Bring On Da Noise: The Backchannel Panel

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while. Barry Dahl has a great post analyzing the back-channel comments from our recent panel discussion with Stephen Downes and Robbie Melton. He concludes that only 31% of the posts were productive, by which he means on-topic questions or comments. This issue came up during the panel discussion itself, and Robbie (brilliantly, in my opinion) characterized it as a “teachable moment.”

I think a big reason why there was so much off-topic chatter is that we didn’t really establish clear patterns or norms for how the back-channel would be encorporated into the larger dialog. The audience treated it like an experiment because we treated it like an experiment. I heard some suggestions from audience members afterward about how the technology could be modified to improve the experience (e.g., disallow anonymous posting, shut off the flow when the panelists are talking, have a moderator filter the comments, etc.), but before I would want to try imposing any of those hard limits on the participants, I would first want to try having a little more preparatory dialog with them about the most productive ways to use the backchannel and how we all would like to interact with it.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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6 Responses to Bring On Da Noise: The Backchannel Panel

  1. Gillian says:

    Hi Michael. Great site and interesting thoughts from you and Barry on the ‘backchannel’. Observations from conferences I have attended:
    1 Productivity as defined by the speakers may not be productivity as defined by the listeners. People go to conferences for all sorts of reasons and one of them is to meet people.
    2 Some of the side conversations can be really helpful- catching up with mechanics of technology or explanations of jargon
    3 ‘What time is lunch?’ and similar entries can be discouraged by mentioning that some people will be socially Twittering or doing their work email and ‘that’s fine – just keep it off the big screens, guys’
    4 Telling people they will have access to the full transcript and that it will be posted on the web does tend to make people think.
    5 Employing moderators in this context imply adults are to be controlled. Moderators are perhaps best employed simply trying to get all the questions grouped or in a logical order and sorting out the inevitable technical woes (sound levels etc).
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Joe says:

    I think this is an interesting analysis–I always like to see clear coding of what kinds of discussion happen in these back-channels. But I would very much object to the classification of the off-topic (even the humorous or purely social) interactions as “non-productive.” I think that in any learning environment (including, ideally, a conference presentation), we’re making a big mistake if we neglect or discount or minimize the social dimension. Learning is a human endeavor, a human interaction, not just the transparent communication of content.

    So laughter, parody, polyphony, socializing, meta-questions, and so on, even when they make participants or audience members uncomfortable, should not *automatically* be seen as destructive, or even non-productive. There can be connections made through these interactions among audience members which may be just as important, or even more important, than the “serious” discussions which they disrupt.

    Not saying that that’s always the case–just wanting to emphasize that it’s not always *not* the case.

  3. Alan Levine says:

    Good grief! Once you start trying to engineer, “moderate”, and “control” the back channel, there goes its character and core. It sounds like trying to choreograph the social interaction of a cocktail party.

    Are you going out in the hallway between sessions and documenting what percentage of people are talking “on topic”? It’s a social media and social means we communicate as people, joke, banter, converse, not just utter academic mutterings.

    I’m not saying they cannot use someone to interject and nudge, pose questions, or stir things up.

    I’d say 31% is a damn high number, looking at the glass partly full.

    If you want to kill the back channel, just try to rope it in. That’s the kind of channel I’d change very quickly.

  4. The thing is, the back channel is not a cocktail party. If people want to talk about whatever they damned please during a presentation, they can Twitter. The back channel is projected upon a screen for all to see, whether they care to chat or not. It is an integral part of a presentation that the audience went out of its way to come and see.

    You guys are all up in arms that I suggest constraining the rights of the chatters or ruining their collective day by maybe engaging them in a conversation about common goals. But what about the vast majority of the audience members who were not participating in the back channel and just want to enjoy the presentation?

    Even a party has rules of etiquette. Certainly a presentation should.

  5. Michael, thanks for raising a question to which I don’t have a ready answer. I’ve seen a backchannel with a very high signal-to-noise ratio (using my individual but obviously correct standards), and I’ve seen some that I would have said were in the low 20s.

    One difference was the nature of the group. In the high case, the topic was fairly technical and (as far as I could tell) the participants in the backchannel were comfortable with the technology and engaged in the subject. Also, the presentation (actually a panel discussion) had a link jockey, so someone could toss into the backchaneel, “Got a link for the Flapdoodle Project?” and it would appear.

    In the low case, the session was somewhat experimental (as in the case you’re talking about). That probably does encourage fooling around (nonsense comments, the equivalent of shouted wisecracks). I think the biggest drawback there is that, for the non-wisecrackers, it’s harder to see the utility of the backchannel. Analogously, if all you notice about cell phones is people yapping on them while trying to make a left-turn in their SUV, you’re not necessarily open to the benefits of those phones.

  6. John Priest says:

    I am a teaching in CT and have been exploring the concept of backchanneling in education. A colleague of mine and I are currently in an EDD program at WCSU for Instructional Leadership and we have spent countless hours discussing the philosophical disagreement educators have between “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” approaches to learning. The digital revolution and the abundance of Web 2.0 applications has facilitated enormous discussion and reevaluation of pedagogy of thoughtful teachers. Some have a serious issue with letting the students (audience) have a voice for fear of losing control. The truth is that even with sixth-graders I have found their contributions to meaningful and structured blog assignemnts and open collaboration to be amazingly insightful.