How to Make a Class Backchannel


Yesterday I posted a “Twitter Matrix” for education, which generated a fair amount of buzz in the micro-blogging world. A few people sent me messages asking if I could explain how I make my class backchannel, so here goes.

First of all, I think of the backchannel as the conversation that might otherwise normally happen in class within students’ minds, or between each other. It’s the communication that happens between two or more students about their experience of class and their own learning. To be clear, classes have always had backchannels of conversation, the difference now ist that technology allows us to put them to better use. When these conversations become public, students and teachers have an opportunity to learn from each other, and questions get answered, and issues get addressed.

Here are two ways that I have used Twitter as a backchannel:

1. Make a Class Account. This year, I created a “LIVE” Twitter account for my US History class. On our private class wiki, I shared the log-in information, and students are allowed to access the account during class. Students can post anything they wish in this backchannel, and we all see it.

An advantage to this common account is anonymity – it’s impossible to know who posted since we’re all using the same acct. It’s been my experience that some students will ask questions or make comments that could be very helpful only if they don’t risk embarrassing themselves. Of course anonymity also means freedom to be malicious with the class Twitter account, so I highly recommend a discussion of netiquette and integrity before giving this privilege to students.

Creating a common class account is easy. Just think of a name, create the Twitter account linked to YOUR email address, choose a simple password (school name?), and share the log-in information on your private class website.

2. Make a class hashtag. When I first joined Twitter, I thought hashtags (# + short term, eg “#edchat”) were created by Twitter or something, and wasn’t quite sure how they worked. Well, they’re really easy – anyone can make a hashtag by simply putting # in front of a word or set of characters. Hashtags allow you to locate student tweets by searching the term. It’s Twitter’s way of organizing zillions of tweets.

In my class, I ask all my students to create an “academic” Twitter account, (they may not wish to share a personal account with class, if they have one) and then each unit I choose a hashtag that we can all use to post comments and questions (ex. #coldwar). We can then each search for this tag and see what we’re all posting and comment back and forth. I’ve also created a widget for our private class wiki that shows the results of our backchannel, so we don’t all have to search Twitter.

By using these public hashtags, we also involve people outside our class who may have common interests. If we tweet for a week or two with the tag #coldwar, we automatically find many collaborators on Twitter that may wish to answer questions, and we also learn from others who are sharing their ideas. Social Learning happens!

There’s plenty more to talk about on this topic of class backchannels, and certainly Twitter isn’t the only way to go. If you have other ideas, don’t hesitate to leave a comment here, or tweet me @MikeGwaltney. And why not use the tag #classbackchannel? ūüôā

Twitter for Education

UPDATE: See also my post “How to Make a Class Backchannel”

I know many teachers and are¬†exploring using Twitter as a learning tool, both for themselves and for their students. Administrators are¬†imagining ways it could be helpful for staff development and for communicating with stake-holders. Here’s a visual to help focus the thinking a bit (click through for larger version):

I ran across this Twitter Matrix about a year ago on Mark Sample’s blog and it really helped me clarify my thinking about how I wanted to use Twitter to enhance student learning. I was clear that I didn’t want to use it just to be using it – if it wasn’t going to lead to greater learning, it was just going to be more noise for students.

I’ve been getting good results using Twitter as a backchannel during class, allowing me to engage with students in new ways. Those that aren’t ready to comment out loud during class will frequently post to the backchannel, allowing me a new way to check for understanding. And because they can post questions there that I see in the last few minutes of class, I can answer them before they leave, meaning no student leaves with misunderstandings that embed in their brain before they return the next day.

If you follow the link to Mark’s blog, you’ll notice he believes Twitter acts as a “snark valve” because tweets are “unfiltered, in effect, the same comment somebody might mutter under his or her breath, uncensored, no-holds-barred opining. Yet the students know classmates are following the course hashtag and at the very least that I am listening (and contributing) as well.¬† The backchannel assumes a Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse ‚ÄĒ using sarcasm both to show a kind of too-cool-for-school attitude but also to demonstrate that the student is in fact earnestly engaged with the material.”

How will you use Twitter? I hope the matrix leads to creative ideas. And if they do, kindly tweet me @MikeGwaltney, or leave a more lengthy comment here on my blog.