Education Learning Teaching

Embrace the Backchannel

Those in the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement in K-12 and Postsecondary education advocate for multiple means of communication among teachers and students that include using devices equipped with backchannel apps.  These applications, which allow for a digital conversation while a verbal conversation is happening, can allow those who are afraid to speak in class, or those who prefer not to speak in class, to contribute to the discussion through written responses.  Those who are shy and those who are introverted have an outlet that is suitable to their personalities, which helps them contribute to the conversation in productive ways.

Did you know that being shy is not the same thing as being introverted?  It’s true.  A shy person has fears about interacting with others, but doesn’t necessarily want to be alone.  An introvert, on the other hand, gathers energy in solitude and expends a lot of energy when in a group; to recharge, the introvert must retreat and take some time alone to regroup.  This article explains the difference very well.  I used to think I was an introvert.  Here’s a story about how I found out I was wrong.

Marriage and Family Class, Holy Family University, 1992

The class had just received the results of the Myers-Briggs personality test we took the last class.  We reviewed the results in silence, reading the descriptions of each code and correlating them to our results.

After a few minutes, the teacher asked, “Did anyone find their results surprising?”  I raised my hand.

“What did you find surprising, Heather?” he asked.

“That the test says I’m an extravert,” I responded.


Reactions to what I said about my test results.

Created by Heather Edick using

Those were some of the reactions to what I said.  I was shocked.  I’d spent most of my life thinking I was introverted.  Turns out, I wasn’t.  Sure, perhaps at one point I had been shy, but by the time I was a Junior in college, those days were long gone.  Some classmates wondered aloud how I could consider myself introverted when I was always contributing in class, for example.  It was hard to explain to them that I considered myself a loner; being an only child had conditioned me to being quite comfortable by myself for long periods of time.  I am not one to have a great number of friends, either, having espoused the philosophy that if you can count your true friends on one hand, you’re a lucky person.  “Better to cultivate true friendships than try to befriend every person you meet” was my motto.

It turns out that the classification hinges on your preferred sources of energy.  Today, I understand that I am energized when I am speaking with a group, teaching or training, and being social.  I used to be terrified of public speaking, for instance, but now I come away from the experience with something akin to a runner’s high.  The more the audience interacts with me, the better.   Just like a runner, however, it’s easy for me to “hit a wall” and “crash.”  As anyone should, I must be careful and moderate my actions and interactions with other people.

That brings me to the point of this post.  You probably thought I wasn’t going to get there, didn’t you?  That’s all right, because I wasn’t sure I was going to get there either.

Backchannel applications can help introverts and shy students alike.  Introverted students can reserve their energy; shy students can contribute without being terrified.  Teachers do not have to broadcast identities when using these applications, as most of them allow anonymous posting and showing responses in the aggregate.  Those who are introverted can “spend” their energy wisely.  Students who are shy might enjoy seeing results that align with their expectations; in other words, they would feel included within a group instead of feeling like an outsider.

They can help teachers, too.  How often do we teachers make our way through a lesson wondering if everyone understands the purpose and content of it?  I’m sure that the answer varies by teacher.  Even if we ask for confirmation from our students, those who are reluctant to speak in a group setting will often indicate they understand.  A backchannel app helps the teacher gather accurate information about the class.  It is a powerful tool for formative assessment.

To conclude this post, I leave you with a list of my favorite backchannel apps.  I won’t review them here, as many others have done that already, but if you would like more information about any of them, feel free to email me at, or leave a comment in the comment box below.  Thank you!




Poll Everywhere


Collaborize Classroom

In another post, I will offer more reasons to embrace the backchannel, such as helping students that work at a different pace than the rest of the class.

This post originally appeared on


What is the value of an internal training team?

This post is speculative, based on opinion and observation, and full of educated guesses.  If that is all right with you, please continue reading.

What’s in a name?

Calling a training team an “internal training team” boxes the members into a corner and restricts their role within the organization.  It gives others the impression that the team is only to be used for training colleagues, when in reality, that team could do more by also interacting with customers or employees of those customers.  Therefore, renaming the team would increase its value in the eyes of fellow employees.  Putting team members in front of customers would increase the value of the team outside the organization.  It would also help them do their jobs back in the office, by providing an important perspective with which to develop curricula – that of the customer.  Helping them to assume leadership roles within the organization would increase their credibility and their chances of keeping their jobs should the economy tank yet again.

We trainers know that we are the first group of employees considered when the management decides to downsize.  In one company I worked for years ago, we were called “overhead” and considered expendable.  Fortunately, we managed to make it through the RIFs (Reduction in Force) each time because we did more than train fellow employees.  When we put on the second and third hat, we increased our value.  Instead of being “nice to have,” we became employees they “must have.”

My advice: Consider calling the team something that truly reflects their value within the organization, and consider diversifying their duties so they are not training all the time.  Let them use their skills to interact with employees outside the classroom, and with customers outside the office.  Then, expect them to reflect on those experiences and use them to build curricula that will resonate with colleagues and customers alike.

How much does it cost to retain an employee?

You spend months training a new hire – and then they leave.  How much money have you wasted?  This happens all the time.  Either the employee decides the position is not a good fit, or the company decides that the employee is not a good fit for the position.  Either way, thousands of dollars were spent for nothing.  If the company had had a more rigorous new employee training program (which I will not call ‘onboarding’), the situation might have resolved itself much differently.  Management might have had enough information to decide to part ways with the employee much sooner, for instance.  Alternatively, the employee could have performed better, given the proper training and support, and everyone would be happy.

Trial by Fire

Unfortunately, many small to medium-sized companies do not have such a program, and probably don’t have an internal training team, either.  That has been my experience, at least.  My colleagues and I refer to these first few months in a new job as “trial by fire.”  I’m sure many others do also; we certainly did not invent the phrase.

There really are many new employees who find themselves in a cube with a computer, phone, office directory, and a list of “Who to Call for What.”  They have a basic understanding of what is expected of them, but hardly enough information to start working.  Unfortunately, they are expected to start moving earth without having any idea where this tunnel is going to lead them.  Perhaps someone has given them some URLs, a few printed manuals from 1995, etc., but other than that, they are on their own.  After a few days, if the employee hasn’t bolted from the office screaming, they usually stay.  They are bleary-eyed and miserable, but they slog through while they keep their resume up-to-date on LinkedIn, Career Builder, and Monster, just in case something (anything) better comes along.

Does that sound familiar?  Come here, I’ll give you a hug.

Peer Training

A slightly better approach is to conduct peer training or on-the-job training.  Companies that do not have training programs for new employees often rely on veteran employees and managers to train others.  I’ve found the following problems with that approach.

  1. The veteran employees, although highly skilled and considered SMEs (Subject Matter Experts), have no idea how to share their knowledge with someone who is new to the position.
  2. The manager does not have a lot of time to devote to one employee, so the employee sits in a cube and pretends to look busy or studious while the manager runs off to help other employees.
  3. Neither the SME nor the manager have a curriculum to guide them as they train the employee.  There could be gaps in knowledge transfer, or they could be confusing the new employee by not teaching things in the proper, logical order.
  4. Neither the SME nor the manager know how to teach someone.  They aren’t trainers and have never received training on, well, how to train.
  5. There is an important part missing in this approach: the orientation.  Humans need the big picture to understand the more detailed aspects.  What I see instead is that the employee is immediately immersed in details.  By the end of the day, she’s more confused than educated.

 Bring in the Team!

Let’s end this post on a positive note.  There certainly is a way for managers and SMEs to train new employees, and they should be involved in the process.  First, however, the manager and SMEs should consult with the training team and develop a training plan that makes sense.  Some of my colleagues are very good at this, as they want more than anything to see the new employee succeed.  They need that new employee to succeed.  As soon as they receive an acceptance from the employee, I turn around and they are at my desk.  They want to put a plan together that includes formal training, peer training, and self-study.  They work closely with the employee during that first week on the job, teaching them the logistical things they need to know, introducing them to teammates and other employees, and establishing the training plan with them.  Gradually, they release the new employee into the wild, often entrusting him or her to the care of those in their team while also keeping a close eye on them.  Those that are successful often learn to request training on their own when they realize the training they need. I have seen it work, and it is something beautiful.

The managers and SMEs that make the new employee process work have a few things in common.

  1. They are tireless advocates for their employees.  One refers to herself as “Momma Bear, when it comes to my people.”  No argument here.
  2. They think things through and incorporate their experiences into new paradigms of thought and action.
  3. They take full responsibility for the success or failure of their team.
  4. They truly love what they do, and want everyone else to love their jobs too.

The Cycle Should Never End

Imagine how good such a program would be if the training team truly understood the objectives and goals of the team in question!  That brings this post full circle then.  Invest in the training team by sending them outside the organization to learn the customer’s perspective.  Require that they reflect on those experiences and incorporate them into their training programs.  Require that managers and SMEs work with the training team to develop plans for new employees.  Encourage all peer trainers to consult with the team prior to taking on new training tasks.  Stop calling them the “internal training team” and find a title that truly reflects what they do.

What would your title be?