Backchannels in the classroom

I thought I'd write a series of posts articulating my current thinking on different types of internet based tools and their use within education. My expertise in this area is largely based around finding things, playing with them and assessing their potential for teaching and learning. My last few posts have been based around this subject in some way or another.  However, I've not done much about specific types of tools. 

Firstly, backchannels. This is a where you use a micro-blogging or chat based tool to facilitate a text-based dialogue within a live session.  My focus here is an its potential for the classroom, but they are primarily used within conferences.  For the classroom, backchannels lend themselves to a context where mobile device are used - so smartphones or tablets or laptops. 

I would guess that many readers of this blog would be familiar with backchannels at conferences. Mostly, this would occur using a twitter hashtag - #. This is appropriate for conferences because conference organisers would want dialogue around their sessions to be public. Also, the only people that would entertain participating in such a dialogue would be active micro-bloggers and they would already have twitter accounts.  I've been a few sessions where it's been a pointless exercise to even have a backchannel as its ignored throughout.  However, I've also been to events where dialogue on twitter forms an integral part of the event.  They have people monitoring it and feeding into the face-to-face conversation.  Of course, it works best if the speakers are involved in this.

Within formal education, you want your own space for the dialogue, a space that a teacher can setup and control.  So twitter is probably not the right environment.   There are a number of services where you can quickly and easily set up a backchannel and embed or link to within your website/VLE.  The only one I've actually used in a real class situation is worked well.  There are other similiar tools like and  I nearly used as I liked the tidy interface but the 140 character limit meant I shied away from it.  Generally, you want the freedom to write more than a few words but todaysmeet and other micro-blogging alternatives still have use as its a good skill to have to articulate your points within this character limit.  I've not mentioned edmodo because this is more than a backchannel, its more of a virtual environment where a number of things can occur.

But why do this? What are the benefits? Here are some obvious points:
- Question asking/question answering
- Feedback
- Communication amongst students
- Alongside and in reaction to a spoken event, video, image or presentation

However, you can do all of this anyway using this thing called a voicebox - I hear you cry.

For me, this extra communication channel CAN add value to any learning context - it's called Technology Enhanced Learning.  The degree to which this occurs will vary from student to student.  The main logistical point is that it allows for engagement without having to wait for the end of any presentation of content - allowing the student to articulate their thoughts as they occur to them.  I have found this really powerful during conference presentations.  Being able to bang out tweets greatly increases the value of such sessions.  It's about contextualising the learning, putting it in my words so that the knowledge gets subsumed into my understanding. 

The variety comes with the comfort level an individual student has with using a backchannel - with engaging by typing short messages.  For some, they will be more comfortable engaging via a backchannel than by raising their hand and speaking.  For some, the opposite will be true.  What's important is that educators don't close their minds to tools which wouldn't suit them - your students might not be the same. 

So, you could sum up by saying backchannels:

- Engage students who otherwise might not contribute
- Evens the playing field for involvement
- Can't be dominated by the loudest voice
- Allow students to ask questions on the fly without interrupting
- Allow teachers to see and answer questions quickly
- Give teacher feedback on the level of understanding or confusion in the class
- Provides a record of the dialogue for future reference
- Demands engagement with the material to participate

An important point which should not be overlooked is the development of writing skills.  It will improve writing and a student's ability to articulate themselves quickly using text.  There's also the development of keyboard skill if laptops/tablets are being used. 

The difficult with a backchannel is in the management of it.  It's important to work out protocols for use AND how you, as the teacher, will engage with it and when.  It's important you are clear about the use and benefit of the tool.   You want to avoid false expectations and feeling overwhelmed by the dialogue.

In the only session where I setup and managed a backchannel, I found that I would have to manufacture its use.  Some valuable ideas were shared which I could then share after the session, however it didn't flow as well as I liked.  This might have been due to the room setup and the fact that we were using desktop computers but I wonder what the different would be if I was teaching children rather than adults?