When I originally decided in 1995 to present English Literature and Composition as an online course, the most common question or response I got from my fellow colleagues concerned how I was going to discuss literature with students who were not in a classroom. Thus came about the need for online chat. Although chat had been used for years by the more technologically advanced, making it part of a classroom presentation was something else. Making chat a viable, useful aspect of my college courses has been an enlightening and, at times, frustrating journey.
Ultimately, there are several requirements for a successful chat program. The first is cross-platform capability. Many early programs were designed for either MAC or PC (usually the latter), and if there was cross-platform capability, the features and options differed between the platforms. Likewise, many new chat programs use JAVA, and those computers that are not JAVA enabled or use an incompatible version of Windows cannot use the chat.
Another aspect to consider is cost. Chat has to be free to the instructor and the students or it is less likely to get used.
Likewise, Student identification/Buddy Lists are helpful. A list of participants in a room is usually standard on modern chat programs. Some programs will even indicate which students are present but not participating. The BUDDY LIST is mostly associated with INSTANT MESSENGER programs. It indicates which individuals on a list are on line, and thus can be invited into a room for a conference. A minor glitch in this system stems from those who have DSL lines...they are ALWAYS indicated as on, so attendance expectations can be misleading...the invitation goes out, but is not always answered.
Archiving chat sessions is also a plus. I like to archive and edit my own, but many newer programs archive automatically, saving the instructor time.
Scrolling is the ability for a chat to create one long document as it happens, enabling archiving and even instant review. Early chat programs did not scroll more than a few minutes. Now most will hold at least 25 minutes of chat information before beginning to EAT UP the older parts of the chat. Others will scroll an entire session, regardless of its length.
Private Messaging (PMing) is the ability to send a discrete message to another user. Private Messaging is part of every chat program I have ever seen. Nonetheless, PM's are on the list because it is invaluable in a chat situation. Not only do I use PM's to speak to students privately, I encourage students to use PM's to contact each other to avoid interruptions of the main chat topic.
There are some other aspects of chat programs that should be considered...more of a Wish List than anything else, but these might be important for convenience. The first factor is speed...some chat programs using JAVA tend to be slow. That means transmission of a response may take an extra several seconds, which, in chat, seems like a long time. Moderator controls are also important to many instructors, especially the ability to disinvite unwanted or unruly participants. Frankly, the need for this is extremely rare, but most chat programs associated with a classroom delivery system (BlackBoard, WebBoard, etc) have this function. These programs may also time stamp the chat, indicate user hours and even activity during time in room. Some newer chat programs also include a whiteboard function, especially helpful in science and math courses where symbols are prevalent. Finally, I use a speech-to-text program called DragonSpeak, which writes down what I say, saving a great deal of time for the instructor whose typing skills are a bit lacking. Some chat programs do not work with DragonSpeak, or have a significant lag time, which creates a blockage of sorts when the system gets overloaded. Most non-JAVA programs work well with DragonSpeak.
Overall, your choice of chat program should incorporate the aspects which appeal to you the most. As more chat programs are developed, there will be more advances, especially in direct response to consumer demand. More and more course delivery platforms are offering chat programs as part of the software, and free Instant Messenger-type programs are ubiquitous. In my search, I have come across and tried several types of chatware, with varying success.
My first chat discussion occurred using with a free site called WBS. It was a free service that allowed individuals to create private chat rooms for any purpose. This was perfect for my situation, as I needed a way to invite my students to a room where we were not likely to be interrupted by other people who were not interested in discussing literature. This format worked very well, and in fact, in my archives I have some of those old chats.
Essentially I would create a classroom with a predetermined name-- usually "engcitchat"-- a few minutes before the chat was supposed to start, and as my students came in, they merely logged onto WBS and then chose that particular chat room and entered the room themselves. After the chat was over, I would copy the entire chat as it had scrolled and paste in onto a Word document and then post it on the website. If the chat got interrupted (during busy times), the scroll would be lost, so I saved often during the chat. This program worked with any platform (MAC or PC) and did not require any special hardware or software. (Others require JAVA or are PC only or do not allow copying.) We rarely had any distractions from people who were not interested in literature. However, the MAC version had to be REFRESHED every few minutes and new load of reponses would be revealed, but teh old ones would be erased. Thus archiving using a MAC was troublesome. I also enjoyed the ability to create a tagline that was shown next to my name each time I posted a message. This was helpful in reminding students of the topic for the day or an upcoming test or paper. Unfortunately, WBS was swallowed by the GO (ESPN/ABC/DISNEY/INFOSEEK) network and the first thing they did was get rid of free personal group chat rooms. So, we had to go elsewhere.
AOL INSTANT MESSENGER (AIM)
Around that time, AOL's Instant Messenger, which was free to anyone, was also being packaged with Netscape. AIM had also developed a group chat function. Knowing the likelihood that many of my students would have AIM in some form already, I chose that as my next chat program. Its advantages also included ease of use in all platforms, as well as easy copying, unlimited scrolling and a BUDDY LIST that showed me who was on. As with most Instant Messenger programs, students must be invited into AIM's private chattrooms, so the Buddy List helped me to identify who was there to be invited. However, AIM had its problems, which became more manifest as time went on. The most annoying was intrusion by non-students who had been summoned to the room when I was inviting my students. In essence, there was a glitch in the AIM system that would send invitations to persons other than the intended, and when the new person showed up, they showed up as the intended person, thus causing much confusion, especially if they thought the room was an adult chat room. For example, I had a student BILLYBOB. I saw BILLYBOB show up on the BUDDY LIST. I invited BILLYBOB. BILLYBOB showed up in the room. Then BILLYBOB demanded to know what was going on....when he discovered what the topic was, there was quite a volley of expletives. After he calmed down, we discovered the person was not BILLYBOB, but rather RANDYRANDY, and he was just as perplexed as we were as to the miscommunication, as he showed up in the room as BILLYBOB. He left. The name BILLYBOB disappeared from the BUDDY LIST. A bit later BILLYBOB showed up in the Buddy List again. I private messaged BILLYBOB, asking if everything was okay. BILLYBOB apologized for being late. After it was assured this was the real BILLYBOB, we invited him in and we resumed class. This type of incident happened several times over a single semester.
Another problem was created during busy times (before 8 pm pacific time) and when the room exceeded 6 persons. Individuals would get routinely booted and not allowed reentry, and invitations sent by me or other students did not reach the intended recipient. I am under the impression that the primary problem is the number of people using instant messenger across the entire network at any given time. I hold my chat between 7 and 9 in the evenings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For the East Coast, this is a little late, but for the West Coast this is prime time for chatting and, unfortunately, as the instant messenger program becomes more and more popular, there will be more and more problems with competition for space.
Under normal conditions a person must have upgraded version of instant messenger in order to engage the group chat room. Those who have AOL must still download the instant messenger program from AOL in addition to the default program that they have as members. Of course, explaining to someone that because they have AOL they cannot engage in AOL's instant messenger can be difficult, but in my instructions I clearly informed the students that those with AOL also had to separately download instant messenger. As problems with AIM increased, I began searching for another program.
Later, on advice from a student and AOL user, I tried an AOL on-site chat. At that time, AOL used JAVA script, which didn't allow me to copy the chat for archiving.
Yahoo Instant Messenger
Yahoo Instant Messenger(YIM) had some of the same problems as AOL Instant Messenger, but no unwanted guests nor conflicts with users. It does sometimes crash due to high traffic or large room load, but it is accessible to everyone, although certain older MAC systems are not compatible with the group chat forum. It also has a self-archiving option which will put the conversation on your computer; unfortunately, it includes all Yahoo conversations you had during that time, including PM's. It helps to edit carefully.
WEBBOARD's chat is an accessory to their messsage board program, which was purchased by our institution. The chat function was quite slow and did not work with DRAGONSPEAK at all. It also did not work with Windows ME or MAC. It did have archiving capabilities, but all conrols were manipulated by the web office, rather than controlled by the instructor.
BLACKBOARD offers a chat function with its classroom platform as well. It is a JAVA program, but it does allow copying, even though it automatically archives. The self-archive is not editable, so that may be a problem. It has a short scroll, so archiving manually is tiresome. Its own archive has a time stamp for each message, which increases the size of the document considerably if you are considering copying from the program's archive for editing purposes. There is a usable whiteboard associated with the chat, with realtime controls for both teacher and (if moderator so designates) the other participants as well. Images on whiteboard are not archived.
Now I'm using a program provided through a consortium of community colleges called CCCConfer, which has an incredibly stable chat program that provides many useful tools. Not only does it allow the instructor to set up the dates and times for individual chat sessions or repeated chat sessions... I have my entire semester's worth of chat sessions already programmed and they automatically are ready to go on the date and time that I establish in advance... the program automatically generates a password for the students to use, and it makes the instructor the moderator of the chat session. Within the window there are three major portions. One of them is a listing of who's in the room, and in that frame are icons that one can click that allow the student to raise their hand, insert a smiley face or an unhappy face, or to clap, as they may wish to do. The instructor can control who gets in the room and who stays in the room and can control who gets to talk in the main room. Furthermore, there is another window that has, of course, the chat conversation itself, and finally there is a third window that is essentially a whiteboard that the instructor can control him or herself or can even allow individual students to use. The room can hold as many students as the instructor wishes to establish when they set up the individual chat sessions, as few as 1-5 and as many as 60 or more. There is an automatic archiving option for those who are using voice chat and video chat, which means that the consortium actually hires someone to be there live and to record the entire process for the instructor's retrieval later. For my purposes, there is an automatic save feature that one can click as the chat progresses which automatically saves the text of the chat to wherever the instructor designates... for me, it's on my desktop. If things are not working, for example one is switching from Mac to PC or vice versa, there is a number to call and a real person will help through the process. This is the best, most stable and most widely applicable cross-platform chat that I've ever used. I cannot say enough positive things about this chat function. I hope it stays for a long time.
I will continue looking for new programs. Regardless of the program, the basic elements required for instructing one's students remain the same.
I found that step by step INSTRUCTIONS are necessary for some kind of response. For IM's, I provide download instructions, including the approximate time that the download will take, as many people were put off by the ten minutes that are required to get the program from the internet site using a standard 56k modem. I also explain that once the program is downloaded it then had to be loaded onto their computer files. Again, step-by-step instructions seem redundant, but posting such instructions helps save numerous e-mails and frustrated students later. I also explain the sign on procedure. With instant messenger programs, one can list the names or handles of students in the instant messenger files, and when most people sign on, their name will automatically pop-up on the screen. So I have my students sign up with instant messenger and then send me their instant messenger name. I add them to my list. Now, on an evening that we are to have chat, as they log on, I choose their handle off my list and invite them to the chat by clicking on the icon that shows three people sharing one conversation bubble. We then proceed with chat. With this program, a person must be invited by someone already in the room, which is a great feature if you worry about keeping the odd lonely person out of your room.
The first day of each semester I hold a chat that involves every class that I have for that semester. I will get as many as 60 students logging into the chat room to test the system and to see how it works. There usually is no agenda for the day other than to work out the bugs, so to speak. That is usually the hardest day in terms of chat because of the number of students. Because of the lag time between the posting of a message and the ability to answer it, sometimes questions may pile up five or six or ten deep before I can answer the first one. However, having no specific topic allows the participants to relax and work on the system without the pressure of taking class notes or responding to material.
This points out a factor or two about chat. On the good side, there will be students who would never raise a hand in a classroom, but will feel comfortable talking in a chat room. Because of the anonymity, students may also ask questions that they would otherwise be embarrassed to ask in class. Therefore, some of your participation will go up. Often in a regular classroom, the first person who answers the question will silence other students. In the chat room, many will answer at once and all of the answers--right, wrong, redundant etc.--will be posted. This encourages participation from more students, and even interaction between them.
Another unexpected aspect to the IM's is that most of these people have added my name to their BUDDY LIST. Thus, if I log on at 1 a.m. and a student is working on a paper, they can ask the questions, and I encourage that. That question answered at 1 a.m., which takes me 60 seconds, may allow that student to progress instead of being stymied by some aspect of the process and also helps with student/instructor rapport. Those instant office hours can sometimes save both the student and instructor extra work.
Another benefit of instant messenger is the ability to send a private message to a student to discuss something that is confidential, such as a grade, or even to pull them aside, so to speak, to get them back on track in the conversation. Sometimes I wish I were able to do that in class. Another benefit to this particular approach is typing in the URL of a particular webpage creates a LINK when it is posted in the message window, and when the students click on it, opens a browser window while still maintaining contact with instant messenger. That means as a class we can peruse a page or scan through a set of instructions. This interactive approach allows us to, for instance, go through the list of likely topics of the final paper, or together gather information about a particular author or work.
Communication in any classroom can have its problems, but discussing concepts over the Internet has specific problems. For one thing, people in a conversation face-to-face have the advantage of watching body language and facial features to indicate meaning within the words. Even those who talk on the telephone have the advantage of hearing inflection and tone to aid in the translation of the words into meaning. The chat room by its nature is very fast. Unfortunately, at the same time we have the element of speed, we sacrifice clarity, with several results. One is the tendency to take silence for understanding. In other words, if there are no questions, the students understand what instructor is saying. Very often, of course, silence indicates confusion. It is important to ask for questions after instructions or information is given. Another problem has to do with the translation of the words one sees onscreen. Without inflection or body language, irony, for example, does not transfer very well. It is important to be careful in what is said so that the conversation stays on track and feelings are not hurt. Another problem which is unexpected but is becoming more common is the tendency for people in the chat room to say whatever they want... to say things they would never say to a person face-to-face, whether that other person is another student or is the teacher him- or herself. In other words, people in chat rooms can be rude. It is important the instructor keep decorum in the classroom and, likewise, in the chat room and to make clear the CODE OF BEHAVIOR in terms of being polite to everyone.
The reality is that most students take a distance Ed course because they cannot be in a classroom at a given time week to week. Distance education is supposed to add flexibility and is also based on the premise that the student is self-motivated. Requiring every student to show up to chat on a weekly basis is, in my opinion, tantamount to requiring that the student show up to class every week, and for many students they would rather be inside a classroom if those are the two choices. In that vein, I'm aware that chat will get only percentage of the entire class roster as participation. This actually works to the teacher's advantage. Large group chats can be confusing, as many students are asking different questions and answers get posted as the instructor can respond, making the question and its answer often separated by several other comments or queries. Responding to students by handle is helpful, but the student can become frustrated trying to follow a multi-level conversation. To facilitate information and clarity, I usually address each answer and follow up question to the particular student by attaching their name to my message. Archiving allows those who cannot be there to witness the class. Those who did participate can revisit a discussion for clarity.
In Chat Response
Just as there are folks who sit in the classroom and never want to utter a word, there are folks in chat rooms who will come in and lurk. Lurking is essentially being in the chat room but not participating actively. In a course that is predominantly lecture, this may be useful or acceptable, but the whole purpose of creating a chat room for my class is the necessity to discuss concepts in such a way that the student can understand those concepts and apply them to other works. In other words, the student needs to be able to explain to me that they understand symbolism in the story we're discussing in class before they can apply that concept to a story that we have not discussed. Because the student is not in the classroom, the student tends to think that he or she is invisible. There is also tendency to come to class... come to chat... unprepared without having read the material. My rules for the classroom and the chat room are the same. The student is expected to come to the class prepared to discuss the material at hand. Although I give credit for attendance to chat room, I only give credit if the attendance is accompanied by participation. Merely logging on and leaving the computer on does not necessarily mean a student is participating in my class, and it is important the instructor make these rules and these responses clear from the outset and, more importantly, enforce them. There's nothing more frustrating for a good student than to know there are several other students in the chat room and at the same time realize that he or she is carrying the entire conversation. The good thing about instant messenger is that since the list of attendees to the chat room is posted on the chat room frame, students can be drawn out and asked direct questions, either in the common chat or privately. Often the question I asked privately is whether or not the student has read the story under discussion. If they have not, they get a private lecture from me about responsibility. Usually, the following week's chat is a bit more lively.
And this brings me to another important point. The optimal chat room for a conversation usually has no more than 10 active members. And, reality has shown me that a consistent 7-10 students is about average. This keeps the conversation flowing and allows students to ask questions and get answered in a timely matter. The other students who are not participating can always read the chat on a posted archive.
In order to facilitate the transfer of important information to the entire class, I have made a practice of copying the chat and posting it on the Web site, usually within a day or two after the chat has actually occurred.
This ARCHIVE allows students who participate in the chat to go back to review the information, but more importantly, enables students who missed the chat to get the notes, so to speak. It is similar to having a fellow classmates take excellent notes, or to get an audio transcript of the class. When I archive the chat I go through it and edit content to make things as clear as possible, including fixing spelling. This is especially important since I am a really bad typist. I can also, in editing, clarify particular points and edit any unnecessary conversations, such as chat between students about their day or questions about individual grades and the like. The result is a transcript that allows the student to be aware of the weekly topics, as well as to get paper and test instructions.
Furthermore, I keep these old chats on my computer as TEXT files that I can use as backups for poorly attended, missed, lost or otherwise unusable sessions. I can post these for use by on-campus students as well for review or catch-up from missed classes.
Overall, chat has been a useful tool in my course. I am now looking for a chat program that works better than YIM and is free to my students. In the meantime, I hope you will give this approach a try, and if you come up with some new strategies, please share them. I can always learn something new.
© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: January 6, 2003