As a Senior Teaching Associate at a university in the UK I have been keen to explore innovative ways of getting feedback from my students when teaching, particularly in relation to what they are learning. I tend to use group discussions and post-its to allow students time to write down their thoughts and to discuss them. During the CAP (Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice) training course I am involved with however I was made aware of the text wall, an interactive, real time web site that allows teachers to gain direct feedback from students to certain questions through text messaging (the website can be accessed here for more info). I was interested in trying this because I have become increasingly involved with social media and online technologies and was keen to observe how this could enhance my teaching.
As part of gaining a log in to the Text Wall service, a phone number is assigned that is displayed on the text wall for students to see, alongside a text box where you can type in the question you want to ask. This means you don’t have to use your own phone number and means students only have that number to text to. You are also given a code which you tell students to type into their texts (mine was Geog2). Only messages with that code are displayed on the wall. The students’ numbers are anonymous but the message sent and the phone number are stored elsewhere and can be viewed later on should there be any problem.
So far, I have used the text wall in a series of first year undergraduate lecture about Said’s (1993) theory of Orientalism and its applications to geographies of development. I wanted to check that students had a grasp of the concept before the following sessions so I asked them to respond to the question on the text wall at the end of the first lecture; “What do you understand Orientalism to mean?”. The question garnered various responses to the question; some serious and in direct response to what I had asked and presented on the wall, and some not so serious or related. What was particularly useful about the wall was that I gained some feedback from the students directly and they could share their ideas in real time during the session. I was able to talk around their comments and re-enforce some of the key messages of the lecture. Another useful application I used was the Wordle feature, which I used as formative feedback in the following session. This highlighted the key words the students texted to the wall and showed what they had learnt:
When it worked it was a really useful and innovative way of getting direct feedback from students, that made use of them having their mobile phones on them (which I usually don’t expect them to have or look at in teaching sessions). As a trial use, the text wall encouraged engagement with the material and allowed me to build upon the knowledge they had gained in the session in subsequent lectures.
There were of course issues with the technology as well however and limitations to its use.
Issues with the text wall
While the majority of students answered the question (and others in the subsequent sessions), some sent inevitable spam texts, jokes and even advertising for meetings to the wall. This took away from the qualities of the wall and encouraged laughter and a loss of focus on the lecture aims at times. There is of course also the potential for students to get carried away and to send messages that can be deemed inappropriate or break university regulations concerning respect and identity. The support by the text wall team is very good and they give practical solutions for avoiding this and it is worth being aware of this prior to using the service. It is really important that, depending on the makeup of the group, that it is clearly explained that all text messages (while anonymous initially) are the responsibility of the sender. Another way to encourage responses to the question rather than to certain people is that the owner of messages can be traced and that the student can be blocked from further usage of the wall should they offend someone.
There is also the issue that students may be charged 10p for texting depending on their phone company. Therefore the feedback may be limited to a certain number of students and not all of them. I was keen to allow the students the choice to use the wall for this reason. In this experiment with the technology I certainly did not get 120 + messages to match the lecture size. To counter this in future teaching, I plan to also give out post-its to collect in at the end of the lecture to ensure I get a more realistic picture of student understanding. This removes the interactive, real time element but ensures broader feedback from the group.
Overall it was a useful experience for gaining feedback of student learning and making use of mobile and new technologies in teaching. It is suggested that students be made aware of their personal responsibilities when texting to the wall prior to usage and that additional methods of obtaining feedback are used to counteract any potential inequalities that may exist in the group. The wall could also be useful for conferences and debating as well but as a tool for teaching, it has its value to a certain extent.