The Backchannel by Cliff Atkinson

Cliff Atkinson, author of Beyond Bullet Points, has a new book out, The Backchannel, from New Riders Press (publishers of Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen).  I’ve discussed the use of backchannel in the past, and I consider backchannel technology to be part of the more general category of classroom response systems.  I just finished reading The Backchannel, which focuses primarily on backchannel use in business and conference settings, and I wanted to share some thoughts on the book and what those of us in educational contexts might learn from it.

First, a little definitional work.  The term backchannel refers to three kinds of conversations that usually don’t occur in traditional one-to-many lectures or presentations.  I call backchannel type 1 the conversation that occurs among students or audience members.  This kind of backchannel has been around forever, but until the advent of laptops, netbooks, and smart phones, it was usually limited to whispering to your neighbor and passing notes.

I use backchannel type 2 to refer to the feedback that students or audience members provide to an instructor or presenter.  This, too, has been around forever, in the form of brief Q&A interchanges between the person at the podium and those in the seats, but now with services like Twitter and Hotseat, students and audience members can share their thoughts with instructors and presenters in very different ways.

There is a third kind of backchannel that’s distinctly different from types 1 and 2.  Traditionally, the only participants in a lecture or presentation were the people in the room at the time.  However, Twitter, blogs, and other social media tools allow conversations to extend beyond the physical room.  Presenters and audience members alike can share ideas, questions, and resources with people outside the room following the conversation virtually through social media.  And those virtual participants can interact with those in the room by sharing ideas and resources and asking questions of those in the room.

In his book, Atkinson describes very clearly the roles these three different kinds of backchannel can play in a lecture or presentation, illustrating his points with many examples of backchannel uses both successful and unsuccessful at recent national conferences.  The first chapter, available online, is a particularly easy-to-follow introduction to backchannel technology (Twitter, in particular) as well as questions, concerns, and opportunities that backchannel presents for those at the front of the room.  If you’re not sure what all the buzz about Twitter and backchannel is all about (and you’re still reading this post!), then I recommend you read through Atkinson’s first chapter.  It’s a great starting point for understanding the logistics and dynamics of backchannel.

Subsequent chapters provide a step-by-step guide to getting started with Twitter, explorations of the risks and rewards of backchannel, and Atkinson’s recommendations for making the most of backchannel before, during, and after a presentation, including advice for handling an “unruly” backchannel.  This last advice is accompanied by an examination of how social media expert Chris Brogan “tamed” a rough backchannel conversation at a conference last September.

As noted, Atkinson does a great job of explaining backchannel and its potential for good and for bad.  He also presents several useful “what would you do?” scenarios throughout the book, asking the readers to put themselves in the shoes of a particular presenter, moderator, or audience member.  The book is written in an informal, engaging style, with helpful images, screenshots, and diagrams throughout.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking and blogging about the backchannel, and I still took away several interesting, useful, practical tips from Atkinson’s book about managing backchannel conversations.

My primary criticism of Atkinson’s book is that he is a little too prescriptive with his advice.  I know that every instructor’s teaching context is different–different institution, different students, different topics, different teaching strength, and so on–so I tried in my book on teaching with clickers to describe a variety of options for teaching with clickers, along with pros and cons for those options, so that readers might decide for themselves what teaching choices to make.  Atkinson does a little of that in his book, but for the most part he tells the reader what they should do when leveraging the backchannel.  I respect his expertise on this subject, but there were several times while reading the book that I could easily imagine presenting or teaching contexts in which his recommendations would not work well.

I took about 15 pages of handwritten notes as I was reading The Backchannel, and I plan to write more about the book, particularly its implications for those of us educational settings.  In the meantime, I’ll end with two quotes from the book.  The first one is found on page 31 and addresses the educational context:

Some educators have been experimenting with using Twitter and other social media technologies to introduce a backchannel to the classroom, a practice that has generated intense criticism from those who see it as a threat to traditional lecture formats and established pedagogy.

The second one makes clear what Atkinson thinks about this debate and is one of several times Atkinson argues that the rise of the backchannel will fundamentally change the world of presentations:

The traditional lecture format, bullet point slides, and post-presentation Q&A session are becoming dinosaurs in this fast-moving world.  Each of these social tools has offered some efficiency or benefit that was appropriate for the time, but times are radically changing, and it is time for these methods to evolve into new ones that are a better fit for our needs.

What do you think?  With mobile computing identified in the 2010 Horizon Report as an emerging technology likely to have a significant impact on campuses in the next one or two years, what role do you see for backchannel in college and university teaching in the near future?

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