The Backchannel: What Affects Its Efficacy?
So before David Jakes started his keynote presentation at RCAC the other day, he walked past our table – where a bunch of twitterers were poised to backchannel as he presented. David made a comment about the efficacy of backchanneling while a speaker is on stage. We ended up in a quick discussion about this phenomenon and about the criteria surrounding effective backchanneling.
I believe that this is in its infancy (with these new media) and requires some controversial discussions.
Types of Backchanneling during a Presentation (via twitter, chatroom, etc.)
- to share the content out to a wider audience
- to create online notes (easily retrieved later via a hashtag)
- to pose questions that the presenter to which a presenter could respond (best managed by a moderator)
- to make associations with prior knowledge and note/describe that
- to share related links to websites or other resources
- to discuss or engage in conversation with others (in the room or at a distance)
Mental Effort and Cognitive Load
I would suggest that the first three of these are extremely similar to things we have traditionally done in the past…taking notes.
However, the last three – and specifically the last one – require a greater intensity of mental effort. Mental effort is not unlimited. It is somewhat finite. So if we are expending a percentage of our mental effort into conversation, we are taking our concentration and effort away from what the speaker is currently saying.
I was teaching my daughter to drive with a standard transmission yesterday. She is an experienced driver, but because managing the clutch, the gearshift, the gas, and the brake were quite new to her, she was quite overwhelmed. However, her level of expertise in the other aspects of driving – traffic patterns, rules of the road, etc. – allowed her to more easily cope with the new demands
If you are merely note taking or posing questions, this does not necessarily draw upon a great amount of mental effort. However, if you are engaged in making associations and documenting them, or involved in a discussion about issues in the backchannel, you are definitely expending a greater amount of your mental energies in those activities.
Factors Impacting Efficacy of Backchanneling
Having said that, there are other factors that are at play here. It is not a simple equation. Consider the following factors of the presentation and its delivery:
- level of expertise with the material/content (more expertise with the content may require a lower cognitive load and therefore free up some mental space to engage in other activities)
- engaging characteristics of the speaker/speed of delivery
- variety and quantity of modalities provided in the presentation
- learning style
In other words, a fast-paced presentation rich with multimedia on material that is new and complex will likely be demanding. A droll, slow verbal delivery on well-understood material will require less of you.
Other Observations from an Old Guy
In my years as an ICT-using educator, I’ve watched new technologies/software come along. And I have studied novice behaviours with these. You will all recognize the characteristics when people get their hands on a new piece of software. People typically use it in playful ways at first. They use all the features. They use every font and every colour and every effect. They use the tool for everything – even when it isn’t appropriate to do so. I remember kids using Logo. They always typed forward 1,000,000,000 to see what would happen! Who remembers that? After a while, and perhaps with experience, the tools become more effectively used.
I think, in some ways, we are seeing this with backchanneling. I believe it will settle into an appropriate rhythm.
Effects on the Speaker
I will not dwell on this point, but I do wish to mention it. Audience feedback – body language, eye contact, looks of engagement – have a cyclical impact on the ability of the speaker to do a great job. It is important to respect the individual speaker’s comfort level and desire for backchanneling.
Some speakers engage a moderator to manage the backchannel – and define ways in which the audience could use it to, for example, bring questions or issues to the speaker.
David Jakes said to me in our brief conversation in advance of his presentation, “the extraneous discussions are really off putting for everyone”. I agree.
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