A backchannel is a conversation that takes place alongside an activity or an event. Today’s learners are used to having digital backchannels surrounding them. We can argue the pros and cons of this reality, but having a backchannel in a 21st century classroom can serve multiple crucial purposes such as giving all students a voice or creating a non threatening “help desk’ type of process, while leveraging a form of communication that students are extremely familiar with and that they will have to master to thrive in the workplace.
This strategy will help thinking thoughtfully about the creation and management of a backchannel process to support student autonomy and ownership, in particular during activities where students can progress at their own pace. It can apply to any grade level and content area and its effectiveness resides in its ability to push you to think about everything that could go wrong with this idea, in order to enjoy a successful implementation and reap the benefits from it!
First determine if you can/want to use a digital backchannel, leveraging simple tech tools like Padlet, Socrative or Recap (Tutorials included in the in the Tech Tool section below), or if you prefer/have to use a “physical” backchannel such a “Parking Lot” or “Question Wall”. Considerations to include in your reflection before you decide:
Do all students have access to a digital device?
Is “free” movement of students a plus in this activity or a potential management concern?
Will answering questions in the backchannel be teacher owned or (selected) student owned?
If it has to be teacher owned, will it be possible to physically move to answer questions every time they are posted or at least once in a while?
If a non digital, teacher-owned backchannel is the route chosen:
Design the procedure for how your students can post questions on your backchannel. Avoid any grey area. In particular be clear on when they can go post questions, how many students at the time can be posting them on the same poster, and how many posters want to have around the room.
Plan for regular visits to the backchannel and enough time to address the questions posted, either 1:1 or with the whole group. This way students will see that you truly care about their questions, and that this tool will be used meaningfully moving forward.
If a non digital, student-owned backchannel is your preferred option:
Again similarly design your procedure to post a question or request for help (see step 2.a)
This time, carefully think about how the students help desk team (or individual) will be selected (See our “Mastery Map and Standard-Based Peer Tutor” strategies in the BetterLesson Lab). Will this be one of your classroom jobs? If so, write a quick job description for the role and encourage students to apply for it. Select who will be your help desk team for a given period of time, and be prepared to give them feedback regularly on their “job performance”. For more help with this process, see our “Classroom Jobs to Increase Student Ownership” strategy in the BetterLesson Lab.
Plan a process for questions that will remain unanswered by your help desk team: How will they flag this for you? When will you address these more challenging questions?
If a digital, teacher-owned backchannel is the route you prefer, steps 2a and 2b still apply (see above). Instead of visiting the backchannel physically, visit it digitally, respond to questions on the platform chosen when possible or go help students in person. The grey areas to clarify would be more likely around the “Do’s and Don’ts” of asking questions online. For example, is “I need your help!” acceptable for you or will you require a question to give you context on what is needed? This simple question will make a world of difference if thought about ahead of time.
If a digital student-owned backchannel is your choice, steps 3a, b and c still apply perfectly. Put additional thought around setting up and monitoring the online conversation between students and your help desk team so that it can adhere to the guidelines you will have set ahead of time. It is the best way to avoid the conversation taking a turn for the worse. It will if not planned carefully. What a great opportunity to connect this with a crucial conversation around digital citizenship in the 21st century!
Finally, regularly plan to revisit the system to make improvement based on what is being observed in the room and/or based on the feedback given by students. For help with this see our strategy called “Creating and Improving Classroom Rules With Students" in the BetterLesson Lab.
Create and leverage a back channel to support live video calls with students as well as to provide asynchronous student support during distance learning.
Determine prior to the video call which backchannel you would like to make public to students during an upcoming video call in addition to the chat function of your video conferencing platform. The backchannel should not only be the chat function in your video conferencing tool (e.g., Zoom or Google Meet) because students who are not able to join the call or who are having trouble joining the call should be able to join the backchannel discussion as well to seek help or to contribute to the discussion.
Examples of places where you can host backchannels include, but are not limited to:
Group messaging via LMS
Group messaging via a separate app (Voxer, GroupMe, ClassDojo, etc...)
Private messaging via LMS or App
A collective Google Doc in which students can drop questions ahead or during a live call
Before using the backchannel, model how to use it for students and share with them the purpose for the backchannel, where the support for the backchannel will be, and when you will be available on it for support during the synchronous learning session.
Consider the idea of assigning a job of "Backchannel Live Support" to one of your students most comfortable with technology. Create clear expectations for the role, and review them with the students considered for the role. You can review BetterLesson's Classroom Jobs to Give Students Ownership strategy below to see examples of student jobs systems.
Don’t be afraid of having a student owned backchannel. This is such a powerful idea to create a more student-centered culture and it will make your job a lot easier if you define well what you want and do not want to see!
The key to success with a backchannel resides in how intentional you will be in planning ahead for what you want to see happening in your backchannel vs. what you do not want to see. Spending time brainstorming that on your own, with your students, will help you create norms, rules and procedures to support a healthy and positive backchannel!
In many ways, a backchannel is like a plant you need to water regularly. Visit it often, respond to questions or delegate people to respond, otherwise students will slowly stop using it or will turn it into something completely different. None of these outcomes will be good ultimately:-) So if you try to bring a backchannel into your practice, take care of it regularly and it will blossom!
Recap is question-led chat tool augmented by the power of video that makes it easier to start deeper, more empowering discussions with students and teachers.
Socrative is a digital assessment tool that allows for recording of student responses on exit ticket, quizzes or spur in the moment question. All students have to do is enter the teacher Socrative room via one code, always the same, and the class becomes interactive from there!
Socrative is best for a teacher owned digital backchannel. Its simplicity of use (students enter your digital room and then have access to a box to ask a question) is what makes the difference there.
Padlet is a digital corkboard type tool that students can use to gather information or reflections. Teachers can easily access each students’ Padlet with a shared link.
Padlet simply recreates the experience of having a parking lot or a question wall online. It does not require any login and it now includes a profanity filter. It could be a great candidate for a student owned digital backchannel.