One E-Learning strategy I am very eager to pursue is backchannel chat in the classroom. There are many iterations of backchannel chat. In the form I envisage, the backchannel chat is a medium where students can interact with their professors and other classmates to engage with and be a part of the content and classroom.
Let’s take an example of a lower-division Asian American studies class. The conversation and discussion for the day is the treatment of Chinese and Japanese immigrants who came to America in the late 1800’s. The instructor begins the lecture with a couple of thought-provoking questions about what Americans think of immigrants and immigration today. A large class discussion begins. However, the instructor has also made available a web-based, real-time online tool from backchannelchat.com for students to use and engage in. This web site essentially allows students or anyone to come into a chat room and begin a simultaneous discussion online while the main discussion in happening in class. While the instructor is taking comments and questions from the live audience in class, someone could be also adding commentary through their mobile devices, tablets, or laptops via the web. This is but one example of backchannel chat.
In all candor, I have actually experimented with this on a limited basis for a couple of semesters now. There is not enough evidence to suggest anything beyond the need for a larger scale test pilot. It would be best described as intriguing for now.
At the very minimum, backchannel chats would require a reliable internet connection that is wired to a projector for students to view. Ideally, this would occur in a classroom where two projectors are available. This is obviously a luxury that most of us simply do not have. However, having tested backchannel chats in both a classroom with a single projector vis-a-vis one where there were two projectors, the efficiency and streamlined nature of the latter is far superior in terms of student interaction and engagement. Of course students would also need some mechanism that allows them an internet connection to access whatever web-based tool or software you are using to conduct the chat (Twitter is also something instructors have used for backchannel chat). The school would need a fast internet connection for students as well.
While there are plenty of detractors who might dismiss this strategy right away by suggesting that students would not be focused on the lecture or content or perhaps become distracted with other sites or do other things online, the potential benefits seem to at least give someone a catalyst to give it a try. Certain students are already texting and going online anyway. Might they not find this to be a bit more productive to engage in dialogue (especially if you were to make it worth points or somehow be a part of their grade)? It also gives a voice to students who may never speak in class, especially in a large lecture hall of several hundred students. Backchannel chats also empower students to take notice and give them a say in the classroom. In the era of fake news and questionable evidence, what better way to teach our students then they going out there themselves to “fact check” our lectures and what we are talking about in real time as it is happening.
The technology requirements could be a challenging to the point that would make this strategy not viable in some scenarios. Does the classroom have a computer for the instructor to use along with a projector? Would the instructor need to bring their own equipment? Surprisingly, not every student has a cell phone, laptop, or tablet. For example, my institution has a relatively large homeless student body population that cannot even afford to get books, let alone laptops and cell phones. How would those students interact? Are they left out of this?
Some of these challenges could be mitigated by careful planning. For example, my school has several classrooms that have dual projectors where I could project simultaneously on two separate screens two separate sources. If an instructor knows they will be using backchannel chat, they could request a specific room before the semester starts. Perhaps looking for funding sources to get additional projectors installed in classrooms or maybe invest in your own mobile projector in addition to using whatever is available in the classroom. The issue with students not having the capability to go online could be resolved by conducting your classroom in a computer lab.
It’s certainly not perfect nor is do I have enough evidence to compel my colleagues to try this out; but it’s certainly something worth trying on a larger scale.