Friday, February 1, 2008

Passing Notes in Class: Rude or Required?

"What once were vices are manners now."Seneca

When I was a girl...passing notes or whispering while an instructor spoke was considered not only rude but also disrespectful. These days, such activity is encouraged, at least at many edtech conferences and workshops.

Of course, the best gatherings tend to eschew the terms "teacher" or "instructor" in favor of the more interactive/collaborative "facilitator" or even "co-learner".

The modern equivalent of note-passing might be backchanneling.

This term has wildly varying definitions. Merriam-Webster dates it to 1975: "a secret, unofficial, or irregular means of communication". Since the backchanneling I've observed is hardly secret and often quasi-official, other explanations seem in order.

Wikipedia supplies a number of variations. In telecommunications, backchannel "is typically a low-speed, or less-than-optimal, transmission channel in the opposite direction to the main channel." In business and medicine, it represents "inappropriate organizational practice that involves bypassing recognized or official communication processes." The linguistics version of backchanneling consists of "giving positive comments, such as 'uh-huh' or 'yes' to the other speaker, to encourage further talk or to confirm that one is listening."

But the definition which comes closest to what I've observed is the diplomacy model, "an unofficial channel of communication between states or other political entities used to supplement official channels."

At the recent EduCon, workshop leaders actively solicited input from both real life and virtual attendees. Participants could DM comments and questions (via Twitter), or take part in a backchannel chat set up on the conference site. This method of interaction required that someone monitor incoming messages and relay them to the speaker. Presenters frequently answered queries, clarified points or introduced new discussion threads based on the backchannel conversations. This interactivity served to enhance the experience rather than detract from it.

Backchannel still presents a few problems for me. I find myself unable to equitably divide my attention: either I engage in the chat or focus on the presenter. Competing text, images, and sound are also a challenge. Often, I make a conscious decision to follow the backchannel in real time, then go back to view the UStream of the session (which is usually, though not always, available later) without distraction.

A less frequently mentioned application of backchannel is as an alternative activity when one is forced to endure an uninspiring or irrelevant lecture [which is probably why we passed notes or whispered in class back in the olden days].

I'm beginning to understand the promise of backchannel. So my answer to
DinaE @dmcordell @techicebreaker @garageflowers ok-- now the moral question: is backchanneling rude? or useless? :) :)
is that backchanneling can be both mannerly and useful, depending on when and how it's employed.

To paraphrase John Holt,
"No use to shout at them to pay attention. If the situations, the materials, the problems before the group do not interest them, their attention will slip off to what does interest them, and no amount of exhortation of threats will bring it back."

"Passing Notes" by parislemon


Anonymous said...

Ok, I know this is an old post and you just tweeted it to @tjshay, but I just need to throw my hat in the ring:

If the content is interesting, people listen. If it's not, they don't. Simple as that :-) Interaction usually keeps people paying attention and off the backchannel, but that being said, some people will continue to use it regardless.

The job of the speaker/teacher, is to ensure that the quality of content is that which will reach the highest number of participants with the expectation that some won't listen no matter what.

The key is always this: give them a REASON to listen.

Miss G said...

I am very glad you just revisited this topic! Here's my 2 cents:
It all depends on the content, the participants, and the situation. If the content is engaging, and the participants interested, then the backchannel will become a place of deepening the content. The conversation will be about what is being presented and participants will be given the chance to "think out loud," or so to speak. It opens the door for more possibility, the chance to ask questions as they pop up. Then, it's up to the presenter what to do with it. If the participants are interested in anything but the content, no matter how interesting or engaging, the backchannel will turn into that passing notes, complete with the stray sarcastic comment or two. When I have to "lecture" in class, I present on Google Preso, and my students keep it open on their laptops. Our backchannel is for the sole purpose of sharing thoughts and questions about the content. When kids use it well, it's amazing the type of conversation that results. When kids are "being kids," it can be almost detrimental to the learning process, in fact, almost disastrous. Adults can be the same, as the presenter, you just gotta keep it focused and refocus the group when need be. As the participant, we have to know where to draw the line, and how to model that for our students.