September 2019
ARTICLES
DIGITAL BACKCHANNELING TO ENCOURAGE ACTIVE LEARNING: YOTEACH!

Lucas Kohnke, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China

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!

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.

YoTeach! 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.

Potential Challenges

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’ individual devices.

● 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 posts.

● 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!.

Conclusion

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.

YoTeach! is 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 classroom.

References

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), 84–91.

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.