My colleagues and I have been frustrated by the level of participation in our classes. It seems as if only a few students are participating - meaning they are the ones raising their hands and offering responses to our questions. Student participation is something that is relevant to all P-16 classrooms. How do we know students' level of engagement? Typically we label students as being on task or off task by the physical behaviors we can see. Raising hands, head nodding, and eye contact have typically been indicators of engagement while fidgeting, doodling, and staring off into space, to name a few, have indicated off task behavior - meaning that the students were not attending to the information nor the interaction happening in the classroom. In reality, though, those statements are inferences based on observations that we are making of student behavior, but are they accurate? How can we know if students are actively engaging in the course?
With the affordances of technology, we can rethink the way participation occurs in our classrooms and in our pedagogy. Rather than having conversations be one directional - either teacher to student or student to student - what if the conversations were layered? Creating a space for a back channel invites layered discourse.
Imagine a classroom where the conversation was happening not only face to face but also in an online environment. Students would be listening to the forward conversation - that which I am calling the face-to-face conversation - while at the same time, if they choose, posting their thoughts, comments, questions, and resources online thereby inviting others to contribute their thoughts, comments, questions, and connections. In this way, the conversation becomes more dynamic and is negotiated between the students and the teacher and among the students. By offering students an opportunity to allow their voices to be heard, we can rethink how our higher education classrooms are structured. We can start to shift our pedagogy more towards being learner-centered rather than teacher-driven. A back channel can be an exciting space that promotes student voice and engagement while simultaneously rethinking the design and structure of higher education classes.