Backchannel? Slack Channel!

Harnessing Turned-On Brains

A live learning conference or training event can be a busy, chaotic, and stimulating setting for learning new things. Not only are you following a packed schedule of interesting speakers exposing you to new ideas, but you’re also surrounded by other professionals like yourself, with interesting insights to share, trudging up the same learning curve you are.

With so many turned-on brains in the same place, the featured speakers are only one of many sources of information you can access. Your fellow conference attendees can generate questions, insights, links, and capture notes that enhance the learning activity for everyone.

We need a way of harnessing and channeling all of the good thought about the conference’s topics without creating a lot of excessive cross-talk and confusion. The answer is to set up a backchannel to give learners a way to talk back to the presenter (and each other) without interrupting the main presentation.

“A backchannel gives learners a way to talk back to the presenter (and each other) without interrupting the main presentation.”

Passing Notes without Getting in Trouble

Imagine you’re in a conference presentation setting — the presenter is introducing their ideas, but all the learners’ minds may be spinning with relevant questions, clarifications, challenges, or addtional links for context. Someone is furiously tapping out lecture notes on their laptop, while someone else is snapping photos of the slides on their phones. Another attendee leans over to their neighbor and asks “What did she just say?” If they all blurted their ideas out loud in the moment, it would derail the session and the presenter wouldn’t be able to get through their talk.

animation of conference attendees talking over the speaker

A backchannel creates a focused (silent!) area where learners can share these additional questions and ideas to add value to the lecture without interrupting it.

In a best-case scenario, that person taking notes can share them with all the attendees who missed something (or don’t type as fast), and the person snapping photos of slides can share key images for others to benefit from. People can ask and answer questions freely without worrying about disturbing the synchronous lecture.

The same conference, now with a backchannel conversation happening on a smartphone so it doesn't interrupt the speaker.

Creating a Space for Your Backchannel

A backchannel is not a specific technology – it’s more of a communication practice that can happen in a variety of tech platforms. Conference-specific Twitter hashtags are commonly used at big events to keep the conversation focused, but you can create a backchannel using any real-time chat technology that

  • all participants of the learning conference can access
  • allows conversation around a single topic focus, minimizing off-topic cross-talk
  • (Preferably) allows sharing images, files, text, and links

Even webinar software like Zoom or Adobe Connect features a chat tool that allows people to ask clarifying questions or comment alongside the main presentation without interrupting the main talk.

Backchannels are better with Backup

Backchannels are best when you have a dedicated person responsible for the success of the chat, demonstrating teacher presence behaviors to make learners feel heard. This means that, in addition to your main presenter, you want an assistant who is focused on nurturing conversation in the backchannel, answering whichever questions they can, queuing up questions to ask the main speaker, and encouraging attendees to share.

Backchannel? Slack Channel

For a three-day live training seminar we developed, we decided to use Slack as a backchannel to add interactivity into the training. Slack is already widely adopted at our company, and it allows for a wide variety of content types to share – you can post text updates, images, PowerPoints, PDFs, and links to outside resources.

My vision was for the Slack channel to take the place of one of those dedicated mobile apps you often see at the larger conferences. I wanted something where we could easily share our lecture decks, allow attendees to find one another and connect, and to add interactivity into the learning sessions themselves. Rather than spending valuable conference time telling people where the bathrooms are or where to park, I wanted to be able to blast those details to the Slack channel and spend more time on content.

I also wanted to use the Slack channel to enhance the learning sessions themselves, building interactive question prompts into the the lectures so learners can take a break, reflect on a challenge, and answer questions designed to enhance recall and promote critical thinking. I’ve long appreciated the work Eric Mazur and Derek Bruff have done using classroom response systems to promote critical thinking in lecture sessions, and wanted to reproduce that experience within our conference Slack.

Slack + Polly = Realtime polls & surveys

Slack allows the integration of 3rd party apps to add functionality into your chat channels. I added into our channel to create interactive polls and surveys that can be deployed at key moments during the session. This gave us the ability to write a series of quizzes before the training, save them, and deploy them into our shared channel on demand. These quizzes can be easily taken “in the moment” on learners’ smartphones or laptops, and the results are tabulated in realtime so the instructor can refer to learners answers, check for misunderstanding, and build on existing learning.

Finally, we knew that each training cohort would be fairly small (under 20 people) so we wanted to encourage attendees to use the channel to “talk back” to the conference – share selfies, share their notes and shots of lecture slides, introduce themselves on the first day, stay in touch afterwards, tell jokes, ask questions, and generally breathe life into the training as much as possible.

For all these reasons, Slack (with Polly integrated) became the preferred choice as our backchannel for this training.

Caveat Slacktor

An important caveat is that Polly does not function like a true online quiz – it doesn’t allow you to designate a “correct” answer. Consequently, the data we get back just shows us how many learners selected each answer choice without telling us if each choice is right or wrong. This isn’t a dealbreaker if your quizzes are designed more for engagement, metacognition, and feedback than for collecting objective data on learning. This is not too different from the way I learned to use classroom clickers which also didn’t allow for “right” answers. Instead, the instructor can show a graph of learners’ responses on the projector screen and add context around them verbally to add value to the lesson.

Of course, I understand the need to offer quizzes that do have right answers – we just didn’t have the

Adapt this Approach to your Ecosystem

Of course, your school or company’s tech ecosystem will probably differ from ours. We chose Slack because it’s already in widespread use here, and we wanted to give new employees and partners a learn-by-doing experience to help them onboard with our tools. There were no costs associated with implementing Slack since we already have an enterprise account, so it was an easy way to add interactivity this event. The decision to use Polly was mostly because it’s the “recommended” polling app in our environment.

You may want to explore which chat tools you can use to provide this backchannel functionality for your event. If you’re not working with sensitive information, you may consider free, public tools like Twitter. If your organization prefers you use only approved tools, you may try Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, or another similar cloud tool. Just be sure it’s accessible to all your learners, easy to sign people up into, and gives you the reporting features you need.

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