Installing a Backchannel in My Classroom this Week

So much going on this week. As you can perhaps tell from my lower number of posts, having two of my three kids in middle school, and six classes has put a dent in my blogging time.

I'm still here, though, working to innovate with whatever time I can scratch out.

For a while I've been fascinated by the use of the backchannel. I first saw its effective use this summer when some bloggers had a skypechat during Will Richardson's session and posted it.

It is also such a great way to give a voice, and we rely on it heavily for the Wow2 show each Tuesday night.

So, this week, during a test review on Thursday, I unveiled the backchannel in the room using Meebo's virtual room feature. Here is what I observed:

  • Initially kids treat it like a playground

    This is the case with everything electronic. They treat electronic “places” as playgrounds because I think they are not used enough for “professional” reasons. Part of what I teach is to effectively, professionally use any electronic form of communications — I call this effective “techno-personal” skills.

  • Once they realize “this is for real” most will “settle down”

    I point out that the chat has a transcript feature and that I will be going back into the transcript to review it and take a daily participation grade — they start using it for its intention — to enhance and record the discussions taking place in class. Indeed to provide a backchannel for class conversation. We're not “there” yet in terms of this first backchannel session was also full of exploration — like when the student hit the number “8” and a parenthesis ) and it turned into a little smiley with sunglasses!

  • I noticed that the verbally “quiet” students were quite loquacious in chat.

    This was the part that floored me the most and that really got me excited. Every teacher has those brilliant children who just don't like to raise their hand and contribute — these were the ones who were talking in the chat room prolifically and adding some pretty amazing material as well.

    Imagine asking, “What does this word mean?” and having a child pop the definition in immediately, or when I talk about a website, being able to pop it in the chat immediately.

    It was very useful and helpful, and I posted the chat for the students to access when reviewing for the test.

  • The verbal students did not contribute as much.

    This was the frustration — someone would verbally say something perfect that needed to go in the chat, however, the verbally astute wouldn't really add it to the chat like I wished they would. They were much less likely to contribute to the text based backchannel.

  • It is a great, immediate way to take notes and correct thinking.

    I thought that the notes produced were good. But here is what I liked best, the fact that everyone could put their thoughts in and I could see incorrect thinking and point out fine shades of meaning. Imagine this, “Drop in the chat what you think about ___” — then they do it, you quickly review it and talk about it.

    As much as I love group notetaking on a wiki, it is not really a simultaneous editing, contribution — it is more asynchronous (not at the same time) and although synchronous editing is great, I think the backchannel really gives you a stream of class thought sort of documentation.

My Conclusion
In conclusion, I think that creating an effective backchannel in all of my classes is a goal that I have for this year. I can already tell that this will have the hiccups and challenges of teaching students to blog or wiki effectively, however, being able to IM is something that my husband says is a vital skill for the workplace (and in his work as an engineering manager for a Fortune 100 company, he should know.)

I wish I could use campfire (which e-mails a transcript to everyone after it is done), however, you have to pay a fee for more than 3 people and I don't care to do that for something I'm testing. I may also bring back Skype and use it to run out chats as well as hand out documents that students need. This one is still turning over in my mind.

How I did it
I just signed into my meebo account and created a virtual room. I posted it on my wiki using the embed code that meebo gives you and when the kids went to the wiki page, the chat was live in there.

I do recommend a password, however, I had to take the password off in order to get the transcript to work. I've got to see more about this feature — I want a private room but want to be able to get a transcript as well. With the password off, I had a few people jump in that I had to kick out that weren't from the class — so I highly suggest doing this. Also, the warn feature in Meebo was quite annoying and if a student is “warned” enough it locks them out of the chat for a moment.

Overall, although the bleeding edge of putting in a backchannel was, well, bleeding a bit, I think this is a valuable tool to bring in all students into the mainstream of the conversation.

tag: , , , , , , , ,

Never miss an episode

Get the 10-minute Teacher Show delivered to your inbox.

Powered by ConvertKit
Picture of Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

All Posts »


John Pederson September 8, 2007 - 1:15 pm

I’ve had this secret “todo” involving Campfire and the blogging community. I love the idea of simultaneous chat, low barrier to entry, sharing files, and transcriptions in an environment that people can “come and go” as they wish without having to a) be invited or b) already be a part of “the network”.

Cost is the 2nd largest barrier, though I’m sure there’s some cool Web 2.0 tool we could use to collect, manage, etc. donations among the users.

The hard part…do you think people would use it? Horse, water, drink..ya know?

I imagine a space that could be used by anybody, for anybody…from WoW 2.0 to the K12 Online Conference to these Skypechats.


Karen Janowski September 8, 2007 - 10:13 pm

This is awesome! How valuable for the rest of us. What I especially appreciate is your observation that your “quieter” students were more textually verbose (that’s a new term!). Some kids are less likely to participate in class for a variety of reasons. Backchanneling is a perfect example of differentiated instruction that sounds like it worked well for the students who need an alternative methods to demonstrate what they know.

Durff September 9, 2007 - 2:55 am

Would this chat room work?

Susan September 9, 2007 - 6:09 am

Your experience of having the verbally quiet kids be much more active has been replicated informally by others. I experienced it two years ago when I opened a chat room and forums in my Moodle. I was amazed and delighted to find some of my quiet students suddenly finding their voice there. I found it interesting that some of my more verbal students took much longer to get past the playing stage. Made me wonder if they were missing the feeling of having people look at them, physically give them attention through body language.

A few years ago, a colleague in Kuala Lumpur brought her math class into the lab and they used a chat room to discuss some content. She said it was the best discussion they’d had because everyone was engaged and so many more took part than usual.

I hope you’ll continue to blog about your backchannel experiences.

Kern Kelley September 9, 2007 - 2:57 pm

Hi Vicki,
After participating in the some of the backchannel chats at BLC07 this year,

I knew it was something I wanted to incorporate into the classroom. Of course having all the initial reservations that you had, “Will student just fool around?” “Will it add meaning to the conversations or distractions?” “How do I manage who enters the chat so I only have my students?” and so on. What we’ve come up with is this. We’re going to run the backchannel with a projector and Google Spreadsheets.
First, all discussion will be projected on the wall as the class runs, so there’s no illusion of privacy. Anything ‘inappropriate’ will be seen and dealt with. I’m sure the initial novelty will be too hard for some to resist, but I’m sure naughty words appeared on the first chalkboards and hopefully the backchannel becomes a natural part of the landscape.
Secondly, when using Google Spreadsheets, there’s a Discuss Tab and since users must be invited to contribute to the spreadsheet, no one can anonymous or pop in uninvited.
We’ll see how it goes. I’m very hopeful for a great addition to the class!

Shirley September 9, 2007 - 5:50 pm


I’m a student teacher taking an Ed Tech course, and we’ve looked into holding discussions in chat form as you did here. I was surprised to read that the more verbal students did not participate as much in the chat – I wonder why that is. I wonder if the usually verbal students had less experience chatting than the less verbal students.

So far, I’m only aware of – users have to be invited to a group in order to join (as far as I know – not 100% sure), and a transcript is sent out to each user’s email account.

mmgleas3 September 10, 2007 - 1:18 am

The backchannel sounds like a really great idea. I haven’t had much experience teaching but I did tutor small groups for a little while and sometimes it was hard to get the kids to speak up. I felt like they were afraid to ask questions because they didn’t want to look stupid, and they didn’t want to always answer questions either because they didn’t want to answer incorrectly. With a backchannel though, kids can give their thoughts and input on a subject without having all eyes directly on them. It takes some of the pressure off so they are more free to say what they really think. This will definitely be something I want to check into when I start teaching professionally.

kathy May 5, 2008 - 9:26 am

Vicki, cool to see you actually implemented a backchannel in your classroom! I think Meebo is a nice solutions to do so.

A friend of mine does backchanneling for a living by the way. His company is Backchannels by

happy teaching!

Comments are closed.

The Cool Cat Teacher Blog
Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere