The Chickering-Gamson paper contends: "Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students' intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans. "
So we need to keep and maintain contact with our students. In the Confer environment, one of the key reinforcers of this contact comes from the audio tool, which allows real-time conversation. Jennifer Hoffman says that “The trainer’s voice is perhaps the most important content delivery method available in a synchronous classroom.” Similarly, Clark and Kwinn assert that "audio participation increases social presence and is the best option" for synchronous online communication. We seem to have built-in responders to audio cues, and students who can hear the instructor's voice - to say nothing of being heard by the instructor - are reassured that there is a human being teaching and guiding them in their learning.
Confer also provides a chat tool that gives an ongoing log or transcript of typed conversation during the session. Messages can be sent to a selected audience or a private individual. The text can be resized, and the chat can be saved (copied and pasted) to a text file. This tool provides another interaction option, and its proper use will empower students in the online classroom. Joe Tansey observes that the fact that all students can see the responses in the chat window instantly is a valuable way for participants to share a wealth of ideas and information... Text chat makes it easy for all involved to match responses with contributors, and no responses are overwritten or erased – which can be a risk with some white board tools.” Joe also feels that "a useful feature of text chat is that it can provide learners with a non-threatening way to pose questions or communicate other needs with the instructor. Questions on the mind of one learner are often on the minds of others. If instructors aren’t able to answer all questions during the allotted class time, they can usually save the text chat and respond to questions after class.” Jennifer Hoffman adds that “participants who are more reserved are often more likely to interact when text chat options are available.” In a study called "The Social Arena of the Online Synchronous Environment," Zeina Nehme writes that “a learner might be comfortable chatting only rather than talking on the microphone.” There are limitations to this tool, however: as Schwier and Balbar discovered, one is "the lack of nonverbal cues, and the difficulty interpreting the intentions of each other. Chatting is spontaneous by nature, and this spontaneity doesn't allow participants to craft clear prose, so subtleties were sometimes lost or misinterpreted."
The polling tools are also aimed at interaction, albeit in a more structured way than either voice or chat. Jonathan Finkelstein notes that "polling is a low-threshold way of involving even the more reticent participants, as it allows for a simple means to take part in and affect the flow of a live online session. Integrated polling tools not only help a facilitator quickly gauge interest, comprehension, and opinions of the subject matter at hand, but they can also be used to appraise more subtle measures of student engagement and understanding: those more akin to the hesitant raising of a hand in a physical classroom.” Diana Perney at the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School says, "I use this tool throughout a session. I create on the white board a multiple-choice question to start the session and ask the learners to respond, choosing A, B, or C. The polling results give me a sense of the class and activates prior knowledge for the learner. I will repeat this process throughout the session to engage the learners and to keep my finger on the pulse of the class. It often catches the participants off guard – they don’t know when I will ask the next question. The polling tool also meets the needs of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. I ask the question, they see the question, and a button needs to be clicked to indicate a response.”