Tips from the Pros
Using Twitter, HootCourse, and Other Backchannels to Engage Online Students
Social media tools are rapidly changing the learning environment. The biggest change is that we can now capture the “backchannel” of a class—the conversation going on between audience members. It was once the whispers in the audience, but now it can be captured electronically.
A student's desire to participate in the backchannel is increased if he or she has a sense of community within the channel, which is most easily built through social interactions and shared experiences. Tools such as Twitter and TodaysMeet can provide a new and engaging way for students to connect and collaborate outside of the discussion board.
Using tools such as Twitter, HootCourse, TodaysMeet, Tricider, Padlet, and Linoit (lino) to engage students can have a number of benefits. Students are able to collaborate independent of time and place, and gain feedback on and insight into the backchannel process. When using a backchannel students need to be more succinct and thus demonstrate their knowledge in short snippets (usually in 140 characters or less). This differs from a discussion board where a student can ramble on about a topic or question presented by the instructor or a peer.
Backchannels also provide benefits to faculty, including the opportunity to gain current information on the status of learning; the possibility for immediate, direct feedback; and finally, the chance to get an impression of the learning climate.
Twitter has been used as a method to prompt formative questioning and thoughts presented to students either during a lecture or during a discussion. In one study, Twitter was used as a backchannel to engage students and to prompt them to compose a short sentence during a course lecture. Twitter can also act as an audience response system to collect comments and dialogue pertaining to the content presented in a lecture.
TodaysMeet is the easiest and quickest way to start using backchannels, as it is fast and easy to set up and it does not require an account. Once you start your backchannel, you get a simple URL (no long sets of numbers or letters) or QR code that can be shared with your students. Transcripts of the discussion can be downloaded for reference later. TodaysMeet asks for “Nicknames,” so set rules with your students as to what names they need to enter.
Padlet and lino are the two online sticky note Web-based tools that make use of walls. Walls can be set up so that students can use them without logins or passwords, making them easy to infuse into lessons. Padlet is good option if students are doing a virtual book talk. Or if students have questions that require a little outside research, other students can post answers, images, or even videos. The alternative to Padlet is lino, which provides students with different-colored sticky notes to post questions if you do not require the discussion to stay in chronological order. Instructors can ask students to provide tips or quick informational snippets.
A backchannel creates a global opportunity to blend an environment where students and educators can communicate through multiple modalities. A backchannel allows for deeper thought to develop over time, and for students to engage in authentic learning across the curriculum. Finally, through the use of a backchannel learning is no longer confined to just a virtual discussion board, blog, or wiki, or even one course day.
Dr. Julia Vandermolen is an assistant professor of allied health science at Grand Valley State University.