by Ashley Leyba, History

A Chat Room tool allows you to have real-time conversations with course participants who are logged in at the same time.

Why and how did you use online Chat?

I’ve used Chat in two different ways. The first was as a site for “virtual office hours.” These sessions, which I usually held in the week or two before exams or written assignments were due, allowed students whose schedules conflicted with my normal face-to-face office hours to touch base with me and have their questions answered.

I have also used online Chat as a place for course “pre-discussion.” Each week, I asked my students to post in our course chat room prior to the start of class. These posts were to include two or three questions for discussion based on that week’s readings, as well as a brief discussion of any concepts they found especially difficult or confusing. In addition, they were required to read (and, when motivated, respond to) each other’s submissions, so that they were well prepared for that day’s discussion. In previous courses, I felt that I was driving the in-class discussion too much, so these weekly submissions were devised as a way to keep me attuned to the intellectual interests of my students.

How did you prepare to use the Chat Room tool in your class?

In general, using Chat required little in the way of advance preparation. All that you need to do is add the Chat navigation link to your course site (see the instructor guide for bCourses).

After a brief discussion on the first day of class, I found that my students did not need technical assistance with this tool (though if they do, you can send them to the student guide for bCourses). So my instructions to them focused more on content. For example, I provided a description of the weekly chat assignment in our course syllabus, as well as a sample chat posting that showed them what I was expecting in terms of length and depth.

How did using Chat benefit your students?

The Chat tool, via the “virtual office hours,” allowed more students to interact with me than if I had limited myself to in-person office hours. Since the chat room was a running dialogue (i.e. previous discussions were not deleted, so students could scroll through the entire chat history), students who were not able to log on during my office hours could later read through the questions that were posed and, hopefully, find answers to the questions they had. I also found, in some classes, that students used Chat as a place to exchange ideas and information, or to set up study groups before exams.

It was when the chat room was used as a site for “pre-discussion,” though, that the tool was most beneficial to students, because it allowed them to be prepared for an active and engaged class discussion. In writing their own discussion questions, and reading those of their classmates, each student had a good sense of the issues and questions that would make up our in-class discussion. As a result, each student had time to reflect on these issues before the start of class and, once they arrived, were prepared to make informed contributions to our discussion.

How did using Chat benefit you as a GSI?

One of the biggest benefits of using Chat for “virtual office hours” was the decrease in the number of panicked emails that I received in the days (and hours) before an exam or assignment was due. Instead of emailing me, students could read through the chat room log and find answers to commonly asked questions (for example, Where is the exam taking place? or How do I submit my paper?).

The pre-discussion submissions also proved to be very beneficial to my teaching. By structuring class discussions around the questions students posed in the chat room, I prevented our classes from becoming a showcase of my personal academic interests (the initial goal in using this tool). And although this was not the original intent, I found that asking my students to participate in the chat room pre-discussions provided me with a lot of valuable information. For example, before I even got to class, I knew which students had not read the assigned works as closely as I would have liked and, more importantly, I knew before class what ideas were causing my students trouble.  This allowed me time to think through their questions and come up with well thought-out explanations and/or devise in-class activities that might help them work through difficult readings.

What advice would you give to other GSIs who are planning to use Chat?

Any time you require your students to work with outside technology (even if it is something they have probably used in previous classes), it is good to explain to them how you plan to use it for your course, and make sure they are comfortable with the tool. I would also encourage you to check in with your students from time to time, and ask them if the tool is working well and proving useful. I did this when I first used the chat room for pre-discussion and, after several conversations with my students, it became clear that I needed to make some adjustments to the assignment deadline. I’m glad I took the time to do this because, in the end, making that alteration made the assignment much more effective.