backchannelIn the context of higher education, the word “backchannel” refers to conversations that take place among students during a classroom lecture or presentation.

The backchannel can be low-tech or high-tech, ranging from students whispering at the back of the classroom to texting each other with their iPhones. The backchannel can also be disruptive or helpful: during a biology class, students might use the backchannel to talk about last night's hockey game, or they might use it to help each other understand something the instructor just said about mitosis.

An instructor’s first inclination might be to ban the backchannel in their courses, but this isn’t really an option. At most universities, students have a right to use mobile devices during class because those devices can assist them with a learning disability. Other students are simply habituated to using their mobile devices: a 2012 study by the PEW Research Centre found that the typical student sends 60 texts per day, and this doesn’t include messages sent by other means, such as Facebook Messenger. Given the entrenched nature of this behaviour, an instructor’s best response might be to harness or redirect the backchannel rather than try to quash it. This can be done by setting up an online backchannel for the course and encouraging – or even requiring – students to use it.

The backchannel does not, of course, have to become the only way that students communicate with each other or with the instructor during a class. Students can still put up their hands to ask a question, and can still verbally respond to one another in a class discussion. But some students will prefer the backchannel either because it is text-based or because if feels more anonymous.

One especially effective use of the backchannel is for instructors to use it to gather student questions. To this end, many backchannel tools allow students in the course to vote on questions that are posted to the backchannel. The instructor can then tell which questions are of interest to the greatest number of students. Typically, an instructor will pause every so often during a class to check the backchannel. After glancing at the questions (and number of votes), he or she can decide to respond to them at that moment or later on in the class. Many backchannel tools also allow students to respond to each other’s posts. This can be handy because some questions just require a quick response from a peer, rather than from the instructor.

There are dozens of backchannel tools available, but some are much effective than others. Here are the best ones for different situations:

  • Hotseat, developed by Purdue University, is an excellent backchannel tool that has been designed for use in higher education. With it, students can post comments that are updated in real time – that is, the questions immediately become visible to the other students and the instructor. It allows posts to be voted on, and posts can be sorted by number of votes, so that the posts with the greatest number of votes can be seen at a glance. Hotseat also allows students to respond to one another posts. Sessions can be completely private, so that only students in the course can access the session, and it can be configured by the instructor so that students can post anonymously. Educause has a useful article about Hotseat. 
  • Question Cookie is a simple and well-designed backchannel tool that allows students to post questions, to respond to one another’s questions, and to vote on one another’s questions. Questions can be sorted by number of votes, and students can post anonymously. Question Cookie is free.
  • Tricider is a backchannel tool that is especially good for sharing and assessing ideas rather than asking questions. After a student posts an idea, other students can respond to the idea, but they must respond with either a “pro” comment that supports the idea, or a “con” comment that challenges the idea. Posts can be voted on, and students can post anonymously. Tricider is free.
  • Backchannel Chat is a simplified backchannel tool in that it does not allow students to respond to each other’s posts. They can, however, vote on one another’s posts. If an instructor only wants to collect questions, and find out which ones are of most interest to students, then this is a good choice. Backchannel Chat is free for classes of up to 30 students, but larger classes require a paid subscription.

It should also be noted that an online discussion forum in a learning management system can also be used as a backchannel tool, and many of them – including Desire2Learn and Blackboard – allow students to vote on one another’s posts, and to sort by the number of votes. The main drawback of using a discussion forum in a learning management system, though, is that it won’t update automatically. In other words, if a student or instructor wants to see the latest posts, then he or she has to click “refresh” in the browser.

More Resources

A matrix comparing various backchannel tools is available here (XLS). 

"Backchannel in Education: Nine Uses." Derek Bruff, Director, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. 

teachingtipThis 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.