How to Use Backchannels in the Classroom

by Hope Morley

how to use backchannels in the classroom

image courtesy miamiamia via

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

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