Today’s post is brought to you by the backchannel, that swirly, seething collection of tweets, FB posts, and I suppose technically Google+ comments that makes up the realtime reaction to any presentation. If used right it provide instant audience interaction, keep folks paying attention, and guards against awkward silences when the presenter asks “anyone have any questions?” If used wrong it’s great place to heckle. It’s what you would be saying if you didn’t have to wait for the darn speaker to be done.
Generally, the line of thought is, the audience is gonna talk about you anyway so you can either force them to turn off their phones (which makes you look like a dick) or you can harness their sniping for the powers of good. Usually this is accomplished by projecting the audience’s twitter feed or chatroom somewhere the presenter can see it. More rarely it means building the feed directly into the presentation software. Even more rarely it means hosting the chat yourself. That’s the one I wanna talk about.
After all the backchannel excitement at SXSW I started getting curious about how they could be used in an academic setting. One sign of a good class is when I see that the students have gone ahead and made their own group chat (using partyappchat, or some such) so they can talk during lectures. Usually it’s to make fun of the professor, but sometimes it’s to share resources or ask advice. The point is, they only bother in classes where there’s some level of engagement.
I tried experimenting with this a little during a class I was involved with last semester. During the student’s final presentations I tried projecting the live twitter feedback on the wall near the speakers. Students sent a pre-list of all the quotes and links they wanted re-tweeted during thier presentation, and that, plus the reactions, made up the backchannel. With a couple of exceptions, this totally failed. There was a lot of excitement and retweets, and a little joking in the feed, but not a whole lot of conversation.
I think the issue is that people might retweet interesting quotes, and people might heckle or offer encouragement, but no one is going to clutter up their feed with comments like “Could you repeat that?” or “What’s he talking about?” or “Actually, I think that’s wrong but I’m not totally sure, anyone?” We’re all too worried about the persona we’ve created on our social networks to risk polluting it with anything resembling real conversation.
Here’s one possible solution, this Fall I’ve implemented a new experiment with the same class. During each four hour lecture every week, all students, and also the professors and visiting critiquers are logged onto HipChat. If you haven’t used hipChat yet I must say this is a pretty great tool – complete archiving and searchability in a nice chat package. What goes on there? Whatever! Reactions to the presentations, side conversations, reference material, and yeah, a little bit of snarking. Why is this so great for us:
- Each presenter ends up with a complete transcript of reactions throughout their presentation. When listening, especially to a lecture that’s a little long, it’s so easy to forget the more nuanced points of feedback in trade for the big ones. And likewise, if there is good feedback there’s pressure to tune out the rest of a conversation in favor of remembering your comments. Either way, better to just get it down on screen.
- As moderator it’s a whole lot easier to see who’s engaged and who isn’t, the commenting and the not. I await the day that this thing has some analytics built in so I can see participation a little more easily. It’s great to no longer wonder if someone is taking notes or on Facebook.
- Questions get answered a whole lot faster, and without breaking up the presenter’s train of talk. It’s so easy to derail a line of thought when a concept doesn’t make sense, and the jump to boredom after that is pretty fast. This way confusion gets resolved immediately, and moreover without stopping the stream of the lecture to do it.
Is it a panacea? Not at all – there’s one glaring issue: it’s hard to pay attention while typing. This method almost requires small lapses in attention. And second of all, it does require a healthy dose of control to keep things from devolving into ascii art. If the presenter isn’t pretty darn dominant, this isn’t the tool for them.
Of course, that’s a bit of a gamble in any presentation, whether academic or otherwise, but I heartily suggest giving it a try either way.