Backchannel in the Classroom

The Backchannel: Giving Every Student a Voice in the Blended Mobile Classroom

A backchannel — a digital chat that takes place at the same time as a face-to-face activity — gives students an opportunity to converse with one another in a safe environment. Charlie, a former student of mine, comes to mind every time I think about this instrument (not his real name). Because of his learning difficulties, he found it difficult to keep up with class discussions. He would light up with recognition long after his peers had comprehended an idea, only to be deflated when he realised he had no means to communicate his discovery with them. Charlie need an alternate method of participation, and a backchannel would have provided him with that opportunity.

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We did not have access to mobile devices at the time. If we had, a number of free technologies could have been used to enhance class discussions and assist kids like Charlie. But we didn’t.

During class, TodaysMeet would have allowed teachers to build private chat rooms where students could ask questions and offer comments in order for the class to go well.
Students’ thoughts may have been shared on a digital bulletin board through the use of a Padlet wall, which allowed them to upload text, photographs, videos, and links.
When students respond to open-ended questions in a student response system such as Socrative or InfuseLearning, these questions could be turned into discussion prompts, giving each student the opportunity to share his or her thoughts before participating in class discussion.
Consider the pupils like Charlie who are unable to process information at the same rate as the rest of the class, the ones who are unable to speak up over the clamour of the classroom, or those who want to express ideas to the point of disruption and require a safe space to vent their zeal. Backchannels provide a platform for all of these kids to express themselves. They establish a blended learning environment in which teachers and students engage in both physical and online interactions, allowing learning to be no longer be restricted to a single mode of communication or even a single class session. Backchannels do not take the role of class conversations; rather, they serve to enhance them.

Capturing Curiosity

Rhonda Hahn (@mrshahn) began the year by asking her ninth-grade biology students the following question: “What is it that you are interested in learning more about? Do you consider yourself a sceptic? Have a pressing question for our team?” She provided them with a Padlet wall so that they could document their interests:

Rhonda Hahn is the photographer that captured this image.
(The entire image can be found on the Padlet website.)
Her kids’ ideas ranged from time travel to stem cells and everything in between. Rhonda gave her pupils the opportunity to go on a collaborative research expedition to investigate their interests, building on their digital contributions as a foundation. In a traditional learning setting, students may not have had the same level of confidence in expressing their curiosity or the innate incentive to seek answers as they would have had in an open-ended atmosphere. Rhonda developed an authentic learning environment for them by giving them with a forum for their questions, allowing them to contribute to ongoing scientific study.

Although this may appear to be a complex concept, even the smallest learners can benefit from using a backchannel to communicate their thoughts. During their reading of Douglas Florian’s Comets, Stars, The Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings, Meghan Zigmond divided her first-grade children into groups and enabled them to utilise a Padlet wall to record their questions as they read the book. The majority of the time, Meghan discovered that only a handful of her pupils were given the opportunity to offer their perspectives, and that these ideas were often forgotten by the end of class. Through the use of an internal backchannel, she was able to allow all of her students to submit their questions both in their small groups and to the full class. Meghan may then hand over control of the scientific studies for a course on celestial objects to the pupils after they had documented their enquiries.

Connecting to the Conversation

Following a Google Glass parent talk, Terri Eichholz (@terrieichholz) noticed that using mobile devices and a backchannel during presentations or lectures resulted in her pupils paying greater attention to the speaker. In order to capture her fifth graders’ questions and answers throughout the lecture, she used Socrative, which provided them with an immediate avenue for their thoughts. Their physical chat might be interrupted at any point throughout the presentation so that they could incorporate the digital conversation. Terri saw that her pupils appeared to be genuinely engaged in generating good contributions and were less inclined to interrupt the speaker in order to share their ideas as a result of this. Towards the end of the day, she had a comprehensive record of everything that had been covered, and she encouraged everyone of her students to express themselves meaningfully.

Ann Feldman poses the following question:

The number of students who participate in a class discussion is unknown. What do you mean, a handful? Is it five to ten? Every teacher’s challenge is to ensure that all students have the opportunity to express themselves.
TodaysMeet was integrated into Jeff Bernadt’s high school history lesson in order to address this difficulty. As each student finished reading a particular article, he or she added remarks to a backchannel for discussion. It’s possible that having a face-to-face chat while also reading would have been a distraction. But by typing their thoughts, all students were able to offer their thoughts while maintaining the ability to work at their own pace.

Photograph courtesy of Ann Feldman

Traditionally, the most loud students might have dominated the discussion in a typical classroom. The backchannel provided every student with an opportunity to share his or her opinions while also listening to voices that may otherwise have gone unheard in the classroom.

Opportunity Can Be Found Almost Anywhere
Todd Curtis (@toddacurtis) and his teaching partner observed a pattern when they were attempting to involve all of their eighth grade students in class discussions more than a decade ago (via Twitter). Students were able to express themselves freely outside of class, but they remained mute in class. To test this hypothesis, they modified their email system to function as a backchannel. Todd has the following to say:

It was mind-blowingly incredible right away. The only thing you could hear were the keys clicking together. And, perhaps most importantly, the chats were never forgotten. You could spend hours reading them all.
Face-to-face interactions with students can make it tough to collect all of their ideas. Using technology can help. Kids with strong vocal abilities may be able to dominate the discourse before more reticent students may contribute. It is possible that younger pupils will be more ready to offer their thoughts, whereas older students may be more reluctant to do so due to social constraints. A backchannel opens the door to a plethora of possibilities. The use of several communication modes allows students and teachers to interact effectively, allow their thoughts to grow over time, and engage in authentic learning in a blended context. Through backchannels across the curriculum, greater outcomes are achieved since learning is no longer restricted to the confines of the classroom, the classroom environment, or even the school day.