Implementing Digital Backchannels – A Toolkit

Hi!, Myself, Corie, Jolee, Emma, and Katia completed an assignment on toolkit creation.

Backchannel Learning – LRNT525 Assignment 2 – Cropped and Edited

You can view our paper below.

Organizations lead by creating a vision and space in which members can work collaboratively (Workman & Cleveland, 2012). This toolkit examines the establishment of a Community of Practice using a digital community platform or backchannel to support peer to peer learning and information sharing in an informal context, serving as a secondary resource for formal learning and work. In the following paper, we discuss a process to select and introduce a tool, onboard members into the new space, encourage positive and pro-social culture in the community, and reflect on the results and areas for improvement. 

Research supports the idea that the development of a team charter helps a team function better; Aaron et al. (2014) found that teams are more successful if they use a team charter proactively. The Project Management Institute (PMI) gives an example of an emotionally self-aware way to develop a team charter to help members decide who they want their team to be (Knutson, 1997). They suggest five activities to be conducted as a series of workshops:

  1.         Positioning: focus on the project and what the team needs to deliver, as well as what their understanding of a team is.
  2.         Value Statement: inviting self-reflection helps the team to define what they value.
  3.         Mission Statement: the team can define the relationship of their larger purpose to the organization’s goals.
  4.         Goal Statement: team members define their relation to each other, both now and in the future.
  5.         Operating Statement: a place to get practical irritations out so the team can operate efficiently. 

Once the team is aware of its values and position, they can explore which tools would best fit their needs. 

After the team charter has been established, the team can proceed by determining its baseline digital literacy. Al-Haddad and Kotnour (2015) argued that successful change results from three key strategies including commitment and sponsorship from leadership, learning and addressing members’ needs, and allocating human and technological resources dedicated to the change. Members need to see that change leaders have effective strategies and technology to create the change, and that these changes and tools are aligned with their needs, values, and perspectives. Additionally, to have plans and processes in place to help them transition seamlessly into the new space.

To begin to introduce a digital learning community to the organization, understanding the existing digital literacy and proficiency of the members will build the foundation of where learning and training should start. Establishing baseline digital literacy will promote sustainability in the change effort by fostering digital literacy in members prior to the implementation of the new tool (Radovanovic et al., 2020). A digital literacy program can be selected to fit the needs and goals of the member population following a diagnosis of the existing digital literacy levels (Radovanovic & Noll, 2017). By dedicating resources to develop digital literacy, members are empowered to participate meaningfully, be involved in the implementation of the new tool, and decide on collaborative goals and behavioural expectations in the digital community.  

The behaviour of a group is important to consider when establishing a digital community. Often members are unaware of how they should act, or what the expectation of their behaviour is. A strong teaching presence should consciously act as a model for behaviour of the group (Whiteside et al, 2017). This facilitator presence can be through a teacher, planner, or designer and should continue throughout the course to act as direct oversight if required (Whiteside et al, 2017). The facilitator’s social presence and social cues are important predictors of the group; asking how members feel about their learning and referring to the class as “our class” or “we” are simple ways to model behaviour to create relationships within the group and between member and facilitator (Whiteside et al, 2017, p. 103). Using paralanguage such as emojis and exaggerated punctuation or spelling for emotional emphasis increases empathy and a personal, warm feel within the group (Whiteside et al, 2017). Additionally, spelling out emotional reactions such as “I hear that you are frustrated” can increase the important emotional context of communication, and should be part of the behaviour of digital groups. These tools humanize the digital environment and should be added to the behaviour of facilitators and instructors of digital communities. In the context of the chosen tools, the team will be aware of expected behaviors and can start to learn about the tools they will use. 

Backchannels, or communities of informal communication between learning collaborators, can act as “an empowering tool for participation, collaboration, and interaction” that compliments more formal learning front channels (Yardi, 2006). Facilitators, or those curating learning that occurs remotely, may possess a heightened understanding of the demographics of a learning community. They also know the pros and cons of certain tools that may be leveraged as backchannel conduits. Instructors have a responsibility to facilitate learning (Haughley, 2008), and that may lead to realizing members require an informal community for inquisitiveness outside of instructional parameters. Facilitators should encourage member communities to seek context and inquisitiveness outside of the formal learning environment where appropriate but be prepared to provide knowledge or insight that will help the community in their informal pursuit of meaning-making (McNely, 2009). Armed with the tools and the knowledge of the team’s identity and values, members can make informed decisions about the issues that will impact the chosen tools. 

Not all tools are created equal for the member demographic, and in recommending backchannel platforms, facilitators have an obligation to consider the members holistically, with an understanding of the platform’s limitations. Facilitators should acknowledge that some member groups have specific preferences towards modality, and as such recommendations should be inclusive of mobile and desktop applications. Additionally, the facilitator must make recommendations that are appropriate for the locale of the entire member audience; for example, is the website or application accessible in the country of a specific member within the larger group, or has it been blocked by government firewalls? Lastly, when recommending technology solutions to members, facilitators must be cognizant of data, security, and privacy implications. Is the platform being recommended truly a backchannel or are there institutional linkages that reduce potential participatory anonymity (Zettelmeyer, 2015)? Backchannels are a valuable source for learning and meaning-making, and facilitators or institutions have ethical responsibilities when recommending specific platforms to members. As such, they may refer to the member community to critically investigate for themselves platforms that fit their demographic needs. Next, the team can start to “play” with the tools that have been chosen according to their needs and values. 

Introducing a new tool to the workspace is an opportunity to integrate new symbols, languages, and practices in the organizational culture. Biech (2007) argued that change success is driven by understanding organizational culture and behaviour, where members behave according to a common repertoire of language, values, beliefs, preferences, and other community elements. To align the organizational behaviour and culture to the change effort, develop a space or sandbox environment for the members to decide how they want to integrate the existing culture and practices into the new tool. The sandbox will allow members to learn in an environment where it is safe to fail (Leckenby et al., 2021), and explore how their culture can be best represented in this new space. Similarly, Leckenby et al. (2021) found that innovators collaborated in sandboxes to build and test their best-case scenario. According to the diffusion of innovation theory, the innovators and early adopters will begin using the sandbox, followed by the rest of the user population (Rogers, 2003). In this case, change facilitators and leaders would be the innovators who initiate the process, and they may identify early adopters to help launch the implementation. As more members engage in the sandbox and learn about the features, strategies for implementing the tool in alignment with the organization culture and behaviour will surface. The successful sandbox experience will increase the members’ perceptions of change commitment and change efficacy which both contribute to overall readiness for change in the organization (Weiner, 2009). As a result, the implementation and institutionalization of the new tool will appear more realistic and achievable to the members. Having a safe space to play, like a sandbox, will promote engagement with the new tool as members learn and become proficient.

Participation in a digital community environment can lead to increased bonding, empathy, and a sense of belonging, which can promote member motivation and influence learning in a favourable way (Holmberg, 2006, as cited in Conrad, 2014). Games have been shown to improve engagement, collaboration, and motivation, and can increase participation from a group (Sanchez et al, 2020; Whitton, 2011). The use of synchronous, or ‘real time’ video over asynchronous communication also improves engagement and participation as members relate to each other as ‘there’ (Whiteside et al, 2017). Including as much real-time or ‘face-to-face’ time as possible improves the social presence of the individual. Creating a social presence in a digital environment can increase participation from a group by building a sense of community and accountability to the group (Whiteside et al, 2017). Sharing stories or self-disclosure is another way to increase social presence; these can be shared asynchronously or synchronously and helps to establish one another as a real person (Rouke et al, 1999, as cited in Whiteside et al, 2017). By creating real-time, human-centered tasks and games, the participation of a group in the digital community environment can increase, leading to increased engagement and learning. Member participation in their new backchannel community will lead to the appearance of mentors or leaders for the group. 

At times, in informal learning communities within formal learning environments there are members who may require support from their colleagues. Peer mentoring is a way to bring members together to achieve a positive outcome. Some members may appear ‘stronger’ and become frustrated at having to ‘carry’ others. At the same time, the other member is frustrated for a variety of reasons: they may not understand the content, are inefficiently asking for help, or there could be cultural or language differences. “Mentoring has been widely recognized as one of the key factors contributing to skills development, psychosocial or socio-emotional support, and career advancement and success” (Haggard et al, 2011, p. 1; Jacobi, 1991; Kram, 1985; Packard, 2016, as cited in Montgomery, 2017 p 1). It is safe to say that encouraging members’ confidence in themselves would serve to benefit the team and effect a positive outcome. Predoi-Cross (2020) described a successful mentor to manifest these attributes:

  • Be trustworthy. 
  • Be open minded.
  • Listen to understand. 
  • Be courageous.
  • Help teammates understand the activities and take ownership of their contribution.
  • Help teammates to build on their own strengths.
  • Help develop a project timeline and support meeting deadlines.
  • Have a sense of humour. 

A strong example, taken from a long standing tradition from military forces serves as a potent example of leaving no one behind – when one soldier is injured, two others step up, take one side each and take that soldier to safety. That is what we are trying to instill – step in and support each other to increase the chances of a positive outcome. In the process of learning and supporting each other in the backchannel, members should also take time to reflect on their experience.

Honest reflection by individuals in an environment of trust and safety has been shown to result in members making conclusions that change their practice (Williams and Walker, 2003). This is like the “Check” step in the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) process used in many industries as early as as 1939 (Johnson, 2002), but with a layer of self-awareness that reflects the evolution of management practices.

Reflective practices like guided group reflection, action planning, and journaling can be expanded from individual practice to an organizational level, as described by Hill (2005). Hill’s study demonstrated how the reflective action cycle in the context of action learning theory helped members to participate meaningfully in a major organizational change. The caveat was that senior management’s sincere support of the practice was needed to spark change (Hill, 2005).

Hilden and Tikkamäki further propose that individual-level reflections can lead to organization-level reflections if they are connected properly (Hilden & Tikkamäki, 2013). A tool that could be used to connect these two activities is the 4I framework: intuiting, interpreting, integrating, institutionalizing. It is ultimately a call to action (Hilden & Tikkamäki, 2013), which is needed for change to manifest. Members in a small “backchannel” group can thus influence larger organizational change, such as curriculum redesign, if the reflective process is done effectively.

This toolkit explored the advantages of establishing a digital community platform to promote informal collaborative learning via a Community of Practice. The process included choosing and introducing a tool, onboarding members into the new space, encouraging positive and pro-social culture in the community, and reflecting on the results and areas for improvement. As virtual and physical learning and work environments become blended, so do the needs to create collaborative communities that exist without time and space constraints. A digital community and social learning tool will allow members to pool their knowledge, break silos, and spark opportunities to innovate.





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