Chat rooms are nowadays an integral part of many Web-based course delivery systems. These chat rooms that are used for instructional purposes facilitate synchronous discussions among geographically dispersed students and instructors. However, even when the group of students is small, chat sessions can sometimes become unmanageable.
Since students and instructors type and submit their questions, comments, and responses at their own unique pace, the phenomenon that I call "chat or conversation overlap" occurs often in chat rooms. A student may be typing something for submission while others are also busy typing their own statements that they plan to submit as well. When the first message appears on the screen, others either start responding to it, or just go ahead and type in their own comments that may or may not be related to the message that is on the screen. Even in situations where the instructor has laid out the ground rules for conversations in the chat room, such overlap is inevitable.
In chat rooms, since many people are typing and submitting at about the same time, there is also some confusion. A few or even a number of unrelated or peripherally related comments appear on the screen before one can read a comment related to one's own initial statement. This I call "chat confusion." In real-time chat sessions, a person has to learn to make sense of a haphazard set of comments that appear and scroll down on the screen. Sometimes it is very confusing just trying to figure out who is responding to what.
Two software enhancements or features will make chat rooms much more valuable tools by eliminating both chat confusion and chat overlap. The first enhancement that I suggest is to open two windows, one the instructor's window and the other the students' window, in chat rooms on the instructor's monitor. As students type their comments, questions, reactions or statements, the instructor should be able to view them on the instructor's chat window. The instructor can then select a message and send it to the students' window by clicking on the "send" button. Since the students' window is the window that appears on all students' monitors, they can read and respond to the message after the instructor sends the message to the students' window. As each student types his or her message, the instructor can select and send appropriate messages to the students' window and keep the conversation flowing smoothly. Once a particular topic has been discussed at length, the instructor can send the other messages that were submitted by students, to initiate and sustain discussions of other topics.
Another suggested feature is to enable the instructor to save short comments, questions, and statements in memory before a chat session begins, and be able to post them in the students' window at the click of a button. An instructor can use these pre-saved statements to ask questions, remind students to stay focused on the topic and in other ways facilitate discussion without having to spend too much time typing. This will save time on the part of the instructor who can then focus his or her attention to ensure the smooth flow of discussions. Such a feature will be valuable in the hands of students as well.
An Instructor Controlled Chat System (ICSS) that has at least the two features that I have described in this brief paper will go a long way to eliminate chat confusion and chat overlap. By doing so, they will also enhance the educational value of real-time chat systems.
The author is an associate professor at Florida International University where he teaches educational technology courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He is also a consultant on issues related to distance education.