Tips for Using Chat as an Instructional Tool


Chat software (text or media-based) provides an excellent tool in supporting academic dialog (exchange), critical thinking, and knowledge building. The immediacy of the technology provides students with a direct connection with the instructor as well as other students. While chat software is usually used for "chatting," and, therefore, it has a relaxed and colloquial protocol, with a little thought and planning, it can also be used well to support instruction.

Many classroom instructors and online instructors use chat software to provide virtual office hours and for easy question and answer sessions. More, however, can be achieved in the instructional process using the tool to create real-time collaboration and discussion that leads to in-depth academic processing of course material.

The main concepts for instructional use are:

  • Chat is conversation software and therefore lends itself well to the support of academic exchange;
  • Chat is a real-time connection, therefore takes the learning experience outside the classroom but retains the real time connection and, thus, the interactive dynamics of real-time exchange;
  • Chat is collaborative and not directive in essence so should be used to promote collaboration and idea sharing;
  • Chat is an Internet tool, therefore provides flexibility in scheduling working sessions to suit students' life challenges and provides direct access, which means students can schedule their own sessions online together without the instructor's involvement.

Academic Exchange
The main difference between discussion and dialog (academic exchange) are the rules for engagement and the outcomes. Discussion is mainly about the exchange of information and ideas, while dialog requires the working of ideas towards a knowledge-based learning outcome. The latter also involves a process of critical thinking in order to achieve this outcome and relies on the valuing of each contributed idea as a group idea and not belonging to the individual, as is the case with discussional exchanges. Most learning remains in the discussion stage and rarely reaches knowledge building. Scardamelia and Bareiter (egs. 1996, 1999) have written much about the characteristics and outcomes of knowledge building and the concept of working ideas, as well as how online tools can promote this kind of learning. It is important to realize, however, that simply providing tools to students will not achieve a desired instructional outcome. Reaching a level of instructional success requires effective instructional design and intentional planning on the part of the instructor. It also requires an equal access to content for students, and creating a culture of ideas exchange leading to dialog, not simply conversation.

What is an academic idea? What does it mean to "work an idea?" How can knowledge building be measured as a learning outcome?

It is my sense that the best instructional design for digital learners is multidimensional with diverse inputs and diverse outputs. As such, any digital tool must be designed into an entire course and supported well with learning resources and strategies. Therefore, simply to promote chat software in isolation would be a mistake. Thinking of using chat software, however, as part of an overall instructional design is effective particularly if the learning outcome is academic exchange through critical thinking.

Instructional Use of Chat: Preparation and Orientation
It is important to redefine the protocol for an instructional chat session from an informal conversational exchange to a focused academic exchange. That can take place in an orientation with students to address the "ground rules," as well as have a practice session in class, if needed. There must be a turn-taking protocol established and agreed upon, such as the use of "h" to signal a desire to speak and a "d" to indicate that the contribution has ended. If participators are slow keyboarders, then the ellipsis (...) can indicate that the contribution is still in progress.

Of course, in a video exchange, the protocol can be more similar to that of a face to face environment, and some chat programs also provide a digital representation icon when someone wishes to speak.

It is important, however, that the instructor becomes familiar with the functionality of the chat software in order to orient students to efficient protocol beforehand. It is also important for the instructor to intentionally address the issue of "publication," especially for older students. That is, in a typed, chat environment, time should not be taken for careful editing before contributing. Instructors should communicate to students that the focus of the session is exchange, not writing or editing. That will help students relax. Younger students do not usually require this kind of assurance, as they are most familiar with informal chat environment where spelling and grammar do not count. Younger students would, however, need to be supported in developing an academic "voice" over a conversational voice, if academic exchange is the goal.

Additionally, whiteboard use for presentation or for brainstorming is a wonderful way to manage note taking throughout the session. Most chat software provides a control option for instructors, which means that sometimes the board can be opened for everyone to use and sometimes it can be closed for only the instructor to use. This management capability provides a safeguard so that sessions do not become chaotic. Most students prefer turn-taking protocol as otherwise they will become impatient with "heavy" talkers online just as in the classroom. It is also more likely that students will not remain focused for the entire session if rules are not established.

Learning Outcomes
The choice of chat over asynchronous forums depends on the learning outcomes of the course. For some outcomes, asynchronous exchange is sufficient as it provides a flexible environment in which students can contribute over time to various questions. The time elapse, however, does not build the same momentum in discussion. Chat can bring the classroom dynamics online by providing a synchronous exchange that builds intensity more efficiently. That is, students are engaged from the outset and do not have the option of participation as they are "digitally" recognized and their participation (or lack) is visible to the whole group. This helps students feel more accountable to their peers and will usually keep them on task. Where chat can become more efficient than classroom discussion is on two levels:

  • In chat the students are usually in small groups and become more familiar with each person's thoughts and ideas than would usually happen in a face to face environment. This is owing to the nature of a digital environment itself. That is, both the digital ID and the contribution are immediately linked in the minds of the participants, and it, therefore, brings each one closer to the other students' thinking.
  • The level of discussion is usually more intense more quickly. That is, what might take a whole class session to achieve can be achieved in a shorter period of time because the environment is so immediate; there is no down time. The majority of students I have taught using a chat tool have expressed the same astonishment at the intensity and focus of the discussion. Therefore, discussions become more efficient and more focused. This is a perfect way to help students think critically about some major concepts without taking up longer periods of class time.

Tips for Facilitating a Chat Discussion
It's important for instructors to adopt the role of discussion facilitator either by leading the session or participating and having a student lead. The facilitation is most effective when the main concepts are targeted through a critical question that has been distributed to the group before the session and students are encouraged to keep processing the same concept. In other words, rather than a general discussion, the concept itself should be analyzed, discussed, and applied in some sort of "real life" example. The role of the facilitator is to keep the analytical process on track by commenting on possible modifications to the concepts, by posing more advanced questions, or by challenging an analysis that is not logical or applicable to the concept. This keeps the discussion academic and also helps to value each student's contribution as part of the process.

Chat is best used in instruction when it is thought through in terms of actual learning outcomes and when students are well oriented to the software and the expectations of use within the course. The software can be used to augment a conventional course or in a hybrid or online course. To use chat only for direct informational connections with students is to limit its potential in the learning process. I have used chat software for seven years at the university level both with undergraduate and graduate students and have found the same results. Most students resist the work involved to integrate the tool initially, however, often speak about it later as one of the best aids in their learning process.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1999). Schools as knowledge building organizations. In D. Keating & C. Hertzman (Eds.), Today's children, tomorrow's society: The developmental health and wealth of nations (pp. 274-289). New York: Guilford.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1996). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. In T. Koschmann (Ed.), CSCL: Theory and practice of an emerging paradigm. Mahwah, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


About the author: Ruth Reynard is the director of faculty for Career Education Corp. She can be reached at [email protected].

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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