Saturday, January 7, 2012

Talking while the teacher is talking: learning in the back channel of #change 11

I’ve experimented with back channels in my 7th grade language arts classroom. On occasion, I used it as a way to focus students’ attention during Socratic circles. The outer circle of students, three times larger than the inner, armed with netbooks, had to respond on a wiki page discussion thread to the participants’ comment during the discussion. The outer circle recorded questions, reactions and quotations from the one participant they tracked. Since I was working with adolescents, the silent social opportunity during the Socratic circle kept everyone active and engaged, which can be a challenge when the outer circle has to sit quietly and record on tally sheets or some other paper record to track the conversation.

So, I believe in the potential of back channels and was excited to participate in the chat room during both of Howard Rheingold’s live sessions for the MOOC this week. From past experiences in Blackboard Collaborate, I’ve grown accustomed to the webinar format and I bounced my attention from the chat thread to the video feed of Rheingold’s presentation. It was interesting to participate this way. He taught us that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, just task switching. According to Rheingold, we pay attention costs with each switch.

With that learning in mind, I reflected on my participation. Between the two sessions I felt at times engaged, rewarded and distracted by the chat.

I wonder: What are the implications for teaching and learning in back channels, when participants effectively talk while the teacher is talking?

I’m thinking of ways participants might revisit the back channel transcript to support ongoing thoughtful participation and so that we might better understand the potential. Here are three possibilities I see for using the back channel transcript:

1. Have participants search through a transcript of the back channel and code their responses based on how they feel their participation impacted their attention to the session or their learning.

2. Ask participants to connect the small, quick discussions with other discussions online. For example, search for discussion forums and comment threads elsewhere online where participants might extend their conversations. (A quick teacher discussion in a chat room might easily connect to some of the larger group discussion threads on, for example.)

3. Ask each participant to identify the most important post in the back channel and blog about that immediately afterward.

Please add any suggestions you might have in the comments.


  1. Great idea - Socratic circles split in your way (would work for larger classes) does model the back channel chat in lectures.
    Keeps outer circle motivated and going beyond scoring a discussion rubric.
    Great exercise in paraphrasing and notetaking - inner circle can view afterwards to see how their spoken discussion points were understood by those listening.
    Also, inner circle could could view back channel and so have visual word cues of what was being discussed - and the outer circle can contribute - a little like presenters in the live MOOC sessions.

  2. I like the idea of the "outer circle" remaining engaged while a focus group of students discusses a novel or poetry selection. The backchannel resource allows all the thinking to be captured. Having everyone review the feedback afterwards is a great way to deepen the discussion.

  3. Hello
    I really enjoyed this post and it made me think about all the teachers I hear saying turn that mobile off and listen to me. Also the Business Adminstration teachers who 'control' the learners computer screens from the front of the class. They are really missing some great opportunities for some learning in the back channels.... but then this would involve a real shift in the power dynamic in the classroom... and are some teachers really ready?

    Joe I would like to send you an email... can you get in touch with me please

  4. an interesting idea - and if this outer circle learning is in effect silent I can see many ways this could work for me. I teach college level studios and there is a tendency during critiques for students to start private (often) relevant conversations about a piece of work. It is pretty hard to control the room, and this might be a way to let them all have a say at once. Brilliant - now to figure out a way to implement this!