Backchannels in the Classroom

While I was away on vacation, there was a significant discussion on Twitter concerning backchannels in the classroom.  I thought I would take a moment to share my experience with using a backchannel in my science classroom near the end of the school year.  My goal is to incorporate backchannels much more frequently next year.

Some of the better known options:

At the time, I was only familiar with Chatzy, so that’s what I used for my students.  I was personally pleased enough that it will continue to be my goto backchannel chat option.  When setting up my room, there were a few options that I felt the need to select in order to have some control over the room.  For example:

  1. When creating a Virtual Room, set a room password. This allows you to have some control over who is able to log in to the room.  Having a default password allows you to let absent students log in, but also opens you up to having outside users become aware of the password.  This is a choice you can make on a room by room basis.
  2. Set the Room Type to Chat only. This removes the option for “behind the scenes” backchannel chat.  You’re already allowing students to have a conversation during a lesson/movie, why allow them to hide discussions behind that as well?  Knowing everything shows up in the chat also helps encourage on-task behaviors.
  3. Disallow students sending out chat invitations. For the majority of folks, this activity is scary enough just having the kids conversing during a lesson/movie.  Having them invite their unknown friends into the chat becomes a downright nightmare.  An avoidable nightmare to say the least.

The Circumstances

First of all, this is not an option for me all the time.  I do not have a class set of laptops, nor am I in a computer lab.  We have one cart of laptops that can be checked out and I had them for 4 days for an end of year project.  The end of our school year was thrown into turmoil because of remediating and retesting students who did not past their End of Grade tests.  This meant that on a daily basis we had different groupings of students, as well as different numbers of students in each group.  Our Language Arts teacher was tied up remediating, so she selected a Discovery Streaming video on Research for the students to watch.  I had enough time to watch the first 3 minutes, and realized there was no way they were going to be engaged in the material, especially this late in the school year (about 6 days remaining in the year).  I decided to give the backchannel chat a whirl.

I prefaced the activity as a challenge for my students and a preview of something I wanted to try next year.  They are very aware that I add new things every year, and were excited to have a chance to test out one of my plans.  I had created a TinyURL for the chatroom which was posted on the board.  I asked students to log in with their first names only so I could be sure to know who was posting what in the chat.  I told them that the chat was designed to allow them to discuss the video while it was going on, ask questions, and post links to additional information about the topics of the video.

When students began logging in, there was an immediate buzz in the room.  Students started messaging each other and generally testing out the chat room capabilities.  Most students were familiar with the style of the interface and dove right in.  As the video played, I was trying to stay one step ahead of the kids with some questions that were related to the information being presented.  There were a few major successes with this trial:

  • Students asked questions that were answered by me or other students immediately, rather than having to hold them until the end of the video.
  • Students asked questions that were related to the video, but were not addressed during the short segments of the video.
  • Students learned that dropping a link into the chat allowed them to have an active link to the webpage.  I used this as an activity when I noticed folks heading off topic: Quickly find the best link to information on…and post it in the chat.
  • Without intending it, I began using the Twitter @ system to reply to students in the chat. Some questioned it, but it gave us the opportunity to discuss how to respond to others.
  • My class stayed awake throughout the 45 minute video.

That last one may seem a bit odd.  The reason I bring it up, is that in the other two classes watching the video simultaneously, fully 75% of the students fell asleep or were focused on something else.  As this was largely a “filler” activity, the teachers did not complain as long as they were not disruptive.

Trade Offs

The major trade off in using a backchannel is the danger that students will focus so much on the chat that they miss out on information from the lesson/video/etc.  I asked my students how many struggled with keeping up with both and of the 28 students, about 6 or 7 admitted to having difficulties focusing on both.  Some chose to focus on the video, others on the chat.  It is my contention that the amount of discussion and learning that took place in the chat was a significant improvement over watching the video alone.  Additionally, even those who focused solely on the chat learned more than the 75% of students who fell asleep in the other classrooms.  I gave students the option to focus on the video more than the chat, and only a few took that opportunity.


There needs to be a clear goal for the backchannel.  Initially, there is some time of testing the waters.  We have to recognize that kids need that time.  After about 10 minutes, the group became more focused since they were used to the chat.  Having some prepared questions will definitely help move the conversation along.  Some students tested the waters of changing their chat usernames.  The program sends a message out that “John changed his name to MonkeyPants” so I was quickly able to remedy this situation.  There were a couple of students who continuously tried to get the conversation off topic, so that can be a concern.

Overall, the greatest challenge is balancing the risk/reward of using the backchannel in the classroom.  The risks associated with opening up a backchannel can be overcome (as usual) with proper planning.  The rewards are great in the content area knowledge that can be gained, as well as the deeper discussion that can be generated.  Using a premium account at Chatzy allows you to print out the entire chat log, giving you starting points for discussion days after the backchannel activity.


4 Responses

  1. […] which students can use to post questions, share links and interact with each other during class.  The Technorate Teacher blog provides some insight into utilizing […]

  2. Great post, I appreciate you posting your experience with the backchannel. I will be trying basically the same thing in class tomorrow. Hopefully it goes well!

  3. […] Backchannels in the Classroom « The Technorate Teacher (tags: twine Twine_Bookmarks education backchannel) […]

  4. […] Moodle school, the iChat activity is useful and I believe you can give students a score. The blog The Technorate Teacher offers other apps for the backchanneling as well as some tips for running a smooth backchanneling […]

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