Backchanneling is an idea that has been around for a while, and is something that I have encountered at various education conferences. Despite the technical-sounding name, a backchannel is simply a real-time conversation, happening online in parallel with some kind of face-to-face communication. For example, a keynote speaker might advertise a Twitter hashtag for their session: as they are talking, participants conduct a conversation using tweets, which are grouped together using the hashtag.
So, what’s the point? Is it just more needless technology, or is there something to be gained? What a backchannel provides is a way for your audience to make extra meaning based on what you are saying. For example, they may require clarification or extension on a particular point, or they may wish to contend an assertion or add a meaningful anecdote. This added dialogue is available to everyone with access to the backchannel, and can be responded to in order to help out or further the discussion. A savvy presenter will keep an eye on the backchannel, and deviate from their plan according to what the audience is saying.
Of course, a backchannel can be a distraction, or might even be used to subvert a presentation (a good presenter should welcome this, I guess). One danger in the classroom is that inexperienced or immature students might get carried away with excessive off-topic chat, with all the LOLs and OMGs that that entails.
On Friday my school is hosting the Global Issues Competition 2013, an event for students in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta. Our aim is to encourage a backchannel with the aim of helping the students learn and make new connections. Originally we were going to use Twitter, but have now settled on a less public platform called TodaysMeet. Another good option is Backchannel Chat, which is specfically designed for education, and has some cool features, such as liking posts.
Credits: Image by Miss Barabanov on Flickr, shared under CC BY-NC-ND.