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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Back Channel Use?

One of the interesting issues that came up today during an online presentation was around the use of back channels. I had heard about an in-person presentation by Stephen Downes where the back channel contain lots of chatter that didn't necessarily contribute to the presentation. Many of the attendees were distracted by it. And many others felt it was disrespectful.

Some thoughts around back channel:
  • People are able to use the back channel to answer questions themselves. During my presentation many attendees asked questions that were immediately answered by others without my help.
  • As a presenter, it can be distracting to try to present and read at the same time, so I pretty much ignore it and then either have someone else responsible for alerting me to questions, or I go back through at particular points.
  • George actually suggested that learners turn off the chat window if they felt it would be distracting. However, that seems like those participants will miss out.
During online presentations, I can't imagine doing it without a back channel, but it certainly made me wonder what the right way, norms, etc. around use of back channels.

So, what's the right way to treat them? How are other people addressing this?


Anonymous said...

Personally, I find I'm generally more engaged when there's a good back channel discussion going. For webinars, it's so easy for me to be distracted or try to multitask on something unrelated, so having the back channel gives me something to do where I'm actively participating.

That said, I have sometimes found that I'm paying more attention to the back channel discussion than the presenter. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does require that presenters relinquish the idea of being the total center of attention. If the side discussion is good, maybe it's OK to focus on that initially and listen to a recording of the presentation later. I remember a pastor once telling me that it was fine to let your mind wander during her sermons--if a sermon sparks an idea that you want to mentally explore, you should go with that.

If the chat is archived, then people who are distracted by it can always read it later to catch up on the discussion. They'll miss the active participation, but if it's that distracting to them they are probably going to learn more by minimizing the back channel. I don't think everyone has to learn the same way; why not make the back channel available for people who want it and give a way to turn it off for people who don't?

A good moderator is crucial to making the back channel work. George Siemens is probably the best I've ever seen--he can handle 100 participants, hackers spamming with obscene messages, and summarizing questions for a presenter all at the same time. As a presenter, I think you're right to just ignore the back channel and simply check in periodically for questions; it's too much to do when you need to have a single focus.

Kevin Devin said...

What is the right way, or how others are doing it? I don't know. But I do know that I prefer that availability and use of a back channel as it adds an additional dynamic to the overall experience.

Although, within your session today, I felt like I was unable to keep up with that back channel, I'm pleased to know that the transcript was preserved and placed within the conference forums.

Thanks for the session, I really enjoyed it.


Anonymous said...

I reckon it's a learned skill. The first time I attended an online conference with backchannel, I found it quite distracting, and I was astonished at how the threads became scrambled a people chatted across each other. I also realised the need to be able to type FAST!

But you get the hang of it. And, as I said during yesterday's presentation, I learn as much from the back channel as from the presenter. Partly because my multitasking skills improved and partly because I realise that I could listen the presentations again later, while the back channel was very immediate.

I was in that session of Stephen's and I didn't find it disrespectful at all. Most of what was said arose out of the presentation, and the collaborative learning going on was significant. Is the concept of being "disrespectful" to the presenter not totally contrary to the the whole notion of learning 2.0? It seems to me to be a bit of a hangover from the traditional teacher/pupil dynamic of a (thankfully) bygone era.

One thing I will say, though, is that Stephen is a pretty dab hand multitasker himself. While I have noticed that some presenters are distracted by the back channel to the point of losing their thread (I always wonder why they don't do as you did and leave the management of that to the moderator), Stephen manages to react to the backchannel while he was presenting, so he's obviously reading that all the while.

Anonymous said...

I get useful information from the back channel chats, but it would be helpful if people would leave social chat out of the main room ("Hey, So-and-so, long time no see! How's it going?"). Systems I've used let you publish your comment to a specific person, and if more people used that feature, the main room chat would support the presentation more.

Philip said...

Hi Tony and everybody else.

I was interested in this use myself, dug around a bit and unearthed these links that might be helpful.

Harnessing the Hacker's HeckleBot

educause article on Google Jockeys

another Google Jockey site.

Example usage

Tony Karrer said...

Phillip, thanks so much for the links. They are really good.