Using a Backchannel to Engage Students

Michelle RodemsMichelle Rodems, Ph.D., is program manager at the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies (SIGS) and at the Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning.

Picture courtesy of colecamp @ Flikr,

Picture courtesy of colecamp @ Flikr,

Are you looking for new ways to engage more of your students? Do you want to provide more authentic learning opportunities for your students? Searching for some way to help students write concisely, critically examine arguments, or take notes?

One strategy you might consider using is a “backchannel” to give your students a secondary way to communicate with you or each other.

According to Educause (2010), “Backchannel communication is a secondary conversation that takes place at the same time as a conference session, lecture, or instructor-led learning activity.”  This secondary stream of conversation/engagement promotes a more informal exchange about course ideas or content that helps engage students in low-risk ways and helps instructors know what’s on students’ minds.

While there are no- and low-tech ways to incorporate a backchannel into your class (think: structured whiteboard writing or note-passing), using technology to facilitate a backchannel could address the above needs and more.

Though there are several different technology tools you might use for creating a backchannel (including some that have more privacy options such as Today’s Meet,and, Twitter has been effectively used for this purpose.  For instance, some faculty have used a backchannel to gauge students’ understanding of class material, while others have shared current articles or resources with students outside of class. Learn more about using Twitter in academia, including its effective use in the classroom and as a backchannel.

 Benefits of Backchannels

  • Shy students: Utilizing a backchannel can provide a space for students who may be more reluctant to speak up during class. In the video about her class, Monica Rankin showcased her “Twitter Experiment. ”The backchannel, she said, “was successful primarily because it encouraged students to engage who otherwise would not.”

  • Entire class engagement: Mark Sample used a backchannel to turn what during class might have been a “lean-back activity” into a “lean-forward practice,” asking his students to live-tweet while watching a movie. As a result, his students engaged in far more peer engagement than they otherwise would have.

  • Classroom boundaries: While many use a backchannel during class, one instructor described the benefit of “expanding” the classroom walls to engage students outside of class.  Using a backchannel provided students with the ability to continue conversations and explore new connections: “It’s turned out to be both an extension of class discussions, which is what I originally envisioned, and a place to explore medieval literature, culture, and society in ways that we might never have broached in the classroom.” You can share information before, during, and well after class – and so can students!

Below you’ll find additional resources for suggestions, tips, and considerations for using the backchannel in your classroom.

60 ways to use Twitter in the classroom.

Suggestions for how to make the most of using a backchannel, particularly Twitter, in the classroom.

If you’d like to create policies for using a backchannel like Twitter for your class, you might consider these from Prof KRG as an example.

Great reflection from a recent exploration with using Twitter in the classroom.

How have you used a backchannel with your students? What questions do you have about using a backchannel in your own class?

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