We’re currently experimenting with online literature circles at our school.
Certainly literature circles, book clubs, and discussion groups aren’t new tools for many teachers. For example, the Saskatoon Public School Board has some great resources on their website about different ways to run literature circles, as well as assessment and evaluation considerations.
However, the idea of running a literature circle online may be new for some teachers.
- What do online literature circles look like?
- Other teachers who are experimenting with Online Literature Circles
- Five reasons why you should consider running online literature circles for your students.
- Things to think about when setting up your Online Literature Circles
- Current challenges we’re facing in implementing online literature circles with 8 different teachers and 11 different classes (Grade 7/8)
- How do I create an online literature circle or virtual book club?
- Challenges to getting (more) teachers to use Online Literature Circles and Virtual Book Clubs
One of our colleagues implemented online literature circles at her previous school using free (open-source) bulletin board software (phpBB). Students across several classes were divided into homogeneous groups based on reading ability. Novels were split into four parts for four weeks. Each week, students had to independently read their novel and participate in an online forum by answering questions posted by the teacher, as well as responding to their classmates. Once a week, students would physically meet to discuss the books.
Just as literature circles can look different from classroom to classroom, online literature circles can differ as well. The basic idea is moving the book talk from the physical classroom to the online classroom.
If you’ve ever taken an online course at a high school, college or university, this is essentially what we’re talking about when we talk about online literature circles.
Students log into a website and post responses to the teacher and other students about the text they are reading. Although we’re using the bulletin-board format for literature circles, you could also extend it to other subjects.
Although not as common as in-class lit circles, online literature circles and virtual book clubs seem to be growing topics of discussion in some academic circles:
- Sue Harris presented online literature circles at TechFiesta 2009 in San Antonio, TX. Miguel Guhlin, director of Instructional Technology for a large urban district in Texas posted some of her thoughts on his blog.
- Terry Taylor (Lucerne Elementary Secondary School) presented “Online Literature Circles as an engaging way to learn” at the Rural Schools Conference in Oct 2008. They use Moodle as the platform for discussion and interaction. (Moodle and phpBB are both free, open-source solutions to consider for online lit circles.) If you visit the School District No 10 Moodle site, you can get a sense of the online literature circles from 2007 in their school board ranging from Grade 5/6/7 lit circles to grade 11/12 literature circles. In fact, Terry has a teacher forum discussing online literature circles. (You can download a brochure PDF and Powerpoint overview of lit circles and virtual book clubs)
- Online literature circles can also serve as a vehicle for collaboration among staff and students between two different high schools. (“Students who had full access [to the online forum] were both more motivated to participate and entered more fully into thinking about and discussing their books [compared with students corresponding by US mail]”)
The idea of moving student conversations about books from just-in-the-classroom to an online forum is exciting and ground-breaking:
Using an online forum to talk about books means we can engage students in a way that a traditional classroom might not by tapping into their culture of texting, social networking and chatting online. (Using online discussion circles doesn’t mean teachers have to accept informal language or internet slang, u know. Students can be told that formal language is a requirement.)
Our students currently participate in online literature circles using a student identification number (a 9 digit number). Although student numbers can always be linked to a real name by the teacher, for the most part, students don’t know each other by number. This means that their responses can be judged based on the merit of their ideas, as opposed to preconceived notions and stereotypes of who they are.
4. Online literature circles have the potential to allow students from different classrooms in different schools to collaborate and discuss ideas because you don’t have to physically be in the same space to have the book talk.
I think experiencing the global village by chatting online with students from a different school, culture, or continent is an exciting idea for students. (Could you imagine video conferencing with a class overseas? Reading responses from students in a different time-zone?)
The online nature of the work means it’s easier to share student samples of work to discuss the question, what does a Level 3 (i.e. the state standard) look like in our school (or district.)
Online lit circles can serve as a vehicle to bring teachers together
- to do common planning and activities (i.e. creating literature circles with students from different classes),
- which can lead to common marking (i.e. marking student work from other classes in a genuine way because it impacts actual student assessment and evaluation, as opposed to a theoretical exercise),
- which can lead to professional learning communities, discussions and debate about what a level 3 looks like,
- which can lead to a better understanding of assessment criteria
- which gets better communicated to the students
- which can lead to better student performance
- which can lead to an evolving and ongoing assessment process
- which ultimately leads to student success.
Common marking and data-driven practices are supported by research to lead to student success. Having said that, moving towards common marking and data-driven practices is often met by resistance by teachers because it’s seen as an add-on to their work, instead of a tool to do the work.
So online lit circles becomes a vehicle that can lead towards common marking and data driven decision making (i.e. SMART goals) which ultimately leads to student improvement.
Here are some things to consider when setting up your online literature circle:
- What will your groups look like? Will they be grouped by reading ability, interest, or randomly? Will the groups include students from the same class, across several classes, or across several schools?
- Do you want your students to post ideas using their real name or a pseudonym for anonymity?
- How often do you want students to post responses? Will you set up guiding questions, or do you want the students to set up their own questions?
- How will you moderate the online conversations? Will you post your opinions as a teacher account or as a student account? (Sometimes, posting an idea as a teacher will sway student opinion because you’re the “teacher.” In an online forum, you could create a student account to post your ideas to see if that makes a difference.)
- Will your students be allowed to use MSN speak: omg, i know. lol :), or do you want them to use more formal language with proper writing conventions?
- Will your literature circles be online only, in-class only, or a mix of online and in-class discussions?
- How will you ensure that all students can log in and participate in the virtual book clubs? Not everyone has access to the internet at home. Not all students are tech-savvy.
Current challenges we’re facing in implementing online literature circles with 8 different teachers and 11 different classes (Grade 7/8)
We’re still in the infancy of doing online lit circles at our school. Here are some of the issues we’re grappling with:
- figuring out the logistics with running the stories and groups;
- setting up our students;
- figuring out how to chase students for incomplete homework when they’re in a different class;
- finding time to moderate conversations and steering students towards formal language;
- creating a living rubric that evolves and gets refined as our understanding grows;
- finding an effective way to share marks (i.e. Google Apps?);
- generating buy-in and interest from teachers.
- discussions about how reliable these student samples are, given that parents and other family members can help at home.
- figuring out how to make sure students who do not have computers or internet access at home, can still do the work.
Having said that, it’s important to have other goals on the horizon to move us forwards. The idea of collaborating with other students and teachers in different schools, school boards, and countries is exciting.
Different software platforms have different features. Some are easier than others to setup.
- Some software platforms are relatively easy to set up and get started with (i.e. WordPress.com, Edublogs.org, Wikispaces, Google Docs)
- Others offer more flexibility but require you to get your own web hosting plan or use the school’s web host (if available) and install the open-source software yourself (i.e. phpBB, Moodle, WordPress.org)
At our school, we’re currently using phpBB for our virtual book clubs, however Moodle is also popular (i.e. School District No 10 Moodle site)
We like phpBB a lot, but it’s hard for the average teacher to set up.
There are a few challenges to getting (more) teachers on-board with online lit circles at the system (school board) level. To introduce online lit circles at your school, you need three key players:
- Someone (or a team) of teachers to design the questions, moderate the discussion, and assess the students.
- A computer person at the school to help the teachers and students log in, use the software, manage the groups and access to forums.
- Finally, you need an admin to install the software, help bulk upload the student accounts, set permissions, backup data, troubleshoot problems, and otherwise maintain the system.
Within an individual school, you can probably find several teachers in the first group, fewer teachers in the second group, but the bottle-neck will be finding teachers in the third group. (As a general rule, most teachers are too busy or lack the tech skills to do this.)
It’s hard to imagine many school districts adding the maintenance of online literature circle software to their portfolios which is what it would have to do for the system to make this easily accessible to all teachers and so it becomes harder to generate a critical mass of teachers using bulletin board software for online lit circles.
Perhaps that’s why we see companies like Wikispaces and Edublogs offering education editions of their software.
- Hosting your own “private label” wikispace site in your school would cost $2000 per year ($4000 per year for the board.)
- The Edublogs Campus solution to “centralize, create, control and manage blogs at your institution” starts at $900 per year. (Interesting, the Edublogs Campus solution is actually free, open-source software called WordPress Mu. However, Edublogs will administrate the software and make sure everything is up and running with plans starting at $900/yr.)
There are several teachers in the system who probably would jump on board with online literature circles through bulletin board software if it was easier to access. (For example, our board’s technology consultants push wikispaces and edublogs because they’re free, simple services for teachers.)
To our knowledge, no one has provided a service of making phpBB accessible to the education market (i.e. similar to what Edublogs has done with WordPress.) However, providing a service might be the easiest way of getting teachers to use bulletin board software.
If the back-end admin side is the limiting factor preventing teachers from using online literature circles, why not do that step for them?
- It’s easy for individual teachers to set up their own online literature circles using phpBB if they have their own web host. (We use Bluehost and you can easily install phpBB with the click of the button.) However, the average teacher is unlikely to shell out $115 per year for a shared hosting plan to “try” phpBB to see if they like it.
- Sure, the school board might eventually be convinced to provide resources and personnel to administrate the bulletin board software, but on what kind of timeline?
- And if the school board does come on board, it’s not necessarily a scalable model to include other schools from different boards. (School District No 10 has a great Moodle site, but it’s hard to imagine other school boards setting up online literature circles on that site.)