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Backchannel Communication: A Positive Use of Technology in Education

download_pdf_smFor the purpose of this article, instructor is synonymous with presenter, teacher, administrator, or anyone leading a session. Participant is synonymous with student, learner, or anyone attending a session.

Twitter, Facebook, blogs, chat rooms, instant messages, text-messages, e-mails — technology is fast becoming the way of the world. Why not embrace it and use it for higher-level learning and communication in education? Although many of the previously mentioned technologies have been around for years, they may not typically be used as communication vehicles in actual classroom applications. It is common for students to use technology to complete assignments, but how often do instructors permit the use of technology in class that allows students to converse with each other during instruction? Backchannel communication is real-time, electronic conversation taking place simultaneously with a presentation, instructor-led lesson or activity. This electronic conversation can include questions, observations, comments, or any feedback regarding the topic without disrupting the speaker or activity. In schools that have accommodating internet connections and available devices, backchannel communication can happen in any classroom.

Here’s how it works! Let’s say students are signed in and the teacher is giving instructions. Linda types, “Isn’t this the same thing we did yesterday?” Then Bobby types, “It is similar, but she added another part, so there is a fourth step in the problem instead of just three.” This prompts Linda to think more deeply about both days and how the instructions differ. Once the teacher finishes giving instructions, s/he checks the backchannel and has two choices: 1) She can respond on the backchannel and ask Linda if she understands today’s instructions or, 2) She can use the information she read on the backchannel to go to Linda’s desk and talk privately with her, making sure Linda understands.

Set-up, Rules and Monitoring

Teachers can set up a backchannel using the preferred digital application. Many are available, but students are typically familiar with Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, so these may be a good starting place. However, in these public domains when there is no control over who sees the postings or who can comment on the topic, there may be some problems with disruptive comments from “outsiders.” Fortunately, there are other dedicated backchannel software programs that are available for purchase such as Edmodo, Elluminate Live and Blackboard Collaborate. There are also some without any cost at all. For example, TodaysMeet, Chatterous, and Mister Thread are free backchannels that are easy to set up and easy for participants to quickly join and use. They are strictly backchannels and not a social meeting place that the public can access unless they are invited and/or have the password. The instructor has more control over the application and can decide who has access as well as how long the backchannel remains available to users. At the beginning of the lecture or activity, the teacher instructs participants on how to join the backchannel. In most cases, it’s as simple as entering your name, email address, or a password. Once participants have joined, the lesson can begin.

The teacher may want to answer backchannel questions and comments personally, or respond later during a break, allowing other participants to answer backchannel questions during the presentation. There are many ways to monitor, so instructors will have to experiment to see what works in their individual rooms. In dedicated backchannel applications, after exiting, participants can also receive a copy of the backchannel transcript via email that can be used for reference.

For participants not familiar with the backchannel, presenters must explain their potential and set forth expectations regarding their use. For example, participants must be aware that any comments or questions must be respectful and related to the presentation topic. In other words, remarks such as “I’m bored” or “Did you go to the football game last night?” should not be part of the backchannel conversations.

Using Student Technology for Education

Backchannels can foster engagement and participation in class that might not happen otherwise, especially in a large venue with many participants. Some participants may not want to contribute verbally, but are willing to do so electronically or anonymously. Backchanneling also allows for higher-level thinking and questioning as participants follow along and give more extensive thought to the subject. Students can also take a turn as the facilitator and respond to comments and questions, which allows for a deeper understanding of the topic. It may also prevent some of the “sidebar” conversations that often happen during presentations or classes.

Many teachers battle daily with students regarding classroom use of personal electronic devices such as cell phones, laptops and tablets. Asking students to use these devices (stipulating use of the backchannel only), can lessen these skirmishes or eliminate them altogether while allowing both the participant and the instructor to “get their way.” Yes, instructors will still have to monitor use, but they may be pleasantly surprised to find participants actively engaged in the topic at hand. Additionally, teachers may require a certain number of responses on the backchannel from each student as a way to facilitate discussion and ensure all students understand how to use it.

Backchannels may also be used for other purposes. Administrators can use a backchannel during a staff development meeting as a way to keep teachers involved and receive their immediate input and feedback. Teachers can periodically use the backchannel during a lesson to ask questions requiring a student response. Students can use the backchannel to ask each other questions, ask the teacher questions, or make insightful comments.

As individuals discover countless uses for technology, educators must attempt to stay current and “keep up” with emergent applications that are feasible within the classroom. Backchannels allow the use of many devices that can connect to one application specific to one group of users. They allow not only for inclusion of many, effective communications among participants without interrupting the speaker, but also immediate feedback for both.