Common Sense Review
Updated November 2013

Backchannel Chat

Real-time, moderated online discussions can engage and encourage
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Common Sense Rating 3
Teacher Rating (1 Teacher Review) 4
  • The site’s homepage is a carousel of its main features.
  • With a chat named, a teacher dashboard is created.
  • Teachers can moderate class discussions and track “chat stats.”
  • Even with the free version of the service, teachers can control the discussion’s pace.
  • Chat transcripts are stored through the site for teacher or student reference.
Pros
Like a teacher-moderated version of Twitter, the site can help engage students in discussions that may transcend the virtual space.
Cons
Some students may struggle to multi-task during other activities; this may not be a skill you'd wish to reinforce.
Bottom Line
Backchannel Chat offers a fun and safe way to hold real-time online discussions that might just increase engagement, interest, and even learning.
Amy Lauren Botula
Common Sense Reviewer
Common Sense Rating 3
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 4

Students will enjoy interacting with their peers in a virtual setting. Teachers will appreciate students’ increased engagement, collaboration, and attentiveness.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 3

Students can practice using important communication skills. Beyond being a 21st century learning tool, online discussions can foster greater engagement and participation, giving more access to learning content.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 2

Teachers will have to resolve any technical issues with the site during live-chat sessions. There isn't a Help link, and tutorials are limited. Extension and reflection activities are entirely up to the teacher.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

Success with Backchannel Chat will depend on how it's facilitated. Any class discussion, whether large or small, could begin virtually before holding a traditional, out-loud discussion in class -- this might actually be the site's most practical use. Students are much more likely to participate in a chat discussion than in a similar discussion out loud in class. Once they're engaged in a topic -- and once they've seen their classmates opinions -- many students are more comfortable speaking in front of the group.

Teachers could also assign note-taking discussions for students to engage in after, or perhaps even during, video activities or presentations. Teachers will want to provide lots of structure for this type of activity. As many students struggle to stay engaged during videos or in-class presentations, the opportunity to chat, without being disruptive, could re-invent the experience, making it more meaningful. Lastly, reviewing chat transcripts is an opportunity for both reflection and assessment.

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What's It Like?

Backchannel Chat is an online tool designed to facilitate real-time discussions. Teachers need only sign up, create a name for their chat, and then share the URL with their students. Students enter a name and click Join -- no other personal information is required. Teachers can moderate discussions, remove messages, and “lock” the chat at any time. The site also has a profanity filter, and offers a web-based transcript of all chats for teachers and students to review.

Additionally, Backchannel Chat has an “amplification” feature where students can “vote up” responses. There are also “chat stats” for teachers to track student participation. Upgrading to the premium package offers expanded search options and storage, full PDF chat transcripts, and allows private student-to-teacher messaging.

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Is It Good For Learning?

Don’t let the site's simple design (or occasional typo) discourage you -- Backchannel Chat has solid potential as a teaching tool. With the discussion occurring online, the playing field becomes more level and thus, more inclusive. Reluctant speakers -- ELL's, special ed. students, and those who might just be more introverted -- can all become active participants. Everyone can assert their own opinions and ideas while also learning from each other.

However, teacher-moderation is key. Front-loading chat etiquette and expectations, as well as structuring discussions around specific objectives, will enhance the discussion and better support learning. Reviewing the chat transcripts as a class or in small groups will also help to reinforce new skills -- students can transfer what they've learned to new experiences.

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