Okay, one more post in the series, then it’s back to some discussion of “old-fashioned” clickers. One interesting aspect of the ConnectEd Summit was that everyone at the conference had an iPhone or iPod Touch. The conference organizers made loaner iPod Touches for attendees who didn’t already have one of these devices. They also created an iPhone application for the conference. This app featured a place for conference announcements, an attendee directory (complete with photos of attendees taken during registration), and a copy of the program. Most of the sessions at the conference also had dedicated collaboration spaces within the app, with areas to add relevant links and simple discussion forums. We encouraged to contribute to these space during and between sessions as a kind of backchannel for the conference.
One issue that quickly emerged was that the local wireless network had trouble handling 400 people trying to access it simultaneously. Since we were also using our mobile devices to respond to “clicker” questions during some of the keynotes, there were several occasions when all 400 of us attempted to go online in the same 60-second window. This didn’t always work, although the conference organizers did their best to work on this problem. One solution that seemed to help was to ask iPhone users to turn off their wireless and use their 3G cellular connections. ACU has two 3G AT&T towers on campus, so the 3G coverage is excellent. One takeaway from this is that other campuses interested in leveraging mobile devices in the classroom will have to work on network solutions that support this much data traffic.
Another thing I noticed was that participation in the discussion forums waned during the conference. It took a little while for discussion to get started during the opening keynote, but by the end of it, there were a dozen or so posts in the forum for that keynote. During the first breakout session I was in (the “pedagogy and praxis” session), there were a lot of interesting comments made on the forum for that session throughout the session. However, during the later breakout sessions in that track, there was very little backchannel discussion. I think this was due to the fact that these later sessions consisted almost entirely of small group discussion, whereas the first session was mostly one-to-many presentations (including one by yours truly). It seems that backchannel works better during lectures / presentations than during group discussions.
That leads me to wonder about the purpose of these kinds of backchannel discussions. If participants in a session are more likely to contribute to backchannel discussions during a presentation, what does that imply about their interest level in the presentation? Are they more engaged because they are commenting on and asking questions about the presentation? Or are their backchannel comments indicative of boredom? In my experience at the conference, there were times when I fell into the former category and other times in the latter category. And what effect does this kind of backchannel conversation have on presenters? A very interesting post by Olivia Mitchell on the Pistachio Consulting blog titled “How to Present While People Are Twittering” argues that not only should presenters encourage backchannel, they should respond to that backchannel if possible.
And what about backchannel during small group discussions? At one point we had five groups of five to eight participants each very actively engaged in small-group discussion during our session. No one was backchanneling during this time, probably because they were all engaged in their local discussions. Could backchannel have been used to cross-pollinate the small-group discussions, however? If someone had a great idea in one group, a group member might post that to the backchannel so that it might be taken up in one of the other small groups.
The conference organizers also announced a Twitter keyword for the conference, #acuconnected. I’ve been on Twitter for a year, but it was during the conference that I first tweeted anything. Because of this, I forgot to include the #acuconnected keyword in a couple of my tweets, meaning they weren’t part of the overall conference stream of tweets. This also meant that I had to figure a few things out about Twitter, like how to search for tweets with a particular keyword and how to reply to people’s tweets.
The nice thing about using Twitter was that comments weren’t embedded in discussion forums for individual sessions; there was only one stream for the entire conference. This meant that by following that stream, I could get a sense of what was going on in other sessions at the conference, which was useful. (Apparently, the podcasting track had some great discussion!) Another thing I observed was that although backchannel discussion waned in the conference app near the end of the conference, it stayed relatively steady on Twitter. Perhaps those of us who noticed that discussion in the conference app was waning sought out a larger audience.
Thinking about the uses of mobile devices I’ve mentioned here is important, I think, as we consider ways to have our students use these devices productively. I welcome any thoughts you have about backchannel conversation, especially.