If you’re like me, you love and thrive on discussion in the classroom. Too often, though, timing and/or logistics present obstacles to the facilitation of the rich, constructive discussion on which our students’ critical minds rely. So, what tech tool can we use, in the face to face classroom, which would afford us the ability to coordinate multiple small group discussions in one classroom? The answer is a synchronous chat tool. Now, to the techies out there, this will seem old school or basic, but a lot of professors that I talk to are unfamiliar with the synchronous chat concept or unsure how to use it or afraid to use it. So, in this post, I’m talking to the newbies, the undecided, the unsure. Most professors have experimented within the asynchronous world (blogging, posting discussion questions through Blackboard, having students post responses). Few, however, perceive the benefit of using a synchronous chat (real time chat) forum within the classroom. Today, I’d like to discuss the benefits of such while talking specifically about one space in which I’ve found the synchronous tool to be effective: Zoho.com. This site helps students with collaboration and productivity and boasts an array of business applications. I, personally, gravitated to the collaboration applications when Katie McDonald pitched it to me as a way of continuing my Web Pen Pals project when I lost the previous platform I had been using. My Web Pen Pals Project is housed within EDUC 418 and it’s a telecollaborative project between Fisher pre-service secondary teachers and local high school students. They meet in a secure, online setting throughout the semester and discuss young adult literature. Through this project, I began to see the value of such a tool inside my own college classroom. I had previously used discussion posts, but felt that students were just posting to meet a number and the discussion that occurred would, inevitably, seem forced and artificial. There was not much overlap or interruption, and the comments lacked the type of community building that I value within the compiled posts.
So why chat online in a face-to-face classroom? Well there are many reasons I can offer as a rationale. First, chat builds classroom community and if that is something you value as an educator, the synchronous chat tool can only enhance your classroom community. Most of our students are tech-savvy in the sense that they use chat tools when checking Facebook and maintaining multiple side chats. Chat technology is ever present in video games, apps, texting, etc. It is a tool with which our students are familiar and a skill that they have developed. Furthermore, this particular chat tool in Zoho offers the capability of archiving the chats to be printed out and assessed upon demand. This aspect is one of the reasons I like the tool so much. I can finally see the discussion in its entirety! No longer do I have to worry whether the discussion is turning from academics to football as I walk away. Students can further analyze their discussions to see when instances of authentic dialogue evince themselves. What types of questions were asked that facilitated and encouraged talk? What types of questions/comments stifled talk—silenced participants? Professors could easily use this tool as a way to improve their students’ ability to have discussion. Any aspect could be analyzed and explored in the face-to-face classroom. How were arguments constructed? What rhetorical devices were used? Who dominated the talk? What quantitative data occurred, meaning what were the numbers in terms of participation and turn taking? These may seem like basic, rudimentary components of a discussion, but I’m often amazed at how our students fail at having a discussion. Most of them say that the first time they learned to have a discussion was in a college setting. In addition to these reasons, online chat provides a medium for those less likely to talk in class to feel empowered and emboldened to speak out and participate. Are you sold? If not, here’s some more info on Zoho.
Setting up groups for group chats is another appealing perk of using Zoho in the classroom. Zoho is connected to gmail accounts, so Fisher students are already set up to log in. As a professor, you set up your account, accept your students as your friends, and create chat groups within your class. I usually set up no more than four in a group. Students can connect in an on-campus lab or remotely—even through their smartphones. After setting up the discussion topic, you can move from group to group, just as you would walk around your classroom to monitor the discussion. The zoho chat allows for private chat, instant messages that are also archived for the instructor and the students to review. Emoticons and colored font are available for student use, allowing them to personalize their online identity. In addition to archiving the chats so that students can print copies and bring them to class for review or to turn in for a participation grade, the instructor also has access to the semester’s chat history. With this tool, teachers can go back and review the archived chats to see how students are progressing with their discussion skills. Another feature that I like is the upload feature that lets students use pictures, articles, and papers to emphasize their points while chatting, giving them access to supporting documentation, as well. In this way, you could use this and have students show you the work they have created during group project meetings outside of class. They can also access google docs and work on papers and projects in real time. There are so many applications that are housed within Zoho that can only enhance your face-to-face classroom. Check it out! I’d love to hear if any of you are using synchronous chats in your courses or, if you look at Zoho, what features you think you would be willing to try out.