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? :)

Posted on by Mike Gwaltney in Blended Learning, Collaboration, Communication, Education Technology, Web 2.0 Tools 4 Comments

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