Building Better Backchannels

Posted by on Oct 30, 2008

I remember the first time I heard the term, “backchannel.”  I was at NECC, and I was immediately struck at how the word seemed somehow geekily mystic.  It took me a bit to realize the term was really just synonymous with chat.

According to the define function of Google, a backchannel is, “the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks.”  In practice, it is simply a chat room established to carry on conversation during a presentation.

I absolutely believe the concept of a backchannel has an inherent dual-edge sword nature to it.  As mentioned in my last post, there is a distinct danger to utilizing a backchannel.  The danger is that if not executed in the right fashion, the distraction and bifurcation of attention can potentially lead to a complete dismissal of the content being presented at a given venue.  I’ve seen occasions where there are no less than eight backchannels for a room of scarcely over 20 participants.  The result is noise.  Distracting noise that leads to a great missing of the point.

I could go on about my perceptions of the negative regarding this topic, but I’d rather not.  Because I think there’s more good here than bad.  I actually think creating a backchannel in the right way has the potential to be one of the biggest game changers we’ve seen in recent memory.  I’m quite excited about it, to be honest.

One of the most oft cited educational edicts in the past ten years is that we shouldn’t have our students sitting in their seats listening to a presentation of information for too long.  I believe this applies to adults as well.  Interestingly enough, this edict is often espoused by a speaker or consultant who has come in to spend a day teaching teachers this highly valuable bit of information, and they do so by having teachers sit at terribly uncomfortable lunch tables or folding chairs for hours without breaks.  I believe therein lies the definition of irony.

Think of the possibilities of establishing a backchannel.  People interact with the information being presented in a way that allows for an expansion of learning and information retention.  This could happen anywhere information is being presented for a prolonged period of time: inservices, classrooms, even churches.  I came across this article recently discussing how a church in Texas is using Twitter during their service as a form of a backchannel, and it simply solidified and validated how important this could be and how widespread this practice could extend.

Allowing people to interact with each other and the information in a focused way affords participants the opportunity to learn more and focus more on the content.  Instead of sitting passively, succumbing to the temptation to take mental meanders, participating in a backchannel brings a collaborative element that actually increases mental attentiveness.

This summer I started utilizing a backchannel with the courses I taught for my district, as well as for the graduate class I teach for Judson University.  That experience, along with my recent experience at the IL TechCon, has led me to conclude there is a right way to go about doing this.  I believe the following 3 guidelines should be followed when setting up a backchannel.

1.  Have a moderator.  I don’t mean a censoring, dictator-type moderator who is trolling the room looking for people to bust for saying inappropriate or perceived off-topic statements.  I mean a moderator who helps facilitate the conversation.  Maybe you want to call this person a facilitator instead of moderator, it’s up to you.  I think having an open-minded administrator take on the moderator role at a teacher inservice could help keep the discussion somewhat on topic, while also giving the participants at least a moderate level of accountability so the conversation doesn’t digress into a “Wow, this is cool.”  “Yes, it is.”  “I think it sucks.”  Don’t scoff, even adults can be reduced to this level of astute prepubescent intellectualism given the opportunity.  The moderator should also post frequent statements summarizing main points the presenter is saying.  Wes Fryer did this at TechCon, and I found it extremely beneficial.

2.  Have only one main backchannel.  Some people don’t like this idea.  They want everyone to have the freedom to create their own channel, but I think that is quite problematic.  I want as many people participating as possible so the greatest potential for added value and diversity in thinking can occur.  I think it would be great if a conference set up one main backchannel, with individual rooms for each of the presentations at the conference.  This way, everyone would know where to go for discussion, and there wouldn’t be too much cross-pollination of separate presentations creating too much noise in a single room.  Conferences could publish the url of the main backchannel site in the literature handed out at the beginning of the conference, and people could commence discussing at the outset and continue until, well, forever.

3.  Use a site that can be archived.  If done well, people will be dropping links, references, and suggestions in the room, and it would be most beneficial to be able to return to the room to access those resources again in the future.  It would also allow people to be held accountable for things being said, and positions could be defensible should dissenting opinions be presented.

I think the idea of a backchannel is very difficult for some people to embrace as they fear allowing people to discuss during a presentation will draw attention away from what is being presented.  As I stated above, that can certainly happen, but if this is all done the right way, I think that risk is greatly reduced.  In fact, I absolutely believe this could help our attention-deprived culture get more out of sitting in seats listening to the dissemination of information for hours on end.  I think doing this in the right way will most certainly lead to a reinvigoration of inservices, and dare I even say, classroom lectures.   Just think about it, and try it out for yourself the next chance you get.  I think you’ll find the results might just change everything.

Thanks to Wesley Fryer for the Flickr image.


  1. Scott Meech
    November 10, 2008

    Outstanding… It would be nice to see some examples of how people are using them in their classrooms with evidence of assessment, etc. Great stuff Ben!

  2. admin
    November 11, 2008

    Thanks, Scott. I’d really love to try this at an inservice or get a teacher who’s willing to take a chance and try it in the classroom soon. When I get that set up, I’ll let you know how it goes. Let me know if you do the same.

  3. AKA Riptide Furse » Blog Archive » Weekly (weekly)
    November 16, 2008

    […] Building Better Backchannels […]

  4. MrTeach
    December 9, 2008

    I love this idea. I’ve used CoverItLive with my 5th grade reading students this year (we have 10 computers in my room, so they are in partners) and the students are way more involved with discussing the book this way than they are when discussing out loud. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s because nobody has to wait their turn. If you have a thought, spit it out and you’re still not interrupting anyone.


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