Backchannels: Covert Digital Backchannels in the Overt Classroom


  • Thomas Kjaergaard UCN University College Aalborg
  • Roland Hachmann UCsyd University College, Haderslev, Denmark



backchannels, social media, lecturer-centred teaching, student-initiated activities, reflection-in-action


Abstract:  A study of backchannel communication during lessons in higher education.

This paper presents a study of how students utilise social media as backchannels for ‘reflection in action’, ‘reflections on action’, social banter and critique of the ongoing physical presence lesson with digital technologies. The research question was sparked by the overt ways in which the students communicated in the chat in videoconferences in online lessons during the first lock-down (March-June 2020). The students appeared to help each other and sort out practical and academic issues without involving the lecturer in the chat. This initial discovery led to an actual investigation of how the students communicate, digitally during physical presence lessons after the lock-down lifted. It became evident that most students engage in covert, digital communication during lessons. So, while the backchannel was overt and inclusive in online lessons, it turned into a covert exclusive practice in the physical, presence lessons. The paper introduces the notion of a ‘backchannel’ that carries undisclosed strands of student-initiated communication during a lesson. The study also identifies different types of backchannel communication that take place amongst students during lessons. Furthermore, the paper suggests a typological organisation of the different types of reflection the backchannels support. A backchannel is defined as a secondary, informal, unmanaged communication channel that happens simultaneously with a physical, presence lesson. The backchannel seems to be a process that either, covertly, support the students or, overtly, supports the lecturer and the students. The identified backchannels are divided into three different kinds of backchannels in the paper. The types found in the study include: ‘Rhizomatic, covert backchannels’, ‘Lecturer initiated backchannels’ and ‘hybrid joint contribution backchannels’. The paper investigates the pedagogical circumstances under which the backchannels emerge and how they are utilized. Furthermore, the article discusses the implications that covered, digital meta-communication during the lessons that may have on the relationship between lecturer and students. Lastly, the paper presents suggestions for how to use the covert backchannels as a constructive element in the lessons. Finally, the article suggests pedagogical practices that offer the students other possibilities to engage and express insecurities and general questions during lessons and presentations.