Due to the pandemic, educators have had to make adjustments to their classroom delivery, including utilizing online venues such as Zoom, Google Talk, or CANVAS. While the use of these platforms aid in synchronous learning, they present one issue which differs from the in-person learning environment: the chat feature. In some ways, the online chat parallels in-person classroom discussions in a positive manner, for example, allowing students to ask the facilitator questions or to clarify student understanding. In other ways, although in-person discussions allow for negative classroom behaviors, such as personal side conversations that students have with one another, we have become accustomed to handling these types of discussion problems while in the classroom. We establish rules, guidelines, or even ask the class to keep talking to a minimum. Are these strategies successful in an online environment as well? To some degree, yes. However, modern technology introduces a new dilemma through the chat feature.
The many hats of an online teacher
As an online educator, there are many things you have to be mindful of as you conduct your classroom. You wear many hats during an online session: you are the host of the meeting, you are teaching or running the show, and you may elect to use additional technology such as online polling software to encourage student engagement. At this point, you may find yourself overwhelmed. Then, you notice, in the corner of your eye, a flurry of activity in the chat. How do you handle the chat on top of these other responsibilities when the comments and questions are coming in so quickly?
This is where the strategies of streamers on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook can be used to your advantage. You may be asking yourself, Streamers? What does that have to do with this discussion? I thought this was about teaching?
Channeling streamer techniques
Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook offer online streaming platforms with millions of users, including your students. On each of these platforms, a streamer can go live and stream content (such as video games, demonstrations, or presentations) to an audience ranging from just a handful of viewers to thousands of viewers. Sound familiar? How many viewers, or students, do you have watching you in any given class? During each of these live streams, the streamer has a chat feature enabled to interact with viewers and to facilitate a conversation among their community.
One challenge of a streamer is they are focused on producing the live stream itself. Educators find themselves in the same situation while presenting or teaching. All the while, the chat continues to be used and comments and questions pile up. How does a single streamer manage hundreds of people communicating in the chat, and how can educators use the same approach? Here are four steps streamers use to manage their chat that will help with your online classes or presentations.
- Set some ground rules. Your students may use chat to carry on a discussion unrelated to the session. Streamers set up ground rules for their chat environment on their landing page. Setting some ground rules on how to use the chat in your virtual classroom is a positive step in the right direction. Ask your students to keep the side conversations, internet shorthand, and emojis to a minimum.
- Designate a moderator to monitor chat. If you have someone available to do so, you may want to assign a moderator to keep track of chat. Streamers use moderators to monitor chat and to enforce community guidelines. Also, moderators can help with general questions as to not distract from the session, such as where to find a document link. Moderators can alert the presenter to a specific question or comment in chat. A moderator in your classroom chat could do the same thing and enhance the communication in your sessions.
- Schedule set times for questions during your presentation. Streamers may find themselves in situations, in-game or in their stream, where they cannot look at chat. You may need to leave the chat, and your students, to their own while you explain a concept or work through a problem. In your session planning, place time points where you solicit student’s questions and comments that may have been missed. This not only gives your students a chance to engage with you or others, but gives you a chance to take a breather.
- When you can’t catch them all, don’t worry. If your students are engaged and participating in chat with responses, questions, and helping others, the session is already going well. However, at times, the chat may be scrolling at such a rapid rate that you and the moderator may not be able to keep up in real time. You may miss some of their comments—that’s ok. By addressing the previous points discussed here, your students will understand your intentions and will let you know when something needs to be addressed.
These strategies can be used to enhance your classroom experience and minimize anxiety when utilizing the chat feature in your online learning. Keep in mind, current students are technologically savvy and have used chat features in others aspects of their daily lives. It is usually aa tool in their communication tool belt. If utilized well, we, too, can incorporate it into our teaching toolkit.
Dr. Eric B. Gonzales is an associate professor in medical education at the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine. Initially a bench scientist in biomedical research, he has turned his focus and attention to medical education and research.
Dr. Amber J. Heck is an associate professor at the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine. Her current responsibilities include online curriculum development and instruction in cell biology and physiology for medical students.