Backchannels
October 30th, 2004

Just inter active blog contains a post about “backchannel” systems being experimented with during college lectures. (Also, an interesting comment from Howard Rheingold in the comment section of a related TheFeature.com story about whether this type of “backchanneling” might be more of a bane than a boon without some kind of usage guidance).

Last night we ran an experimental “backchannel” during Julian Bleecker‘s talk in the Zemeckis Media Lab. Backchannel refers to making the crowd chatter public, the idea that the students or audience can discuss during a lecture in a way that becomes part of the shared intellectual space.

I believe in backchannel, especially as a way to bring more people into the discussion. For more information on the roots of the technology-enhanced backchannel, see my article “Harnessing the Hacker’s HeckleBot” from TheFeature.com.

The ZML, where Bleecker was giving his remarks, has 16 projectors that can be used for wrap-around surround-o-stimulation. We had 5 of those screens: three displaying a shared IRC chatroom, and two displaying EtherPEG output – a “sniffed” record of the JPEGs going by in people’s web surfing on the local wireless.

The group feedback on this IRC/EtherPEG Backchannel experiment was varied but summarizable as follows:

People remarked that the EtherPEG was sort of pleasant, as something to watch, a sort of media bath. A mood indicator perhaps. The pictures varied; some were related to Bleecker’s work, some related to interactive media art overall, some were related to the Yankees/Red Sox game, some were random websurfing. People seemed to like to have something else to watch, and occasionally giggle at. Some students seemed to resent that they felt their ability to freely and privately surf the web during class was jeopardized by having their image data exposed.

We also had an IRC channel, #julian, that Josh – “Hoky” helped us set up. There was some useful stenocaptioning, provided by myself, and by Vince typing remarkable lines from Bleecker’s talk. Also, dictionary definitions of some unusual words (elide, motility), and corroborating or contradicting ideas. Doox remarked that he really enjoyed having the URLs from Julian’s talk posted in a way that he could click and browse them on his own.

But people also seemed to feel IRC was the source of the greatest distraction. The format itself is informal, people said, we’re used to using chat to make quips and rejoinders, not produce focused text streams for public consumption. Some people posted ASCII art, some others making some crude jokes. Mostly people just seemed to be stymied by the presence of flowing text in the classroom. That the text was sometimes about violence towards fellow students with animals was not helpful. I’ll post the chat log below; you can see for yourself how it went by.

Fortunately, Julian Bleecker, the speaker, was good humored about the moments of distraction. We’re lucky for that. And that the department chair Scott Fisher found the experiment inspiring or amusing enough to encourage it to continue. I believe he enjoyed the casual note the backchannel injected into the otherwise somewhat formal Wednesday night seminar.

Moving forward, I plan to experiment with more structured backchannel experiences and other software. The mix of images and text could be supported by a live Flickr chatroom, for example. Multiple authors could develop a comprehensive set of lecture notes in SubEthaEdit. People might join in an AIM chat room on the topic. Some of these tools are new tools, and people might effectively approach them as means for knowledge production, rather than knee-slapping rejoinders. Hopefully, over time, through different applications, students might learn to use even IRC for more focused discussion, or at least learn to sit through a lecture with a lively text scroll going by, and be able to draw useful information from it without feeling overwhelmed or unduly distracted.

Fortunately, we have a media-rich room, and a room full of curious active minds, many toting laptops. Any of this work that we do will be posted publicly, during the seminars and afterwards – the most exciting aspect of this exercise involves the bridging of physical and virtual, giving audience members another place to speak, or at least a place for supplementary information.

It’s a very fertile area! It’s obviously difficult to get interactive technologies up during speakers – it challenges the audience to pay attention, it challenges the speaker to hold attention; perhaps it pushes everyone to let go a little bit and interact together towards a shared goal. If there is a shared goal! Presumedly everyone is there to learn and converse. After this experiment, I believe that Backchannel is a learned skill, and I think the Interactive Media Division is a great place to see how people might learn to participate in productive Backchannel. Of course, defining “productive” is difficult, let alone defining “backchannel” – “backchannel” would seem to be the notes that students pass to one another; we’re really proposing some kind of middle space, between the podium and the back row, a sort of a public note-passing system for the attentive students in the front row.

[via Howard Rheingold’s del.icio.us bookmarks]

There’s also the idea of officially appointed “info jockeys” – people who pull up selected pictures and web pages during a lecture, giving another perspective on the remarks. Probably mostly corroborative, but perhaps usefully contradictory. But this is not Backchannel, per se, because it wouldn’t necessarily incorporate the vibe in the room; rather it’s like having someone unwittingly drive the speaker’s PowerPoint.

Fortunately, we have a media-rich room, and a room full of curious active minds, many toting laptops. Any of this work that we do will be posted publicly, during the seminars and afterwards – the most exciting aspect of this exercise involves the bridging of physical and virtual, giving audience members another place to speak, or at least a place for supplementary information.

It’s a very fertile area! It’s obviously difficult to get interactive technologies up during speakers – it challenges the audience to pay attention, it challenges the speaker to hold attention; perhaps it pushes everyone to let go a little bit and interact together towards a shared goal. If there is a shared goal! Presumedly everyone is there to learn and converse. After this experiment, I believe that Backchannel is a learned skill, and I think the Interactive Media Division is a great place to see how people might learn to participate in productive Backchannel. Of course, defining “productive” is difficult, let alone defining “backchannel” – “backchannel” would seem to be the notes that students pass to one another; we’re really proposing some kind of middle space, between the podium and the back row, a sort of a public note-passing system for the attentive students in the front row.


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