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Backchannels and Brain Research: Help or Hindrance?

After 13 years of working with teachers to develop student-centric, inquiry-based, technology-rich environments, I recently became a student again. Only a few hours into orientation, I found myself a bit lost. Though I regularly attend lectures at conferences, for the first time in years, I did not have a  backchannel -- a digital conversation that runs concurrently with a face-to-face activity -- to support my learning during these sessions. Each speaker did provide an opportunity to ask questions at the end of their talk, but as a first year student, I lacked the confidence to speak up in a room of 200 without yet knowing the protocols.

At the end of the day, when chatting with a cohort member, I raised my point about wishing for a backchannel. She responded that "according to brain research, they are ineffective." She disputed that backchannels encourage multitasking, which has been proven to be inefficient; therefore, she argued, backchannels deter from learning because the human brain cannot attend to more than one thing at a time.

While I understood her point, as I can recall a few excellent keynotes where I ignored the Twitter feed in order to focus solely on the lecture, I still longed for the opportunity to backchannel. Given that I had just spent an entire day hearing about the need to prove all arguments with scholarly literature, I decided to see what writing existed on the subject.

The Impact of Multitasking on Learning

Particularly with computers and mobile devices, which present multiple media outlets in a single platform, multitasking has become a regular occurrence. Digital device users regularly multitask by switching between music and reading, email and writing, or engaging in social media and watching a video (Foehr, 2006). Each media presents a different task, and users regularly switch between these disparate tasks. This is the multitasking definition that researchers such as Levine, Waite, and Bowman use when making claims that multitasking leads to higher levels of distractibility and decreased academic performance.

Consider, for example, the impact of responding to emails while also focusing on writing a blog post such as this one. Ultimately, the process of writing the post becomes less effective as a result of the constant task switching. (Which I can personally attest to!) As learners switch between tasks, each one places a "cognitive load" on the brain and cognitive resources become divided between the tasks requiring their attention. As the load increases, it can ultimately surpass human capability and impede overall performance (Carriera, Cheever, Rosena, Beniteza, & Chang, 2009).

Backchannels & Attention

At first glance, it can appear to be a logical connection to infer that backchannels essentially encourage multitasking. That rather than simply attend to direct instruction, group conversation, or even reading a passage, students both complete those tasks and engage in the digital conversation.

"[However], cognitive psychologists make a distinction between task switching and parallel processing. Task switching involves the rapid alternation between two or more tasks. In contrast, parallel processing involves the simultaneous performance of two or more [related] tasks." (Carriera et al., 2009)

Backchanneling could be viewed as parallel processing (vs task switching) as the two tasks - though disparate - are cognitively related in much the same way as listening and note taking. While task switching between listening and engaging in a backchannel conversation does occur, we may need to consider other factors before asserting that it always detracts from learning for all students.

In her 2007 work on The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes, Katherine Hayles argues that learners are currently in a shift of cognitive styles. Previously, learning implied engaging in deep attention, focusing on a single task or concept for an extended period of time. However, today's generation of students are more hyper attentive - rapidly bouncing between tasks while incorporating multiple information streams (p. 187).

As a result of this shift in learning styles, backchannels offer an opportunity for today's learners to choose how they prefer to attend to their learning. While some may benefit from a single focus, others - such as myself - may require additional information stimulus as a means to hyper focus and engage more fully in the learning context. Hayles further implies that providing outputs for hyper attention via multimedia such as backchannels may actually enhance the overall learning for many of today's students (p. 193).

The Potential Value of Backchannels

In my professional development workshops with EdTechTeacher, I often model the use of backchannels as an instructional strategy. Sometimes, participants engage digitally as a way to construct their thinking before engaging in a face-to-face conversation. At other times, I may offer a backchannel as a choice during a conversation for those who may not feel comfortable speaking out loud or who may want to elaborate on concepts after the conversation has shifted. I might also use a backchannel while asking participants to engage with text. In this way, they can share their connections without disturbing others' reading. Some participants may read, absorb, and then type while others fire thoughts and questions as they explore the text.

With all of these scenarios, the technology offers an opportunity for everyone to construct their own understanding through the media and method that best suits them as a learner. We can collectively document our conversations beyond the face-to-face interaction, and every participant has an opportunity to engage in the learning environment through the style that best suits them. While reading the text stream of a backchannel during a lecture or conversation could certainly pull attention away from the original task, before arguing that a backchannel is detrimental to learning for all students, perhaps we need to explore the broader context. Like all technologies, when used intentionally and thoughtfully, backchannels can offer the potential to enhance the learning experience.


Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Gendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? an experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers & Education, 54(4), 927-931.

Carrier, L. M., Cheever, N. A., Rosen, L. D., Benitez, S., & Chang, J. (2009). Multitasking across generations: multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(2), 483-489.

Foehr, U. G. (2006). Media multitasking among american youth: prevalence, predictors and pairings. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Hayles, N. K. (2007). Hyper and deep attention: The generational divide in cognitive modes. Profession, 187-199.  

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