“The Commons”: The Importance of Talking Out of Turn

(This post is part of a series called “The Connected Class Community”). 

Wendell Phillips on Boston Common

One essential part of human communities has always been a central meeting place– a location where the community comes to engage in conversations that are bigger than one-on-one interactions can offer. I call this space The Commons and I believe that online communities need to meet this human need to provide a sense of surprise, excitement, and shared purpose. The Commons is where the connected community shares, jokes, performs, questions, and accesses the shared creativity that lives in “the third mind“. It is a place where all are valued, all are heard, all are challenged. It is a place where serious ideas can mix with irreverent ones to make learning more enjoyable and fun more stimulating.

It is a space where everyone is actively participating– in that sense, it upends the traditional hierarchical relationship between an active teacher and many passive listeners. Through asynchronous communication, we can all be talking at once and still be heard by all.

Teachers often seem bewildered by modern [?] students’ tenacious need to interact, to perform, to talk out of turn, and to try every trick in their power to turn a classroom lecture into a communal conversation. Modern educational technology gives us asynchronous communication tools that free users to comment without interrupting, to listen and discuss with a community of learners regardless of time, space, or schedule constraints.

Tools like discussion forums, blog comments, twitter #hashtags, and email listservs enable users to add value to core readings and lectures by creating a “backchannel” communication stream (without disrupting the flow of the lecture). These backchannel discussions have become an important part of the value of professional conferences for me– I learn at least as much from the other people tweeting as I do from the presenters on stage! What’s more, the free (and somewhat chaotic) exchange of ideas adds a sense of excitement and serendipitous discovery to the experience.

Many people are getting used to having a semi-controlled stream of conversation data flowing by them every day– in the form of a Facebook wall or a Twitter feed. Some posts are more relevant or interesting than others, and you can choose to engage with the threads that interest you and ignore the others without the guilt we feel at missing an email. This is why workplace tools like Yammer, Presently, Salesforce Chatter, and Status.net have customized those tools for business environments where you can tune into different conversation groups– between your own workmates and other group organizations you’re interested in.

These backchannel tools– seemingly a distraction from the “real” information of the lecture– strike me as being a new version of Cornell notes. The idea behind Cornell notes is that your mind can think faster than a lecturer can lecture, so you need another space to doodle, comment, and daydream to help you internalize the content.


Collaborative documents like wikis and GDocs enable groups to share the work of building knowledge. Sharing access allows stakeholders with diverse perspectives to affect the outcomes of shared products.

Polling and Classroom Response Systems enable class communities to gather data in real time about members’ opinions, understanding, and ideas. Using data about us is intrinsically more interesting than using data about strangers and helps to engage the community.



  • Group discussion lists
    • ubiquitous commenting
    • twitter hashtags, event feed, like Edmodo or my CAT DD Blog
    • Facebook-style community Activity Feed
    • email [meh]
  • Collaborative shared documents
  • Group chat
  • Methods for Consensus
    • Polling/voting
    • Ranking and Discussion (Google Moderator/ Digg)
  • Collaboratively annotating core readings “writing in the margins”
  • Synchronous Meetings
    • Video chat
    • Whiteboard
    • Webinar presentation
Enhanced by Zemanta

Liked this post? Follow this blog to get more. 

Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. April 11, 2011

    […] The Commons– A vibrant communal discussion channel where all are clearly heard and included in the group dialogue [polylogue?] […]


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.