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CFT Assistant Director Quoted in New York Times Article on “Backchannels”

Posted by on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 in News.

by CFT Assistant Director Derek Bruff

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel for a story on the use of “backchannels” in education. A backchannel is a second conversation stream in a classroom or at a conference, typically one leveraging digital tools to complement the lecture or spoken discussion on the “frontchannel.” If you’ve been to an academic conference lately, you might have noticed that some of the conversation happening during keynotes and sessions happened on Twitter. That’s an example of a backchannel.

Teachers in K-12 and higher education contexts are beginning to explore the use of backchannels in the classroom via Twitter as well as other systems, like TodaysMeet. I’ve written a book on teaching with clickers, and I see backchannel as another type of classroom response system, one that complements the use of clickers. I’ve been blogging about backchannel for some time, and it was those blog posts that caught the attention of Trip Gabriel, the NYT reporter.

Mr. Gabriel’s article, “Speaking Up in Class, Silently, Using Social Media,” was published last week, and it includes a couple of brief quotes from me:

When Derek Bruff, a math lecturer and assistant director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, suggests fellow professors try backchannels, “Most look at me like I’m coming from another planet,” he said.

“The word on the street about laptops in class,” Dr. Bruff added, is that students use them to tune out, checking e-mail or shopping. He said professors could reduce such activity by giving students something class-related to do on their mobile devices.

Although I talked about many other aspects of backchannel with Mr. Gabriel, I’ll admit that the line about “coming from another planet” was probably the catchiest thing I said to him!

The question of laptops and other mobile devices in the classroom was one that we explored in a couple of conversations here at the CFT last fall. For some resources and perspectives on this question, see our “Wireless in the Classroom” teaching guide, as well as these blog posts:

If you’re interested in exploring the use of a backchannel in your class, feel free to contact me or Rhett McDaniel, the CFT’s educational technologist. We would be glad to help you get started.

Image: “Command Central,” Graham Ballantyne, Flickr (CC)

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