Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Backchanneling (more accurately, "to use a backchannel") is a method for allowing an audience to respond to, comment on, and reply to a presentation, whether live or not. This takes place online through one of several methods and allows the presenter the ability to get instant feedback about their presentation or respond to questions raised.

For example, while a student gives a presentation at the front of the class, his or her peers can use the backchannel to write critiques or ask questions. This information could be projected while the student gives the presentation for immediate feedback, or could be saved for the end as a Q&A session.

Why use this approach instead of just asking questions the old-fashioned way? Here are some benefits I can think of:

  1. In presentations with a large audience, everyone can pose a question and time limits are not an issue. The time it takes to field the questions and answer them is lessened because the questions are waiting for the presenter to respond to immediately.
  2. Some of the better backchannel clients allow users to up-vote a question that everyone deems relevant. This reduces redundant questions and engages the audience.
  3. Shy or introverted people have a voice. Those who might normally be reticent about posing a question or adding a comment may feel less pressure in an online format. Conversely, those who normally steal the show are put on an equal footing with those who never speak up.
  4. Comments and questions can be saved for reference later.
Some pitfalls:
  1. Every person in the audience needs an internet enabled device (laptop, tablet, phone, etc).
  2. Too many comments at once can be overwhelming and confusing for the presenter or the audience.
  3. The process can be distracting to users, wherein they are more interested in the novelty of the backchannel rather than the substance of the presentation.
  4. The general distractibility of the internet (are students listening or are they playing Fruit Ninja?)
Obviously, the teacher and students must come to a mutual understanding of the purpose of the backchannel and lay out any consequences for misuse.

So, here are some of the ways people can backchannel:

Best (specifically made for backchanneling)
  • Google Moderator: Hey, Google makes everything! I just found this today. Haven't even tried it, but it looks like the audience members can up- and down-vote comments.
  • Very similar to the above. Comments can be rated.
  • Todaysmeet: No ability to vote on comments, but it is very fast and simple. Sort of like a private, open Twitter (no need to sign up). Limited to 140 characters per comment. Good for keeping a running conversation going.
Good (not made for backchanneling, but can suffice or offer similar functionality)
  • Google Drive (Documents, Presentations, and Spreadsheets): The presenter can display a document or presentation, and the audience can add comments or use the chat function for feedback if they are shared to the document. This isn't the best backchannel method, but it is good in a pinch.
  • Twitter: Many educators use this approach. Every audience member will need a Twitter account. The presenter and audience should think of a unique hashtag (e.g. #Lat101Rev) and whenever anyone tweets a relevant comment, they must include the hashtag. Members can then filter tweets by that hashtag to see all the comments. Keep in mind that any followers of any of the participants will see all of their comments, so this isn't good for private or sensitive material. This can be spammy to others who follow you since they will see all your comments.
  • Edmodo: This is kind of like Facebook (need I even explain?) but filtered for only student use, and with some nice add-ins for including media and other materials. The audience would need accounts and would need to join the same group. 
  • Facebook/Google+: Probably the worst solution to this problem, but nevertheless can get it done. The audience would all have to friend each other (I think? Unless you set up a Page for the topic being discussed, in which case anyone can subscribe and comment.) Google+ might be more fluid, as it is a sort of hybrid of Facebook and Twitter.
I'm sure there are more methods out there, but those are the big ones. The idea of backchanneling is more important than the specific method you use. In fact, you could even go low tech and have the audience use whiteboards to write comments during the presentation.

Please comment if you have an interesting ideas for how to use this method, or if you have any questions.

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