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Pedagogical considerations for a backchannel

Posted on: September 1, 2014

Richard Byrne was open enough to share a misstep in his use of a backchannel. He concluded that trying to use it in combination with a quiz was a bad idea.

I use backchannels for my learners or audience members to discuss issues amongst themselves, to raise their own questions, and to answer those questions. At strategic intervals, I might have them respond to a quick task I set.

But there is at least one reason why a backchannel is better left unmolested. Cognitive load.

A group of learners or an audience is already trying to process what they are watching or listening to. The processing might include dealing with dissonance, taking down notes, sharing their thoughts, querying, or simply trying to catch up.

Letting learners or an audience chat amongst themselves about the topic, pose questions, or answer their own questions goes with the flow of the learning experience. It does not add to cognitive load because it allows each person to be where they are at. If they are ready to ask, they ask; if they have an answer, they answer; if they choose to lurk, they lurk.

Asking them to do something that adds to the load without first allowing for the backchannel to reach a state of flow adds an unnecessary burden. People struggle to participate in the new task or refuse to do so.

This is why pedagogy is both a science and an art. It is theoretically sound to create a channel for informal feedback and relatively easy to create a backchannel. But it takes practice and experience to know how and when to use it.

The only way to be an artistic scientist (or a scientific artist?) is to make lots of mistakes and to learn from them.

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