Permission to Chat

by Vicky Butterby @vickymeaby

When facilitating online learning, educators are often unable to engage with separate group discussions or one-to-one conversations with learners in the ways that we might do naturally when in a face-to-face environment. Similarly, we are not always able to have a quiet word with a learner who is confused or disengaged, who needs an extension task or who requires additional support with a task. 

Many online learning platforms and remote conferencing software tools do however have an inbuilt chat function that can be used as an alternative way to facilitate both group and individual conversations with learners. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, our small team were already fairly well versed in the basic functions of chat in online spaces such as Zoom, having used the platform regularly for our team meetings, to facilitate webinars and to provide Continual Professional Development (CPD) opportunities for teachers and trainers working in Further Education (FE). Typically, our use of chat in these events included asking people to: share their name and where they were from; respond to a question; record key information (for example minutes of a meeting or key points during a group discussion); network with one another; share contact details; and ask questions.

An opportunity to reflect

It was not until all our teaching and CPD provision moved online that we began to reflect more deeply about how we were using chat in our online spaces and how we could further develop our practice to help facilitate effective, engaging and inclusive online teaching and learning approaches within our team. To do this, we had to think carefully about four things:

  1. What underpinning pedagogical approaches were we utilising regarding our use of chat in online spaces?
  2. How were the approaches we were already taking supporting learner progress and engagement?
  3. Which approaches from our face-to-face work in physical spaces did we want to be able to replicate or adapt for the online world?
  4. How could chat functions in online spaces be used more creatively to support teaching, learning and assessment activities?

Expanding the use of chat by giving express permission

Whilst some learners naturally gravitate towards the use of chat, others may be more reticent to engage. This may be because they:

  • are shy, particularly in relation to perceived issues with spelling, punctuation or grammar
  • feel unsure of the etiquette in chat spaces e.g., learners may assume that the chat space is only for the educator’s use
  • don’t know how to access or use the chat space
  • find the multitude of processes required to engage in chat too great a cognitive overload To fully engage in chat during online sessions, learners need to be able to scroll through the chat stream, synthesise content from multiple people and succinctly contribute their own thinking in written form. They need to do this while simultaneously concentrating on what the teacher and others are verbally saying/ engaging in other teaching and learning activities
  • worry or are concerned that they have nothing of value to contribute to the chat or that what they contribute may be perceived as incorrect or the ‘wrong’ answer.  

Initial challenges: literacy apprehension

To help alleviate some of the issues described above, we found it important to move away from any assumed knowledge about learners’ digital literacy levels, and instead fully explain to them how to access the chat function on different devices (including desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile phones). We also found it important when introducing chat spaces to learners to be explicit that this is a space for them and that they are invited to engage with chat during the live session as little or as much as they feel able to. We stress that our sessions are always spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) ‘judgement free’ zones so learners do not need to worry about SPaG when using chat; we are more interested in their ideas than about the manner in which those ideas are conveyed! We also encourage learners to introduce themselves to one another in chat and show them how to use the private message function should they wish to communicate privately between one another or privately with the teacher.

Initial challenges: cognitive overwhelm

To relieve the cognitive load on learners in relation to engaging with chat and the wider content of the session, we explain that we do not expect them to engage with every aspect of chat or to read every message. Instead, we explain that as teachers, our role is to highlight any important comments, questions or ideas from chat to share with the group. It is important to say this so learners do not worry that they are missing anything if they either cannot access the chat or they find using chat whilst engaging in the session overwhelming. Alternatively, in sessions where we know learners well, we may ask for a volunteer to look after the chat space for that session and to help the teacher to highlight any pertinent points that need to be expanded upon or shared vocally with the group during the session. This is called the Double Decker approach which my colleague Chloë Hynes has written about elsewhere.

Online teaching assistant or ‘co-pilot’

We are fortunate within our team that we have often had the opportunity to team teach in online spaces. Where we are team teaching, one of us will tend to take the traditional facilitator’s role with the other taking a more supportive role, which includes monitoring the chat and responding to learners in that space to answer their questions, build on their ideas, offer further or additional information or support learners on a 1:1 basis through the private messaging function. Our online work with learners has shown us that the chat function on platforms such as Zoom is a dynamic tool that can be used creatively, innovatively and with versatility to help facilitate high quality and inclusive teaching and learning activities online.

Continuing research 

These reflections form just a snippet of some of the initial insight we have been gaining as we have been working with learners to explore the use of chat in online teaching and learning spaces. To extend and continue this work, my colleague Chloë Hynes and I are currently undergoing an action research project to further explore the uses and limitations of utilising chat in online teaching and learning spaces. We would be delighted if you would like to contribute your own reflections and insights (as an educator, as a learner or from both perspectives).  If you’d like to share your experiences you can do so via this Google Form.

This thinkpiece also appears in FutureFE Pedagogies Jounal (Issue #2). It interlinks with another article within that journal by Chloë Hynes called ‘Double Decker Experience’ and underpins the action research they are working on together about utilising chat in online spaces.

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