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Pedagogy of a backchannel (Part 1)

Posted on: October 21, 2014

I was prompted to draft some thoughts on designing backchannel activities by @ryantracey who interviewed me for an eLearning Magazine article in April.

I have used an assortment of tools or social media platforms for backchannelling during lectures or talks: Facebook, Edmodo, Twitter, Padlet, TodaysMeet, GoSoapBox, and Pigeonhole.

Whatever the tool, the purpose of the backchannel might be to break down the one-way street of didactic delivery by creating an additional and multi-way channel of communication.

The first consideration for a backchannel should be why you want one. This could for a number of good reasons, for example:

  • getting or giving feedback
  • providing an additional platform for questions & answers
  • promoting parallel conversations
  • capturing the essence of a blended learning session for archiving/sharing
  • one-minute reflections or exit tickets

A bad reason for wanting a backchannel is to look cool or to try something for its own sake.

The second consideration might be context, which might be a mass lecture or a conference talk. These contexts have these features in common:

  • information is delivered didactically
  • the delivery is in one place and at one pace
  • the audience is present as a requirement (in the case of a lecture)
  • the audience is self-selecting (in the case of a conference or seminar)
  • the content is grey or controversial enough to generate discussion
  • the audience is expected to sit, listen, and wait for a limited time and opportunity to respond

Whether backchannels are the initiative of the speaker or the organizer, they are a means of getting around tight schedules and situations where efficiency seems to be valued over effectiveness.

A third consideration is the size of the class or audience. I use backchannels at conferences where I am a keynote, plenary, or session speaker. The largest audience I have backchannelled with was 1,200. The smallest was around 50.

If you can count the number of people present with your hands and toes, you probably do not need a backchannel. That group should be small enough for you to interact closely with them.

A fourth consideration is the features of the backchannelling tool, such as:

  • ease of use
  • chronology of text inputs
  • linear vs threaded conversations
  • audience polling
  • monitoring/notifications
  • controlled access and/or message filtering
  • expiration

Whatever the bells and whistles, it is worth remembering that backchannelling is a social process. Often the ease of use and basic text inputs are all that are required. That is why my favourite backchannel tool at the moment is TodaysMeet.

I compared Twitter and TodaysMeet as backchannels in a previous blog entry. Note: I am not paid or otherwise supported by Twitter or TodaysMeet to mention their offerings.

When in use, TodaysMeet shows user-generated text in reverse chronology (most recent text at the top). For archiving and ease of reading, TodaysMeet offers a transcript view in forward chronology.

Both views are linear so it may be difficult to follow back and forth discussions. However, this is rarely an issue because audience members are typically multitasking (switching listening, asking, answering, responding), so responses are short.

TodaysMeet does not offer polls like GoSoapBox. But you can prepare a poll elsewhere (e.g., Google Forms) and post the link in the backchannel for participants to click on.

TodaysMeet is very basic in that it does not have a monitoring or notification system. So if someone posts in the backchannel after a talk, you must keep track manually. Other backchanneling tools might alert you of a new posting.

A backchannel is meant for a select audience and members must feel they are in a safe place to share their thoughts. Tools like Pigeonhole and GoSoapBox are password or code-protected. The current iteration of TodaysMeet allows you to delete offensive or irrelevant posts.

As backchannels tend to be specific to events, it helps if the backchannels have a shelf life. Neither you nor the participants are likely to use it beyond a certain period of time. You can set what this period is (a week, a month) in TodaysMeet.

I share strategies and tips on backchannelling in Part 2 tomorrow.

2 Responses to "Pedagogy of a backchannel (Part 1)"

To the reasons for backchanneling list, I’d like to add community development/engagement. One of the things that a backchannel does is, at least temporarily, give people a shared space in which they can identify as part of a group. Not only faces in a crowd, but a group that interacts and shapes the experience in a way that wouldn’t be possible (in the situations you suggest) otherwise.

While the other aspects listed would likely contribute to this sense of community, I think it can be a reason in an of itself.


Nicely put! The sense of community, belonging, or involvement is particularly true in the case of a lecture series where participants return for more.


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