Vol. 25, No. 1: Great Things Happening in the New Year

Using a Backchannel to Build a Community of Practice
in a Professional Development

Jeannie Justice

In my previous article, we discussed one of my presentations at NCPN 2014, "Using a Backchannel to Facilitate Professional Development." In that article I noted that one of the challenges I face with giving professional developments to educators is that there is always a conversation going on in the background, a "backchannel." My audience members often talk continuously through the whole workshop. In this follow-up article I will make recommendations for incorporating backchannels into your professional development events.

Because of schedules, workloads, and lack of time to build relationships with peers, the non-stop talking that takes place in professional developments is often for the best of reasons: to build meaningful relationships, develop peer support networks, and collaborate in exploring innovative teaching techniques. This is where I thought backchanneling might be a win-win, allowing my participants to continue with this valuable communication but also allowing me to deliver the professional development.

Although there are several definitions for "backchannel," in this article I am using the term to refer to an informal secondary or background communication channel that exists while a formal frontchannel speaker, lecturer, or panel is presenting (Cogdill et al., 2001; Du et al., 2012; Farnham et al., 2009; Kellog et al., 2006; McNely, 2009; Ross et al., 2010; Yardi, 2006). In other words, when I'm giving my professional development, I'm the frontchannel. The place (an app or website) where the educators can communicate with each other (usually via typed messages) is the backchannel. My last article went into detail on the definition of and research pertaining to backchanneling, the benefits of using a backchannel, and the benefits of a community of practice.

What Is the Backchannel Used for in Professional Developments,
and Who Is Using It?

In the professional developments that I've organized, I've had some mixed reactions to using a backchannel. Some schools embraced it and others didn't. To better understand how a backchannel is used in these situations and who is using it, I developed a survey. By giving each participant a backchannel ID (online nickname), I could collect and analyze comments. At one professional development workshop, I found that 47 percent of participants used the backchannel provided during the workshop. The best part was that, of the people who used the backchannel, 52 percent used it to build a community of practice. In other words, over half the time the backchannel was used, it was used to collaborate or to share knowledge with the community of participants, or for mutual help.

Interestingly, all the people who used the backchannel were over the age of 40 and had over ten years of experience in the field of education. Of those using the backchannel, 67 percent were female and 67 percent had master's degrees. Also, just over half (56 percent) were district employees and were no longer in the classroom daily. The backchannel used in the workshop was similar to a popular social media platform, so I anticipated that anyone using social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, would be comfortable using the backchannel and therefore would participate more than others not familiar with social media. Surprisingly, I found that only one third of the people using the backchannel regularly used social media. Therefore, the majority of people using the backchannel were older, more experienced in the field, less experienced with social media, well educated, and female. I found this description very interesting.

Tools for Creating a Backchannel
I used Edmodo (which has been called "Facebook for schools") so that participants could use the same forum to continue their conversations. Edmodo records chats so that participants can review advice, tips, websites, and anything else useful that the comments might include. Any social media would work for a backchannel. For example, Facebook or Twitter would work for building a community of practice while backchanneling; however, the conversations may not be recorded for later access with these types of tools. I suggest trying out several platforms to figure out which suits your situation best. Other backchannel platforms to consider include Twiducate, Chatzy, ChannelMe, NeatChat, Chatterous, Cel.ly, and various Google tools like Hangout, Groups, and Wave.

Before Setting up a Backchannel . . .
Before you jump in, let me share some of my experiences to help you along.

  1. Explain the purpose of using the backchannel. Participation will be better if everyone is on the same page.

  2. Set boundaries for comments—no snarking, constructive feedback only, use proper etiquette, and so on.

  3. Have everyone post in the backchannel before starting the frontchannel (i.e., presentation). This reduces intimidation and increases participation.

  4. Have someone monitor the backchannel so that you can address questions and confusion. Do not keep a live feed showing comments to the audience. The comments can take over the presentation.

  5. Don't rely on the backchannel to engage your audience. The presentation must be engaging on its own.

  6. If the backchannel doesn't work the first time around, don't give up. Experiment with different platforms.

  7. Use the backchannel to improve your professional developments as a whole. Go back through the conversations after the workshop to see what needs to be clarified or how to smooth out rough spots.

Literature Cited

Cogdill, S., Fanderclai, T. L., Kilborn, J., & Williams, M. G. (2001). Backchannel: whispering in digital conversation. In System Sciences, 2001. Proceedings of the 34th Annual Hawaii International Conference on (pp. 8-pp). IEEE.

Du, H., Rosson, M. B., & Carroll, J. (2012). Communication patterns for a classroom public digital backchannel. In Proceedings of the 30th ACM International Conference on Design of Communication (pp. 127-136). ACM.

Farnham, S., Brown, P., & Schwartz, J. (2009). Leveraging social software for social networking and community development at events. In Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Communities and Technologies (pp. 235-244). ACM.

Kellogg, W., Erickson, T., Wolf, T., Levy, S., Christensen, J., Sussman, J., & Bennett, W. (2006). Leveraging digital backchannels to enhance user experience in electronically mediated communication. In Proceedings of the 2006 20th Anniversary Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 451-454). ACM.

McNely, B. (2009). Backchannel persistence and collaborative meaning-making. In Proceedings of the 27th ACM International Conference on Design of Communication (pp. 297-304). ACM.

Ross, C., Terras, M., Warwick, C., & Welsh, A. (2010). Enabled backchannel: conference Twitter use by digital humanists. Journal of Documentation, 67(2): 214-237.

Yardi, S. (2006). The role of backchannel in collaborative learning environments. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Learning Sciences (pp. 852-858). International Society of the Learning Sciences.

For more information, contact Jeannie at jeannie.justice@mail.com.

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