Back to the Backchannel

Twelve months ago, I read Cliff Atkinson’s then-new book, The Backchannel. I took about 15 pages of handwritten notes on the book since it was full of great ideas for making use of the backchannel (via Twitter or other mechanisms) during presentations and because I had a lot of ideas about how Atkinson’s ideas might translate into educational (that is, classroom) settings. I blogged about The Backchannel twice last January, once to review the book and once to map out nine uses of backchannel inspired by the backchannel uses Atkinson outlines in Chapter 3. Then I was distracted by other pressing matters and never got around to blogging about the rest of the book.

While organizing my bookcase over the weekend, I came across those 15 pages of handwritten notes. In reading over those notes, I quickly realized two things:

  1. Many of the ways I’ve been using backchannel tools in my teaching and speaking over the last 12 months were based on Atkinson’s advice.
  2. I have a few more blog posts in me about Atkinson’s book!

First, a few thoughts about Chapter 1, which is available online as a PDF. Atkinson provides in his first chapter a very concrete introduction to the backchannel and many of the challenges and opportunities it provides speakers. He grounds his introduction in the story of a panel at the 2009 South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) Festival in which the backchannel went in an unexpected direction. Audience member Whitney Hess objected via Twitter to something that panelist Guy Kawasaki said. Kawasaki was checking the Twitter backchannel on his phone on stage and read Hess’ tweet. He didn’t appreciate her characterization of him, so he called her out from the stage. Kawasaki and Hess then had a debate that stayed pretty civil, letting each of them air their views for the other audience members. Then moderator Pam Slim shepherded the session back on track.

Atkinson correctly points out that an active backchannel poses new challenges for everyone involved. Presenters aren’t used to audience members sharing criticisms during their talks in such a public manner, audience members aren’t used to getting called out for what used to be the kind of complaint they made under their breath, and moderators aren’t used to facilitating sessions in which audience members can contribute their opinions any time they please.

This may sound like a horror story if you’re new to the idea of a backchannel, but Atkinson also points out some pretty amazing benefits of a well-run backchannel: audience members can enhance what speakers say by sharing resources and commentary, a passive audience can become a more active community of engagement, people not physically present can be included in the conversation, speakers can reach wider audiences than those just in attendance, and a record of the session can be created on the fly for later use by speakers and audience members.

Backchannels can be wonderful community-building tools, and they can be avenues for audiences to stage revolts against presenters. Atkinson argues that “the backchannel is the future,” so it’s in their best interest for speakers, audiences, moderators, and conference organizers to make thoughtful and intentional use of it. Twelve months after The Backchannel was published, it’s pretty easy to argue that “the backchannel is the present,” given its role at so many recent academic conferences (the MLA, the Joint Mathematics Meetings, the POD Network Conference, and the Lilly Conference to name a few that I followed). Atkinson’s book was somewhat prescient back in January 2010. It should now be required reading for speakers and conference teams in 2011.

What about the college classroom? Is the backchannel the future there? Or the present? Student use of Twitter seems to be on the rise (or so I gather from @InsideVandy) and students certainly tweet some interesting comments during class, but I haven’t heard much about student-organized backchannels like the audience-organized ones that can happen at conferences. That’s not to say that students aren’t texting and Facebooking each other during class, however! There’s a backchannel emerging on college campuses, and only a few instructors seem to be thinking ahead of the curve on this. (I like to point to Monica Rankin and Gardner Campbell as early adopters, but there are certainly others.) While Atkinson’s book isn’t targeted at higher education, instructors who would like to harness the backchannel in their classrooms for learning will find The Backchannel an interesting and helpful read.

More thoughts to come on The Backchannel, hopefully before January 2012!

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