Believe it or not, Skype is a valid choice as a tool to use as a backchannel. While many people think of it for its ability to make person-to-person calls using the Internet, there's also an excellent chat room feature that lends itself to backchannels.
One of the biggest upsides of using Skype is that the moderator of the backchannel invites all participants into the chat from a list of "contacts" that he or she has, so this method of running a backchannel is pretty safe; however, once in the chat, participants can then invite others in, which takes away a little of the security that is there. Cost is another big positive: it's free to use Skype. Also, there are no adds, so there aren't the worries about students being exposed to something questionable.
The biggest downsides? All participants in the chat must have an account with Skype and special software needs installed on every computer the students will be using. Additionally, there is no moderation of the posts at all.
Other considerations are as follows. The entire chat is accessible to all participants as long as they don't leave the chat at the end of the discussion, so they can always come back to the history to review the points covered. If a student leaves one computer, not choosing to leave the chat forever, and then logs in on another, then the chat window should pop up for further participation or for a review activity. Since Skype is a stand-alone piece of software, there are no browser dependency issues to think about. Finally, before trying to run Skype, you probably need to make sure there are no filtering issues on your network and that students can run it on their machines with their level of clearance.
As I've been working on this series of blog posts on backchanneling, I've become aware of a number of potential tools for running a backchannel, but I haven't yet had a chance to test any of those out. In the future, as I've had a chance to work with some of those tools, I may return to this tool discussion.
I'll be back next week with another installment in the series as I move away from the tools and look at other issues that might be critical to teachers.