A Back Channel is a stream of comments from participants at a conference, or in a classroom during a lesson. Participants can view the stream on their own devices via a website, or the stream can be broadcast using an electronic whiteboard for all to see. Sites like http://todaysmeet.com/ allow users to type in comments from a laptop, or tweet using the relevant hashtag.
Many teachers will be slightly hesitant, to put it mildly, about the idea of students conducting a legalized back-channel discussion during their lesson. I’ve been in enough classrooms to know that this goes on no matter how much the teacher pretends their students are paying 100% attention to them! Surreptitious passing of notes, whispered conversations, they are the stock-in-trade of every classroom that has ever been, and ever will be!
In these multi-tasking times when students are wired to do two things at once, a legalized back-channel is less an admission of defeat than a recognition that learning really is about constant questioning and conversation. Because the back-channel is in plain view, comments, irrelevant or pertinent, are always sanctioned. They are also archived, and this allows the teacher to review the stream after the lesson, and pick up on comments or questions which might have been missed at the time.
I have to say that the major advantage I find, as a teacher, is knowing what’s going through my students’ minds during a lesson, even if it’s not that much! It gives you what you need to work on, and discuss to make your lessons more meaningful.