Saturday 19 September 2015

Managing the digital classroom - Using a backchannel

In my first post in this series - Getting students' attention - I mentioned the use of backchannels. This post should give you more information about the use of backchannels within the classroom.

If you are working in a classroom where your students have internet connected devices, either through wifi or their mobile phone, using a backchannel can have a transformative impact on the way you can use technology with your students.

“Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside the primary group activity or live spoken remarks.”

Most backchannels are text based and many-to-many, meaning that anyone can type in a message and it is seen by everyone who has access to the chatroom.

Back channels are particularly useful if you are working in a face to face environment where all or pairs/groups of students are working at a computer or if you are delivering live online classes using some form or web conferencing or webinar platform.

Backchannels help to solve a number of common classroom problems

  • I often describe a backchannel as the communication that happens between your students in the classroom every time to turn your back on them. The advantage of using a backchannel tool is that you can capture the intercommunication, be part of it and make it a constructive rather than a distracting part of the class.
Democratisation of learning
  • Backchannels democratise the classroom or lecture room, at least for periods of time, and enable everyone to contribute what they know about the point or topic being discussed.
Giving students links to online resources
  • If you want students to investigate a website, do an online task, watch a video or complete a digital worksheet, you simply use the back channel, paste in the link and they can access the materials simply by clicking the link and opening it in a new tab. This saves a lot of time and gets students directly to the sites you want them to access rather than leaving them struggling to write down long URLs and type them into the browser address bar.
Getting all students to respond to questions
  • You can type in questions and get students to respond through the backchannel. Using this method all students are able to participate and respond to questions rather than the first one to put up their hand. This also gives less outspoken students the opportunity to respond.
Setting and reinforcing clear task
  • When you set tasks for students to do you can back them up by also typing your instructions into the backchannel. This gives them something to refer back to and also helps to reinforce your verbal instructions. This can reduce wasted time going round the class helping weaker students get on task.
  • You can get students brainstorming ideas, suggestions, vocabulary, opinions or anything else through the back channel. This way everyone's contribution can be collected, shared and acknowledged.
Enabling students to share knowledge
  • Students get share what they know about any topic or ask a question at any point during lesson, even when you are presenting, without disrupting the flow of the class.
Socialisation with students
  • Students can socialise and you can socialise with students within the back channel. Just spending a few minutes at the start of the lesson asking questions and finding out what students are up to can really help to engage with your students.
Developing written fluency
  • Interacting with students in a chatroom also gives students an opportunity to develop their written fluency through genuine communication.
Saving notes from the class
  • The script from a backchannel can be saved and downloaded, so this is a great form of collaborative note taking. At the end of the class each student can edit their own version of the text to ensure they keep the parts that they feel are relevant.

Some problems with back channels

  • As always we should take our students' online safety very seriously  when using any form of computer mediated communication that allows students or others to communicate with our students.  Some back channel tools require registration and this adds a greater element of security to the platform as users are more traceable, though student registration can add an extra layer of time management and friction to the setup process.
  • If you decide to use a back channel that doesn't require registration then it's better to make sure you create a new one each lesson and only leave it live for only a short time.
  • When you first start to use a back channel you may have some initial behaviour problems, especially with younger less mature students. Try to stay level headed when you deal with this. As the use of the back channel becomes more common place your students will get used to using it in a more responsible way, especially if they realise their comments can be traced back to them.

Class size
  • If you have really large classes and lots of students are contributing comments it may get hard to keep up with all the interaction. Having a more complex backchannel tool like Backchannel Chat can help you to manage this more effectively.
  • Reading back through the text from a back channel can seem like reading through chaos to someone who wasn’t there at the time. Backchannel records will need to be edited to be useful, but  this is a good review activity for students.

Backchannel tools

Here are a number of tools you can use to create a backchannel in your classroom.
TodaysMeet is one of the simplest and easiest to use tools, and also one that’s free and very reliable. It doesn’t require registration by you or the students so it’s really quick to set up and get students into, but if you want that extra security you can register for a free account, which will also enable you to save your chat transcripts.
You can enter an example room here:

Backchannel Chat:
Backchannel Chat is a bit more sophisticated and enables students to choose avatars for the chat and more importantly it enables you the teacher to pin a question or message to the top of the chatroom stream so that it doesn’t disappear as students respond. There is both a free version (which is limited to 30 students) as well as paid versions which have larger limits and other features like file adding attachments and personalising avatars with students’ own picture.

You can enter an example room here:

Chatzy offers two options; A quick chat room which you can set up quite quickly and simply (more like TodaysMeet, or a more complex virtual classroom which you can configure to allow students to add various types of online media too, such as images and videos.

You can enter an example room here:

Find more tools to use in the digitally connected classroom by downloading my ebook - Digital Tools for Teachers

Check it out

I hope you find backchannels useful with your students and that they help you to integrate technology into your classroom in a more meaningful way.

Related links:
Nik Peachey

Friday 11 September 2015

Managing the digital classroom - Getting students' attention

Competing with a computer or mobile screen for students' attention can be a challenge at best and at worst extremely frustrating. In this posting I will share some techniques and approaches for dealing with these problems.

Ban devices
  • Obviously this is the simplest way to deal with the problem, however, banning devices in class can be hard to enforce especially with teen students and older. It will also become harder as more technology becomes wearable, and particularly with adult classes, this approach could border on the insulting. 
  • Banning devices in the classroom also deprives us and our students of the opportunity to develop responsible approaches to using these devices and robs students of the opportunity to develop their digital literacy skills and exploit the genuine benefits that technology in the classroom can bring.

Turn off the device
  • This is much less extreme than banning devices from the class and can be part of a strategy for more responsible use of devices. Have parts of a lesson or even complete lessons when you ask students to turn off their device. 
  • In this way the devices can be available when we need them and we can start to build a more responsible though very controlled approach to the use of technology. This becomes more difficult with computers which take much longer to boot up.

Motivational reward
  • You can use mobile or computer use as a motivational tool by giving students a break when they have been working well and allowing them a few minutes to use their mobile device or computer freely. 
  • This isn't to say that you don't also use them as part of the lesson, but just giving students a short break to check their email or social media can help top reduce their anxiety levels. Remember that many more digitally connected people now have parallel virtual lives happening along side their physical life.

Turn off the screen
  • If you have students sitting with a computer screen screen in front of them in a more old fashioned computer room with desktop computers then you can ask them just to turn off the screen when you want their attention. Then they can quite easily turn it back on again when you are ready to get them working again.

Go to the home screen
  • Rather than turning the screen off, you can also get students to go to the home screen on the computer or device, until you are ready for them to go back to work.

Turn over
  • In the case of tablets or mobile phones an easy solution when you want students' attention is simply to ask them to turn their device over on the desk so the screen is facing downwards. Then as soon as you are ready for them to get back to work they can turn it over again.

Reinforce instructions
  • You can use the devices with a backchannel tool like TodaysMeet to reinforce your instructions. As soon as you have given instructions verbally you can add them to the backchannel and then students also have them to refer back to during the activity.
  • This can also help them to stay on task and interact with you and each other while they work.

Reduce teacher directed learning
  • Think about how you can reduce teacher directed learning and point students towards web based materials where they can learn for themselves. 
  • You can use the backchannel tool like TodaysMeet to share links to the materials you want them to investigate. This could be text video or audio materials that you have created yourself or that you have discovered. You can point different groups of students towards different materials sources and then get them to share and compare what they have learned together.
  • This approach makes much better use of the technology and helps your students to develop as more autonomous learners. It also demands more from them as critical thinkers and researchers and helps to develop the kinds of real life digital literacy skills they will need. 
  • This approach also has benefits for you as a teacher. It takes the spotlight off you and gives you The opportunity to get up close to the students, to monitor what they are doing and steer weaker students in the right direction. 
Controlling the device
  • Teach students how to control not be controlled by their mobile device. Many mobile apps are designed to be attention needy. They constantly flash up notifications through messages and sounds which attempt to engage the owner’s  attention. Teach your students how to switch off these attention grabbing alerts so that they can control when they decide to check messages.

Keep doing it
Whichever of these techniques you use, the important thing is to be consistent and persistent. You have to train your students to adopt the kind of responsible behaviour towards their device that you want in your classroom. This isn’t going to happen instantly. You’ll need to stick with it.

Please feel free to share any suggestions or techniques you have for helping to manage a digital classroom.

Related links:


Nik Peachey

My eBooks and Lesson Plans