Faculty who move from face-to-face to online teaching must decide how to facilitate student interaction in a web environment. Nearly all use the asynchronous threaded discussion forum that is a central feature of all learning management systems (LMSs). Some also use synchronous video conferencing, especially those who have had to suddenly shift to online teaching due to COVID-19. But there is a third option that few consider: text chat.
Chat rooms are part of any LMS, so you don’t need to sign up for some new system or program. They’re simple to set up, and you can have them automatically appear in a student’s schedule. You can schedule them to occur on a weekly basis as well, whether you are preparing for classes or need to arrange one on the fly.
It is interesting that few instructors consider chat as a means of facilitating discussion given that it is the preferred method of communicating among our students. Plus, it combines the synchronous and asynchronous elements of discussion forums and video conferencing. Students are well versed in chatting in real time to, for example, plan where they will eat for dinner, but they also respond to text messages that came in hours earlier while they were sleeping. I recently tried all three forms for my online course and found a number of advantages to using text chat.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of chat is ease of access. Students are used to whipping out their cell phones and texting on the way to class, whereas they normally need to be in front of a computer to use an LMS discussion forum or video conference. Chat allows students to send messages over their phone when a thought occurs to them (something available to our students on our LMS) rather than having to wait until they are in front of their computer, by which time they might have forgotten it, though some expressed a desire for a bigger screen experience.
LMS chats also require far less bandwidth than video conferences and so do not suffer from frozen screens and other technical problems. Video conferences can be taxing on a home’s internet. With my wife who is teaching online and my two kids who are taking classes online, there’s not enough bandwidth to go around for everyone at my house. And it’s the same for students, who might have parents working online or siblings with virtual educational needs of their own.
Chat also makes it easier for students to discuss experiences at the moment they are having them. For instance, if a course is discussing retail marketing strategies, a student who sees an example of a strategy in action could chat about it with something like “The Urban Outfitters on State Street has a poster of X, but I don’t think it works because . . .” Thus, faculty might want to use chat when they want students to connect course concepts to their environment.
Much has been made of the so-called Zoom-bombers who have posted pornography during meetings. But there are no reports of LMS forum-bombers, probably due to the fact that forums are just not interesting targets for hackers. Plus, LMS security makes it harder to break into a forum than into Zoom. Chat is similar to forums in these respects and so provides better security than video conferences.
Moreover, some students may not want their faces or their rooms at home (especially messy bedrooms) projected to others, as is the case with video conferences. Chat allows students to communicate live without having to worry about their looks or the background. It also prevents the distractions we all experience in video conferences, such as dogs barking, other people from their house (not from our class) talking in the background, and someone typing on their laptop, which to others in the conference can sound like they are playing the drums. The most memorable event of the spring came when a female student’s boyfriend leaned in for a kiss as she was in the Zoom video conference. She put a finger to his lips, pointed at all of us on the screen, and his eyes went wide with shock. If I had put it on YouTube, it would have gone viral.
As mentioned, I use all three forms of communication in my online course and so was able to compare the three. The first thing I found was that student participation in the three forms of media was nearly identical (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Student participation percentages by discussion medium
I also discovered that chats make it easier for the instructor to take attendance. Our system lets you see not only during the chat but also afterward who is and isn’t in. It can be a nightmare to figure out who is present in video conferences during these events.
In addition to keeping attendance, LMS chat rooms can gather other valuable details. Mine lets me know not only who showed up but also, toward participation grades, who was involved and how many times they posted a comment.
It is also easier to let the conversation flow in chats. Have you ever been in a video conference session where everyone is talking at once? As an instructor, you either have to do a lot of muting and unmuting or a signal of voting by thumbs up whether one agrees with a theory’s conclusion, or even asking permission to go five minutes over the time limit (with no thumbs down, which is often needed). But with the synchronous chat room, the comments often come flying in, as you’ll see if you try one.
I put the question to the students: Do you prefer a video conference to the chat room? Early in March, some students expressed a preference for the being on video. But a Twitter poll to all of my students who have used both showed surprising support for the chat room, by a nearly 2:1 margin (figure 2).
Figure 2. Percent of student support for online interaction by medium
Of course, chats are not ideal for all purposes. They lack the nonverbal communication cues of video conferences. Seeing a face also humanizes the other interlocutors. For this reason, I personalize chats with the frequent use of first names for every student who posts so they don’t have to feel anonymous.
Unlike asynchronous discussion forums, chat rooms tend to be limited in the length of the posts, especially if students are slow at typing. Rarely will you see a post longer than five sentences. You can expect those LMS forums to have longer posts so students can cite material, meet minimum length requirements, and respond to each other. LMS chats still have the advantage of being more dynamic than static forum discussions, which are relatively static, but make sure students are boosting their writing and citing ability by keeping written assignments for them to turn in or ensure they are doing the reading and understanding the video lectures by administering tests.
And finally, LMS chat rooms aren’t as effective for very large classes. Video conferences are also best for bringing in guest speakers. Granted, you’ll probably get as many if not more responses but fewer inputs per student. In such circumstances, you’ll probably have students fall prey to multitasking, and not in academic pursuits. Overcome this by asking questions directly of students—easier in small to midsize classes, of course.
LMS chat rooms aren’t ideal for all purposes, but they have many advantages over LMS discussion forums and video conferences. They are a frequently overlooked tool in the in online instructor toolbox and are well worth adding to your online course.
John A. Tures, PhD, is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.
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