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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.

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.


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