10 Reasons to try Backchannel Chat

I tried backchannel chat for the first time during keynote addresses at the EARCOS Teachers Conference: ETC09.

What is Backchannel Chat? It’s like note-taking at a lecture, but notes are shared with anyone who has the URL. They might be people in the room with you, but they could also be anywhere in the world. At ETC09, this meant that while the keynote speaker was presenting, a group of us were on our laptops, sharing notes about the presentation, though there were some people in different countries tuning in (see links to transcripts of our backchannel chat at the end of this post). We used TinyChat, which was really easy and straightforward to set up, though others have also recommended Chatzy.


Initially, I found it hard to keep up with the fast pace.  I struggled to answer a question from a friend beside me AND watch the speaker AND type AND listen. Was I focused? I was certainly concentrating. I hadn’t concentrated this hard on a keynote speech before, that’s for sure!

After a few minutes, I got the hang of it and managed to keep up enough to contribute to the discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and now I’m completely sold.

10 reasons you should try backchannel chat:

  1. Keeping up – The great thing about the chat was that if I got behind on what the speaker was saying, I could scroll back over the comments of the other participants and catch up that way.
  2. Remaining on-track – I found @amichetti and @jutecht typed really quickly and managed to keep the discussion focused on the keynote, not just random thoughts. This was helpful for me as a person new to backchannel chatting, who didn’t yet know the etiquette.
  3. Transferring knowledge – I had a better understanding of the keynote as a whole, because I was typing it – transferring it into another form. It was easier for me to remember later, rather than just aurally listening.
  4. Staying Focused – I was more focused on what was being said because I felt I had to attend to contribute to the discussion. I wanted to pull my weight and not ride on others’ coat-tails.
  5. Engagement – The chat had me not only focused, but totally engaged. The number of multiple intelligences addressed at one time was definitely higher than had I only been listening. As @amichetti suggested to me via Twitter, backchannel chats can be particularly engaging when the presentation is more content-focused rather than skill-driven.
  6. Perspectives – I had the benefit of other people’s perspectives. This was fascinating. We all ‘heard’ things differently. When we transferred what we heard into our own words, different perspectives were offered.  Certain parts resonated more than others for each of us, due to our varied prior knowledge and experiences.
  7. Clarification – if there was a word/phrase introduced that we were unclear of, one of us would look it up on wikipedia, so we were getting near-instant clarification of new vocabulary. I couldn’t have done that myself. @nadinedickinson told me (via Twitter) that she like the instant feedback that was possible during a backchannel chat.
  8. Review – I benefited because I had material to review and look over later. Not only did I have my notes, but I had the notes of everyone else in the chat.
  9. Divide and Conquer – people in our chat took on different roles. @Skardalien helped out by looking up words we were unsure of or videos that related to the topic. @amichetti was a speedy typist and great note-taker. What we learned together I felt was greater than we could have accomplished individually.
  10. Fun – I really enjoyed the chance to connect with people during the keynote, rather than being a passive observer. I consider myself an interpersonal learner, and the backchannel chat allowed me to participate in the way I learn best – with others.

During one keynote, I received this tweet from @rhondacarrier: @klandmiles thanks for keeping us up-to-date with what is happening. Very useful for those of us that aren’t there #ETC09

Until that tweet came through, I wasn’t truly aware of the realm of influence of our chat. It stretched around the world! Our chat was helping other people learn across countries, as if they were there themselves. That certainly upped my levels of responsibility! I sat a bit straighter after that!
[Please check out Rhonda’s blogpost on the uses of backchanneling for more information]

So how does this relate to my class? Earlier this academic year, I tested out the chat function in Studywiz with my Grade 4 students to discuss an essential agreement for blogging. I found that some of the kids who would normally not say anything, were the ones who had the most to say in a chat forum. That is HUGE! I need to consider different ways to conduct discussions and ensure I provide a range of options to cater to every child’s needs.

Tips: I would recommend using small groups so the kids can keep up with each other – 22 kids all typing at once makes a challenging chat to follow! I’d do 4 separate chats next time, so everyone can follow easily and participate effectively.

How does it relate to me as a workshop leader? I cringe now at how I made people turn their phones off during a PYP workshop I led in Jakarta recently. Next time I’d like to set up a backchannel chat as some people feel more comfortable asking questions and/or participating that way. It would give me a chance to check their understanding (and levels of focus!) later on, and perhaps clarify further any points where necessary.

I’m definitely going to look for ways to incorporate backchannel chat into my regular teaching repertoire. How about you?

Links to Backchannel Chats of Keynote speeches at ETC09 can be found on the following pages:
William Lishman – If We Are Not Part of the Solution We Are Part of the Problem
John Liu – “Earth’s Hope” – Responding To Climate Change – By Healing the Planet

Further reading: Ben Grundy’s post on Back-Channel Chat in Class

Photo Credit: FadderUri

9 thoughts on “10 Reasons to try Backchannel Chat

  1. great post! if anyone has advice or best practices on facilitating the backchannel chat, i’d be interested in discussing…find me on twitter as nunanishi!


  2. A lot of people used Twitter as their backchannel at Ulearn in Christchurch last year using the hashtag #ulearn08. The conference organisers had set up another backchannel, but hardly anyone was using it.

    I also know of a group of teachers who used etherpad to collaboratively “live blog” a keynote.

    My trouble is I can’t type fast enough, but when its a large group participating it doesn’t matter. Much better than taking notes the traditional way.


  3. Hey @teachernz

    Thanks for the comment. I found the hashtag to be good at ETC09, but not sufficient enough for an in-depth discussion. It sounds fairly forward-thinking of ulearn08 to set up a backchannel. I’d like to see more conferences investigate these possibilities.

    I haven’t tried etherpad yet, but I’d be keen to give it a go.

    The number of participants could influence the chat’s effectiveness, but I found the numbers we had (probably 5-10) worked pretty well.

    I agree, it’s definitely better than traditional note-taking!


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