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Designing a Working Space for Chat

In the first installment this two-part series, we looked at chat as an instructional tool in general terms. Now we take a look at some of the major concepts in using chat effectively in the process of moving the thinking process forward: building ideas, constructing media, and establishing which elements are critical to making the environment dynamic and relevant to the student.

Building Ideas
One of the major "shifts" that must take place in the minds of instructors is that their presented content is workable and, therefore, should be presented as accessible ideas or open concepts to the students. Again, to clarify: This addresses the use of synchronous chat tools and not all information exchanged and content presentation that takes place within a course. That is, when constructing content for a synchronous chat/discussion session, instructors should be aware of the following and intentionally design around these concepts:

  • Ideas are open for debate;
  • Ideas are publicly owned; and
  • Ideas should be built to reflect the idea-collective that has taken place.

Much of the work of Scardamelia and Bareiter (1996) has proposed the notion of the working of ideas within a public space. What is challenging for many teachers is that the learning space of any course does have a public learning space that is owned by the whole class group. Within that space, either online or in class, ideas "belong" to the whole group and are open for debate, modification, challenge, and application. In my experience in using both chat and forums for discussion, I have found that within a forum, students are more likely to respond to others ideas and/or information. However, in a well constructed chat discussion, given the immediacy of the space; it is more likely that actual ideas will be exchanged and debated.

Media Construction
Within a current chat environment, text, audio, and video/graphic media can be accessed and interactively applied at any time as we have already discussed. As such, the ideas can move within each of the domains, so to speak, and there should be some method by which all the ideas can be collected and accurately captured for further work. There are often note taking capabilities or on-screen white board capabilities and when these are controlled only by the instructor, the ideas cannot flow freely from the students to the working space. Additionally, while we can understand the synchronicity of communication via chat, we struggle with accepting the synchronicity of work within chat. That is, while someone may be speaking or texting, someone could also be compiling notes and someone else creating a screen concept-map of concept summary bringing the ideas together.

Regardless of your political persuasion, it would be safe to say that the impact of synchronicity via Internet tools has been powerfully displayed not only the coverage of the current election material and events, but in the construction of thought around the main characters, policies and perceptions. Most main news coverage now provide opportunities for viewers to view spilt screen presentations, reinforcing images in the background or in various video screens and to blog their comments at the same time. What is interesting is that not only is everything happening at the same time but the ideas are being captured, worked, and reworked through exchanges, posts, and presentations. Therefore, the mixed media compilation of the working space creates a dynamic and multilayered process through which ideas are filtered, and reproduced differently through the affects of the process.

Intentional Elements
Therefore, when designing the working space for students within a chat environment, it is important that teachers realize and think through the following:

  • What are the learning outcomes for this session?
  • What kinds of information should the students have access to before the session (that is, not taking the time to overview information that can be reviewed prior to the session)?
  • Which tools should be opened for free student use in the session?
  • How will the main ideas be managed (that is, captured, summarized, organized, and modified) to represent the entire process?
  • How will the thinking processes be valued and assessed as part of the vital learning?

And finally, where will the ideas be stored so that students will have ongoing access to them for future work? When teachers think through these questions, the environment will become not only dynamic but relevant for every student. The vital elements of presentation, interaction, reinforcement, capture and application drive the planning delivery and effectiveness of the work that takes place within the session.

While chat tools provide direct and open communication with some thought and understanding of the potential of the technology, its use can be expanded to not only support instruction but to actually facilitate the instructional process. Careful planning is important as well as a risk-taking by the instructor to allow the flow to become multidirectional and, therefore, richer and more effective overall. The synchronicity of the tool maximizes the immediacy of interaction and the importance of participation within the learning process.

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