Whether we provide students or teachers with a backchannel, one will form. So long as there is more than one voice in a learning environment, the need to be heard will be undeniable.
Students may pass notes or they may text message in their pockets.
Teachers may point to a highlighted passage or simply make a face of disgust.
These things are not meant to stay in the background. They are essential, and as such, must be elevated to their rightful place in the classroom. The backchannel must influence the front-channel and must become the front-channel if the discussion and learning going on there is more important.
But, before I get too ahead of myself, let me set my definition of a backchannel:
A backchannel is the running commentary (critiques on, questions about, distractions from, references for, resources under) the dominant information stream. This dominant stream could be a lecture, discussion, video, or any other attention getting activity that would normally occupy the majority of the learners.
This may sound like quite a distraction. Why should we bring the note passers into the discussion? Why should we encourage distraction? Because it is how we learn.
Kelly Christopherson does a really great job of highlighting how a backchannel actually functions in a Ripe Environment, but I think the hardest thing to understand about a backchannel is balencing the two things that inherently have to go on within an classroom, but are not always so center stage. He says it this way:
Watching the crowd made me realize that we have a long way to go as educators. Many people in the room seemed to be having difficulty with the two things going on at once. Maybe that is why so many educators become frustrated with the use of cellphones or laptops in their classes; they don’t see how the two things can be going on at once.
The rapid fire writing down of resources, texts, or quotations is all well and good during a class or PD session, but what about questioning those things. When does that happen? If all learning is conversational and requires relationships, when are those relationships born and when do those conversations occur? They occur during the backchannel, if and only if one is set up and is relevant to those in the audience.
The experience that Kelly describes above is one that happens far too often. Those who do not find the backchannel relevant write it off as distracting, or worse, destructive. They want the front-channel to be the only channel, even though their brains and pens are commenting non-stopped on what is being said. We need to teach the value of commentary, fact-checking and questioning. We need to construct The Ripe Environment for the backchannel.