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Pedagogy of a backchannel (Part 2)

Posted on: October 22, 2014

Yesterday I shared four pedagogical considerations for backchannelling.

Today I suggest a framework, strategies, and tips on backchannelling. Caveat: Like yesterday, the content I share today is a draft of ideas swirling about in my head.

I shared this framework at a few conference talks when urging educators to leverage on social media-based learning.

Most frontal or online teaching is so focused on content delivery that social learning opportunities are banished to the periphery or are left out altogether.

To leverage on social media-based learning, a facilitator might start with the social process first and then make their way to the content through increasingly focused or serendipitous conversations.

A variation is social-content-social strategy. As I tend to backchannel at conferences, I have suggested to organizers and participants that an alternative experience could have been engaging with me on social media or a backchannel first.

Weeks before my talk, participants could tell me what issues they want me to focus on. After some crowdsourcing, they vote on the top three or five topics.

During my talk I deliver focused content that my audience wants and I can choose to backchannel or not. After the talk is over, I continue conversing with participants in the backchannel.

The social-content-social method can operate like a funnel. The topics are somewhat broad or chaotic in the initial social process. They are consolidated during the talk and may be refined during the second socialization process.

The flipping of a conference talk is just one example of leveraging on a backchannel. During a talk or lecture, a backchannel can be also be used:

  • to get an audience to answer prompted questions
  • by the speaker to answer spontaneous questions raised by participants
  • by all parties to share online resources by posting URLs
  • to provide an extended question and answer session outside the allocated time

I have written about how backchannelling places an additional cognitive load on an audience. Sometimes a backchannel can allow participants have conversations amongst themselves. This simulates note-passing and seems to be the least burdensome activity. It is very rewarding to observe audience members raise questions and have other members address them.

Finally, I offer some tips on backchannelling.

  • Check with the organizers of a talk if they are not against the practice of backchannelling. Ensure that the venue is not a wireless Internet dead spot.
  • Whether you use backchannels with a group you meet regularly or whether you spring a surprise on an audience, it is important to set expectations. I like to remind mine that everyone can see what they write and ask them to post professionally.
  • To make it easy for your audience members to access your backchannel, provide a short URL they can type and or QR code they can scan.
  • It can be tempting to leave the backchannel entirely in the background. I advise using it during the lecture or talk so that participants know that what they say there matters. Ask them for suggestions, review their comments, or answer their questions at strategic intervals.
  • When you are done with the talk or lecture, monitor the backchannel for as long as you promise your audience. Some members may post a question or comment after the fact and you should respond.

I normally set the stage by declaring how talks or lectures are boring. They do not have to be if you find ways to connect with your audience. One of those ways is backchannelling.

I hope that the framework, strategies, and tips I have shared on backchannelling are useful.

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

So, the speaker is not expected to response to every questions that are being posted during the delivery unless the speaker deliberately asks for answers to a question he/she throws to the audience, right ?


Not quite.

There are questions that can be initiated by the speaker or by participants.

If the speaker elects to get participants to answer in the backchannel, it is a good idea to surface and sum up during the talk.

Some answers might come in late or there may be too many responses. In that case, the speaker should monitor the backchannel later and answer especially if that is the promise or expectation.

In the two possible scenarios above, you might be right.

Then there are questions or comments that arise spontaneously (without prompting). These are no less valuable. Participants may choose to discuss answers amongst themselves and they might come to logical conclusions. If not, the speaker might step in.

There may also be a backchannel where questions are generated and voted on by the audience. The speaker should address the questions based on popular vote because that is what most of the audience wants addressed.

There can be other scenarios. Whatever they are, it helps to be guided by strong operating principles.

My view is that talks tend to be one-way; conversations are two-way. I try to have conversational talks and go out of my way to answer questions. After all, it is questions that drive learning.


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