Backchannel in the Classroom – Learning for All

Recently many educators were very sad to see Today’s Meet go away and now will have to find a new way to have a backchannel in the classroom.  While there are many options out there, more on that in a bit, we need to understand why backchannels are a good thing in the classroom.

Backchannels are typically ways to have an alternative, digital, sometimes asynchronous conversation while a in-person conversation is going on.  One example is using a hashtag to discuss a topic at an educational conference while in a session, in order to build upon the learning happening or to just share out the ideas and thoughts that one is having without having to interrupt the presenter.  I know that I am constantly checking out the conference hashtag while at a conference in order to maximize my own learning and to connect with others.

In the classroom, a backchannel can actually be a great way to engage those learners who otherwise would not be engaged in the typical classroom conversation. Many students may just need a bit more processing time, may be very shy and not willing to speak out loud, or just want to think through their thoughts before speaking.  We know that not all students learn at the same pace or in the same way, and offering them multiple avenues of engagement while also allowing for different speeds, means we are designing for more learners.  Sometimes a classroom conversation can be dominated by a few students and others do not want to interrupt, especially if they are not 100% sure about what they are saying and could be wrong.  While a lively conversation can be great, often a number of students are not involved and their learning is just as important as those who are speaking.  

Implementing a backchannel into any classroom is not a monumental task, you just need to find the right tool for your situation and be willing to make changes as needed.  There are many tools out there that it matters more about how you implement a backchannel, than what tool you use. 

I still remember the first year when I was teaching in a 1 to 1, where every student has a device, and I used the forum feature in Moodle (this was a few years ago).  I made sure that every unit had a forum for students to ask questions as they had them, whether they were in class or not.  I had one student in particular that was doing ok on assessments but was very shy and did not speak out  much in class.  This led me to think that she could do a lot better but was having trouble asking the questions that she needed to ask in order to learn better.  When we started using the forums as our backchannel, she  would post a question or two from time to time.  I made sure to thank her for her question and would provide either an answer, or a question to make her think more deeply to help her come to her own answer.  Since these questions were visible to all of the other students, they would even help each other out with their own answers and explanations. She participated heavily in those forums and she started doing even better on assessments.  She went from having a C in the class to an A thank to those forums because she was able to be better engaged in the learning process, something in an analog classroom (paper based with no backchannels) she would not have been able to do thanks to her shyness and social anxiety.

The backchannel in my classroom did not take me a lot of time but I saw a lot of positives come out of it.  Too often we have students who don’t get to participate in the learning process due to some anxiety, cognitive, physical, or emotional issue.  A backchannel is one way we can be more equitable to those students and ensure that they are getting the chance to learn as well as the supports to continue to grow.  

If you are looking at some alternatives to Today’s Meet, you could always try the following: (but any way that allows your students to participate in discussions and to ask questions, in a digital and asynchronous way, will work)

Really, there are a lot of ways you can incorporate a backchannel into your classroom.  Find one that fits your needs and allows students to post questions.  If you aren’t sure how well your students would do if you made all questions visible to all students, think about how you can build up to this and use this as a way to teach some digital citizenship if you have any issues.  

Have your goal in mind: to engage more learners in the learning process in order to make learning more equitable and allow for deeper learning.

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