It takes time to focus a back channel chat

In my last post about the purpose of a back channel we explored the different ways live chat can be used in the classroom or at a conference presentation.

As I’ve thought about this and my experience using a back channel with both students and adults for the first time, I’ve started thinking about the process a back channel goes through to be come a relevant conversation. I’ve seen this happen with both students and staff… takes time to see the value in it. Much like Twitter or RSS feeds most people are not sold on it at first glance. It takes time to understand how a back channel can add to the conversation and not distract from it.

I’ve created this above image real quick to show the process that I’ve found people go through…again this process takes time. With kids it’s about 20 minutes…with adults I’ve found it closer to 30 or 40 minutes before the purpose of why you would want to use a back channel starts to make sense. This of course is for first timers to a back channel. Once students/educators have had practice you can get to a focuses conversation faster. That being said…the first time you use one…you might never get there.

What do I do?

The first time people get into a back channel chat they really don’t know what to do. Do you focus on the scrolling text or on the presentation? What are they talking about? It quickly becomes overwhelming and many people are turned off by the sheer pace of text flying up a screen.

What’s Going On?

The first time a back channel is usesd there usually is no focus to the conversation. Students are exploring, figuring out how to use the emoticons, and trying to find out how the conversation is flowing, where do you fit as a node in the back channel and just what can you talk about.

The same happens with teachers. When I use a back channel for the first time with teachers I find it’s very unfocused. People talk to each other in the back channel, they talk about when the presentation is going to end, what is everyone doing tonight afterwards, etc. This, as is for the students, is the explore stage and it’s an important stage for everyone to go through. We start with personal stuff before heading to an actually conversation. It’s easier to be funny than it is to actually have a deep conversation around education. This explore time though does lead to learning and to a focus.

The Conversation is Everywhere!

As more and more people join a back channel chat the conversation starts to get fragmented. I strongly suggest that you start with a small back channel the first time you do this. 20 to 30 people is a great size to have a back channel conversation. Anything larger than that and people can’t follow the conversation until they develop the skills to do so personally. Everyone has a different ways of “keeping up with the convesation” and each person/student needs to find what works for them.

Oh….that’s good!

There’s this moment when things change in a back channel. When something that an individual finds profound flashs on the screen and it makes them think. It’s at this moment that the back channel starts to make meaning and the conversation becomes personal and educational to the users.

Focused Conversation

Within 30 minutes or so a person starts to see a focused conversation. You find other people in the back channel that you focus in on and have a converastion with. You realize that you’re not having a converastion with the whole group but with just a couple people at a time. Those poeple might change, but the conversations become focused on one or two liners that each of you put in the chat. Your messages start to add to the conversation and you receive feedback on things you are thinking about and give feedback to others. The conversation is focused and meaningful.


Of course a back channel chat moderate really helps keep the focuse of a conversation moving forward, but it’s important to allow people to explore. I’ve been in a back channel that was focused yet at the same time teachers making plans for dinner.

What’s really interesting is that I find educators conversations are no as focused as students. Part of that I’m sure is do to the Teacher/Student relationship. 🙂

What’s your thoughts? Do you see a different progression of back channel adoption?

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