Teachers strive to increase student engagement and active
learning while incorporating technology in the classroom in order to
improve the learning experience. Teachers always look for ways to keep
students motivated and on task during lessons. One strategy is digital
backchanneling—a real-time online conversation that takes place
alongside an activity or event. This has become increasingly common for
facilitating active learning and student engagement in the classroom
(Baron, Bestbier, & Case, 2016; Fiester & Green, 2016).
Backchanneling often supports the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) pedagogy,
allowing students to ask questions without interrupting the class, and
encouraging multitasking and engagement with the topic.
Benefits of Backchanneling
Backchanneling puts the power of learning into the hands of
students, fostering engagement (Reinders, 2014). Students who are shy,
uncertain of their ideas, and uncomfortable asking questions in class
may feel more comfortable using this tool than they are with direct
verbal interaction. The benefits of using digital backchanneling with
the students are as follows:
● leveraging students’ communication preferences (mobile devices) for chatting and texting
● students not having to raise their hands to wait for their turn to speak
● supplementing and enhancing classroom discussion
● nonthreatening environment, so all students feel comfortable contributing
● sharing resources (e.g., videos, photos, links)
When we ask students to “discuss,” they tend to think of the
spoken discourse being managed by the teacher. However, having a digital
backchannel that runs parallel to spoken remarks creates unique
opportunities for students to offer opinions, answer questions, and
share supplementary information simultaneously without interrupting the
teacher or ongoing discussions. Teachers can also adapt their delivery
(including content) to suit the students’ interests and feedback
(Camiel, Goldman-Levine, Kostka-Rokosz, & McCloskey, 2014).
Incorporating mobile devices/learning in classrooms has numerous
benefits (Sung, Chang, & Liu, 2016), and digital backchanneling
allows students and teachers to discuss lesson content in real time
during teaching without being intrusive.
In my classrooms, I have found that fewer students feel
intimidated when using digital backchanneling tools. In the Asian
context, asking questions is viewed as challenging authority, but I can
ask my students, for example, “Would you like more examples of the
difference between active and passive voice?” or “Which of the following
sentences are incorrect?” As the students can see the results on the
screen immediately, this helps to quickly ascertain the extent to which
students understand and are following the lesson content.
Several websites and apps can be used for digital
backchanneling (e.g., Flipgrid, Backchannel Chat). This
article reviews YoTeach!—a free,
minimalistic, and intuitive mobile web-based platform with Internet
access for classroom teachers and students in any context. Additionally,
the article provides suggestions and practical strategies to get
started with backchanneling and YoTeach! in a fashion that
engages and stimulates learning.
YoTeach! is a
backchannel chat platform with drawing and annotating functionality. It
enables nonverbal communication both inside and beyond the classroom.
This versatile digital tool allows students to ask questions and make
comments anonymously in real time, increasing their engagement with the
content. YoTeach! works
through a browser on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.
Because of privacy concerns, actual screenshots of students could not be
incorporated in the article. Instead, I created rooms (groups) and
activities to showcase the multiple functions of YoTeach!. In Figure 1,
you can see the landing page of YoTeach!; it is straightforward to
search for an existing room or create a new room as a teacher.
Figure 1. YoTeach! landing page.
What sets this app apart is its simplicity and its features: It
can be used as a chat app in large classes, for group study, and
anonymously. It can be used in science subjects, as it incorporates
write and draw functions, so the teacher and/or students can write
equations or draw diagrams to ask or answer questions. As can be seen in
Figure 2, we can easily incorporate brainstorming sessions where people
can join and ask questions in a room.
Figure 2. Incorporating FAQ.
provides a way for authentic student engagement, and each student gets
the opportunity to use his or her voice. The platform allows
participants to download a transcript of the chat room, including
student participation statistics, which provides a summary of
discussions and helps the students and me, as the teacher, to evaluate
how frequently and to what extent they participated (e.g., number of
comments made and questions asked). Therefore, I can share and discuss
with my students the summary generated in the transcripts. I can also
annotate messages and images, mute students, delete messages, and make
rooms private. It is the flexibility and simplicity of the tool that
makes it so versatile and useful for us and for our learners.
How to Get Started
To get started with YoTeach!, simply visit the
website, decide on a name for a room, type in a description (optional),
and then decide on specific features. There are some issues to consider:
Should the room be unsearchable (that is, private)? Have administrative
features (e.g., room owner bag; options, such as “delete room,” “mute
student,” “delete message,” “participation statistics,” and “like
button”)? Have a room entry password (see Figure 1)?
Students visit the website, type the room name inside the
search box, press enter, type a nickname, and backchanneling can
commence. Inside the message box, students can write directly, upload
pictures (e.g., something they are uncertain of from the textbook), or
draw using the built-in paint function. Figure 3 shows an example of how
a student could take a photo of an activity he or she finds
challenging, upload the image to the room, and ask for help (both
teacher and classmates can answer). This can be done during the lesson
or as students are working on their homework/assignments after class.
Figure 3. Student uploading an image for help.
There are several exciting features in YoTeach!. However, it can be
challenging to monitor the web-based running feed in real time. You can
have the feed running in the background of your phone/tablet/computer or
you can display it on a screen in the classroom so everyone can monitor
it as the class progresses. Today’s students are used to multitasking
and find multiple inputs stimulating, so consider what is best for you
and your students.
Another potential hurdle is students’ posting messages—on the
feed—that are irrelevant to the topic of discussion. As students are
used to many tools supporting active learning, it is crucial to get them
to buy in and give them clear instructions before using YoTeach!.
For teachers who are new to digital backchanneling, I would like to provide a few tips:
● Set behavioral expectations and review guidelines beforehand,
as this will help both you and the students to stay on topic.
● Check your room, test your digital backchanneling tool (e.g.,YoTeach!) before the
class, and make sure that the tool is working on the students’
● It is helpful to ask students to number each posting/answer.
For example, if they answer Question 1, they could start their post with
#Q1, because this will help you to keep track of and refer to the
● Don’t be afraid to monitor the activity using your own device
and to jump in and answer questions as they appear.
Why This Works
By allowing students to participate and having an on-topic
conversation during a teaching session, we (the teachers) are able to
get real-time feedback on whether students understand the concepts being
discussed and whether we should shift our focus to address their needs.
As well as using YoTeach! as a classroom
backchanneling device, I have also held office hours for students (see
Figure 4) in a general room, and I’ve divided students into a group to
brainstorm ideas in their own rooms. This is another benefit, because
users can create small study rooms where they can work collaboratively
through instant messaging.
Figure 4. Holding office hours using YoTeach!.
Among the various benefits of adopting digital backchanneling
for our classrooms is the supplementing of our teaching. Students can
simply log in and share their questions or comments, and you can get
real-time feedback. Overall, YoTeach! is a highly
effective, efficient, and intelligently structured pedagogical tool that
enables students and teachers to extend the learning process by
providing online interactions that run parallel to discussions inside
and beyond the classroom, as well as by generating feedback, asking
questions, and providing examples. Digital backchanneling through YoTeach! could become a
staple in today’s classrooms, because it provides unique opportunities
to engage and stimulate learning.
created by the Pedagogic
and Active Learning Mobile Solutions Project, Hong Kong
Polytechnic University, and is available free as a web-based version.
See their website for more ideas on how to use YoTeach! in your
Baron, D., Bestbier, A., & Case, J. M. (2016).
Investigating the effects of a backchannel on university classroom
interactions: A mixed-method case study. Computers &
Education, 94, 61–76.
Camiel, L. D., Goldman-Levine, J. D., Kostka-Rokosz., M. D.,
& McCloskey, W. W. (2014). Twitter as an in-class backchannel
tool in a large required pharmacy course. American Journal of
Pharmaceutical Education, 78(3), 67.
Fiester, H., & Green, T. (2016). Student use of
backchannels. TechTrends, 60(4), 404–408.
Reinders, H. (2014). Backchanneling in the language classroom:
Improving student attention and retention with feedback technologies. Journal of Language Teaching and Learning, 4(2),
Sung, Y. T., Chang, K., & Liu, T. C. (2016) The effects
of integrating mobile devices with teaching and learning on students’
learning performance: A meta-analysis and research synthesis. Computers & Education, 94, 252–275.
Lucas Kohnke is a teaching fellow at the Hong Kong
Polytechnic University. His research interests include
technology-supported teaching and learning, professional development
using information communication technology, and course design in English
for academic/specific purposes.