During a conference last week for my employer (see "about me" for full information - I blog as an individual and not as a representative of my employer and my thoughts and ideas represent only my own ideas and not current or past employers or clients) we initiated a back channel and also set up a private Ning. It went quite well and added to the dynamic in many ways, and was fully moderated. We were about as fortunate as we could be to have the thought-provoking dynamic Vicki Davis as our keynote speaker (anytime you can possibly see Vicki live do it!) My musings below are about NECC as at the EdisonLearning session we had a smaller more controlled and focused backchannel which did what we wanted - to allow people to question, consider, reflect, share and experience together.
At the NECC back channel at one point my laptop battery died. So I could no longer participate in the back channel, but my daughter continued to do so. I tried to consider what was different after my laptop was shut. And what I saw myself do was hone in more on listening and focus in a different way. This was not necessarily better, just different. I had no one else to bounce ideas off of and did not take any notes, just tried to listen. I think different things made sense but different things were missed.
Note that I am not a strong auditory learner, that in every learning styles test ever taken, I skew towards visual and kinesthetic. I usually take notes in meetings and at conferences, but the notes are visual with lines and drawings and quotes - and often are never reviewed - the experience of the pen and the drawing helps me absorb what's going on and make some sense of it all. But with my laptop shut I did not have a pen or a pad or anything for drawing or notes.
The back channel experience seems that it can be noise or it can be reflection, it can be focused or it can be highjacked (especially when someone goes off on a tangent and is not brought back by the moderator or participants), it can be effective or it can be disruptive (and not in the "disrupting class" sense of moving towards a new paradigm), it can take people to a higher plane or it can scroll off the screen too fast to make sense. It favors fast typists, fast readers, and quick thinkers. It can be like the best most stimulating fascinating cocktail party conversation or can be annoyingly one-sided and didactic. How very human this all is.