The Backchannel – Opening the Classroom, Managing the Stream

More thoughts on Cliff Atkinson’s The Backchannel

In Chapter 2, Atkinson walks the reader through the process of joining and getting started with Twitter. Most of this information you can easily find online, but I like the way that Atkinson encourages the reader to find interesting conversations on Twitter. Many “getting started” guides to Twitter encourage people to create Twitter accounts and start following interesting people (thought leaders in their field, for instance). This isn’t a bad way to start, but if you’re trying to convince someone to give Twitter a shot, I think Atkinson’s suggestion to search for topics or conference-related hashtags makes more sense. Doing so shows the Twitter skeptic immediately what kind of conversations s/he could be a part of on Twitter. Having a newbie follow other users doesn’t have the same kind of immediacy. It also reinforces the misconception that Twitter is mostly about one-way communication. Pointing newbies to ongoing conversations among users gives them a better picture of how Twitter really operates.

Chapter 3 leads off with two short anecdotes of what I call backchannel type 3: involving in the conversation people who aren’t physically present. I know plenty of Twitter users who give workshops on using Twitter and start those workshops by sending out a call for their followers to say hi to the people in the room. However, I haven’t seen college instructors do anything quite like that. Imagine opening class by tweeting a request for information or resources, then pulling up one’s Twitter feed 15 minutes later to see what responses have emerged. Or finding oneself stumped by a question asked by a student during class and tweeting it on the spot to leverage the wisdom of crowds. Have you done anything like this? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

When I give talks on the backchannel to faculty audiences, I’m always been asked how one can keep up with and respond to the backchannel while teaching. Atkinson suggests a couple of options in Chapter 3 in the context of a keynote presentation, including having a session moderator monitor the backchannel and share key comments with the presenter and having “backchannel breaks” (my term) in the presentation during which the presenter catches up with the backchannel. How might these translate to educational settings? If you have a teaching assistant, you could have your TA be the voice of the backchannel, as Monica Rankin did in her “Twitter Experiment.” If you don’t have a TA (or even if you do), you could ask a student to play this role, perhaps having a different student each class session.

As for the idea of a “backchannel break,” I think most instructors would feel pretty awkward taking a couple of minutes in the middle of the class to catch up on Twitter while students sat and stared. There’s also the problem that students contributing to the backchannel might miss something important shared in frontchannel. My response to these challenges is to suggest a “backchannel break” for everyone in the room. You might lecture for 15 minutes, then have students discuss your mini-lecture in pairs, encouraging them to tweet their questions or comments as they do so. This gives students a safe time to weigh in on the backchannel and something productive to do while you dip into the backchannel. Taking a backchannel break once during a lecture (perhaps using Twitter, perhaps using a Q&A tool like Google Moderator) might be a nice easy way for an instructor start using the backchannel in the classroom.

For more on Chapter 3 and its applications to educational settings, see my January 2010 post “Backchannel in Education – Nine Uses.” The taxonomy of backchannel uses I developed there (notetaking, sharing resources, commenting, amplifying, asking questions, helping one another, offering suggestions, building community, and opening the classroom) stands up pretty well one year later, I think.

Finally, I saw in my January 2010 handwritten notes on The Backchannel this suggestion for myself: “You should try Google Moderator sometime in a workshop to handle Q&A!” I’ve done so several times in the last year, perhaps most notably at the ESTICT Conference in which I used Moderator to handle Q&A from across the Atlantic Ocean!

Image: “Command Central,” Graham Ballantyne, Flickr (CC)

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