3 backchannel tools to encourage active learning

28 Jan

What is a backchannel? A backchannel is a live, text-based, conversation that takes place while you teach. Students can pose questions to the group or make public comments without having to wait their turn or ask for permission. The goal of using a backchannel is to encourage passive students to become active learners.


What are the benefits and limitations? OK, so let’s address the elephant in the room. A lot of you may be concerned (and rightly so!) about introducing an interactive chat tool while you are teaching. Students could post inappropriate comments, go off topic, or simply not participate! I definitely agree that there needs to be some firm ground rules established before any backchannel tools are used. However, when used responsibly, I can personally attest that backchannels have the potential to get more students talking and participating in a lecture. A backchannel can be good for shy students or those that can’t keep focused (i.e. – just listening) throughout a long lecture. Last but not least, there’s a very low learning curve with these tools and they’re often quite simple to setup and start using.

How does it work? A backchannel can be projected on a screen while you teach or kept minimized. The backchannel displays comments or questions in the order they were typed.  Questions can be addressed by other students (written) or by the teacher (written or verbally). Students can use their smartphones or tablets during the lecture or use school computers in the classroom. Students don’t need to create an account to participate; they just need the URL of the backchannel. (Source: Jim Hirsch’s “Learning Jams: Improvising BYOD Learning Opportunities in Your Classroom” ISTE 2013, San Antonio)

Here are my three top “backchannel” tools:

1) Today’s Meet (www.todaysmeet.com) – Today’s Meet is one of the simplest back channeling tools out there. It literally takes seconds to setup, so it’s a good tool to use for an unplanned teaching moment. There’s also a 140 character limit to keep interactions short and to the point. You can save the transcript of the chat but you can’t upload/download attachments. I find that people tend to use this backchannel tool the most. We use it in many of our workshops too!

2) Simple Meet (www.simplemeet.me) – Simple Meet offers a little more flexibility than Today’s Meet. It allows users to upload attachments and the chat log can be sent via e-mail. It’s relatively simple to setup so it’s also great for an unplanned teaching moment. All interactions are anonymous (which I don’t necessarily like) as there’s no option for students to enter their name. I’d only use this over Today’s Meet if you have a class of responsible students who need to upload/download files during a lecture.

3) TitanPad (www.titanpad.com) Technically, TitanPad is not a backchannel tool. TitanPad is more like a Word document that multiple people can work in it at the same time. As one person types, their edits appear instantly in the document, identified by a different color. This type of backchannel tool would be more appropriate for a group writing exercise or brainstorming session. All participants are identified by names and the document will stay on-line indefinitely. No need for accounts or setup, just a link. It’s a good “spur of the moment” tool.

Important note: If you use any of these tools with student smartphones, it’s best that they use the school’s wifi. Otherwise students may need to use their own data plan to participate.