Backchannel Best Practices for Learning

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, Derek Buff, director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, 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: It’s 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 isn’t 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’ reflections.

Amplifying: It’s 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 similarly–participants can post questions and others can vote them up or down. Or, Purdue University’s Hotseat feature allows students to vote up peer comments they find important.

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 directly.

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 what’s working and what’s not from their perspective. Many events have participants complete a review 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 presentation toolset.

Choosing a Backchannel Tool

The Midcourse Corrections Blog offers the following criteria to consider when choosing a backchannel communication tool so that it becomes as popular as Twitter with participants.

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. What’s 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 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 conference’s messages to a broader audience? Does a public backchannel increase the ROI and/or any potential risks?

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 conference walls?

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 only?

About the Author:

Ryann Ellis is an associate editor for ASTD, and one of the founding editors of Learning Circuits, ASTD’s website covering e-learning.

Reprinted from Learning Circuits

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