Gather and Discuss: A Backchannel Alternative

07.10_gather-and-discuss_a-better-backchannel

Over the past few years, it has become popular in education to broadcast the “backchannel” to students during a large class through a dedicated Twitter hashtag or some other social media app. The idea is that it allows students to make comments on the content for everyone to see, thus adding to learning and motivating students to participate and think about the topics. Some early adopters even displayed the backchannel conversations on screen behind them as they were speaking.


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Over the past few years, it has become popular in education to broadcast the “backchannel” to students during a large class through a dedicated Twitter hashtag or some other social media app. The idea is that it allows students to make comments on the content for everyone to see, thus adding to learning and motivating students to participate and think about the topics. Some early adopters even displayed the backchannel conversations on screen behind them as they were speaking.

But many instructors quit broadcasting the backchannel because it became a distraction to the students. Our minds cannot follow two conversations at once, and while many people think they can multitask, all evidence points to this being a fallacy. We are not genuinely listening to two conversations at once, we are just alternating our attention between the conversations, and in doing so missing the information that came while we were focused on the other conversation, like flipping between two television channels every 10 seconds.

The chat function on videoconferencing software broadcasts the backchannel and similarly splits student attention. An instructor can simply turn the chat function off, but we want students asking questions and thinking about concepts while they are learning. Plus, these comments make for good discussion fodder.

How do we facilitate student active thinking during live events without splitting their attention? We don’t want to tell them to hold their thoughts until open discussion, as ideas that are not recorded are soon forgotten as the instructor moves to new topics. It is OK to jot down ideas; that is what note-taking is for. We just don’t want these notes to become a parallel conversation during the activity.

Gather and discuss

One solution to this dilemma is to adopt a “gather and discuss” approach to comments. Instead of posting and discussing in parallel with the event, students post their thoughts as they occur to them without responding to other’s posts. Importantly, they are posted by topic, not just chronologically. Then the instructor and students can discuss these by topic at designated breaks in the presentation.

This approach requires the use of an outside chat system during the event. The internal chat and questioning system in a web conferencing platform can display content only in the order it was received, not by topic. Most importantly, the instructor channels the discussion ahead of time by creating topics that act as buckets for collecting posts; though the instructor can allow students to create their own topics as well. Then the instructor shares the comment board on the web conference screen and dedicates a few minutes for everyone to look over the comments. The instructor uses this time to draw out themes for discussion, and students use it to prepare for discussion.

Systems

While whiteboards are the best tools for hosting group chats by topic, most are designed for open-ended brainstorming and, as such, give users a blank canvas. The result: a disorganized compilation of comments posted at different locations and in different formats. It’s better to choose a system that offers a template of columns that you can label and edit for channeling discussion. Here are a few good systems for that purpose.

Sample Padlet board for an art history course, showing sample artworks sorted into columns by period/style.
Photos of a brother, wife, and neighbor along with the following medical ethics prompt: "Who should decide for the man? A middle-aged patient is intubated for respiratory distress, and his condition is deteriorating to the point where he cannot make decisions for himself. There is now a question of who should be his surrogate decision-maker. The patient is in the process of separating from his wife, and he has been estranged from his brother for many years. The patient's neighbor has been close to the patient for years, but the wife claims that the man has been having an affair with the neighbor. All three show up at the patient's bedside insisting on being the surrogate decision-maker. Who should speak for the man?"
Question reads "Should I go through a red light?" Considerations are sorted by consequentialist, Kantian, virtue, and divine command (respectively, "Will I cause an accident?," "Would I want everyone to do the same thing?," "Will I become reckless?," and "Is breaking the law a sin?"). The consequentialist column also includes the statement "I will save gas by getting home earlier."