#moocie #Twitterteach Tip 4 – Create a class backchannel

Create a class backchannel.

Image Courtesy of Paul Garland, CC BY SA 2.0 Licence
Image Courtesy of Paul Garland, CC BY SA 2.0 Licence

What you’ll need to know to do this

How to use hashtags in twitter
How to setup your own hashtag

(you can find howtos for this in the social media toolkit)

What is useful to know
How to use an app like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite
How to use apps like Tagboard

What is a backchannel?

A class backchannel (or a lecture, or seminar backchannel) is a a channel of communication that lets students and teachers engage and communicate during a session. It’s also not the main communication mode, it’s a backup, or secondary channel. In traditional contexts, it might have been a note passed down to the lecturer, or to the teaching assistant, while the lecturer is talking. In this context, it’s twitter, and tweets that are sent during the class by students. Lecturers respond by tweeting, or by picking out tweets and responding verbally, or both, or by replying after the class.

Why use twitter as a backchannel?

A room with 200 students presents participation challenges for many students, and educators. The architecture of the typical lecture hall, or seminar room can make it difficult to know, or feel, that people are being equally engaged, and can make initiating that type of engagement – asking questions, giving answers or opinions – difficult for many students. Q and A sessions may involve the same few people each time, and the simple geography of where people sit, and how rooms are built or arranged can make participation and discussion difficult.

Add in the fact that some people can find crowds intimidating, and the potential vulnerability involved in asking questions about topics you are unsure of can be difficult for many to overcome.
Using Twitter as a class backchannel can help solve some of these problems. It’s much easier to tweet a question from the back row than it is to raise you hand, hope you are seen, and then shout down the rows hoping your question makes sense. Much easier to type your question in to twitter, review and edit it before you send, knowing that your lecturer will see it, than be nervous about speaking up.
Using Twitter as a backchannel might also help you

  • Encourage shy or reticent students to engage with you, their peers and the topic at hand
  • Gives you a written record of how students are responding and engaging on a live, minute by minute basis
  • Lets you analyse student thoughts, coneptualisations, and difficulties during the lecture or class
  • Helps you spot troublesome concepts., or areas students are having problems with, live. If ten people ask a similar question, then it’s a good bet more want to know the answer
  • Gives you a mechanism for upping your overall class engagement
  • Gives you opportunities to highlight contributions from your participants.
  • Can create a context where students are actively contributing and sharing resources over twitter by linking to blogs, posts, article, videos etc as the class evolves.
  • Makes it easy for you to share resources in class on the fly.
  • It can help demonstrate the effective, focused and constructive use of technology in classroom setting. Some research is indicating that unstructured tech use might damage learning, and that students are actively looking for their tutors to model and demonstrate pedagogically sound technology use.

Christina Russo has a great interview with science teacher John Romano about his experience in using twitter in sience education, and the positives he experienced.

Here’s how.

Decide on a class hashtag. You’ll need a different one for each class, you’ll need to check if it’s already in use for another purpose. For example, I use #ditportfolio for tweeting my Masters class notes, and to check it, I used the search function in Tweetdeck (click on the magnifier, and type in your hashtag. I used #ditportfolio, and got zero hits, so I can use it…)

Checking hashtag availability in Tweetdeck
Checking hashtag availability in Tweetdeck

You might consider having a different account for each class. Apps like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite will allow you to switch, easily and quickly, between accounts. If you are expecting a lot of tweets, the multiple account option can be useful.

Disseminate the hashtag amongst your students, and tell them how you will use it, and why. If you are going to use it as a backchannel, your students will need to know that, and what that means. You’ll be using it to solicit questions, ideas, for in class polls, for posting you resources and theirs. Whatever mix you choose. You may need to make allowances here for students who don’t have devices they use during class. You could offer to storify all class tweets and post the link after class.

It might also help to use your class hashtag to mention additional resources out of class hours, to post questions, or answers to questions, and to post reminders about things, so students get to value the twitter aspect of your lessons, and engage with the hashtag.

There are many ways to use this backchannel…

…and how you do probably depends on your teaching style, the technology you have available, and the type of things you are teaching.

Some educators will reply to the tweet stream in class, over twitter. Some will keep tabs on the tweetstream, and reply to it verbally, in the same way they might respond to questions from students. Some reply to the tweet stream later, and some use twitter to check their audience’s comprehension of a topic or idea, and use that to guide the next lesson stage.  Some educators analyse the tweet stream later, as a way of gauging their student’s difficulties, ideas and engagement, and use that to inform future lessons. Some display the tweetstream as it unfolds in class, and use that as a piece of classroom theatre.

Some educators display the class tweets as they happen on a large screen, some display them on a second device they bring in to class specifically for that purpose – they will have one laptop for their presentation, or labwork, or whatever the primary purpose they have is, and a second, like a tablet, or smartphone, that just shows the tweetstream.

It can be difficult managing a live tweetstream, and a class simultaneously, and finding a technique that works for you may take a little time, experimentation and patience.

I favour using two devices, and not showing the live tweets as they happen on a large screen. It can be very distracting, and I tend to display specific tweets, or display the stream at specific times when I want students to concentrate on it.

Ultimately, how you use twitter in class has a lot to do with you, your style, your students, and the facilities, time and comfort level you have.

Monica Rankin’s account of implementing twitter in her class


Keeping up with the channel as it happens

Tweetdeck and Hootsuite, already mentioned, will make managing the stream in class easier. If you have a TA they can also do this for you. Here’s a quick look at tweetdeck, and it;s column display that lets you customise what you see, and how you see it. Tweetdeck makes it much easier to follow a conversation as it unfolds in class, especially useful if you just need to dip in quickly to see what questions people are asking.

Tweetdeck Columns
Tweetdeck lets you split your screen into separate columns, so you can dedicate each colmun to a different hashtag, making it easy to keep track of what people are saying on the class hashtag. In the picture, there’s two hashtag columns.

Getting an overview

Another advantage to a backchannel is that you can see your students thought processes as they tweet them, making it easier to predict difficulties they are going to have, and address them.

Apps like tagboard make it easy to collect all the tweets from a particular hashtag and display them on one screen. Useful for demo purposes in class, and for getting an overall idea of trends in the class, or seeing how difficult points or ideas are going down. It also makes it easy to see trends in what’s being posted. Are people posting questions, the same or different ones, who is posting resources and what are they.

Tagboard for tweets on the #whyopen twitterfeed
Tagboard for tweets on the #whyopen twitterfeed

Sharing and saving the stream

Storify can allow you to collate the tweets from a  session, and share them. If someone is quotes they get an email telling them – which is a nice bump up for a student sometimes. And it allows you and your students to add comments on the tweetsream. You can also embed additional resources. Youtube videos, links, and posts from blogs and social media, photos, amongst other things.

Why we hate Khan Academy, storified student posts

Curating Twitter with storify, a howto from HybridPedagogy.com

twexplorer lets you search and save tweets based on a hashtag. It saves them in groups of up to 500 – the maximun twitter allows, and it;s free and simple to use. You can export the tweets into different formats too, and you can see what links people posted, the other hashtags they used. It;s a simple powerful tools. Where storify is more for publishing and curating tweets, twesplorer is more for saving and analysing them.


There’s a whole heap more curating tools that might be worth a look over at the curation tools section of moocie.

If you are new to twitter anf blogging, are an educator, and are looking for a little help understanding, implementing, or thinking about social media in eduation, please consider signing up for our free, open online courses. The Social media toolkit, a foundation course in using twitter and running a blog, or #moocie, the 1 week course in social media in education.

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