10 Observations about Backchanneling

Photo of Backchanneling at LeWeb09

Flickr Photo by Vince Kmeron take at LeWeb09 in Paris ((LeWeb ’09 day 1.2 @ 104 Paris-7252 by Vince Kmeron))

I closed a recent blog entry (Two Days with Backchanneling) with some comments about the backchanneling activities for a workshop I did last week in Pittsburgh. In review, I switched from my own Knitter application (I was not able to repair it after my servers’ PHP upgrade a few weeks earlier) to TodaysMeet, which

…helps you embrace the backchannel and connect with your audience in realtime.

Encourage the room to use the live stream to make comments, ask questions, and use that feedback to tailor your presentation, sharpen your points, and address audience needs. ((Socol, James. “Create a Room.” TodaysMeet. Web. 20 Dec 2009. <http://todaysmeet.com/>.))

It worked much better than any of the other backchanneling tools I’ve used before — and with the help of a small app I wrote, it feeds pretty easily into my PMWiki handouts site.

So here are a few observations about the experience (as I see it) of opening up the conversation in a traditional presentation-style learning event.

  1. Participants will get off track, especially in the beginning.

    “Do you spell grits with one T?”

    I suspect that youngsters, in particular, will get off topic and even abuse such a communication avenue — in the beginning. But like many new ICTs, it will settle as the tool becomes more of an established process of the learning environment.

  2. The conversations can be quantified in two ways:
    • A word cloud can be generated from the conversation. (see the Wordle down & to the right)
    • Learners must type their names, so comments are autographed, making individual’s contributions measurable.
  3. Learners gain understanding from the perspectives of other learners and gain traction for their own ideas. The channel is guided by the conversation. This can be a good thing, or it can mislead the conversation. Learners must be able and encouraged to interrupt the lecture or other learning experience to seek clarification.
  4. Backchanneling provides an outlet and opportunity for deeper understand to participants who are already familiar with the topics being covered. I’ve seen this happen many times when I knew that there were people in the audience who were beyond the topics being presented, and I found, in reviewing the transcript, that they took the opportunity to learn more from each other.
  5. Individual learners can be identified as knowledgeable in a specific topic or valuable because of their perspective — It’s identity-building.
  6. Everyone learns: learners and teacher-learners. I never read the transcripts of my presentation backchannels that I do not learn something that I didn’t know before.Wordle_-_Create-20091209-151247.jpg
  7. Backchanneling can be distracting (especially to folks older than 35). It can be difficult to both the learner and the presenter. It requires some experience and practice.
  8. The transcript of the backchannel can be externalized, and this has many benefits:
    • Stakeholders outside of the class can visit the conversation, including: parents of students, other partner classes, the larger community, and education leadership.
    • Stakeholder participation assures an authentic form of accountability to the learner participants and the teacher learner.
    • The teachers can visit the conversation after the learning event as a form of self-evaluation, assessment of attainment, continued feedback on learning, and delivery of further relevant content.
    • When externalized on a Wiki or other collaborative publishing tool, the conversation can continue, with contributions from the teacher and from participating students.
  9. When archived, backchannel transcripts provide content for learners who were not able to attend a particular lecture or conference presentation.
  10. Although some say that backchanneling distracts them from the presentation, others say that it enhances their awareness of the topics being examined.

    Like most things, there are advantages and disadvantages. I suspect that I will continue using it, especially after discovering TodaysMeet.

    7 thoughts on “10 Observations about Backchanneling”

    1. David,

      As far as I am concerned, the most significant contribution that back-channeling can make to a classroom is that it can enhance engagement many times over. Of course, the educator needs to be aware of what is happening. But, with back-channeling there is no longer a need for multiple students to be sitting with their hands up in the air.

      Andrew Pass

    2. I was introduced to Backchanneling at PLP Bootcamp this past summer. I remember listening to Will Richardson speak and participating in a backchannel with other participants. I recall being exhausted by the end of the session. That exhaustion, however, was worth it because not only did I listen to Will talk about the transformative power of web2.0 technologies, but I “listened” to my colleagues reactions to Will’s thinking. It helped me understand the concept that the collective wisdom of all is greater than the wisdom of one. Not only did I benefit from Will’s expertise, but I benefited from the expertise and perspective of the entire group.

      Looking back on the experience, and now having backchanneled in Ning, Twitter, etc., I realized the most important step was the first one I took in being a contributor, not just a “lurker”. By participating, and sharing my thoughts/perspectives, I was able to get feedback from my colleagues, both in direct feedback (or push back) and in acknowledgments of thanks and/or of note. To know that others are reading what I have to offer, and contributing to my growth as a learning leader is intoxicating and I am finding that I am seeking out feedback more than ever.

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