During a meeting last week in LA, Justin Hall talked a bit about a frontchanneled discussion in a grad seminar. Putting aside the particulars (we don’t have a Zemeckis room :) ), I was intrigued by the idea. Backchanneling refers to the use of multiple channels to communicate among participants and audience members during a discussion. At a basic level, it includes asides and note-passing. More frequently, though, it now refers to IM and IRC messaging using WiFi enabled laptops, or texting using cells or PDAs. Frontchanneling (see the comments here) refers more generally to the process of acknowledging and including such a channel, and specifically of putting that channel up on a data projector where it is more visible to everyone.
I’m excited about making use of frontchanneling in my 400-seat class this spring. There are two things that will have to happen:
First there will need to be some level of penetration among the class participants. I suspect that only between 5% and 10% of class participants will have a WiFi enabled computer that they can use during classes. Power in the large lecture room may be an additional problem. If there is that level of penetration, I will ask those students to contribute to the class by sitting in one part of the room and channeling discussion there. They can then, possibly, coordinate local discussion, and do some other things to make use of the space.
I’d like to use a front-channel that would allow for questions and comments, but I also want to make sure that students are responsible for what they say. Heckling is acceptable, to a certain extent, but even if they don’t want to stand up to do it physically, they need to take ownership for their words. So, I am thinking I will use a whitelist of people who can access the projected chat. Even if they don’t announce their name — I know who they are, and if their contribution isn’t much of a contribution, I can tell them as much. This is harder in IRC, where authentication is a bit more problematical, so I am thinking AIM is the likely candidate.
My thought is that there are a number of potential ways this could be used:
* Interrupting / Asking questions
* Polling (“Do you get this?”) and enumeration (“Can you think of examples of X?”)
* Feedback on the content (this stuff is boring, you already told that story, etc.)
* Reporting the results of smaller discussions in groups
* Real time, collaborative note-taking
* Communicating URLs, images, etc. to/from audience
* Handing in papers electronically (though this would require 100% penetration)
Beyond IM, it would be great if students could mark-up my slides collaboratively: call it WePoint. That is, the slide goes up, with space around it for students to make their own notes. A lot of folks who use slides (which usually means Powerpoint) extensively now hand out or make available printouts of the slides for students to mark up during the presentation. How cool would it be if everyone could share those notes? I don’t think this can be done in, say, AIM. It requires some form of graphical structuring, and a versioning system (so it is easy to get to the original slides), but even for someone who has sworn off of Powerpoint for teaching, I think it’s a neat idea. I have a feeling that it could be cobbled together without a huge amount of work, using the Jabber libraries.