Does the Backchannel Stifle Those Who Benefit Most from Technology

Over twenty years ago, when I first started working with teachers, one of the promises of the use of technology was to level the playing field in the classroom. No longer would those individuals, who are able to think quickly on their feet with loud voices and determination, be able to dominate the learning in the classroom. The use of forums and email would allow the quieter thinker, the one who may need more time to wrestle and reflect for some time, the ability to develop their voice. The net result is that everyone would benefit from the the differing learning styles.

Fast forward to last night. Like many days, I participated in many different networks throughout the day which encourage quick and limited participation via a chat window. Yesterday, I “tweeted”, participated in a Google Presentation chat room, the Elluminate chat room for the K12 Online Conference Pre-Conference speaker David Warlick, the chatroom at EdTechTalk while listening to the Women of Web 2.0 (WOW2) webcast, and finally at the Practical Theory uStream chat room. In each case, I was mult-tasking, trying to listen to the content, trying to share ideas with other participants with the goal of becoming more active within these media, rather than simply being passive and reflective while listening to the presentations. Some of the backchannel conversation were flying by at a furious rate, especially during the Fireside and WOW2 events.

I began to wonder about whether the sharing and advancements of ideas are stiffled due to the rapid growth of back-channeling . Even though I am getting better at communicating via quick chat with its rapid style delivery, I am someone who needs to step back, take some time to reflect and ponder questions, letting ideas grow before I am willing to commit to sharing them. Backchannel conversations plays to my personal weaknesses rather than my strengths.

So I began to wonder, does the rapid growth of backchannel conversation mean that the pendulum is swinging back, favoring those who are quick on their feet and can formulate an ideas and deliver them with an authoritative voice? Are those thinkers who are more reflective being pushed aside?

Or does this simply mean that we need to make sure that we encourage both types of thinkers in developing their voices using both methods of communication. We also need to make sure that we vary the inputs that we use to formulate ideas, mixing both the instant gratification that comes from chatting with the reflective practice best presented by blogging.

Chris Lehmann, last night tweeted, ” Part of me loves that I’ve got to pay attention to my family and therefore miss a ton of this stuff. Keeps me from overload.” I think that Chris has this right, not only do you miss a ton of stuff, but it gives you time to reflect and formulate ideas.

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6 thoughts on “Does the Backchannel Stifle Those Who Benefit Most from Technology

  1. I think one of the keys to your question lies in the ability to archive the backchannel — and then to not let the conversation end with the synchronous backchannel, but to follow it up with more reflection thinking on the ideas and questions that were thrown out during the live backchannel.

    I saved the chat from the fireside chat and will reread it to see what I missed and to remember the things that caught my eye (but that I didn’t have time to fully process) so that I can begin to pull things together and make connections between everything that was being “chatted” during the live event.

    This isn’t always possible. I think there were some great ideas discussed during the spontaneous Practical Theory ustream late last night, but I couldn’t archive the chat to reread later.

    As to your final statement at the end… that time away from all of this is important — not only for reflection and deeper thinking, but also for refreshing ourselves and maintaining a balance between our professional lives and our personal lives.

  2. I’ve been thinking about the same thing lately. I think I process things much more slowly than some. I find myself thinking about a conversation or a blog post hours and even days after the first initial contact. Sometimes, while I am reading the chat backchanneling, I can’t really process what is being said. I applaud those that can. I still like the spontaneity of the combination of chat and conversation, but I need to download the audio of these events like WOW2 to listen to at a later date.

    However, what does this mean for students as well as teachers who are just beginning to learn about these tools. Like you said, we need to make sure to provide rich and varied experiences to appeal to the different learning styles.

    I felt a bit of information overload yesterday, and I only attended the Fireside Chat and WOW2. My brain hurts, but it’s a good hurt.

  3. Janice,

    As I think about this more and more, I am concerned about the increasing number of students who have a processing issue. I wonder if we sometimes do them a disservice with the integration of these tools. I acknowledge that these technologies can also have a tremendously positive impact for these students as well. Technology is neutral, its how it is used that is important.

  4. I don’t think the backchannel is the place for deep conversations, after all, there is a presentation going on and it seems rude, to me, to start a side conversation. Call me old-fashioned but I don’t think one can provide the needed attention to both.

    HOWEVER, I love the backchannel for capturing “stream of consciousness” of the collective… to me, this is very powerful both as a participant and wonderful feedback if I was the presenter. What thoughts are my comments twigging in other people’s minds? What connections do others make from what it is said? It’s like eaves dropping on an audiences’ thought processing.

    I really believe we need to dig deeper into the backchanneling phenomenon – for first-timers’ to the Fire Side Chat last night, I feel it must have been over-whelming and could pose a huge “entry block” – not one of our more inclusive techniques, I’d say….there was no way I could follow a conversation last night, the messages were scrolling by too quickly, eventually I just gave up, knowing that the whole presentation would be archived and also remembering that I could save the text chat for a later read….but I’m 15 years in this business. How do I explain to a newcomer, who is already mesmerized by the whiteboard, video, 100 people ‘virtually’ attending from around the world that the chat is something they don’t have to take in right away. It’s like having the BBC newsticker going across the screen at triple speed – no, you don’t have to watch it or try to read it but you still want to and feel you must try….eventually when you get experienced with newstickers, you ignore them and drop in to the message every once in a while.

    So what to do? I thought a lot about this today because I have been inviting a lot of newcomers to the K12 Online Conference. I’ve started to think INCLUSIVITY must be a goal or at least a underlying principle…Can we put special attention into ensuring that the newcomer will not feel alienated by our techy-ways?

    What if, for these larger events, as people signed on they were randomly added to ‘smaller rooms’ that only contained 10 people or so? You may get those who say… “But I want to be with so & so” …if that’s the case, there is nothing stopping anyone from opening up their own side channel to the backchannel. There’s also the thought that ‘hey, I don’t want to miss the other conversations!’. My hope would be that all the smaller conversations would be posted so no one would ‘miss’ anything.

    Another method might be not to stream the back channel – I have been in presentations where the chat area was not public – I didn’t know who else was attending but I had access to the chat for posting thoughts and questions. There was someone at the backend capturing the questions and thoughts who then facilitated them back to the presenter. Not the most ‘social’ technique but it does capture stream of consciousness. Of course, it would imperative that the chat stream be saved….reading the conglomerate’s thoughts and questions, later, might be a real treat.

    Lastly, I’m thinking that there is certainly a new skillset emphasized in the back-channeling participation and experience. I wonder, if perhaps, in presentations such as the FireSide on Tuesday, that there should almost be a commitment to do a book club-like meet-up where the backchannel comments are hashed through. I, like you, need some time to take in the whole event…chew on it a bit… but then I really crave for the “after-conversation”. I guess that’s what blogging is about but heck, wouldn’t it be fun, to all get back together and do the re-hash in a more social setting? With a facilitator and participants who come ‘prepared to discuss’? Of course, a little wine, would be nice too!

    Perhaps we need to go back to basics…What is the purpose of the backchannel in a certain situation? Why do we want it there? And then, how can we execute our decided purpose effectively and in an inclusive way? I’m going to be reflecting on this for a while, believe!

  5. As a newcomer to backchannel conversations, I agree with your assessment. I’ve been reluctant to participate when the numbers increase. However, I really enjoyed Chris Lehmann’s classroom presentation the other day, where I started with a small group and could manage the back and forth. It’s an issue for all of us, and I do have similar concerns.

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