My Backchannel (R)evolution

My Backchannel (R)evolution

Backchanneling is when an audience has an online conversation about a presentation or lecture as they are watching it live. This is meant to turn listening to a speaker into an active process. Backchanneling allows audience members to chime in with their opinion on a topic or speaker, share resources, and is said to increase participation and grow community. Using a specific #hashtag to Tweet your opinion on a presenter while watching The Oscars or talking to your friend via Facebook chat about The Walking Dead episode your both watching are forms of backchanneling. So, clearly, backchanneling in the real world is popular, but what about the classroom?

Some teachers have been brave enough to allow students to backchannel while they are lecturing. This is usually done with a backchanneling program displayed via projector alongside the teacher so both teacher and student can see their comments as the lecture goes on. The teacher may answer the questions as they appear or comment on the students’ thoughts as they see fit. Backchanneling is said to improve classroom community, attention span, and make lecture more interactive. I’ve never tried allowing students to backchannel while I lectured, and I don’t know if I ever will; I’m not sold on the idea. Thus, backchanneling has never had a place in my classroom… until now!

I was experimenting on Schoology, as I am wont to do, when I came across an app called Backchannel Chat. When you install the Backchannel Chat app in Schoology, it adds a tab that, when clicked on, transports you to a chatroom.

This chatroom is only visible to your students and makes you, the teacher, the moderator. As the moderator, I have full control over the chatroom. I can mark comments for approval, pin comments, enforce the profanity filter, change students names, put students in “time-out,” and lock the chatroom. Anything I’ve wanted to do as a moderator, I’ve been able to do with Backchannel Chat. They’ve thought of everything; the moderation system is very well done. Check out some of the settings:

Equally as well done are Backchannel Chat’s features. Backchannel Chat automatically embeds pictures, resources, videos, and links when submitted in the chat. Students can “like” a comment to show their interest in it. As a teacher, I can record a transcript of the chatroom for later use, send and receive private messages from students, and easily keep track of student participation through Backchannel Chat’s Chat Stats feature. The best part? Backchannel Chat works perfectly on any mobile device. It is a perfect fit for my BYOD class.

So how do I use it in my classroom?

Ask Three then MeCrowdsourcing!

Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community. When students are working solo or in guilds, I will open up the chatroom and project it on my board. Students will also pull up the chatroom on their BYOD. Instead of raising their hand and asking me, or asking three and then me, I ask students to crowdsource: ask their question in the chatroom first and see if other students know the answer. When they post, I can see who needs help, but by the time I get to them, the class has usually already answered the question. Sometimes, I’ll even answer via the chatroom as I make my rounds to work with other students using my iPhone or iPad. The nice thing is it keeps the classroom orderly, fosters community as students are helping students, and frees me up to work with students on other things. Instead of asking three, they’re now asking all of their classmates with little classroom disruption!

Office Hour!

Many of my students are busy with extracurriculars. I coach all year round. I also get the impression that a few students are too shy or embarrassed to ask for help face-to-face. Needless to say, staying after class for extra help is underused and hard on everyone. Once a week, on a rotating schedule, I will hold an Office Hour in the chatroom. Students know that they can come during that hour and get help if they need it. I’ll type my answers to simple questions, embed resources, or, for the tougher questions, record a video right then and there and embed it into the chat. This is super easy when you’re on the iPad.

Students don’t just come for help. Some students come just to hang out. Some will even ask me for help with other subjects (they’ve learned not to ask me for Math help!). They will ask questions about me and my life, my thoughts on the world and current events, and share theirs. They share their lives with me, posting pictures and music they like, and video games I should play. We’ve even had a parent cameo or two! It’s a lot of fun and it builds a community of learning.

In the future, I plan on having student experts sign up for an Office Hour so any student can get help any night of the week. I just have to figure out the logistics.


Backchannel Chat has just enabled the ability to embed chatrooms on web pages. I can now put up assignments on Schoology, like a flipped video or documentary, and embed a chatroom right next to it. In my gamified classroom, an Event is when I announce that we will be watching or doing something together, as a class, at a certain time. These are optional. Students can still complete the assignment at another time, but it gives students who want to the chance to do the work together and have a little fun at the same time. Who knows, they might even unlock an achievement for coming!

We are starting our Level on Dark Romanticism this week. I’d love to show some supplementary Dark Romantic movies and documentaries, but I don’t have time in class. As you see below, with Backchannel Chat and Schoology I can embed the documentary, announce we will be watching it together on Wednesday at 8pm, and watch them show up; if you Tweet it, they will come. Sometimes I’m there, sometimes I’m not. If I don’t go, I can look at the transcript later and see if students were behaving and how productive the session was. I think its a new, exciting way to complete work: together by appointment.

I’ve been experimenting with this idea as a solution to the fatal flaw of the flipped classroom: How do you ensure students watch the videos at home? Could the answer be a short formal assessment combined with checking the chatroom transcript? More experimentation needed, but I think I’m on to something!

While I am not sold on the idea of backchanneling during lectures, I love the idea of backchanneling during documentaries and movies in class. For an in class Event, I encourage kids to backchannel. I ask them to take notes, which I can print out later, but questions, connections (this reminds me of that), and funny comments are always welcome. As the teacher, I can embed resources as I watch the chat and have even been known to crack a joke or two. I can guarantee you one thing: no one is sleeping during the movie anymore.

I’ve only been experimenting with Backchannel Chat for a month, but it has already transformed my class. I am going to continue to brainstorm and experiment on how to use backchanneling in class. In the meantime, I encourage you to let Backchannel Chat into your classroom, so you can see what all the fuss will be about when the (r)evolution comes.

Until next time,


cross-posted at Teched Up Teacher

Chris Aviles teaches English at Barnegat High School in New Jersey. He presents on education topics including gamification, technology integration, BYOD, blended learning, and the flipped classroom. Read more at Teched Up Teacher.

Chris Aviles is a STEM teacher, edtech specialist, and president of Garden State Esports (opens in new tab). He is also a regular contributor to Tech & Learning.