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Backchannel Learning in an Organizational Setting

By Dave Kelly / August 2011

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About 15 years ago I was in a training class at my previous employer, and the person next to me was responding to emails on his Blackberry. The trainer facilitating the session stopped her lecture mid-sentence and addressed my coworker. I distinctly remember the disdain in her voice as she said: "Please put your phone away, it's distracting you and the rest of the group from the learning."

My, how times have changed.

Today it is commonplace to see people in a learning environment actively using their mobile phones. The assumption can no longer be made that using the phone is linked to some sort of disengagement on the part of the learner; quite often it's exactly the opposite.

Social media tools are rapidly changing the "rules" that have historically been applied to learning environments. The transfer of knowledge and skills is no longer limited to the teacher/student conduit. Learners are now pulling learning on their own—exercising more control over what they learn, when they learn, and how they learn. The advancements in mobile phone technology have made it possible to have access to just about everyone and everything from a device that can fit into your pocket.

Many teachers, trainers, and presenters have been resisting the use of mobile devices during their sessions. To quote a famous Star Trek line, "Resistance is futile." The influx of smart phones is only going to continue, so resistance only delays the inevitable. It is also shortsighted, as the usage of mobile devices during sessions is not a risk at all; it is an opportunity.

Simply put, learners are now walking into your session carrying the ultimate engagement tool right in their pocket.

One of the first demonstrations of using mobile phones and social media to enhance learning came, appropriately, from the learners themselves. Learners in classes and at conferences started informally sharing their learning experiences while it was happening via Twitter. More and more learners began interacting and sharing with each other. People not attending the learning session could follow and learn from the postings of those in attendance. This ability to break through the walls of a traditional learning environment and interact with the public at large is commonly referred to as "The Backchannel."

Many stories of backchannel learning are focused on academia, and the traditional classroom environment. However there are a number of powerful ways in which corporate organizations can harness the power of the backchannel as well.

Conference Backchannels

One of the biggest arenas in which backchannels are in use is at conferences, which can be a huge resource to organizations. Conference attendees routinely post updates from sessions they are attending, sharing key learning points. Attendees also add to the overall learning by sharing their own opinions and experiences. Most conferences recognize the growing participation and value of the backchannel and have begun to include the suggested hashtag in the marketing materials of the event.

Budget constraints usually limit the number of team members that can participate in conferences. One or a few members of a team may be able to attend, and if the organization is lucky, they are able to bring some of what they learned back to share with their team.

The Backchannel changes that equation. Non-attendees can learn from attendees in real time. They can interact with their counterpart in attendance, asking questions that delve deeper into the content being shared by the attendee. Through these interactions, a bridge is built that carries some of the learning from the conference to those who are not in attendance.

The exciting part is that this opportunity of sharing between organizational employees in attendance and those back at the workplace is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is the true power of the backchannel, which enhances and increases the learning potential for non-attendees exponentially.

In addition to the content shared by those organizational employees in attendance, non-attendees can also learn from the content shared by everyone else attending the conference. For larger conferences, there could be hundreds of people sharing their learning via the backchannel.

It is in this open sharing that the true power of the backchannel emerges. You can definitely get an understanding of the themes, trends, and concepts being shared at a conference by reviewing the postings of attendees shared through the backchannel.

Is it as good as sending an entire team to attend a conference in person? Probably not, but it does have the potential to have your entire team engaged in conference learning in ways that was impossible in the past.

Internal Backchannels

The backchannel can be leveraged internally at organizations as well. Consider a bank's new-hire teller training program. The overall curriculum for such a program will likely include an in-person workshop component. At first glance, a workshop consisting of only 10 or 20 participants may not seem like an appropriate scenario to encourage a backchannel. Such an assumption would ignore the non-attending tellers currently working in the company—of which there may be hundreds.

Incorporating a backchannel into a new hire teller training workshop has huge potential. There is an opportunity to tap into the knowledge and skills of the existing teller population, as well as sharing new information with that audience. Consider these examples:

  • During a section on the most important characteristics of a teller, the existing workforce is polled and engaged in the discussion.
  • Key learning and performance points are posted as updates, reinforcing their importance to both new and existing employees.
  • Banking rules and regulations are constantly changing. Backchannel posts are used to point out policies and regulations that have recently changed. This reinforces the new tellers' learning, and ensures that existing tellers are aware of important changes.

I can almost hear people's thoughts as they read these examples, with the overall theme of the concerns being "we can't share information like that publicly on Twitter." And if you're thinking that, you'd be very much correct.

Luckily, there are a number of solutions available that address the privacy and security concerns of social media tools. The most common of these tools is Yammer, which enables you to utilize the micro-blogging functionality of Twitter "behind the firewall" and within a closed group of individuals. Of course, firewall concerns are somewhat secondary, simply because no organizational firewall can block my ability to post an update to Twitter via my personal mobile device.

The backchannel isn't something an organization can fully control, even if it wanted to. It exists organically, created and shaped by its participants. What organizations can do is search for ways to reinforce and harness the learning that takes place through the sharing.

It's in that sharing that the backchannel becomes a great representation of social media being used as a tool to support social learning, which is a concept more and more organizations are placing focus on. For organizations that are looking to leverage technology to support their employees' social learning, a backchannel is an excellent resource to consider.

About the Author

David Kelly is Vice President and Director of Training for Carver Federal Savings Bank, based in New York City. He has been a learning and performance professional for more than 10 years, and is currently serving as President of the Long Island, New York chapter of ASTD. He writes about the learning and performance field on his blog, Misadventures in Learning, where Kelly often collects resources shared through conference backchannels.


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