Yammer in the Classroom
Staging a traditional face-to-face debate in an asynchronous distance environment

By Victoria Raish / August 2013

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When transitioning a traditional face-to-face class into an online format there are several Web 2.0 tools that can be used to enhance the experience. These tools often have a social directive to help people come together in the often-isolating experience of using a personal computer. Tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Drive, Voicethread, and Pollshare are used in both physical and virtual classrooms to improve collaboration, participation, and critical reflection on the part of the students. In a virtual environment these tools can become even more essential as the distance between instructor and students can cause lags in communication that can make it difficult to fully engage in the course. This article explores in depth the use of the social network Yammer to foster student participation.

From posting polls and gaining instantaneous feedback on instruction, to updating the course content with current media, Yammer was used extensively in an undergraduate level course at Pennsylvania State University. The goal of the course—"World Technologies and Learning"—is to critically examine various case studies of eLearning environment from a systemic perspective and Yammer was also implemented to manage an important component of the course: An asynchronous debate on the neutrality of technology. The debate format did not translate well into the online environment; Yammer bridged that gap. Previously, the debate took place on the course management system, which features a relatively static web page making it impossible for a lot of user modifiability or instant communication.

Pedagogical Grounding

Using a debate in class helps students to explore a controversial topic in detail and prepare a defense on the position that they have chosen. This classroom activity also helps to expose students to differing viewpoints and teaches them how to listen to others who may not think the same way they do. A debate also allows students to actively construct their knowledge base and critically reflect on what they believe about a particular topic.

An online asynchronous environment differs from the traditional face-to-face debate because the students have time to collect their thoughts and respond with a prepared and validated post to their classmates' thoughts. This tends to increase the critical self-reflection period in which the students can think deeply about what they value and are trying to say about a particular topic. All of the thinking skills that students engage in during the course of a debate lie within the higher end of Bloom's taxonomy and help them to form important skills for lifelong learning. For example students have to create, apply, evaluate, synthesize, formulate, defend, alter, and categorize their position and the positions of their peers.

What is Yammer?

Yammer is a social network much like Twitter or Facebook, but it differs in a couple of key ways. First, not everyone can join Yammer. You have to have an email address associated with a company or institution to join the network, thus there are no extraneous postings that are unrelated to the people who you work with professionally. The second difference is Yammer is a professional network and all of the postings are intended to allow collaboration between people in the company to work on projects or help solve various issues. There are several features of Yammer; the ones used in this course were the ability to create a private group, chat with various members, and see who is online. Live feeds, the use of polls, the announcements feature, the embedding of articles, and the response features to postings were also utilized.

The Debate

In a class about eLearning around the world from a systemic and sociocultural perspective, the debate was structured around the neutrality of technology. The critical issue examined in this debate aligned well with exploring how technologies and eLearning can affect a culture and vice versa. The students were given time in advance to explore various resources looking at both sides of the issue and got to decide on which position they took: technology is value-free versus technology has value in society. This is an individual debate where each student had one of the two positions, however they did not work together as a team to form a common opening statement, rebuttal, and closing statement.

This debate worked very well in the face-to-face environment and there was considerable student feedback; they really enjoyed this part of the class and they were very excited for this opportunity. Students prepared well for the big day and it was clear that they had come to think deeply about this topic and what it really means for someone to say that technology is neutral. When this course was taught online it was initially decided that the debate would not be done because the existing course management system did not provide the same beneficial environment for the students as in the face-to-face classroom. The rigidity of the course management system does not allow for coherent and seamless transitions between conversations that keep the debate active.

As the instructor, I felt the value of this experience for the students should not be lost simply because some of the students were in an asynchronous distant class. The decision was made to use Yammer for the online debate. The debate took place over the course of a week and the students had a rubric to follow so they would be clear as to what was expected of them. I participated in the debate as well and frequently replied to students after their peers had a chance to respond; my role was to moderate the conversation and keep it going in a productive manner. Overall, this was a very successful experiment that could feasibly be replicated for future courses.

Benefits to Using Yammer

Using Yammer for this debate worked very well albeit a few issues. For the most part the students were able to pick up on how to use Yammer at a rapid rate of adoption and this seems to be due to the fact that Yammer incorporates several of the same features of Facebook and Twitter, such as tags and like buttons. This made it much easier to focus on the content at hand and not worry as much about the technical user issues that could arise with people who were not used to this type of interface.

Yammer certainly did not replicate the course environment and I do not think that it should. If students are in a face-to-face situation in the future where they had to critically think about a problem or scenario they would not be given the time to compose their thoughts and produce a pithy statement. The face-to-face debate limited their time to think about how to respond to their classmate's rebuttals and compose their thoughts. This debate was done in one class period and once students had their final scores we did not engage in another debate for the remainder of the course.

In contrast, Yammer allowed for an environment in which asynchronous communication was expected and students were given time to make posts that incorporated resources and well- planned replies to their peers postings. Students could also "like" their peers' postings and respond directly to a person by using the reply to feature. This tends to reflect the online asynchronous environment in which communication is not instantaneous and requires consistent checking of media to see if there are new responses. The students created and crafted their own thoughts and were allowed the opportunity to defend their original thoughts; some even changed their stance over the course of the week. This happened more with the week-long debate than it did in the condensed 50-minute face-to-face debate.

In addition to more thoughtful reflection on the part of the students, I could also be a more active participant. When the students did the debate synchronously my main focus was on scoring their remarks and I did not focus as much on the content or moderating the flow of the conversation. In the online environment I waited for students to reply and then I would play devil's advocate depending on the position they took. I also brought in several resources to make them critically think about their beliefs. This allowed for more wait time to occur in which students could post when they felt prepared.

Issues to Think About

There were a couple of issues that surfaced when Yammer was used as the debate platform. Students did not like having to sign up for multiple social media services. All of these students already used our course management system regularly to interact with the class and they did not like having to check multiple Web pages for one course. Unfortunately, Yammer is not designed to support a whole course. There is no grade book feature and it is not easy to establish different discussion forums and places to upload lecture notes. It is much more suited for collaboration and communication. Therefore, Yammer is only suitable for certain activities and would most likely not be the course management system for a totally virtual, asynchronous course.

The second concern was students log onto and use Yammer regularly during the debate, but this feature overshadowed the use of Yammer throughout the semester. For example, the students responded to my posts on Yammer and a few responded to polls I posted but they did not communicate with each other or ask questions about the content through Yammer. They viewed this platform as a tool for their debate, but not for much more than that. There are several other ways that Yammer could be used for your course depending on the goals and competencies. Yammer can serve as a platform to help solve technical issues—many of the Yammer members are aware of several different features and functionalities of different tools and can troubleshoot a problem. Yammer can also serve as a source of communication and announcements. There are private message options to send to students who may have a question or are struggling with a particular issue. One can also fileshare and post announcements about the course. The lack of engagement with these other features is most likely due to a combination of my focus and effort on the debate and the students not wanting to log into multiple Web pages for the same course.

Insights

Yammer is a wonderful tool to use if your organization/institution has an account with them and your students are comfortable with using different online tools. It requires a lot of motivation on the part of the students to check yet another account. Several tools seem to be very useful, but if they are not seen as an advantage to the way students currently use and navigate tools then they may be underutilized. Therefore, as the instructor it is important to emphasize the following points:

  • Make sure your students are aware of why you are using Yammer as a tool for the course. It needs to be easy for them to understand that by registering for an account they will have a more beneficial experience during the course.
  • Use Yammer throughout the semester even if you have one main goal. For example, my main intent in creating our Yammer class page was for the debate, but I used the polls and private messaging options quite often to stay in touch with the class. This helped to make students more comfortable when it came time to use this tool for the debate portion of the class, because they had been interacting with it over the course of the semester.
  • Provide step-by-step instructions on how to sign up for an account and make sure to invite students to the group before they join Yammer. When creating a group you can select to make it public or private and then invite certain members to the group using their email addresses. Make students aware that you are doing this before Yammer sends them a message, so they do not mistake the notice for junk.
  • Make it clear to students exactly what Yammer will be used for. This way they know what to expect and how often they will be expected to check their account. Some students in my class rarely emailed me and used Yammer as their main communication platform, while others used it simply for the required debate and then used the traditional email communication system for all other contact. Students need to know if this is a tool they can use, if they prefer it, or if the instructor prefers that all communications come via this system.

This was a great experience for our course and gave insights into a tool that while similar to Facebook and Twitter has its own distinctive features to help shape the course experience for the students. Many educators are vaguely aware of the differences between online asynchronous courses and face-to-face courses and realize that an online course is not simply a transfer of instructional material online. However, until a specific experience arises that causes a critical evaluation of pedagogical methods the techniques and tools used to deliver an online class may not be modified. When a classroom activity is important enough to not disregard for an asynchronous environment, it is important to utilize all of the Web 2.0 tools at our disposal to meaningfully enhance the experience for students.

About the Author

Victoria Raish is a Ph.D. student at Pennsylvania State University in the Learning, Design, and Technology program. Her research interests lie within the K12 realm of cyber charter schools and science instruction. She has taught this particular course four times over the course of the year and assisted with the course for one semester prior to this. She has experience in teaching and taking courses in a distance environment and incorporating new Web 2.0 tools to help supplement the virtual content. She received her B.S. in biology from Mercyhurst College and an MAT from the University of Southern California.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2517042



Comments

  • Sun, 27 Apr 2014
    Post by Thank you for sharing.

    I really enjoyed reading this article about Yammer in the classroom. I have linked to it from my blog at http://www.classroom20.co.uk. I think you would like my blog about the top 100 different E Learning tools in the classroom.