Backchannel Like You Mean It
After reading Most Likely To Succeed (Preparing Our Kids For The Innovation Era) a few years ago, I have a new understanding of our education system and how we got here. Once you see it, you can't unsee it. For example, the way classrooms are set up, the sequence of curricular options, even how our hallways are organized all come from an earlier era when compliance, quiet, and rote memory were priorities. Teachers wanted students to sit quietly in their seats, in rows, and absorb the information given to them so students could repeat it back on tests. There was no room for creative thinking, or critical problem solving, or collaboration.
Today, I am amazed with our students as I walk through the halls of our schools. I love to listen in, look around, and ask kids what they are working on. 99% of the time, they are totally on task. It may look like organized chaos, but our students are learning in new ways and no longer expected to sit and be lectured to.
If only there was a way for our students to have a structured conversation or ask questions without disrupting the flow of class. If only there was a way for shy students, or students lacking confidence, to get in on the class discussion without putting them in anxiety provoking positions. If only there was a way for our students who struggle with impulse control, who need to get their questions and comments out now, could do it without social embarrassment. If only a teacher could follow the discussion going on among most students, as opposed to just those few who raise their hands.
For those of you scratching your heads right now, I'm about to introduce you (or re-introduce you) to the concept of a backchannel. There was a previous post on backchannels in February 2016 that includes a list of ways to use backchannels in the classroom as well as a guide to student backchanneling. As our seasons change, so does technology and the 2 backchannel sites mentioned in that post are no longer in operation. I have 2 more new ones for you to try and if you weren't sold on it the first time around, I thought this would be a wonderful time to reintroduce the concept.
A Backchannel is an alternate route for communication in your classroom. The first time I experienced a backchannel I was at a conference. I was sitting in a very long session that was really quite good but I just couldn't stay focused. I started to think about opening my email when I saw the backchannel link posted on the presenter's slides and I decided to check it out. I was amazed to find that many other participants in the room were also on the backchannel. As I started to feel bad for the presenter I started to read the posts and saw that nearly all of the comments were on topic (it was baseball season so there might have been some score sharing). Participants were posting suggestions, ideas, questions, thoughts, and more. The presenter even had someone designated to monitor the backchannel and several times paused to respond to a question that was widely asked.
I have seen this happen in classrooms as well. From "fishbowl" conversations to group check-ins, to crowd-sourcing feedback, there is definitely a place for the backchannel in school.
Another wonderful thing about backchannels is they are incredibly quick and easy to set up. Here are two that are currently on my list:
This backchannel site is free, simple to use, and has some nice interactive features, including the ability to draw. In Yo Teach, you can set a password so only your students can enter. You can also set your "room" so that it is not searchable. All you have to do is click "make room", give it a name, and set the password. Then your students can enter using using a pin or the built in QR code. Students enter their name and the password and then they are in.
Here is a 1 minute video showing how to get started on their new interface.
This backchannel is designed for teachers so it has a few more bells and whistles and allows teachers to do more moderating. Backchannel chat has a few pricing options with the free version allowing for 30 concurrent students and a "fair use" policy on the number of rooms. In other words, if you go overboard they are going to politely ask you to pay. You can also access a web transcript of your chat. The site also allows for embedding YouTube videos and Flickr images. Backchannel chat is also simple to set up and allow your students to access. All they need to do is type and hit send. You have the ability to remove any comments or give students view only access.
Are you using backchannels in your classes? Post in the comments below and tell us what you are using and how. Want some help or to see some examples? Let us know!