Monday, March 02, 2009

Educational Uses of Back Channels for Conferences, Museums, and Informal Learning Spaces


Many museums are experimenting with “back channel” platforms that allow visitors and staff to chat and share content while onsite at the museum. For some educators and curators, this may sound like a nightmare. Visitors texting amongst themselves while you are trying to conduct a tour? Their pithy opinions of the exhibits broadcast live in the lobby?

Last week, I had my first serious experience with useful back channels at a conference (WebWise), and it taught me some lessons about how back channels might be used effectively as a learning tool in museums and other experiential venues (like conferences and classrooms).

The back channel isn’t just a social space. I noted three distinct, valuable uses of back channels at WebWise:
  1. To communicate socially in an environment that does not permit open dialogue. This is the "note passing" or flirting use case.
  2. To share your onsite experience with a network of people who are not co-located with you. Where the first use case serves co-located people, this use case focuses on broadcasting the highlights of your experience to friends elsewhere.
  3. To investigate a content experience more deeply using a different set of tools than those used to convey the content. For example, you may listen to a speaker and check out related links from his work as he talks.
At WebWise, these use cases were addressed by a variety of tools that composed a multi-dimensional back channel. WebWise is a single-track conference; everyone was together in the same big room for the majority of two days. There were four conference back channels, two that were officially promoted and two that emerged ad hoc:
  1. A talkback board. We gave everyone post-its in their registration packets and encouraged them to post their questions and comments, especially on the “gaps” in the conference, to the board. The board was directly outside the main conference room. (addresses use #1)
  2. A Today’sMeet chat room. This is a really simple online chat interface that allows you to share messages of 140 characters or less. I set it up, demonstrated it in the first session, and then participants were off to the races with their own laptops. (addresses use #1 and #3)
  3. Twitter. While we did not formally promote Twitter as a back channel, Twitter users quickly gravitated towards a #webwise hashtag and were able to track each other’s tweets via Twitter search. (addresses use #2 primarily, #1 secondarily)
  4. Delicious. One participant started using webwise as a tag on Delicious for websites referenced during the conference. He promoted its use via both Today’sMeet and Twitter. (addresses use #3 primarily, #2 secondarily)
By the end of the conference, there were:
  • 6 post-its were on the talkback board.
  • 724 posts on Today’sMeet by about 80 users.
  • 380 posts on Twitter by about 40 users.
  • 105 links on Delicious by about 8 users (led by one superuser who posted 63 of the links).
First, why did the talkback wall fail, despite our advertisements? At some conferences, they can be used to great effect, but at WebWise, the board was both physically and conceptually irrelevant, especially when compared to the immediate opportunities presented by Today’sMeet. Unlike museum talkback walls, which are typically situated in galleries where visitors are viewing related content, the WebWise wall was set apart from the action, and it made a BIG difference.

Why did Today’sMeet succeed at engaging so many people? It is a low-barrier chat system that does not require registration. It’s really easy to use and promotes discussion, not individual profiles. The majority of people who used Twitter and Delicious during the conference were already registered members of those services, whereas every single person who used Today’sMeet was new to that service.

There was a greater diversity of users on Today’sMeet than Twitter, and many people used both. As noted above, people primarily used Twitter as an external broadcast tool and Today'sMeet as an internal conversation tool. A typical tweet shares a notable conference item with the outside world:
Today’sMeet, on the other hand, was primarily used as a conversational medium among people actually at the conference (image at right, note that newest posts appear at the top). When a speaker would mention a project, someone would immediately post the relevant URL to Today’sMeet. People asked general questions to the group and replied directly to each other. It was sort of like passing notes in class—but the notes were highly on-topic extensions of what was being said real-time onstage. Some session leaders also deliberately watched the back channel for questions and integrated them real time into the onstage discussion. Whereas Twitter provided the conference highlights to a wider audience, Today’sMeet allowed attendees to delve deeper into individual moments and questions.

After the conference, a friend reflected on the positive experience with Today’sMeet, saying, “At first I didn’t understand why you didn’t just rely on Twitter for the back channel. But I liked how Today’sMeet was less formal, how you could be anonymous or use any username you wanted. It felt like something we could use at my museum as a step to get people more comfortable with Twitter and other back channels.”

Here are some of the key lessons I learned from the WebWise experience:
  • If you don't engage in multiple back channels, you may not see multiple use cases. Different tools are best for different types of interaction. Just because post-it notes didn't work at WebWise doesn't mean they don't work in galleries... as we know from the success of many talkback boards.
  • If you ask visitors/participants to try a new tool, make sure it has as low a barrier to entry as possible. I have yet to see a museum set something up that is as simple to use as Today'sMeet.
  • If discussion is the goal, you don't need user profiles - you just need a way to talk. If building up a personal profile/relationship with the institution is a goal, people need to uniquely identify themselves.
  • Think about the possibility for asynchronous back channels that allow visitors (and staff) to share deep content with each other over time. Consider, for example, the rich conversation on Flickr about this image from the Chicago World's Fair. You could imagine a comparable conversation available to visitors onsite alongside exhibits or artifacts in the galleries.
  • If possible, find ways to show the real-time location of people who are engaging in the back channel. The Mattress Factory's new SCREENtxt application uses a location-based system so that visitors can identify whether other participants are onsite at the museum or not.
  • Make allowance for emergent back channels that visitors/users "bring with them" to the experience. These tools are particularly valuable for the "portal to the world" back channel use case. Every time I see a kid take a cellphone photo in an exhibit, I know that photo will immediately travel to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, etc. How can your system capture that activity?
What have you learned from your back channel experiences--at conferences, museums, or otherwise? Which use case is most appealing to you as a user and as an experience designer?

3 comments, add yours!:

=rob.lancefield said...

Great post, Nina. My anecdotal experience of the multiple backchannels at WebWise last week fits nicely into your more inclusive model above. Watching the Today'sMeet and Twitter (search) feeds most of the time, I chimed in on Today'sMeet with a URL in response to a fellow onsite attendee's query, and ended up only lurking in Twitter due precisely to the differently scoped readership you note (and my sense that I didn't have anything worth broadcasting to that more geographically dispersed group). It was great to have both of those channels available--and somehow I never did stop to read the bulletin board notes....

Lydia Johnson said...

Really interesting stuff, here Nina! I just attended the CAM conf last week, and would have really appreciated some *useful* backchannels for ways to engage in the topics at hand at a deeper level or from a different perspective than was happening at the front of the room.

It would be interesting to attend a session where one of the "presenters" wasn't at the front of the room sloshing through powerpoint, but rather, in the audience twittering or TodaysMeet chatting with those who wanted to explore the same topic from different perspectives.

PS - your name came up in one of the technology sessions - just want you to know you are a recognized resource. :-)

jtrant said...

hi Nina,

your post got me to thinking about all of the places that Museums and the Web is on the web in an almost permanent backchannel i posted here.

one of the things that you don't mention is the use of a backchannel at the conference as a social bridge between sessions and between people. we saw that a lot with twitter at MW2008, particulary with Europeans who weren't keen on using roaming phones: there was a fair amount of "heading out to ..." venue-based tweeting, and some "anybody seen ..." when people were trying to meet up.

it's also struck me that some parts of the backchannel are designed to be ephemeral [e.g. twitter], while others are more persistent [e.g. liveblogging, or almost-live blogging + the conference.archimuse.com site]. i think this has an influence on who says what, where. chat seems like a really temporally defined space, and blog postings more likely to last. twitter is somewhere in between.

we tried to bridge the on-line and the on-side at MW2008 by using a large monitor in the main conference lobby area to display the combined MW2008 feed [thanks to Mike Ellis @ Electronic Museum for that] see photos on flickr. This helped a bit for people who didn't know the tools to start with... + many of the people chairing panels were watching the twitter feed.

in a quick blog post last year you remarked on the usefulness of the feed coming out of MW2008. that convinced me to try and avoid too much self-censorship when live at a meeting, particularly if i'm not likely to blog it later. let's see if you feel the same when when you're at MW2009.