Sunday, March 29, 2009

Backchannel Engagement in the Classroom

Backchanneling in the classroom seems to be a hot topic recently. A March 18th blog post entitled Backchanneling in Middle School Social Studies caught my attention because 1) I teach Middle School Social Studies, and 2) I just had my students backchannel for the first time during a movie.

My main concern about having students chat during class is that it could divide their attention and cause students to miss important information. According to Dr. John Medina people are incapable of effectively multitasking. Medina's Brain Rules book and website illustrate that multitasking raises error rates. If this is the case then should we even consider having students backchannel chat during class? Another point that Medina makes is that people do not pay attention to boring things. My question then is--Can backchannel chats in the classroom help prevent boredom by engaging students in thinking about class content as it is presented?

To determine if backchannel chat will work I used it with the movie Great Journey West about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Instead of forcing students to backchannel during the movie I let it be an option. This allowed me to see how many students would freely participate, as well as to allay my concern about students dividing their focus. My observations show that some students are more adept at dividing their attention and being able to refocus than other students. I also have a concern that students who have poor typing skills will spend an inordinate amount of time typing to the exclusion of actually watching the movie. I used Coveritlive as the platform for the backchannel chat since the students and I were already familiar with how it works. I created a couple of polls and found a link to the Journals of Lewis and Clark prior to the event. My only instruction for students was to use Coveritlive to ask questions they did not understand during the movie.

The results impressed me. I had about a 1/3 of each of my classes actively asking questions during the movie. All of the questions were genuine and were answered right away either by me or another student. A majority of my students participated in the polls, while nearly all my students at least kept track of the chat periodically while they watched the movie. Some of the deeper questions that were asked during the chat were then discussed as a class after the movie. These class discussions led to the students asking even more questions. I have not had the chance to backchannel during a movie since this time, but I have had a number of students ask when we can do it again.

Whether one can effectively multitask or not I believe that it does have a place in the classroom. If done properly I believe it can lead to students becoming more engaged in the content by being encouraged to ask and answer questions in real time. This real time, active participation by students is what they do in their own time when they IM and text, so why not incorporate it into the classroom if you can. With every student having a computer in my class every day, I have the ability to use this technology to encourage students to think in a way that is natural for them.

I would love to hear other ideas for using backchannel chat in the classroom to engage students. What ideas do you have???

photo credit: serkaner at stock.xchng


Scott said...

Hi! I was excited to see your post on your experience in your middle school classroom. I've been backchanneling in my high school classroom for a little more than a year and have had great experiences with the process. Keep up the work in your classroom!

Mr. T said...

Thanks, Scott! I would really like to hear how you use backchanneling in your classroom. I'm sure there are many different ways it can be effectively used, but this is relatively new to me so I'm really limited in my ideas.

mhall said...

As I was reading your post, I thought about myself as a student sitting a classroom listening to a teacher or watching a movie. I was always encouraged, often required to "take notes." As I recall my notes were mostly verbatim records of what I heard and/or saw, but I frequently made a "?" near something I didn't understand. Did I ever ask the question? Was I ever encouraged to ask the question? I'm not certain, but I see a very strong connection to your use of backchanneling. In addition the tool ENCOURAGES the student to ask questions for clarification... definitely... and very possibly connection to prior knowledge, creating new knowledge..and all those other HOTS. What is the difference between a No.2 pencil and a keyboard! Students have been asked to multitask with much less possibilty of actually learning something. Thank you for encouraging me to think about this and give it a try!

Mr. T said...

I do think backchanneling's main advantage is the ability to have students ask questions in real time. I have done the same thing with the ? in my notes and often times I never got around to actually answering my own question. I am even finding myself more easily frustrated when I sit through presentations and I don't have that avenue to ask questions. I'm sure students who are used to texting are even more frustrated and find it harder to sit and not actively take part in some way. Backchanneling is just one way to engage, but I still think it need to have clear parameters. Good luck with trying this out!

Jim Gates said...

Thought you'd like to know that I'm including this post as a resource for this year's LTMS 600 course when we come to the topic of backchanneling.

Mr. T said...

Thanks for using the post. Since the original post I have used the backchannel for another video. This week I will be having a mock trial and have the jury backchannel during the trial. My focus for the jury will be to discuss the fact v. opinion, logical v. emotional arguments, and generally to have the jury deliberate during the trial, instead of waiting until after. Hopefully it will work out.

I have really talked up the class so I'm sure there will be a good Hershey contingent. Good luck with the class!