Our Ideas are Interactive

Posted by on Nov 29, 2009

Living together - 187/365

I read a great post by a student in my grad class last week that has me thinking again about the idea of a backchannel.  I wrote about this a while ago, but it seems the topic has surfaced again recently about the value of a backchannel.

The past several conferences I have attended have tried to implement a conference-wide backchannel discussion, and most have failed.  Whether due to poor wifi, poor implementation, or simply lack of interest, it seems to me the idea has started fading a bit.  I don’t know if I think that’s good or bad.

Certainly the story that surfaced this week about the backchannel gone bad at the Web 2.0 Expo is evidence of how this idea can be a complicated matter.  This spurred much discussion on Twitter, and the experience leaves many wondering what is the value in having a simultaneous chat running while a person is presenting his or her ideas.  I still believe, if done well, the chat can add a great deal for both the presenter and the conference attendees.  I really do.  However, as some have noted recently on Twitter and in other conversation spaces, it seems that often times the backchannel fails to connect to the message being presented and breaks down into a virtual cafeteria where the kids are all talking about any and all topics other than the ones being presented.

I found the post above by Michael to be most interesting.  It leaves me wondering what the role of this experience could be in the classroom.  Could it be that if we built this the right way, kids could greatly benefit from the chance of moving from passive listeners to active engagers of what is happening around them?  The idea of allowing students to backchannel during a read aloud is fascinating to me.  It takes courage for teachers to try such a thing, but if, like Michael, the end turns out to yield something of value for students, I think we should try it more.  Allow them the chance to mix their ideas with their peers in a nonconventional way to see what the recipe ends up making.

Maybe it won’t work for your students, or your teachers, or your presentation audience, but I still do believe there’s something to this idea.  It just takes some work and effort to keep the connections aligned with your learning goals, and obviously sometimes we fail at that in our endeavors to get students to invest in their learning through technology.  But if our work with technology does indeed increase student investment, then I say turn on the backchannel and see what you can hear, so to speak.

Thanks to tranchis for the use of the Flickr image.


  1. Dean Shareski
    November 30, 2009

    My sense is that like so many things happening with social media, we’re still in the infancy stage. We sense, as you do there it can work but lack the structure and parameters that make it useful. Combined is this desire for “openness and transparency” which while offer some empowering uses, also come with complicated side effects and outcomes.

    It reminds me of the promise of cooperative groups. I remember learning about this strategy in my pre-service days and even in my early years of teaching. It’s almost guaranteed that the first few times you try it, it fails miserably. Kids are off task, you feel out of control and you question the overall learning. You might try it another time with mixed results. It’s not until it becomes part of the culture of your classroom, does it begin to pay dividends.

    As you say, there is something to it. We’re all just trying to get it right.

  2. monika hardy
    November 30, 2009

    i have my web class do it. i love it – and so do they.

    we have prom boards and used clickers last year in the same way – they could text in any questions.
    the kids find the chat on our ning more natural. i can keep glancing at it – or one of them lets me know if i should stop and look at it.
    it also helps after class – i can catch some thinking i missed.
    either way – they feel they have more of a voice – and i feel i have more of an idea where they are in their thinking at any given moment.

    i’m thinking it works better in small groups like the classroom. not so cafeteria-ish maybe.

    i just think it’s another case of how they’re wired. and something we need to tap into if we want to grow with them.

    it’s unsettling that they can be talking about you – or off task (there’s private chat option) – but only if the classroom has that tendency anyway.

    i need to go read your student’s post.
    thanks ben.


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