What is back-channelling and how can schools use it?


Schools are taking on ‘back-channelling’ as a means of improving class discussion, student questioning and learning outcomes. Earnie Kramer explains more.

A“back-channel” is an online conversation that takes place in real-time during a verbal discussion, presentation, lecture, etc. 

While back-channelling is a secondary conversation, it can be a useful tool for submitting questions during a class or redirecting the primary conversation. 

Thanks to increasing wireless connectivity, back-channelling has been brought to the forefront of communication in everything from television shows to political debates.

Why try it?

Dean Matz, a teacher and technology expert, said: “I’ve seen a lot more high-order thinking type questions and conversations taking place by the students using the back-channel.” 

Fellow teacher Keri Heusdens adds: “It allows them to have a voice while not disrupting the focused space of the classroom. It’s also great because I can immediately give students recognition and clarification.”

Back-channelling gives schools the ability to:

  • Foster engagement and participation during lessons.

  • Give shy students a platform to safely ask questions and give feedback.

  • Extend the discussion by giving students who aren’t physically present the opportunity to ask questions.

  • Limit student confusion by addressing questions and concerns as they arise.

  • Streamline Q&A time with audience/student questions waiting in a queue.

  • Lecture more effectively with a better understanding of where students are struggling.

  • Encourage collaboration as students advise one another online.

  • Allow students with multiple questions to get answers without dominating class conversations.

  • Help students in larger classrooms to get to know their fellow classmates in a variety of ways.

  • Integrate online and classroom students in a blended environment where some students might be physically present and others learning remotely. 

Challenges of back-channelling?

Teaching students how to back-channel responsibly is a key challenge for schools and teachers will require to adjust the classroom model so that back-channelling can prove an effective tool.

Other challenges include determining whether users should back-channel using their own names or if students can remain anonymous. And of course, teachers will need to keep students focused on the lesson, as the various conversations that occur at the same can dilute student focus.

Top tips

Determine your platform: Research which social networking platform will provide the structure that you are looking for in your back-channel discussions. Discuss acceptable use policies with your IT department and administration to determine the safest and most responsible way to hold online discussions during class time and to ensure that no anonymous users are involved.

Communicate with your audience: Be sure that your students know that you will be incorporating a back-channel into your class. Make it clear how they can access the discussion and what platform to use. Be specific about what is appropriate and what isn’t, as well as when they can expect their questions to be answered during lectures.

Appoint a moderator: To keep the discussion effective and on track, appoint someone to sift through questions and comments as they come in. Especially in the beginning, it can be difficult to perform a lesson while also monitoring questions. Appointing a student to be the back-channel moderator will keep questions organised and your answers more structured. Rotate the moderator duties and get all students involved.

Ideas for the classrooms

Taking notes: Using a shared online document, students can collectively take notes during class. This allows students to read and use them. Having the class notes on a shared document gives all students the benefit of anytime, anywhere access to study material.

Resource sharing: With resource sharing, students can browse online for more information on the subject they are reading or learning in order to enrich class discussions. Encourage students to use link-shortening services to send the resource’s URL. Resource sharing can inspire students to hunt for pertinent content and lead to increased engagement.

Asking questions: Back-channelling can provide students the opportunity to ask more questions in a protected environment. In some cases, students are reluctant to ask questions in class due to fear of embarrassment or humiliation. However, back-channelling offers the opportunity to ask questions more passively or even anonymously. Many students feel more encouraged to ask questions without feeling “on the spot”. 

  • Earnie Kramer is a director at Lightspeed Systems.


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