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Voices from the back(channel) of the class

May 17, 2011

A backchannel is an alternative to regular channels of communication.The first time I heard the word, I couldn’t help but think of this ancient TV tidbit (I know it dates me …).

One example of a backchannel is when an online discussion occurs in real time along with a face-to-face presentation. You may have seen people “tweeting” during a conference keynote, or maybe you participated in webinar that provided an online chat tool. Often the process is ad hoc and informal, but an increasing number of events have an official backchannel (or is that an oxymoron?). The video below shows how Monica Rankin used a Twitter backchannel in her history course at UT Austin.

Ways to use a classroom backchannel

  1. Take Notes – students create a searchable “collective wisdom”
  2. Make Comments – react to ideas being presented or discussed
  3. Ask and Answer Questions – students pose questions and maybe even answer them for each other before the prof has a chance
  4. Share Resources – websites, books, articles
  5. Offer Feedback – discussion topics, activities, what’s working and what’s not, “one-minute paper”.

The list above is based on suggestions by Derek Bruff (see Backchannel in Education – Nine Uses), who has also written a helpful review of Cliff Atkinson’s book Backchannel.

Questions to consider

  • Anonymity – should students identify themselves? will they contribute more freely without giving names?
  • Duration – will the communication continue throughout the class or will do you want a structured activity that might last 10-15 minutes?
  • Formality – should you announce an officially sanctioned backchannel and give it some structure or just let it happen? Should you designate official class note-takers?
  • Editing – should the tool allow students to edit each other’s contributions?
  • Control – should you encourage an unfettered backchannel or do you want to exercise some degree of control over it?
  • Scale – which tool works best for the number of students in your class?
  • Moderation – should you moderate the backchannel, perhaps stopping every 15 minutes to check? could a student or TA do this?

A few tools to explore

  • Twitter – most frequently associated with the backchannel
  • EtherPad – see the earlier post, Using Etherpad for collaboration
  • TodaysMeet – similar to Twitter but no account needed – creates an isolated “room” for sharing text comments.
  • Google Moderator – pose questions or ideas and let others vote on them – to try it, suggest a topic for a future blog post.

Learn more