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Monday, October 17, 2011

My First Experience with Backchanneling

This post may be a futile exercise in stream-of-consciousness, and I'm fairly certain verb tense is all over the place...sorry about that.

Last week, an assortment of colleagues and I attended the PNAIS Fall Educators' Conference at Overlake in Redmond. Gorgeous campus, by the way, but that takes me off track...

The morning keynote speaker was Sal Khan, of Khan Academy fame. Months ago when he was announced as the keynote, I became quite excited to hear him speak in person, having followed the path of Khan Academy's rise with interest.  I have read in recent months quite a bit of negative feedback about the man and the program, so I was anxious to hear from him directly.  As he shared with us the story of how the Khan Academy came to be, I was actually struck by how humble he sounded....but again, I'm off track with my topic, so my assessment of Khan will have to wait.

follow me! @Ethics4ADW
I thought this conference (the first formal professional development conference I have attended in over three years) would give me a chance to experience, and perhaps participate in firsthand, the concept of "backchanneling" during the presentations. Backchannel, "the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks," gets a lot of press in educational technology circles, and many of the blogs I read talk about it all the time. Backchannel discussions can expand the conversation and allow others to participate while someone is speaking, sometimes providing follow up information, sometimes providing pushback to the speaker's message, or simply sharing favorite quotes in real time (helpful for folks who aren't so fortunate as to be there in person).  Sooooo...I pulled out my iPhone, opened up my Twitter feed, and did a search for the conference hashtag, #PNAIS11.

I realized within minutes that there was no way I could tweet anything and still listen at the same time. As I've mentioned before, I'm spectacularly bad at multi-tasking. And given that this was the first time I'd heard Sal Khan speak (other than videos), I wanted to listen without missing something, and I didn't really think I had anything worthwhile to contribute anyway. I kept the Twitter feed open, however, and refreshed it throughout his presentation to see what was happening on the backchannel.

What I witnessed, from my perspective, was a lot of negativity and skepticism. Having had a few days to digest all this, I have begun to wonder if I just see the innovative use of technology in education through some seriously rose-colored glasses and that maybe I'm not skeptical ENOUGH. However, much of what I was seeing in the backchannel seemed almost mean-spirited, as if Khan's whole presentation wasn't worth listening to. I'm all for pushback and questioning, but what does a tweet like "WTF is 5th grade math?" mean? How does that advance the conversation about meaningful teaching or educational reform? I did not hear Khan advocating for his program as a "replacement" for teachers, neither did I hear him tout himself as a great educator. He continuously made self-deprecating remarks, giving teachers credit for the idea of "flipping" the classroom, and promoting the use of his tutorial videos to allow for more one-on-one time interacting with kids during actual problem-solving time. "Using technology to humanize the classroom" was the theme here, not replacing teachers and teacher-student interactions with videos. I'm afraid I didn't understand from where all the negativity was coming.

At one point in his presentation, Sal was sharing how the tutorials first came to be posted online, which was someone suggesting to him, you should put these on YouTube. He said, "I finally got over the idea that it wasn't my idea," and started doing just that. The line got a big laugh (I personally thought it was cheekily honest), but I'm now wondering if people feel threatened by Khan Academy because it wasn't their idea? Again, Sal says the "flipped classroom" idea came directly from teachers, not him. The whole growth of Khan Academy, from a few tutorial videos he made for his cousins to a worldwide phenomenon, was neither his motivation nor his intention when he began the project. He presented it, as one of my colleagues stated quite clearly, as another tool for teachers to use if it's helpful, and Khan's team seems to be working awfully hard to make it as helpful as possible. I'm all for questioning pedagogy and doing what's best for your students, but it seemed to me that a lot of people were jumping on the Khan-bashing wagon without having any real experience with the platform, or judging its effectiveness for themselves.

In a moment of total self-reflection here, I'll share with you that I got pretty judgmental myself. Another speaker that day was Dr. Tae, the famous skateboarding physicist. He was tweeting throughout Khan's keynote, and I personally found some of his remarks to be rather snarky, considering this was a professional educators' conference. Reading his comments left me feeling like I didn't want to listen to anything he might have to say. I reacted pretty strongly, and did not, in fact, attend either of his presentations. Three days later, as I sit here trying to process all of this, it just hit me that I'm doing exactly what I disliked about the backchannel snarkiness...I'm missing the point (thanks Mike Gwaltney, I'm 'borrowing' your phrase). True, I have the tweets to backup my ethical consternation, but I don't know anything about Dr. Tae, so who am I to judge? I'm sure there was a context for his comments, but I didn't know what it was, and Twitter wasn't necessarily the medium through which to discover it.

Having now spent some time on Dr. Tae's site, watching HIS videos--particularly this one--I can understand his perspective about personalized learning and his view of the systemic problems with education today. I missed this entirely in the "WTF" tweet, naturally, and I still think that was unprofessional. I could learn something from Tae's perspective, however, the same way I learned something from Sal Khan. Perhaps what began as an exercise in frustration has turned me into a beacon of open-mindedness.

Doubt it. But maybe that will get me a laugh.

So how do I feel about backchannels today? First, I don't believe I have the requisite thumb speed to actually pull it off during a live presentation (perhaps things would have been different if I'd brought my laptop and whipped out my mad keyboarding skillz). Second, despite my original horrified reaction to the invisible discussion that was happening, it clearly was thought-provoking and I got much more out of the experience than I was originally willing to admit. I see some inherent conflict between the nature of Twitter's 140 character, rapid-fire nature and truly thoughtful reflection. If I had tweeted my emotional response last Friday, I would have missed the chance to step back and process what I learned that day. Still, I will try backchanneling again, and I won't make a sweeping judgment without more experience. There's always something new to learn!

One of my favorite ed-tech bloggers, Tom Whitby, shared his thoughts on the "Twitter effect" this summer at a conference at which he presented. I'd encourage you to read his post, and as always, pay attention to the comments.
I enjoy tweeting during conferences as it broadens and deepens my understanding of the speakers’ main points. Yes, and I fear naysayers’ comments when I present too. What is the etiquette related to this? My personal etiquette is to tweet if it broadens my understanding of the content/presentation, to give credit to the speaker for his/her comments, to document main points for later reflection and writing, and to question points/methods I might not agree with, rather than write a negative/condescending message. ~Maureen
I’d never considered the downsides of using a backchannel as a teacher or presenter. Twitter is such a public forum that it’s important for me to stay professional, generous, and helpful. Negativity, whether tweeted or spoken, adds no value to any conversation. If I read “@tomwhitby sucks” I’d be more apt to dismiss the tweeter than I would take that kind of comment seriously. ~Jenny
So, I didn't really get to my assessment of Khan Academy. I enjoyed the keynote presentation, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Having read a lot of criticism beforehand, I wasn't sure what to expect from the man, but I got more out of it than I thought I would, and certainly found Sal Khan's story inspiring. Particularly in a world where we know "fully 65% of grade school kids may end up doing work that hasn't been invented yet" (Cathy Davidson, "Education Needs a Digital Upgrade")  it was engaging to listen to someone who created a job for himself out of thin air. Add to that the fact that he loves what he's doing and finds great value in helping students all over the world, I think we got to see Ken Robinson's "Element" in action. I don't view myself as a "drinker of the koolaid" if I try out the videos and explore their use further. I know teachers at school that are using KA, still trying to assess its effectiveness. I haven't actually used it yet, as I don't have my own class of kids with which to try it. But I personally know a third and fifth grader who are about to be guinea pigs, and I could certainly bone up on my trigonometry. I'll let you know how it goes. If I am to criticize or praise KA, I want to know what I'm talking about.
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See the Twitter feed #PNAIS11 for yourself! Of course, the hashtag is still active, so I have also found these articles, posted post-conference and shared via Twitter.

Meeting Sal Khan - holisticdancingmonkey @ Cooperative Catalyst
Misunderstanding Sal Khan, and Missing the Point - Mike Gwaltney
Khan Academy: What's the Big Deal? - Matt Amaral @ Teach4Real

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