How to Leverage Backchanneling & the Long Tail of Learning

We’ve all been there.
Two colleagues across the room tap away at their phones, while the principal describes the rationale for cutbacks in funding for new technology initiatives. (Or switch out the colleagues for students while you are delivering an essential lecture on freedom of speech.) Their jabbing thumbs are punctuated by muffled giggles, as the digital text flies across the room. Is this a rude disruption or an extension of learning?
At a conference, the speaker is riveting in his call for student empowerment through 21st-century learning. The person next to you pauses in-between Twitter posts to listen, then fires off another 140-character commentary. (Again, think of the equivalent for classroom and students.) All around the room, others are doing the same thing, alternatively listening intently and tweeting to the #hashtag provided for the conference. Rude disruption or extension of learning?
In an online synchronous webinar, Will Richardson shares his slides about the shifts in how we think about our privacy, our interactions with strangers on the Internet, and the powerful impact on education of some of the interactions we undertake every day. The learning platform, Blackboard Collaborate/Elluminate, allows for a running chat in the center of the screen. Participants answer questions from the instructor, crack jokes, share thoughts, and push back on ideas. Rude disruption or extension of learning?

Should we teach students to backchannel effectively?

The backchannel chat has become a fixture of our culture, like it or not. Some people, and rightly so, call for us to use our best manners and listen politely to the speaker, regardless of the situation. Listening intently and providing a sea of rapt countenances for the speaker to gaze upon certainly have their place – I hate to think of weddings interrupted by backchannel chats, for example. And when the boss is delivering an important announcement, we had better sit still and listen up.
Even so, I am starting to wonder if we need to teach our students when and how to backchannel chat – when it’s just plain rude and when we can interact with a lecture or film or other stream of information in a way that allows our learning to take off in new, creative directions.
In the first example, we should distinguish between the disruptive and disrespectful (some would say unprofessional) side chat, the digital equivalent of note-passing or whispering at the back or the room, and the possibly enriching interaction of a backchannel chat. A backchannel chat should be open and transparent and available to everyone, and should extend the conversation in some useful way.
The second and third examples portray a way in which lectures can become interactive. A frequent criticism of many speakers who promote 21st-century education comes from the very nature of the speaking circuit, which reinforces the traditional one-way delivery of information. The backchannel is a way to address that by providing access to the “think aloud” responses of the listeners. In an online class environment, the teacher can engage with these responses as they happen, improving the lecture and the learning experience.

How do we leverage the backchanneling students already do?

My friend and colleague Marti Weston of Georgetown Day School calls the backchannel conversations at conference keynote sessions “extreme note-taking.” She describes key differences between pen-and-paper note-taking and the public note-taking of a backchannel: the latter are public and immediately sharable; they are available for annotation and pushback; they are archived in a way that can be easily accessed days or weeks or years later; they extend the lecture in potentially meaningful ways. When I listen to a lecture and take pen-and-paper notes, I rarely return to them. If I choose to put away my phone rather than backchannel, I know I can join the conversation later (assuming it continues in an environment such as Twitter). If I cannot attend the webinar or a conference, I can learn vicariously through backchannel notes or conversations. None of that really happens with my pen-and-paper notes. The backchannel is part of “the long tail” of learning in the 21st century.
I want to end with another story. Last year a group of students met with my colleagues and me to advise us as we designed a blended curriculum. Noted expert on 21st-century learning Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (co-founder and CEO of Powerful Learning Practice) joined us via Skype. The students had their laptops open, presumably to take notes related to our project. As we discussed the value of group projects, Sheryl raised the subject of assessment, and I noticed the students began typing away in a mad fury. I sneaked around behind them and saw that they were g-chatting (chatting on Google Chat) — about how they thought we should grade group projects. “You’re backchanneling,” I told them. “Huh?” they said. I explained the concept, adding that it wasn’t fair or respectful for them to have a separate conversation and not include the rest of us. It was a wonderful teachable moment. When I asked the students to save and share their conversation with the rest of us, they gladly obliged — and it provided more detailed commentary for us to consider as our project progressed.
I will be the first to admit that sometimes backchannel chats can decline into silly repartee, and this annoys the teacher in me who wants to keep the conversation “on task” and under control. But I also acknowledge that, much like our students, some of my colleagues in webinars or at conferences are new to backchanneling, and it may take some time for them to become skilled in the art of give and take with the lecture. What seems silly to me may be their way of settling in and feeling comfortable, I remind myself.
Ultimately, I can feel the shift of becoming more tolerant of what I might have viewed as rude behavior not so long ago. Now, when I see colleagues or students who are texting or chatting (as long as they aren’t openly rude and disruptive), I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are learning collaboratively instead.

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Robert Ryshke

Really nice reflective piece on the value of backchanneling. I agree with you that the process needs to be carefully orchestrated in the sense that backchanneling that becomes distracting could easily be viewed as rude. In a classroom, I would hate for students to enter the rude domain just because we as teachers have not taught them how to use the powerful tool as an extension of the learning process. Use it to learn...not to chatter.

Marty Park

I love your open exploration and capture in this post Susan! I wrote about similar connections and ideas in this post a few months ago. Keep pushing the limits!

Kathy Shields

Susan, Imagine you are presenting this topic at a conference. I would be listening intently, and tweeting simultaneously about how excited I am to discover an English teacher who is actually a wonderful writer. Growing up in k12, I always wondered if my teachers could write. Were they worthy of judging my work? You must be having a tremendous impact on your students by modeling engagement in 21st century parlance.

Renee Hawkins

Thanks for sharing such a insightful piece, Susan. I can appreciate the discomfort of a teacher wanting to keep the conversation focused and on task and accepting the natural tendency for the mind and the conversation to move in a different direction. Recently a colleague invited me to view his classroom backchannel. He's our music teacher and his class was watching a documentary on Mozart. While I couldn't participate (I was in my office in another building), I watched as students commented and asked questions. It was a real learning experience for me as I watched him pull the conversation back to the documentary by asking targeted questions, calling on specific students to share an opinion, and soliciting feedback from the class. I would estimate that his students directed the backchannel conversation themselves 85% of the time, but when they wandered off, he did a masterful job modeling acceptable practices without being heavy handed.

Susan Davis

Thanks for all the wonderful comments, links, and stories.
Marty mentions these tools in his blog post:
"The most common BackChannel tools I see being used are: Today’sMeet,Twitter (hash tags) – with tools like & to quickly aggregate backchannel tweets or comments."
I would add as another possible tool for backchanneling.
Thanks for sharing!

Matthew Kitchens

Great insights into backchannels. I've never thought about it, but I suppose backchannels would be the 21st-century equivalent to chattering while the speaker is teaching. I like the distinction you draw: A polite backchannel is open to everyone, including the speaker. My Big Campus ( is safe social-learning platform that can also be used for backchanneling. The site has a Facebook-style user interface and numerous features, including wall posts, direct messaging, blogs, and more. Best of all, posts are filtered and recorded, so district administration can review content. I've been using the site for two years in my classroom. Here are the Top 10 Reasons Why I Love My Big Campus:

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