The Backchannel – Dealing with Distraction, Incivility, and Unfairness (#EDUSprint)

This week the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) is organizing a five-day “sprint” on mobile computing in higher education. Yesterday, I blogged about the use of mobile devices (cell phones, smart phones, laptops, and such) as “super clickers,” part of a classroom response system that supports not just multiple-choice questions but also free-response questions. Today I’ll focus on the use of mobile devices to support student-to-student communication and collaboration in the classroom, the second of the five types of mobile learning I identified in a previous blog post.

While there are many ways of implementing this type of mobile learning, I’ll blog today about one I know well, the backchannel. In particular, I’m thinking about the use of mobile devices to allow students to participate in a synchronous, online discussion about course content during class. For some concrete examples of backchannel use in higher ed, check out my posts on uses of Twitter by Monica Rankin and Gardner Campbell. (And for a very different, non-backchannel approach to mobile learning type 2, read about how I used Prezi Meeting for in-class, collaborative debate mapping last semester.)

I’ve blogged several times about Cliff Atkinson’s book The Backchannel, and I’ll now continue that series by looking at some of the risks involved with running a backchannel (via Twitter or some other mechanism) during class. For some context, see my review of the book, nine classroom uses of the backchannel I identified based on Chapter 3 of Atkinson’s book, some thoughts on the prevalence of backchannels in college classrooms based on Chapter 1, and a couple of ways to manage the backchannel during class based on Chapter 2.

In Chapter 4, Atkinson puts on his “black hat” and describes some of the cautions speakers (at conferences and elsewhere) should have about backchannels, whether or not those speakers invite backchannel participation. I’ll reframe Atkinson’s cautions for the higher education context.

The Risk of Incivility – Atkinson notes that since comments made on the backchannel are more public than comments whispered to one’s neighbor during a presentation, the backchannel can amplify the effects of negative comments. To make matters worse, comments made online are often less “filtered” than those made face-to-face and they often have less context, leading to misunderstandings.

I can see professors worrying about student incivility on the backchannel a great deal. Might we see some of the same rude comments on a class backchannel that we see sometimes on RateMyProfessor? If students are allowed to contribute to the class backchannel anonymously, then, yes, there’s a risk of incivility. If, however, students are required to “own” their backchannel comments, I think the risk diminishes greatly.

Also, a one-off conference keynote, in which the speaker and the audience are together for one session and then go their separate ways, is likely to encourage more trollish behavior than in a course setting, where the instructor and students form a community of sorts that lasts for weeks or months. Of course, a backchannel blow-up that happens at one point in the semester could have lasting consequences for that community, so it’s important that instructors interested in experimenting with backchannel tools work to establish a reasonable rapport with their students up front.

The Risk of Distraction and Confusion – Atkinson points out that it can be distracting for a speaker to look out over her audience and see a bunch of faces pointed down at their smart phones. Likewise, audience members can distract themselves by paying more attention to the backchannel than to the speaker. Some audience members using their mobile devices to participate in the backchannel might end up surfing the Web instead. And someone with a laptop (or an iPad with the clicking noise turned on while typing) can distract other audience members nearby.

I’m pretty active on Twitter when I attend conferences, and I’m mindful of the criticism often leveled at those who tweet during sessions–that they’re not paying attention or that they’re trying to multi-task, which, as psychologists keep telling me, is impossible. However, many of those who tweet during conferences are actually engaged in what I would call active listening, identifying key points in the presentation and taking notes on those key points by sharing them on Twitter. Often the “live tweeting” I do during presentations is primarily for myself, so that I’ll have some handy notes to reference after the talk. Any benefit my Twitter followers gain from my tweets is bonus.

That being said, the distraction issue is one that I know professors are very sensitive to. Many professors worry that students who bring laptops into class for note-taking purposes end up distracting themselves by checking Facebook, watching ESPN, or shopping for shoes. (Almost every time I see an article on this issue, shoe shopping is mentioned. Apparently, that’s the distraction of choice for some students.) Having students use laptops and other mobile devices to participate in a backchannel isn’t likely to diminish that worry!

On the other hand, I’ve heard from several instructors who encourage mobile device use in the classroom that when students are given something on-topic and productive to do with their devices during class, they spent much less time using those devices for off-topic purposes. On some level, I think students realize that the device they have with them is capable of so much more than just helping them take notes. They want to use it for something interactive, something that helps them stay engaged (or at least awake). If the instructor doesn’t give them some tools for doing so, they find their own ways to leverage all that computing power, which apparently involves shoe shopping.

Although I’m arguing here that the risk of distraction is overestimated by many, I also see the need to develops ways to mitigate this risk. See my previous post on “backchannel breaks” for one approach.

The Risk of Unfairness – Atkinson raises a few ways in which the backchannel might be unfair to those involved. Since a presenter often doesn’t have the mental bandwidth to monitor the backchannel while presenting, there can be perspectives raised on the backchannel that the presenter misses, leaving the presenter out of the conversation. Some audience members can weigh in on a presentation before the presenter has time to clarify his or her points, which can be unfair, as well. Those in the audience not on the backchannel can feel left out of the conversation, and even those engaged in the backchannel can feel left out if a few vocal participants drown out other perspectives.

Given the position of power most instructors hold in the classroom, I’m less worried about the risk of unfairness to the instructor coming from the backchannel than I am the risk of unfairness to students. I recently led a workshop on using crowdsourcing tools to leverage the diversity in one’s class for student learning, and I talked a bit about the backchannel (in the form of Google Moderator) as one such tool. A few participants in this workshop pushed back on my ideas, arguing that some of the crowdsourcing tools I mentioned, including backchannel tools, can marginalize students with minority perspectives, particularly on controversial topics like race, gender, politics, or religion. This unfairness is a legitimate concern, one that instructors should attend to.

One of the ideas I shared in that workshop is the notion of “the long tail.” In the college classroom, certain perspectives on any given topic are going to be held by many students, while other perspectives are going to be held by only a few students. While the more common perspectives may get more “air time” during class in a discussion, it’s important to recognize that there’s often great value in the “long tail” perspectives, that is, those minority perspectives that sometimes don’t get surfaced during class. While some of these perspectives might get lost in a busy backchannel conversation, it’s worth noting that they often don’t get shared at all in a more traditional discussion. Every student can contribute a thought to the backchannel at the same time; only one student at a time can share his or her thought verbally with the class in a traditional discussion. Thus, the backchannel provides a tool for making those “long tail” perspectives more visible during class.

That assumes, of course, that students feel comfortable sharing “long tail” perspectives with their peers and, to some extent, with their instructor. This concern is why the anonymity provided by clickers is so important. A student can vote for answer choice A, B, C, or D without having to worry what his peers might think about that selection. Allowing students to contribute to a backchannel discussion anonymously is one way to make it safer for students to share minority perspectives. I noted above that anonymous discussions run a greater risk of incivility, however. Having backchannel comments anonymous to students but identified to instructors might be a way to balance these two risks. Each class context is different, however. One instructor might find more value in completely anonymous comments (anonymous even to the instructor), while another might find more value in having students identify themselves with each comment.

I linked to the website for Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail, above. Anderson argues that a long tail market (say, books sold on Amazon, where there are lots and lots of titles that don’t sell many copies) works best when the market has ways to search the long tail and “promote” long tail items to greater prominence. For example, when you buy a very popular book on Amazon, Amazon might recommend a related “long tail” book you might also like. If enough customers see that recommendation and act on it, that “long tail” book can become a bestseller. As Anderson writes, that’s exactly what happened to Joe Simpson’s book Touching the Void, which owes much of its success to John Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air and Amazon’s recommendation feature.

All that to say, you don’t want “long tail” perspectives shared by your students to get lost in the backchannel. You need to have mechanisms by which these perspectives can be made more visible and integrated into the class discussion. That might involve an amplification tool that many backchannel systems use to allow participants to “vote up” peer contributions they like. Such a tool would allow a minority perspective that’s particularly insightful to get more attention. On the other hand, a minority viewpoint that isn’t “voted up” gets lost in the backchannel that much more thoroughly, so having someone (the instructor, a TA, a designated student) monitor the “long tail” of students comments, looking for valuable perspectives not getting enough attention, might be necessary.

The Risk of Chaos – As Atkinson describes this risk, it’s something of a combination of the other risks he mentions. He tells the story of an on-stage interview of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the 2008 South by Southwest Interactive Festival, in which audience members used the Twitter backchannel to vent their frustration quite colorfully at the interviewer, who didn’t seem to be asking Zuckerberg the tough questions. I’ve heard this kind of mob mentality blowup called “tweckling” (Twitter + heckling) and “harshtagging” (harsh + hashtagging). Those silly words don’t really express how traumatic this kind of audience backlash can be. Check out danah boyd’s description of her keynote at the 2009 Web2.0 Expo to see what I mean.

As I mentioned above, given the power differential between instructors and students, I don’t think there’s any great risk of a backchannel blowup in most college classrooms. I see two exceptions, however:

  • Instructors who are in some way “other” than their students (a female instructor in a male dominated field, a professor of color on a largely white college campus, and so on) don’t have the same power relationship to their students that some instructors have. There’s lots of literature on the experiences of these instructors that’s relevant here, but suffice it to say, such an instructor might want to take extra care when implementing a backchannel in the classroom.
  • A backchannel initiated and organized by the students, not the instructor, has greater potential for blowing up during or after class. Imagining looking out at your students, not knowing that a third of them are ripping into you on Facebook while you lecture. (Given what I know of students’ social media use, it would be on Facebook, not Twitter.)

It’s this latter scenario that Atkinson addresses in the remainder of Chapter 4. He points out some of the ways that conference audiences, at least, are changing and coming to expect more participation and more interaction. They’re walking into hotel ballrooms with smart phones and tablets, ready to participate in a backchannel conversation whether the keynote speaker wants them to or not. Atkinson advises speakers to learn about the backchannel and, since they can’t shut it down, start taking advantage of it.

I don’t know if the same change is happening among college students, but I suspect elements of it are already in place. Surveys indicate that about half of college students in the US have Web-enabled smart phones. And they’re certainly used to living in a participatory culture. They might start pushing back against attempts to ban mobile devices in the classroom and start organizing their own backchannels on Facebook or elsewhere. I’m not trying to scare anyone here. I’m just arguing that as our students’ expectations for technology use in the classroom change, we should learn about those expectations and look for ways to leverage those expectations to help students learn.

What about you? Do you see these potential risks for backchannel use in the college classroom? What methods do you suggest for dealing with these risks?

Image: “Black Hat on a Rack,” arbyreed, Flickr (CC)


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