Random Thoughts

The purpose of a back channel NECC09

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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?

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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  2. great points! i’m gonna add this link to my wiki! i think a back channel gives us who have slight ADD issues a chance to multi-task but also to get clarification during a presentation or event…to get further information…before i knew it was backchat i would find the links that people talked about in presentations bookmarking and backflipping like crazy (pre-blogging/wiki years)
    now…we’re building back channel communities, contacts and friends!
    ~Gwyneth aka Capt_Red on Twitter

  3. When I first heard about BC I thought “what a great idea” When I shared it with fellow teachers – their first thoughts were “kids will post stupid, irrelevant or inappropriate comments. And I have never gotten anyone willing to give it a try. I have yet to try it in a classroom setting, simply because we don’t have enough computers. I did, however, try it at PD course I was attending. I put out the link and had several people join in. I was disappointed by the proceeding conversation, though. Mostly silly comments much like the teachers had suggested the teens would do, and this was with a group of educators.

    I am still hopeful, and appreciate your thoughtful ideas on its implementation. What has been peoples experiences when used in a classroom setting? Was it useful, or were the naysayers right-only mundane commentary?

  4. For me — I find back channels disconcerting and distracting.

    However, I do learn from them.

    I think they need moderators — or perhaps a better word could be guide. Oft times the conversation begins to wander, and a gentle nudge back onto the real content is appreciated.

    I believe that the session leader needs his/her attention to NOT be distracted by the back channel. Especially if the audience has paid for that leader to be there.

    I agree that add an additional element to the conversation…….however, (in my opinion) not always an educational element.

    And finally — if at a conference, where a back channel is open, I think it needs to be on display for all to see.

    Just my thoughts

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  7. I find backchannel chat challenging and invigorating. It pushes me to my limit, though, and I don’t think I’m as natural a multitasker as some may be. I haven’t fully overcome the feeling that I’m not being rude, and I feel a little like a student amongst others in the back row of the classroom passing notes around. I think it opens a whole new way of operating, and it might solve the problem of students fidgeting or zoning out, as long as it was structured in a way that kept them on task. I think it will take a while for most teachers to see it in a positive light because they expect students to sit still, face them, and do nothing but listen when they’re teaching. I can understand why. I’m not sure; I’m interested in what others think. The frontchannel is an interesting idea, but I’d like more specific details about how it works if you’re teaching or presenting. All interesting.

  8. I experienced my first backchannel at NECC 09 in Vicki Davis’ BYOL session. The session was fast paced and time limited so the backchannel offered the perfect opportunity to post links that participants couldn’t possibly keep up with during the session. The backchannel stayed open after the session so participants could reflect and go back to the saved notes and links. In my opinion, it worked because there were three presenters. One presenter at a time presented while the other two followed the backchannel conversation. I couldn’t keep up with both conversations at the same time, but I was intrigued. I can definitely see the benefit in the backchannel and would like to use it at pd with my faculty. I’m not sure about the logistics of setting up a backchannel but will look into making it happen in the fall. I’ll let you know how it goes.


  9. I am all for allowing studnets to use tools that allow them to be consumers AND producers of knowledge-and that means not only listening passively, or taking notes in isolation, but listening actively and using their pln to do so. If we broaden the definition of backchanneling to include participants who are not present for the live discussion-then we add a whole other realm to the discussion whereby students must synthesize infomation in order to ask questions and make comments. This also makes an argument for the need to change from the traditional passive presentation or lesson to a more participatory approach, being careful not to exclude auditory and verbal learners in the process.

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