Random Thoughts

It takes time to focus a back channel chat

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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…..it 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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I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


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  3. Nice follow up to your previous post. I can definitely see the learning progression you describe. I agree with your comment about the focus teachers versus students. I’ve always found teacher can be some of the most rude participants at a presentation.
    I will try it again, and see if we can make it further next time.
    Thanks again.

  4. The kids always go for those emoticons for the first 20 minutes. Then like there was a cue or something they suddenly start chatting about the presentation. Not in depth, but a little here and there. I work with younger kids, I suspect. It takes them a bit longer to “get it”, but they do, usually by the second time we backchannel. I let kids play the first time. The second time I ask them to contribute something significant. That itself becomes a topic of conversation. Someone in the chat will throw out ideas to the others and by the end of 15-20 mins everyone has contributed. I really think k12 learners often do better than adults, me included!

  5. I, too, work with elementary students and find your continuum to be quite accurate. I have found that pairing up students works well to help keep the focus. One partner has already shown skill in contributing to a back channel. He/she is there to help the other child learn how.

  6. I love that image! For a quick draw, you are pretty good at keeping it simple and defining your point. I plan on using this idea next fall! Thanks!

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  8. Jeff,
    We used a back channel with our students for the first time at the end of the year. The students had created a digital story as part of their state assessment. The English teacher and I used Chatzy to set up a back channel for the students to discuss the projects as they were being presented which was yet another skill which is assessed. This worked perfectly. Since it was the first time any of the students had ever experienced anything like this we gave them directions to play and experiment for a few minutes before we cleared out the chat and got down to business.

    I think part of the problem is that when something does not work perfectly for teachers the first time they give up. They just assume that since it did not go well right this time then it won’t work at all. The first group we used the back channel with worked perfectly while the second group was completely unfocused. Why? Because it was the last day of school! It wasn’t the tool that was the problem; it was the timing.

    Thanks for a great series of posts on this topic. I plan on passing them along. With your permission I would like to link back here when I write about this later this summer.

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  10. I had never even considered doing this, but now this expands my thoughts and ideas as I prepare this upcoming school year. I had no idea something like this was out there.

  11. I read the before related posts. They are useful for me. I need to talk and conversation in my daily work. However I never spend time to think about the problem you said. Thanks.

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  13. Bethany Billinger Reply

    I found your post and the comments inspiring. I can’t wait to try back channel chat in my classroom. I’m sure there will be a few bumps in the road as we take this new journey but I’m confident we will get there and find this a terrific tool.

  14. Donna Walsh Reply

    I really appreciate your plain talk and easy explanation. I’d like to try a back channel with my chemistry students, but I am afraid they will only ‘chat’ and some will be too distracted by it (harder to pay attention to the lesson). I’d love a ‘list’ of times when a back channel chat would work with science…Thanks for your blog.

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  16. This evolution seems to occur in many new tools. Take YouTube for instance. At first most videos were simply lip sync, crazy pets, etc., but now we can view the entire coursework from Stanford or MIT (even in Chinese). There is still what I’d refer to as ‘stupid’ stuff out there on the web, but more and more things are becoming more and more useful and focused.
    Thanks Jeff for starting this conversation.

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