As class sizes continue to grow, educators are exploring new ways to connect with students and engage them in classroom discussions. For instance, “clickers” are becoming more popular as assessment tools in classrooms. Clickers function like game show response systems and can provide real time data on what students understand and what they are struggling with. When used effectively, clickers can be great tools to interact with a large class of students. One of my reservations about clickers, however, is that the system is fundamentally built upon the educator asking questions (usually of the multiple choice variety) and students responding. While this type of classroom discourse can be beneficial for students, I feel we need to create more opportunities to dialogue with students in large classes, allowing to students to ask their questions and contribute to the discussion.
One technology-based solution is called a “backchannel.” A backchannel is the practice of having an online conversation alongside a face-to-face presentation. Backchannels are hardly new but the tools are becoming easier to use and more mobile. For instance, I’ve attended a handful of presentations recently that used TodaysMeet to allow attendees to discuss concepts and to ask questions during the presentation. TodaysMeet is easy to set up and works with smartphones, laptops and iPads. Simply name your backchannel room, select how long you want the room to be active and you’re ready to go. Once the link is shared with students, they can begin contributing to the backchannel during a classroom lesson after they’ve created a backchannel alias.
While the backchannel is a viable solution for creating discussions in large classes, I want to caution educators who may want to jump into the backchanneling world. Many students are not used to this type of communication and may struggle at first with how to use the tool effectively. Although it may be easy to technically participate in a backchannel, using the space for real productive dialogue may take some time to develop. Educators may want to outline some basic ground rules beforehand to help guide students to use the backchannel appropriately. Once these ground rules are set, however, students may respond positively to the backchannel platform and may find having an “alias” liberating. The backchannel may free them to ask questions they may be less comfortable asking in the face-to-face environment, especially when they’re sitting a big classroom with a large group of students.