Multi-tasking and the Backchannel: Powerful learning or more noise

Doug Johnson’s been thinking again,

I thought of this yesterday when attending a presentation by Michael Wesch of The Machine is Using Us fame. (Great presenter and message, BTW). At the end of the keynote, I had an entire page of handwritten notes, which has become unusual for me. Why?

My laptop’s battery was dead and the lecture hall had zero electrical outlets. I could not do my usual thing of checking e-mail, reading rss feeds, or Twittering and half attending to the lecture. Now Wesch’s talk was probably interesting enough to suck my eyeballs away from the computer screen, but then again, maybe not.

One of the things that I seriously question is the conversation about “enhancing” presentations with live blogging, back-channel discussions, streaming on-screen chat, and other noxious goings-on. Are these things actually valuable or are we doing them because we’re nerds and we can?

I already responded a bit but want to flesh out the thinking a bit more. First of all, I think the term “multi-tasking” gets used to describe a number of things and I’m somewhat unclear of the definition. Without addressing Dr. Medina’s research specifically, I want to focus the discussion more directly around the back channeling. Since Doug is “seriously questioning” this, it seems we ought to as well.

I’ve experienced this from many vantage points. I’ve presented with a back channel and even included this in part of my presentation. I’ve participated virtually and my only connection was with participants (using Skype chats, I had no direct link to the presentation as well as observing Live Blogging tools) I’ve also participated live and virtually while hearing and seeing the presentation.  Here’s my take:

  • Prior to the technology advancements, I back channeled, with myself; that is I processed by thinking or taking notes just as Doug describes. I would ask questions and answer them myself.
  • The more engaging a speaker, the less I back channel.  That said, some less engaging speakers that understand and permit back channeling, can create as powerful a learning experience as if it was they were the most dynamic speaker
  • The more the presentation relies on the back channel, the more I focus. Knowing that my comments are going to be seen by the presenter or live participants, seems to make me pay more attention.

Stephen Downes’ recent talk at Tlt incorporated a live, on screen chat where comments, images and potentially audio and video would stay on the screen for 10 seconds. His talk produced over 900 comments for the 500 or so live participants. I know many/most in the room were not comfortable with that environment, they couldn’t figure out what to focus on. Since many of the 900 entries were just plain silly,  I think many were put off by this as well. But this was way more powerful than using twitter since it was limited in some ways to the people in the room with internet access. Even now the thread of comments are still worth viewing. I know by talking to Stephen that this discomfort and sense of chaos was intentional. The presentation was not a stand alone piece of work.

I, along with anyone who wanted to, helped create Stephen’s slides. I added several images I felt tied in somewhat to his talk. At the same time, all his notes were online prior to his talk. This is where it gets interesting. I already know what he’s going to talk about, I now have an opportunity to engage at a much different level than simply knowledge or awareness. I’m aware but my not understand all the ideas and I still don’t. This was a chance to process, question and unravel ideas. Now understandably, not everyone in the room was ready for that. By why not provide a space for those who are?  Reminds me of the one room schoolhouse story told by Alan November where the teacher  tells the students of one grade not to listen while she teaches the other grade. Inevitably, they listen because they can.  So in a sense, multi-tasking, interruptions or task switching is pretty old, it’s just in a new box. It is noise. It is distracting. Isn’t this simply another skill critical thinking? Should we try and create sterile environments where we work a linear ways one task at a time or figure out how to be productive in multi-sensory spaces? I agree, there are times when we should unplug and get away from it all. But when I have the chance to interact with others who likely are smarter I am, I don’t waste that time thinking by myself.

So enough rambling. I’ve not pointed to any research and so maybe I’m way off but my experience is that the more I’m allowed to interact and play with content, the more engaged and ultimately the more learning happens.

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  • You pose an interesting question in your title: Is back-channel more learning or just noise? I think it depends on the user. Some people have no difficulty focusing on a speaker and chatting about it at the same time. Others cannot do both and must choose one or the other. I, myself, find that back-channel chatter is good if the comments are on the same topic as the speech itself. It is when the comments take a different path that I find I cannot focus on both. Then I feel bad for not paying attention to the speaker. And when I am the presenter, I still find my “teacher hackles” go up when I am speaking to the tops of peoples’ heads while they focus on their computers. I can’t read the audience that way. But that’s just my view.

    Lisa Parisis last blog post..The Successful Inclusion Program

  • I recently talked about this issue from a slightly different perspective…

    Chris Lotts last blog post..Twitter Asides 2008-05-24

  • I have ofter found I learn as much from the backchannel as the presentation. I have also found that it sometimes makes me miss pieces of the presentation. Fortunately, I can usually view an archived session if I think I missed something important. I also think its great if the presentation is viewable in advance. I too get more out of the content if I can be interactive and push/expand my thoughts by asking my smarter peers questions.

    I just viewed this presentation this morning. The middle part of this presentation states that we can’t multitask – . My first reaction was not to share it as my resisting faculty will say that the points it makes about multi-tasking makes their case that giving kids tablets is giving them a distraction. However, the entire presentation is pretty interesting. I like the 10 minute rule- our attention lasts for ten minutes and if there isn’t a catch at ten minutes we start to lose attention – Is that when the backchanneling on silly stuff starts? Ultmately I’ll share it the slideshare with the faulty and will point to their responsibility to engage their students. I do believe that backchannel discussion can be a tool of engagement…and we will have control to limit the distractions by using the DyKnow environment. Been thinking that DyKnow chat and lecture could be a way of teaching best practices in backchannel conversation- there’s a new chapter for Marzano to write:)
    Bottom line, if I want/need to learn about a topic, the presentation is one tool and it can be made richer with conversation produced via backchannel…but the backchannel might mean everyone walks away from the same presentation with different take aways..and that is OK. I do agree that it helps if the channel conversation is on topic. Sorry to ramble – been thinking about if/how to use this productively with students and your post made me think more! Thanks!

  • I don’t know if my comment got deleted or moderated, but just in case– I’ve been discussing this a bit on my blog as well, from a slightly different perspective:

  • Dean, I blogged about backchanneling in the days before the TLt conference even started (Back Channels May Add, but They Also Subtract – When Stephen started his talk I wondered if he had read my post. I was one of those who found the whole situation very uncomfortable. It seemed to prove my point that people can’t pay attention to the speaker while observing or being an active participant of the back channel (and read e-mail, follow Twitter, blog, read their RSS feeds, etc.).

    I did catch myself at one point during a different talk, however, jotting a note down to Rob Wall and passing it to him across the table. That might be considered a form of back channeling as well.

    Heather Rosss last blog post..SCoPE Seminar: Viral Professional Development

  • ehelfant,

    The archiving of presentations is really powerful. While I’m sure most don’t go back to review, I do go back to check points or review things I’ve missed. That’s the mark of a great presentation.

    You’re post seemed to be more about etiquette. I’m wondering also about being uncomfortable. Because I didn’t feel uncomfortable is that bad? Did I miss something? Am I insensitive? (Don’t answer those!) I think this is an evolving instructional strategy that is in its infancy. I like much of what it offers. As Chris Lott said in his post,

    The cognitive studies regarding multi-tasking aren’t as cut and dried nor as directly applicable as the supporters of said studies would like people to think….The bottom line is simple: facilitating engagement is not achieved by depriving participants of tools or materials… that’s an approach fit for prisons, not educators and educational institutions

    Actually his whole post is worth reading.

  • As one who rarely gets to attend any conferences, I live vicariously through the backchannel.

    However, I know myself. I need time to myself to think and to reflect. If the idea(s) being presented are totally new to me, I need to focus. I need time to digest before I can start talking with others about the ideas being presented.

    Which is a good reminder to me to make sure to incorporate that time into my classes. Thank you!

    JackieBs last blog post..Dimensional Fun

  • Dean:
    I think there is a learning curve to participating in a backchannel. My first experiences were during webcasts. I found it very hard to concentrate on what was being said versus what was going on in the backchannel. As time goes on, I find myself being able to pay attention to the speaker while keeping on eye on the backchannel, asking questions, and adding my reflection. In early May, I was at a conference in Princeton and was asked to join in a live blogging session. I found I was trying very hard to accurately reflect what was being said in the room for those who were or would be reading along online. I often have best intentions of going back to review a presentation, but it seems that during the school year I rarely got back to archived material.

    There is an etiquette line we are straddling with a backchannel. Certainly the silly exchanges at your presentation could have rubbed other audience members the wrong way or given them a poor impression of the process. I know I am grateful when I hear about a presentation and I am invited to join remotely.

    Ann Oros last blog post..Confessions of an Oversubscribed Reader

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  • I think that learning contexts are so diverse that it is hard to make blanket statements here. But, I do think that backchanneling can certainly be a distraction. Intently listening to a speaker and processing what is being presented is a skill… one being lost and not talked about much anymore with the many distractions (or tools, depending on how you view and use them) available these days. However, when presenters are less than engaging, should we flee to other ways to occupy our minds or should we resist our desires to be entertained/multitask and be a good audience? This is a society of choice in every respect of the word. If we are not being engaged or think that we are not getting what we signed up for, we can often choose something else. This is great for the consumer. For the presenter, it raises new challenges. In the end, if multitasking impedes one’s ability to attend and learn well and deeply, it is not a good thing. If it is creating a generation of learners who cannot focus, it is not a good thing. If our brains are adapting to new ways of learning and working, then as presenters, we had better adapt as well.

  • My ECMP 355 class with you, Dean Shareski, last semester was really the first time I even realized that a backchannel could exist. I liked what Ann had to say about there being a learning curve; it took our class awhile to get past using our backchannel conversations to say that we were just kicked out of the program we were conversing on (Elluminate), and to compare what each of us was snacking on at home during the online course. However, we did improve. Eventually, the backchannel was what made the difference between our taking the course, and processing the information this course gave us.

    Thanks again, Dean, for that learning experience.

    Nicole L.s last blog post..Coping with Stress

  • Tami

    As someone who is new to backchanneling, I think that it has the potential to be both engaging and distracting (as has been posted by others as well). I too think that it is hard to make over-arching comments about what works and what doesn’t since the nature of learning is individual and a person’s ability to engage in multiple tasks varies. I do believe that backchanneling is somewhat of a skill that needs to be learned and developed. I know that there are times when I need to focus on the speaker and other times I am able to navigate both. I think backchanneling can be a positive experience and can elevated understanding and discourse.

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