Classroom Backchannel Through Texting: One Use of the iPad in the Classroom by Randi Pahlau

For our first guest, I would like to welcome Randi Pahlau from the Language and Literature Department. Randi is speaking to how she uses the iPad as a method of collecting backchannel communication from her students through texting (SMS).

Backchannel communication refers to communication that takes place OTHER than spoken word. Traditionally this meant non-verbal cues which take place in normal face-to-face communication. The definition has been borrowed and repurposed to chat, sms (texting) or other communication that takes place in the classroom (whether the faculty is aware or not).

Embracing the backchannel is a method for connecting to students.  A more complete definition can be found here.

Welcome! I am an Instructor of English here at Malone and have taught a wide range of classes in the Language and Literature Department, including Principles of Composition, Literature in Society, World literature, and Jane Austen on Film.

As a guest blogger, I want to share one of the ways I have used the iPad in the classroom. For freshmen taking general education courses I have capitalized on our students’ love of texting, trying to channel that interest into classroom discussion by downloading a free texting app, complete with my own phone number. (So students do NOT get my private cell phone number.)

Students Finding their Voice

Students text for different purposes, depending on their personality. Shy students ask questions without having to assert themselves. I see their names, along with the texts, so I can answer their questions directly, trying to gently encourage them to find a voice in the classroom. Texting can be a step towards finding that voice. Class clowns text humorous statements about the literature or our discussion. It is easy to glance at these texts during discussions and I am able to smile or nod at the student to acknowledge their comment without disrupting the class.

Engaged in the Classroom Conversation

Their comments show me that the students are engaged in the conversation. I also encourage students to text comments and questions while watching videos. Because they like to text, I find that they pay more attention to the video rather than less because they are looking for reasons to text. Plus, I am able to address any confusion immediately. Without that texting, some students get confused along the way and then get even more confused as the video continues. If we are watching Ibsen’s A Doll House, I will get questions like, “Did Nora just say she was going to commit suicide?” I can answer yes and the student understands the context of Nora’s comments and can participate in the class discussion knowledgeably. And the class was not disrupted.

Even seemingly unimportant comments like one I got as I was walking into a classroom about how a student likes my belt are important. No, my belt does not pertain to writing or literature, but it is one link in a bond between us that makes it easier for that student to approach me later with questions or problems. I enjoy having that backchannel throughout class time as another avenue for reaching my students.

Do you have thoughts on this kind of backchannel that you would like to share? Please feel free to join the conversation and let me know what you think.

Randi’s kit:

14 Responses to Classroom Backchannel Through Texting: One Use of the iPad in the Classroom by Randi Pahlau

  • Betty Rettew says:

    I tried the Text free App and have found that it works well. I teach a large class each semester and I think that this sounds like a great way for students to submit questions. In such a big class I think they hesitate to ask questions. I have not come up with an effective way to keep them from texting friends though. I guess that is up to me….If class is interesting enough maybe they will pay attention. :-). I is good for the students to be exposed to an app like this too since it is free!

  • Beth Rettew says:

    Hi, I am not sure why the IPAd decided that I am Betty today?

  • Julia Frankland says:

    I haven’t taken this plunge though I am at times tempted. I hate to have to be a room-monitor about texting. They always think we can’t see what they’re doing… but of course they’re texting. (though teaching at 7:30am helps – no one else is out of bed!)

    So tying in texting directly to classroom participation is something I would like to try, though I admit I’m a bit fearful of the initial committement and of if I would be able to keep it up throughout the whole sememster without having my interest wane.

  • Earl Rodd says:

    Very interesting. Of course, if classrooms are in the basement of the library, there is no cell phone service.
    This idea is a significant expansion on the idea of asking questions and using technology (clickers at Malone – switches in the 70’s in our IBM classroom) to gather the answers.

    • Adam Klemann says:

      The lower level of the library is one of the few classrooms which do not have a cell signal. You do have easy access to the TurningPoint portable kit which can be checked out from the help desk. Beth Rettew’s post on the 25th will talk about classroom polling using TurningPoint “clickers”. As an alternative you can also look at using twitter (in conjunction with a hashtag) as a backchannel since there IS wifi coverage.

      I have used your 70’s clicker stories to frame several discussions about clickers 🙂 the audible queue of everyone hitting the mechanical switches at the same time being an indication that it was an easy question is a great parallel to TurningPoint’s response counter showing how fast or slow the students are responding to the question.

  • Eb de Oliveira says:

    OK, I’m joining this discussion because Adam Klemann encouraged me to, as he knows I have a “different perspective” on this (meaning that I’m less enthusiastic about some of the tech tool uses discussed in this series, to put it mildly).

    Randi’s case for backchanneling as a means to help quiet students find “their voice” in the classroom is fairly appealing. Her claim that this approach has raised class participation rates is not only sensible but also well supported by empirical research. Yet, my adoption of any tech tool in the classroom is guided by two related questions: 1) Does it place Christ’s kingdom first? 2) Does it improve learning?

    It could be argued that backchanneling promotes Christ’s kingdom through inclusiveness: All are welcome to share their thoughts, no matter how seemingly trivial, as illustrated by Randi. Because this sounds so consistent with Jesus’ approach to the marginalized of his days, I like this argument; but wait: Are those students that won’t participate in class unless a backchannel is used actually impaired/ unable to communicate otherwise? Are they helplessly introverted? I’ll start backchanneling the moment I find a student that’s really unable to communicate with me and her/his peers otherwise – e.g., student with autism, or any similarly uncontrollable special need/ circumstance. In my experience, for the most part students are selectively shy; they tune in and out as they wish. Quietness is often a controllable state of mind, not a trait; stop by the dorm lounge room when the karaoke is on and you’ll hardly recognize that “voiceless” kid you thought needed backchanneling. My point is this: With rare exceptions deserving special accommodations, direct face-to-face communication should be cherished. God’s given us voice, human facial preference and a natural inclination to socially interact face-to-face; in Christ He became flesh and lived physically with us to develop embodied, direct relationships, which have also marked the “koinonia” of love in the church now and through eternity (Ebersole & Woods, 2001). A policy that makes backchanneling rampant as a matter of “preference” undermines this value-laden principle.

    As to my second question, researchers from the APA Division on the Teaching of Psychology have concluded that there’s nothing that technology adds to traditional teaching other than making it more efficient and seamless (Hill, IV, College Board workshop on high tech use in the classroom that I attended last month in Kansas City). What other goals might an instructor have besides efficient maximization of student participation rate? How about some important skills that normative backchanneling may rob students from? For starters, some virtues/skills are best developed through direct, face-to-face interaction such as altruism/empathy, emotion expressive and situation knowledge, emotion regulation and display rules, listening skills, sensitiveness to & observance of socio-cultural scripts, etc. (e.g., de Oliveira, Ables, & Dingler, in press; Morgan, Izard, & King, 2010; Smith, 2009).

    Thanks for reading. Sorry this turned out longer than I intended.

    “I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write them to you in pen and ink [on your screen]; but I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face” (3 John 13-14) 🙂

    • Adam Klemann says:

      Hello Eb:

      Thanks for your perspective. Is the use of texting merely to address shyness or is it a way of communicating with students in one of their native tongues? Anecdote warning: I just finished teasing two of my [younger] cousins about argument they were having on facebook (one was upstairs in their bedroom and the other was downstairs in the office). I told them they should put down their iPods and go have the argument in person.

      An article which comes to mind about which communication methods are preferred by students comes to mind. It was written in the nineties before we knew anything about texting and the proliferation of Internet tools which are available now. The article is “Beyond Being There (Hollan & Stornetta 1992).” ACM has it free to access and is a somewhat quick read.

      Another book which I have not yet read but may be relevant is “The new digital shoreline” which (I think) is being used in the new faculty orientation program this fall.


      Hollan, J., & Stornetta, S. (1992). Beyond being there. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, Monterey, California, United States.

  • Eb de Oliveira says:

    Good question, Adam. As far as I can tell, so far all entries here have been in English… but “me get bunch of emails that make me wander which language their written in and it happen in school work 2”

    • Adam Klemann says:

      I am not sure how many students talk like a dinobot from transformers however grammar and spelling are certainly a victim of some indeterminate number of trends over the past few years. I should also be careful about using a language analogy with a guy who speaks more languages than I do.

  • Eb de Oliveira says:

    Adam, I think your languagy analogy is great. The fact that this series started with an English professor and elicited several entries also in English attests to the possibility of “speaking Geek” without sacrifice of the English language. However, as you recognized, many users of a backchannel may think otherwise, posing a dilemma to well-meaning faculty members delving into a free texting policy – Should we match many students’ “ingrish” and reply to them at their level/where they are/in their chosen language (and inadvertently reinforce their carelessness about proper English)? Or, alternatively, are we to remain faithful to the English rules supposedly valued in college, at the risk of intimidating the genuine struggler who’s trying hard to express her/himself properly – e.g., international students/ faculty like myself/staff, individuals with special needs? I think that good reasons could be given in support of either direction.
    Hey, I’m taking a break. This blogging fever is starting to get me! 🙂 Adios amigos!

  • Randi says:

    Your reservations are well taken, Eb. I encourage you to do what you feel is right in the classroom, just as I do. God bless.

  • Randi says:

    Texting me questions or comments during class is only an option. Anyone who wants to speak can do so at any time, and most do. Students are used to talking, not texting, in class, so that is their default response. There is plenty of conversation going on throughout each class. Texting is never mandatory and those who do text me do use standard English. I make that the policy for all texting. They are not permitted to use texting abbreviations. My goal, whether speaking, writing, or texting, is to continually improve communication and writing skills, not let those skills drop to a lower level.

  • Jay Case says:

    Building off of Julia’s post: it is a pain to have to police texting during class, but I don’t know if this would really solve that particular problem. How would we know that the students aren’t just spending time texting other people outside of class? At the present moment, I have a “no texting” policy that I have to enforce, but I don’t know how to resolve the problem of distraction if I allow them to text me in class. They would feel free to have their phones out to text, but I could see how a good many of them would really be texting friends outside of class, and one then has an even more difficult policing problem. Some, of course, would stay focused on what we were doing. Others would not. I would be tempted to just let everything go, without policing, and then a good number of my students would be distracted regularly by their desire to text their latest thoughts about the pizza they want to eat for lunch or to find out what Jennifer is doing right now while I’m discussing the breakdown of deference in the 18th century. Unfortunately, I think in this day and age, part of our responsibility to help students learn how to be attentive and resist distractions. So, for the way I do things, I’m a bit unsure about this use of technology for my classroom.

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