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5 Engaging Ways Backchannels Get Students and Teachers Talking

Leverage Strong Student Communications Through Backchanneling

If you are looking for new ways to spark classroom discussions and keep students interested in the conversation, here is a technique you may want to try: backchanneling.

“Backchanneling is a strategy that provides students with the opportunity to converse about content informally, both during class and outside of the traditional class period,” state Barry Saide and Chris Giordano in Meet Student Needs with Backchanneling.

Best used in a 1:1 or BYOD/BYOT environment, students participate in a backchannel when they use mobile devices or computers to access an online conversation in which they can discuss important points or answer instructor questions while watching a video in class, ask questions during a lecture or after-school study session, or even answer each other’s questions.

In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of backchanneling, and provide 5 examples of how educators can effectively use this technique in their own classrooms.

Benefits of Backchanneling

  • By leveraging student communication preferences for chatting and texting, as well as encouraging communication and collaboration, backchanneling keeps students engaged and involved.
  • Every student has a voice: When using a backchannel, students don’t have to wait for their turn to speak by raising their hands. In addition, a backchannel’s nonthreatening environment allows both shy and more confident students to contribute to the conversation equally
  • Teachers can get real time feedback on whether or not students understand concepts being discussed so they can make a shift to address student needs if necessary.

Effective Uses of Backchanneling

Cassie Shoemaker, instructional technology specialist with Forsyth County Schools in Forsyth County, Ga., has worked with several teachers in her district who are effectively using backchanneling in their classrooms. Here she shares some examples you can try in your own classroom.

1. Online test reviews

“A 5th grade class had a big unit test coming up in social studies,” says Cassie. “The teacher told his students that he’d be on the chat website from 3:30 – 4:30 the afternoon before the test. Students were to join as a virtual study session. This was completely optional.

“Almost all of his students joined the session. The really cool part was seeing students clear up misunderstandings for the other students. The teacher simply posed questions and moderated the chat.”

2. Involving all students

“One of my favorite ways teachers use backchanneling is to involve ALL students in a conversation,” says Cassie. “Traditionally, a teacher stands in front of the class, poses questions, and calls on the students who raise their hands. 

“This does not work well, because typically, the same students raise their hands. Some students never have a voice in this setting. If teachers have a chat window open (or a student-response website), students can all submit their answers simultaneously. 

“The biggest benefit to this is teachers can truly see what their students know. It’s a great way to assess, and ALL students have a voice!”

3. Conversations during videos

“In traditional classrooms, students believe they have a break from instruction when a teacher puts on a video. However, with the implementation of backchanneling, students can have conversations while watching videos,” says Cassie.

“Teachers can pose questions to check for student understanding while the video is still playing. I have seen some AMAZING conversations occur while students backchannel during videos. Students are actually engaged in the information being presented, and they retain the information so much more thoroughly.”

4. Small group work

“Often, teachers work in small groups while other students are engaged in centers,” says Cassie. “I have seen classrooms where the teachers can ‘talk’ to the students working in centers through backchanneling sites without interrupting the small group environment. I’ve also seen students ‘talking’ to each other in this setting while keeping the classroom noise down.”

5. Professional development

“During professional development, many attendees have questions while a presentation is occurring,” states Cassie. “Opening up a backchannel allows the questions to be asked by the attendees. The presenter can orally answer questions during the presentation, or they may have an assistant answer the questions in the chat room for them as to not interrupt the flow of the presentation.”

Backchannel Challenges

Cassie admits to some challenges when using backchannels, including a case of inappropriate student comments and one case of severe language, but uses these opportunities to remind students of their digital footprints and how to appropriately conduct a digital conversation.

“Those are the only two occurrences I’ve seen in 5 years,” says Cassie.

Another challenge Cassie has encountered is students who may respond too quickly during a discussion.

“When I taught, I always told those students to go back and check for grammatical errors before submitting. I would also allow them to submit more than once if needed.”

How to Get Started

If you’re ready to give backchanneling a try, look no further than your own learning platform or learning management system for technical setup. All you’ll need to do is set up an online text conference, establish backchannel ground rules, supply a mix of challenging questions as conversation starters, and your students are ready to backchannel.

Cassie also offers some quick tips for getting started with backchanneling.

“The biggest thing is to start small,” she says. “Maybe begin by having the students answer simple questions such as, ‘What did you do over the summer?’  This allows students to get used to it without having to worry about being correct or incorrect. 

“Many students like to put emoticons and tons of punctuation marks, as well. This is a good time to let them get that out and tell them your expectations going forward.”

And what do students think of this method of classroom communication?

"Students LOVE backchanneling," raves Cassie. "I think everyone wants to be heard, and this gives them the forum to do that!"

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