Thursday, November 11, 2010

A flood of #backchannel, but in a good way.

I'm a relatively recent presence on Twitter and I admit that I only got onto it for work purposes, but I now cheerfully admit I should have been on it for more selfish educational reasons long ago.

Case in point...

Given the nature of what I do, I gravitated to (and actively follow) the #elearning hashtag on my TweetDeck.  The connected nature of things in the interwebz, I soon found this thing called the #lrnchat - a regular chat among L&D professionals and Educators, where 5 questions get posted for participants to ponder and respond to.

Tonight's discussion was on the nature of the backchannel discussions at Conferences.  I got to see this in action by following all the #dl10 tags, and I thought back to my own experience blogging the E-LEARN conference (and sharing that experience with Wes Fryer at one point) and I realize how far we've come in such a short time.  At the time I could draft little blog updates, or more often, I would compile my own daily summary of the things that meant the most to me at the time....because this was before grad school, I was doing my own reflective learning without even knowing it.  But of course, guys like Wes and the other early adopters were the trail-blazers on this path of JiT information and conference backchannel.

Flash ahead to what I've seen in 2010 and I'm in awe of the power of this backchannel.  When you think about it, we've all been doing this for fact, I'm pretty sure Aristotle and other early pedagogues had students passing notes back and forth when the old man wasn't looking, or when Roman rhetoric students weren't really enthralled with color and descripto.  The challenge then was likely not getting caught, but today the challenge (on the face of it) seems to be simply 'keeping up'.

We can wind up absolutely awash in information and we really need some finely-tuned personal filters to be able to make sense of this massively distributed intelligence, and I think there was a general agreement by all that some conferences could generate a LOT of backchannel, and there were some pretty sage pieces of advice not only on how to manage it, but how to bridge the gap between attendees and non-attendees...and that might naturally raise the question of whether we need face-to-face conferences at all, if a speaker was simply running something via a free conference system and participants were managing all the backchannel from wherever they happened to be seated.  That also raises the very interesting question of whether or not we realize the same value from a virtual conference as we do from a face-to-face one?  Do we still need that tactile, psychological affirmation that "presence" is better than "presence by absence"?

Some other questions came out of that discussion as the tweets came in at a veritable clip.  What do we potentially "lose" if we decide to tweet something "right this second"?  Is that "divided attention" really contributing to the "distributed intelligence"?  (Jacobs & McFarlane, 2005) Do we wind up killing the flow if we ask the presenter, "sorry, I was busy tweeting...can you repeat that last thing?"  (My gut tells me there can't help but be an an immediate impact, but there would have to be some kind of mitigation). Could some presenters feel like people aren't paying attention if they're busy sharing the really cool thing they just learned?  What tools and practices might presenters need to help proactively manage and embrace the backchannel?

I also wonder what kinds of practices the attendee (or non-attendee) needs to adopt to weave this backchannel information into their own personal knowledge frameworks?  Do conferences need to start really treating attendees as learners and help them build their own learning paths?  What would a post-conference roadmap look like for someone from DevLearn?  And what might it look like for a non-attendee?

So...lots of questions and I think I might lean on my PLN for answers and clarity, but I think I know this much:  The backchannel really unlocks a lot of information for attendees, presenters, and non-attendees alike.  It makes the information and content in these events more "open"...and I think freedom of access to this kind of knowledge is an excellent thing.  For the presenter, it can - as some observed - provide a window into what things people pick up on, but it can also function as a virtual parking lot for questions and thoughts along the way. The attendee or virtual lurker also gets a lot of information to filter through, but their challenge is still going to be panning through the (relative) info-mud to find that little know, the one that makes you go "A-hah!" and fires up that little inspirational engine that made you love what you do in the first place.

Jacobs, N. & McFarlane, A. (2005). Conferences as learning communities: some early lessons in using ‘back-channel’ technologies at an academic conference – distributed intelligence or divided attention? Journal of Computer-Assisted Learning, 21(5), 317-329.

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