The Back Channel and the Buzz

cc licensed flickr photo shared by saaam

I have been struggling with a vision of what the ‘back channel’ means for educators. Specifically, it got me thinking about my high school classes (all but one are f2f), and how the concept plays out in reality. To simply describe it as electronic note passing during class is very limiting, while saying it represents the voice of the silent majority seems an overstatement. As a learner, I found myself in agreement with Michael Wesch who argues that it is not a tool for every situation, and, further, that it is a myth that 21st century learners are somehow amazing multi-taskers (I believe that some are and some are not). Wesch goes on to say that in lessons where one focus is needed it might not be the best tool, but in classes with a broader range of ideas on the table it has a place. To enhance this, breakout discussion groups can be created.

So what does all of this mean for creating community in my classroom (whether virtual or not) since the lines are blurring quickly as my high school students use media to connect all the time? As Richard Schwier aptly states “The urge to control and shape the learning environment has to give way to a stronger urge to encourage learners to explore, connect, shape, and find their own learning paths.” I’ve always strongly believed this, but it was my students who gave me a lesson on how it actually works.

I’m big fan of what I call the ‘buzz’. Let me explain.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by mickeymox

I love it when my students talk about what’s going on in my class (and I really mean their class) because they want to and not because they have to – this ‘buzz’ is when they have questions and ideas and comments that they want to share. These instances might happen as part of the entire f2f class community, or just as likely they might be quieter asides during class, text messages, Facebook postings or hallway or home chatter. I have become increasingly aware of listening to this murmur, because it seemed to me that much of the truly authentic learning was happening there. Nowhere did this become more apparent than with the Creative Writing class I’ve taught the last 5 years. I first got wind that something was up when my students seemed to be having discussions about writing that had clearly extended beyond the confines of the classroom, and yet were totally on target with what we were studying in class. I was the one that felt out of the loop, but sensed this was might be okay. My eyes were opened even wider when summer holidays arrived and a group of my writing students informed me they intended to keep meeting. I naturally assumed they meant in person, and it turned out I was partially correct, but I was still missing one crucial piece of information. I asked them some questions about how this came about and this is where I discovered the missing puzzle piece. They had created a Facebook group. They had been using this social media site for most of the past year and indeed had their own version of  back channel discussions going about our class. I felt humbled that they had been able to improve and transcend the traditional classroom. Could this have happened without some type of social media and web environment – I don’t think so. I love that I had nothing to do with the creation of this group, instead, my students (as a learning community) felt they needed it and so they created it.  I love that it allows my ex-students to mentor my current students as they interact in this virtual space. I’m hoping to introduce Twitter to my Creative Writing class this year – any suggestions or ideas on implementing this are welcome. I know they’ll have no trouble figuring out the mechanics of Twitter, but I’m not sure how (or why) to facilitate tweets specific to this area. However, I expect once my students figure it out they’ll be teaching us.



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