February 11, 2009

Backchannels in the classroom

I've been really interested in the use of backchannels for several months. After seeing several interesting articles and blogs posts on the subject, I began wondering how this might help bring a new type of interactivity to our large enrollment course at UNI. I team teach a course with three other instructors and a teaching assistant, and we have 9 sections of 30 students each. We've struggled in the past to engage our students during the "lecture" part of our class (students spend 1 hour in lecture and 2 hours in hands-on labs). We typically have about 100 students in the classroom during the "lecture' part of the course. While we preach the importance of engaging learners and accommodating digital natives, I've often felt somewhat hypocritical in my rather limited techniques of actually engaging students and encouraging interaction.

So, this semester I've begun using Coveritlive! to create a backchannel for my students, and the results have been pretty positive so far! Students are adding some excellent insights and examples in our backchannels, and I can easily gather their opinions and experiences with polls that appear on their screen along with real-time results displayed in bar charts. It's actually an excellent student response system built right into the Coveritlive! interface--no need for students to purchase their own TurningPoint transmitters, for example. Most of our students already own a laptop, so we just need to encourage them to bring it to class.

For three weeks now, Magda and I have been using Coveritlive! to facilitate a backchannel for our ICN class (Iowa Communications Network--our statewide fiber optic network for distance learning courses). The backchannel is ideal for this type of course where simply being able to speak is sometimes hindered by the nature of the "press-to-speak" environment that involves students at multiple sites. For this group, the backchannel not only facilitates some excellent discussions but it helps us resolve technical issues (can you turn up the volume, please?) and even answer a few more questions after our ICN session expires.

Interestingly, more students in the ICN course (37 of 51) participated in the backchannel last week than did the students in our on campus courses today (just 25 of about 270). Maybe that's not surprising considering that our distance education learners are somewhat more inclined to bring their laptops to class than our on-campus students who aren't really encouraged to bring them in their other classes.

I'm really excited to see how our use of the backchannel evolves, and I'm hoping that our students might be inspired to try them out in their own classrooms someday. After all, people tend to teach as they were taught.