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Juliette Culver
25 November 2009

Backchannels at conferences, in the classroom: good thing? bad thing? best technology to use? how to use it?

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Giota Alevizou
11:28am 27 November 2009 (Edited 11:29am 27 November 2009)

Backchannels: is it curbing enthusiasm, discontent, self-promotion of one's interpretations or engagement in productive debates? I think all the above...Good thing and bad thing? both? is it a way to connect the audience and record a connection of their thoughts for an event with the world? or a way to just disconnect what the person that speaks and to immerse in everybody else's interpretations and self-indulgent or rude remarks (often!)? I am just worried that this culture of super-hyper-immediacy, and multitasking may take away the wisdom of timely reflection; reflection that comes after a talk or a seminar or a lecture concludes...

I guess that's the difference between tweeting and live blogging; at least in the latter, 'authors' have the chance to review their posts (at least once) and edit reflections? But then again in the multitude of instant messages, you also find, very insightful comments that open up dialogue and the sharing of reflections. So I am torn... to what end is this happening? what are the 'network effects' and for whom? is this a way to expand the learning about an argument, a concept and take the interpretations of an active audience into consideration to revise arguments, theories, research and the such? is this something like a granular peer review? an idea about democratising public opinion? but how do you account for those that express their voice in the physical event without twittering or live blogging? these are compelling phenomena that cry out for systematic research.

I wonder how a tool like Cohere (concept mapping and ideas mapping tool) could assist capturing the essence of such debates. Cohere will be used to capture and map climate change debates on the COP15. 

But then again, judging from the diversity of opinions, insights, reflections and views on the phenomenon that the links and references (right) demonstrate, a comparative research framework capturing both a) nature of 'talk' and b) networks of people in virtual and physical spaces would be necessary.  


Juliette Culver
4:01pm 27 November 2009

One of the things that interests me is that backchannels seem to have been moving from being something that a small minority of the audience engaged in (who may well mostly have all known eachother already) to something that either a large minority or majority now are aware of. I think this changes their nature somewhat, turning a space that although not necessarily private, was not advertised widely or only to those 'in the know', into a much more public space in which people behave differently.

Giota Alevizou
4:45pm 27 November 2009

"turning a space that although not necessarily private, was not advertised widely or only to those 'in the know', into a much more public space in which people behave differently." Totally agree, this notion of changing behaviour/ interaction in a public space is so compelling. Then again, it's precisely this notion of 'collective networks of interpretation' in hash-tagged events that drives people to connect to those that make interesting, like-minded remarks that interests me too. It's as if the 'event' in the physical space, is just the object to make more connections physically and virtually?! 

Gill Clough
5:16pm 27 November 2009

There is also a wider aspect to the backchannel. Both twitter hash tags and piped blog posts allow people who are not at the event ito follow what is going on, mediated and often enhanced by being interpreted by those twittering or blogging. Often it is difficult to afford the time to watch the videocast, assuming the presentation or workshop is being streamed, but it is easy to keep an eye on the twitter-sphere or blogosphere. 

Gráinne Conole
11:28am 28 November 2009

Yes good point Gill. I like the sense of 'belonging' being part of a conference back chat gives me. Also I have to confess I find it difficult to sit and just listen to presentations, it's nice to be able to make comments and interact with others at the same time in the backchat.

Giota Alevizou
1:58pm 1 December 2009

Fantastic backchanneling/ virtual participation of the Unesco seminar in open social learning by Antonella Esposito in cloudworks here

Olivia Mitchell
7:14pm 5 December 2009

The backchannel is relatively new at mainstream conferences. There've been a few blow-ups in the backchannel recently but things will settle down as audience members get used to their new-found power and learn to exercise it responsibly.

In most cases, the benefits far outweigh the downsides - the audience can be more engaged with the presentation and the presenter's ideas can be spread further than the physical walls.

If you're tweeting at the same time as you're listening to a presentation, you might miss something. But each audience member will over time work out the balance between paying undivided attention and participating in the backchannel that works for them.

Antonella Esposito
7:22pm 5 December 2009

@Gill I have recently experienced a virtual participation at a conference totally mediated by some eterogeneous materials and overall a vibrant Twitter stream animated by the conference attendants. It was a peculiar experience, in which I had to build a ‘whole’ I couldn’t directly access by using tweets and the embedded links as many pieces in a puzzle. Indeed I was somewhat facilitated because I knew the work of some of the speakers. Moreover, my choice to start a cloud about what’s going at the conference was decisive to keep it high my engagement and make the written races somwhat reusablee by me or others. As many, in the past I also experienced the participation at a distance by live video streaming, often listening to the audio track while doing other things. I can say that it was not so engaging as the Twitter stream: even if live video provides you with a complete delivery of the conference talks, it can’t provide you with the experience to be there and so risks to be tyring. On the other hand a ‘poor’ means as Twitter is with respect to video streaming, offers the possibility to take part in the event, both listening to and contributing. I think that after this kind of virtual participation I could use (and enjoy) a video recording of the talks to confirm and grasp more in depth what I catched live sifting through the tweets. I am not sure if the ‘edited’ tweets I drew from the stream can make sense for anyone was (f-2-f or virtually) part of that experience.

Gráinne Conole
8:06pm 5 December 2009

Hi I was talking to one of the organisers Cath Gunn here at the Ascilite conference about using Twitter. They hope to put the Twitter stream for #ascilite09 up on the screen during the keynotes, but will ask the permission of each of the keynotes first. I'm certainly happy to have it put up during my session. Cahy mentioned that recently when she as at a conference she deliberately decided NOT to talk her laptop into the keynote sessions so that she could listen. She found that she became frustrated because it meant she couldn't follow the backchannel. I think I'd feel the same. Indeed I have become used now to using cloudworks during conferences, to live blog sessions and to add links as the speaker mentions relevant references and resources. Far from detracting from what they are saying I find that it helps me concentrate and enhances my experience of the presentation. An added bonus is that I then have a rich resource which I can go back to, better than scriblling on bits of paper (which is what I used to do) which inevitably get lost. Backchannels for me are a fact of modern conferences and are here to stay.

Olivia Mitchell
8:43pm 5 December 2009

I would recommend against putting the backchannel up on the screen during the keynotes. It means there's a constantly moving stream of text which is very difficult not to pay attention to. Audience members should have a choice about whether they split their attention between the speaker and the backchannel. If you put it up on the screen you take that choice away.


Antonella Esposito
9:23pm 5 December 2009

@Grainne Interesting your count from inside: a new netiquette is a key factor as well as a new attitude in pioneer presenters, in order to overcome the traditional trasmissive model of the conference talk.

I was just browsing the excerpts of the Atkinson's book about the backchannel at the conferences, using social media. He is inclined to a model of 'massive conversation' with the audience during his talks. He stresses the importance to explore the 'backstage' of a f-2-f conference as the most valuable way to catch the mood and the needs of the audience. Therefore, he is inclined to eliminate the slides or taking them in background, while the backchannel (Twitter or whatever) should become the focus of an interactive dialogue with the audience. It seems to propose a role of the presenter as a listener and participant. Even he suggests a way to schedule own presentation taking into account how many quotes the Twitter stream will mention.

He quotes Nancy White:

"If I as a presenter I am focused on "delivery", I'm not in 'listening mode' (...). Perhaps if we were better prepared, more at ease and confident as performer, we'd be able to more easily move away from performer to listener and conversational participant".

It seems to me that such a role can't fit all the situations and all the presenters' personalities.

I wander what you think, as an experienced presenter, of a live talk to be transformed in a conversation, using Twitter & co.

Antonella Esposito
10:09pm 5 December 2009

@Olivia Just had a look at your practical guide on how to use a backchannel at a conference: it has a plenty of tips and tricks, and information about tools. I wander if you have some reccommendations also to engage distant conference participants.

Juliette Culver
10:33am 7 December 2009


Have you given presentations before with a twitter stream on stage or will this be the first time at Ascilite? Interested to know how it feels from a presenter's point of view talking when there's a twitter stream. 


Gráinne Conole
5:27pm 7 December 2009

@Juliette No I havent had a twitter stream behind me before. Closest equivalent is having the backchannel in eluminate. Yes it's a bit nerve racking but at the same time if you are doing a talk you have a duty to do the best you can, if it's not great people will criticises it anyway, its just twitter makes it more public....

Giota Alevizou
6:11pm 7 December 2009

@Grainne: So how was the experience? Good constructive feedback? had a look brief look at your keynote and it looks great.

Gráinne Conole
11:01pm 7 December 2009

Hi Giota mentioned your work on the Networked Learning Paper :-) In fact in the end they didn't have the twitter stream on behind me - dunno why not. To be honest I forgot about it, got caught up with the talk!

Giota Alevizou
1:13pm 8 December 2009

Hiya Grainne, lots of 'positive' twitter stream during your talk ;)

Giselle Ferreira
4:54pm 8 December 2009

What a fascinating discussion of an equally fascinating 'phenomenon' - really great topic for a cloud, Juliette!

I wonder: are we looking at the death of rhetoric or, perhaps, the birth of distributed rhetoric?

Fascinating stuff leaving me, again, wanting more time just to think :-( 

Gráinne Conole
10:19pm 8 December 2009

Thanks @Giota - lots of good discussion after the persentation too!

Rebecca Galley
9:47am 11 December 2009

Thanks for adding that link Antonella - that looks really interesting. I might have to have a play ;)

Antonella Esposito
6:58pm 11 December 2009

Dave Cormier attempted to rethink online presentation using a 'live slides' technique, in which audience becomes the frontchannel and is engaged in building the presentation. In practice he changed a presentation in an interactive workshop, applying  a tecnique often used by good online teachers.

Maybe  this model doesn't fit well with all the speakers and all the  types of presentation, but I think that  in online talks a planned interaction (i.e. through polls, open-ended questions) can be far more engaging that the activaton of a mere stream of backchat. At least so far my experience of online conferences using backchat has not been so satisfactory as the use of Twitter has been. Personally, this is also due to technical issues, as the speed and intertwinning of messages in the backchat.

Nicola Edlington
12:15am 15 December 2009

Is there an issue though, where a lot of valuable discussion is taking place in the backchannel, yet not everyone is able to access this?

I really enjoyed the Twitter feed during James Clay's keynote, but if it hadn't been up on the screen i would never have seen it.

Antonella Esposito
10:12am 15 December 2009

I agree that access is an important issue here, since backchannel is a form of interaction which can produce an ‘augmented presentation’. This form of interaction ha sto be faciliated so that it occurs. This can vary according to the specific situation. For instance, considering speaker/backchannel interaction in a conventional f-2-f conference: if a speaker is willing to interact with the backchannel and use it as a springboard for her/his presentation, it is actually essential that backchannel is visibile on the screen, because it becomes the core text of the presentation itself. However, for me the key point in the backchannel – irrespective to the speaker attitude towards backchannelling - is the opportunity for a viewer to become an active participant, joining the stream by texting comments through a mobile device. Backchannel is an additional opportunity to raise your voice and to ask for more personalization in a standard presentation. Of course, this implies new organizational and netiquette problems which someone is already facing.

Gráinne Conole
11:32pm 18 December 2009

Really interesting points - my feeling is that there is now a spectrum of delivery/presentation from the traditional form to the more inclusive audience form. Which is best? I suspect they are all important - it will depend on the context: the 'presenter' and their style, the 'audience' and their preferences, the venuw, the conference topic etc. Like many other technologies pandora's box is open: back channels are now a reality - they offer new forms of discourse but also have the potential to be distracting. We each have to make our own presonal decisions on what suits us best.

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