Back Channel Chat – FIGHT!


There is a ever growing divide when it comes to teachers using back-channel chat. Check out this New York Times article and a response on Gizmodo. Before we get into the specifics of the fight and what I think about it, let’s explain what a “back-channel chat” is. It is basically a chat room that is closed or monitored by a teacher. Sounds harmless enough, so what’s the problem? It boils down to should teachers use it in class during instruction or discussions. Most teachers are against this, and so am I to an extent. Click on past the break to see why I think this is a not a good idea and I have evidence that supports it too.

Back-channel chats during class instruction or group discussions? It sounds great as an idea, but in practice I have strong reservations. With a little research and a little thinking I think you might agree. Check out the definition below to see where I’m going with all this.


That’s right boys and girls. I believe that these back channel chats during instruction or discussion time will not ultimately help a student. Why don’t I believe it will be helpful? Let’s turn our attention to Stanford University’s Clifford Nass, Eyal Ophir, and Dr. Anthony Wagner. These scientist have been researching multitasking and how well (or not well) people use it. I’ve put a couple links at the bottom so you can read the articles yourself. The bottom line, people who multitask (or try to multitask) don’t do it well. They are often distracted and have difficulties filtering out what is not important.

So let’s take a look at students using Twitter, Twiducate, Chatzy, or any other back channel chat program (there are lots of them now just Google it) and think about this. A teacher is in giving some direct instruction and students are twittering or chatting about that topic. In order to do this, they must stop listening and divert the focus from what they should be listening to, to what they are typing, composing their thoughts, and sending, waiting for responses, etc. That, my colleagues is a distraction. I know because sometimes I take my iPhone to meetings to input important dates into it. I know that when I unlock that screen, start typing in information, I am NOT paying attention as much as I should be (if at all). I’m on task, but am no longer and active listener. Now, I just jot down important dates and info on a piece of paper, and input later.

Does this mean that back channel chats are evil programs, meant to undermine the fabric of a classroom and eventually destroy Democracy as we know it? Don’t be a silly billy. Like all educational tools and strategies back channel chats have their appropriate place and time. I use Edmodo in class, but I never allow students to use Edmodo (or anything on the computer) during instruction, presentation, or discussion. I want (and I feel they need) to have only one stream of information to focus on sometimes and that should be the group discussion and instruction going on in the class. After we’ve hashed that out and it’s time for students to work, they have access to Edmodo and its microblogging power. Here people can ask questions, offer solutions, and share information or the occasional quip (oh how my students love their quips). I also use Edmodo as a means to keep in touch with my students outside the class.

In short, I find that when there is a glowing screen in front of a person’s face (child, adult, superhero) they tend to focus on the glow, not the activities going on around it. Use back channel chats responsibly and after you’ve used it reflect on how to use it better the next time. As always, good planning leads to good (or at least better than awful) results.

Sources of research:
Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows
3 studies show how multitasking drains creativity and productivity
Multitasking May Not Mean Higher Productivity

5 thoughts on “Back Channel Chat – FIGHT!”

  1. One of the things we need to remember is that we didn’t grow up in the world of technology and multitasking that these students are. They are and have been submerged in technology and the quick paced way of accessing information since they have been in school. They can and do access information at such a quick pace that they can multi task with a breeze. I agree that back channel chat can be a distraction to some, but to many it can be a great tool.

    I love using back channel chat when at a presentation or meeting to gage reaction and receive feedback instantly. Questions can be asked and answered by anyone without the need to interrupt the presenter.

    Either way, it’s nice because it is another tool in the Teacher’s arsenal that they can choose to use or not.

    1. K12 Techie thanks for stopping by and I’ll be sure to check out your blog I do agree that back channel chat can be a wonderful tool to gauge quick response, but it can be a big distraction as well and the research is out there to support it. I am just cautioning teachers that if they’re working on presenting some important info and the back channel chat is in full force it could become a larger distraction.

      I do think it is a great way to extend the classroom beyond school hours and give students a safe place to ask and answer questions outside of the class. Again, thanks for stopping by Omar and I love comments and keep up the good work on your own blog. It looks great.


    2. Thanks for your input K12Techie. My take on back channel chats was a way of differentiating for those that may really need that crutch so to speak. And in some cases, like you say, it can be a great tool. But again, I think tech tools can quickly and very easily become noise that hinder the learning process. Every kid knows how to raise their hand…but their may be kids or adults who may not know how to use a chat function (even with some coaching).

      Not to draw this out, but I teach teach classes (so I’m all about the noise :o) and I find so many students who are NOT tech savvy and are unable to access information quickly or correctly. If I were a social studies teacher for example, I would hate for tech to become noise while trying to teach kids the over arching concepts.

      Johnny: “I wonder what the teacher is talking about…I’ll just use the back channel cha….Oooh, Angry Birds! I need to get that arrogant and very well protected pig who mocks me incessantly!”

      My parting words of wisdom, and I may be putting my foot in my mouth, is that tech should be used in classrooms like spices. It adds flavor and complexity to a dish but should not override it. The meat and potatoes is the goal. And probably should have added salt and pepper to my foot.

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