Chattering classes

Chattering classes

Online chatting or ‘real-time writing’: a question of rhythm?

Since the closure of the university campus, our LANSAD teaching team has been thinking about how best to ensure ‘pedagogical continuity and creativity’ and keep on working with our students. I would like to share with you this week how our online chat sessions with third year EFL undergraduates are going.  In the past, I personally, had only used the chat tool as a space for distance-learning students to confer in an informal manner to carry out collaborative tasks, notably collaborative writing. Which meant that this teacher/student chatting was a new challenge for me.

Students signed up for chat sessions via Moodle, where they could also access the documents and videos necessary to prepare the session. Each teacher offered a different theme including this week, ‘Alien Life’, ‘A question of Law’ and ‘Debating Sport and Education’. Each chat session was limited to the participation of 12 students and lasted half an hour.

It so happens that my session for this week (planned before confinement) was entitled ‘Your Choice’. As the session’s title suggests, students were invited to submit their own topic for discussion. They had to

  • post the link in a (Moodle) forum so that other group members could watch a video on their chosen subject and prepare questions.  
  • be ready to explain why they had chosen this particular topic.

The subjects the students chose were naturally enough very varied, ranging from why we laugh, to a history of the Spanish language and meditation.

This ‘real time writing’ (Goddard, 2011) is clearly very different from oral interaction but as ‘written interactive discourse’, Ferrara et al. (cited by Goddard, 2011) one of the main advantages it has in the current context, where some students are isolated far from home, is to provide a strong sense of presence (‘socio-affective, socio-cognitive and pedagogical’ (Jézégou, 2012).

Goddard looks at online writing and explains how language choices in chatting ‘serve to textualize the physicality of environment – in other words, to embody their authors’ (144). She explains how chats are commonly imagined as rooms or bars, with participants making others welcome and inviting them in. I found myself, quite naturally, doing exactly this, even if the room I visualised was very unimaginatively a classroom. She also refers to the ‘Seemingly endless opening and closing routines, pointing up the essential linearity of the written medium.’ (146) which she calls the ‘broken record’ strategy. I understand what she’s getting at here, even though records are round. However, in the present context, the hellos and the generic how are you questions (…today, feeling, adapting to confinement, keeping busy…), goodbyes and stay safes seemed to me less routine lip service to social niceties, than the sincere expression of individuals who were glad of the opportunity to share a moment together.  A number of students on their way out of the chat space, expressed thanks and/or said/wrote how much they had enjoyed the session.

Managing several students who had prepared different subjects was sometimes tricky and made more so by the fact that turn taking was often disrupted due to varying levels of English and typing skills. On one occasion a student apologised for being so slow in responding to a question I had asked that had entirely scrolled off my page.  As Goddard points out ‘As well as textualizing people and events, the language of real-time writing is also substance itself, of course – material which appears, fills the screen, and disappears as interactions proceed’ (146). In future chat sessions I will definitely try and be more sensitive to this dynamic, physical and potentially creative quality of online writing and how it may affect interaction. 

One of the ways in which I tried to take into account different response speeds and ensure nobody felt left out or went silent was to write longer replies that included several responses to named students. Simultaneously, I pinged off quicker responses to more proficient students. Which meant that sometimes there were parallel conversations taking place. Rather like what goes on in my head quite a lot of the time ?

With the chat tool on Moodle 3.6 you cannot see when another person is typing and preparing a response and so the minutes seem long. As a teacher it is tempting to jump in, start typing, fill in the gaps…and add to the confusion. I think that the main lesson I have learnt this week is to have patience. Give the students a chance to answer each other and run the conversation as they see fit. I had a cursory glance at the 48 half hour chat sessions that took place from Monday to Thursday this week. Out of these 48 sessions there were only 5 sessions (10%) in which the teacher did not have the highest number of turns ( and one of these session was because the teacher lost the connection). It would also seem that when there were fewer participants in the groups, the number of teacher/student turns was more balanced.

I sometimes found it tricky to know when to go with the flow or to stop and correct students’ language use. During these first two weeks I opted for smooth communication and only offered grammar corrections when I could do so rapidly and without interrupting too much what was being said. Reactions to corrections varied from thanks, emoticons, apologies or silence.  Only once did I provide the definition of a word. The word in question was ‘dabble’. Student A used it and student B  asked her what it meant.  Student B replied that in actual fact she had meant to say ‘relax’. For her to use the word ‘dabble’ suggests to me that she was using some sort of online translation tool. But of course I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask her there and then. In actual fact, I only realised that student A was a woman after the chat had ended. It turns out I had been calling her by her masculine-sounding surname all through the activity, but she had politely declined to set me right. T_T or should that be ☹

Student-centred online chatting in the teacher’s presence it seems needs practise like any other skill. 

And rhythm, whether online, on a page, or in a classroom, seems to me essential.

Don’t hesitate to comment if you have any chatting tips.

Goddard, A. (2011). .   look im over here: Creativity, Materiality and Representation in New Communication Technologies. In: J. Swann, R. Pope & R. Carter (ed.), Creativity in Language & Literature. The State of the Art. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 141-155.

Jézégou, A. (2012). Presence in e-learning: Theoretical Model and Perspectives for Research. International Journal of E-learning and Distance Education, 26(2). Retrieved from http://www.ijede.ca/index.php/jde/article/view/809/1422

Fig_tart flowers for your pleasure

2 Replies to “Chattering classes”

  1. Hello Alison,
    Nice to read you here, and let’s try to speak english 🙂
    “one of the main advantages […] is to provide a strong sense of presence” : I totally agree with that, and this is a very important feature to considerate in choosing tools to be used in this context. I hope we will be soon able to talk about your experience, back on our campus. Do you think it could be a good idea to ask the students to write in a few words how they have perceived this shared moment in this special context?
    Thank you.

  2. Hello Sophie,
    how lovely to hear from you and well done for speaking English ?. I would be delighted to discuss further the use of the chat tool with you once we are all back on campus. I think that’s a great idea to ask students how they feel about chatting online with their teachers during lockdown and I will ask indeed ask them to comment on the experience. And keep you posted on their answers.
    Thank YOU.

Leave a Reply