A few semesters ago, I was working with a midsized cohort of learners in an instructional design course. Continuing education often sees eclectic groups of learners from different industries, stages in life, experience levels, and employment status. This group was no exception. After a couple of live synchronous sessions, I received a message from a concerned learner.
I’m really eager to participate during your live sessions, but I’m afraid I’m barely at the start of the road and speaking out in a forum full of experienced professionals is daunting. I feel I don’t have the calibre to match some of their contributions.
If you value the learner’s journey, you know this is the type of feedback you need to explore further. It took a start-stop-continue survey and a few carefully crafted questions to realize that this sentiment was shared by others. The next synchronous session saw a new activity devised to create a safer approach to participating, a virtual parking lot. This was a place where everyone would be able to add their comments, questions, and concerns in an anonymous way. Regardless to say, I ended up having pages of the most valid, candid, and poignant comments I’ve seen in any of my classes. At that moment, I acquired a taste for backchannels.
How many participants truly engage during a learning event? How many feel that their comments are not up to the level of the crowd? How many consider that their questions are too stupid to be asked out loud (even when we say that there are no stupid questions)? I dare to say that many of us have fallen into this behavior at some point in our lives. The backchannels are meant to address this situation by providing a space where learners can say what they are thinking while we are delivering instruction, and the trick is that we can access that information either in real-time or later on to adapt our delivery. This will allow us to address any points that will require intervention while building the necessary psychological safety that gives a voice to everyone.
Now, if you think that just because you built it they’ll come, you are missing a critical point. What is the most common question facilitators ask to validate learning during a session? Exactly—“Do you have any questions?” Grammatically speaking, this is a question that can be answered with yes or no and even during a webinar, you can imagine in your mind that they may be nodding, still they don’t say anything on the chat or the microphone. No news is good news? Silence means everything is OK? That’s precisely why the quintessential question doesn’t work. Instead, ask knowledge-based, open-ended questions such as:
- “Why do you think this particular approach didn’t work?”
- “What solution may have yielded a better result?”
- “When was the best moment to address this issue?”
- “How would you solve this problem?”
When you ask open-ended questions, you are forcing the participants to build an answer. In my case, I started asking these questions and allowing learners to upvote/downvote their own answers using student response tools. The combination of alternative channels and the mantle of anonymity made the difference, that’s how I discovered the power of backchannels.
In a nutshell, ask the right questions and pair them with backchannels. Then, look at the comments, responses, and conversations in greater detail. What do they say about the climate of your session? What are the trends in the questions? What can you do to make a greater impact? Finally, act upon this information; don’t keep it to yourself. Send summaries with your comments, acknowledge participation, and encourage them to keep voicing their concerns. That’s the key for enhanced feedback.