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Backchannel Communication

​​ Cutouts resembling chat bubbles

Backchannel communication generally refers to conversations occurring in real time alongside the primary speaker(s) or action. Live tweeting is an example of this: audiences use a hashtag on Twitter to participate in live conversations about an event, such as a political convention or academic conference. Similarly, instructors can also leverage backchannel communications to engage students in their classes.

Derek Bruff, an expert in educational technology at Vanderbilt University, outlines 9 differen​t uses of backchannel communication in education:

  • Note taking
  • Resource sharing
  • Commenting
  • Amplifying
  • Asking questions
  • Helping one another
  • Offering suggestions
  • Building community
  • Opening the classroom

In a case study of backchannel communication used at the University of California's School of Information, Yardi (2006) argues that backchannel chat should:

  • be implemented according to different contexts (e.g., backchannel chat implemented in K-12 may require more content moderation than in college classrooms)
  • be situated to take advantage of social and educational affordances (e.g., encourage students to share resources and help one another)
  • allow for the instructor to self-assess their own performance (e.g., use chat logs to see if students demonstrate understanding of material)
  • encourage socialization and community building (e.g., learning communities can demonstrate greater levels of engagement, metacognition, and knowledge)
  • involve setting expectations for behavior or etiquette (e.g., develop a shared understanding of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior and language)

Voice of the Chat

Because monitoring and responding to the chat is yet another demand on one's attention, Bruff recommends asking for a student volunteer or assigning a student the role of "voice of the chat." This student is responsible for monitoring the chat and bringing questions or comments to the fore as appropriate. Bruff also recommends building in designated "voice of the chat" moments into lectures and other activities, as a reminder to both himself and the student volunteer to check in at appropriate intervals.

Zoom Chat vs. Alternatives

Zoom's chat feature is a convenient option for backchannel communication during class meetings, but there are a few limitations to be aware of:

  • You cannot respond to Zoom chats using the Zoom Room software. You need to bring your own laptop/tablet in order to respond to chats in a Zoom Room.
  • If a student logs in late or leaves the meeting briefly and returns, they will not see the messages in chat that were sent while they were away. 
  • While Zoom chats can be saved and shared for later access (by either you or your students), chats do not persist between Zoom sessions. 
  • In order for in-person students to participate in the chat, they'll need to join the class meeting on their mobile device or laptop. In this scenario, it's important that all in-person students mute their microphones and speakers to avoid potential audio feedback during class.  

For these reasons, some instructors prefer to adopt a different chat platform rather than rely heavily on the chat functionality in Zoom. Microsoft Teams is a messaging and collaboration tool that is part of Microsoft Office 365 and is supported by DePaul's Help Desk. Similar to Slack or Discord, Microsoft Teams combines messaging, meetings, file storage, application integration, and voice and video calling into one collaborative team workspace. For more information on Microsoft Teams, see the Help Desk's knowledgebase article or visit Microsoft's 365 Training site.

Tools like Teams, Slack, or Discord can help address potential drawbacks of Zoom-based chat and help students stay connected outside of class time. That being said, you and your students may find it challenging to use another communication platform in addition to Zoom and D2L. Ultimately, the solution that works best for you will depend largely on your comfort level with specific tools and the goals you have for leveraging backchannel communication in your course. 

References and Further Reading

Bruff, D. (2010). Backchannel in Education - Nine Uses. Agile Learning: Derek Bruff's blog on teaching and learning.

Bruff, D. (2020). Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. 

Yardi, S. (2006). The Role of the Backchannel in Collaborative Learning Environments. In Barab, S. A., Hay, K. E., & Hickey, D. T. (Eds.), The International Conference of the Learning Sciences: Indiana University 2006. Proceedings of ICLS 2006, Volume 2 (pp. 852-858). Bloomington, Indiana, USA: International Society of the Learning Sciences.