Geek Chorus

Posted on Jul 4, 2003

Students with laptops and wireless connections are opening up “back-channel” discussions during classroom lectures, according to a New York Times article by Lisa Guernsey. While the lecturer is up there lecturing, clusters of students are back there working the instant-messaging circuit—commenting, questioning and even blogging the proceedings. “We’re just moving the corridor into the room and time-shifting it by 30 minutes,” says one participant. Enthuses Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at New York University: “The intellectual quality of a two-track meeting is extraordinarily high, if it is run right and you have smart people involved.”

Lecturers do not necessarily concur. “You realize that something is going wrong,” says Syracuse University adjunct professor Indira Guzman, of her experience with back-channeling. “You think, ‘Uh-oh, maybe they are talking about me.” Some students also think back-channeling is rude—not because it’s distracting necessarily, but because they are left out of it. Then there is Joichi Ito a venture capitalist, who agrees the “second track” can be distracting. However, he says he is working on an quick-response technology, called ”’ hecklebot’…a light-emitting diode screen” that the lecturer could use to display heckling messages, and responses, such as “pay attention.”

Most observers seem to agree that “back-channel” communications will only grow in popularity over time. Some trace its roots to VH-1’s “pop-up” videos, “in which commentary about artists pops up on the screen during the song.” Indeed, as reported by USA Today’s Janet Kornblum, a new study of 13-to-24-year-olds from Harris Interactive and Teenage Research Unlimited “confirms something other studies have shown: Young people like to multitask, watching TV while instant messaging and e-mailing while surfing the web.” The Harris study also found that “teens and young adults” now “spend more time on the ‘net than they do watching TV.” It reports “that young people spend and average of 16.7 hours a week online (not including e-mail), compared with 13.6 hours watching TV.” As one participant put it, “you can’t talk to your friends on television.”