Tag Archives: collaboration

How to Use Backchannels in the Classroom

by Hope Morley

how to use backchannels in the classroom

image courtesy miamiamia via freeimages.com

If you’ve been to a conference in the past several years, I’m sure you saw that the event had its own hashtag. Whatever your feelings about Twitter and hashtags, I can tell you that some great conversations happen thanks to those hashtags and that it’s a great way to hear what someone else in the same sessions thought of the speakers.

This type of digital conversation occurring in the background of a live event is known as a backchannel. Backchannels can be great in the classroom as well as the conference center.

When you have a class discussion, what percentage of students really participate (outside of monosyllables)? 50 percent? 75? Using backchannels is a way to increase that number by allowing students who may not feel comfortable speaking up, or who process more slowly, to contribute their ideas.

I also like backchannels during lectures or while showing movies in class. Students can post questions as they watch, and you as the teacher can monitor engagement. It’s similar to collaborative note taking. You can pause the movie if you see many questions about a topic or comments indicating that students are itching to discuss!

Obviously giving students an open platform can be risky, so moderate any backchannel while it is still in use and shut it down when the activity is over.

Backchannel Tools

The Best:

Today’s Meet

With a fast and easy setup and no sign in required, Today’s Meet is the easiest and quickest way to start using backchannels. Once you start your chat, you get a simple URL (no long sets of numbers or letters) or QR code that can be shared with your students. Transcripts of the discussion can be downloaded for reference later. Today’s Meet asks for “Nicknames,” so set rules with your students as to what name they need to enter.

The Rest:


This is a great option if you want students to post anything in addition to text, or if you don’t need the discussion to stay in chronological order. Padlet is also a good option if you are having students use a backchannel while reading an informational text. If students have questions that require a little outside research, other students can post answers, images, or even videos. Lino is a similar service, but I prefer Padlet’s interface.


Chatzy creates an old-school chat room. Guests need to be invited via email, which is an additional step you may not want to take. Chatzy also lacks a presentation mode and the ability to download transcripts like Today’s Meet. You can ask multiple choice questions, though if you want students answering questions during class I’d recommend Poll Everywhere or Socrative. Chatzy also has public rooms with questionable content, so keep curious student eyes on your room.

Google Moderator

I want to like this tool. I really do. The features, such as threaded conversations, seem great… but I can’t stand it. I find the layout very confusing and the presentation mode leaves out any replies to comments. A rare whiff on Google’s part.

Edmodo or Twitter

If your students are on Edmodo, you can have students post in a group. I don’t think Edmodo is as clean or easy as Today’s Meet, but go for it if your students are comfortable with the site. Twitter also works (set a unique hashtag), but all your students would need a public account.

For more about backchannels, check out Cybrary Man’s backchannel page. Or pop over to Twitter and ask me your questions!

Hope bioHope Morley is a consultant and social media coordinator for Green Light Professional Development. She writes about social media, conferences, and anything else on the web that helps both students and teachers learn. Follow her @GreenlightLT

Collaborative Learning: What’s Tech Got to Do with It?

Part 3 of our series on collaborative learning. Read part 1 and part 2.

by Helen Beyne

collaborative learning

image courtesy bplanet at freedigitalphotos.net

Here are some ways to boost the frequency of collaborative learning in your classroom:

  • Writing workshops: Mixed groups of learners discuss and give feedback on each other’s writing.
  • Peer tutoring: This is a great way for a student to develop comprehension and skills and/or to clarify and make permanent their mastery of a topic.
  • Think-pair-share and Jigsaw: These methods are based on supportive interaction among learners.
  • Literature circles/Close reading groups: Active dialogue with peers hones students’ ability to tie their own ideas to the source text in order to explain their interpretation to their peers.
  • Other group projects with assigned roles such as timekeeper and note-taker. (Bonus: assigning roles is part of the CCCS Speaking and Listening strand.)

Depending on your access to technology, you can mix and match from the following ideas:

If your classroom is low-tech or analog-only, collaborative learning teams can work together by holding discussions, creating and assessing jigsaw presentations, completing written assignments as a group, or creating and explaining (or performing) visual or theatrical projects. You may wish to work together with your students to design rubrics that will help groups self-assess. Emphasizing the process over the product is a great way to help learners become self-directed and responsible. Check out this Edutopia roundup of some printable resources you can use right away.

If you have access to tablets, smartphones, laptops, or an interactive whiteboard, consider using them to assist groups in research, note-taking, timekeeping, brainstorming, or mind-mapping. Collaborative learners also may benefit from engaging multiple learning styles, so put those microphones, cameras, drawing apps, and editing software to use with tools like PowToon!  Groups can also use wikis, online forums, or even videoconferencing to communicate or organize learning resources.

Take note, teachers: Collaborative learning isn’t just for K–12 students. Teachers just like you are getting together and working to deepen their understanding of pedagogy, management, practices, and even everybody’s favorite thing: test prep. See our blog for more about building and using PLNs.

Drop us a line in the comments below, or visit us on Facebook, to let us know what collaborative learning looks like in your school!

Helen bioHelen Beyne is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development. She has years of experience in creating innovative curriculum materials in reading, ESL, science, and social studies. She writes about IWBs and free online resources for teachers.

How To Use Collaborative Learning in Your Classroom

Part 2 in our series on collaborative learning. Click here to read part 1.

by Helen Beyne

collaborative learning

Image courtesy of samarttiw at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Collaborative learning happens when two or more learners, at different stages of mastery, work together on student-driven tasks. Wondering how you can build a collaborative space in your classroom? Read on.

Design Teams Carefully

The first step to making sure your class has a positive experience with collaborative learning is to design groups carefully. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of your students, and group them so each team represents the overall class. Take into consideration multiple learning styles, level of content mastery, and student interests. Additionally, set guidelines that clearly reflect all your expectations for the collaboration, such as, “Every person must give at least one opinion/answer/suggestion,” or “Listen carefully, and speak respectfully.”

Choose the Best Tools

You also may want to give students tools to help them get used to the process of collaborative learning, such as conversation-starter cards they can hold up that say “I agree/disagree,” “I suggest that we…,” “It’s time for a vote,” or “It’s time to move to the next phase.” Remember that physical space is a tool that can be used to enhance communication. Think about ways you can set up your classroom to encourage interaction.

Be a Facilitator

It might seem counterintuitive to hang back instead of stepping in, but you can be the most helpful to your collaborative learning teams by letting them work on their own. You will monitor the groups, of course, but keep intervention to the bare minimum. Instead of giving feedback about the content of the lesson, emphasize giving feedback on the process. For example, you may notice that some students need encouragement to speak up or some groups do a great job of managing their time and staying on task. In general, you want to emphasize process over product. This deepens thinking and helps learners get away from the “say the ‘right’ answer and move on” approach to school.

Model Best Practices

It’s also important that as you increase collaborative learning in your class, you model behaviors that match your explicit expectations. Collaboration demands that every voice be heard and that every student learns to listen and participate actively. Some students may struggle with either or both of these initially. Give students a wide variety of approaches to draw on, such as using probing and open-ended questions, active listening, and conflict resolution strategies as needed.

Helen bioHelen Beyne is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development. She has years of experience in creating innovative curriculum materials in reading, ESL, science, and social studies. She writes about IWBs and free online resources for teachers.