A backchannel — a digital conversation that runs concurrently with a face-to-face activity — provides students with an outlet to engage in conversation. Every time I think about this tool, I remember my student, Charlie (not his real name). Given his learning challenges, he struggled to keep up during class discussions. Long after his classmates grasped a concept, he would light up in acknowledgement and then become crestfallen as he had no way to share his revelation. Charlie needed an alternative means to participate, and a backchannel would have provided him with that outlet.
At the time, we did not have mobile devices. If we had, then a number of free tools could have augmented class discussions and supported students like Charlie.
- TodaysMeet would have let teachers create private chat rooms so that students could ask questions or leave comments during class.
- A Padlet wall might have fueled students to share their ideas as text, images, videos, and links posted to a digital bulletin board.
- The open response questions available in a student response system like Socrative or InfuseLearning could have become discussion prompts to give each student an opportunity to share his or her ideas before engaging in class discussion.
Consider the students like Charlie who cannot process at the same pace, the ones unable to speak up over the din of the class, or those who want to share ideas to a point of disruption and need an outlet for their enthusiasm. Backchannels give all of these students a voice. They create a blended environment where teachers and students engage in both physical and online conversations so that learning is no longer confined to a single means of communication or even an arbitrary class period. Backchannels don’t replace class discussions — they extend them.
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