Through the Back Door: Backchanneling

By Claudia Felske — I remember when I was a first-year teacher in awe of my mentor, an amazing veteran teacher who made it a point to speak to every one of her student each day – no small feat for a high school English teacher, juggling 100+ students, 5 classes, 4 different preps and loads of correcting. Yet, she did it.  That was 18 years ago.

Flash forward to 2011.  With 30-40 students in many classes, with many teachers having an extra class altogether, with laser focus on test scores in many districts, the goal of speaking to each student each day and hearing from each student each day seems to be a schoolgirl fantasy, literally.

Enter: technology. In my continuing iPad experiment (see past posts for the full dramatics) I tried my first stint with backchanneling last week. Backchanneling involves having students engage in a second layer of participation during class. While the teacher is talking, while a video is playing, while the class is discussing, students can also be posting comments, questions, and answers about the topic at hand via a computer, ipad, or cell phone.

It’s basically Facebook for the classroom. Comments are visible to students on their devices and visible on a screen in front of the room. Theoretically, the benefits are obvious: greater participation, increased engagement, a less-threatening way for shy students to converse, and an opportunity for students to speak in their native tongue: social media. The liabilities, however, are also obvious: how to control the conversation, how to keep comments appropriate, how to keep students focused on the topic at hand.

And so this week, I went beyond the theoretical in three of my classes with the following results:

In Junior English, my students had turned in generally dull first drafts of their college entrance essays. We’d stressed the importance of writing an essay that would rise to the top of the application pile, that would be unique and showcase its writer as an individual. The results were otherwise. So, as an antidote, I taught a mini-lesson on using figurative language in narrative writing. Then, I had them use backchanneling to write and post key metaphors they could incorporate into their essays. Next, students commented on each others’ metaphors, communicating what they thought the metaphors meant and suggesting ways to extend or intensify them.

The results were exciting. All students but one posted metaphors; then, 189 comments were made on those posts. This class averaged 7 comments per student, far more than would have ordinarily happened in traditional discussion mode with one student speaking at a time with the others passively listening. Fingers were clearly on keyboards, tapping away; students, reading and posting actively. What also happened is that EVERY student in class (sans one) received peer comments. Once I allowed the “backchannel” to become the primary focus, I started commenting too, picking up on lost details, nudging some writers to go deeper. Clearly both student engagement and constructive feedback were on the up and up. I’m anxious to see the full results on their revised essays.

In Freshman English, I used backchanneling to turn a whole-class discussion on a short story into a posting session. We started with students posting what they thought the story was about – what the author’s intent was. Answers appropriately and predictably varied as it was a difficult story. Next,  each student posted a line from the story that he/she didn’t understand. Then, students posted comments on each other’s lines, attempting to connect the ambiguous lines to the theme/point of the story. Again, all fingers were clicking and posts were flying onto the screen.  What was eerie was I didn’t know quite what to do. I started out commenting aloud on posts as they appeared, but it felt strange because kids were responding with their fingers, not their mouths.  I was talking to a a silently-clicking room of students. And so, I stopped talking and started typing too.

I had been transformed into a mere moderator, watching the conversation flow. I found this rather confusing: Shouldn’t I be talking? Shouldn’t they be talking?  I felt out of place, like an interloper in my own classroom. I wondered what my role was; I wondered what the right ratio of audible and clickable words was; I wondered if it was okay that I wasn’t speaking. Was I doing my job? Were they doing my job? What was my job? I ended the hour with plenty to ponder, but what I did know is that all students had participated, 6-12 times each: ten or more times more than they would have in a traditional whole-class discussion.

In AP English, I was anxious to try backchanneling because this year’s class has ten more students than I’ve ever had in an AP setting. AP English is meant to be run as a seminar class with maximum student participation and discussion. I use Harkness Discussions, Socratic Seminars, and Lit. Circles to maximize participation; and while all are worthy discussion methods, they still boil down to one person speaking at a time while the rest of the class, or rest of the small group listens. Enter: backchanneling. I had students post comments on the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry,” an intriguing little poem about poems. Prompted by my posts, they picked apart nuances of his language and his imagery and how he uses them them to comment on literary analysis. My experience was similar to that with the Freshman. Fingers were flying, comments galore, but I couldn’t quite find my place in the mix. Speaking was awkward and felt a bit intrusive. The flow was clearly in their hands.

At the end of each of the three classes, I gave students an exit question, so they could give me their anonymous feedback on backchanneling (not posted for other eyes this time).  Of 77  responses, 70 were positive. Here are a few:

  • I like how you can comment instantly. It was very exciting.
  • We should do it more often. I feel like seeing others examples is helpful.
  • I am in love with this!!!
  • Can we please use it more? I learned and had fun using technology.
  • I felt more involved with the class and the discussion.
  • It’s great because many people can casually discuss without it getting loud.
  • LOVED it! New facebook! Makes learning REALLY FUN!
  • I enjoyed how we used it; everyone gets a voice.
  • It gives people a chance to connect without being run over.
  • It really complements your teaching. When is there going to be time for 200+ comments in a class discussion?
  • No one person can control the whole discussion.
  • This has real potential (my fav. comment : )

And now, the negative (followed by my commentary):

  •  Everyone did get to “say” more, but the discussion wasn’t as deep [x3] (fair point; that’s my job: to figure out how to moderate, nudge, and push the “deep” card).
  • Speed was emphasized too much (interesting – I think speed is one of the advantages of backchanneling as students who can process quickly, can go quickly; those who can’t, don’t have to: built-in differentiation, but I need to think more about that one. I need to let students know they need find their own stride/pace).
  • It got in the way during class: why can’t we just talk? (I’d argue that traditionally only one can “talk” at a time – a major limitation of whole-class discussions. I’d love to know who write this comment – I suspect it may have been someone who already participates a great deal in class. Backchanneling enables such students—albeit reluctantly perhaps—to respond to more voices and share the mic – a good thing).
  • It’s good, but I would split the class into two discussions; otherwise there’s just too many posts to read. (Great suggestion: next time around, done).

    The more doors, the better.

So, where does this leave me? Excited and challenged. Excited to see students run with social media in the

classroom. Clearly, this is an extraordinarily engaging tool. Challenged to figure out the right mix of talking and texting. Challenged to figure out my role in balancing speaking and writing, in pushing posts into “the deep,” in figuring out how to negotiate their steps and mine on this new terrain.

What I do know is that backchanneling is an effective back door method of increasing engagement and participation. And in today’s educational climate, with increasing class sizes, increasing demands on our time and energy, increasing urgency for a populace fluent in 21st century skills, we need to use all doors available: front, back, side, or otherwise.

And so, the back door will remain open.

0 Responses to “Through the Back Door: Backchanneling”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What is a Marquette Educator?

Follow us on Twitter


%d bloggers like this: