A backchannel communication, in an educational context, is a secondary electronic conversation that takes place at or near the same time as a lecture, instructor-led learning activity, or conference session.
Instructors are finding that using a backchannel can increase student engagement because backchannels allow students to engage in a digital conversation alongside the activity. This is beneficial because a backchannel can provide introverted students with a place to ask questions or make comments without speaking up. Additionally, instructors can share supporting resources such as videos, links to websites and photos through a backchannel. Instructors can ask questions and watch the response of students to determine if they really understand the concepts being discussed. Students can search the backchannel for notes and resources without having to scribble personal notes on paper.
This spring, Dr. Paul Schafer, of Xavier's Philosophy Department, taught a fascinating service-learning course called Aristotle in New Orleans. Taking as his premise Aristotle's idea that we must not only theorize about the meaning of life, but that we must put our ideas into practice, Dr. Schafer led his students through a study of classical texts on rhetoric and ethics, then guided them through eight weeks of community engagement, coaching middle-school debate teams. The culminating event was a day-long debate tournament held on Tulane's campus on Saturday, April 8th, which Dr. Schafer described as a "grueling but fantastic experience," in which his students learned a great deal by seeing their middle-school pupils, from KIPP Believe and Esperanza Middle Schools, engage in formal tournament debate.
Texts for the 2000-level course included portions of Aristotle's The Art of Rhetoric and NicomacheanEthics, Quintilian's Education of an Orator, and Plato's Five Dialogues. The Quintilian text emphasizes the claim that the ideal orator must also be a good person, an idea that ran like a thread through the course. Other discussions included the nature of philosophical argument, the role of argument and virtue in the good life, and Aristotle's claim that happiness is acquired mainly by chance. These ideas were discussed and argued in class, then put to the middle-school debaters as well, thus simultaneously exposing both groups to crucial questions, while providing opportunity to consider their relevance in the context of modern society, all within a supporting framework of formal debate in a school environment.
Outcomes included understanding Aristotle's philosophical method, his concept of ethics, and his vision of the way moral and intellectual virtues are developed. Students also learned what arguments are and how they function to help us think about the deep truths of life and reality – including what it means to live a good life. Then, once in the community, Xavier students learned first-hand the educational challenges that face middle school students in New Orleans. Also, as a result of eight weeks of working in small groups, the New Orleans middle school students gained valuable, engaged educational experience of the kind that has been shown to improve self-esteem and overall academic performance, which in turn leads to greater high-school graduation rates, more chances for success beyond high-school, and far greater chances of staying out of the criminal justice system.
The students coaching at Esperanza collaborated with Tulane students enrolled in a similar class with the same title. For more on that class, check out this interview with its teacher, Dr. Ryan McBride. These types of collaborative efforts provide opportunities to Xavier and Tulane students that have been shown to enhance their educational experience, by teaching skills of teamwork, problem solving, civic engagement, and cultural knowledge--the very skills most needed to thrive in a globalized society. The community engagement with middle schoolers then provides the next generation the same opportunities. Thus, service-learning classes such as Dr. Schafer's help to fulfill the public purpose of universities.
Many educators feel frustrated that millennials are especially difficult to reach and to motivate, yet motivation is one thing that can drive millennials to succeed. Student engagement is the key to academic motivation, persistence, and degree completion. Educators must find ways to get students' attention and get them actively engaged with the course material and with their peers.
In a recent Pulse Learning blog post, Christopher Pappas listed seven tips to get millennials excited and fully engaged in the learning process. Those tips are:
Stress real-world applications – Millennials need to know why they are doing something and how it will serve the greater good.
Empower them - Give millennials a way to share their opinions and insights so that they can feel as though they are making a difference.
Track their progress - Millennial learners like to be able to track their progress as they go along. They must be able to immediately determine where they are at and what they still need to accomplish.
Encourage collaboration - This generation of learners thrives in social environments. They enjoy sharing personal experiences and skills with their peers, as well as learning new things from other members in their group.
Focus on flexibility - Create a flexible schedule that allows learners to complete online projects and exercises when it’s most convenient for them.
Offer mentoring or other online support services - The millennial generation likes to have control, but they also like to be able to see the direct path they need to take to achieve success. In other words, they require guidance from time to time. Educators should provide mentoring for student success.
Are you looking for new ways to engage more of your students? Do you want to provide more authentic learning opportunities for your students? Searching for some way to help students write concisely, critically examine arguments, or take notes? One strategy you might consider using is a “backchannel”
Dr. Michelle Rodems, program manager at the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies (SIGS) and at the Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning suggests using a “backchannel” to give your students a secondary way to communicate with you or each other.