Don’t you just love it when your students really get engaged in a discussion? The ideas are bouncing off each other, students are respectfully disagreeing or asking follow-up questions, and the collaborative learning is just lighting up all over the place! If whole-class discussions are your jam, this Backchannel Chat #TechTuesday feature is for you!
Backchannel is an online chat room platform designed specifically for classroom use. The site delights in its simplicity and user-friendly design, and is easy enough to use that students of any age who can type their thoughts are good candidates for a Backchannel discussion. Students do not need to create an account to use Backchannel Chat- teachers simply post a link to the chat for students to access or give them the class code, then students enter their name and join the discussion. Adding a comment is as simple as typing into the box and hitting “Enter,” no more complicated than sending a text message or Snapchat. You can also download the Backchannel Chat mobile app for discussion on-the-go, perfect if your school uses tablets!
The teacher features, also easy to use and intuitive, are everything a teacher could ask for in facilitating discussion with students. Teachers have complete control over posts and can delete student comments with the click of a button, in case the built-in profanity filter still doesn’t catch an inappropriate student comment. Teachers can use the Chat Stats option to view the number of times individual students have participated in the discussion. The option to download a full transcript of the discussion makes it easy to search for key words or student names to evaluate student participation, and to keep a permanent record of the chat. Further exciting features for the $15 purchase price include the ability to embed Tweets, add student polls, have a private one-on-one chat with students, and add files to the chat for student viewing/ usage.
Backchannel is perfect for flipped or blended classroom instruction, but any teacher can find great advantage to using Backchannel with their students. Backchannel adds an element to student discussions that just can’t be matched with whole-class discussion in a face-to-face environment. For starters, every student is participating, either adding their own thoughts or responding to peers. Additionally, students can formulate responses at their own pace- there’s no time pressure and no being put on the spot. And speaking of being put on the spot, your quiet, introverted students will shine when they get to add their thinking to the discussion without the fear of having to speak up in front of peers.
Another great benefit to Backchannel is that it’s an on-demand chat space. This means that your students can participate at their leisure, and don’t all have to be present in the chat at once in order for good discussion to take place. This can make Backchannel a great option for homework- students login and participate in a discussion with peers whenever it’s convenient for them. I usually start Backchannel chats on Mondays, and ask students to participate between 5-7 times by Friday. Part of my rubric is that students cannot post all five comments at once, and that three of their five posts should be responses to peers. This ensures not only that students are actually discussing rather than responding, but it also ensures that they read the posts of their classmates and evaluate whether they agree or disagree with the points that were raised. The post-when-you-want format also really benefits learners with diverse needs, because they can take as long as they need to review texts or materials before contributing to a discussion. And students who are sick or absent? They can read back through the transcript to see what they missed while they were out. No more missed experiences!
Backchannel discussions also really encourage students to practice citing text evidence, as students simply need to copy and paste quotes from a text into their discussion posts. I’ve found the depth of discussion I get from my students on Backchannel actually vastly exceeded the quality of their verbal discussions in the past. Students were so much more engaged in responding to articles than they would have been if I had asked them to write a written response, even though they were practicing the exact same skills in addition to practicing good discussion.
You can create small groups of students with a different Backchannel chat room for each group, which would be perfect for book club discussions or writer’s workshop! You would still be able to see and moderate student posts, but students would be responsible for running the show, creating a collaborative and student-centered learning environment. Backchannel could also serve as a collaborative workspace for students working on group projects, especially if you wanted to create groups of students from different class periods or grade levels- a 6th- and 8th-grade class could work together on a Project-Based Learning unit and collaborate via Backchannel even if their classes don’t meet at the same time!
Backchannel Chat is free to use for teachers with the basic features intact, but the features available to premium users (multiple chat rooms at the same time, for instance) make it well worth the $15 one-time price if you regularly have students collaborate and discuss in your classroom. My students and I have loved the Backchannel Chat experience, and it has really elevated the level of discussion in my classroom!