Backchanneling Fail

The Bandwagon

Backchanneling has been a buzz in educational technology circles for a few years now. Backchanneling is the teaching method when you allow students to communicate, usually via chat or a Twitter-like service, while instruction is happening. I was definitely “all-in” to this learning method. And, I have written many posts touting applications and techniques to make backchanneling a reality in your classroom.

The concept sounds great. Students are actively engaged in their own learning and collaborate with their peers. While you are teaching, students communicate, ask questions and seek understanding. This definitely promotes 21st Century skills and adds relevance to the lesson.

Backchanneling Doesn’t Work!

The problem is…backchanneling doesn’t work! First of all, backchanneling is a classroom-encouraged form of multitasking. Research is clear that multitasking is a myth and attempting to multitask drops productivity tremendously. For example, one study by the American Psychological Association found an incredible 40% productivity drop in people who are multitasking. A similar study conducted by Stanford University researchers titled, Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers, showed similar results.

Backchanneling FailBelieve me; this was tough for me to swallow. I love edtech bandwagons and I love to jump on them. Years ago when I was ramping up a 1:1 laptop program, one of my big selling points was students are natural multitaskers. I explained to the school community that students’ brains are wired differently and they are natural multitaskers. Therefore, everyone needs a laptop! (for some reason that made sense to me at the time)

The reality is…brain research shows that none of us, even the digital generation, can multitask. We appear to multitask but in reality, we are just doing multiple things in succession and none of them very well.

Real-world Fails

So, when I first started using backchanneling in real classroom settings, I was pumped. Typically, I used Todaysmeet for the communication tools. I remember introducing the concept to students, laying down the ground rules and diving into the lesson. Of course it was complete chaos that first day. Kids were completely infatuated by the chat tool. So, I kept working on it and I just knew the novelty would wear off and kids would focus.

At the same time I convinced administrators to allow backchanneling during faculty meetings.  It would serve as a place for teachers to add comments and concerns and discuss proposals without interrupting the meeting. So what were the results?

I can say, unequivocally, backchanneling was a failure! Students remain completely distracted and lose focus no matter how long you wait for the newness to wear off. Teachers either used the backchanneling and therefore were distracted from the meeting, or; recognized it was distracting and closed their laptops. I have experienced this myself many times in meetings with adults. I was very recently in a Google Hangouts web conference and some of the participants were using the chat feature. Whenever I started reading the chat conversation, I completely missed the discussion on webcam. And then, the dreaded question comes, “What do you think?” Well, I have no idea what was being discussed because I was reading the chat conversation!

Lesson Learned

Where do we go from here? I think it is important for us recognize bandwagons that are not consistent with effective, authentic learning experiences and let them continue down the road without hopping on. In hindsight, If someone came to me and said, “Hey, let’s try totally distracting your students and see if they learn better. Every few seconds, we’ll encourage them to lose focus on the lesson objective. It’s a 21st Century skill we need teach.” You would tell them to take a hike!

So, as for me, it is official, backchanneling is a FAIL!

What are your thoughts? Please post a comment below and thanks for reading the educational technology blog Teach Amazing!