The Power of the backchannel

Like many of my twitter friends, I am still in a sort of after-glow from attending the TLt Summit last week in Saskatoon. As I begin to connect some of the things that went on and bring together ideas with conversations, I am slowly getting a better idea of how the conference participants’ and their presentations are combining with my own ideas and knowledge about education.

One of the immediate thoughts that struck me was the power of the backchannel. This came from Stephen Downes’ presentation. Now, Stephen’s presentation focused on future trends/predictions but the power of the presentation was the combination of the ideas that Stephen presented and the interaction of the audience via the backchannel. As Jen Jones commented on Stephen’s site

Your presentation blew me away! I was so upset I didn’t bring my computer. I had left it so I could pay attention, but you showed how participation is just as important as paying attention. I would loved to have added substance to the backchannel for you.

That pretty much sums it up for me, too. The presentation was an incredible give and take between Stephen and the audience as they put forth their ideas. There were times Stephen had to prompt the audience – like to add pictures with comments to the backchannel but, for the most part, the interaction was a seamless flow between members of the audience and others in the audience or Stephen.

Now, despite the power of this interaction, there were many in the audience who really didn’t get what was taking place. Again, Jen sums it up nicely:

“Some people get it. Some people do not get it. Do not dilute your message for these people. Give them all the inferno. The embers that reach those on the outskirts will eventually turn into flames.”

For those who got it, the interactions were tremendous, as good, if not better, than any backchannel that I’ve taken part in. For those who didn’t obviously get it, the power of what was going on was beyond their understanding. It was obvious who had taken part in backchannel discussions before and who hadn’t. Those who hadn’t were distracted by the messages being posted while those at my table, who had been involved in quite a few backchannel discussions, were able to springboard on what Stephen was saying, making connections and expanding the breadth and depth of the discussion.

I did some posting but I spent as much time watching the crowd as they responded to what was being displayed and those around me who were into the discussion and what Stephen was saying, searching and adding to the dialogue that was taking place. (All except Jen who had left her laptop at the room;) 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. What I’d like to see is for educators to harness that energy and use it in teaching, helping students to use the backchannel to have a greater impact on what is going on in the classroom. So like Stephen, instead of being distracted by the backchannel, using it to enhance and help inform the learning that is taking place.

Like so many of the presenters, Stephen modeled how technology can have a positive impact on the learning environment. Many educators have no experience with this and find it disconcerting when it does take place. Instead of banning devices that allow for the backchannel discussions, educators need to be open to seeking ways to leverage them to add to the learning. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the session on using cellphones in class but from all accounts it was a great presentation. It is this type of thinking that draws students into their learning.

Conferences have a tendency to give us great ideas but once we return to our school environments, there is the good chance that many fall right back into what they were doing before they attended. For me, this one powerful example has me questioning and examining how I, as an administrator, can help teachers to see new technologies, not as a distraction, but as powerful tools that can enhance what they are doing. As my favourite recording artist, John Mellancamp says in A Peaceful World

It’s what you do, not what you say

If you aren’t part of the future, then get out of the way.

This may sound a bit “out there” but I feel that it really captures what is happening in education at this moment in time. This doesn’t mean we toss all that we are doing but it does mean we need to be open and forward looking, experimenting and challenging, not looking back and trying to keep things as they are. It means educators need to be looking at what skills future generations will need and then boldly seeking to assist students to acquire those skills. One of those skills will be developing the ability to use backchannels to enhance conversations that are taking place and add to the discussions thereby enhancing their learning and the learning of those around them.


  1. Reply

    Well explained, and great points! I can relate with Jen, and the difficulty of getting used to ‘paying attention’ not just through listening, but through participation. I think, traditionally, when people in power speak, they want people to stop and listen to them(example, students in class), and relinquishing part of this power to allow others to learn in a more hands on way at the same time, can be very difficult…I know it is for me. I appreciate your comments and insight on my blog about technology as being a tool for learning, not necessarily just the subject matter. The analogy of the art supplies put it in perspective for me. Thanks

  2. Pingback: Learning is Change. ยป Blog Archive » The Ripe Environment: Backchannels exist.

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