The Back-Channel Effect: Are Educators Ready for Real-Time Feedback?

Posted: March 17, 2010 in edushifts, mobilelearning, reflections

Feedback is a powerful way for one to truly understand the effectiveness of a product or service that one provides. It is not unusual for businesses, speakers or other professionals to ask for user/client/customer feedback to gauge where one is successful and where one needs improvement. It is also not unusual for teachers to ask for some level of feedback as well. This feedback is often limited to asking students whether or not they have understood a topic. The back-channel, however, is a completely new phenomena. Powered by modern devices that allow for instant communication by many people at the same time, the back-channel provides an opportunity not only for instant feedback, but also allows for students to supplement what is being taught by sharing their own ideas on a topic. Before we go any further, let’s define ‘back-channel’

According to Wikipedia:

The term backchannel was designed to imply that there are two channels of communication operating simultaneously during a conversation.[1] The predominant channel is that of the speaker who directs primary speech flow. The secondary channel of communication (or backchannel) is that of the listener which functions to provide continuers or assessments,[2] defining a listener’s comprehension and/or interest.

– Wikipedia (

Two simultaneous conversations during a lesson. When applied to education, this definition conjures up images of educators telling students not to speak when they are speaking and to focus solely on what they (the educator) is saying. The back-channel is not something that has typically been used by educators. Yet, being involved in many presentations where back-channels form a part of the conversation, I have seen first hand how richly developed learning can be when we have multiple conversations happening simultaneously during a lesson. The difficulty is, when more than one person is speaking at any one time, how can anyone really hear what anyone else is saying?

That’s where using mobile devices comes in. Using social networking tools such as Twitter or Facebook allows students to share their thoughts on a topic and comment on others’ thought during a lesson without actually interrupting a lesson. Using these tools also provides a transcript of the conversation so that teachers can later review the notes to see who understood what and what the level of understanding was. The difficulty lies in that neither teachers or students in general is used to this level of engagement and fear prevails about what this type of feedback could mean in terms of records of teacher performance.

For the record, I want to state that back-channeling is not designed to evaluate teacher performance nor is it my intent to advocate for that. Using a back-channel allows a teacher to provide a platform for students to engage in the lesson, and with their peers, by conversing about the subject matter. The transcript allows teacher the opportunity to respond to ongoing feedback and can be used as a tool for diagnostic assessment.

While teachers have always tried to find new ways to get students to communicate, there is often fear over what this type of change means. Many fear technology for they either don’t understand it or are unsure how to utilize it. The back-channel provides for instant communication that is open for all to see. This level of openness is also feared as some may not be able to deal with instruction in the same way when communication is so open.

Business and other professional institutions have embraced instant feedback, including the use of the back-channel, as a method of eliciting important information about what works and what needs improvement. Are educators ready for this level of instant feedback? If not, what do you think is holding them back?

  1. mzmacky says:

    That is one creepy picture! (sorry for the aside – agree with your article though…)

  2. Luis Brissos says:

    This is a very important theme, i think that teachers have far of exposing their selves to student, the education is starting to change, but one o my ICT teacher once said, we have to wait for the changes to appear,not by the “old” teachers but by the “new” ones,it`s a natural process in a unnatural environment =)

  3. […] } Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog post discussing instant feedback using a back-channel titled: The Back-Channel Effect: Are Educators Ready for Real-Time Feedback. In that blog post, I suggested that real-time feed-back is being utilized by presenters and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s