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