Lucas Center Blog

Using a Back Channel in In Person Synchronous Classes

July 01, 2021  / Bill Reynolds, PhD  / Tags: synchronous, remote, participation, hybrid, back channel, engagement

Back Channel Guide

As we prepare for a return to in-person teaching in the fall, many of you have probably been thinking and talking with colleagues about what methods, applications, strategies, and other approaches you used in remote and hybrid courses will be viable and effective for in-person teaching and learning. At the Lucas Center we heard from many faculty that one unanticipated benefit of remote instruction was that many students who did not participate regularly during in-person classes seemed more engaged and willing to contribute when a chat or other text-based (i.e., “back channel”) application was available to them. However, when teaching synchronously, whether in-person or online (or both simultaneously), teachers found it difficult to facilitate a traditional (i.e., verbal) discussion while simultaneously monitoring the chat.

The question, then, seems to be:  Can we improve student engagement and participation in face-to-face classes by incorporating “back channel” communication mechanisms into our teaching in a way that is not distracting or overwhelming for the teacher? The staff at the Office of Teaching and Learning at the University of Guelph believe the answer to this question is clearly “yes,” and they have created a handy guide with links to applications that can facilitate back channel interactions during a live class session. As many of us discovered, one of the keys to effective back channel management is having a person other than the professor to monitor the back channel and communicate directly with the teacher about the back channel comments and other contributions. To the best of our knowledge FGCU will continue to enlist students to serve as back channel assistants (BCAs) for faculty who request them this fall. However, not all faculty who requested a BCA were able to get one last year, so we suggest that faculty proactively plan to engage students in their class in a BCA role. Possible approaches are to have the BCA responsibilities rotate among the students in the class so that no one student has to monitor the chat for more than one or two class sessions during the semester or to ask for volunteers who will receive some kind of extra credit or other incentive for serving as a BCA.

Faculty can request a Back Channel Assistant by completing the BCA Request form.  Faculty can contact Digital Learning to work with their Instructional Designer or an Instructional Technologist to explore uses of a Back Channel Assistant, Canvas and other technology in their face-to-face classes.

What else have you learned from teaching during a pandemic that you plan to implement, even as the impact of Covid on teaching and learning recedes? Please contact the Lucas Center to share your ideas and we will feature them on our blog.