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Learning to Backchannel

The term “backchannel” refers to an informal, secondary communication channel that runs parallel to a formal presentation or lecture. That is, why you’re giving a lecture, your students are making comments and asking questions on a social media-style feed that’s being projected on the wall behind you. To us, it’s a fairly revolutionary concept.

The National Convergence Technology Center (CTC) learned about backchannels at a recent conference presentation by Jeannie Justice from Morehead State University in Kentucky. The idea is to provide students with another outlet to collaborate and engage with the classroom content. Specifically, backchannels stimulate active learning. The social media element engages the students in a dialogue with the material and with each other. It’s no longer about just passively listening to a single voice.

One good example of how backchannels work can be found in a video of Dr. Monica Rankin at the University of Texas in Dallas. A few years ago, Dr. Rankin conducted some pilot backchannel tests using Twitter in her classroom. The response to the video must have been overwhelming because she ended up writing a long summary of her experience to answer the many questions she was getting.

Here are a few ways backchannels can add to the classroom experience:

  • Provides “minutes” of the class, thereby giving students a digital study aid
  • Offers a way to amplify the curriculum in cases where a particularly intriguing comment or question can be forwarded or retweeted to a wider audience beyond the class
  • Gives the instructor more immediate feedback on content (what’s working and what’s not; what’s boring the students and what’s exciting them)
  • Allows a unique outlet for questions, especially for more introverted students who may prefer typing a question to raising a hand
  • Fosters peer learning and mentoring because of the way multiple perspectives and experiences are given a public voice

Before you dip your toe in the backchannel water, Jeannie recommends being clear with students on backchannel etiquette. It’s a forum for constructive feedback and questions, not snarky wisecracks. (Jeannie admits you do have to trust your crowd to not abuse the public nature of the platform.) And to help with logistics, she suggests you assign one student the role of “Google jockey” who will monitor the feed as well as look up answers as needed to supplement the primary lecture. She also suggests first taking time to let everyone practice making a backchannel post.

Jeannie recommends Edmodo as a backchannel platform because it posts quickly in real-time and created threaded discussions in a way that Twitter does not.

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