Why would I want to use a backchannel?

Do you ever wonder what your students are thinking as they watch a video clip? What's going through their head as they listen to a guest speaker? What questions do they have while you are demonstrating an experiment? What reflections might they have that they are not yet ready to share out loud?

A backchannel is a place where student voice can be expressed. It's a digital platform for students to share anything that they are thinking during a lesson.  

My most recent backchannel experience:
For the last three weeks, my class has been using Google Hangouts to produce their own school news show. They've been exploring the medium and all that goes into creating an effective news broadcast.  Today, as we finished filming our last one, I showed them a few clips from The Newsroom. The goal was to have a discussion afterwards comparing what they saw in the clips to their own experiences.  After the first couple of minutes of watching, I found myself itching to start the talk.  I knew they wanted to also but talking would have interrupted the video.  One of my students suggested we open a backchannel to start our talk early and get our questions and comparisons on the "page". 


Within 60 seconds, the room was created, the link posted on our blog and the students were in and chatting about what they were watching.  They weren't just sitting and listening. They were actively watching, reflecting and questioning.  Their voices were being expressed and heard. 

So...Why would I want to use a backchannel?

  • Student voice is valued 
  • Students build their understanding of what it means to be a digital citizen
  • Students who otherwise might never participate have an alternative method to share their ideas
  • Students can question and reflect during a lesson instead of having to wait until the end
  • Students who learn by doing might be able to better process information if they can chat about it online in the moment it is being learned
  • Students can make their thinking visible
  • Students can chat in a closed environment with only those from their classroom to see how their thoughts compare to those of their peers
  • Students can chat in a public environment like twitter, including a hashtag in their comments for organization and see how their ideas connect to the ideas of those all over the world 
  • Students can be active participants, even when the teacher is speaking

Things to remember:
  • When your students first experiment with a backchannel, there will likely be some who misuse the tool. It's important to set clear norms immediately. 
    • use only first names
    • post ideas that are on topic
    • post should move the discussion forward 
    • posts should be respectful of all participants
    • posts should be positive in nature
    • posts should have logical hashtags
  • Do a test run in a closed environment (Todaysmeet or Padlet) prior to moving to a public setting (Twitter).

Check out these quick screencasts for a few simple ways to begin a backchannel experience for your students.


Thanks to Richard Byrne for introducing this one recently on his blog. I decided to make my own tutorial for the sake of my own learning.

What other backchannels do you use in your classrooms?

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