Thursday, April 1, 2010

Using online chat in teaching?

It's been a busy few weeks but amongst the things that I've been doing was a presentation on some research I did to finish off my MEd last year at our Annual Learning and Teaching Conference which I thought might be interesting to share (interesting in a vaguely nerdish kinda way!).

What was my research about?  Well, the focus of my project was to attempt to understand what happened to educationally rich dialogue within online chat when students were left on their own, or when there was a tutor present.  Anyway, it was an interesting little project and the results were also pretty revealing (and I'd really like to look into this area further), and it led me to wonder whether or not there is any kind of pedagogy for using chat in teaching?  Surely we need one if we're to know how to use chat productively.  Not least since  according to the 2009 CLEX report 'Higher Education in a web 2.0 world' students are familiar with and comfortable using instant messaging (CLEX, p.21) - but it seems that we give them minimal guidance on how best to use it and rarely exploit (for want of a better word!) this familiarity or comfort with online chat.  Additionally, there is really very little research into what happens to dialogue in synchronous online chat and in most of the research I looked at, either tutor or participants were novice users to some degree which I felt negatively impacted on their dialogue to some degree.  In my project I was careful to make sure that everyone had had prior experience of learning / teaching via chat so as to try to minimize this technological learning curve. 

Having looked into things a bit... I decided to try to draw some conclusions from my experiences.... both from the research itself, but also based on my experience of using chat in teaching for the past decade.... which led to this presentation!  So, here ya go:
If you want to have a look at the notes to see what I was waffling about at each stage, you're more than welcome to -  they're available online at the Slideboom hosted version.

So, how to use chat in teaching?  There really are no hard and fast rules, but here are a few basic guidelines:

Give students the right building blocks (and these happen either side of the chat session)
  • Clear purpose - make sure it isn't simply a bolt-on optional extra
  • Clear introduction - explain how it's going to happen, have some intro sessions first if needed
  • Clear topic - provide a topic which works at lots of different levels so a discussion *can* happen
  • Clear timings - 30 to 45 minutes with a group of between 3 to 5 is probably about right
  • Clear plenary - the chat session should feed into *something*, a summary, a shared transcript... but there needs to be an end just as there's a beginning
  • Clear off - well, while the session's running anyway!
The things I've discovered?  You don't need to be present within a chat session for it to have educational value.  Provided you structure the activity design so that the chat session is bookended in someway (where you can have some involvement) and you bear in mind the type of dialogue you want, i.e. if you want a fairly Q&A-based session then it may well be appropriate for the tutor to be involved in the session; if you want something more free-flowing, then the tutor is probably best off not being a participant too.
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