On the Dalai Lama, Shane Koyczan, and Back Channels

The Dalai Lama waved at us!

The Dalai Lama, sitting with his interpreter.

The Dalai Lama, sitting with his interpreter.

And then he bowed to welcome us!

The Dalai Lama acknowledging the participants.

The Dalai Lama acknowledging the participants.

Well, you may have figured out that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was not in our classroom–though somehow his gentle smile and warm laugh made him feel very near. He was in Vancouver to meet with students and educators at the Youth Heart-Mind Summit. The theme was Be the Village. Through the wonders of technology, we joined classes from many locations to watch and listen to a conversation he had with high school students. The topic was about cultivating kindness, empathy, and compassion in all people.  I have to say, I was very impressed with the poise of the grade 12 MCs and panelists. How very thrilling that day must have been. 

Can you imagine being on that stage?

As well, Shane Koyczan, a fabulous spoken word artist (I think “poet” works for me) performed. More about that in another post.  And more about Heart-Mind learning later.

Back Channel

Using Netbooks and Backchannel Chat during the presentation

Using Netbooks and Backchannel Chat during the presentation

We tried something new while watching. We had our first Backchannel Chat, an online private virtual conversation room which each student accessed via our Netbook laptops. The chat gave us an opportunity to discuss our thoughts, observations, and questions among ourselves. I purchased a year-long access to the features of Backchannel Chat for about $16.00 to give me access to all the features of the program. 

I learned a lot from this experience. So did the students, as you’ll see. Not everything was positive, but it was not a complete failure either. If other teachers have tried or are considering using a back channel, I’d appreciate your feedback.

Here are a few screenshots of the archived chat (click thumbnails to enlarge). I sprayed out the names as I promised the students this analysis was not about embarrassing anyone, it was about finding solutions.

We broke into groups of four and wrote Plus – Minus – Solutions posters. Students talked about and recorded their thoughts, then shared with classmates.



I’ve summarized their feedback:


  • It’s a great way to show what you’re thinking and see what others are thinking.
  • You can see what others think of your ideas–they can respond to you.
  • You can respond to the entire class more easily.
  • It stays quiet while a presentation is on.
  • Someone is able to moderate the chat.
  • As the chat went on, people were more serious and on topic.
  • We become more tech savvy.


  • Because the sound quality of the webcast was poor and because we are not used to the Dalai Lama’s accent, we couldn’t hear very well and comment meaningfully.
  • Some people didn’t know what they could write about.
  • Some students got off topic fast and began talking about battery life, naming favourite actors, injecting hashtags, and making other random, pointless comments.
  • A conversation about the Dalai Lama’s nationality, appearance, and ethnicity lead to misunderstanding and maybe some hurt feelings. (We processed this after the fact.)
  • Some students used texting language.
  • Too many one word comments reduced the usefulness of the chat and made information flow too quickly.
  • Some students logged in and out to change their name and their avatar, wasting time.


  • Create criteria for comments that everyone follows.  (Yes, that came from the students!)
  • Think before you type!
  • Run two different chats so people can read and respond to the comments. This would slow the chat down.
  • We need to work on writing complete, thoughtful, on-topic sentences.
  • Have more than one person monitoring the chat.
  • People who are disrespectful or off topic would be warned and then would be kicked out of the chat.

Final Thoughts
I learned so much from the experience of this back channel about my student’s strengths and needs. I had no illusions that it would be a flawless event, but I sense that taking a risk with this technology will be rewarding for us.

The next time we use Backchannel Chat as a learning tool, we will share our results here.

Do you have suggestions? Are there other tools that can help encourage dialogue about big ideas? Does communicating in virtual space improve or inhibit dialogue when we are  face to face? Please share your thoughts in a comment.




  1. Dear Ms. Smith, I really enjoyed this chat with the Dalai Lama and I really hope that we can continue with online chat rooms. Hopefully we could do some class chats with other classes and maybe our own:)
    I hope you and everyone else has a awesome long weekend.

    1. Hi Mike, I am glad the chat was a positive experience for you. Yes, I think a chat with another class could be a positive experience. I wonder if we would have to go through the same bumpy start or if our experience would allow the chat to be a more successful, productive experience. What do you think?
      ~Ms. Smith
      (p.s. I learned a lot yesterday during Professional Development Day. You’ll have to tell me if I seem smarter.)

  2. Hi Ms. Smith

    The Dalai Lama was really inspiring, even when we didn’t hear him on the SmartBoard. Most students were used to texting and I admit, I am used to saying “u” and the evil “i” sometimes. But the things that the people say were pretty amazing and awesome. And also, the Dalai Lama seems like a pretty nice guy to hang out with. Have a nice day. 🙂


    1. Hi Ethan,
      I found him inspiring, too. I found it easier to read some of his ideas than listen on the live stream of the event. I think people got better at commenting as they gained experience, but it’s clear I need to some more teaching so we can be more successful next time.
      Thanks for your feedback, Ethan, and have a nice week!

  3. Hi Ms Smith,

    I think it is a great learning experience for all of our class so we could realize our successes and mistakes. I also think the idea of having restrictions is a good idea so that nobody gets distracted, but then again I have an idea where if you put the @ sign in front of somebody’s name it becomes a personal message that only that person and the moderator see the message that way if you are answering a question it is direct.

    A thought from Scott

    1. Hi Scott,
      There is actually a way to pm the teacher during the chat–I will review that. I think all chat otherwise is public to the group. Using the @ symbol lets a person know that you are addressing them alone. Like this: @Scott, I agree with your point about realizing our success and mistakes. Looking at both of them in the plus-minus-solutions charts really helped us see what we could try next time.
      Thanks for your thoughts, Scott!
      Ms. Smith

  4. Hi!
    I really liked that you added in the plus and minus papers! I think all the pluses are correct but I disagree with some of the solutions. Running two different chats wouldn’t be as effective because you won’t here all the other points of view. Anyway I am grateful you sprayed out the names as I may have been in there.
    Thanks for the great opportunity, Maya

    1. Hi Maya,
      Thanks for your thoughts. What challenged me most during the chat was the speed of the comments. I am not sure that asking people to write in complete sentences will be enough. It might me interesting to compare the chats of two groups of 14 people to see what direction their conversations take. I’m glad you liked the opportunity of using the tool.
      Have a great week,
      Ms. Smith

  5. Dear Mrs. Smith,
    I think it is awesome that you got to see, the Dalai Lama. Even though I am not a Buddhist I think it is neat to be able to see a prominent religious figure like him. It’s like seeing Pope Francis for me! If I were on that stage I would probably have a lot of Stage Fright! I also think that technology is so evolved that you can just watch something with the click of a button! I also thought back-channel chats were real neat. Does your class really like them?

  6. Hello Mrs. Smith!
    My name is Dia from Hey Kids! and I have never heard of Back Channel. It sounds as though it would be fun to try. I don’t really know any other sites you could use to communicate, though. Sorry!
    I think that chatting online could both improve AND inhibit face-to-face communication. If you talk online too much, you can end up “talking in text,” like saying, ‘lol’ or ‘brb’ in conversation. Sounds weird, but I’ve heard it. Or, you could talk more to a person when you are face-to-face because you don’t want to have to text them all you have to say. Also, you could be trying to show emotion, which you can’t really do in text, like sarcasm and anger. For anger, all you can really do is put the letters in all caps, or put a little angry face ( both of which are inefficient) . For sarcasm, you can put little asterisks around your statement, but it just isn’t the same.
    I think it would be AMAZING to meet or even see the Dalai-Lama. It seems like it would be fun to BE the Dalai-Lama as well, because you have big conventions so people to ask you questions. Although, it would probably entail a lot of responsibility, which isn’t that fun.
    What would you say to the Dalai-Lama if you ever got the chance to meet him? ~DIA

  7. Hi Mrs.Smith,

    I thought the Dalai Lama was a very inspiring and very kind man and I think he inspired a lot of people not just in our class but all over the world. And I thought the speed of the comments was crazy, almost every second was another comment. I think the chat should have made it so that you had to wait until every 3rd person commented. But anyways, it was still a good time to chat with the class and get to know a little bit more about each other.


    1. Hi Kenzie, I too felt the Dalai Lama was inspiring. I hope just that brief “visit” helped all of us to think about compassion differently. I think we can work out the kinks in the Backchannel Chat and use it more effectively in the future.
      Thanks for commenting,
      Ms. Smith

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