Back channels

I’ve been thinking a lot about back channels in meetings and classes lately. Some of my thinking has been seeded by some fun and interesting experiences recently and some has been due to some new tech I’ve seen. The upshot: I love them, but only if the facilitator/teacher/presenter can control themselves.

We’re all pretty used to virtual web conferences these days. How much do you like/use the chat? As you know I think video gets too much preferential treatment in these meetings, but I’m really interested in your positive experiences with chat.

My first real experience was way back with the Global Physics Department, when the chat was where most of the awesomeness happened (including arguments about what’s the best time zone). One fond memory is trying (sometimes in vain) to convince the guests to ignore the chat, lest they get distracted. In the chat people would provide all kinds of information that was tangentially related to what the speaker was talking about. Some of it was joking, some was really great links to fantastic resources. I loved it and I’ve found that I try to use chat in similar ways in the meetings/classes I’m in now. Of course some meetings aren’t really set up for such side banter, so I wanted to try to get my thoughts down here about the best times to use back channels and how you should think about setting them up (or not) and supporting them (or not).

The presenter is privileged

One thing I’ve noticed quite a bit is the very different role the speaker/facilitator/presenter plays in the chat. Above I mentioned how they can get distracted, and true side banter really doesn’t have the presenter in mind as the audience. I know lots of people who don’t really get distracted so much as they pride themselves in paying attention to the chat and responding to it. The problem can be, however, that if the (privileged) presenter answers all the questions, the students/participants don’t really develop a supportive community.

An example might be someone asking whether the technique being presented works well in classrooms with fixed furniture. Likely they’re asking because they hope someone has tried it and just wants to hear it from someone who is at their same stage but with different logistics. But if the speaker answers, the answer feels authoritative, especially if the vibe is that the presenter answers all the questions.

Of course not paying attention to chat can have bad ideas propogate, but if the participants are really hoping to ask and share with each other, I think that’s a win, even if some of the ideas go off the rails a little.

Separate channels

That leads me to my new favorite tech: Google Meets Q&A. It works in parallel to chat and allows important questions to not get lost in the banter. Plus the participants can up-vote the questions! Very cool.

I think in my next class I’m going to let the students know that I’ll pay close attention to the Q&A (though I’ll let them take some time to do some up voting) but that I’ll just generally ignore the chat unless they ask me to pay attention. Of course if other students are presenting or talking or whatever, I’m sure I’ll fall back into my joking approach in chat, but I think that’s ok. I also might just add my own questions to the Q&A.

One really cool thing about the Q&A in Google Meet is that after the meeting you get a report detailing all the questions, whether they were answered, who asked it, and how many upvotes it got. Awesome.

It’s too formal

Sometimes you’re in a meeting that feels too formal to start up some banter/tangential info. That happened to me today in our faculty meeting. What I’d love is to have a completely separate back channel, but it seems like you have to convince a bunch of folks to jump onto something else. At my google school I’m super intrigued by having a google room (that new annoying thing in your gmail window) with folks that I’d like to do some back channeling with. We’ll see.

Your thoughts?

What do you think. Do you like backchannels? Here are some starters for you:

  • Why do you sometimes put a space in backchannel?
  • I love back channels. My favorite thing to do is …
  • I hate backchannels. I especially hate it when …
  • Being in a meeting with you is fun, I especially like it when …
  • Being in a meeting with you is terrible. What I especially hate is …
  • How do I get Q&A to work in my Google Meet?
  • Why don’t you talk about zoom?
  • I use _____ for an external backchannel. It works great but I wish …
  • I hate it when presenters get distracted. The funniest was when …
  • I love distracting presenters. What’s wrong with you?
  • I feel that if the students are typing in the chat, they’re not paying attention to what we’re doing. How do you deal with that?
  • Would you like students using a backchannel in you in-person classes (answer: yes!)
  • I love google rooms!
  • I wish I could just pause the whole meeting and add in my banter without distraction. Kind of like the crazy dude in these awesome physics reactions videos!

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
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4 Responses to Back channels

  1. I was a big fan of backchanneling during live sessions (in class or during PD) because it was a good way for people to share other ideas without taking over the class discussion. Teachers did a particularly good job of participating in one of the two (live/online) spaces.

    I haven’t done such a great job since moving online. The chat has become the “question inbox,” really. I think you make a great point about not being a privileged, authoritative presenter and I haven’t used the chat effectively in that sense, letting other people jump in and contribute non-verbally.

    I’ve used Q & A in live sessions and I think, besides being a good way to gather questions, it’s awesome to be able to put a question, nice and large, right on the screen and use it to drive discussion. I don’t think it’s a great way to actually discuss for a participant, but it’s a nice collection tool for the presenter to aggregate ideas or feedback.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      Yeah, I’m right with you about aggregating ideas. The upvoting is a further bonus for that. I should have also mentioned the utility of asynchronous chat aka a discussion board that students can use after the fact.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    I am cautiously optimistic that backchannels will be a great thing for remote teaching and learning. I think it is going to be the main way that remote students feel involved in the class.

  3. Pingback: Synchronous dashboard with audio and breakouts | SuperFly Physics

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