Backchannel in Education – Nine Uses

I wanted to share some additional thoughts on Cliff Atkinson’s new book, The Backchannel, and its implications for higher education.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, the first chapter of the book is available online and provides a very clear introduction to the logistics and possibilities of the backchannel.  What might the backchannel look like in educational settings?  Here are a couple of examples.

The Twitter Experiment,” a five-minute YouTube video, shows how UT-Dallas history professor Monica Rankin used Twitter to facilitate a backchannel discussion.  In her case, she had a somewhat large class that she broke into smaller discussion groups.  The students were encouraged to post their thoughts on Twitter during the small-group discussion time.  The Twitterstream was displayed on the big screen for the whole class to see.  This led to some “cross-fertilization” of small-group discussions as ideas generated by one group were read and discussed by other groups.  Dr. Rankin also had a TA monitor the backchannel, responding to student questions and surfacing important points for Dr. Rankin to discuss with the entire class from time to time during the class session.  For more details on Dr. Rankin’s use of Twitter, see my earlier post on this topic.

Purdue University has developed a system called Hotseat that facilitates backchannel discussion.  This system allows students to contribute to the backchannel in a variety of ways, including Twitter and Facebook.  The student contributes are typically displayed on a big screen for the entire class to see, and the instructor typically takes a “Hotseat break” of sorts every now and then to respond to the questions raised in the backchannel.  Students can comment on other students’ posts and they can “vote up” comments or questions their peers post so that instructors have an easier time identifying the most pressing topics.  The Purdue team shared their work on Hotseat at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative earlier today, and, according to Twitter user @eyb, who “live-tweeted” the presentation, students really liked the system.  They didn’t necessarily think it helped them learn better, but they liked it and they wanted their instructors to spend more time responding to the questions raised in the backchannel.

(I’ve been meaning to talk about Hotseat here on the blog for a while now.  Thanks to @eyb for some great reporting at ELI!  I feel I have a much better sense of the system now, technologically and pedagogically.)

What are some other ways that backchannel might function in educational settings?  Cliff Atkinson describes some common and uncommon uses of the backchannel in Chapter 3 of his book.  Here are my thoughts on how Atkinson’s uses might map over to educational settings:

  • Notetaking: Students can take their notes during a class in the backchannel.  This provides an electronic (and thus searchable) set of notes for the student.  Moreover, students can read and use each other’s notes more easily.  You might even select two or three students each day to be official class note-takers, freeing other students up for more engagement in class.
  • Sharing Resources: Students can also look online (or, call me crazy, in their textbooks) for information that supplements the lecture or class discussion.  It’s easy to share links in the backchannel thanks to all the URL shortening services, and students can be very good at finding useful and relevant information online.  And if a resource shared by a student isn’t useful or relevant, it creates an opportunity to discuss with students how to find and evaluate online information resources.
  • Commenting: Students can also comment on the ideas being share or discussed in class.  Just providing a visible venue for student comments is likely to encourage more students to reflect actively during class.  Plus, students can read and respond to each others’ reflections.  Sure, students can contribute to online discussions after class, but there’s something exciting about having more students engage in discussions during class–more than just those who are bold enough and quick enough to contribute verbally.
  • Amplifying: The Hotseat feature mentioned above that allows students to “vote up” peer comments they find important is an example of what Atkinson calls “amplifying what others are saying.”  On Twitter, this happens via retweeting: If a comment is retweeted frequently, then many people find it interesting enough to share.  Google Moderator is a free service that works similarly–students can post questions and others can vote them up or down.  This kind of feature is a great way to handle the problem I’ve identified here on the blog several times: It’s really hard for an instructor to follow and make sense of the backchannel during class given the open-ended nature of the comments.  Giving the students the ability to identify more or less relevant comments is one way to help with this.  (Monica Rankin’s use of a moderator–her TA–is another.)
  • Asking Questions: I’ve put this a few spots down the list since I think it’s a more obvious use of the backchannel than some of the ones listed above.  Backchannel provides students an additional way to ask questions.  Students are frequently hesitant to ask questions in class for a variety of mostly social reasons–they don’t want to look “dumb” in front of their instructor or their peers.  Anonymous backchannel discussions make it extremely easy for these students to surface their questions.  Even when students are identified on the backchannel, having a venue where questions are encouraged is likely to make it easier for students to share questions.  And if the backchannel includes an amplification tool, then students can support each others’ question-asking very directly.
  • Helping One Another: Keep in mind that there are several kinds of backchannel conversations, including student-to-student conversations.  When one student poses a question on the backchannel, another student might very well answer that question before the instructor can get to it.  This kind of peer instruction is a common use of clickers, and it can work well in the backchannel, too.
  • Offering Suggestions: The backchannel can give students a voice in where a class discussion goes.  Students can suggest discussion topics or questions.  They can also suggest useful readings, activities, or topics for subsequent classes.  They can provide instructors with feedback on what’s working and what’s not from their perspective.  Many instructors have students complete a “minute paper” at the end of each class in which students identify the most important point of the day or ask a question.  The backchannel allows instructors to gather this kind of feedback whenever students are ready to share it during class.
  • Building Community: Particularly in large classes, it can be hard for students to get to know more than just the few students they sit near.  Backchannel discussions can help students get to know each other in a variety of ways.  I would argue that it’s important for students to have avatars or icons attached to their backchannel posts, preferably photos of themselves.  Seeing someone’s face along with their comments and their name helps build actual, not just virtual community.
  • Opening the Classroom: Some backchannels are private; that is, only the instructor and students can see or participate in the backchannel conversation.  Others, like Twitter, are public, allowing those outside the classroom to participate in the discussion.  This provides an opportunity to open the class discussion to those not currently enrolled in the course–students taking other courses, students who took the course in the past, academic experts at other institutions, and more.  These external people have the potential to learn from and contribute to the backchannel discussion.

That was fun thinking through these options!  You can have fun, too: What did I miss?  Comments or suggestions for the uses I’ve listed above?

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