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.