UCSB Faculty Workshop: Using a Backchannel Chat Tool in Class to Build Community

Join the Nectir team for our faculty workshop, where we'll go over the best way to build a community in (and outside!) of your classroom using a backchannel chat tool.
September 13, 2022

Video Recording

Video Transcript

Kavitta  00:04

All right. So really quick before we get started, just want to introduce ourselves. So my name is Kavitta. I'm the co-founder and CEO of Nectir. And we have with us today for the first time, Alex, our Director of Educational Partnerships and Instructional Design. So Alex, you want to say hello, see where you came from? Why you joined Nectir. Real quick. 

Alex  00:25

Yeah this is my first workshop. So hello to those of you here. And those of you watching the recording. This is my first few months with Nectir. And I'm very excited to be here. I come from University, Nebraska, formally. And I was working as an online specialists really working with faculty doing a lot of development and instructional design work, as well as student support. So I'm excited to be with Nectir and kind of working on some of the tech solutions in those areas for the future of education.

Kavitta  00:59

Yeah, thanks. We actually met Alex when we were all at an EdTech conference earlier this year, and just knew that we had to bring around the team to help us make this vision possible. So I like to usually start the workshops, a little bit of backstory on Nectir. And you know why it exists? Why we're here. So I am actually a UCSB alumna. I graduated in 2019. And my co founder, Jordan and I, we started Nectir. While we were still undergrad students at UCSB, we started listen April 2018. And honestly, when we first started Nectir, we were building it for ourselves, we thought we've got two more years at the school. And we need a way to communicate with the people around us not only in our classes, but outside. The same way that in the last 10 years, every company has adopted something like Slack or Microsoft teams to communicate with each other in a synchronous and fluid way. We think that education should follow suit, not only to prepare students for this new remote workforce, but also because we deserve access to every resource possible on campus. And what I've found through my education is that some of the most valuable resources that we're missing are actually the peers that we sit around in every one of our classes. Research has shown for decades now that when we learn together in communities, when we engage with the peers that we sit with, whether that be in person or online, it's actually a much more fun and easy way for our brain to retain information than to just memorize it from either notes slides and then regurgitate it on a test. 

Kavitta  02:43

And so the inspiration for Nectir actually came from one of my own instructors. The summer between my sophomore and junior year, I took a class with Spencer Nichols, he was a grad student at UCSB in the Communication Department. And honestly, probably my favorite teacher I've ever had in my life. Spencer knew what education could be the modern education that we all deserve. And so he wanted to center the class around the community that already existed there that we simply hadn't engaged with was 150 person class that we took over summer, and you could see the beach from the class, it was the last place that any of us wanted to be. But Spencer came in and sat us down and said, I'm going to try to make this the best class that you've ever taken, and I want your help to do so. And he turned around, he wrote the link to a Slack workspace on the board. And he turned back to us and he said, I don't want you to raise your hand. I don't want you to send me an email. I don't even want you to come into office hours. If you have any question any issue on homework on the slides on the lecture material, your first line of action is going to be to put it in the slack chat. Because I guarantee that one of the 149 students around you will have a better and faster answer for you than me or your TA will. What will take us 24 hours to respond through email will take someone five minutes to answer for you in this chat room. And he was right. He became a class that felt like 15 people not 150. Within that same day, we began to rely on each other to answer the questions that we would have bombarded our TA and instructor with. And through doing that we built bonds with each other. We began to trust the people that we were learning with. And it made the class so fun. It felt the way that elementary school does where you know every single person that you're sitting around and coming to class is exciting because you get to sit at these tables with your friends and learn together. All of a sudden 15 years later, I have that feeling again in this class? And not only that, but Spencer said, If you answer someone's question really well, I'll give you extra credit for it. Because that lets me know you understand the topics so well, that you can then go teach someone else, which is the highest level of mastery that you can achieve. And he was right. 

Kavitta  05:19

What Slack did in that class was it created more teachers. And that is why I left that class with the highest grade that I've ever gotten at UCSB. And the inspiration to go start a company like Nectir. Slack is wonderful, and so are Teams and Discord and all these other tools, but they're not built for education. We deserve to have a tool that is built to be FERPA compliant, affordable. But also that is modern and looks and feels like tools that we're already using today and that students will use in the workforce. So Nectir essentially is the best of all worlds. We built it at UCSB, with instructional designers, with our professors, with other students to essentially figure out how do we create the best possible communication infrastructure for learning communities. And that's what we've done here. So that's a quick backstory on how Nectir came to be and why we why I love it so much, and why we believe that every student anywhere deserves to have access to their learning communities that are already there in their classes, but they may just not know it. Next slide.

Kavitta  06:33

Thank you. So of course, we know student engagement is tied to ease and frequency of communication. It's why we built it to be instant chat, you need that synchronous flow, you don't want to have a lot of cognitive effort, go into your messages, you want it to be as close to in person conversation as possible. But with Nectir, it's great, because it's not social media, it's social education. We're not trying to bring Twitter and Reddit and Facebook into the classroom, students already have a place to go do that. What we are trying to do is mimic the same behavior that they're already used to, by putting an instant chat room in the classroom. What this means is that your students will naturally begin to engage with each other. Typically, you'll see, you know, informal conversations start. And it'll be things like, what are you guys doing after class today? Are you going to go to see the game? And those conversations will establish the trust, which then eventually evolve into? How did you solve this problem? Can someone explain that last slide to me, I don't get this topic at all, does anyone else, those conversations can only naturally emerge from your students, once they have a place that feels comfortable to talk to each other in that casual way. And that can't come from a discussion forum. It has to come from a place like an instant chat room, where it's meant for that informal conversation. And the actual definition of what I'm talking about is a back channel. 

Kavitta  08:03

So a back channel is a conversation that takes place alongside an activity and event or a group. So Nectir essentially is your back channel for your class. It means that it's a place where you, your students, your TA can go have informal conversations outside or inside of the classroom, however you decide to use it. And it allows you to have authentic engagement. That means that students are actually talking about what they want to not saying you must post a discussion forum once a week, but allowing them to decide where they want the conversation to unfold. It's essentially giving them a safe space and saying this is for you to use how you want to giving them the autonomy to get what they need from their education, that's gonna feel really good to them. And we've seen it work in hundreds of classes at UCSB, and so many other campuses over the last four years. So, back channels are the virtual lifeline of your classroom. 

Kavitta  09:11

So, when I thought back to why I loved that class with Spencer, so much, I realized that something was different from day one. And it wasn't, you know, the Slack channel itself. It wasn't that Spencer was this young grad student. It was actually the fact that for the first time on day one, my stress and anxiety was gone. And when you think about anxiety, it's that irrational thought loop, right? It's the stuff that your brain can't figure out. That's why you keep ruminating over it. For students. It's often that feeling of what if I run into something that I don't understand what if i gets harder as class goes on? What if? What if I don't find help on the midterm? What if I can't find a study group? That is something that every student, no matter who you are, no matter how smart you are, you feel that on day one, it's a, sometimes an exciting kind of anxiety. But it's anxiety, nonetheless, what having a back channel like Nectir does is it eliminates that stress and anxiety from day one, you never have that thought of what if I can't figure it out, because you now know anything that I can't figure out, I have a place to go ask my peers, I have every resource I could possibly need. And if I can't find it, I have people that I can go ask. And it doesn't feel like you're bothering your instructor, it doesn't feel like you have to take the risk to raise your hand in front of other people. It's a safe space that's not connected to your social media that allows you to simply be a student. And so this allows them to focus on just the learning. There's no anxiety, there's no stress, it's just what can I now get from this learning experience that I can't anywhere else. So the purpose of Nectir is to take your students from just being passive listeners who sit there and take in your information and then regurgitated on your test, to now being active knowledge creators for one another.

Kavitta  11:18

I think a really interesting statistic that my mind always goes back to is the fact that in the US, teachers spend more time in front of their students than in any other country. And what that really means is that teachers don't have enough time to do lesson planning, to do course design and to take rest for themselves. And we're really seeing that in the levels of burnout across the country right now. Teachers are tired. And for good reason. We're asking you guys to do way too much. So what Nectir solves, and how it gives you back some of that time, is it creates a space for your students to be teachers for each other. They get to ask and answer each other's questions. They get to figure out what the correct answer is together in a group. And you get to watch it happen. You get to take a peek into your students minds. You don't even have to jump into the conversation within Nectir. If you don't want to, you can simply watch it unfold and see based on the conversations, oh, they're getting it they got that topic, or oh no, they're not talking about it in the right way. That's definitely something that I have to cover again in the next lecture. So it's a live feedback loop for you, and an opportunity for your students to empower themselves and each other by being active knowledge creators for one another. And now I'm going to go ahead and let Alex take over because she has some great insight as to, from a research standpoint pedagogically Why does Nectir actually work? So well?

Alex  12:55

Awesome. Thanks, guys. I'm excited to talk about what this looks like in the classroom for you. So if you're not familiar with Community of Inquiry, this is really one of the frameworks that we leaned on heavily when looking at how to implement Nectir in the classroom. So community of inquiry is an emerging, and I would say pretty dominant framework for online and virtual education spaces. And really, what this is, is the intersection of three presences, teaching presence, which is really how you design your syllabus, how you design your course, the presence that you have, as a teacher creating structure for your course. Cognitive Presence is the second and cognitive is really about how involved cognitively students are in the learning the content, but it's also your selection of that content. That's really where it overlaps with the teaching presence. And social presence is where we are focusing with Nectir. So social presence is the well I'll show you here. 

Alex  13:56

Social presence is the ability of participants to identify with their community and bring themselves and their authentic. There is an authentic selves interpersonally into the classroom. So by focusing on social presence, you're adding to the educational environment, not just a structured way of, you know, giving a lecture, but now you're adding another way to support discourse, from peer to peer, from instructor to student and back and forth. It adds this layer that provides the cognitive and the teacher presences. The ability to span further outside of the classroom, it becomes unstructured learning. And that can be really, really powerful when we talk about peer to peer learning and a lot of what Kavitta was describing her experience as a student. It really spans more than just did I maintain a general understanding of the material. It's so much more than that and having a social presence really makes a difference in the classroom. And that's it So really what you're looking for here is self regulated learning? Did they cognitive student cognitively engaged with the material? And did they find a way to kind of create that discourse with others. And this is where the peer learning comes in. You're looking for peer to peer troubleshooting, teaching, you're also looking for the ability for one student to connect with another and not feel any sort of anxiety like Kavitta had mentioned. That learning and social education is where we're focusing with Nectir. 

Alex  15:33

So how do we foster this social presence in a virtual learning environment? First and foremost, and before you do anything else, creating a space where students feel welcome. We know from research that the first week in the first impression makes a massive impact on students. If students have one authentic connection, virtual email, in person, we know they're they're better off staying in classes. And they we know they're they retain and have better outcomes. So we have to have a space where students feel welcome. And that starts by making sure we set the stage. Setting the stage is welcoming them to the class, but it's also welcoming them and inviting them to speak freely, to have hard conversations and to talk to each other. I think Kavitta gives a really great example with her ta Spencer, who said, I don't really want to be the end all be all for this class, I want you guys to talk to each other. That is an invitation and that the that Spencer took to set the stage for those students. And we're really trying to make that space welcoming for all. So what does this look like? This might look like a quick announcement, it might also look like a invite at the beginning of the course. And this is really what we recommend. Welcome to your Nectir Channel, and then set the stage for what you expect that channel to look like. Maybe it's a place to share resources, maybe it's a place for peer troubleshooting, maybe it's a way to talk about the syllabus on day one, and then you know the midterm as you move forward. Maybe it's a place for you to post announcements, this is your chance to welcome students set the stage and make this space as authentic as possible. This might also look like you sharing a little bit about yourself. We know that students often don't know much about their instructors. And they would like to I know that might come as a surprise. But they would like to know if you have animals I have cats running around. I think part of working from home is we've learned a lot about each other in informal ways. And this is an informal space for students to get to know each other, but also for them to get to know you. So create a welcoming environment by showing up as your authentic self and welcoming everyone with you.

Alex  17:47

We also suggest prompting conversations and engaging students for the kind of engagement you're hoping to see in classes. So this could be questions about the class. This could be questions about the material. This could be questions about what's happening outside of class that applies to the course material. It might also look like poles, you may ask how things are going for students check ins are really important, as we've known over the course of the pandemic, asking students how they are beyond just whether or not they're understanding the material really changes the game. And it changes it for them individually. And as a group. And we know this, because we've seen it happen. There are students saying I'm really devastated that I don't get to graduate. And then surprisingly, other people are also devastated. And now you've created connections in ways that those students maybe didn't know each other before. Nor nor did they know that they were feeling maybe similarly to their classmates. So asking students what's going on outside of class, even asking them if they're retaining the material is a way to create conversations, and engagement that maybe isn't going to happen when you're walking down a hallway, or you're afraid to raise your hand and a big lecture hall. These are informal backchannels that happen alongside your teaching, like Kav said earlier. But alongside is really important. It is a way to bring the comments out of kind of short, small little interactions and make it bigger so peers can learn from each other and start to feel more belonging and less alone. 

Alex  19:23

We also recommend you create specific interaction times in your question. You don't have to do this, but we find some students really no really like to know when to interact with you and when you're going to be available when other students are going to be online. Asynchronous spaces are important, but so too, might be creating a little structure. This is where the teacher presence comes in. So you might say, we're in this course and you can talk to each other at whatever time I will be available for our discussion at five o'clock and then discussion is going to be about this topic. And that's a chance for everyone to get on at that time and know that others are available and interact in informal ways Oop, there we go. 

Alex  20:04

We're seeing another way to do this is if you have dedicated class times, create this back channel to work alongside your class time. It's a way to create a little more equity in your classroom, you may have an in person lecture hall, and there may be 200 students in that lecture hall. And shockingly, there are a few students who may be afraid to raise their hand and ask a question. But perhaps this is a way for them to ask a question with low stakes, they can say, Hey, I know we're working on this lab. And it's, you know, this area, but I don't quite understand the homework assignment here. Can someone help me? Now that low stakes question can be answered alongside a lot of other material, and that person can feel more involved in the class when they may not have if they were in a large lecture hall. So this is another way to add a back channel to maybe an in person course or a hybrid course and have synchronous meeting times where students know their questions are being seen and are available. 

Alex  21:03

Using "@all" mentions, if you're a Twitter user, or really a user of a lot of social media, this is a way to notify your students. So one way to get their attention is to at all, all students in a channel will be notified when you create that little mention, and that will have a notification on their sidebar, as well as send them an email. So let's say there's a change in the syllabus or a change in the test, or you want to make sure everyone knows that classes cancelled because there's some event that occurred, this is a way to notify them and ensure that everyone's getting some sort of notification quickly. And it is reaching their their email or their their mobile phone. I will talk about that a little later. But this is a tool that we see most students use on their mobile phone. And it is an important, I think thing to recognize that so much of education is happening outside of you know laptops, and sitting in a in a classroom, it's happening a lot with technology as well. So we've talked about the @all, let's talk about at usernames, mentions same thing. We're just really focusing on just one student. So if you're having a conversation with a particular set of students, and you want to call out one thing that a user or a student said, this is a way to give them credit. It's also a way to say, hey, I really liked what you said here, let's connect it to this other idea over there and bring both students together in the same thread. It's a chance to just ping folks and encourage more conversation. Without perhaps pointing verbally, you actually get to say, here's, here's what I'm expecting you to join and how you can join.

Alex  22:49

Online office hours is a strange thing that happened over the pandemic that I think everyone is hoping stick around, right? Hosting online office hours is a chance for you to interact with students from their homes, but interactive students who maybe aren't able to come to campus, and maybe you are not on campus, there's a lot of changes with technology now. And online office hours is a way to say you can connect with me in any way. And I'm either going to be available at this time, or you can send me questions whenever and I'll get back to you. When I have those questions. It's a chance to do some asynchronous connection with students, and then give you a chance to log in when best suits you as an instructor. So this is an example of how this kind of has worked in the past. And instructor in one of our courses, mentioned everyone at all and said, Here's some announcements. And one of those announcements was we're going to use that Nectir office hours from one to two, send me your questions. And then those questions came in at a variety of times, if you'll notice, and those then got answered by each other by peers, as well as the instructor chiming in and saying, Hey, actually, let me fix this quickly. And this is the way you know, we would I would suggest you move forward. It's encouraging peer troubleshooting, as well as some instructor intervention, after there were some peer to peer interaction. We love office hours, we see it quite a bit. So in summary, what we've kind of covered so far, is create a welcoming environment. It makes a huge difference to your classes. 

Alex  24:23

And monitor your students through their q&a, see what they're looking for, see what kind of questions they're asking each other, and maybe what questions you're asking them and monitor their maybe wellness just based on that. Encourage them to work with each other in a peer to peer environment. And those small cat conversation starters or small prompts actually make a big difference when they're talking to each other and to you by bringing their authentic selves. By creating that social presence you are really giving a chance for students to share themselves share who they are. This is another place to share resources and supplement links that supplement your lecture is. And this may look like a flipped classroom approach, every every discipline is a little different. So if you are considering a flipped classroom approach, this is a good way to start those conversations and kind of change the approach here. 

Alex  25:15

Lastly, I want to talk a little bit about getting help and community managers. So community managers are on the Nectir team, and they sit inside of workspaces to support you, and whatever your needs are using your channel. So that might be technology questions, but that might also be I have this idea, and I don't know how to deploy it like what do you think? And we'll workshop that with you. Vicky Le is actually the community manager for the UCSB workspace, she's here today. She's a former student of UCSB. So, if you're ever looking for your community manager, you can go to the directory and type in community manager and you will find Vicky, she will be there and ready to help. When you're looking for help. There are multiple ways to ask questions, you may want to use our live chat on our website, and that will actually send a message to Vicky right away and so it gets back to you. You can also direct messages inside of the Nectir workspace. Vicky is the best person to start with but certainly Kavitta and I are available as well. You can email us if that's more in line with kind of your communication style. And there's also help guides so we've got a lot of help guides available for you that you could self serve and have your own troubleshooting needs as well as since students do given we know students are going to have questions right? Community Managers are available for students as well as staff and faculty and whomever is using Nectir on your your workspace. So don't feel like Vicky is you know, only available sometimes, she's available for students and and all needs.

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