Talking while the teacher is talking: learning in the back channel of #change 11

by Joe Dillon

I’ve experimented with back channels in my 7th grade language arts classroom. On occasion, I used it as a way to focus students’ attention during Socratic circles. The outer circle of students, three times larger than the inner, armed with netbooks, had to respond on a wiki page discussion thread to the participants’ comment during the discussion. The outer circle recorded questions, reactions and quotations from the one participant they tracked. Since I was working with adolescents, the silent social opportunity during the Socratic circle kept everyone active and engaged, which can be a challenge when the outer circle has to sit quietly and record on tally sheets or some other paper record to track the conversation.

So, I believe in the potential of back channels and was excited to participate in the chat room during both of Howard Rheingold’s live sessions for the MOOC this week. From past experiences in Blackboard Collaborate, I’ve grown accustomed to the webinar format and I bounced my attention from the chat thread to the video feed of Rheingold’s presentation. It was interesting to participate this way in the context of our learning that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, just task switching. According to Rheingold, we pay attention costs with each switch.

With that learning in mind, I reflected on my participation. Between the two sessions I felt at times engaged, rewarded and distracted by the chat.

I wonder: What are the implications for teaching and learning in back channels, when participants effectively talk while the teacher is talking?

I’m thinking of ways participants might revisit the back channel transcript to support ongoing thoughtful participation and so that we might better understand the potential. Here are three possibilities I see for using the back channel transcript:

1. Have participants search through a transcript of the back channel and code their responses based on how they feel their participation impacted their attention to the session or their learning.

2. Ask participants to connect the small, quick discussions with other discussions online. For example, search for discussion forums and comment threads elsewhere online where participants might extend their conversations. (A quick teacher discussion in a chat room might easily connect to some of the larger group discussion threads on edutopia.org, for example.)

3. Ask each participant to identify the most important post in the back channel and blog about that immediately afterward.

Please add any suggestions you might have in the comments.