Stepping Up the Backchannel In the Classroom

Students need our guidance to use virtual platforms for ACADEMIC purposes. We can’t rely on their “so called” native status to know how and what to do. Just a few years ago, no one had heard of “backchanneling”, nowadays, it has become main stream (although most people might not associate the term “backchannel” and “backchanneling” with something they might be familiar with.

  • when you watch one of your favorite TV shows and are asked to use a twitter hashtag to interact with other viewers or the actors/participants…. you are participating in a backchannel
  • when you are listening to a live political speech and are updating your Facebook status,  “liking” of commenting on someone else’s status… you are in a backchannel
  • when you are passing a note (in the same room) or texting a colleague or classmate during a meeting or lecture… YOU are in a backchannel



Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside the primary group activity or live spoken remarks. The term was coined in the field of Linguistics to describe listeners’ behaviours during verbal communication,

Think Eric Think

It’s a kind of parallel discussion, a collectively shaped comment on some ongoing conversation. An alternative channel, often with a different conversational modus.

Lee Lefever

It’s a little like passing notes in class- except via the Internet. Wireless Internet connections at conferences and lectures are allowing people to use laptops and other tools to communicate in real time during presentations. These communications occur in what is called the “backchannel”

The more ubiquitous mobile devices, among the general population and in our schools are becoming, the more we need to be exposing, preparing, supporting and teaching our students to be able to use them:

  • for academic purposes
  • collaboratively
  • with integrity and as a good digital citizen
  • focused (but at the same time multitasking)

“Backchanneling” academically is one of the skills that no one is born with. I have been thinking about, testing out and reflecting on backchanneling in the classroom for a few years now.

At last year’s edJEWcon conference, quiet by surprise, our Middle School students, who were invited to listen in to Heidi Hayes Jacob‘s keynote, created their own backchannel to document and discuss what they were hearing and understanding.Everyone was surprised and impressed, as Mike Fisher wrote in his ASCD post titled “Strategic and Capable“.

At this year’s conference, we asked attending students to participate in a backchannel again. Part of the process of backchanneling with students includes the debriefing and reflection by going over the saved backchannel log. We used the Notability app on the iPad to color code some of our observations and bring attention to skills practiced, chat-iquette, grammar, understanding, connections made, value added, quality content and depth.


What I learned:

  • just because students backchanneled one year, did not mean they could transfer the skills nor step up the quality of contributions. (… we need to practice backchanneling more… not a one time event…give them a guide to support their growth in using a backchannel tool)
  • some students didn’t understand WHY we asked them to backchannel. They could not articulate the purpose for the activity, nor pinpoint skills that were related to backchanneling. (… we need to do a better job at explaining to  our students the WHY of an activity, the skills we want to them to develop and the real world application)
  • students shared with us, that they were not able to focus, in their opinion, they would have taken “better notes” by themselves without the distractions of the other students. (…we need to make it clearer for our students, that the value of a backchannel is the collaboration, the added perspective, the sum of different voices versus their thoughts and understanding in isolation)
  • some students admitted that they were not happy with their keyboarding abilities. They could not type fast enough. Someone else posted “the exact same thing” they wanted to say. (…we need to encourage them to practice their typing/thumbing skills in their own free time)

David Kelly, on his blog,  underlines that

the value of the backchannel is in the sharing, not in the technology.  In much the same way that a person can not really appreciate the joy of riding a bicycle until they can do so without consciously focusing on balance and pedaling, getting the full value of a backchannel requires an understanding of what the backchannel is and how you use tools to participate in it.

I went back to the drawing board to create a framework, a guide to help teachers AND students understand the value, purpose, skills and steps of growth.


The purpose of using a Backchannel with students is multifold. From collaborative note taking, to curating information, capturing quotes, gathering and Linking resources, sharing notes and adding one’s own perspective to others.



  • Active
  • Substantive
  • Timely


  • Respond to questions
  • Initiate questions
  • Make connections

Digital Citizenship:

  • Leadership
  • Respect
  • Network

Evidence of Learning:

  • Connections made
  • Development of skills
  • Quality of Content:
    • Relevance
    • Depth
    • Added Value


  • Language
    • Clarity
    • Spelling
    • Full sentences
    • In context
    • Grammar & Syntax
  • Multitasking
    • Listening
    • Thinking
    • Writing
  • Multimodal
    • Curating
    • Note-Taking
    • Conversation
  • Recall
    • Remembering
    • Restate
    • Summarize
  • Logistics
    • Typing
    • Backchannel Syntax/Format


What Kind of Backchanneler Are You?


  • I have a hard time multitasking and can only concentrate on listening to the conversation.


  • I recall and reproduce exact words that I hear


  • I only restate relevant information and bring in selected resources


  • I question content, respond to and initiate conversation. I add my own thoughts and perspective.



Download the Backchannel Guide as pdf file.

Further resources: