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Capture the Backchannel

By Laurie Rowell / August 2009

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When you look out over the sea of faces in your lecture classes, are some students focusing on laptop screens while others are working their thumbs on their cell phone pads? Imagine you could harness all that clicking as a backchannel stream tied into the lecture. Picture it, two screens in your classroom—one for your slides and one to display a real-time conversation about your lecture in an online chat or Twitter stream.

In principle establishing a backchannel sounds easy. You can either set up a separate Twitter account or use a specialty application like Live Question Tool, which requires no registration and takes about a minute for the instructor to create an instance.

Live Question screenshot

The real question is whether a secondary stream would be a learning advantage to your students. To find out, I checked with a couple of experienced backchannel wranglers to find out what worked well in class and what didn't.

Cole Camplese is the director of Education Technology Services for Pennsylvania State University. He and his team have studied the use of the backchannel extensively. He also recently led a graduate course called "Disruptive Technologies for Teaching and Learning," in which the class used Twitter as a backchannel tool. After four or five weeks, during which the masters and PhD students became acclimated to the use of Twitter, "conversation became really rich—so much so that it was empowering other forms of conversation in the class."

Camplese found that students would use Twitter to monitor their own class participation by wondering electronically if they should ask a question. "It was like raising their hand in a meta-sense," he says. Response would appear from the class at large or from the instructor saying, "This is a great question. Why don't you ask it?"

In the front channel, he explains, the conversation was about complex issues and serious academic literature. "Honestly," Camplese says, these were "tiring conversations, tiring in a mental sense, pushing students to think critically about the kinds of things that they wanted to say." The backchannel offered them some relief. "They were able to test their voices without having to spew it out in front of all the students in the class." While all the students could see the backchannel questions and comments in the Twitter stream, they apparently didn't feel that the secondary stream was as challenging a forum as the heady class discussion.

A course on the history and theory of disruptive classroom technologies may be the perfect place to try a tool like Twitter. "So many educators in particular think that these tools really lead to negative effects in classrooms—until pedagogy catches up with the utilization of them," says Camplese. "Think of the chalkboard for example. When the chalkboard came into schools in the 1800s, it was a radically disruptive technology because teachers had to turn their backs on their classes for the first time. They had to be able to spell! That was viewed as a very disruptive technology.

"It may seem like a radical thing to take Twitter into a classroom, but that came after two years of heavy duty thought, assessment, and use in other kinds of environments," he explains. Not every tool is effective in every classroom situation, and his team is committed to evaluating several options to see which might be most useful." One of the goals here is to determine when is it appropriate to use which tool to support what kind of activity."

It's important to factor in variables, such as the character of the class, the inclinations of the instructor, and the size of the group. "Right now I wouldn't know what would happen if I tried to implement this in a 300-person undergraduate lecture class," Camplese says, speculating that 300 tweeting students might be hard to follow. For a class that size, he thinks something like the Berkman/Harvard Law Live Question Tool might be more effective. It is a free, easy-to-use application that offers an elegant backchannel option.

Michael Wesch, professor of cultural anthropology and digital ethnography at Kansas State, is well known for his innovative teaching techniques that explore the impact of technology and social media and using video to broaden awareness of that experimentation. He has done considerable evaluation of the backchannel in his classes. "I've used a lot of things. I've tried Twitter, basic chat room—we've even tried some text-based chatting systems," he tells me. Then he adds, "I say 'we' because I'm always making decisions with the students."

Wesch and his class in a YouTube video, from a class he teaches on ethnography.

He's quick to point out that the backchannel is not a tool for every situation. "We've never found it very effective for heavy, focused lecture."

Wesch (left in blue shirt) and
his students have used YouTube
as a learning tool, in addition to
Twitter and basic IRC chat rooms.

Despite the common notion that students are better able to multitask and therefore better able to keep track of two concurrent streams, Wesch disagrees. "Certainly my students never felt that was honestly the case. The truth is, most classes are not entirely focused," Wesch explains. "And they can be more productive by being more distributed and by harnessing more ideas from more people." When you're trying to harvest all the great ideas in a room, for example, the backchannel is fantastic. It gives everyone an opportunity to chime in. In such a situation, it makes sense for instructors and students to have their attention separated to monitor more than one stream.

"For me it's pretty simple formula. If I want the class to be focused on one thing, then the back channel is a bad idea. If, however, we're going to be discussing and ranging broadly... the back channel works really well."

Like Camplese, Wesch offers caution about introducing a backchannel in a large class because it can conflict with the lecture. "I think our experiments in really large classes have been disasters. It is just impossible to follow a stream of 200 students and follow lecture at the same time. It just cannot be done," he says.

Yet Wesch has found one way to make the backchannel work well in a large class. "I think the most effective it has ever been was in a class of 200, where we had about 16 different conversations going on at once. We broke up into smaller groups of 10 to 12. Those groups were talking and from those groups people could go to the chat room and update the whole class on what they were talking about—in case one of their ideas could apply to a discussion going on in one of the other groups," he explains.

In general, Wesch finds it odd that Twitter generates so much excitement as a backchannel option when people have been using IRC chat rooms for a long time—and they remain much easier to set up. "You just open a chat room, give students the address, and there you go," he says.

But he acknowledges that unlike most other backchannel tools, Twitter does offer opportunities for students to connect to a community at large. Using Twitter inside the classroom means outside observers have a chance to learn what the students are doing. "A student of mine actually got a job because people saw what he was Twittering," he says, "They thought he was really smart so they hired him."

Both Wesch and Camplese are emphatic that the real importance of these tools lies in their ability to enhance teaching. "People need to constantly be talking with their students about what's working and what's not," says Wesch, adding that they shouldn't just take student comments at face value, either, but bring in assessments. "We have to monitor it very carefully, and make sure we're not just getting caught up in the hype, make sure that we're really having solid learning outcomes."

As Camplese puts it, "This is about understanding the affordances of the technology, having a pedagogical goal in mind, and then utilizing the technology to overcome the problem of practice that you're looking at."


  • Fri, 20 Aug 2010
    Post by Frederico

    As a student who has participated in online distance education, I have to say it was challenging for me to form a bond with my teachers who became more like 'graders' than educators. I think the challenge goes both ways.

  • Wed, 23 Sep 2009
    Post by Jennifer Maddrell

    One could say the same about a comment poster who does not include his full name and his affiliation in the post. So, your statement of a personal opinion in a comment post (without identifiable personal attribution) is what ... courageous? Yet, the students stating personal reflections within their publicly viewable Twitter accounts is cowardly and an example of an entire generation's inability to openly and honestly communicate with others? Interesting observation and analysis.

  • Fri, 28 Aug 2009
    Post by David

    This (Twitter) doesn't seem like a useful tool in this context AT ALL!

    "They were able to test their voices without having to spew it out in front of all the students in the class." This seems cowardly to me. Whats the point of having a class if people can't be OPEN and HONEST and have discussions in person? A great example of Gen Y not being able to communicate.

  • Fri, 21 Aug 2009
    Post by Jill Duffy

    Thank you for the comments addressing the readability issue. We are looking into the problems, as it sounds like there is a browswer display problem for some readers, rather than a straightforward paragraph organization problem. We hope to address and fix them as soon as possible.

  • Fri, 21 Aug 2009
    Post by Matthew Allen

    Sorry, but this just isn't readable. It has been up for almost a fortnight and no-one has bothered to fix the formatting ! Do you not want anyone to read your posts ? Shame ... the subject looked interesting too ...

  • Wed, 19 Aug 2009
    Post by Bernice Glenn

    When I look at the text for Capturing the Back Panel, I find it a sea of words... No headings to orient the interested reader as to content. No paragraph breaks to help the reader organize the material into salient groups of infformation. This may be terrific information, but I did't bother to read it. This writer, concerned with concept, is missing one of the most important features when communicating with text. MAKE IT EASY TO READ AND UNDERSTAND!

  • Mon, 17 Aug 2009
    Post by susie

    This concept is wonderful. It is a wonderful way of introducing today's technologies to today's established standards of teaching. If only there are open minded administrations that are interested in new and creative ways of education, these experiments may be the new way to effectively reach each student.