In my last blog post a couple days ago I talked about lectures not being a bad thing. 

Both Will and I make livings now lecturing to people. Lectures aren’t bad when used properly to motivate, inspire, or push thinking. So the flipped approach is not about replacing the lecture.

That quote has been tweeted a bit and it has me thinking about the changes we have seen in lectures and how they do not need to be should not be the sit and get sessions we remember from our time in school.

by Tulane Public Relations

In fact I think lectures are making a come back in some sense. We all love TED Talks which are nothing more than a lecture. But a lecture with something we all really enjoy….a time limit. 18 minutes is all you get for a TED Talk and because of that time limit it’s an intense 18 minutes. I know when I was giving my TEDx Talk I was watching the clock to make sure I was on time and within the limits as they will cut you off. 

Lectures aren’t the problem….Bad lectures are.

There is no reason a lecture today should not be interactive and engage the audience in the ideas being talked about. Or fast and engaging to the point where people don’t want to be off task. This is what TED does so well.

Will Richardson (I’ll keep picking on him for now) at his ISTE presentation lectured…and it was a great lecture. But what made it even better was that he used Today’s Meet a free chat room for those in the audience to share their ideas. Will did a great job of asking people to get involved, to give him feedback, and then he used the audiences input to change and adapt his talk. Taking time to check the stream, to engage with his audience. That is what a good lecture today should be. 

There is absolutely no reason why this can’t be done in a classroom. There are so many ways to engage your audience when giving a lecture that it should be just what we expect from a lecture in today’s digitally connected world. 

We also know more about the brain then ever before and know the brain needs processing time, or think time about every 10 minutes. Which is why whenever I’m giving a talk, about every 10 minutes I give the audience a 3 minute talk and process time. This also allows me to look at notes, chat rooms, tweets, or whatever system I have set up and reflect on how the lecture is going, see where I need to make changes and adapt to the audience. Again TED Talks are so good because they are no longer than 18 minutes and most are much shorter than that. Giving us that perfect chunk of knowledge that we can handle, process, and make meaning of.

I still find it fascinating how many times when giving a talk that this idea of back channeling is a new concept to so many. As if “sit and get” is still what is expected. It shouldn’t be!

Simple ways to back channel in the classroom:

  • Collaborative Notes: The simplest and probably most rewarding for students is to allow collaborative note taking by the class. Once you introduce students to this, whether in a lecture, in reading text, or just studying for a test it changes the note taking process forever…and I would argue for the better. Google Docs works perfect for this!
  • Chatroom: There are so many free ones out there or you can use a simple Google Doc and have students chat in the doc if you have that available. So many possibilities with a chatroom I don’t know why this isn’t more common.
  • Class Twitter Hashtag: I personally have never used this in a classroom but I know of others that have and as long as every student has a Twitter account (and they should) then this adds power not only during class but anytime students are connected they could be sharing, learning, engaging in the class.
  • Class Facebook Page: If you set up a class Facebook page students can chat, take notes, discuss, and stay connected long after the period or school is over. In fact just today on one of the class Facebook pages that I helped a teacher set up at ISB a graduated Senior posted he passed the IB exam and gave a shout out to the teacher thanking him for his teaching and helping him the past two years to find his voice and have a new respect for literature. Pretty cool if you ask me. 

If you find yourself in a situation where you are giving a lecture make it interactive….and no, a 100 slide powerpoint presentation is not interactive no matter how many times the letters fly in from the left, top and right. 

Lectures aren’t bad…..bad lectures are bad. Take time to make your lectures interactive, to put the focus on those listening and give them the power to interact with the content and with each other and you change the dynamics in a classroom really quickly. You put the focus on the learner not the content and that is never a bad thing.

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’m about an hour away from heading back to Spokane (and yes back to farming) from Washington DC and the NECC conference and just had a great back channel chat session where like many conversations ideas start to come and before I know it….I have to think through a couple things.

In the back channel we got into a conversation about back channels. What are their purpose and how do you use them?

What I’ve seen is a transformation of what a back channel is and what it has become and what it can be.

So here’s my take on back channels and their different uses:

BackChannel: Here’s Wikipedia’s take on what a back channel is:

Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers
to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken
remarks. The term was coined in the field of Linguistics to describe
listeners’ behaviours during verbal communication, Victor Yngve 1970.

The term “backchannel” generally refers to online conversation about
the topic or the speaker. Occasionally backchannel provides audience
members a chance to fact-check the presentation.

First growing in popularity at technology conferences, backchannel is increasingly a factor in education where WiFi connections and laptop computers allow students to use ordinary chat like IRC or AIM to actively communicate during class.

So a back channel allows your students and audience to communicate “behind the scene”. It’s used to connect people and ideas around something being presented/taught. This is a true back channel. It’s behind the channel of communication that is the presentation.

Front Channel:

I threw this term out in a back channel chat I was in. A “Front Channel” (for lack of a better term at the moment) is using a chat as part of your lesson or presentation. It’s part of your lesson. You use it to field questions, it’s on the screen in front of the room and the participants/students are aware that what they write can/will become part of the lesson or presentation.

Feedback Channel:

Scott Smeech threw this out as we were talking though this at the Blogger’s Cafe. The idea that you use a chat with participants as a way to gather feedback about your lesson or presentation.

What I’m trying to do is break down the different ways to use a live chat in the classroom or presentation. Up until now we have called all of these “back channels” but I think they serve a different purpose. Sure, the tool is the same but the purpose and outcome can be different. Helping educators understand that there are different uses for the tool is important for them to wrap their heads around just how a tool can be used.

Thoughts? Feedback?