Social-centric news website Mashable recently ran an article on SoapBox with the headline: New App Tells Teachers When Students Are Confused. Those who have vague memories of spending their days in class daydreaming and those have spent the past few years battling students who secretly spend their class time texting their friends, might respond, “What the what?!”
I was introduced to SoapBox a couple months ago by Alison Hannon, a teacher who ran a writing/literacy lab with 21 iPads at Audubon Park Elementary School where I was doing some research on the use of iPads and BYOD in schools. Ms. Hannon was very enthusiastic about how the website helped keep students engaged because their input made a real difference in the instruction, and that a teacher using SoapBox might be more likely to hear from students who might not ordinarily raise their hands in a traditional setting. Hannon used the platform to pose questions that she input before the lesson, to monitor student questions, to monitor the level of student understanding and to keep the conversation going.
The Mashable article and Hannon highlighted the “Confusion Barometer” feature where students can anonymously communicate whether they were getting the lesson or not. There are numerous response devices that might fulfill this need, but the beauty of SoapBox is that it doesn’t require a separate device because it works through a browser that can be accessed via a computer or mobile device like an iPad or smartphone. If you already have students on devices, like Ms. Hannon at Audubon Park, then it’s seamless to have them use the device to communicate to the teacher, making the classroom just a little more like everyone is in the front row and everyone is included in the conversation, that really is a conversation and not a monologue.
Flattening the classroom communication structure is one thing, but what I found interesting, and this is a phenomenon that those using other platforms like Edmodo are indicating, is that because these platforms are browser based they are breaking the “school only happens at school” phenomenon. In other words the lesson begun on these platforms is not limited to the 40-minutes when the student was working in the formal classroom. Students and teachers are using these platforms to continue the learning conversation begun in the classroom and taking them home. Hannon said that they had to set up an agreement with students and teachers that it would probably be best if they stop working on the platform at 9 P.M. Students enthusiastic to keep the learning conversation going long after the dismissal bell? Soapbox is obviously not unique in this, but it’s an example that students (and families) will use the Internet to share, communicate and learn when it’s conversational, relevant and where everyone else is.
When I heard about SoapBox they were conducting their free beta and I was busy getting ready for Macworld 2012, so I signed up but didn’t experiment with the platform. Since then they’ve revealed their pricing structure ($15 per month per teacher or $90 per year), and I was a little disappointed that they couldn’t find a way to make this fly without charging teachers. But after doing further research I’m wondering how I might integrate it into my online sessions at Full Sail. We have a platform where we meet online, that has chat built in, but this is much more bi-directional and could really add to the experience. Unlike the face-to-face classroom where feedback can be as simple as gazing out to see who has fallen asleep, working online really demands much more to bring students into the conversation. Online one cannot assume that students haven’t taken off their headphones and put them on the dog, so I can see having a second window open to SoapBox might add another venue for interaction.
But getting back to my original question: is this a bridge to assist learning or just another edtech gadget? I think the answer isn’t in the tool but in the user. If one has no skill or aptitude towards working with students, SoapBox probably won’t help one become a better teacher. But if one is looking for a way to make your classroom more interactive and your students have access to a web browser as a part of their normal classroom experience, then this might be something to explore. If you think having students continue to work on lessons begun in the classroom after the session is “over” then this might be a way for you to continue the conversation. If you believe that education is about the process of learning and not defined or limited to testing, this might be a way to reclaim the teacher/student learning conversation that may be slipping away from the classroom routine. Damn, I think I just talked myself into putting my money where my mouth is and give SoapBox a test run. Fascinating! How about you?