Back Chanelling – The Latest Form of Group Discussion

While working on our final ecmp 455 project last night, Kristina and I had an excellent discussion about back channelling and the benefits of allowing it in your classroom. I never knew that there was a specific term for this, but  apparently I have been using it for pretty much my entire school life (minus the years were a) I couldn’t write sentences yet and b) was too afraid to getting caught by the teacher). For almost as long as I can remember I have been chatting during class, mostly about what ever it was that I was learning about. My friends and I would ask each other questions about the content we were learning about and share whatever connection we were making to it in regards to our lives outside of the classroom. In the era of technology students do not pass notes or try and whisper quietly to one another, they send text messages from their cell phones or Facebook messages to one another if on a computer during class. These actions are done silently and do not cause a disruption in the classroom. But is it distracting? Maybe. Is it beneficial? I think so.

Why not use this ‘chat’ as a teaching strategy and a way to enhance the learning that is taking place in your classroom. With cooperative and experiential learning being pushed in today’s classroom then why not allow students to discuss as they are learning. This discussion I am talking about does not involve the teacher stopping her lesson for small group discussions; this discussion is taking place while the teacher is teaching. I would be curious to set up a room at and find out what my students are talking about and asking one another in regards to my lesson.

I see this as an assessment tool to not only assess what the students are learning, but assess your teaching of that lesson – Do the students get it? Or do they not get it? There are many benefits to using Twitter, Today’s Meet, or a class blog in your classroom or presentation. Take our chat during our ecmp class; we have side conversations about what is being said, add our own thoughts and feelings, make connections to the lecture, and pose questions that we would like answered. These questions cannot only be answered the the instructor, but by other classmates as well without disrupting the lesson. There is immediate feedback and shows you as the teacher if you are reaching your target of being heard by your students/listeners. The more silent discussion taking place on the side = interesting topic!

Pistachio has a great blog post about backchanelling during presentations (which I have related to classes/lectures) and has listed 8 benefits of the back chanell to the audience:

1. It helps audience members focus

As a presenter, you might be worried that the back-channel will be distracting. The opposite seems to be true.

2. The audience gets more content

People tweeting during your presentation add explanations, elaborations, and useful links related to your content

3. Audience members can get questions answered on the fly

In the past, you might have lent over to you neigbor and said “What did she mean by that?” or you remained confused. Now, audience members don’t have to wait to clarify things they don’t understand. They can tweet their question and another audience member will tweet back with the answer. Audience members who tuned out because they didn’t understand now stay engaged.

4. The audience can participate

The back-channel blurs the line between the presenter and the audience. Now everyone can be an active participant.

5. The audience can innovate

As your presentation sparks ideas, audience members can tweet them and build on each others’ thoughts.

6. You don’t have to be physically present to participate

Not only can you watch a live videostream of the presentation, but you can also tweet or chat with the physically-present participants.

7. You can connect with people

Being at a conference where you know no-one or only a few people can be intimidating. People who know each other cluster together and you can feel out of the action. But if you participate in the back channel, you’ll get to know people virtually, and can then introduce yourself physically at the next break.

8. You can do something else

And lastly, if the speaker is tedious, you can get on and do something productive and no one will know.

It would be interesting to see this work first hand in a setting other than ecmp class with Dean and Alec. Has anyone else given this whole back chanelling idea a try?

6 responses to “Back Chanelling – The Latest Form of Group Discussion

  1. The backchannel idea is definitely disruptive, and may not be for everyone and for all times. I’ve noticed at various conferences, some people think the backchannel can be a bit rude (it may come off that way), and others really like it. I guess part of it, if this is where learners naturally need to go, why not support it? If this helps learning, why not use it (as you say) to assess for learning?

    This stuff is pretty new. Great points from @pistachio … but I bet you’ll make it work even better in your own practice. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with in your own classroom next year.

  2. stephen king

    Hi Sarah,

    Once again I find myself learning from you. Really enjoyed this post and found it helpful in understanding all the talk of back channeling. We use it in Alec’s ECI 831 class with Elluminate. I enjoy the opportunity to participate and “pass notes” during class but I sometimes find myself distracted from the presentation and more focused on the back channel discussion. I wonder if there is something written on back channeling etiquette because I sometimes find comments are more social and not contributing to the ideas being discussed.

    I also wonder if this is a difference in learning styles between “Old School” folks like me and 21st Century learners like you! Thanks for another timely blog!

  3. I take your point. But while this may work with a group of mature students–at a conference presentation, for example–in my experience younger students, such as the Gr. 6-9 students I teach, are not really able to multi-task this way. It may be that they don’t yet have the training, or it may be that developmentally speaking, they don’t yet have the capacity for this.

    And it may also be that none of us have it, even if we think we do. I know that I cannot listen to an engaging talk and talk to someone else about it at the same time. There is a inverse relationship between the number of my Tweets and the quality of the presentation.

    Lastly, I can’t get rid of this idea that it is simply rude to be talking when someone else is speaking–even if your talk is in a back channel.

    I’m not dismissing back-channel conversations–I think they’re important and I suspect a great deal of learning happens in them. But I think they should happen after the main event.

  4. Brad,

    You make some valid points. However, I think we need to consider a few things.

    1. A back channel need not only be used in the context of a formal presentation. That seems to be the current context but a discussion can occur in other formats.
    2. While you might find it distracting, others see this as group note taking. Being able to capture thoughts in real time that others may or may not be able to respond to is valuable.
    3. I’m not sure the inverse relationship you suggest is always true. I agree that when someone has me completely engaged I’m less likely to be doing other things however, some speakers allow participants to explicitly as questions for themselves or for others. I find I’m most engaged with storytellers. The point might not be made until the very end. The fact is few have this skill to keep us focused for great lengths of time. In fact, I read recently that 9 minutes is about the ceiling of time we can be engaged in listening to someone else.

    Anyway, I’m not totally disagreeing with your points, I just think it’s another area that we’ll have to rethink, play with and determine for ourselves what works and what doesn’t. It may be too early to make that decision as well there are so many variables for implementation that we likely haven’t seen all the possibilities.

  5. RaiulBaztepo

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  6. Pingback: My Digital Footprint « Miss Hill’s Blog

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