Backchannel (and Me) in the New York Times

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel for a story on the use of “backchannels” in education. A backchannel is a second conversation stream in a classroom or at a conference, typically one leveraging digital tools to complement the lecture or spoken discussion on the “frontchannel.” If you’ve been to an academic conference lately, you might have noticed that some of the conversation happening during keynotes and sessions happened on Twitter. That’s an example of a backchannel.

Teachers in K-12 and higher education contexts are beginning to explore the use of backchannels in the classroom via Twitter as well as other systems, like TodaysMeet. I’ve written a book on teaching with clickers, and I see backchannel as another type of classroom response system, one that complements the use of clickers. I’ve been blogging about backchannel for some time, and it was those blog posts that caught the attention of Trip Gabriel, the NYT reporter.

Mr. Gabriel’s article, “Speaking Up in Class, Silently, Using Social Media,” was published last week, and it includes a couple of brief quotes from me:

When Derek Bruff, a math lecturer and assistant director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, suggests fellow professors try backchannels, “Most look at me like I’m coming from another planet,” he said.

“The word on the street about laptops in class,” Dr. Bruff added, is that students use them to tune out, checking e-mail or shopping. He said professors could reduce such activity by giving students something class-related to do on their mobile devices.

Although I talked about many other aspects of backchannel with Mr. Gabriel, I’ll admit that the line about “coming from another planet” was probably the catchiest thing I said to him! I’ve given up trying to explain Twitter to faculty in workshops that aren’t specifically about Twitter–it’s just too alien of a medium for faculty not already using Twitter to easily wrap their heads around.

Unfortunately, the comments on the article on the New York Times site reflected this “I don’t get it” perspective.  Here’s an excerpt from the comment that’s received the most “reader recommendations”:

I’m speechless. How many ways can this be wrong? It needs to be explained to teacher Erin Olson that teachers should be encouraging students to extricate themselves from all the electronic gadgetry and to pay attention.

This comment must have been left by someone who hasn’t participated in a robust and interesting backchannel. When I attend a keynote talk at a conference, I’ll often tweet about the most interesting points made by the speaker, and I’ll sometimes respond to comments made about the talk by others on the backchannel. That’s not some form of distraction or even multitasking–it’s active listening. I think it’s great that teachers are encouraging students to listen actively in similar ways in the classroom.

Here’s another negative comment, this one from a user identified only as “M.”:

Part of our jobs as educators is to teach effective communication in multiple forms – listening, speaking, and writing. If technology allows a substitution for verbal communication, it is a failure.

As I wrote in my comment on the NYT site, it’s important to realize that a backchannel isn’t a substitution for spoken discussion, it’s an enhancement to spoken discussion. Instead of hearing from just a handful of students, you can hear from all students, even the quiet ones. That’s a great source of feedback on student learning for the teacher. And often having the chance to float a thought on the backchannel (and perhaps receiving an encouraging response) helps a student become more willing to contribute to the spoken discussion.

This notion that a new teaching modality is somehow a “substitution” for an established teaching modality is one that Barry Dahl debunks very effectively in a recent blog post:

Nowhere in the article did it say that the students used this backchannel technique every day  for class, or that it was the only way that most students could communicate in class, or that it had replaced their opportunity (or requirements) to speak out loud during class. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any reason to jump to that conclusion at all, but they most certainly seemed to do so. All the chatter about “students will never learn how to speak out loud” is the biggest bunch of hooey I’ve ever heard.

As Barry goes on to point out, there’s nothing wrong with teachers having more tools in their toolbox to accomplish their instructional goals. Also, if educators should “teach effective communication in multiple forms” (as M. wrote), shouldn’t that include online communication? Isn’t knowing how to navigate a Facebook or Twitter conversation part of what we mean by information literacy? Students need to learn to speak out loud, sure, but they also need to learn how to “speak” online.

On that note, I’ll mention here what others (including Ira Socol) have mentioned about the comments left on the NYT site. Many (not all, but many) of the negative comments were left by people not providing their real names–even though some of them criticize teachers for letting students “hide” behind the anonymity a backchannel supposedly provides. Moreover, few of the negative comments include responses to other comments. That is, most consist of comments left by people who apparently didn’t read the earlier comments on the article and certainly weren’t engaging in discussion others commenting on the piece. That’s pretty shallow online discussion–just the kind of shallow discussion some of the negative comments rail against.

The fact that many of those opposed to the use of backchannel in the classroom aren’t very good at participating in stimulating and robust online conversations isn’t really surprising, of course. If they knew how to participate online in productive ways, they would likely appreciate how valuable those kinds of online conversations could be in the classroom. Too bad their teachers didn’t have backchannel tools available–they might be more engaged digital citizens today!

Not all the comments on the NYT site were negative, of course. Nicholas Provenzano, one of the teachers mentioned in the article, left a great comment that used a cooking metaphor for teaching:

I like to look at my classroom and the way I set it up like a recipe for a wonderful meal… Every year I get new dinner guests with a host of special needs. My goal as the master chef is to create meals (lessons) that are appetizing to all of my students. Feeding the same thing to different people because others liked it is very short sighted.  Teachers that are willing to go out on a limb and try new things to reach different types of students should be applauded.

If you’re interested in learning about productive uses of backchannel in education, take a look at my past posts on the subject, particularly the ones profiling Gardner Campbell’s use of backchannel to involve an off-site librarian in class discussions and Monica Rankin’s use of backchannel to enhance small-group discussions in her history course. Also, the K12 teachers profiled in the NYT piece will be answering reader questions soon; you’re invited to post your questions for them.

Image: “The New York Times,” jphilipg, Flickr (CC)

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