On Zoom or in the Classroom, Provide Students with a Communication Backchannel

Online teaching is not ideal. In fact, it’s downright lame. But, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any upsides to being on Zoom instead of in the classroom. One of the positive surprises of teaching on Zoom during the last two years was the use of the chat feature. 

Soon after my school transitioned to online instruction, students began using the chat to send me private notes. At first it was distracting. Why didn’t students simply speak aloud? Sometimes they shared experiences or insights that would really help our discussions move in interesting new directions. Other times they asked questions seeking information that other students undoubtedly needed. I found myself repeating the chat comments for the benefit of everyone in the Zoom. It seemed like a redundant process that would have been more efficient without the middle person slowing things down. However, when students were asked to speak openly, the response was silence.

I quickly realized that the anonymity of the chat was the essential ingredient necessary for a successful Zoom learning experience. 

Once I made that connection, I ran with the concept. All year long, students were encouraged to use the chat to share their ideas, their insights, their questions, and their feedback with me. Anything germain to the class was repeated for the benefit of the other students. When sharing comments with the class, I never revealed the identity of the original poster. Students wanted their anonymity and I wasn’t going to take that away from them. 

Throughout the online year, I reflected on my pre-COVID classroom and how I fervently believed that I had created a safe and egalitarian learning environment. However, I had not provided students, especially those who were shy or introverted, with a communication option that was the equivalent to the Zoom chat backchannel. The closest I came to such a tool was my one-on-one visits with students during work periods. I would always drift around the room, checking in with students and addressing any individual concerns. However, this usually happened after instruction and/or discussion time, so any insights or questions that students were unwilling to share publicly came to light too late to fully capitalize on them. 

Moving forward, I want to provide students with more options in terms of sharing ideas or concerns. I’ve discovered cool online options, such as Mentimeter, that offer backchannel tools. Google Classroom also contains private communication options. Whatever tools I decide to adopt for the upcoming year, I have to be mindful that backchannel communication requires additional time and so I can’t overload my classes with too much content or too many activities. I must do more by doing less. 

I have been posting questions about this topic on Twitter and in my FB teaching groups. If I get any new ideas, I will edit this post and add them. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions or best practices in the area of student communication, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. 

Ed X!  

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