Wednesday, 14 October 2015 20:25

Backchannels: An Introduction

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Before the emergence of mobile devices and social media, student 'backchannel' communications were limited to whispering and passing notes. And, just like texting today - these in-class activities were viewed by faculty as detractors from learning and were curtailed as much as possible. But what if 'backchannel' communication could be used to enhance learning? This, say proponents, is the potential of a secondary "real-time conversation in parallel with the formal presentation" (7 Things).

Whether displayed synchronously on presentation screens or restricted to students' individual devices, electronic conversations between class members can transform even a large lecture hall into an active learning classroom. With the addition of a second channel, linear communication becomes multi-directional as students pose questions, respond, link resources, and even vote on popular posts. Passive receivers of information become active senders and because posts can appear anonymous to other students, this communication stream has the capacity to draw in students typically reluctant to ask questions or contribute to class discussions. At Purdue University where they created their own backchannel platform, 'Hotseat', 76% of 792 students surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that access to a backchannel helped them feel less isolated and improved the quality of discussion (Aagard, Bowen, & Olesova, 2010). An advantage over other classroom communication tools such as Clickers is that backchannels can be accessed by any modern mobile device. Another benefit of backchannels is their capacity to provide an equal footing for participants outside of the regular classroom. In fact, some instructors invite community and industry representatives to remotely join and review these content-related conversations.

Of course, facilitating a faculty-sanctioned 'distraction' is not without its challenges, the primary concern being the potential for inappropriate comments and the misrepresentation of content. Avi Spector recommends that instructors create firm ground rules before opening a backchannel (Spector, 2014). In Dr.Rose's Harvard M.Ed class, he assigns a moderator who interrupts the lecture to bring popular questions to the 'frontchannel'. In this way, the instructor can use real-time feedback to modify the teaching and learning experience. (Instructors may also take scheduled breaks to address the questions queued up in the backchannel.) At Purdue where they've addressed this 'social' challenge (linking Hotseat posts to student IDs) along with those posed by technology, access and assessment - benefits as described in this student perspective video appear to outweigh risks.

The key, emphasizes Dr. Rose, is flexibility. In his case, backchannel conversations are saved to the LMS and remain open outside of class-time for more reflective learners; additionally, participation during or after class is not mandatory. It's just one of the learning options available to students, an option taken up by 86% of students surveyed at Purdue University where backchannels were available.



Aagard, H., Bowen, K., & Olesova, L. (2010, September 22). Hotseat: Opening the Backchannel in Large Lectures. Retrieved from

Spector, A. (2014, January 28). 3 backchannel tools to encourage active learning. Retrieved from

What is Hotseat in your Own Words? (2009, October 28). Retrieved from

*Thumbnail image (Jarrett, 2009) Used under creative commons license

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EET Staff

Over the years we have compiled articles from different members of the EET team. Sometimes they were written collaboratively and other times the staff author wasn’t written down. These articles were too good not to share, so we’ve labeled them as EET Staff.