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?

It’s funny how when you spend time like I have the past 3 days to make a point to comment on others that you start reflecting and things start clicking.

I left a couple comments that ended this way.

I hate to write, but love to blog!

The question is why? I’ve never been a good writer, I’ve hated writing for as long as I can remember. With a learning disability writing and reading were like kryptonite to me. Was never a great Language Arts teacher, but I don’t think I was that bad…having struggled with writing and reading my whole life and being up front with my students about it actually, I think, helped those reluctant learners to keep trying and plowing forward.

So why is it that I hate to write and love to blog?

First, I think a lot of it has to do with the computer and word processing. As I type this in my Firefox extension Performancing every misspelled word is underlined in red for me, giving me instant feedback on what I have misspelled. Does it catch all my mistakes, heck no, but you should see a post before it actually goes live. 🙂

Secondly, I can type faster then I can write…about 75 words/minute and you can actually read what I’ve written when I’m done.

Finally, I don’t see blogging as writing…it’s idea generation, it’s the free flow of ideas between people and it is a conversation. I love to talk (if you have a hard time writing you usually do…coping skill). I would rather stand in front of a group of parents and give a presentation, or have a face to face parent conference than write a letter home. My wife is the exact opposite. She HATES (yes it needs to be all caps) giving presentations, and would rather write a paper than give a presentation.

Because blogging is a conversation, a idea generating machine (the way I use it anyway) it speaks to me. Sure sometimes my ideas are way out there, but that’s how we work through them, how we start conversations, how we move forward and continue to progress as a society. Blogging gives me an audience, just like giving a presentation…I almost feel that way sometimes…like I’m presenting information, my thoughts rather than writing. It could be a podcast, a video, or blogging…it’s about having an audience. I wonder if I would have blogged in school, given the chance? It would have depended, I bet, on how the teacher used it as a tool. Was it a reflective journal to layout your thoughts, or did every period, capital and ‘ie, ei’ combination have to be perfect. If that was the case I’d have hated it.

Blogging is different…it’s not writing in the sense we think about it. People ask me why I blog and I truly can’t give them an answer…I just do, because it’s an outlet for me. I’d bet that I’ve blogged more in the past year then I wrote my whole life leading up to it. It’s been that powerful for me as a tool, and I see it in my students as well. In myspace and youtube…this networking, conversation, sharing atmosphere is contagious!

[tags]blogging, education, writing, conversation[/tags]

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