Category Archives: Back Channels

The Great Onlining – From Digital Natives to Digital Aliens – Reflections after Week Two!

After two weeks of remote teaching, I have to say that mental exhaustion is starting to set in. I can only imagine how challenging it is for students as well. In last week’s blog I highlighted the problem of reaching students online who might not be able to be reached, or might not want to be reached. Technological problems aside, the very constraints of online platforms may make it more difficult for students to focus, find relevant instructions and resources or manage their time effectively enough to be able to complete much work.

Marc Prensky popularised the idea of the Digital Native, one who appears to have the natural, in-born disposition for digital applications. Prensky defined this as a set of dispositions stemming from age alone. Anyone born after a certain date was somehow imbued with technology in their bloodstream, so to speak. The rest of us, born before this date were digital immigrants, we would have to learn how to use technology through pain and sweat. This idea has been thoroughly debunked. Anyone who has ever taught children ICTs will attest to this. Children are not born with the habits, behaviours and dispositions neatly in place to make them natural born users of technology. And many older people take to technology like a duck to water. Nevertheless the concept of digital nativity, of dispositions, a gaze which predisposes the person towards digital use does seem to hold some merit. We all know people who seem to get it naturally, and others who will probably never cope with anything digital. Perhaps digital nativity is an acquired, cultivated or trained gaze – a way of looking at things which makes some people better at dealing with the new technologies than others. This disposition is not dependent upon age, but describes a spectrum from digital nativity to digital alienation.

When teaching online this becomes absolutely crucial because the medium of delivery is so dependent upon the technology. In my experience with hybrid classrooms, any class follows a law of thirds, although the quantification of that fraction changes from year to year, class to class and lesson to lesson. Students have different digital dispositions. One third I shall call the Digital Natives with apologies to Marc Prensky. This group is quite capable of working independently online. They can find and follow instructions, manage the resources left by the teacher and manage to ask questions where needed to complete tasks totally online. They don’t really need a teacher to tell them what to do, they have a capacity and disposition for discovery and an ability to figure things out quite quickly on a digital platform. This group tends to submit assignments without prompting on time, often well before the due date.

A second third, the Digital Immigrants need instructions to be in-the-flesh, so to speak. They struggle to locate resources or instructions online, but can cope with whole class instructions. If a teacher tells them what to do, and where to look, they can then work on their own. This group needs someone to foreground what they need to notice. But once this is done, they are happy to work on the task, although they do ask more questions, and need more scaffolding generally. A quick online check-in meeting may be all they need to get working.

A third group, the Digital Aliens struggle online, but also need any instructions given to the whole class to be repeated individually. Something said to the group only seems to be processed effectively when repeated once they are ready to process the information. This group may not respond well to instructions given in a group check-in meeting for example. They need to be taken aside individually and carefully guided through every single step. This is extremely difficult on an online platform. You really need a one-on-one meeting. This can be done in class more easily whilst circulating, but for a student struggling with the technology anyway, setting up an individual tutoring session can be well nigh impossible.

If this perception is correct, it has important implications for remote (and online) instructional design. It suggests that students from each of these groups really needs different strategies. In a face-to-face classroom teachers are able to manage these differences much more seamlessly, although it is never easy. Online, differentiating teaching is much more difficult. In the last two weeks I think I have started to get the hang of managing the Digital Natives and Immigrants. By posting instructional videos online ahead of a class the Digital Natives have a head start. Then I have check-in meetings at scheduled times where I can answer questions, share my screen and show students how to do things. I record these as well as some students seem to need the question and answer to make sense of it all. What is extremely difficult is trying to reach the Digital Aliens, most of whom do not check-in during scheduled times, or probably even watch the videos. Often reaching this group involves long tortuous emails in which I try to make sense of the difficulties they are experiencing and coax them onto the platform.

Sometimes this results in a eureka moment, but often it results in radio silence. I have sent out a number of emails in the last week which basically said something like, send me what you’ve got so I can have a look. Many of tehse remain unanswered, but I live in hope that week three will bring my break-through moment with the Digital Aliens!


The Always Available Teacher – What’s the Netiquette?

One affordance that digital technologies bring to the classroom is that of greatly expanded connectivity. Via, Skype or Google hangouts, or any number of platforms your students can talk to other students, experts, or to the teacher in class time or outside class time. Via forums, chat rooms, email or whatsapp they can converse or ask questions anywhere, anytime. Generally speaking this is a good thing. But what happens when you get unwanted connectivity?

I was once phoned late at night by a university student in a TEFL class I was teaching, clearly inebriated, who was asking me for advice on grammar! I have received whatsapp messages at 6 am, and been emailed close to midnight. I have no problem with students sending me messages outside office hours. Indeed it often helps to be able to deal with a problem, and if I am able I often reply straight away. But it is important to have boundaries.

UntitledWhat I tell my students is that they may contact me at any time. I keep my phone on silent while I am sleeping, unless a family member is away from home, so as not to be disturbed. But I tell them that I may not respond outside of office hours. I tell them I am quite bad at remembering to look for messages. There are other teachers who recommend simply deleting any message sent after hours, because it is rude to expect a reply. A friend of mine always addresses correspondents after hours by saying “Good morning!” He does this to reassure the person that even though he is sending late at night, he does not expect the message to be read till morning.

I believe it is important to have a discussion with your class about these ground rules for outside of office hours communication, and to have these rules displayed next to your contact details. I believe it is important that each teacher, or each department within a school sets ground rules like this. It is probably important also that students experience differing policies, so they realize that in life, different people have different tolerances.

So, as the first day of the new school year looms, I am preparing for that discussion on the first day!


Thinking Digitally – Question Pauses & The Metacognitive Back Channel

volcanoesWhen you are reflecting on your thinking it is helpful to have some device which forces you to take a step back! Anything which puts some time between a thought, and acting on it, for example, invites an opportunity to reflect. We all know how powerful it can be to sleep on something, or how a move to a new country forces one to see one’s native land in a new light. Even just taking a few steps to the right or left can affect how you see an object. I think that the movement between the analogue and the digital world can have similar benefits for metacognition.

The classroom is often a space where teachers and students are in such a hurry to be busy, to finish a task, to complete the syllabus, that there is little time taken for reflection. And yet as BYOD policies are rolled out, the availability of a host of student owned devices in just about every classroom provides an opportunity to establish a Back Channel. A Back Channel is a medium for comment or chat running parallel to a classroom’s official channel – the routines of question and answer or discussion. Back Channels can be hosted on websites like Today’sMeet or via a twitter feed, allowing students to post, or tweet questions or comments, which will be picked up either at moments during the class, or even after the class. These can be followed up on at the next class, or even outside of the class through further online comment.

Back Channels provide powerful opportunities for students to ask questions or give feedback to the class, but they also provide a powerful opportunity to reflect on what is happening. One of the great problems with asking questions is that we seldom pause long enough for students to truly think about what we have asked. Even if we enforce a pause, a count of ten, or whatever, before accepting answers from the hands that have shot up, ten minutes is not long at all! If you ask a question and then ask students to answer on the back channel, however, the pace is slowed right down, and everyone is invited to think and answer. You can then display the answers on an Interactive White Board and discuss them in class as a basis for further discussion.

This movement between analogue and digital provides, I believe, some space for reflection, by providing an enforced pause after the question. Another way of thinking about it is to ask the question over the back channel, which students then answer in class, or to ask in class but only expect answers over the back channel as homework.



The Wu Wei of Whatsapp!

whatsappWith over 500 million whatsapp users, and with smartphones becoming ubiquitous, whatsapp is a part of the fabric of the school, whether you as a teacher are using it or not! It is the single biggest social messaging platform and offers key affordances in the classroom. It is cross-platform, allowing users with different phones to message each other effortlessly.

On Whatsapp you can set up groups and subscribe users (up to 30) to each group. When you send a message to the group all members are included. It is for the mobile phone what a listserv is for email! Attachments such as pictures, audio or video can be added, and messages can be sent using phone data or over wi-fi. Within a school environment where students and teachers are hooked up to the school wi-fi, this effectively means communication can be instantaneous and free to users, an important consideration. Conversations can also extend beyond school hours, and this is a huge advantage.

It seems to me that whatsapp use in the classroom started with students forming groups based on interest or need. It was a useful way to find out what homework had been set, and pages could be photographed and sent to the group. My sons use it for this purpose, and I know that as a family it is a fantastic application for spreading information quickly to everyone. My son tells me that the other day in his Maths class, many of the boys had not brought their books for whatever reason. The relevant page was photographed and sent to the class whatsapp group. It is now fairly routine for a student to photograph the homework on the board and whatsapp it to the rest of the class! It is usually best to ask your students to set up a whatsapp group for the class, and to add you to it. This gives students a sense of ownership of the group. You can then use the group to answer student queries, and to send out information such as a reminder to bring a particular book to class. It allows for those sudden unavoidable changes in plan too, including things you forgot to mention in class. You do need to remember though that whatsapp can never be an official channel for communication. Not all students have smartphones, some may run out of data, some may lose battery, and you cannot penalize any student for failing to receive a message! This is important to note – I have heard of teachers using it as if it were an official channel and seriously disadvantaging students because of this! My advice would be to keep the class whatsapp as a student run channel, which you can use, but always as a reminder, never as the primary information channel.

Students feel free to use the channel for chat, and this more sociable reaction to classroom announcements is an invaluable tool in promoting your digital presence in the class. It’s a good platform for happy birthdays and well-wishing messages when someone is ill. I encourage students to broadcast a summary of any class for those who are absent.

I find it especially useful for extra-mural activities where do not always see your students in class during the course of any given day, and unexpected changes are de rigueur! Whatsapp is clearly very useful as a classroom management tool, but can it be used pedagogically too?

One feature of whatsapp is the ability to send a recorded audio message. If everyone in your class is signed up on a whatsapp group, you can use it as a feedback mechanism in group or even individual work. Ask students to record a quick reflective feedback on any task and message it to the group. This can then be used as material for a follow-up lesson, or allow you, as a teacher, to gain insights into students’ understanding of the task. These messages can be retrieved from the whatsapp media folder if necessary, but they are essentially ephemeral in nature.

You can also use audio or video messages, or links to these as byte-sized flipped learning content as preparation ahead of a class, or as a wrap-up to a class. I like to store this content on Moodle or other platforms, and use whatsapp simply as a reminder of the link. You can encourage students to discuss the material over whatsapp, but I feel that that serves to take over the channel too much. Part of what makes whatsapp successful is that it is an unofficial channel and is student-driven. Official class chat can be housed on a Facebook group or twitter hashtag.

Essentially I see whatsapp as a tool of inaction. It’s not so much what you do with whatsapp – it’s more about what you allow students to use it for, to support that and chip in when you can!


Zhush Up Your Moodle

takkMoodle is a very powerful Learning Management System, but it has always been a little clunky. It takk3needs zhushing up! Luckily Moodle has the ability to embed content created using HTML, and this can go a long way towards allowing you to design your Moodle page if you have that inclination.

If, like me, you are not that gifted in the design department you can create content online sing sites that help with the design, and then embed it. I recently found a useful website where you can create great-looking sharable content easily online. You can then share it to FB, twitter, etc or create embed code to pop into your Moodle page.

The site is called Tackk and it allows you to add very elegant content using words and graphics, which can then be shared easily.The result is pretty much like a Facebook post which users can then comment on. I created a notification of a class project, for example – and then embedded that on my Moodle page using an HTML block.

What is great about this approach, and this particular little widget is that students can then comment on the embedded feed. Moodle has long lacked this kind of Facebook-like interactivity, and being able to introduce it,via the back-door is a huge plus!

Because comments can also include links to uploaded content, this is potentially a very useful way of sharing interactive content. Moodle acts as the portal page for the sharing of content, and because it embeds on the page, the user does not need to go off-site to see what others are saying, sharing, or uploading.

I have yet to see the results of these trials, in the field, so to speak, but I would love to hear from others trying it out, and I will report back on my own experiments.


#AChristmas Carol By @CharlesDickens tweeting the novel – Part II


In Part I of this series, I described how I set up the twitter accounts and prepared for my grade 8 English students to tweet their version of Charles Dickens’ classic novella, A Christmas Carol on twitter. In Part II, I would like to look at what happened on the day itself. I had been given two hours as part of our post-exam extension programme. I had prepared a document (which you will find in my Drop Box on this blog) in which all the usernames and passwords for the characters were available for students, with some suggestions on rules for tweeting.

I suggested to students firstly that they not try to use Victorian English. They needed rather to try to get into the heads of their characters, and then use twitter pretty much as we use twitter. In other words, if you were Bob Cratchit and twitter were around in 1834, what would you tweet? Students were told that each character, no matter how small in the original novel, were equal on twitter. They could tweet as often as they liked, but should try to tweet at least 10 times in the hour the play would run.

DSC00174I suggested two types of tweet as well, incidental tweets in which characters tweeted about their lives. Mrs Cratchit might well tweet about pudding recipes, and add links to, for example. Tiny Tim, might tweet a picture of brand new crutches he’d seen that he might want for Christmas. Then there were a second type of tweet. Charles Dickens’ novella is organised in Five Staves, or chapters, and every 10 or fifteen minutes I would advance the plot aspect of the story from Stave to Stave. Characters involved in the plot of that Stave could then contribute tweets about what was happening in the plot-line. This would create something of a time-line to the production. I had used this same technique in The Merchant Of Twitter in 2012, and it had worked quite well.

I got students to form groups of three, and gave each group a character slip with their character, username and password. They were able to use one of the seventy or so computers in our media centre, or use their own devices to tweet.

Students seemed to catch on very quickly, and started tweeting immediately. A few groups experienced problems logging on to twitter. Two of my characters, the portly gentlemen, had their accounts blocked by twitter for “suspicious activity” probably because I was setting up so many accounts from the same IP address using bogus email addresses! Some users found it difficult to access twitter itself, probably because we were reaching our bandwidth capacity, with 30 something users (80 or so students) all logged on to twitter at the same time.

DSC00173We were able to sort these problems out quite quickly, and students quickly got into the swing of it. In Part III of this series, I would like to look at the archive and at student reflection from the task, but my impression at the time was of students who were largely engaged most of the time, who found the task stimulating and fun, and who were quite creative with the text.

Teachers who were there to help me with “crowd control” were amazed at what the students were able to accomplish with twitter, and how much fun it seemed. The comment I heard most often was, “I must look into this twitter thing!”


A #ChristmasCarol by @CharlesDickens – Tweeting the novel Part 1

christmascarolLast year I ran a twitter play of The Merchant Of Venice called The Merchant Of TwitterThis year I decided to do the same with Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol. In this introduction I would like to briefly set out the steps I took to set it all up, in the hopes that it might help any teachers wanting to do something similar.

In Part II I will look at the play itself, and what my students made of it.

The first step was to create twitter accounts for all the characters in the book. This is no mean task, so make sure you set aside quite a bit of time to do it. Twitter does not allow you to create multiple accounts from the same email address, so I had to invent bogus email addresses. Happily this does not prevent one from using the account, but it does mean that the account is unverified, and therefore not fully functional. It would be great to have an educational version of twitter which allowed teachers to set up fictional accounts for educational purposes. Nudge, nudge?

I used the same password for every character and recorded each username on a document as I went along. This is something I learned from my previous endeavour. Remembering usernames and passwords really is a pain. Having a single password would allow all students to access each account more easily if desired. I was constantly reminded to Keep It Simple, Stupid, having gotten myself into quite a muddle the previous year.

I added profile pictures and brief biographies for every character. This is also quite a time-consuming task, and I sincerely hope that I did not seriously infringe on any copyright while doing so. My defence is fair use policy, but it is something to think about. I will include the document with usernames and passwords in my Dropbox so that other teachers may use these accounts should they wish. I tried to keep the tone light and humorous rather than didactic. Above all else I wanted the play to be fun and engaging – a way of exploring the characters and themes of the novella without eliciting groans all round.

cc2I then added all these characters to a List. This would allow me to create a widget I could use to display the tweets of all members of the List onto a twitter feed on a website or my school Moodle page. If you are signed into twitter you can go to and select the List option to create the code you can then paste into your web page. It also allows anyone following the play to simply follow the list rather than follow every character.

With the accounts set up and organised into a List, I compiled a cast list, with usernames and passwords to distribute to students. This would allow students to log on to twitter using the usernames and passwords of the cast.

The beauty of a twitter version of any literary wok is that no character is of itself  a major or a minor character. In the Merchant Of Twitter, the most active tweeter was the messenger! The play is seen from the perspective of the character, no matter who they might be in the original. I had a student body of about 80, and therefore necessarily decided to allow students to work in pairs and to choose to allocate set characters for each pair. This would ensure that all characters tweeted.


Twoodle as your Backchannel

There are some excellent tools, such as which you can use to set up Twitter in your classroom as a back channel communication. I prefer to use my Moodle page, however. Twitter + Moodle = Twoodle.

The reasons are purely practical, I don’t want to have to split screens, and I don’t have two data projectors on hand. If I am displaying the back channel chat on a screen, I cannot then also display course content. By placing a twitter feed discretely on my Moodle page, any back channel chat will automatically display directly onto the course Moodle page. In this way the back channel becomes a part of the ICT infrastructure of my classroom, and can continue operating even after the physical class is over. If students are using their Moodle page after school, the chat goes on!

Because I am an ICT Teacher and I teach in an IT Room and my students all have computers in front of them, I don’t have to worry about displaying tweets to the back row or anything like that. My students will usually be logged on to their Moodle page as they work, and will be able to send tweets and monitor replies as they work.

Another reason for preferring to have a Twitter feed permanently placed on my Moodle page is that, by editing the search settings in the feed, I can use the feed for different purposes, either following a certain keyword relating to the theme of the unit of work being studied, or a class hashtag, enabling a back channel in that class. the following video shows how you can set up a Twitter feed on Moodle, and how you can edit it.



As I write this, I am following a conference which is happening at the other end of the country. The discussion at the moment is around the teenage brain. Using the links and key words being tweeted by participants at the conference, I am learning quite a lot. Not as good as being there, but much more comfortable. I am still in my pyjamas!

TweetChat is the interface I am using, because it brings together all the tweets using the hashtag associated with the conference together in one feed – much like a search in twitter, but easier to follow. If I tweet back then it automatically adds the hashtag.

This is a powerful conference tool, but it can work equally well in a classroom situation as the interface is so much cleaner than a twitter feed.


Using Back Channels

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 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.

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Posted by on June 10, 2011 in Back Channels, Twitter

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