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Chat: The Poster Child for Digital Disdain

Chat is the ante-buzz; what could be new about Chat or IM 20 years after it emerged?

Well, let's say the buzz is about undiscovered riches. The buzz is about Web 2.0 apps that, because they are popular and perceived as entertainment or fun, seem inappropriate for education but in fact are learning spaces.

If we consider a chat tool designed for a group (a chat room) with a message-writing area supporting word wrap (hard to find among the tools at this point), then we might begin to see the undiscovered riches. Funded university-consortium projects in the 1980s and 1990s showed how much learning power chat tools provide. Yet, chat is disdained by most faculty members; on some campuses chat is blocked.

The irony of blocking students from developing literacy skills and mastering a new digital discourse is poignant.

In 1985, at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC (the world's university for deaf students), a group chat tool was used for teaching an undergraduate class in writing -- it was the first time chat was used in a regular academic class anywhere in the world. In fact, "Phone" or "cb" or "xx,yy,zz" -- chat tools of the time -- were clumsy and little known beyond a few Net denizens. But how wonderful they seemed to us!

The Gallaudet students had never, before that class, experienced a group conversation in English with a native speaker of English. This was their first introduction to "spoken" discourse. The students experienced an awakening. Fluency improved dramatically; the students arrived at the computer lab 30 minutes early for each class and then we had to kick them out at the end of the class.

This experimental teaching method -- using chat as the communication technology to better teach the writing process -- became a funded project and was disseminated throughout writing programs across the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What worked for deaf students also worked for first-year writing students generally. Group chat was an ideal brainstorming and consensus-building collaborative tool. It allowed for a studio approach to teaching.

But, then IM came along, and its descendents, including text messaging, and as a result, this approach to teaching was suddenly associated with a tool perceived on campuses as at best distracting and at worst debilitating and dangerous.

The antecedent would have been for professors in 1500 to ban books in universities because they distracted from the lecture, or weakened memorization skills.

Chat is both a golden opportunity and a big challenge to use. The rewards of improved learning are substantial for those teachers who learn how to manage chat, using the energy students bring to chat, but re-directing that energy toward the task at hand.

Chat is in fact the poster child for digital disdain -- it is sullied by how it is used in the popular culture. Yet, a technology can't be discounted because of how it is used -- cars kill but also take you to work, planes bomb but also take you to a convention, and chat supports semi-literate drivel but also helps students learn. And chat of course represents Web 2.0 apps in general. In the right hands, any of these apps can be used for new approaches to teaching and learning.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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