A first attempt with backchanneling in the science classroom


I have been trying out new tech related ideas in my science lessons this year. Monday I built a backchanneling session into an evolution unit for my 9th/10th grade science class. Over the last week we have been looking at various types of evidence for evolutionary theory, and today we began looking at how anatomical structures can help support evolutionary relationships between organisms.

The lesson was focused around the documentary “Inside Nature’s Giants: Whales”. It is a wonderful look at the dissection of a fin whale that beached itself on the Irish coast. Whale anatomist, Joy Reidenberg,  leads the dissection looking at how different organs helped whales adapt to their marine environment.

Parts 1 and 2 are shown below. These are embedded from viddler.com

The backchanneling was set up using  todaysmeet.com, and I used a mobile laptop cart unit, where almost every student had a laptop to log in with. There were some pairs that ended up sharing a laptop.

I had prepared some questions the previous night which I saved into a Word document. That way, with a simple cut and paste, I could interject the prompts into the conversation as they became relevant in the movie,

You can view the resulting chat here. Unfortunately the Todaysmeet transcript function is not allowing me to convert into a time sequenced text file, so for now you will have to scroll up from the bottom of the feed to see the flow of the conversation in sequence.

Some observations and student feedback:

  1. There were many students who participated in the backchanneling session. Feedback at the end of class indicated that most students liked using it and found it engaging.
  2. About 1/3 of the students said they couldn’t concentrate on both the movie and the backchanneling session at the same time.
  3. I was able to clarify some of the less obvious points, and answer questions I didn’t immediately know by posting links or quickly looking up the information on-line.
  4. Students seemed to be engaged with the lesson, either watching the movie only, or using the backchannel and watching. My co-teacher walked around to peer over student shoulders to check this out for me.
  5. Students liked the fact that they could use a different name and post anonymously without fear of being wrong. I did see some misuse of this (and I had asked for them to use their own name), but nothing major that would prevent me from using it again. I did see students who tend to be less vocal in class ask and answer questions via the backchannel.

My main conclusion from this first attempt at backchanneling is that it can be a useful tool in engaging students, BUT there need to be alternative entry points into the lesson’s learning goals for those students who are not able to effectively split their attention between the backchannel and the presentation taking place.

I tried to provide the multiple entry points with the transcript,  homework that focused on the key concepts, and the follow-up discussion today that tied the homework back to the movie and the backchannel discussion.

One application of the backchannel tool that I am very interested in trying in the future is using it during another teacher’s lecture-focused lesson. I can see myself (the 2nd teacher in the room…maybe a SPED teacher or paraprofessional in another school) focusing on the meta-cognitive aspects of the lesson.

I could prompt students through the backchannel to focus on such things as:

  • transitions/connections between concepts
  • providing context for concepts
  • answering some questions before kids get lost in the presentation, and prompting kids to ask the lecturer other questions
  • prompting kids to write down notes on statements or rhetorical questions that are stated, but not written on the board

Overall I felt this was a successful attempt at using some new tech ideas in my classroom. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this lesson and your experiences with backchanneling in the classroom.

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