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Everything in moderation
the key to using text chat is a knowledgeable moderator

By Lisa Neal / July 2005

TYPE: OPINION
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The advantages of online learning become apparent when you find you can do something you'd never be able to do in the classroom. But technology itself is never a solution: You must play around with it until you discover the best way to utilize technology to benefit students and teachers.

Imagine in the classroom if students spoke whenever they had an idea or a question--chaos would ensue. Imagine, instead, the online equivalent: students using text chat during a synchronous session. The advantages here are immediacy and the potential for peer learning. Students benefit from a text chat when it keeps them engaged, on task, and provides social channels. More importantly, participants benefit from asking a question immediately instead of waiting for a break and queuing up, at which point the context is gone and the question may be as well. The disadvantage is that text chat can be distracting for some students, but it should always be optional.

Given these benefits, I grappled with how to incorporate text chat into synchronous presentations offered as part of a seminar series I was moderating for The Cognitive Science Society. Presenting already requires multitasking: when I teach I am simultaneously thinking about what I'm saying, what I will be talking about next, the agenda, the time, how to improve my presentation the next time, and, of course, if my students are with me. It would overburden even the best multi-tasker to add reading and responding to a text chat to the other responsibilities of presenting.

Even so, the initial solution was that I, as moderator, would also moderate the text chat. While this reduced the burden on the presenter, I lacked the expertise to actually answer questions. The real solution was to introduce a knowledgeable text chat moderator who could answer questions, address comments, and even challenge participants' thinking, all of which can enhance learning and interactivity without increasing the presenter's load.

To accomplish this, I asked presenters to find a graduate student or research assistant who is familiar with the presenter's work to moderate the text chat. The chat moderator would introduce him- or herself in the chat and welcome people to ask questions and make comments. He or she was instructed to address all participant remarks, and to use names in each response in case the chat became multi-threaded. Sometimes the chat moderator couldn't answer a question and then read it to the presenter during a break for questions. Sometimes participants answered each other's questions as well!

Using knowledgeable text-chat moderators was so successful that we made it a requirement for presenters. In post-session surveys, feedback was positive--it was clear that text chat enhanced the seminar for most participants whether or not they contributed to the chat themselves. The few who found it distracting simply ignored it.

Clearly one of the reasons text chat works well online is that participants are already on computer. Given that, it makes me wonder what technological advances could even further benefit online participants.



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