With the Spring conference season about to
begin (ASTD International Conference & Expo in May, eLearning
Guilds Learning Solutions in March, and countless other events), it
seemed wise to review some best practices for making the most of
backchannel learning opportunities.
Educause defines the backchannel as a secondary
electronic conversation that takes place at the same time as a
conference session, lecture, or instructor-led learning activity.
For example, this might involve participants using a Twitter to
discuss a lecture as it is happening.
Backchannel conversations are being brought into
the foreground as a formal part of learning and interaction as
speakers actively encourage participants to join in with questions
or comments, sharing their feedback with one another without
disrupting the speaker. When speakers integrate backchannel
discussion into their lectures, it can help guide the presentation.
Whether the backchannel exists as a spontaneous element to the
learning experience or is displayed for common participation, the
allure is its immediacy as a real-time conversation in parallel
with the formal presentation.
The essential challenge raised by the backchannel
is how to use it most constructively to support learning. It has
the potential to foster engagement and participation, especially in
large venues. Because the backchannel enables a smaller group to be
connected to the broader community via Twitter or some other
publicly accessed service, facilitators, instructors, and
participants must learn how to use these services
responsibly. In his Agile Learning blog, Director of
Vanderbilt Universitys Center for Teaching Derek Bruff highlights
how using the backchannel can aid learning.
Note-taking: Participants can take their notes
during a class in the backchannel. This provides an electronic
(and thus searchable) set of notes for learners. A presenter might
even select two or three known participants to be official
note-takers, freeing others for more engagement in class.
Sharing Resources: Its easy to share links in the
backchannel thanks to all the URL shortening services, and learners
can be very good at finding useful and relevant information
online.More important, if a shared resource isnt useful or
relevant, it creates an opportunity to discuss how to find and
evaluate online information resources.
Commenting: Participants can comment on the ideas
being shared or discussed by the facilitator. Providing a visible
venue for comments is likely to encourage others to reflect
actively. Plus, participants can read and respond to each others
Amplifying: Its difficult for a facilitator to
always follow and make sense of the backchannel during an event
given the open-ended nature of the comments.Amplifying tools
enable the instructor or presenter to see what topics are bubbling
to the top. 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 similarlyparticipants can post questions
and others can vote them up or down. Or, Purdue Universitys Hotseat
feature allows students to vote up peer comments they find
Asking questions: Backchannel provides people an
additional way to ask questions.Participants are frequently
hesitant to ask questions publicly for a variety of mostly social
reasons. Anonymous backchannel discussions make it extremely easy
for these folks to surface their questions. Even when people are
identified on the backchannel, having a venue where questions are
encouraged is likely to make it easier for them to share
questions. And if the backchannel includes an amplification tool,
then students can support each others question-asking very
Helping one another: Keep in mind that there are
several types of backchannel conversations, including
learner-to-learner conversations. When one person poses a question
on the backchannel, another might very well answer it before the
instructor or facilitator can get to it. This kind of peer-to-peer
instruction is a common use of clickers (instructional technologies
that enable teachers to rapidly collect and analyze students
responses to multiple-choice and free-response questions during an
event), and it can work well in the backchannel, too.
Offering suggestions: The backchannel can give
participants a voice in where the discussion goes by suggesting
topics or questions. They also can recommend useful readings,
activities, or topics for subsequent groups. They can provide
feedback on whats working and whats not from their perspective.
Many events have participants complete a reviews at the end of each
session; the backchannel allows facilitators to gather this kind of
feedback whenever people are ready to share it.
Building community: Backchannel discussions can
help participants get to know each other in a variety of ways.
Although some backchannels are private, many are public, allowing
those outside the event to participate in the discussion. This
provides an opportunity to open the discussion and build
community. These external people have the potential to learn from
and contribute to the backchannel discussion.
While instructors and facilitators must forgo some
control for the backchannel to function as an effective learning
tool, many questions remain regarding the best way to resolve
attribution, privacy issues, and rules of order for productive or
constructive discourse in an electronic environment. With the
increasing use of smart phones, some have seen the rise of the
backchannel as inevitable, emerging as a legitimate learning
avenue, even where instructors are not engaged. Accordingly, many
presenters may find it useful to familiarize themselves with the
applications and techniques of backchannel conversations as these
tools become an increasingly common part of the standard
Choosing a Backchannel
The Midcourse Corrections Blog offers the
following criteria to consider when choosing a backchannel
communication tool so that it becomes as popular asTwitterwith
1. Popular. What online communication tools are
the most popular today?
2. Setup. Is it easy or hard to setup? Can a new
user sign on and setup an account quickly?
3. User-friendly. How easy is it for your
attendees to use? What level of technical knowledge or skill do
your attendees need to have to use it? Is it intuitive or do your
attendees need training on it?
4. Learning curve. Whats the learning curve for
using it? Is it easy or steep?
5. Mobility. Can people use it on their mobile
devices in addition to laptops?
6. Costs. What are the costs of using this tool?
Is it free or fee-based? If free, will users be bombarded by
advertisements and spam if used?
7. Archived. Do you want the communication to be
archived or temporary? If you use Twitter, the information is
typically kept for about two weeks. You can visit
http://wthashtag.com immediately following the event and print the
transcript for the event. This is great data to understand the
adoption rate, value and ROI of the conference backchannel.
8. Displayed publicly. Will displaying the
backchannel publicly extend the conferences messages to a broader
audience? Does a public backchannel increase the ROI and/or any
9. History/references. What backchannel tools have
other conferences used? Does the backchannel tool have any
references or case studies?
10. Customized. Can you customize the look of the
tool with an event logo? Can you change the settings for font size,
color, style, etc?
11. Character limit. Does the tool limit the
number of characters per comment or can attendees write their
thoughts in long form? Is a character limit good for your audience?
12. Identified or anonymous. Can the users be
anonymous or do they have to identify themselves with a name, photo
or other means in order to comment? There is a higher risk of
negative or inappropriate comments from anonymous users.
13. Standalone. Do you want the backchannel to be
a standalone, private communication tool or do you want it part of
a public service like Twitter that can reach far beyond your
14. Software or web-enabled. Does it require a
download of special software or is it web-enabled?
15. Monitored or real-time. Do you want the
ability to monitor and approve comments before they enter the
backchannel? Or are you open to real-time comments.
16. Attachments. Can users attach pictures and
links to additional sources easily? Or is it rich text enabled