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Backchannels and Mythbusting: DN at Berkman@10

As the school year winds to a close and the summer hovers ahead, things are about to switch up a bit at the Digital Natives Project. More on that soon, in a series of farewell-for-now posts from myself and the rest of the 2007-2008 interns. But before we switch things up completely, I wanted to spend a moment thinking about the fascinating Digital Natives Mythbusting discussion that took place at the Berkman@10 conference on May 16.

Since I ended up running the question tool for the discussion, I got a first-hand peek into how “backchannels” can work in conference settings. For the Mythbusting discussion, there were at least three backchannels running in parallel. The first, the sanctioned “question tool,” hosted official questions and suggestions, and was projected onto two screens at the front of the room. It was visible to everyone, and fairly restrained. We used it to gauge interest in the 8 different myths we offered up, and ended up choosing to address the question of “Are kids wasting time online?” because it got so many votes in the question tool. It was very neat to watch questions, rebuttals, and subpoints surface on a public screen, and it was exciting to have that first backchannel interact fluidly with the conversation at hand.

The second backchannel was Twitter—a sort of all-purpose, soundbite-based, socially-oriented repository for quick “tweets” about conference proceedings. Many people used Twitter to peek into the other concurrent breakout sessions, and thus “participate” in multiple conversations at once. They’d float ideas and ask questions about the topic matter present in other panels, and people actually in those panels would pick up on the information and send it into the mainstream of the conversation. Twitter, since it’s an all-purpose all-the-time backchannel, was a less fine-grained conversation medium in relation to the conference. But it was widely used, and provided an informal way to keep track of everything going on in an information-rich conference.

The third backchannel, though, was to me the most interesting of all. It was not a new tool. In fact, it was a very old one: IRC. IRC, as I understand it, is essentially a chatroom protocol, introduced in 1988. Since IRC requires marginally more technical expertise than Twitter (and has a history of being more techie-oriented), the berkman@10 IRC channel did host a high concentration of very savvy, prolific chatters. It was another fairly informal backchannel, and since it wasn’t projected onto a screen, it became a home for a lot of skeptical backchatter. This, of course, made it incredibly fascinating to watch; it was like reading people’s thoughts in real-time.

In the Digital Natives Mythbusting discussion, the irony was thick and delightful. During a conversation about whether kids waste too much time on the internet, and whether they can “really” multitask on their computers while listening to lectures, there were dozens of real live people in the room (young and marginally less young) chatting away in IRC about the content of the discussion. While multitasking, they were expressing their opinions about multitasking.

The discussion provides a window into an alternate view of DN issues. Wonderfully enough, Alex Leavitt—a conference attendee—had the foresight to copy and paste the IRC discussion into a post on his blog. I highly recommend reading the entire thing, but I’ve lifted one particularly interesting segment. At issue is the question of what counts as “participations” in a classroom, and what kinds of “participation” actually contribute toward the end goal of learning. After you read through it, we’d love to hear your thoughts; there’s no reason the conversation should stop here! With thanks to Alex for capturing the discussion in the first place.


[11:54am] jeckman: And yes, classrooms should be wired during class

[11:54am] sc1olist: (digital natives) So far, no mention of it being useful in class to find context to what’s happening/discussed. Or that people take notes on laptops.
[11:55am] daithi: or IRC it
[11:55am] saraw1: exactly. i don’t know why professors are so threatened by it.
[11:55am] ltsui: connectivity is great for looking up things in wikipedia during class
[11:55am] saraw1: besides, what constitutes participation? Can you participate without talking? I think yes
[11:55am] sc1olist: @ltsui Exactly. ESSENTIAL in history, particularly at the graduate level.

[11:56am] EricaG: jassamyn, it’s so time for revolt. these aren’t supposed to be lectures.
[11:56am] jessamyn: speaking of IRCing it, does anyone have a link for THIS Scott MCloud (do I have that right?)? I keep finding the cartoonist
[11:56am] dwitzel_: shouldn’t your twitter feed count for “participation”
[11:56am] saraw1: i was in school before we had any computers in the classroom. i knew then how to feign participation/interest
[11:56am] saraw1: dwetzel-I should say so!!!!
[11:57am] jessamyn: I am trapped by my own politeness
[11:57am] fonchik: I came to college with an electric typewriter
[11:57am] saraw1: the computer has nothing to do with whether you are participating or not, nor BTW does speaking in class

[11:58am] sc1olist: @saraw1: I disagree on the latter, but the former is quite true. In fact, it often helps give people the confidence to talk.

[11:58am] alexleavitt: I don’t see why IRC shouldn’t be implemented in classroom, or at least seminar, discussion

[11:59am] saraw1: why does speaking in class count as participation while being silently involved does not? it’s discrimination against introverts
[11:59am] alexleavitt:
[11:59am] saraw1: besides, note that there is such a thing as saying something just to say it. e.g. content-free participation

[12:00pm] alexleavitt: most of my English teachers have counted class participation simply through attendance; class participation grades just seem to be part of the old system that needs to change
[12:00pm] daithi: @sara: it can raise interesting gender/class/social/ethnic/disability issues too, i.e. multiple options for participation can be an anti-exclusion device