Providing guidance on Backstage, a novel digital backchannel for large
, A. Pohl
, V. Gehlen-Baum
, F. Bry
Institute for Informatics, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Oettingenstrasse 67, 80538 München, Germany
Department of Educational Technology, Saarland University, Campus C5 4, 66123 Saarbrücken, Germany
Many articles in the last couple of years argued that it is necessary to promote the active participation of students in
lectures with large audiences. One approach to make students actively participate in a lecture is to use a digital
backchannel, i.e. a computer-mediated communication platform that allows students to exchange ideas and opinions,
without disrupting the lecturer’s discourse. Though, a digital backchannel, in order to be most helpful for learning, have to
address the need for guidance of the users interacting. The article presents Backstage, a digital backchannel for large class
lectures, and shows how it provides guidance for its users, i.e. the students but also the lecturer. Structural guidance is
provided by aligning the usually incoherent backchannel discourse with the presentation slides that are integrated in the
backchannel’s user interface. The alignment is thereby asserted by carefully designed backchannel workflows. The article
also discusses the guidance of a student’s substantial involvement in both the frontchannel and the backchannel by means
of scripts. Through the interactions of guided individuals a social guidance may emerge, leading to a collectively regulated
Keywords Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, Enhanced Classroom, Digital Backchannel, Social Software,
Although direct instruction seems to be an old-fashioned way of teaching, it is quite an efficient way of information
dissemination , especially in large classes. However, students in teacher-centered lectures usually take the passive
roles of spectators, possibly leading to inert knowledge  and other adverse effects. Finding ways to overcome
students’ passivity has been a focal point of educational research and practical pedagogy [3-6]. In particular, enriching
traditional teaching with activating and collaborative elements seems to be a promising approach. With the advent of
computer-mediated communication software (CMC), and especially social media, much effort has thus been invested in
the quest for computer-based collaborative learning technologies, e.g. [7,8]. When used in active and collaborative
learning settings, these technologies can contribute to better learning results . A well-known approach to promote
active participation of an otherwise passive audience is to establish a so-called backchannel, allowing listeners to
interchange simultaneously to, but without interfering with, the speaker’s discourse. CMC software by which
backchannels are established is thus referred to as digital backchannels. By using digital backchannels in higher
education, students can give feedback to the lecturer without interrupting the frontchannel discourse , enquire
individual opinions of classmates, and engage in virtual group discussions . Recent backchannel literature reports
on the use of microblogging platforms such as Twitter
, both in academic conferences (e.g. [12,13]) and higher
education (e.g., [8,14,15]). Providing short messages of typically less than 200 characters in size, microblogs allow for
fast information exchange among listeners and thus seem to be very suitable for such kind of application. However,
when using conventional backchannels, particularly in lectures with large audiences, the costs often overweigh the
benefits. In those settings, backchannels tend to quickly degenerate to sources of mere distraction . Also, feedback
that is provided on the backchannel by classmates is often invaluable, and may perish in the clutter of the chat
1.1 Conventional digital backchannels lack guidance
Conventional backchannel platforms barely provide means to guide the student’s and the lecturer’s interactions. This
may not necessarily be considered as a defect, though. Conventional backchannels are based on generic CMC software
and consequently do not address specific educational requirements. The provision of guidance to the required extent
reaches beyond, and even may compete with, common principles of usability.
Most digital backchannels provide an unstructured chat discourse that is yet, by its nature, non-linear and incoherent.
Participants usually engage in, and alternate between, multiple discussion threads . Nevertheless, the chat is usually
displayed as a single chronologically ordered thread of messages. Such a linearization causes the backchannel discourse
to quickly get incomprehensible, and aggravates the re-orientation of both the lecturer and the student after some time
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A. Méndez-Vilas (Ed.)
of backchannel absence. As a consequence, both may become detached from the backchannel during the lecture. The
missing structure also impedes using the backchannel discourse for subsequent learning tasks, e.g. reworking a lecture.
In a sense, conventional backchannels do not convey any educational rationale behind their uses. Hence, the
communication on backchannels is mainly undirected and purposeless—without any mission statement, students get
lost on the backchannel which might manifest itself in predominant off-topic communication and abuse. The lecturer
can provide guidance only to a very limited extent. Since she easily gets detached from the backchannel while lecturing,
she cannot monitor the students’ interactions on the backchannel in a sufficient manner. Thus, a digital backchannel
needs to provide means of guidance in how to make use of and how to reach the interactions sought after, viz. giving
valuable feedback to both peers and the lecturer, reducing off-topic communication and abuse, and engage in exchange
of ideas and opinions that is most helpful for learning.
1.2 Overcoming the lack of guidance on a digital backchannel
In  we presented Backstage, a novel kind of digital backchannel specifically tailored for the use in large class
lectures by combining computer-mediated communication with elements of social media. It accounts for the demands
of large class lectures, e.g. the potential necessity of private and anonymous communication, and the management of the
backchannel discourse by social evaluation and collaborative filtering of messages. Akin to social media, the latter two
can be seen as driving forces for an active participation of the audience. To fit the individual requirements of a lecture,
Backstage is customizable by the lecturer to a great extent. Furthermore, in order to give performance-related feedback
to the students, and to break up the lecture discourse into bearable sections, Backstage provides various kinds of quizzes
reminiscent to audience response systems  that may be conducted by the lecturer during the lecture.
The chapter at hand discusses Backstage’s functionalities foremost in the light of guidance. The lack of structure of
the backchannel discourse is overcome by aligning the communication with the presentation slides that are integrated in
the backchannel. This makes the backchannel communication be navigated in a top-down fashion and therefore allows
for fast re-orientation and a concise overview. The interactions on Backstage are laid out to fulfill educational purposes
whenever reasonable, possibly deviating from pure usability principles. To support students in the substantial
involvement in both the frontchannel and the backchannel, e.g. help students formulate high-quality questions, we
discuss how the pedagogical concept of scripts [19,20] can be embedded in Backstage, and how they may positively
influence the interplay between the frontchannel and the backchannel. Backstage provides the lecturer with various real-
time data, e.g. a concise topic-related overview of the backchannel discourse, and thus serves as a decision support for
the lecturer. For example, according to the data the lecturer is able to quickly recognize that there is a rush of questions
on Backstage and react upon it in a timely fashion.
We also take the opportunity to introduce the pedagogical concept of scripts [20,21], and show how Backstage makes
use, but also plays a role in, those scripts. We thereby highlight that the two concepts, claim-based user-interaction
design and the notion of scripts, overlap and complement each other, building a bridge between the two disciplines of
computer and educational sciences.
2. Introducing Backstage
Backstage is a digital backchannel for large class lectures that aims at increasing awareness and participation of both
audience and lecturer. Backstage is customizable by the lecturer to a great extent to meet the individual requirements of
the lecture at hand. Besides rich communication capabilities, Backstage provides comprehensive means for interactions
among students for several purposes. In the following, a concise overview of the functionalities of Backstage is given.
For a more detailed overview, the reader is referred to .
Backstage is built around a microblog by which students can communicate. As a key characteristic of microblogs,
messages may comprise only a few ten characters. This brevity of messages allows for fast information exchange
among the audience during a lecture. Besides public communication, messages can also be private or anonymous, as
specified by predefined keywords at the beginning of the messages. Private messages, i.e. messages that are visible only
to those users that are specified by the sender in the message, can for example be used to obtain social support by a
selected group of users, prior to making the message public. Anonymous messages may help to start backchannel
communication, e.g. at the beginning of a teaching term. Though, private and anonymous communication bears the
risks of group dissociations and abuse. Thus, the lecturer can enable or disable these modes of communication.
Microblog messages may be rated by students receiving them using a simple rating scheme: A positive rating
expresses approval and a negative rating expresses rejection. By aggregating these ratings a top-k rating of messages is
determined that reflects the relevance of messages as considered by the audience, allowing the lecturer to get a concise
content-related overview of the backchannel discourse. Thus, rating provides feedback for both the lecturer and the
students: The lecturer obtains an overview of what is considered by the lecture’s audience relevant communication on
the backchannel and a posting student gains feedback about the audience’s appreciation of the value or relevance of her
Education in a technological world: communicating current and emerging research and technological efforts
A. Méndez-Vilas (Ed.)
Additional to the mere inter-personal communication among students, microblog messages may also be assigned to
categories that are predefined by the lecturer when he configures Backstage. Assigning messages to categories makes it
possible to retrieve and aggregate the messages of a category, thus providing the lecturer in real-time with a concise
topic-related overview of the backchannel discourse. These categories may, among others, be content-related, e.g.
“question”, or process-related, e.g. “lecturing pace”. By monitoring the aggregated topic-related overview the lecturer
can quickly recognize, for example, if her audience indicates problems in following her lecture discourse, and enables
her to promptly react upon it.
Besides the audience’s active participation in the backchannel discourse, the lecturer may also call for active
participation by means of quizzes which are reminiscent to Audience Response Systems or Classroom Response
Systems [18,22,23]. These have been shown to be very helpful in promoting active participation of the audience .
The conduct of quizzes may not only assess the students’ previous knowledge or opinions about the lecture’s topic but
also breaks up the lecturer’s discourse into bearable chunks. Research indicates that students’ attention and
concentration drastically declines after 20 minutes of continuous lecturing . Thus, quizzes may re-activate students
and promote active participation, for example, by combining the answering of quizzes with a short interchange on the
3. Providing Guidance on Backstage
At a relatively early stage of Backstage’s development we conducted a preliminary user study, providing the authors
with first impressions about how students get along with Backstage . Fourteen students interacted on Backstage
during 30-minutes lasting presentations. Although the discussions were mostly fruitful and the students liked working
with Backstage, quite unsurprisingly the important aspect of guidance has been identified as in need of improvements.
For example, students confirmed that the single-threaded display of backchannel discourse quickly makes the discourse
incomprehensible. Since presentation slides were not displayed at the user interfaces, students had to permanently
switch between the backchannel and the frontchannel. Additionally, the analysis of the chat transcripts confirmed that
students need support in formulating high-quality questions—just approximately 15 percent of the questions were of a
high quality as defined in . These insights led us to extend and rewire the functionalities of Backstage in order to
account for guidance to a greater extent.
3.1 Guidance by scripts
According to contemporary research learners occasionally need to be provided with direct instructions (e.g. [25,26]),
especially when they are equipped with insufficient previous knowledge or internal scripts . The term “internal
script” is rooted in cognition psychology  and describes already existent knowledge structures about courses of
actions (i.e. procedural knowledge). Internal scripts make possible to behave adequately, and provide mental models
about those courses of actions. In  one can find the often-cited restaurant script providing a detailed picture about
how a restaurant visit in our culture takes place. However, internal scripts might be insufficiently advanced or flawed
. By instructions or so-called external scripts it is possible to unwind suboptimal scripts and support the learner in
internalizing an improved, more efficient way to perform a learning task [28,29]. One possibility that proved to be
helpful is the use of so-called collaboration scripts. “Collaboration scripts are instructional plans that specify and
sequence collaborative learning activities“, [27, p.18]. For example, collaboration scripts have been used to support the
collaborative writing of texts. Therefore, O’Donnell and Dansereau developed the MURDER script that provides
learners with two distinct roles and, accordingly, different activities . While this script has been used in face-to-face
settings, various recent scripts are used in computer-based learning arrangements (e.g. [9,31,32]). Script research has
also been focusing on the improvement of argumentation (e.g. [33,34]) and on the construction of high-quality
Based on  there are certain components (participants, activities, roles, resources and groups) and mechanisms
(task distribution, group formation and sequencing) that facilitate cognitive and social processes. However, there are
further two components to be considered that could influence the functioning of the other components as well as
learning processes and results. Based on goals defined by the lecturer the learning activities and sequences are
determined [36,37]. Furthermore, the representation of scripts should be taken into consideration. In most cases the
above mentioned components lead to an improvement of learning results. Scripts can be separated into macro and micro
scripts . While macro scripts specify activities from a higher level of perspective, i.e. an entire learning phase
([9,32]), micro scripts address single aspects and tasks of learners, e.g. argumentation (e.g. ).
In Backstage both forms, macro and micro scripts, can be employed. Likewise, macro scripts specify, i.e. sequence,
the learning activities in and around the backchannel, and micro scripts provide support for single interactions of
students on the platform. For example, if the lecturer recognizes that the quality of questions declines, she may activate
some sort of script module on Backstage that supports students in constructing high-quality questions. Such a script
module may in this case be based on . Depending on the time available the lecturer can invest on such an issue,
those scripts can support the individual, the collective, or both simultaneously.
Education in a technological world: communicating current and emerging research and technological efforts
A. Méndez-Vilas (Ed.)
While some functionalities of Backstage implicitly provide the user with support, and thus can be seen as scripts, the
integration of explicit instructions that aims at supporting the user in her content-related involvement is still largely an
open issue. Thus, the way of visualizing instructions on the user interfaces such that they are most helpful for learning,
remains an open question. Furthermore, the management of scripts, e.g. activating a script, needs further consideration.
While the lecturer can activate a script module, we have to carefully think about the basis (of data) the lecturer needs to
be provided in order to recognize which scripts should be activated. Also, it is conceivable to tailor the scripts for each
individual according to the profile data.
3.2 Guidance by interaction workflows on Backstage
As mentioned above, on Backstage, messages can be assigned to predefined categories, allowing the lecturer to gain a
very concise topic-related overview of the backchannel’s discussions. However, while in the previous version of
Backstage assigning messages to categories has been an optional activity, in the new version of Backstage it is
enforced. Indeed, providing the lecturer with an overview of how the backchannel communication is structured is
crucial to keep her attached. By leaving the categorization of messages optional, the overview would in most cases be
incomplete, though. Moreover, pre-defined categories implicitly convey to the students the communication that is
sought after. In contrast, unrestricted communication leaves much space for off-topic messages. Hence, categorization
can be a first step to counteract off-topic messages. To make users assign categories to all their messages in an intuitive
way, it is reasonable to rewire the workflow as follows. The user always begins with writing a message. When she
issues the send command, a pop-up menu occurs, from which she selects the category the message shall belong to (cf.
Figure 1 a) After entering the text message into the message editor the user issues the send command. Then, a popup menu occurs
from which the user selects the category the post belongs to (in the picture the category question is selected). From top to bottom, the
pop-up menu shows the two content-related categories question and hint, and the two process-related categories too fast and too
slow. b) On the lecturer’s dashboard the number of the users online and messages is displayed (top row). In the second row, the
number of collectively classified off-topic messages is shown. The topic-related overview (last two rows) of the backchannel is
displayed. The complete overview is updated in real-time.
This sequence in writing a message accounts for the assignment to categories in a reasonable way. Interestingly, such
a workflow can be seen on the one hand as a sort of script that tacitly instructs the student to assign her messages to
categories, and on the other hand as another script that specifies the sort of discourse sought after.
Apart from the aforementioned categorization, the backchannel discourse can be structured according to presentation
slides displayed on the backchannel. Each message is always related to the slide currently displayed at the sender’s
dashboard. Accordingly, only those messages are shown that belong to the displayed slide while any other messages are
not shown. That is, by navigating through the slides one also navigates through the backchannel past discourse.
Additionally, the discourse for each slide can be structured at a finer level, by subdividing it into threads of discourses,
thereby leaving explicit the incoherency and non-linearity of chat communication. The preservation of threads gives
structure to the communication in a top-down fashion and allows for fast re-orientation of the users and for
instantaneous reuse of the backchannel discourse for further learning tasks.
A. Méndez-Vilas (Ed.)
The creation of threads is merged with the workflow of posting messages. That is, messages either open up or extend
a thread. To create a thread, the student writes a message as previously described. After selecting a category, however,
the message is not yet sent. Rather, the student clicks onto the slide in order to specify a position for the thread to be
created. The thread is of the same category as its opening message. Creating a thread is illustrated in the Figure 2. By
placing on a slide, a thread can be related to some meaningful part of that slide. For example, a question can be placed
in that region of a slide to which the question refers. Thus the placement of threads on slides allows for some sort of
topic-based navigation in each slide. Slides can be structured so as to include pre-defined topics of relevance for the
lecture. The user can quickly recognize whether a thread may be of interest to her alone by the location of a thread
without the need to deal with the comprised discourse itself. In order to add a message to an existing thread, by clicking
the thread icon at a slide, the student selects the thread her message shall belong to. As a result, only those messages are
displayed at the student’s dashboard belonging to that thread. According to the procedure described in the section
above, the student adds a message. Since an existing thread is already selected, the positioning of an icon in order to
send the message is omitted. The user leaves the thread either by selecting, i.e. entering, another thread or by clicking
onto the slide. Latter leads to showing the discourse for the entire slide at the microblog window.
Apart from guidance by structure, students’ interactions at a learning platform such as Backstage should be related to
some shared artefacts , like presentation slides. Showing the chat log together with, and in the context of, slides on a
single screen is considered to be conducive for learning . Also, placing threads on slides, i.e. relating
communication to shared content, has been shown to be valuable for collaborative learning and for the improvement of
learning success, since it fosters building of common ground among students and encourages students to also respond to
older messages . It should be noted that, in order to benefit from this sort of functionality, it might not necessarily
be the case that full-blown presentation slides are provided. Rather, it would be sufficient to provide the backchannel
with slides just containing a more or less detailed outline of the lecture. Such outlines can certainly be easily given, no
matter what lecture is to be supported by Backstage. After all, a lecturer should be conscious of her lecture’s outline.
Figure 2 After writing the message the student selects a category (e.g. question, as shown at the left). To create a new thread by the
message the student clicks on the region of the slide near to where the thread is related to (shown at the right). A corresponding icon
is shown at the specified position—the red arrow at the right (not part of the slide) points to the icon that is placed by the student.
3.3 Collective guidance on Backstage
In addition to the guidance of individual interactions by interaction workflows “with a purpose” and the use of scripts to
support students content-related involvement, Backstage allows for a kind of collective guidance of individuals by the
audience that may support both the student and the lecturer. By means of rating and further collective categorization of
posts, such as off-topic, the group may tacitly exert, using the backchannel, a review of the individual’s behaviour. For
example, an ill-located thread may be rated negatively, or may merely gain poor attention. Rating and activity
indicators, besides being instruments for the increase of partaking, serve as a means to collective quality or relevance
management. Well-located threads with relevant messages may gain much attention and may be rated highly positively.
This provides the user with insights about what the community considers profound and considerable. Going a further
step ahead, rating itself could be subject to quality management. This could be achieved by enforcing that the rating
itself results in a message containing the explanation for the rate given. Ratings are then expressed by mere messages
that in turn can be rated. Thus, rating and collective categorization can be seen as forms of peer learning.
Since on a digital backchannel dedicated to large classes a vast amount of data accrues, it is necessary to provide
some sort of information management, e.g. filtering out irrelevant information. For this task, rating and categorization
A. Méndez-Vilas (Ed.)
come in handy. As mentioned above, assigning messages to categories, that may not only be related to lecturing style
but also to content, allows for a concise aggregated overview about the kinds of messages currently exchanged on the
backchannel (cf. Figure 1b). This provides a kind of decision support that guides her steering of the frontchannel. The
overview can be enriched by a top-k ranking of messages that is determined by the rating scores of each post. Both keep
the lecturer attached to the backchannel and enable her to react upon the backchannel discourse, and thus include the
audience in her lecturing to an extent that would otherwise only be possible in small learning groups.
Especially in combination with the guidance of each individual, by collective guidance a regulation of the
backchannel by the audience may emerge. We consider such a regulation of the backchannel that relies on the audience
to be highly desired, since it unburdens the lecturer from permanently monitoring the backchannel, a task that she can
barely carry out by herself during lecturing. It may also reduce the need for further faculty staff, thus allowing the
backchannel to be used in classes with nearly arbitrary large-sized audiences. More importantly, the group behavior can
be processed and examined by the lecturer giving her insight about the overall-behavior of her audience. It also allows
the lecturer to relate, and compare, individual backchannel activities to that of the group. Certainly, finding ways to
foster self-regulation of the backchannel is an involved task and needs further research.
The article discusses the functionalities of the digital backchannel Backstage foremost in the light of guidance. The
article assumes that guidance of learners on collaboration platforms such as Backstage is essential in order to be
conducive for learning. Therefore, the functionalities of Backstage are extended and rewired in order to provide for
guidance in four different ways: by structure, by user interactions “with a purpose”, by scripts, and by the collective.
Guidance by structure is provided by aligning the backchannel communication with presentation slides that are
integrated in the backchannel, and by preserving the incoherency and non-linearity of the chat with the concept of
threads. In order to trigger reflective thinking of students and to establish the kind of communication sought after the
user interactions are carefully designed accordingly, thereby possibly deviating from mere usability principles.
Furthermore, recent research (e.g. [41-44]) suggests to provide the user with various instructions and predefined
sequences of activities. By proper guidance of individuals a collective guidance on the backchannel may emerge and
thus lead to a social self-regulation of the backchannel by the audience.
It should be noticed that especially with the provision of guidance in an unobtrusive way—for example, when
placing icons the user is not aware of being scripted—learners could be activated and guided, without much loss of self-
regulation and motivation . Yet, how far this may be the case, and how it might actually influence motivation 
and reactance , among others, needs to be investigated in future studies.
As another challenge, Backstage might demand much attention, and thus time, from both the lecturer and the students
during lectures. This might impinge on the efficacy of Backstage for learning, especially when used in traditional
teacher-centered lectures. Thus, it could be necessary to structure the lecture itself by means of a macro script that
specifies, and thus accounts for, distinct times when to interact on the backchannel, and specifies how to make use of
Backstage during a lecture.
In this context it is also possible to validate the usefulness and accuracy of the data displayed on the lecturer’s
dashboard. This may be supported by Backstage itself. According to the data scripts may be employed that may guide
the lecturer during her discourse which might be interesting especially for yet marginally experienced lecturers.
We plan to conduct both laboratory and field studies to a most detailed picture about the efficacies of Backstage’s
functionalities and the applicability of the backchannel in real lecture settings. This combination enables us to carefully
develop, and adapt, novel scripts, since the development can be based on existent data. According to , scripts need
to be carefully designed in order to be successful.
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