Nov 23 2011

Day 14: 6 steps to create a twitter backchannel for your classroom

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“Back-channeling” is were the magic of using twitter in the classroom really kicks in. It refers to establishing a hashtag for your classroom/event/conference and actively promoting it to be used actively  in real time by participants during, but even before and after  the event to stimulate discussion and feedback. Wikpedia refers to it as “ the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks.”

Backchanneling can be used to achieve different goals within varied contexts (classroom, events, conferences). You will not necessarily have the same objectives when using it in a classroom to when you use it for an event or conference. It must be made clear that a backchannel can evolve with or without our intervention. For instance, if event participants, on twitter,  start talking about an event of their own accord. We can however, pro-actively  facilitate the backchannel process and when we do this in a classroom context, we can bring in some measure of control to see to it that educational objectives are reached. For this reason I will deal with backchannels in the context of a classroom separately to when we use it at an event or conference which we will look at in Day 15. In the controlled context of a classroom we will set up a backchannel as a managed environment and use it as one of the tools to make learning happen in a visible and to some extend measurable way. Let us see how we can attempt to do just that.

Step 1: Setting it up (practically)

Students can, strictly speaking, follow the backchannel discussion on their mobile phones, but I have found that having a visible twitter screen alongside your presentation screen REALLY encourages interaction and discussion. This practically means that you need to have 2 data projectors set up with 2 screens. Only advantaged schools can afford this, so more often than not it means that you will switch between your presentation and the twitter screen, leaving the students to engage with you using twitter on their mobile devices or laptops. The ideal is to have 2 screens where the teacher presents the topic (see screen on right) while the participants or students discuss what is being said and comment (screen on left).

When your twitter screen is not visible all the time, you need to create regular intervals to show the discussion screen. You can use questions time to swap back to the twitter screen and your presentation screen.

Step 2: Create and share the hashtag with your students

Next you need to create a hashtag to focus all the discussions around the classroom topic (see how to in day 7). For classrooms I suggest that you do this at the beginning of the school year and maintain the momentum throughout the year. Make sure that the students have the hashtag in advance so that they can start preparing for your classes (what should we bring; what is the lesson going to be about; pre-questions; pre-instructions).

Step 3: Choosing the display tools

As you would like everybody in the room to be able to read the backchannel discussions,  you will need to enlarge the normal twitter hashtag stream. There are a few good 3rd party tools that you can use to show off your backchannel optimally. These tools will show tweets as it happens (in real time) and you do not have to refresh it regularly as it should ideally auto refresh. Tweetchat (see previous image) is a good backchanneling tool which allows you to…

  • Set the refresh speed (how quickly it loads new tweets)
  • Pause the stream (if you want to focus on a specific tweet e.g a question or answer) and
  • Block certain undesirable individual’s tweets.

A few other backchanneling display tools to use…

Wiffiti ( randomly displays tweets and is a good display to use during breaks and before the class start. It also have a realtime timeline display choice. As you can see, you can even embed the display in your class blog (or wherever).

Visibletweets creates bright colourful tweet pages that can be displayed as tag clouds (handy to see who are participating as well as the main words) or rotating tweet windows. See our tweet cloud for the last few days…

For more backchannel tools, check my database for an ever growing list of tools.

Step 4: Backchannel “control” (some ideas)

It is a good idea to appoint a backchannel moderator to help you manage the twitter class stream during a lesson. Appoint, on a rotation basis, a student to keep an eye out for questions and bring your attention to when students go “off topic”. Even if questions do not come up, schedule discussion breaks regularly where you bring the twitter backchannel into play, and show the stream. For low tech classes, you can let the students write down their tweets on a piece of paper and have a student per group enter the tweets using a cellphone or laptop.

Step 5: Structure

If we want to use a tool like twitter we need to be clear about how we want to incorporate it into the lesson structure. It has to support the outcomes we want to achieve. By using twitter to provide structure to your lesson, it moves from just being a tool to being a way to engage ALL the students in a meaningful way. Some ideas for incorporating the backchannel in the classroom:

  • As an instant feedback system: Ask questions and students answer via the twitter stream (using the hashtag as marker)
  • As a way for students to have a voice and to encourage discussion.
  • Assessment (We will look at twitter assessment instruments like polls and questionnaires in a further day)
  • Ask students to summarise what everybody are saying. (It is great practise to summarise)
  • When students work in groups, instruct them to summarise group ideas using twitter- it can result in a diverse cross pollination of ideas. You can then pull everything together by going through the twitter stream.
  • Students can submit classwork using twitter (e.g. take a photo of work/upload a file) and you can then randomly display and work through  submissions.
  • For more ideas see the following articles:

Step 5: Evaluate and reward

A good way to get students into the process is to assess their involvement in the lesson via twitter. You can  give them an assessment rubric (before the time) of how you will evaluate their class participation in the twitter stream. Here is something to get you started…

  1. Minus a point for every “off topic” remark.
  2. A point for making at least 3 entries (chit-chat relationship building kind of tweets)
  3. Two points for summarising exactly what you/others are saying.
  4. Three points for sharing links that can add to the discussion (articles, simulations etc)
  5. Three points for resp0nding meaningfully to others.
  6. Four points for analysing what you/others are saying and giving their opinion.
  7. Five points for creating innovative content relating to the topic at hand.
  8. ………..

See @love_da ‘s self assessment rubric that he created for his students, or you can download it from here :

You can,  at the end of a lesson, use a twitter analysis tool to show the student a graph of their interaction on the twitter stream using tools like Archivist . It is amazing what a little bit of peer pressure can do! We all want a piece of the pie! (Click on image to see the live stats for our #ict4champions workshop stream- do you feature?)

Step 6: Closure

A good way to end of your twitter backchannel supported  lesson, is to make a word cloud of all the tweets and show it in a cloud picture. This involves copying and pasting the entire twitter discussion for the lesson into a word cloud maker. A fun one is It allows you to delete stopwords that are not applicable.  It will also show the main strands of the twitter discussion as well as enlarge contributors names according to their involvement – evoking participative peer pressure yet again! You can choose a funky shape and colour scheme to finish things off. Remember to share the cloud picture link as well as the tweet analysis  in the backchannel stream…


At the end of this activity you should have send at least 5 tweets: Remember to insert teh hastags #day14 #ict4champions

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