Backchanneling with Elementary School Students

Chatrooms have acquired a bad reputation. Children are being warned that entering a chatroom will get them kidnapped, abused and possibly killed.

As with everything, if you use scare tactics and simply tell children “Do not to do it” , they will automatically been drawn to whatever you are trying to keep them away from.

My philosophy, instead of shutting tools such as chatrooms completely out, is to use them in a safe environment, engage students and use teachable moments to talk about safety and etiquette.

I have used Tinychat, a private chatroom platform, previously with my elementary students with great success. We were Skyping with another class in the Around the World with 80 Schools project. I was looking for a way to involve the group of students, who did not have an active role in speaking with our Skype partners in addition to wanting to document what was being discussed during the conversation.

I have blogged about my previous experiences with chatrooms here and here.

In this past week, I worked with 4th and 5th graders and their teachers. The idea was to introduce a chatroom platform to the students and the concept of backchanneling. Not one of them knew or had heard of a Backchannel. I explained that it was a group of people who used computers or smartphones

to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken conversation.

One thing I learned from these experience is that you cannot throw students (not even adults for that matter) into a chatroom and expect them to be able to stay focused, stay on target and use this tool naturally in a productive way.

You need to give students an opportunity:

  • to have some free time (always school appropriate of course)
  • to get used to the specific platform. Where do you type you comments? Where do you post it? How and in what order do you read the comments?
  • to get the giggles and goofiness out

The teacher wanted to use this opportunity to review questions for an upcoming Social Studies test. We met in the computer lab , each student was sitting excitedly in front of a computer and logged into todaysmeet.com, where I had created a room for us.

http://www.todaysmeet.com
http://www.todaysmeet.com

Once students sign in with their first names (only), it is a good idea to have each student check in with a roll call to double check that they had signed in with the right names. We had a few students who instead of typing their name in after the welcome screen already started typing a statement or a question addressed to another student.

They had about five minutes to have unstructured chat time. I showed them to use @username if they were addressing or responding to a specific person.

using a backchannel
using a backchannel

It was also a good time to remind students, that everything they write can and will be used against them. All their comments are attributed to their username and tagged with the time that it was posted. If the teacher were to ask to please hold any comments at any point in time, any student who did not follow direction would be very clear.
While their teacher and I would be having a conversation about the topic of their Social Studies review, students were to:

  • Not speak aloud to anyone during our backchannel, communicate only via chat.
  • Listen to the conversation between the teachers
  • Summarize important facts that collaboratively would make up a study guide for the Social Studies test.

I explained to the students that we were using a backchannel for various reasons and that it would not be as easy as they might anticipate. They would have to practice multitasking

  • Listening
  • Reading the ongoing conversation
  • Writing a summarized comment

After the about 20 minute review, the 25 page long chat log that I saved and printed out, revealed the following:

  • keyboarding skills come in handy
  • some students randomly posted off topic comments and/or continued the conversation started in their “free” time at the beginning of class.
  • students posted repeated statements (did not follow the log by reading what had been posted previously)
  • Some students did not only posts incredible summarized comments, but also added great additions from their own background knowledge about the subject.
  • Students also added facts to the chat that had been previously mentioned in their classroom, but had not been repeated during the live conversation.
  • Students started using the backchannel to ask questions.

It was extremely important to go over the chat log with the students. I read it allowed without mentioning the names of the students. They knew anyway who had written what comment. I reminded them to listen for inappropriate and off-topic comments as well as to take notice of repeated comments. I made sure that I pointed out well written comments and congratulated their authors for contributing to the “collaborative study guide”. I feel that students have a better idea now what we expect of them and what kind of skills they are practicing.

We will give them more opportunities to use a backchannel in the classroom.

Update (10/20/09):
Here is an excerpt of a post I wrote to let students’ parents know about our use of backchannel with their elementary age students:

What is a “backchannel” you ask?

Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks.

Backchannels are used more and more in the educational field, during face to face conferences and lectures, as well as virtual conversations. With smartphones and portable computers one can participate and contribute to a conversation, provide documentation and help facilitate by connecting others who are not present.

How were we going to adapt this concept to our elementary school classroom and students?

21st century skills demand that we prepare our children to communicate, collaborate and connect to each other, but also to information. Media and Information literacy are extremely important areas of integration to our current curriculum.

Using a private chatroom as the platform to practice all the above mentioned skills was to harness the students’ excitement for chatting as a means of communication, review material previously discussed in class and collaboratively compile and organize information.

Update (11/22/09):
I received an email from the teacher a few days after we reviewed for the Social Studies test with a backchannel. Mrs. Z wrote:

I am totally amazed. The kids took their Social Studies test on Friday and I have never seen such good papers! I am convinced the back channeling was a major factor.

Here are a few selected parts of the backchannel. There are in reverse chronological order. I removed the students’ name.

Timber was important, so they could build homes and ships

at 2:09 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

they would expor the timber to england

at 2:09 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

why did colonists work so hard they could have just given up

at 2:08 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

new england colonies were an extremely important natural resource

they would seal them with wax

at 2:07 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

they mailed lots of letters

at 2:07 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

it back in english

at 2:07 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

they didn’t use envelopes

at 2:07 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

No telephones they did not use onvolopes

they would mail letters.

at 2:07 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

no face book

at 2:07 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

what they had for lunch

at 2:07 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

People communitcated by using letters and use the pony express

at 2:07 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

they weren’t allowed to play games

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

no games either.

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

they got fired if they missed a day

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

If they were so sick they could not work they were let go

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

not paied very much and free time no days sick and lost jobs if sick

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

they couldn’t become sick or they would be fired.

Apprentices could not have good pay and worked day and night

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

they were expected to work for 11 yrs.

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

he founded a lot of things and helped with the declaration of indipendints

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

they were not aloud to miiss anydays because they were sick

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

he discovered electricity too

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

apprentices were payed better than farmers

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

they did not get paid very much

at 2:05 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

Apprentices had a very hard life

he really for america he separated to the british

at 2:04 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

he helped form the dellaration of indapendince

at 2:04 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

benjamin helped form the declaration of independence

at 2:04 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

Printer is like blogger

at 2:03 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

he went to pledalphia because he wasnted to become a printe

at 2:03 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

a blogger

at 2:03 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

Benjamin F. went to Philadelphia to become a printer

at 2:03 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

he wanted to be a printer

at 2:02 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

Depended on each other in town

benjamin franklan lived in philidolphia

at 2:01 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

in the towns most people were self sufficient

at 2:01 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

self sufficient= farms were they grew their own food

at 2:01 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

In the towns people were self sufficent

at 2:01 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

Pennsilvania is in the north

at 2:01 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

first hospital and library and fire house

at 2:01 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

Benjamin Franklin wanted wanted to go to Philadelphia to become an apprentice of a printer

at 2:01 PM, 18 Nov 2009 via web

More interesting blog posts about using backchannel chat:

7 thoughts on “Backchanneling with Elementary School Students”

  1. Thank you for this resource! I have been looking for a secure, advertisement-free way to use chat in my Spanish class. I have been doing “backchanneling” in my own classroom without knowing what it was called, but I had to resort to using the chat/discuss function within our quizlet.com
    account. I am grateful to have a stand-alone chat room that I can monitor without being confined to the discussion space of a different website.

  2. I just read the wonderful description about using the backchannel and would like to add that the Terms Of Use of the TodaysMeet says this “The Website is available only to individuals who are at least 13 years old.” FYI.

    Gila

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