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Online Learning

Using Chat To Move the Thinking Process Forward

The idea of using chat as a communication tool with students is widely accepted in education. Using the same tool to progress critical thinking is not often discussed. That is, the question might be asked, "Why use an online tool when I can discuss with my students face to face?"

The reality is often that, even in online or hybrid courses, the forum tool (asynchronous) is still used more widely for discussion and ideas sharing than the chat tool. Typical uses for chat include meeting with students to discuss their issues and problems with the course, providing quick and direct tutorial help, providing course information or announcements, or scheduling meetings or groupwork, etc. Therefore, the use of the tool to support the learning process administratively or in information sharing is accepted more widely than using the same tool for developing thinking skills and/or other academic work.

When it is used instructionally, the immediacy of the synchronous essence of the tool is maximized, and students are fully engaged in thinking together rather than simply chatting.

Mixed Media Use
I have written in an earlier article how text-based chat can be used for full class or small group discussions and how accommodations should be made for slower keyboardists, turn taking, and organizing of the context. Those of us who have used chat for a number of years as an instructional tool are quite familiar with the challenges text-only chat poses. Recent chat tools, however, provide opportunities for a mixed media environment that enhances the space, includes everyone at various levels of interaction, and helps all learning styles feel part of the space.

As we see in the use of various online tools, the changes in methodology and instructional design are slower to change than the capabilities of the tools themselves. That is, although we now have access to mixed media inputs, and although the interface of chat tools supports collaboration and active engagement of the learners, we still see many educators using the tools to simply deliver pre-set content, present teacher-led sessions, and encourage student passivity rather than engagement. In short, many times, chat tools are used to simply reproduce lecture sessions.

It should be noted that the software itself can usually record audio, which provides a great opportunity for instructors to record their lectures and/or presentations; however, using the software in real time should address other learning opportunities that are active and engaging for students. What often happens in a passive delivery mode is that students will continue to allow the software to remain open and their onscreen presence marked as present while they are somewhere else on the Internet, or away from their computer screen completing household chores or other activities with friends. In other words, the intense and amazing immediacy of the tool is used only in a one-way delivery mode and, therefore, does not include the student in any form of interaction.

Simultaneous Interaction
In a previous article I discussed the importance of interaction in a digital learning space and how the individuality of the interaction depended on meaningful input and output of the content and the learning. Within current mixed-media chat environments, this can happen simultaneously. In the diagram below, the basic elements and their flow are illustrated to emphasize the reality of the non-linear flow. This must be grasped by educators and instructional designers. That is, while content can be organized, the assumption that it is processed in a linear flow should never be made. Rather, students should feel empowered through the openness and flexibility of the design and presentation to interact as needed, utilize the mixed media as needed, and to build knowledge as it is relevant for their specific needs.

In the diagram above, what I see as the basic elements of a working chat session are listed. However, the arrows at either side illustrate the choice of movement and flow. Additionally, the diagram illustrates that prior knowledge and individual learning preferences can interplay with the working space at anytime and throughout the flow of the process. Therefore, if the teacher controls all of the input options and interaction options, the flow will remain not only linear but static and not open to individual use and application by the students. While we conventionally think of the learning process as a linear flow, particularly when it comes to thought development, when options are open to students, they tend to take them (Reynard, 2004).

In the second part of this two-part series, we'll look at idea building, media construction, and the “intentional” elements that go into designing the working space for students within a chat environment.

About the Author

Ruth Reynard, Ph.D., is a higher education consultant specializing in faculty development and instructional design and founder of Community Education for Development, a community education-focused nonprofit in Ohio. She can be reached at

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