Twitter backchannels in the classroom – Lets talk after

Educational professionals who have discovered Twitter and recognize it as a powerful new (or relatively new) broadcast media are understandably trying to find ways to use it with students for the betterment of their education. We, the education field, are currently between 2 stages: 1) the brainstorm of possible uses; 2) the evaluation of that brainstorm to see which ideas are value additive. I would like to evaluate one idea – the backchannel; a concurrent discussion on Twitter during some other learning event, most likely a presentation or lecture. I think that this is a bad idea and a detriment to student learning.

There are several things the human brain does not do well. It doesn’t have a good intuitive understanding of probability; it has difficulty evaluating competing inductive arguments; and it is not a good multitasker (this is not an exhaustive list of limitations). A tweeting backchannel while listening to a presentation requires multitasking or quick-shifting. While multitasking or the new, slightly re-conceptualized – quick shifting, are supposed to be a hallmark of our students today, it is largely untrue or if true, still detrimental. When you multitask, you divide your cognitive functions between activities. As this does nothing to add to your general ability to think, your power of thinking is divided among the various activities; thus, each one receives less of your focus then if done in sequence. This means that they not done as well as they could have been if done consecutively. If you don’t believe me, go here ( and prove it to your self (notice how the easiest activity, the one you have the most practice at, is the one that you lose on).

With tweeting while listening to a presentation, your attention levels osculates between tweeting and active listening and reduces the mean level of attention for each. As a result, you get less out of the presentation then if it was your only activity. You also get less out of the conversation on Twitter then you would. Tweeting a conversation is more engaging then note-taking – this translates to more distracting in this context. While it may help you process parts of the lecture, you miss parts which will also affect you ability to encode an understanding – it is a at best a zero sum gain.

 A discussion after the presentation has several advantages over tweeting during the conversation. You focus more fully on the presentation and get more out of it. You have a chance to digest the information before you apply it in a conversation. You can participate more actively in a discussion when it is your only activity. Having a discussion later gives you repeated exposure to a topic that aids learning and retention. Having a conversation after a learning activity gives you a chance to consolidate learning, review your learning; and direct and pursue it along different paths – a conversation during a learning event is more likely to stay “closer” to the content and not go as deep on side issues as it is likely progressing and moving to new sub-topics. Tweeting while the learning event is going on, limits your ability to focus on the event and limits your learning; inasmuch as it is less efficient, it is a poor idea.

Another problem with many back channels in education, is they are not contained in protected twitter accounts. With Twitter, one is broadcasting as they tweet. For students who don’t have an intuitive sense of the nature of social networks (persistence, searchability, scalability, and replicability – see Danah Boyd (2010). “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” In Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (ed. Zizi Papacharissi), pp. 39-58.) they may write something they later come to regret. The quickness of the medium and the dynamics of a 20-30 person discussion, requires students to write in an unguarded fashion. The immediate context may forgive mistakes of reasoning, understanding or expression but it might be more problematic for find this forgiveness when the messages age taken out of context later. A discussion on race, sexuality, sexual-orientation, ethnic relations, and such are dangerous to our students when their tweets survive the context; anything they are actually learning through will create a record that might not reflect their actual understanding. Part of their learning process, taken as a whole or finished product, may reflect poorly on them with possible consequences later on. Remember tweets are published and permanent – we all know a story where a tweet or email endured beyond a limited or temporary context with serious results. Further for those students who are aware of all this, they might be silenced by this reality.

Many people have suggested that a twitter backchannel will help or may help their most introverted students by giving them a voice. This argument is as old as the internet. I heard it from a communications student in the 1990’s saying that discussions online (in chat rooms and such) provide a level playing field to disadvantaged groups which may have the tendency to be silenced in social dialogue because of preexisting power relationships; it was being pursued for market research groups. It is not unique to Twitter. In fact, in backchannels, where there is a small group and no anonymity, it might not be true at all. If it is true, it as easy to replicate in a moodle discussion after the learning event. This advantage is not unique to Twitter and thus does little to support the idea of backchannels in school hosted on Twitter.

A moodle, or similarly closed network, running a discussion thread after a learning event offers many advantages to a live Twitter backchannel. I think that the backchannel is a bad idea, in its current inception, for Twitter and should be abandoned for other uses.

***note shared this with a colleague who presented an interesting counter point: For a student who is a selective mute, this might be a good way to access a conversation in class. If it works in that case, I think it is well suited for that student, but as a general application, I still think it is a determent. ***


  1. #1 by Nancy C on May 19, 2011 - 8:52 pm

    I have not tried back-channeling with my students (mainly because I don’t have enough computers for them to use. However, I do like your point about multi-tasking. I believe that it is difficult for many to focus on many tasks at once. I notice this with my own children and myself. When involved in a twitter chat I almost have to shut down because I can not keep up with all that goes on. Also, I agree that twitter may not be the best choice especially because it is not protected..there are other sites I believe that allow for anonymity among your own group.

    Your posts are thought-provoking (especially since you do not always go along with the crowd).

    Thanks for sharing and giving an opposing point of view!

  2. #2 by Fran Lo on August 3, 2011 - 7:43 am

    Well said. You’ve articulated my concerns about backchannelling very well. Having watched folks backchannel during conferences, I’ve noticed that it often becomes a separate activity that can detract from presentations. It reminds me of kids whispering in class instead of paying attention.

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