Power of the Backchannel, Part 2

What happens when a tweet can’t get the job done?

The ability to extend the learning from a conference can go far beyond the capabilities of 140 character tweets.


In the past, I’d type up notes from the sessions I attended, make copies of presenter’s handouts, and drop a packet off in a teacher’s box with a sticky note on top saying “I’d be happy to share more at a time convenient to you.”  Shockingly, these sticky notes were not always an effective way to spread the learning.


In 2009, I changed the way I take notes at conferences, and I’ve never looked back.

A new-to-me-then tool called Cover It Live captured my attention and I decided to try live-blogging the sessions I attended at conferences.  Live-blogging involves taking notes that are immediately published via a blog to the world as you write them.  Readers of the blog can make comments and ask questions during the talk.  One of the first sessions I tried this with was Michelle Rhee’s talk (she was then the controversial chancellor of the Washington, DC public school system) address at the annual NAIS conference in Chicago.


Fortunately, I have skills useful for live-blogging–thank you, Mom, for insisting “take a typing class; you’ll always be able to get a job.”   More surprising to some, I’ve found that capturing the key points in a live-blog actually focuses my attention rather than serving to distract me.  When readers from elsewhere insert a comment or a question, I am forced to thoughtfully process what I’m learning in the session rather than just transcribe the speaker’s words.  Sometimes a dialogue develops among the readers (some in the same room, others around the world) as people see ways to apply the information of session to their world.  Having extra hands in the live blog makes it better too—for example, I can mention that a speaker showed a certain video to illustrate a point and a participant in my live-blog can insert a link to that video.


In small conference sessions, I am able to ask questions “coming in from the coast via the live-blog.”  I like to compare these to the mysterious “bidder on the phone” seen in high end art auctions.  After all, the mysterious questioner could be anyone!  After a session, I usually share the link to my blog with the speaker, often I’ll get a positive email or comment in response.


Perhaps the best illustration of the power of this type of back channel at a conference involves my live blog of Jeff Utecht’s keynote address at the Lausanne Laptop Institute.  The backchannel at this conference is pretty lively and the twitter stream quickly overwhelmed me.  Enter Bill Campbell, who quickly took on the task of moderating the tweets in the live-blog.  The best part?  Bill did the job from New Jersey, not Memphis. You can read more about our “just in time” network from the presenter’s perspective on Jeff’s blog.


From a personal perspective, what makes live-blogging different from note-taking goes beyond the immediate community created.  I’m also building a permanent record of my professional growth.  When I look back over blogs from the past few years, I’m able to track my professional interests, my interactions with my network, and review potentially useful resources.  I can’t imagine how a file folder could be as powerful.

Sarah Hanawald

Sarah Hanawald

Director of Technology at Saint Mary's School