Using a Course Backchannel to Supplement Teaching and Learning

Backchannels — instances that provide course members with supplemental communication space to hold a background conversation during synchronous sessions  — have been used as a teaching and learning strategy in higher education long before the onset of COVID-19. But Zoom became a common tool for this purpose last academic year. Students, for instance, could ask questions in Zoom chat, while the instructor gave a presentation, or shyer students had the opportunity to use Zoom chat to contribute to the ongoing discussion without having to speak aloud. 

Now that Duke plans to return to in-person learning with some hybrid and remote courses, instructors have considered how they can incorporate useful backchannels into face-to-face courses. 

There are multiple strategies to do this, and in this blog Learning Innovation provides a few options and common considerations. 

Chat-Based Tools

If you liked the rapid-fire dialogue of Zoom chat, you could use a chat-based tool to mimic a similar exchange during a regular in-person class. 

Microsoft Teams is a Duke-supported tool, and you may already be planning to use it for your class. Using the chat feature for a backchannel could provide students with a space to hold a conversation in and out of class if they have follow-up questions.

If you are using Sakai, you can use the Site Info to add the Chat tool to your course. This is a Duke-supported tool and is already integrated with the learning management system, so your students will not have to sign up for an additional service. However, they may be unfamiliar with Chat, specifically. 

Other popular (but not Duke-supported tools) for this type of dialogue are Slack and Discord (which is also commonly used to record podcasts and create interactive gaming communities). Your students may already be familiar with these tools. However, if you are not using a Duke-supported tool, keep in mind student privacy and accessibility concerns when deciding what to incorporate into your course. 

Social Media

Instructors have been using social media platforms such as Twitter to supplement the face-to-face class experience for years.

In her article “Tweeting on the Backchannel of the Jumbo-Sized Lecture Hall: Maximizing Collective Learning in a World History Survey,” Professor Elizabeth Ann Pollard has written about how she used Twitter to build connections in her large lecture course. Creating a class-specific account that she advertised to the students on the syllabus and in-class, Pollard used Twitter to complement other aspects of the course, including responding to student questions. As Pollard notes in her article, Twitter was used both during class and “was also used by both students and me later in the day — after classes — to digest what had happened in class and even later into the evening” (337).

As an undergraduate student, my instructors who used Twitter in a similar manner created a course hashtag, to help course participants easily organize their conversations and share resources.

Instructors interested in using social media to encourage student engagement may wish to note that these platforms are not supported by Duke (and therefore do not fall under Duke’s privacy policy) and that students may not wish to engage on social media. 

Collaborative Note-taking and Annotating

Collaborative note-taking is a pedagogical practice that is helpful for all your students that also builds accessibility principles into your course. This process can be adjusted to fit the goals of your course, but involves creating a rotation of students (possibly in pairs) to take in-class notes each day. These notes can be shared with the whole of the course, providing an alternative to recording in-class discussions

Instructors typically ask students to take collaborative notes on a Google Doc or a similar tool like Box, which allows for live editing and includes a commenting feature. If your students participate in collaborative note-taking, asking students who are reading along to annotate the document or ask questions with the comments feature may replace the Zoom backchannel. 

If a formalized collaborative note-taking assignment does not fit your course, you could still provide a designated document where students could hold a live conversation during class.

Logistical Considerations

No matter what tools you plan to use for the backchannel, think about how it can be most helpful for you and your students.

  1. Set expectations for when instructional staff will respond in the backchannel. The article “Twitter as an In-Class Backchannel Tool in a Large Required Pharmacy Course” provides this advice for classroom management: “At least initially, it is also wise to have another faculty member or teaching assistant follow the Twitter feed during the session to assist with question management and to provide technological support…”
  2. Think about how to incorporate your backchannel into the classroom. Will you project the backchannel conversation on a large screen in your classroom if you are teaching in person? Will you ask students to follow a Twitter or Slack conversation on their electronic devices? And, if so, does the communication tool you’ve chosen work well on a wide-range of devices and/or browsers? Will you refer to the backchannel in course materials such as the course syllabus and lecture slides?
  3. Consider how to make your backchannel most useful for students. Is it possible to present students with options and survey them for backchannel preferences? If you want to continue the conversation after class, what might you post on the backchannel to encourage this? How might you encourage student-to-student interactions in this space?

Need Help?

As you plan your class sessions, remember that in addition to providing students with a backchannel, you can ask them to complete a Minute Paper at the end of class. This can help you assess student learning and see what you may need to clarify in the next session.

If you would like to discuss integrating a backchannel into your Fall 2021 course, you can drop by Duke Learning Innovation’s open virtual office hours. Office hours will be held every Monday from 1 to 3 p.m. EDT and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. EDT at duke.zoom.us/my/dukelearninginnovation. You can also schedule a consultation by email at learninginnovation@duke.edu.