With new devices in the classroom come new possibilities, but sometimes it is difficult to figure out where to begin. One of the easiest ways to integrate technology into a classroom is to have to students use it to make sure their voice is heard. One of the ways we can accomplish this is by setting up a backchannel in our classroom. While this might sound terrifying and something that the NSA might be concerned about, a backchannel is actually quite simple. In fact, backchannels have been around forever. Remember when we were in school and we passed notes back and forth during class? Or when you are in a staff meeting and you quietly exchange remarks in hushed tones? That is a backchannel. Basically, it is a form of communication that is taking place behind the scenes while something else is happening. While these behind the scenes discussions are sometimes off topic, many times they are centered around the subject at hand.
Imagine you have a classroom of 30 sophomores and you are going to show a short video that pertains to a topic or concept that you are teaching. In a traditional setting you have a couple of options. You could show a few minutes of the video then stop to discuss it then start, stop, and discuss until the end of it. You could show the entire video then ask your students to write a reflection. In the first scenario where you discuss the video while you are watching it there are sure to be students who are left out of the discussion while others might dominate it. In a class of 30 there might only be 10 or so that really get to fully participate. If you had all students write an independent reflection they will all have the chance to participate, but they will miss out on the value of participating in a discussion with their peers.
Setting up a backchannel will solve BOTH of these problems. In a backchannel you would act as the moderator of a chat that involves all of your students. In my class I would show a video and I would ask questions throughout the video in the chat. These were not simply knowledge level questions, but ones that required my students to really think about their answer. (I would pause the video when necessary.) All of my students had the chance to fully participate. They were encouraged to ask questions and include their remarks in the chat. After students became comfortable working in the backchannel they would answer the questions their peers posted. Yes, there were times my students included some minor inappropriate comments, but they would have done that even without the chat. The benefits were huge and it was one of the things my students liked doing the most. You can use a backchannel anytime you want to have a class discussion or when you want to break the class into groups and give them different topics to discuss. There are lots of creative ways to use backchannels.
There are any number of ways to set up a backchannel. My favorite service to use is called Chatzy. I like this one because you can direct students to pick a different color for their name which makes it easy to see who is participating and who is not. Chatzy also allows you to archive the chat and send it to yourself so you can review it later. The only drawback is that Chatzy costs $24 a year or $3.00 per month if you need space for over 10 users. It is well worth it to give it a try and see how you like it in comparison to other services.