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Back Channel Communication

can you hear me now?
Early Back Channel Communication

The idea of certain people engaging in backchannel communications (BC) has been making the news lately. The practice has been made to sound very ‘spy vs. spy’ and something that is somehow distasteful. However, if you’ve ever asked your neighbor in a classroom what the professor just said, or ‘do you think that will be on the test?’ then you’ve engaged in backchannel communications. Like any tool, BC can be used an any number of ways and for many different purposes. Today I’d like to gather and share my thoughts on using BC in the classroom. The thoughts and practices I’ll be discussing have not (to the best of my knowledge, which is incomplete and almost certainly wrong) been empirically examined for effectiveness or systematically developed. They are an ad hoc collection that has been useful to me. I probably stole all of this from someone, and when I remember where it is from I’ll include that, but in most cases I’ve been doing this stuff for so long the origins have faded from my mind.

BC participation, Active, Passive, Asynchronous, and Non: Participation in BC communication, at least in my classes is voluntary. Some individuals prefer to focus their attention on one thing at a time, others are unable to multitask in this way. That’s OK. If there is something important in the BC they can always look it up later, a practice known as asynchronous BC, a term I just made up and am quite proud of. Some students may prefer to log in to a platform and just read what happens without comment. This passive participation, also called lurking, seems to help some students maintain focus on what is happening in the class. Finally, some students may choose to engage in BC by making comments, asking and answering questions, and upvoting or downvoting other questions and comments.

The use of BC during Q & A: This one comes directly from the people who developed iCorps. When people are pitching business ideas in front of an iCorps panel any instructor is free to ask a question. However, there is typically one instructor assigned to do a deep dive on understanding each business being presented, and that person leads the questioning. iCorps uses the text messaging tool Slack to ‘feed’ questions to the primary interrogator (sounds scary, and it feels scary when you’re being shot gunned with questions, but that is part of the purpose of the practice). This helps the overall process in a few important ways. First, the interrogator doesn’t run out of questions before Q & A time is up. Second, it is often easier for the business person (or victim—just kidding)  to respond to the same instructor repeatedly instead of keeping a bunch of names straight. Third, people don’t step on each other verbally. And finally, when presented with a large que of questions, the person who has done the deep dive can weed out irrelevant or less important questions to maximize the learning experience for the business person. This is a flipped version of learner to learner BC below.

Learner to learner (private) BC: Any method of communication that includes you and your fellow learners, but not the teacher, falls into this category. Quite often team organization apps become impromptu BC’s in a classroom setting. On one hand, this is great because it self organizes. However, there is usually no channel for the entire class. Getting the entire class on one platform and creating a channel for everyone solves this problem. If it is important, due to the situation or student preference that the instructor not be involved in the BC, a student can create a channel and share with everyone but the instructor. This sort of a channel with no oversight will empower some students to ‘speak up’ where they otherwise would not, and might end in great conversations in some classes. There is a greater risk of bullying and other non-socially acceptable behavior however. Students in this sort of group should self-monitor and try to keep on topic, otherwise, the value of the BC will be diminished.

Inclusive BC’s: All skate. Everyone can see everyone’s comments and questions, including the instructor. This seems to be the most common use of BC products in the classroom. It has many advantages, and very few problems, at least in my limited experience. Typically, most if not all comments are ‘aimed’ at the instructor, but often if something is asked and a student can quickly answer, they do, leaving more time for other topics. If a question resonates with students, they retweet it, upvote it, or ask it again so that the instructor can see in real time where there are gaps in understanding, or where new topics need to be introduced. I’ve heard that when this is set up anonymously some professors have had behavior problems but I’ve never experienced it. Also, although I don’t do it, if you use a platform that attaches identities to students, BC activity could be factored into a participation score.

BC Platforms: Just about any platform can be used as a class BC. I’ve used Facebook Messenger in the past and it works pretty well. Students can have their own team chat, a group chat without me, and a chat with me in it that I put up on the projector for everyone to see, whether or not they are personally logged in to it. I’ve been thinking of experimenting with Twitter, but so far haven’t. I’ve used Chatzy as an anonymous platform, and I’ve heard good things about Socrative. I’m looking into GoSoapBox as well, primarily because it has a feature called a confusion barometer. That sounds pretty neat to me. I’m still looking for a simple, easy to use, free, classroom tool with some sort of upvoting feature. But I might find a unicorn first, and then, hey, I’d have a unicorn so I’d probably be out all day riding it and not teaching.

Final Thoughts: Here is a short list of suggestions for using BC’s as a student.

  1. Stay on topic.
  2. In private BC’s if you must stray from the topic be as succinct as possible.
  3. If it’s been said and you agree, upvote instead of restating (if you have that capability)
  4. Refrain from downvoting unless a comment or question is inappropriate or off topic. Remember, just because it’s not important to you doesn’t mean it’s not important.
  5. Remember, the internet is forever. Even if your platform is supposed to be private it only takes a second for a screenshot.
  6. Anonymity is not an excuse to be an ass.
  7. If this (or any) tool enhances your learning, use it. If not, don’t.

1 Comment

  1. I support BC because it’s a way to turn passive learning (i.e. lecturing) into a form of active learning and more, a form of social constructivism — the social negotiation of meaning.

    Whether slack, twitter, chat, or otherwise, it’s a powerful tool that is not disruptive when used correctly.

    A secondary use treats it as “voice of the customer” information that can be mined to improve a learning activity.

    One thing it should not be, and WhatsApp made the recent news with this, is a place to record and share test questions & answers, or otherwise, support undermining academic integrity. Openness, I think, is the antidote for that, which WhatsApp is not

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