At the beginning of March, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend and present at the KySTE conference in Louisville -- the first time the conference was back in person since the pandemic started. (I was literally at KySTE in 2020 when the world shut down, a story I shared here.) As if fate wanted to re-affirm for me the value of KySTE, I learned of a new tool in the very first hour of the very first session of the conference that got me so excited, I knew I'd be doing a blog entry about it! The presenter was Roslyn Manning -- more with her in a moment! --- and the tool was Verso.
Verso is a platform for virtually managing discourse in your classroom. At its most basic, a teacher can create a question or pose an issue, and students can not only respond to the prompt, but to each other. But Verso has an extensive set of tools that make it much more than just a place for an online conversation thread.
How does it work?
Firstly, you need to create a teacher or student account, either via email or through Google or Microsoft. (I would recommend students use Google, to minimize remembering yet another username/password as well as to expedite Google integration.)
When a teacher first creates an account, Verso helps walk you through the creation of your first Class; you can create as many Classes as you like. Each Class has a unique code that can be given to students, making it easy for them to join. Once a Class is made, you have two basic kinds of discussions you can push to students: an Activity, or a Check-In With Students.
An Activity is the much more robust and customizable option. You can attach files, links (to websites but also to videos), or something from your Google Drive to build schema before they address the prompt. Next, you provide instructions in a Rich Text Format editor box. You can give conversation starters, as well as suggest contextual and academic vocabulary to use. There are several toggle settings where you can allow students to provide video or audio responses, upload files or images, or even limit them to 500 characters or less. Lastly, you can indicate a specific start and end date for the Activity, turn on moderation if you want to approve responses before they appear, and determine whether students can comment on each other's responses. After an Activity is launched, you have some other editing options, such as hiding student names from each other for anonymous responses and comments (although the teacher can still see who said what).
How could you use it?
Verso clearly can make student online discussions more engaging and rigorous, as well as make SEL and learning reflections easy to push out and analyze. Don't forget to utilize audio and/or video responses to increase equity for EL and ECE students; that way, the focus is on the quality of their responses' content as opposed to the medium of the reply.
Here's an excellent Activity tip from Roslyn: if you want students to comment on each other's responses, turn on moderation. Once all students have responded, turn off moderation and "publish" all the responses, then remind students to now comment. This will give all students the best chance to receive comments since all the responses are available at once. (Without such management, the late responders will be the least likely to receive a comment.)
Verso only charges a premium option if you want access to a library of pre-made Activities (as of the publication of this entry, this upgrade costs $59 a year); otherwise, the platform is free. It would be nice to see integrations such as Google Classroom which could pre-load a Class's roster.
As I explored Verso, I was definitely curious to hear more about how it's being used in the classroom, so reaching out to Mrs. Manning seemed a natural next step. I've gotten to know Roslyn a bit through our Kentucky Digital Learning Coach state network, and I share her passion for student discourse. So I was thankful she accepted my invitation to be interviewed for Edtech Elixirs!
Roslyn, welcome to Edtech Elixirs! Share with us your educator story.
Thank you so much for having me! I come from a long line of educators--my grandmother was an elementary teacher in Alabama, and my mom was an ECS teacher in North Carolina where I grew up. She taught in a variety of different types of schools, but for most of her career she taught in the state juvenile prison system. Talk about an interesting childhood--I grew up roaming around the local prison! I knew that I would eventually become a teacher. I think it's a part of my DNA. I've always loved reading and writing, so I decided that I wanted to be an English teacher. I attended the University of Alabama (Roll Tide!) and graduated with a B.S. in Secondary Education Language Arts. I taught Advanced Junior English in Tuscaloosa right after graduating, and at the end of that school year, I moved to Kentucky to be closer to my now-husband. In 2013, I started teaching freshman and sophomore English at Oldham County High School while completing KTIP and getting my Master's in Teacher Leadership, focusing on Instructional Technology. In addition to growing in my technology use, I also worked to earn my National Board Certification. I often participated in school and district technology initiatives--Digital Leader Network, iTeam, etc., and in May 2020, I became our district's second Digital Learning Coach.
Why do you feel that student discourse in general – especially peer to peer – is important?
It's no secret these days that students struggle with communication. This is a skill that ALL people learn eventually, but I think the increase in technology has the general population complaining that "kids these days" only know how to communicate in text messages. As an educator, I think it's vital that we meet students where they are, and change our instruction to better prepare our students for the digital world that they communicate in. The variety of ways students can communicate just elevates the need to teach peer-to-peer communication more intentionally in MULTIPLE ways: verbally and digitally.
What does digital discourse achieve differently, or perhaps even sometimes better, than face-to-face discussions?
Digital discourse, in my experience, is a gateway to deeper face-to-face discussions. So many of our students need time to process their thoughts before sharing with an audience, whether that be a digital audience or an in-person audience. And, as I mentioned previously, students are communicating in writing much more frequently than they are verbally in person or over the phone, so why would we not intentionally give them learning opportunities to practice, make mistakes, and grow in this area? I wouldn't say digital discourse is inherently better than face-to-face discussions, but in the same way that we teach our children dinner table etiquette, we also have a shared responsibility to teach our students digital citizenship through netiquette.
As an English teacher, I used to emphasize "code switching" with my students. I never wanted to shame them into thinking that their colloquial language is "bad" or "wrong," but I did want them to learn the appropriate settings for the language that they choose to use. The same holds true for digital discourse, and there's a lot to be learned from digital communication. Students have to analyze tone and word choice to be effective communicators through writing. For most, verbal communication is much easier to deliver and decipher because of verbal and nonverbal cues, but written communication requires far more refined skills. It's important to provide a safe space for students to practice and refine these skills. [Editor's Note: for more on the value of digital discourse, read this previous blog entry.]
I’m highlighting Verso in Edtech Elixirs, a tool I’m pretty excited to share! Can you share any stories of how you or other Oldham teachers have used Verso effectively?
A good friend of mine at Oldham County High School introduced me to Verso several years ago. She will tell anyone who asks that she's not "techy," but she discovered this tool when it was in Beta and started using it with her A.P. English Literature course. I quickly jumped on board and used it to set up a Socratic Seminar with my English II course. My students struggled with verbal discussion, especially if it was whole-class, so this was an easy way to get students talking to each other anonymously and to provide tons of support for them in the way of sentence stems and stimulus material for discussion. There are so many features available to teachers that we can use to help support our students' discussions, such as the ability to comment and "star" student feedback and even hide responses if they're inappropriate or irrelevant.
Verso is an excellent tool to give peer feedback on their work as well. I love the collaboration that comes from using Verso in so many different ways!
Any other digital discourse tools that you’re a fan of?
There are so many ways for students to engage in digital discourse such as Padlet, Google Workspace tools, and more. However, I love using Parlay Ideas as well. Be aware that it is a freemium, so you don't get unlimited Roundtables. It's very similar to Verso in that you can have students communicate anonymously with their peers, but Parlay also has a "live Roundtable" option that helps you facilitate live discussions (similar to Socratic Seminars) where students can "tap in" to the conversation and teachers can "nudge" students to share their ideas with the class.
Roslyn, thank you so much for agreeing to our interview today! One final question: what’s your advice to teachers just starting to integrate technology into their classroom?
Always be transparent with your students! As a young teacher, I thought I needed to "know it all" and felt embarrassed if I didn't know an answer or made a mistake. However, students appreciate hearing, "I've never used this before. If it totally flops, we'll figure it out." I experienced MUCH more success with technology when I was totally honest with my kids about the tools we were using. And most of the time, they were much more patient in the process if they knew we were all learning together!
What are your thoughts on Verso? Have another favorite digital discourse tool? Share in the Comments below!