What is it?

Backchannels are communication spaces online such as discussion boards, chat rooms, or tagged threads, that are restricted to a particular audience. The idea is to create a space where students can have a conversation while an instructor is presenting. At first this may seem counterintuitive if engagement is the goal. However, the outcome of a backchannel is that it organizes the conversations and thoughts that are already taking place in your classroom, allowing students to more easily follow along with both streams of information concurrently. Educause provides an excellent summation of backchannels and their application in higher education here.

Instructional applications

Corral side questions - During a presentation a backchannel can be set up for the specific purpose of housing questions that often derail a class. Questions not relating to the topic being presented, such as when is an assignment due or the "what if? question", can be added to the backchannel. The questions can then be answered by other students, a teaching assistant, or the instructor when appropriate. This is especially valuable when there is a guest lecturer present who may not be accustomed to handle disruptive questions during a presentation.

Provide a question stream - In a classroom environment with two or more projection screens a backchannel can serve as a live running stream of questions and comments related to a presentation taking place on a separate screen. By placing the backchannel on a screen both the students and the instructor can easily see questions posed by the class. This allows the instructor to recognize when a point of confusion has been reached and to provide additional clarification on a topic.

Video commentary - While showing a video or listening to an audio presentation in class a backchannel can be used as a way for the instructor and students to converse without causing an interruption. This allows students to react instantly to what they are experiencing rather than holding their thoughts until after the media presentation is complete.

Group communication - At times, the seating arrangement in a classroom makes it difficult for students to move or form groups. For group work, separate backchannels can be created for each team. Consider giving the backchannels a unique name that includes your course ID and a group number. Group members are able to converse with each other without having to be physically seated next to each other. This is especially useful if you would like to move back and forth between group and individual instruction without wasting time while students change seats.

After class discussion - A backchannel does not need to close when class ends. Backchannels can be used to encourage the continuance of good discussion outside of class. With proper instructor supervision this can be a way for students to quickly get questions answered between classes and pursue conversations that may have been cut short in class due to time constraints. A benefit of this approach, as opposed to email, is that all members of the class can see the communication stream so it may reduce the number of times that an instructor has to answer the same question.

Best practices

Set communication norms - In an anonymous environment participants may be tempted to post off topic or inappropriate comments. These comments could both offend other students and distract from the quality questions being raised. When introducing a backchannel in class establish a set of norms for the use of the tool such as appropriate language, topics, and posting etiquette.

Embrace the informal nature of the tool - A backchannel is not designed to be a well thought out series of postings in a controlled environment. It is a loose real-time conversation between many participants. Accept that reality rather than trying to determine ways to measure participation or assess the comments posted. The idea is to create a comfortable space for communication, not to develop another way to assess students.

Get involved in the conversation - A backchannel can be successful with students alone. However, it is much more effective when an instructor is actively jumping into the conversation. Students value the perspective that faculty bring to a discussion. Providing commentary, even if it is only occasionally, will add credibility to the backchannel and increase the likelihood that students will embrace the communication channel.

Take care in deciding what to do with the conversation transcript - Most backchannel tools allow an instructor to export the conversation log as a PDF. This could be posted or shared with students so that they have a way to reference questions/answers posted during class. Do this with caution. Posting the chat transcript may reduce the willingness of students to speak in the moment. They may be fearful that their comments will be criticized later when reviewed outside of the context of the class. In either case, clarify to students what will happen to the chat transcript.