Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Backchannel

A while back I tried an experiment at the NCSU Assessment Symposium, and then later at the IUPUI Assessment Institute. The problem I saw was this: conferences are ephemeral events, and individual sessions tend to vanish (for me at least) into a handful of crumpled powerpoint note pages with my hastily scrawled observations on them. Not only is it hard to remember later what the salient parts were, it's hard to find the time to go back and categorize and sort out the stuff. I thought perhaps a 'sticky' conference experience would be a good idea. I described it on my other blog here:
[Conference] conversations tend to get cut off just when they get interesting. Wouldn't it be great if these moments could be tagged so that you could pick them up later? I imagine a site that you log in to, identify the conference, session particulars, etc., and then are allowed to add comments or documents under that rubric.
My solution wasn't a very good one--I just created a blog post for people to add comments to. This has the same problem as sorting out note later; no one has time to do it. I had asked a member of the audience to my presentation to jot down her own questions as they arose during talk. These and others I tried to answer on the blog to spark a later asynchronous conversation. You can find the post here. It didn't work. I don't know if anyone read what I wrote, but no one commented. Of course, it didn't help that I advertised it in a very ad hoc way. I don't like wasting paper with handouts, so their finding the site had to depend on them jotting down the URL and browsing it later. I have suggested to conference organizers that such a thing be included in the conference web site (links to discussion boards or something), but they're too busy too.

So I was pleasantly surprised to come across an article in The Chronicle called "Switch-Tasking and Twittering Into the Future at Library and Museum Meeting." The unfortunate title hides a very cool idea, viz, a partial solution to the problem I just described. Instead of a post-meeting discussion, the idea is to discuss content during the meeting. It's a key piece that is missing from presentations that are usually monologues. The service is called Today's Meet. The interface is dead simple. You browse to the page, create a meeting (no sign-up required), and are presented with a Twitter-style interface. 'Tweets' can be tagged with meta-data.

The so-called backchannel comprises a conversation in the background, via these tweets, while the presentation is going on, or presumably afterwards. In order for it to be successful, the participants have to have access to appropriate technology. This will be a barrier to immediate adoption at most conferences, although a Blackberry interface might go a long way to solving that problem.

The idea that people are chattering away electronically while you're speaking may be horrifying to some presenters. Not me. In order to work, the attendees would have to have the URL for the meeting communicated to them anyway, so it almost requires the consent of the presenter. Ideally, you could have an LCD projector showing the tweets in one panel while another is used for the official meeting presentation. It would take some practice to figure out how much attention to pay to this backchannel, but it's a worthwhile experiment.

This doesn't solve my problem completely, because I still wish for official conference message boards as well as todaysmeet-like tweet boards that would be listed in the program. This way everyone could find them before, during, or after the presentations. Conversations could begin before the conference even started.

But you can use it in the classroom too. Ira Socol (whose son developed Today's Meet) describes a classroom experience in the edu-blog SpeEdChange:
The first few posts were simple. "Hi" "Hello" "What's This?" But within fifteen minutes it had accelerated wildly. There were "tweets" (if you will) about the stuff in the class, and questions, and doubts, and worries. There were "procedurals" - "where's the sign in sheet?" "Is the due date still...?" There were requests, "I wish he'd talk about..." There were concerns, "This is distracting me" "More than Facebook?" "About the same" By the time the class session had ended, over 200 comments in all.

Every few minutes I looked up at the screen and checked the conversation, and typically I adjusted the discussion, or picked up on a question being asked there, or commented on an answer or a comment. In a big class it gave me real access to far more students than I can possibly get by watching for raised hands. And it let me - and the class - hear from many who never raise their hands. Honestly, I could even judge, much more clearly than usual, what was connecting and what was missing. As an instructor - I loved it
This makes sense. I've always found it useful to have students fill out a 3x5 card with questions at the end of class and rate their understanding 1-10, but instant feedback is much better. In online classes, I've also noticed that some students who are reticent to speak in class become more lively in a chat room.

There will be detractors, and this may not work for everyone or in every setting. But the reality is that if an audience has the technology, odds are they're already in their own private backchannel with chat, Facebook, email, and so on. Why not tap into that and make it a conversation?


  1. I am curious how this would work in the classroom - is it the "clicker" extended? I do believe that the conversation needs to broaden - lectures just aren't as captivating or interesting - and I cannot begin to dicuss my issues with powerpoint as a whole. Can this open up dialogue in an hour long class?

  2. Would this expand the "clicker" experience in the classroom? I worry about the distraction, but I don't believe powerpoint really gets people's attention. Also the students without access is a concern for me. Are there more studies about this area? Twittering your way through class? Especially as online offerings become more prevalent - this could be a great way to get questions across.

  3. [The comments are moderated, so there's a delay in seeing them published. This is to cut out the spam that unfortunately otherwise shows up. I'll try turning that off and see what happens.]

    Yeah-I wonder too. I never liked to lecture with computers in front of the students (programming class, eg.) because I never could tell when they were on task. Once, I caught a frequent complainer surfing FaceBook instead of following along. On the other hand, I'd be willing to try out something like this in certain contexts. I can see it working better in a conference situation than a classroom (especially in math).

    If it can open up a continuing dialogue, that would be magic. It surely depends on many variables...

  4. Actually I recently read an interesting article about presenting to people engaged in the backchannel:
    There are some interesting ideas in there.

  5. Josh, that's a great article--thanks.