Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Learning from failure - the backchannel didn't work well!

Failure can be the best way to learn. I failed today - and I learned today.

At school we have a fortnightly Senior Theology and Philosophy forum, whereby our goal is to open up - usually in a lecture and tutorial format - some of the big questions of theology, philosophy and the Christian worldview. Last term we tried to identify questions that the students wanted to explore and, unsurprisingly, the problem of suffering and evil was front and centre. To begin to introduce the ideas, rather than roll in a guest speaker, we thought we would make use of Karl Faase' Towards Belief DVD. It is a great resource!

However, recognising the limitation of the uni-directional presentation (no matter how engaging or well produced), this seemed like a good forum to introduce a backchannel. A backchannel is a way of allowing the audience in a presentation to engage in interactive online chat whilst the main presentation is underway. The intention is that, instead of passively sitting and receiving, the listeners are able to interact with, fact check, query, critique, comment and otherwise engage with the ideas being presented. I have found the backchannels at a number of conferences and addresses to be highly engaging, prompting fruitful participation at the time and a record for perusal after the event.

We used Todaysmeet as the backchannel. For most, if not all of the students, this was their first experience of a formal backchannel and the Todaysmeet tool. Although the students had not been briefed to bring their technology to the session, a significant majority had web-enabled tools with them - mostly smartphones. I had set up the Todaysmeet room and we had the secondary projection screens set up in the auditorium displaying the students' contributions. I framed the tool by explaining it as an opportunity for a more interactive experience and urging them to engage with the process as a respectful dialogue. As the video got underway, I began to model the kind of engagement that we had been hoping for - summary points, queries, comments etc.

It didn't work.

Only a small number of those who had logged on participated. Almost all of those chose not to identify themselves, choosing pseudonyms or the names of other students (and staff). The students who tried to participate meaningfully were starkly in contrast with those were delighting in pushing the boundaries of appropriateness. After a while, we pulled the display off the secondary projection screens to diminish the distraction from the topic, but I decided to keep the backchannel open to see how the social dynamic played out. My read is that a number of the students wanted to push further and further to see what had to be done to draw a public response from the staff. We let it run.

Once the video was over, before going to a panel, we considered the question as to why anonymity leads to inappropriate behaviour. Obviously, freedom from consequences can lead us to cast off restraint.

What did I learn?

  • Meaningful use of a backchannel is a skill that needs to be modelled and taught. 
  • A culture of positive use of a backchannel will take time to develop.
  • Smaller groups will be a better forum for the introduction of backchannel engagement
  • Many students will sit back and observe, before diving in to the use of a tool that puts their own voice out there. A low-risk entry point needs to be created.
  • Don't be afraid to have a go. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

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