Are backchannels a better way to induce active learning?

Kavitta Ghai
February 20, 2023

We’ve heard it a million times by now—the “silver lining” of COVID (for the education industry, at least) was the fact that it opened the door for us to discuss if there are better ways to teach and learn. By now, we’ve all agreed that the answer is a resounding “YES!”, and we can see this through students demanding more online and hybrid learning models. But now the question is: How do we keep students equally engaged in both online and in-person classes? The schools and teachers that find a solution to this growing issue of disengagement will be the only winners that emerge in this battle to keep higher education relevant.

The Solution to Disengagement is Active Learning

Active learning has emerged as one of the frontier solutions to our widespread engagement and retention problem. According to Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation, active learning methods ask students to engage in their learning by thinking, discussing, investigating, and creating. In class, students practice skills, solve problems, struggle with complex questions, make decisions, propose solutions, and explain ideas in their own words through writing and discussion. Timely feedback, from either the instructor or fellow students, is critical to this learning process. Education research shows that incorporating active learning strategies into university courses significantly enhances student learning experiences (Freeman et al., 2014; Theobald et al., 2020).

Here at Nectir, we’ve spent the last five years researching different learning models that use backchannel technology to induce active learning by creating a space where students become knowledge resources for one another. After observing thousands of students and teachers use Nectir backchannels as their main mode of classroom communication, we found the smoking gun: students learn and retain information better when they teach it to one another. Not only do they actually want to help each other, it’s also the best way to keep them engaged long term because every interaction in a backchannel is another opportunity for students to form a social connection to one another, which we already know is the most exciting part of college. This form of active learning is called the Protege Effect, and we’ve built Nectir specifically to amplify this phenomenon in any classroom. When every lecture is a new opportunity to have exciting interactions with your peers, learning becomes engaging and exciting once again.

Creating a Space for Active Learning to Take Place

As a teacher, you want your students to be engaged, motivated, and actively involved in their own learning. But how can you encourage this kind of behavior in the classroom? One effective strategy is to use the Protege Effect, which is the idea that people learn better when they believe they are teaching others. By leveraging this effect, you can help students become more invested in their own learning and increase their understanding of the material. One way to do this is by using backchannel tools like Nectir to facilitate peer-to-peer teaching and learning.

Backchannel tools are communication tools that allow students to communicate with each other and with the teacher during class without interrupting the flow of the lesson. Nectir, for example, is a platform that enables students to ask questions, share ideas, and collaborate with their peers in real-time. By using this kind of tool in the classroom, you can create a more interactive and engaging learning environment that encourages students to take an active role in their own learning.

The Protege Effect in Action

So how does the Protege Effect work in practice? Let's say you are teaching a math lesson and you want to use the Protege Effect to help students learn. You might start by assigning each student a specific concept or problem to teach to their peers. Then, using a backchannel tool like Nectir, you can create a virtual space where students can share their knowledge, ask questions, and provide feedback to one another.

As students take on the role of the teacher, they become more invested in their own learning and gain a deeper understanding of the material. They also become more confident in their ability to teach others and are more likely to participate in class discussions and activities. By using a backchannel tool like Nectir, you can create a supportive and collaborative learning environment that encourages students to take risks and explore new ideas.

Benefits of Using Backchannel Tools

Using backchannel tools like Nectir in the classroom has several benefits:

  1. Increased engagement: By giving students the opportunity to communicate and collaborate with their peers, backchannel tools can increase engagement and motivation.
  2. Active learning: By encouraging students to take on the role of the teacher, backchannel tools promote active learning and help students retain information better.
  3. Instant feedback: By providing a platform for students to ask questions and receive feedback, backchannel tools can help students overcome obstacles quickly and understand the material in real time.
  4. Enhanced communication skills: By practicing communication skills in a safe and supportive environment, students can improve their ability to articulate their thoughts and ideas.
  5. Time saved for everyone: When students are encouraged to ask and answer each other’s questions, teachers spend less time answering the same question a dozen times in their email inbox.

The Future of Learning Has Arrived

The Protege Effect is a powerful tool for increasing learning opportunities in the classroom. By using backchannel tools like Nectir to facilitate peer-to-peer teaching and learning, you can create a more interactive and engaging learning environment that encourages students to take an active role in their own learning. With these techniques, any teacher can take their students from passive listeners to active knowledge creators. So why not give it a try and see how it works in your own classroom?

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one more responsive to change.” -Charles Darwin
Kavitta Ghai
February 20, 2023

This is the future of education.

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