Activating the backchannel


Using technology to enable active engagement with content in a large lecture.

I have recently presented the paper “Enabling backchannel communication between a lecturer and a large group” at the SEFI 2014 conference in Birmingham. That paper is based on work that I have done with two colleagues – the instructor of a large lecture, and the teaching assistant at the time.

Now if oceanographers hear something about “large lectures”, they typically envision a couple dozen students. In this case, it was a couple of hundred students in a lecture theatre that sits about 700.

The challenge

When sitting in on the class last year, I noticed that there were a lot of questions that students were discussing around me that never made it to the instructor’s attention. This is not very surprising given the large number of students and that there were only two instructors in the room. But when talking about it afterwards, we decided that we wanted to find a way to channel student questions to make sure they reached the instructor. The “backchannel” was born.

We met up to discuss our options. It became clear very quickly that even though there are a lot of nice methods out there to invite feedback of the sort we wanted (for example through “muddiest point” feedback), this was not feasible with the number of students we were dealing with. So instead we decided to go for an online solution.

Twitter has been propagated for use in instruction for a while, and there are many other tools out there that enable backchannel communication. But we realized that we had very specific requirements which none of the existing tools were meeting simultaneously:

  • anonymous communication, to keep the threshold as low as possible
  • no special hardware or software requirements
  • easy to use
  • communication student to instructor, but not student-student
  • possibility of moderation

The solution

 In the end, Patrick coded a “backchannel” tool that could do all that. On a webpage, students enter text in a text field. They click a button to submit the text, and a moderator then, in real time, decides whether to forward the text to the instructor. The instructor then gets the text on a screen and can decide whether and when to incorporate it in their teaching.
We’ve found that this works really well from an operational point of view. The instructor has been really happy with the quality of questions he has been getting, and sometimes students even send links that they think should be shared with the class.
Students seem to like it, too, even though they aren’t engaging with the tool as much as we had anticipated. But there are a couple of reasons for that which we all name in our paper. Ultimately, we liked the tool enough to continue using it this year. The new semester has just started, so let’s see how it goes!
Thanks to my co-authors for a very interesting and enjoyable collaboration!

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