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Structured Chat

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue January, January 1 - January 31, 2001 | BY Aixa Perez-Prado , M. O. Thirunarayanan 


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Will a system to control the free-flowing nature of chat sessions help or hinder student learning and participation?

An Instructor Controlled Chat System (ICCS) is a system that has the potential to cut down on the confusion and overlap that often occurs during instructional chat sessions. (See "Cutting Down on Chat Confusion," Ubiquity, Issue 38). This article discusses the potential advantages and disadvantages of the proposed system.

Democratized Discussions

In face-to-face discussions, the instructor has some control over who contributes to the discussion and when. Students in a classroom typically indicate readiness to contribute ideas to an ongoing discussion by raising their hands. The instructor then allows students to have their say, usually in the order in which the students raised their hands. When they have the floor, students can say what they wish to say, even if it is not pertinent to, or only tangential to, the discussion topic. While the instructor has control over who goes next, he or she does not have any way to ensure that what students say is relevant to the discussion topic. In an ICCS environment, the instructor previews what students write, and makes decisions regarding the relevance of the comments to the discussion that is taking place. Instructional time is quite valuable. Chat sessions typically have instructional objectives. These objectives can be better accomplished if the instructor has more control over the flow of comments that are made, rather than just the order in which students are allowed to make comments.

When an instructor makes a decision not to include a comment made by a student in the ongoing discussion, it is possible that the student could become discouraged. At the same time, if the instructor explains to the student why his or her comments were not included in the ongoing discussion, this could motivate the student to pay closer attention to the discussion topic, and to submit more relevant comments.

During chat sessions, students sometimes send personal comments to the whole group instead of sending them directly as a personal message to the person to whom the comment was directed. Such comments have the potential to disrupt the momentum of an ongoing discussion. An instructor in an ICCS environment can choose to ignore such comments. Since all students do not read these comments, the continuity and seriousness of the ongoing discussion is not likely to be compromised.

The ability to save short sentences of text can be used to personalize instructor's contributions to the chat sessions. The instructor can also use this feature to send personalized messages to students who either are not contributing to the conversation or are submitting ideas that are deemed by the instructor to be tangential to the discussion. This could help motivate students to become more engaged in the ongoing discussion.

The proposed chat system could cure what is commonly referred to as the "flying fingers" phenomenon. Students who can type fast have an advantage and tend to dominate conversations that take place in chat rooms. Instructors who use the proposed system can make sure students who cannot type as fast as some of their peers also get to participate fully in discussions. The instructor controlled chat system has the potential to democratize online discussions by providing everyone an equal chance to be heard.

The Instructor's Burden

There are some potential disadvantages to the proposed use of student and instructor windows during chat sessions. Perhaps the most significant of these is the increased burden on the instructor during the chat time. With this system the instructor not only must read all student comments, he or she must analyze these comments and decide whether they are significant contributions to the online discussion. This instructor analysis of student comments must be rapid due to the nature of chat sessions, and could thereby be less efficient than otherwise. The rapid nature of the comment analysis may also lead to the instructor leaving out some potentially interesting and significant comments or including some comments that do not add to the content of the discussion.

Similarly, the instructor might leave out certain comments that could inspire another student in the class to post a significant comment of his or her own. In other words, the instructor may not be the best reviewer of what makes sense and leads to the best discussion in the chat, and in this system the students are unable to regulate themselves. In a regular chat session students are the decision-makers and lead their own discussion with the instructor serving as a guide rather than as an editor.

The instructor's choice of comments to include in the discussion may also lead to certain students being left out or feeling left out. In a regular chat session all students can participate equally since comments are not reviewed before posting. With the dual window system some students may never have their comments in the chat if the instructor feels that these comments do not contribute significantly to the discussion. Instructors should be aware of the potential for students to feel disengaged and thereby unmotivated by the system.

The comments that the instructor prepares beforehand, while useful, may have the effect of depersonalizing the interaction between students and instructor. If these comments seem to be too formulaic or too general they may not achieve their desired effect on the chat interactions.


Plans are underway to develop and test a chat system that closely resembles the proposed Instructor Controlled Chat System (ICCS). Only when the system is fully developed, tested, and implemented, will we learn more about the real advantages and disadvantages of such a system for instructional purposes.

M.O. Thirunarayanan 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.

Aixa Perez-Prado is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Professional Studies at Florida International University. She has developed and taught many online courses.


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