachers and students to participate in electronic conversations related to classroom content. These conversations are asynchronous, allowing posts to be made at any time and from any computer, and threaded, allowing students to respond to one another’s thoughts directly.

Sample of a Threaded Discussion:

As a participant in several digital discussion forums myself, I recognized the potential that electronic conversations held for stretching the thinking of participants. I also knew that many of my students were familiar with digital dialogue and had access to the Internet. My classroom also had five computers, each with high-speed Internet connections, available to students before school, after school, and during lunch.

Understanding that my students were technologically literate, I wanted to provide a venue to compete for their online attention. I wondered if students would be attracted to discussion boards that focused on content related classroom happenings. Feeling comfortable with my ability to develop and coordinate such conversations, I began creating and moderating forums on topics that we were studying in my sixth-grade science classroom. I specifically wondered, “What impact would the opportunities for electronic conversations have on student engagement in my middle grades classroom?â€

After several months of facilitating online conversations, the evidence I’ve collected initially indicates that:

Middle grades students are motivated by electronic conversations and will participate in structured discussions on school-related content when given such opportunities:

I was initially worried that my students wouldn’t be motivated to participate in online conversations related to school content. Those fears were quickly allayed, however. Over the course of three months, my discussion forums logged over 8,000 hits. 86% of my students participated in the conversations, with the vast majority of posts being made during and after school hours.

The sheer volume of hits to our electronic conversations indicates that young people are comfortable with and excited by the opportunity to participate in online discussions at an early age. Technology is a tool with which they have been familiar for years, and they are not intimidated by communication.

Electronic conversations provide an “equalizing opportunity†for students who are typically disenfranchised. Students who are socially, academically, or economically isolated participate in electronic conversations at higher rates than they participate in classroom conversations.

Perhaps the most significant finding in my work with electronic conversations is that digital dialogue engaged students typically disenfranchised in the classroom. The two subgroups at my school that failed to meet AYP during the 2002-2003 school year were African-Americans and economically disadvantaged students.

At our school, students in these subgroups struggle to participate, feeling intimidated by classroom discussions. As a result, these children are often stereotyped as non-learners by their peers and are often judged as uninterested by teachers.

Data from our electronic conversations challenges these assumptions. 77 percent of the students in these two subgroups visited our discussion forums. 45 percent were frequent visitors, logging over 15 hits during the course of our conversations.

JaQuon, a student who was often absent, who has moved frequently during his school career, and who has been retained twice was a good example of the power that electronic conversations hold for students of poverty. He was a frequent visitor to our conversations, logging on before school during homeroom and again after school, reading almost daily and making posts often. When I asked him why he was so involved, his reply was telling: “I just learn better through the computer.â€

I suspect that the novelty of electronic conversation combined with the ability to participate anonymously lent a feeling of safety to this student, who had struggled for the majority of his school career.

Middle grades students who face social pressures to conform engage in electronic conversations at higher rates than they participate in classroom conversations. The relatively anonymous nature of digital dialogue serves as a “safety blanket†for students who are afraid of public risk or ridicule. Middle grades girls especially benefit from electronic conversations.

Middle school is a time of great turmoil for many students. Caught in a constant struggle to be accepted by peers, children spend significant time worrying about fitting in. Standing out is seen as threatening, and risking the public ridicule of other students is intimidating. Students seen as “different†are frequently socially isolated, locked out of peer groups and left alone by other children.

This fear of social isolation is especially prevalent for middle school girls. The pressures faced by girls can often be overwhelming, with social dynamics involved in nearly every decision. Self-awareness is high, and girls are often hypersensitive to the reactions of classmates and friends. The search for acceptance is a key factor in the lives of most young ladies. This struggle for acceptance can lead to unwillingness to participate in classroom discussions and activities. Many girls would rather sit silent than risk making a perceived error in front of their peers.

One such student was Brianna, or Bri. A young lady who typified the struggles to conform faced by middle school girls, Bri rarely participated in classroom discussion. While I knew that she was an active, high-level thinker, fitting in was more important than participating in class. Brianna was, however, an above average participant in our electronic conversations.

An example of Brianna’s thinking came after a classroom activity on speed and acceleration. The students had used matchbox cars to experiment with speed, recording time and distance traveled in several repeated trials. Brianna was challenged by some of the evidence that she had collected and asked:

…Also, when we did the toy car experiment, were they so different because of how strong our thumbs were or the car?
Because Brooke had the same car as Nathan but when nathan did it it didn't go as fast as when Brooke did it.

These thoughts show that Brianna is a critical thinker attempting to resolve her initial notions about what should have happened in her experiment with what actually did happen. She is trying to identify the impact of variables on the experiment, which is an essential scientific learning. While I knew that Bri was capable of such high-level thought, I rarely saw her offer such comments in classroom discussions.

Electronic conversation can challenge the thinking of middle grades students. Students who participate in digital dialogue are forced to clarify their pre-existing notions as they consider alternative positions. This process of mental justification is a higher-level thinking skill, and one of the strongest benefits of electronic conversations.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the digital conversations that my students had with one another was the level of mental challenge that I was able to offer to my students, and that they were able to offer one another. I was impressed by their interest and their participation as thinkers. One such strand of conversation took place after a classroom activity in which we grew Epsom salt stalactites. Here is an excerpt:

Hey Guys and Gals: Question for you: Do you think the metal of the paper clips caused the stalactites in our experiment to grow because metal attracts salt somehow? Or do you think the stalactites grew at the paper clip simply because the paper clip was at the bottom of the water? Be sure to explain why! Better yet, go and find an answer on the internet and back up your thinking with facts! Can't wait to hear what you think, Mr. F

Maybe, the magnet is positively or negatively charged, and the paperclip is the other polarity. When they were together, their polarities acted like a magnet, so they stuck together! Samantha

i dont agree with u i think that the salt stuck 2 it cause it probably has 2 do with density your cuz David

i agree with you David... maybe because the salt floats and the salt just stuck to the paper clip Morgan

Hey Morgan.... Do you think if we just dropped the salt in without stirring it know...just left it sit on the bottom....Would it get attracted to the paper clip? That would tell us if there is any "magnetic" affect! Mr. F

i don't think so becuase the salt would not be touching anything. - Natalie

David, I hardly think "Your Cuz" is proper! Please use semi-formal language here! What do you mean when you said that it has to do with density? How is this related to density? I think you're right, but you need to give more details! Mr. F

Dear David... Even if density played a part, it wouldn't necessarily make it stick to the paperclip. it could float to the top. Were NOT real cousins too. Samantha

Samantha, What a great point! Density doesn't mean "sticky!" While the salt may sink due to it's density doesn't mean it will sink and stick! Very thoughtful indeed! Mr. F

you had a great idea samantha! you were thinking about stuff we learned when we were in the thrid grade! that everything is negitivly or positivly charged! but is salt really charged? Ashlee

And Ashlee, I'm impressed that you remembered what you learned in third grade too! Good for you..... Now, in your theory, which item would be negatively charged, and which would be positively charged? Rock on, Mr. F

What I think I think the epsom salt is attracted to the paperclip beacuse it settles on the bottom. The salt settles onto the bottom and attached to the paperclip because it is the first thing the salt gets to. Tyler

It might not be just the paper clip, maybe the paper clip combined with the penny that attracts the salt. Alex

Neat thought Alex.... I wonder if the copper in the penny attracts the salt.... Did anyone only use the paperclip and NOT the penny? If their experiment attracted stalactites, then the penny wouldn't be a factor.... We'll have to ask around! Mr. F

But Mr F., without the penny, the paperclip would just float to the top right? Samantha

I'm not sure, Sam...Maybe we should try it! If it did rise, that would mean the water was more dense than the paperclip....which it may be with all the salt floating in it! If the water was straight from the tap, the paperclip would sink...remember, we did that when we practiced with measuring the volume of odd shaped solids.... Mr. F

Mr. F, If I could have permission to use some supplies then maybe I can try with out the penny, or with not mixing it up... PLEASE!!!! Samantha

It is interesting to note that the students were not only challenged by my questions, but were willing to challenge one another’s thinking as well. Their interactions were far from superficial, and show a level of maturity that I hadn’t expected.


The potential benefits that digital dialogue hold for classroom teachers were best summarized by a student named Barry who was a regular participant in our online conversations. When I asked him why he was so motivated by our discussion forums, he replied:

“The best thing about Blackboard, in my opinion, is the Discussion Board. We could talk to other people about science and opinions, at home, in an organized format. It was very fun to do that, especially when you couldn't even see anybody.

The reason I was involved in the online conversations is that I had never come across a message board on science before. I love educational subjects, and now that I had a message board with science as its topic, I had the message board that I liked. It was very fun to talk to other people online and discuss the subject.â€

Electronic conversations are going to be an important part of communication in the future. Incorporating them into our instructional practices today is a valuable way to extend learning beyond the school day, to engage students that are otherwise overlooked, and to expose students to an instructional benefit of technology of which they may be unaware.

William Ferriter