Friday, October 23, 2009

Let's Chat!

"Many learners are accustomed to using chat for recreational purposes which is often very informal and quickly composed without reflection. Effectively adopting chat for academic purposes requires structure and effective moderation of the discussion. As a synchronous tool, chat is usually one-to-many and involves all participants being online simultaneously and often has them interacting at the same time. Without time for reflection, some instructors have found it effective to prepare students in advance with specific questions or content for them to mull over before engaging in dialogue. As a one-to-one tool, many instructors are finding [chat] to be an effective tool for conducting virtual office hours and for providing more responsiveness to student requests." (Valencia University's Office of Information Technology)

The Valencia tutorial goes on to recommend these instructional practices for using chat in class:

  • Inform learners of your expectations for how these tools will be used as part of the course.
  • Outline the rules in your syllabus (i.e., no harsh language, no belittling of their fellow classmates, keeping their comments relevant to the topic).  
  • Decide what your objectives are for using chat. Ask how can using chat assist the learners in achieving the overall goals of the course.
  • Prepare a focused topic in advance for each chat session.
  • Monitor the dialogue to keep it on topic.
  • Consider the number of students that can be meaningfully involved in chat.
  • Establish a protocol so that learners will know when another has completed their message (i.e. ask learners to add an asterisk * at the end of their sentence).
  • Be aware of those who tend not to participate. Is it due to a technological or skill problem? Some learners can type very quickly while others type quite slowly. This may affect the frequency of all learner's participation. If nonparticipation seems to be attributed to neither technological problems or typing skills, is there a way to draw them into the chat?
  • Summarize the major points at the end of the chat session.

 To this list I would add a few I've seen Confer instructors use effectively:
  • Quizzes. Ask a question orally and invite students to answer using the chat tool. This can be done individually or as a group (depending on the size of the group). This type of "spot" quiz is very useful for assessing the real learning that's taken place, and can be used at any time during a teaching session.
  • Brainstorming. This is similar to quizzing your students, in that you're using this technique to gain insights into what your students are thinking. But in this case, you're not necessarily looking for a specific answer to the questions or ideas you pose: you're trying to get students to think for themselves and express their ideas.
  • Group work. Break up a large class into smaller groups in breakout rooms so that the chat window does not overfill with information. Then, encourage your students to use the chat window to discuss a question and/or work together on a project.
  • Debriefing. Chat can be an effective way to make sure students "got" what you said and accomplished what they were supposed to accomplish. What went well, and what needs improvement?
For chat to be useful and not a distraction in your class, you'll want some coping strategies like those listed above. You'll also want to ensure that ground rules (etiquette) are posted and agreed upon.

Lisa Weber and Jennifer Lieberman observe that "chat often has a negative reputation because of its potential to become chaotic since students and faculty communicating simultaneously can obscure the message and make following a conversation difficult.." They suggest some intriguing uses of chat for language instruction, including language partner exchanges, grammar review, dynamic language practice, error analysis, and non-intrusive correction. With minor modifications, any of these suggestions could be applied to other subject matter.

Paying attention to chats from your students is a terrific way to monitor their engagement in the class and to modify your pacing or presentation accordingly. When three or more students suddenly start typing in the chat area while you're making a point, that's probably a good sign that something you said caused confusion or was missed. When there's a good deal of off-topic chat, you may have lost the class's attention; it's time to bring them back into the mix with some interactive exercises.

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