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.


  1. Rob,

    Thanks again for letting me visit & participate classes today via CoverItLive --it was an interesting experience to be a visitor to class via this technology tool without the benefit of being live in the classroom. Each of the sessions had similar interactions and yet each class had different levels of engagement with the tool. I did attend all three sessions and after having experienced this use will be working more on developing this as an alternative synchronous meeting tool for those teaching at a distance via WebCT here in C&I.


  2. That was fun having a few of you join our chat from beyond our classroom. I hadn't really expected that to occur, but it worked well. Not sure if you caught it, but Katy from Ankeny (one of our alumni) was joining us from an in-service meeting. She heard about it from another one of our grad students who had posted a Twitter update about what we were doing.

    Overall, I really like using Coveritlive. However, I think a simple chat room would be easier for some faculty, and it would probably accommodate most of what we were doing today. Too bad our Blackboard/WebCT chat tool doesn't work!

  3. Yes, thanks for leading this Robin. Having the back channel allows the students to further discuss what is happening in class. I wonder how it affects the learning process. I would imagine that they develop a deeper understanding of the material they discuss because the chat involved deeper processing. The question lies in what do they miss. Perhaps if the teacher reformatted the lecture into a discussion for a few topics instead of trying to cover a bunch of topics quickly. That would be interesting research.


  4. I think the moderator's job is really key. He/she should reinforce key points and keep discussions focussed. For example, I tried to write things that you and Magda were saying in your presentations... the definition of technology, the image of the ARCS model, etc. But if the moderator doesn't keep discussions focussed and synchronized with the presenter, then it may become a distraction.

  5. You made it looking so easy when you were moderating my ICN session :-) Few clever focus questions, few short polls, couple reinforcing images, helpful links.... Piece of cake! Well, that was my belief until I was moderating Dr.Z's lecture. I found it quite challenging to focus on the presenter's main ideas and to moderate the discussion in this same time. Especially that we had few eager to discuss participants. It takes some discipline and good reflex! Wow so you do know how to multitask...interesting... :-D

    Dr.Z encouraged students to discuss between each other the media examples he was projecting. I think that discussion via CoveritLive was much more meaningful and not restricted to the person on the next seat.

    I think that our ICN students were very impressed by the new communication possibilities in frankly quite limited ICN class. Thanks for moderating my session Rob!