Fall term is nearly over. I taught in person for the first time since March 2020… and I loved it. I got to see my students’ faces in conversation, get a sense of who they are as embodied humans, follow their emergent curiosities into casual, impromptu discussions. The four walls of the classroom felt familiar and… human.
But there was one element of being online for the last few years that I missed, a lot: the chat.
I don’t mean the hum of classroom conversation. I mean the online chat: the feature of digital meeting platforms that enables a real-time scroll of participant contributions to run along the side of the screen throughout a class, meeting or session.
Not everybody loves the chat function, I know. The art of speaking aloud while keeping up with the flow of a chat is not a literacy many had practice with before the pandemic. In faculty development sessions in 2020, I heard educators express discomfort with the chat. To be fair, as a profession, we are not acculturated to having students talking when we talk, even if the students’ words scroll past silently, in text. And in university meetings I attended during the “extremely online” part of the pandemic, chatting was often discouraged, or treated as distraction.
Truthfully, the chat can be a distraction, even a derailing force. I’ve seen both students and faculty use chat to take a class or meeting absolutely sideways. (You know who you are!) Strategies and ground rules can help. Chat also creates an additional layer of complication to any official process surrounding online events: do chat contributions get recorded in meeting minutes? Are in-class chats visible to students watching a lecture at a later date? In both cases, the answer is “usually not.”
But that’s part of what I miss about it.
Chat is about presence. The ephemeral “you had to be there” shared experience of a good chat builds visibility and ties among the people present in it. Used well, it allows for ambient and non-disruptive substantive contributions, in addition to sidebars and humour. And the bar for contribution is lower than it is face-to-face.
Online, I heard from probably 90 per cent of my students voluntarily in the chat. No matter how welcoming I try to make my in-person classrooms, verbal contributions have never come close to that number. Nor could they, without taking up ALL our class time. But a chat can scroll along without taking away from other class communications. In fact, the content of the chat can add to the overall learning experience. Chat allows students to be their own active Greek chorus in spaces where they might otherwise be passive. It gives a little bit of power back to learners, and a tool to focus their attention.
It’s that choral element that I miss. The lecture is a one-to-many broadcast communication format. Paired discussions are one-to-one and even group conversations still require one-at-a-time contributions. In a face-to-face classroom setting, that’s often the full scope of communication options available: if all students talk at once, no one can take in anything that’s said. But an ongoing, ambient text-based chat enables genuine many-to-many engagement without (complete) chaos.
I designed a lot of my online class participation around the chat. My classes started “Okay, in the chat, tell me X, Y, Z.” I’d pose simple yes/no chat questions at the start of a course to encourage students to use the feature. I welcomed student questions, and when chats veered off on tangents – as they do – I’d pause to acknowledge and address. Sometimes interesting conversations ensued: the closest thing to class discussions we ever had online. Sometimes we laughed. Sometimes my pause served simply to steer us back on topic.
But the chat reminded me – teaching out loud from my former-closet-turned-home-office in the middle of a pandemic – that the sea of black squares in front of me onscreen were, in fact, an “us.” The chat opened a one-way medium into a participatory one. It enabled us, in a small but real way, to build community.
The irony is that now that we are back to in person learning, I’m missing that online community-building feature.
Years ago, before the pandemic, when I taught social media in education, I tried using a class Twitter hashtag to onboard future teachers to the vibrant teacher professional development community available on Twitter. Sometimes I’d have the hashtag visible onscreen behind me – updating for new contributions, chat-style – while we held discussions. I liked the fact that it allowed students who weren’t likely to speak up verbally to contribute nonetheless. But I don’t take my pre-service teachers onto Twitter anymore – it’s, erm, a volatile time – and so I am currently short a functional in-class chat option. Still, I miss it, and I’m thinking about ways to build it back in.
I’m not the only one. When I’ve spoken with fellow educators this fall, over lunch or via impromptu Twitter polls I conducted, they’ve shared the same thing: more are glad to be back, though they and their students miss the flexibility and accessibility of online. And teachers consistently report that they miss the chat.
The lesson here is this: the in-person classroom has its strengths, but no monopoly on connection or communication.
For all the urgent push for campuses to return to face-to-face learning, it hasn’t been a magic cure-all for the very real educational issues the pandemic made visible. The past few years have brought mental health and accessibility issues to the fore. They have pointed out how much classroom learning has tended to focus on content delivery, and yet, when emergency online measures reduced many lecture courses to content delivery alone, what was missed were the human and relational elements of being together in a class community.
I’m excited to go back to the classroom again in January. But I still want to find a way to build a choral chat experience into our work inside those familiar four walls.