A backchannel is a kind of online "side" conversation that runs concurrently with a lecture, presentation, or other class discussion (Baron et al. 2016, Neustifter et al. 2016).
By means of a backchannel, students can discreetly ask questions and contribute comments that the instructor can review and address at an opportune time -- for example, prior to turning to a new topic, prior to ending the class, at the beginning of the next class, or even between classes in the course's LMS.
From the student perspective, a backchannel has the advantage of allowing students to jot down questions and comments as they occur, rather than having to save them for a later opportunity. Additionally, some students appreciate having a backchannel because it might feel like a "safer" and less conspicuous means of asking a question.
Most backchannel tools allow students to respond to one another's questions or comments. The advantage of this is that a given question might be answered by a peer sooner than the instructor might get to it. Some backchannel tools also allow students to "vote" on one another's questions to indicate, for example, that a given question is of interest to more than just the student who posed it.
Research has shown that students find backchannels to be a non-distracting means of participating in lectures while improving their engagement and learning (Camiel et al. 2014, Baron et al. 2016, Neustifter et al. 2016, Harunasari and Halim 2019).
At the University of Waterloo, instructors can use a discussion group in LEARN as a kind of backchannel to which students can contribute questions during a class. A single discussion group can serve as the backchannel for the entire course, or a new discussion group "backchannel" can be created for each class, topic, or unit.
The chat feature in MS Teams can also be used as a backchannel tool. There are dozens of other tools that can also be used to create a backchannel such as Padlet, Mentimeter, and Slack. You should avoid using mainstream social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, to create backchannels for your courses.
If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help. View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.
Baron, D., A. Bestbier, J. M. Case, B. I. Collier-Reed (2016) Investigating the effects of a backchannel on university classroom interactions: a mixed-method case study. Computers & Education 94:61-76.
Camiel, L. D., J. D. Goldman-Levine, M. D. Kostka-Rokosz, W. W. McCloskey (2014) Letters: Twitter as an in-class backchannel tool in a large required pharmacy course. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 78: Article 67.
Harunasari, S. Y. and N. Halim (2019) Digital backchannel: promoting students’ engagement in EFL large class. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning 14:163-178.
Neustifter, R., T. Kukkonen, C. Coulter, and S. Landry (2016). Introducing backchannel technology into a large undergraduate course. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology 42:1-21.
- Backchannel in Education: Nine Uses. Derek Bruff, Director, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
- Using Mentimeter as a backchannel tool.Teaching and Learning, Conestoga College.
- Using Padlet as a backchannel tool. Katie Koch.
- Using MS Teams as a backchannel tool. Ted Curran.net: Tips, Tricks, and Lifehacks for Online Educators
- Observations on using Microsoft Teams as a backchannel.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Backchannel Tools. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.