Have you been to a meeting or conference presentation and seen people typing or texting? I often wondered: Are they taking notes? Checking email? Making dinner plans? Playing a game? I found this a little disconcerting, until I realized that they could be backchanneling—participating in an online chat about the session. At first, as a presenter/facilitator, I was a little skeptical about this. But several experiences changed my mind about how backchanneling could add to class participation and collaboration.
I’ve participated in many webinars, and the simultaneous chat among the attendees was interesting, as we asked questions, answered questions, made comments, or added information. In a recent NSTA Web Seminar, the presenters who were not “live” were monitoring this and responded to us when appropriate and asked us questions, too. As I briefly chatted with other participants, I found that I was still paying attention to the presentation. The backchannel interactions added another dimension to the webinar, similar to a turn-and-talk in the classroom. But I was talking with people from across the country, not just turning to 1-2 people physically sitting next to me. I could see how this could open up the classroom to students who might be hesitant to ask a question, especially when conversations are dominated by others. More students could be involved beyond the hand-raisers or more vocal students.
At a workshop, my colleague introduced the teacher-participants to Today’s Meet, a free tool for backchanneling. She set up a “room,” shared the URL and hashtag with the participants, and as the workshop progressed, teachers could add to the conversation in 140-character notes using their laptops or smart phones (via a website or Twitter). We monitored the channel from her laptop and we would share questions or interesting comments. I compared this to the previous day’s session in which we were greeted with blank stares when participants were asked if there were any questions or comments. We now had feedback from participants who in the previous day had never participated verbally in the conversations. At the end of the day, instead of asking for a summary from the 2-3 participants who raised their hands, all of the teachers “tweeted” their feedback. Today’s Meet has an archive feature, so we could review the comments and questions after the session.
So I’m now more open to the concept, especially after following several conferences that I was unable to attend (e.g, #ISTE12). I’m curious to know others’ experiences in backchanneling as a way to get students more involved in class activities, assuming that laptops, tablets, or smartphones are part of the mix. I suspect that the teacher would have to model appropriate and productive comments and questions. I liked Today’s Meet because it’s free, access is limited to those who are given the URL or hashtag, after a designated amount of time the channel is disabled, the session can be archived for up to a year, and no membership or registration is required to use this. But I’m sure there are other tools that enable the collaborative process.
This could be another collaborative tool in our instructional toolboxes, along with face-to-face conversations, written reports/summaries, and one-to-one conferencing with the teacher.