Digital skills that teachers need for the connected classroom #1: Backchannels

Nik Peachey

Nik Peachey, a Learning Technology Consultant, Writer and Teacher Trainer, begins his new ELT Technology series on digital teaching skills. In this first post, he explores the benefits of using a backchannel in a face-to-face class.

In the last twenty-five years since I started teaching, I have seen little real change in the nature of the ELT classroom. It’s true that whiteboards and blackboards have become digitised in many classrooms and now replace the role of tape recorders and video cassette decks, many course-books now have a range of digital materials that can be displayed on a data projector rather than an OHP, and many publishers now provide a range of interactive materials that students can use for homework. Despite all these things though, much of what they deliver is very similar to the materials I used when I first did my teaching certificate all those years ago.

What has changed however are the students. The students I see coming in to most classrooms around the world have some degree of digital literacy, some form of device to access the internet, and a familiarity with using the device to manage their parallel digital reality through a range of apps and social media platforms.

I’d like to stress though the social aspect of this parallel reality. Students may well be adept at greeting their friends in the classroom whilst maintaining an ongoing image based conversation through Snapchat, but when class starts and the teacher steps forward this ability to seamlessly function across the digital and physical planes stops.

At this point students are expected to give the physical world – and a person within it – their 100% full attention, something for which they have had very little practice or training for in any other context. What’s more, the teacher in their physical world is using a broadcast method of communication – speaking – which often lacks the kind of short message and response interaction with which they are familiar.

At the same time they are being asked to ignore the highly interactive parallel digital channel that they are used to co-inhabiting. The result of this scenario is of course the kind of digital distraction and lack of attention that most teachers are fighting against in classrooms around the world.

So how should teachers be dealing with situation?

Attempts to ban devices or tell students to turn off devices during lessons seem a little like the efforts of King Canute to order back the incoming sea, and with researchers predicting increases in wearable connected devices such as watches, glasses, etc it seems like any attempt to do this is not only unproductive but will further remove the classrooms from the realms of every day real life.

So if the students aren’t going to change to suit us (and after all, why should they?) we need to start changing the nature of the classroom and how we work within it, to exploit this ability to work across these parallel planes of digital and physical reality that our students inhabit.

What skills do we need to do this?

The first skill I will explore in this article is the ability to create and mediate a backchannel while teaching a face-to-face class.

A backchannel is a simple chatroom that can be accessed by students and teachers during the class. Once students are connected to the backchannel the teacher can use this for a number of purposes:

Reinforce task setting – When I set up tasks for my students to do I can back them up through the backchannel, so even for those students who don’t listen too well, there are clear written instructions for them to refer back to so that they know what to do.

Link sharing – I don’t have to waste time trying to get the students to copy URLs accurately. I can share links to digital materials such as websites, videos, downloadable PDFs or interactive activities through the backchannel. Students then just click on the link and it opens in a new browser tab. This has enabled me to teach all of my classes paperless. Instead of wasting hours at the photocopier printing my worksheets, I simply upload the digital version to a service like DropBox or Google Drive and then share the link with my students and they have a digital copy on their device in seconds.

Audience response – When asking questions in class I can get students to respond through the backchannel. In this way I can get a response from every student, not just the one who puts their hand up or calls out first.

Simple brainstorming – When brainstorming simple ideas I can ask students to contribute through the backchannel. In this way all contributions are instantly recorded and shared across the class and their name appears next to their ideas.

Developing written fluency – I or my students can type in question to the backchannel and have written conversations. I usually do this for the first few minutes of any class. This can help to build rapport with the students, give them some concentrated quiet time at the beginning of the lesson and get them using written English for genuine communication.

Student contributions – Students can also use the backchannel to comment and contribute relevant links at any point during the class.

Class notes – At the end of the class students can copy or download the chat script from the backchannel and edit to form their class notes.

Backchannel tool suggestions

There are a variety of tools that can be used to create backchannels. My favourite is TodaysMeet. It enables me to choose how long the chat room is available (closing it after class can help to avoid any inappropriate use or communication) and also choose whether students have to register log in with a password/email address or not.

Also worth checking out is Backchannel Chat though the free version of this has some limitations on class size.

Nik will be back soon to discuss more digital teaching skills and his practical suggestions for exploiting these. You can find more from Nik on his Learning Technology blog.

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