PROMOTING AWARENESS AND PARTICIPATION IN
LARGE CLASS LECTURES: THE DIGITAL
François Bry*, Vera Gehlen-Baum†, Alexander Pohl*
* Institute for Informatics, University of Munich
Oettingenstraße 67, 80538 München, Germany
† Chair of Educational Psychology and
Educational Science, University of Munich
Leopoldstraße 13, 80802 München, Germany
This article reports on the conception of a novel digital backchannel, code name Backstage, dedicated to large classes
aiming at empowering not only the audience but also the speaker, at promoting the awareness of both audience and
speaker, and at promoting an active participation of students in the lecture. The backchannel supports different forms of
inter-student communication via short microblog messages, social evaluation and ranking of messages by the students
themselves, and aggregation of student's opinions aiming at increasing the students' community feeling, strengthening the
students' awareness of and co-responsibility for the class work aiming at promoting the students' participation in the
lecture. The backchannel further supports immediate concise feedback to the lecturer of selected and aggregated students'
opinions aiming at strengthening the lecturer's awareness for students' difficulties. The backchannel's conception is
motivated by learning sciences' findings and theories.
E-Learning, Backchannel, Social Media, Learning Sciences
Fifty years ago, European higher education opened up to a much larger part of the society, turning
popular courses of study to mass education and universities to degree factories (Hartmann, 2007): Class
lectures with several hundred students has become daily life in European academia. In such classes, both a
lecturer's awareness and the students' participation in the lecture tend to dramatically decrease.
A well-recognized issue coming along with large audiences is passivity among students. This is often
seen as one of the biggest problems in learning arrangements (Renkl, 1996). With increasing group size
social barriers are raised that make members standing out of the group feel uncomfortable, e.g., when asking
a question or commenting on the discourse. Students may consider themselves as being perceived to be
incompetent in case they would frankly utter comprehension problems. As a consequence, students feeling
overchallenged typically expose a passive behavior (Schworm and Fischer, 2006). The cause of such
misjudgments is often that students are isolated from each other and have few possibilities to sense relevant,
and often similar, impressions of other students. They might, e.g., miss to recognize that they are not solitary
in having comprehension problems. Computer-mediated communication by so-called digital backchannels
can help listeners to share their impressions and engage in collaborative activities. In order to not only
strengthen, but also to increase awareness of ongoing group dynamics, both sophisticated social interactions
and group communication are necessary.
Since a decade or so, digital backchannels have been spontaneously used in – mostly IT and Computer
Science – professional conferences with large audiences to great success. At the beginning of the decade, one
of the authors of this paper has experienced the use of an IRC
-based digital backchannel at a twice-yearly
meeting of the W3C: The backchannel enabled an audience of between six and eight hundred to quickly
agree on objections to a speaker's statement and to choose a few audience members to wave the flag. At some
Computer Science conferences, like multimedia or Semantic Web conferences, Twitter has become a
commonly used tool for commenting presentations, thus raising the audience's awareness to salient, or
questionable, paper presentations. Such a use of a general purpose digital backchannel is not unproblematic,
though. In her blog post “spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective”
of November 24, 2009 danah
boyd reports on how, during a talk she gave, she lost the contact to her audience which increasingly moved
from the frontchannel of the talk to backchannels beyond her reach. Admittedly, part of the problem was that
the backchannels used by the audience de facto excluded the speaker.
This article reports on the conception of the digital backchannel Backstage dedicated to large classes
aiming at empowering not only the audience but also the speaker, at promoting the awareness of both
audience and speaker, and at promoting an active participation of students in the lecture.
The contributions of the article are as follows:
The description of a modus operandi for a use of a digital backchannel in large classes
The functionalities needed for a digital backchannel to support this modus operandi
The scientific underpinning of the approach with findings and theories of learning sciences
The research reported about in this article is a joint work between computer and learning scientists.
2. THE BACKCHANNEL'S MODUS OPERANDI
Like every Monday morning, Sue Byrd is giving the freshmen's lecture on Linear
Algebra for an audience of 280 students. She feels better because the backchannel is on
and the students begin to be used to it. A reminder would not harm, though: "If at some
point you get lost, post it on the backchannel", Sue says, "And refrain from messages on
yesterday evening's soccer." When it comes to the Laplace formula for computing the
determinant of an n-by-n matrix, there is a rush of students' messages. Sue sees that many
are posting messages and therefore awaits a few seconds for the backchannel to inform
her: "What is a matrix' signature?” was asked by 37%. She recalls the concept needed
for understanding Laplace formula and goes ahead with her explanation. Meanwhile,
Bob is engaged in a private chat on the backchannel with Ann: "I thought the formula
was called Leibniz formula. Is Dr Byrd confusing names?" Ann finds the remark
interesting and suggests to Bob to make it public. He does so and within five minutes
more than 20% of the lecture’s audience support the question, leading the backchannel to
forward it to Sue who mentions that there are two distinct formulas for determinants of n-
by-n matrices. At the same time, Charly asks on the backchannel "Recall the formula for
the det of 2x2 matrix". Ann, who often tends to be rather direct, posts a public answer:
"Dr Sue explained it last week but you were once again skiing". This sharp answer gets
support, Charly's question is turned down by 80% of the students and therefore not
forwarded to the lecturer. After the lecture, Sue has a look at the backchannel's
anonymized log: She is satisfied that the communication have been limited to 18 of the 90
minutes of the lecture and to three issues - among others yesterday's victory of the FC
Bayern. She notices that the number of students more interested in FC Bayern's victory
than in determinants fits well with that of student who did not made their last week's
This admittedly simplified and idealized scenario stresses the following points:
Even though it is preferable that students immediately ask questions when they do not recall a
concept, in a large class lecture this is meaningful only if the question is relevant to sufficiently
large a number of students.
Internet Relay Chat
Side remarks to neighbors might be relevant to the whole audience and worth forwarding to the
lecturer. Deciding whether this is the case should be a social decision.
Knowing what students thought, or did, during a lecture is of considerable help for a lecturer.
The next section elaborates on the backchannel's functionalities outlined in the above scenario.
3. PROMOTING AWARENESS AND PARTICIPATION AMONG
Yardi (2008) suggests that strengthening the collective consciousness of, and empowering, large lecture
audiences by an appropriately designed digital backchannel is possible. Appropriate forms of communication
and feedback may support students engaging in collaborative group discussions and actively participating in
the lecture discourse. The importance of active participation is also highlighted by practitioners such as
Arthur F. Thurnau awarded Professor of Education at Michigan University, Deborah Loewenberg Ball, who
states that “Students' opportunities for learning are reduced when their role is mainly that of spectators in
large lecture classes”
. Activities like group discussions may comprise asking and answering of questions or
engaging in controversial discussions. Though extensive group work is hardly possible in large lectures, well
selected collaborative activities could reduce negative effects of large class lectures. One reason is that with
those collaborative activities “inadequate reasoning will be exposed, […] and higher quality understanding
will emerge” (Slavin, 1996, p. 49). In the following, the forms of communication on the backchannel is
described that may foster lecturers' and students' awareness of group dynamics, that embraces empowerment
of students and calls for active participation.
3.1 Short Messages
In academic conferences computer-mediated communication software has been leveraged as digital
backchannels (e.g., McCarthy and boyd, 2005; Saunders et al., 2009). With digital backchannels students can
engage in group discussions during presentations without disrupting the lecturer's discourse. Due to their
success, recent efforts in e-learning have been focused on the application of digital backchannels in higher
education (e.g., Costa et al., 2009; Yardi, 2008).
Though, primarily, user-driven trends have made microblogs the privileged media for digital
backchannels, microblogs fulfill the requirements imposed by learning settings. They provide informal group
communication within the classroom appropriate to post work-related information, to get aware of other's
impressions and to build common-ground (Zhao and Rosson, 2009). The brevity of microblog messages
(typically less than 200 characters) make students write their contributions in a concise manner – one piece of
information per message. This makes contributions written and read more quickly. The fact that students
write their questions or argumentations, instead of talking about them, is giving them more time to reflect
about the discourse. This could lead to a deeper understanding of arguments posted by others (e.g., Kuhn and
Goh, 2005). Concise messages could support students in dealing with the backchannel discourse more
intensely. Thus, compared to other backchannel media, like IRCs, microblogs can help to keep students'
distraction at a lower level. Being persistent, backchannel conversations can furthermore be reviewed and
rearranged specifically for reworking a lecture. Since microblogs are easy to use, following the principle of
the least surprise, special training is often rendered unnecessary.
Many microblogs like Twitter allow the use of a free and unbounded vocabulary for tags, so-called
hashtags that are extracted from messages and displayed in a tag cloud. Messages can be sorted out, or
retrieved, using tags. Tag clouds give an insight into the tagging vocabulary. During lectures, however,
usefulness of free tagging vocabulary is doubtful. Since finding useful tags is a non-trivial task, e.g. avoiding
synonyms and being aware of case sensitivity, it can contribute to students' distraction and be subject to
abuse. Thus, experimental evaluations need be carried out for determining whether free tagging vocabularies
can be useful on the backchannel. In the following, we describe a limited form of tagging with predefined
and very small vocabularies.
3.2 Modes of Communication
The conception of a digital backchannel for large lectures we developed includes public, private as well
as anonymous and pseudonymous forms of inter-personal communication. Public communication is visible
to the entire audience and likely to be the standard form of communication within a lecture class. Private
communication allows a student to share opinions and ideas with others in confidence. The other students can
encourage her to make her contributions public. Thus, private communication can be a stepping stone to
public communication. Public messages may, but do not need to, refer to other students using the @-prefix of
IRCs and Twitter. Private communication is only visible to students that are specified by the author of the
message. We therefore introduce the @>-prefix in the developed backchannel. Referring to the scenario
described in Section 2, Bob's private backchannel message to Ann and Ann's public message to Charly is
given in the Figures 1 and 2.
Additionally, Backstage can be customized to allow students to post messages anonymously. Not
showing the author of a message lowers the barrier to participate in backchannel conversations. It can hardly
be stated a priori which forms of communication are preferable for a given lecture, since experimental
findings are inconclusive. Thus, the lecturer, possibly in agreement with her audience, should be able to
customize the communication to fit the requirements at hand.
3.3 Collective Message Rating and Valuation
Students can approve or reject messages by means of a concise rating scheme: A positive rating expresses
approval and a negative rating expresses rejection. By aggregating these ratings a ranking of messages can be
determined that reflects the relevance of messages as considered by the audience. Regarding a certain topic
lecturers can keep additional explanations short or present them in more detail if the audience indicates
interest. To resemble the natural decline of relevance induced by the progress of the lecture discourse,
ranking of messages should be subject to aging. Aging causes messages to climb down the ranking over time,
unless students continue to rate them. Besides, aging serves two additional purposes. First, students'
interactions necessary for estimating the relevance of a message are reduced. Second, aging makes the
ranking robust against varying backchannel activity. Otherwise, messages that are rated highly positively in
peaks of backchannel activity would not be turned down and hence congest the ranking. We intend to
investigate in experimental evaluations which aging formula should be used. Ratings of messages also allow
for the determination of intra-community status of their respective authors. The more positive ratings the
messages of a student receive, the more intra-community status the student gains. In turn, intra-community
status can be used as a weight that is put on the student's backchannel interactions. Students lose ground if
the large part of the audience continuously rejects their contributions, but gain influence when their
contributions are mostly approved. Thus, intra-community status gives students feedback on the value of
Fig. 1: Editor window with a private message to Ann, only
visible to her and the sender. Note the first symbols: @>
Fig. 2: Editor window with a public message to Charly,
visible to all. Note the first symbol: @
their contributions and can be an incentive to partake. Figure 3 shows how students can rate a backchannel
Apart from rating, on Backstage messages may also be valuated, e.g., as irrelevant messages, by a very
limited keyword vocabulary for a kind of tagging which are predefined during the customization of
Backstage. Messages can be given more than one valuation. The students' valuations are aggregated yielding
a degree for each keyword. Similar to rating a backchannel message, intra-community status may be involved
in the aggregation. Both valuation and rating allow for fine-grained feedback to the lecturer. For example, the
message “Publishing board drawings online would save us time” could be rated highly positively but may
likewise be valuated as irrelevant with respect to the lecture. Especially, this example highlights interesting
dependencies between ratings and valuations: Messages that are valuated as irrelevant by a sufficient number
of students can be safely ignored, or only weakly considered, in the ranking of backchannel messages.
Therefore, it needs to be specified which and how valuations influence the message ranking. Although in the
current Backstage implementation, students can only valuate messages as irrelevant (cf. Figure 3), further
valuations by students are conceivable. Valuations such as, e.g., pace of lecturing, occur in combination with
collective feedback that is described in the following section.
3.4 Collective Feedback to the Lecturer
Backchannel communication can be distinguished into process-oriented and content-oriented
communication, among others. Process-oriented communication deals with the analysis and steering of the
frontchannel discourse, e.g., pace of lecturing. Content-oriented communication deals with the public
frontchannel and backchannel discourse, e.g., critics or appraisal (Cogdill and Kilborn, 2001). Both kinds of
communication may contain relevant feedback for lecturers during their discourses. However, this would
involve comprehending the backchannel discourse while lecturing, a task that is often infeasible. To give
lecturers quickly comprehensible and concise feedback during lecturing makes aggregation necessary.
Suppose that collective feedback on the lecturing pace is sought for. The lecturer customizes the backchannel
with a field “pace” and two notifications, “too slow” and “too fast”. During the lecture students can notify the
lecturer regarding her lecturing pace. These notifications are aggregated and graphically displayed at the
lecturer's dashboard very concisely to give the lecturer the possibility to quickly grasp the audience's
feedback and react on it.
In order to avoid giving unconsidered feedback to the lecturer, students explain their feedback in a
backchannel message. As mere messages, other students can rate and valuate them. These ratings can further
be considered in the aggregation of the feedback. It has been shown that assistance in how to give feedback
and comments is necessary, (e.g., Stegmann et al., 2007). Thus, it could be helpful to add further instructions
to backchannel as described in Section 4. Similar to the relevance ranking of messages, aggregated feedback
to the lecturer underlies aging, in order to resemble the progress of the lecture discourse. Depending on the
customization of the backchannel, the impact of students' feedback to the lecturer can be weighted with their
intra-community status. That is, feedback of students with high intra-community status is considered more
important than that of students with low intra-community status. Arguably, whether to use egalitarian or
status-weighted aggregation depends on various factors, for example, the type of feedback and the
constitution of the audience.
Fig. 3: A message as it is displayed in the public timeline window. Currently,
messages can be valuated as irrelevant (trash) and likewise be rejected (-) or
3.5 Performance Feedback to the Students
Beside the lecturer, also students may obtain feedback by data that is acquired both during and after a
lecture. Therefore, students are assessed in short surveys to gain information regarding their current
knowledge, motivation and progress. Giving a student an overview on the data can contribute to her
reflections and learning. Topic-related knowledge can be tested by short live surveys consisting of questions
and sets of possible answers. When such a live survey is opened by the lecturer, students choose from the
possible answers for a specified amount of time. This can be combined with discussions on the backchannel.
When the specified time runs out the lecturer closes the live survey. The aggregated result is then displayed
at the student's, besides her individual result, and the lecturer's dashboard. On the basis of these results,
further backchannel or frontchannel discourse can emerge. Not only do live surveys allow students and
lecturers to get an overview of the individual and collective learning performance, but also does it break up
the lecture discourse. In his review on the effects of large classes, Cuseo (2007) remarks that students’
attention and concentration drastically declines after ten to twenty minutes of continuous lecturing.
After lectures, students may fill out session-related surveys that poll interest, individual impressions
regarding the lecture, and the perceived usefulness of the backchannel discourse. Also, the data retrieved
from these surveys are processed and displayed on the dashboards. Moreover, the data are also relevant
datasets for experimental evaluations.
4. BACKCHANNEL'S DEPLOYMENT AND EVALUATION
One issue that might arise with such a highly customizable digital backchannel is to find the appropriate
fine-tuning to fit the lecture setting at hand. Though the realization of Backstage is focused on easy
customization, the approach needs to be thoroughly tested. Also, Backstage is to be deployed into real lecture
settings in order to evaluate in long-term studies its effectiveness for students’ learning. These evaluations
are done on the basis of interviews and data that are collected on Backstage as well as on the students'
knowledge gain. It is difficult to determine whether the benefits of using Backstage for learning as described
above results in an improvement of students’ grades. Yet, we argue that an improvement of students’ grades
might be too restricted an indicator for learning success. The availability of the digital backchannel to
students can contribute to an enjoyable and active learning environment and thus supports learning on a more
As a new technology, lecturers and students need to be guided in how to use the backchannel. Especially,
more fine-grained guidance is necessary on how students communicate on the backchannel. Studies suggest
that many students have difficulties in correctly formulating questions or argumentations. Moreover, findings
show that students create arguments and counterarguments on a rather superficial way (e.g., King, 2002) or
do not take the arguments of others into account (Stegmann et al., 2007). One way to overcome these
problems is to give students concise instructions on tasks like asking questions or formulating arguments
(e.g., King, 1997; Stegmann et al., 2007; Weinberger et al., 2010). This can be accomplished by using so-
called scripts which have been shown to be effective (e.g., Stegmann et al., 2007; O'Donnell and Dansereau,
1992; Weinberger et al., 2010). Especially when dealing with novices, learning in digital environments
should be guided (Kollar et al., 2007). When becoming more advanced backchannel users, these scripts may
gradually be faded out (Wecker and Fischer, 2007). It is reasonable to include various kinds of scripts into
Backstage to support students when this seems necessary. Also, this kind of support could be helpful, based
on the findings of Aleven and colleagues (2003), since they found out that students are often not aware of
5. RELATED WORK
Harry and colleagues (2009) present a special purpose backchannel that supports Question-and-Answer
sessions after conference presentations. During a presentation listeners can post their questions on the
backchannel that can be rated by other listeners to either approve their relevance or to reject them. According
to ratings a ranking of the eight most positively rated messages are determined and projected on the wall. The
panelist may select the best rated questions to answer and tally them on the backchannel. Questions
previously posted and tallied cannot be posted again. The rating scheme, though comprehensible, considers
aging of messages and the activity of the audience. That is, in the ranking highly ranked old messages may be
replaced by less highly ranked but recent messages. The article presents empirical findings on the use of the
backchannel in various, mainly industrial conferences. The article also describes experiences made with the
backchannel during those conferences.
The backchannel only allows directed communication from the audience to the panelist. Thus,
collaborative activities are only marginally supported. This is also highlighted in the paper: Listeners
complained about the missing possibility to reply to other listeners. The backchannel does not provide intra-
community status and, thus, the backchannel interactions are egalitarian. While this may be reasonable in
presentations with short-existing audiences, in lectures with long-existing audiences intra-community status
may be worthwhile.
Ebner (2009) has investigated how presentations can be improved by microblogging channels. The
experiment was conducted at the E-MEDIA 2008 conference using Twitter as the microblogging platform.
During presentations the twitter timeline was projected on the wall via a separate projector. This made it
possible for the audience to follow both presentation and the backchannel discourse on Twitter at the same
time. Mainly, the backchannel was used to share links as a supplement of the presentation, to comment on the
presentation, i.e. reacting on the statements of the speaker, as well as on the quality of the slides. The article
highlights Twitter as a way to persist both the presentations as well as the discussions on the microblogging
platform. On the basis of their findings, the authors conclude that the use of microblogs improves learner-
lecture interactions in large classrooms, since it may provide solutions to major problems in learning settings:
Feedback lag (students hesitate to give feedback), Students' apprehension (students fear to ask) and the
Single-Speaker Paradigm (the fact that only one person speaks leads to less activity).
The approach described in Ebner (2009) focuses on the mere group communication by using the general
purpose microblogging platform Twitter. While general purpose microblogging platforms have proven to be
useful in daily life they lack several aspects that we believe to be important in learning settings. Although
they may enhance collaboration by group communication, they usually do not take the outstanding role of the
lecturer into account: They do not provide means of immediate feedback to the lecturer, and neither do they
provide the possibility to socially agree on relevant content – all messages are considered equally important.
This makes it often difficult for lecturers to get aware of the relevant thoughts and impressions of the
The concept of the aforementioned live surveys are reminiscent to Audience Response Systems (ARSs)
that have already shown to be effective for learning purposes in various ways (Kay and LeSage, 2009). ARSs
basically allow usually co-located audience members to interactively engage in polls during presentations. In
several studies, lecturers reported that students appreciate ARSs and that participation of students is
increased. Students reported that they are more interested and engaged in the learning discourse when
Audience Response Systems are used. Hence, similar to ARSs, live surveys may help to increase students'
attention, participation and engagement.
This paper presents the modus operandi and functionalities of a digital backchannel that increases
awareness of both lecturer and students in large class lectures. It embraces the empowerment of students
while rewarding the lecturer with instant feedback giving an insight into the dynamics of the audience.
Important aspects of the modus operandi are motivated by findings from learning sciences.
The project reported about in this paper is about to enter its fourth phase, its deployment for an
experimental evaluation. The third phase, which started in Summer 2010 and is coming to an end, has been
about designing convenient a graphical user interface, that is, two distinct minimalistic, dashboard-like,
interfaces for students and lecturers which will be presented in a companion paper. During a first phase from
the Fall of 2009 up till the Spring of 2010, the design of Backstage reported about in this paper has been
worked out in a joint work of computer and learning scientists. The second phase, from Spring to Fall 2010
was devoted to implementing Backstage relying as much as possible on standard web technologies. The
implementation is now completed and the fourth project's phase is about to begin, an intensive experimental
evaluation of the approach to support large class lectures.
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