TO CHAT OR TO CHATTER: MAKING ONLINE SENSE OF THE CHAT ROOM ENVIRONMENT
Bernard John Poole
Pardon the outrageous parody of Shakespeare's immortal words! But it asks an interesting question about the use of the Chat Room for online learning. Assuming that value for learning is to be found therein, how can that value be rendered optimal?
Asynchronous communication, where the participants in the communication are not online at the same time (the bulletin board and e-mail, for example) perhaps already provides an adequate forum for discussion when conducting an online course. Turoff (1989) contends that the asynchronous mode of interaction is most important because "the potential for real improvement in the group process lies in the fact that individuals can deal with that part of the problem they can contribute to at a given time, regardless of where other individuals are in the process."
The Chat Room is a synchronous communication tool. Interaction between the participants (between the learners, or between learner and instructor) occurs online in real-time. Given the right conditions, the synchronous environment of the Chat Room also can be a successful medium for learning. Typically the Chat Room is viewed as a free form, unfocused medium for communication. However, it also can be very structured and well-defined. In the context of a college course, what is the best approach to take?
The following questions thus arise and will be addressed in this paper:
Let us address each of these questions in turn.
1. What reservations do professors have about using the Chat Room?
Here are some of the negatives that undermine the Chat Room’s potential as a successful learning environment.
All these negatives beg the question that is addressed in the next section of the paper.
2. Why include the Chat Room as a tool in the online learning environment?
The Chat Room is sometimes considered the stepchild of online communications. Even though it is included in the online course, it is frequently underutilized, ignored, or misunderstood. It may be useful to look at the different faces of synchronous communication such as the Chat Room:
The Chat Room is a tool or environment like any other, and does not enhance learning on its own. The effectiveness of the Chat Room lies in the activities planned around it and how it is incorporated into the general design and delivery of the online course. Not all students respond well to online studies. However, student fears and uncertainty can be reduced through the effective use of the Chat Room's real-time interface when augmented by the asynchronous medium of the discussion board (Calongne, 2002).
The advantages of synchronous communication such as Chat include the following features.
Students in asynchronous discussions on bulletin boards may feel disconnected from their classmates or the professor when the interaction is too static, if it is infrequent, or if the feedback is not timely (Hara et al., 2000). Not all students participate equally in asynchronous discussions, whereas participants in the Chat Room are more likely to add their contributions and ask questions when the subject is confusing.
In an online course, the amount of email for students and for the professor can be excessive (Mendels, 1999). Since the Chat can target specific questions and include a group in the discussion, everyone has an opportunity to experience the answers firsthand. This avoids some duplication of questions and cuts down on email.
The Chat Room provides the opportunity for students and the instructor to interact in real-time for discussion of course concepts. Chats can take the form of classroom discussions, virtual office hours, or social interactions. The Chat Room thus helps to organize the class into a community, simulating the face-to-face environment to some degree. Everyone has an opportunity to get to know everyone else better, to listen to examples from diverse backgrounds and work environments, and to bond. The class is no longer a group of faceless names, but people who share common experiences and goals.
The Chat Room promotes critical thinking as topics are explored (Tapscott, 1998). While this same discussion can occur in asynchronous learning networks (Jaffee, 1998), the Chat Room interaction tends to especially benefit from spontaneity and helps to reduce fear and uncertainty between students and the instructor (Hara et al., 2000). Chat Room conversation triggers ideas among the participants. Students who normally would focus only on the facts in a post to a discussion board tend to participate more freely in the Chat Room. Case studies and examples are openly discussed, which prompts students to offer contributions from their own experiences, worrying less about how their contributions will be perceived.
Courses which have short duration (5 or 6 weeks) benefit from the Chat Room since students can receive timely (synchronous) feedback to confirm course requirements and course concepts. The classroom Chats are saved, allowing students at a later date to refer to the ideas and examples discussed.
3. What is the role of the instructor?
It is the instructor's responsibility to ensure optimal conditions for the students' Chat. A good instructor will plan ahead and carefully prepare the environment so that students will gain maximum learning benefit from the Chat. This involves the instructor in the following six preparatory tasks.
Provide recommendations for successful Chat
Students need all the help they can get when they are new to the Chat Room experience. It is important for the instructor to prepare the students with a set of tips or recommendations for conducting successful Chat. Such tips are discussed in section 4.
Each member of the group should be given a definable role which can be used as a component of the assessment rubric for the Chat Room. Roles are discussed in section 4.
Prepare the students for their roles
Assignment of a role is no indication that a student is ready to assume that role. The instructor must lay out explicitly what each role involves so that students have a clear idea of what is expected of them. These expectations should be explained in advance in such a way that the student has the opportunity to ask questions about just what a particular role entails. A rubric for the Chat Room exercise also will provide the students with a clear understanding of their roles in the Chat Room.
Define the length of Chat sessions
The instructor should determine the length of Chat sessions dependent on the nature of the discussion topic as well as on the experience of the students involved. Synchronous communication works well for short sessions--maybe two hours maximum. But it is problematic for longer periods, with individual attention and learning value decreasing rapidly, particularly if the participants are in a working office environment. It is important that the time slot be adhered to, rather than the students lose interest in the discussion when it goes on too long.
Carefully monitor the Chat sessions and reflect on the process
The instructor must read the transcript of every session. The students should be aware that they are being asynchronously "observed" and evaluated in this way. The instructor does not participate in the discussion, however, but rather steps back, allowing the students to feel free to say what they want. This will work well if the instructor has prepared the students as indicated above and as further explained in section 4 of this paper. This "hands off" approach reflects the philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori who saw her teachers as observers of learning rather than the source of it (Kramer, 1976). The instructor should be prepared to learn from each Chat Room experience and adapt the structure, if necessary, based on that evaluation.
Assess group and individual contributions
Assessment is always a key instructor role. Well-designed rubrics and careful evaluation of the Chat Room transcripts and reports will assist in this process. What assessment instruments should be used? Peer review has been shown to make an effective contribution to overall assessment (Kearsley, 2000). But students need to be guided in their assessment of each other. Should a student be penalized for not having much to say? Does the student with most to say get the highest grade? Does the instructor need to compare one student with another? Is it enough that the students participate and fulfill their role?
The good instructor thus will carefully define and design for effective Chat Room learning.
4. What are the conditions for optimal learning in the context of the Chat Room?
Here are some useful guidelines for successful Chat.
5. What is the role of immediacy and feedback?
Sometimes more feedback is required than that which can be achieved with the use of e-mail or bulletin boards. Anyone who has ever had the feeling that "this will be quicker if I phone the person than send an e-mail" has experienced the time-delay caused by asynchronous communication.
The immediacy of the Chat Room can provide the emotional awareness that a group of people is listening. Peyton (1989) states that real-time interactive writing on a local area network can narrow the gap between students' speech and their writing, because "writing" can now have the qualities of speech. It can occur in a Chat Room dialog, too, where it can have an intimate and casual quality.
The benefits of synchronous interaction are that learning and feedback are immediate and therefore happen in shortened elapsed times (Anderson, 1999). Synchronous interaction is ideal for activities such as brainstorming, group decision-making, and remedial coaching, since these activities need rapid interaction and feedback, and tend to be of a lower quality if spread over a longer period of time.
6. How can the Chat Room, in its various forms, accommodate different learning styles?
Online Chats can accommodate different learning styles based on their adaptive and responsive nature. The body of research on learning and retention is vast, so this section of the paper focuses primarily on studies involving college science and secondary school students. The following styles were discussed in Felder’s exploration of how college science students learn (Felder, 1993).
Students tend to focus on different types of information, have different mental models of how the world works, and absorb, interpret, and learn at different rates. The difference between sensory and intuitive learners depends on their preference for experiencing the information through their senses or whether they can draw from their memory and imagination, and reflect on the subject (Felder, 1989). Intuitive perception relies heavily on the student’s imagination, cognition, and interpretation whereas sensory learners need facts and observations before internalizing and using the information.
Chat allows both sensory and intuitive learners to gain information. During the Chat, facts and observations are presented, yet the pace and flow of the Chat shifts dynamically to accommodate the imagination and needs of the intuitive learners. Chat is not static, but adjusts to the needs of each student.
How students learn is also affected by whether they are visual or verbal learners. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is true for the visual learner. Most people in western cultures tend to be visual learners (Barbe et. al, 1981), yet they still have a strong emphasis on text to convey course concepts, even in the online classroom. This is because text is easier to access than audio-video data, given bandwidth issues with students using dialup connections.
The following are the findings of a secondary school study on the average retention rate after 24 hours from various instructional techniques (Barbe, 2002):
Retention improves when the instructional method includes discussion, practice by doing, and teaching others. In the online Chat, we can encourage students to exchange roles and can allow them to assume responsibility for the discussion of course concepts and case studies. While asynchronous learning methods do make strong use of discussion, discussions in an online Chat are more spontaneous and tend to be more varied.
Inductive learners benefit from seeing case studies and examples first, then working back into the theories and principles, whereas deductive learners study the theory first, then apply it to applications and examples. While induction improves retention and learning, most college courses focus on deductive learning methods (Felder, 1993).
Active and reflective learners use different approaches in their problem-solving strategies. Active learners benefit from group discussions whereas reflective learners most likely prefer asynchronous learning methods so they can work alone or in pairs and communicate via the discussion board.
Online Chats can revolve around active discussions of case studies during which the students analyze and discuss the issues involved. While reflective learners may be slow to respond in the online Chats, they nonetheless contribute significantly to the discussion. Studies of active classroom discussions show an improvement in comprehension and long-term recall over passive learning environments (Felder, 1993).
Sequential learners tend to focus on small sets of related data whereas global learners go for the big picture. Sequential learners solve problems well, but sometimes miss how the big picture relates to other subjects and applications.
Global learners need to know how the course material relates to their prior knowledge and experience. They often have difficulty working with sequential learning systems until they understand how it relates to the broad perspective.
It is hard to anticipate what type of examples will best suit a group of students until we get to know the students and hear how they respond to the case studies. The online Chat gives the instructor the ability to tailor the examples to fit the audience. While we cannot tailor each course to an individual student’s needs, we can strike a balance in our instructional methods (Felder, n.d.) and target our Chat Room discussions to meet these needs.
Wallace (2002) makes the following observation about the Chat Room: "It is my feeling that synchronous or 'real-time' communication is an often-overlooked teaching technique since more than half of my [students] already use an Internet Chat Room regularly at home."
Technology is changing the way we do education. Soon every student will have ready access to wireless Web technologies and it is only to be expected that applications such as online Chat will become a familiar medium for educational discussion. Instructors who choose to ignore this medium may well deny their students the opportunity for thoughtful, interactive engagement in learning. We hope that this paper has clarified some of the issues involved to the point where instructors consider the pedagogical possibilities presented by carefully crafted "chat" and where, in the Chat Room, aimless "chatter" becomes the exception rather than the rule.
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