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Herding Chats
Reflections on a Synchronous Online Interaction

By LeAne H. Rutherford / May 2010

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The night before teaching my first synchronous online class I dreamed that I lost my notes and I couldn't remember the file name for the electronic version either. Suffice it to say, I felt a little uneasy going into an hour-long training with 20 participants the next day Apprehension can apparently evolve to meet the digital age just as education is evolving to advantage itself with technological advances.

My plunge into online instruction was in teaching a faculty "tech" camp. I was asked to be the instructor of this training because of my role in faculty development as an integrator of technology with teaching and my experience in training instructors to use interactive TV. However, I had minimal experience with online instruction.

Tips for Teaching in an
Online Synchronous Environment
Motivating and Engaging
  • Be very clear about what students should be able to do after your session that they could not do before it.

  • Lighten and brighten with humor. Encourage it from your students, too.

  • Factor out fear by turning technology into child's play with fundamentals. Practice using the platform playfully with a nonthreatening, nonacademic topic that allows you to concentrate on the mechanics and online interactions. Enlist friends, family, and colleagues to experiment with you. Then add content.

  • Personalize by breaking the ice with a quick, one word chat question. For instance, what one word describes you best, or what animal do you resemble academically, or what approaches to learning do you like best: visual, auditory, read/write, or kinesthetic?
Adjusting and Preventing
  • Check the range of your students' knowledge using Angelo's and Cross' Background Knowledge Probe from Classroom Assessment Techniques. Because you cannot see them, you cannot read incomprehension on their faces, and adjust the content accordingly.

  • Decide in advance what is critical and what is not absolutely necessary should timing need adjustment. Mark off the removable segments in your notes or script.

  • Readjust your concept of your role. Let your students know that you will be a facilitator and manager.

  • Prevent rudeness by introducing good "netiquette" at the beginning of the course; then practice it.

  • Familiarize them with the need for brevity and succinctness. Chat boxes are small; time is precious.

  • Orient your students to the screen, to the capabilities of the platform, and to what they control, e.g., not being able to use the scroll bar on the PowerPoint.

  • Above all, request feedback from them frequently using classroom assessment techniques (CATS) that have been adapted for online classes—keep, change, toss; muddiest point.

  • Approximate the time chatting will take and the number of chats to maintain momentum without bogging down. Calculate the length of the class, the number of students online, and the complexity of the material.

  • Forestall confusion by showing all assignments, resources, or questions on the screen visually.

The class was part of a week-long tech camp for faculty. Our institution has conducted 13 such camps for approximately 20 faculty members, each of whom submitted a project proposal for developing a course incorporating technology. The first dozen camps were held face-to-face, but the most recent one was offered completely online—no face-to-face. Not even a telephone.

My role as a long-time instructional development consultant was to provide awareness of and some process for converting face-to-face courses into a hybrid or online-only format without loss of the strengths of face-to-face instruction. That meant I, too, had to teach online.

Thinking back on what was almost the class from hell, I learned useful lessons from my synchronous online interaction.

Use an Interactive Process
Long an advocate of tending to the affective or emotional aspects of learning while tilling the fields of the cognitive, I have been concerned about the social and motivational side of the educational transaction in teaching online. How would meaning be constructed in a less fertile social environment? How could students become engaged at a distance? How could I, the personification of active learning, prevent myself from being a talking head and, gasp, taking a step backward pedagogically?

There was only one way to begin to answer these questions: dive in, reflect, request the reflections of the learners, look at the results, and formatively assess the situation for myself.

One major goal for my session was to raise the learners' awareness, as well as my own, of how their students would experience online instruction, how that experience informs the choices they would be making in teaching online courses, and how to become as metacognitive as possible. I wanted them to think not so much about what they were learning, but how they were internalizing it and feeling about it.

Try it. Think and feel about it. Fix it. Try it again.

Match Platform to Goals
Working within the confines of our given system (UMConnect), I focused on emphasizing the chat box as my aid to active and effective learning. My primary strategy was to embed questions in a synchronous PowerPoint presentation, which would invite students to enter the process and uncover issues and answers for themselves. While is possible for students to view the slides after the fact, all of us were online at the same time and communicating via the chat feature.

Complement Medium with Message
I based my presentation on questions from the well-researched work of Rena Palloff's and Keith Pratt's Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching, (67-92). I also integrated Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We were studying how to convert a face-to-face class into an online class while we were doing it.

Practice Online
One thing I learned was that online instructors need to not only prepare their materials. Also whenever possible practice them with others.

In retrospect with the tech camp, I found a number of serious flaws: "so much content, so little time," to quote Marilla Svinicki's classic article; a presentation script with font too small to read while broadcasting; too little practice with a newly installed webcam; and too many questions embedded in my presentation.

A small, unanticipated but amusing interruption occurred when a custodian came into my office where I was broadcasting on a quest for my wastebasket. Next time, I will put an "on the air" sign on my office door. ("Next time" is what this article is all about.)

Simplify the Message
While the topics of teaching online and getting online students to connect surely overlap and intertwine, my faculty "students" would have been better served with two separate lessons: one on transforming a face-to-face class into an online class and one on relating to one another and coalescing as a class online. In a more traditional environment, I would be able to read their facial reactions and know how to adjust my plan accordingly, and, more importantly, to know when enough was enough.

Herd the Chats
In an online, synchronous course, text-chat is essential, but for it to be effective, the instructor must know how to manage it.

On the credit side of the ledger, my plan to depend on chat heavily for interaction worked, but probably too well. It became a kind of "sorcerer's apprentice."

Delayed responses can lead to several simultaneous discussions, which can be confusing to follow. Additionally, when several people chat at once, it is difficult to track what everyone has said. The instructor must forestall confusion by responding to the chats and keeping the group together. Facilitating while instructing is not easy.

Expect the Unexpected
How many chat entries should you expect? In my first experience, I was surprised to learn at the end that, not counting the housekeeping comments at the beginning ("can you see/hear me?") to the "thanks" at the end,, 86 chats were posted by 20 participants and staff! Was that more chats than a class can handle?

Did I "herd" the chats well? Did I ask too many questions to produce such a litter of chats? In planning and estimating time for the session, I thought I had been generous in allowing three minutes per question for feedback. However, their answers and my responses unexpectedly took more time than that.

Plan to Be Distracted
How can instructors facilitate student interactions while maintaining their interest and attention? So much needs tending simultaneously that it's easy for the instructor to feel out of control, engaged yet distracted. Multitasking is a mature way to describe what I was doing, but a child would have said it was harder than rubbing my stomach and patting my head at the same time.

Most text-chat clients record a history of all chats in a session, which instructors can re-read and analyze later, and I recommend they do!

At the end of class, I read and reflected on both the chat history and a Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) that the learners completed. The questionnaire gave me more insight into how learners' interactions and interest might be encouraged and maintained. Participants' chat comments were invaluable for gauging the frequency, length, and depth of the responses.

For example, the first 22 comments were succinct and precisely on track in answering some initial questions that we discussed about teaching online versus in face-to-face settings. What differences do you see in online teaching versus face-to-face? What one thing do you prize in face to face that you will lose in online? What capabilities will you gain in online?

The next cluster of comments took a detour, leading to a rich, unplanned discussion when one participant asked whether online pictures of students might produce prejudice. However, it was difficult to know when to move on and get back to the planned content. In this instance, one of the participants finally wrote, "How far do we need to go with this idea?" to close the door on the discussion.

Welcome Humor
Chats 36-41 responded to my query: "If learning is relational (and complex), how will you create opportunities for your students to relate in your online class?" One responded with refreshing humor: "I plan to hold a rave at my house the first week of class. Not really." That was the first of only two humorous posts, more's the pity!

Prod for Deeper Responses
"Who are your students?"-leading into Maslow"s hierarchy of needs--elicited a disappointingly light treatment by them: a mere five responses. My fault. I did not prod and prompt enough to help them become more deeply descriptive of their students, their lives, responsibilities, credit load, technological prowess and reasons for taking the class (Pratt & Palloff, 70).

Set Up Protocols in Advance
To prepare to orchestrate the dialog, set up expectations that you will be a conductor of discussion. Once involved with a question, there needs to be a way politely to say "cut" or "moving on," Giving them directions to a discussion forum, a wiki, a blog… if they wanted to contribute further would have been prudent.

Be Alert to Diminished Energy
Face to face, I know when learners are less than alert. Glazed eyes, slack jaws, and inattentive faces are not hard to miss in person. Online energy levels are harder to detect. In what ways can you meet students' social needs online?" produced ten chats. Feeling a lull here and diminished energy on both our parts, I asked them if everyone was still alive.

Be Sensitive to the Ebbing Hour
All planned questions were answered but most begged for exploration which there was no time to provide. Exploration can be a luxury or a necessity. To leave room for the richness of exploring a topic and digging deeper, it may be better to omit some content.

But, marching relentlessly forward, I called their attention to an online Merlot article about student engagement in discussions. That prompted a quip, "And a good wine, too!" which was a breath of fresh air in what was beginning to feel like a stagnant conversation to me, and I'm certain to them as well.

I felt as if my guests had all rushed home from my party before I found out if they had a good time. To solicit their reactions, we sent them to the course management site to fill out and submit online Classroom Critical Teaching Incident Questionnaire adapted from Steven Brookfield's model It asked them, "At what moment during the UMConnect session did you feel most engaged; most distanced; most affirmed or helped; most puzzled or confused; most surprised. Finally, they were asked how this synchronous session compared to or differed from asynchronous learning modules?

In brief, here is their take. Their observations help me make sense of what and how they were learning as well as help me to plan for more effective online classes in the future.

About the Author
LeAne H. Rutherford, an Associate Professor in her 40th year at the University of Minnesota Duluth, directs the Instructional Development Service (IDS). She consults with faculty who want to enhance their students' learning in an evolving educational environment. Her mantra is "learning how to learn." LeAne helps faculty members and students become self-directing and reflective connoisseurs of information.

R.M. Palloff and K. Pratt, Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001, pp. 67-92.
T.A. Angelo and K.P. Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd Ed., San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1993.

Classroom Critical Teaching Incident Questionnaire Summary

Tech Camp 2010

The following questions were asked of the learners following the session described above. I am grateful for these revealing comments, which give me more than enough valuable feedback to inform future performance. It is entirely possible to decrease the number of scratches involved in herding chats online if you reflect on your practice and enlist the aid of your students. —LeAne H. Rutherford

1. At what moment during the UMConnect session did you feel most engaged?

Their responses to the question coincided with my goals for using the chat feature of UMConnect for engagement. The majority was engaged when they were asked questions, and could answer or comment, when humor surfaced, when connections were made between students and their needs, and when the instructor appeared to be relaxed. The beginning of the session captured their attention the most, but it was difficult to sustain that level of engagement for more than 15 minutes.

2. At what moment during the UMConnect session did you feel most distanced from what was happening?

Online participants were put off by any deviations from the perceived linearity of the presentation. They wanted to go from Point A to Point B without any discoursive excursions. On the other hand, any content that they found to be "too facile" or familiar to them personally distanced them from what was happening.

3. What part of the UMConnect session (instructor or participant input) did you find most affirming and helpful?

The UMConnect session was viewed as most helpful when the instructor solicited or suggested techniques for helping students get to know one another and to create a sense of belonging to the class. In addition, participants were validated by taking the role of students and experiencing the online version of what their students would experience. Reading the chats and being recognized by name for their contributions were also seen to be encouraging.

4. What part of the UMConnect session (instructor or participant input) did you find most puzzling or confusing?

Several were confused by the speed at which the communication moved:

"When several people chat at once, it is difficult to track all of the chat entries."
"It is difficult to type fast enough to add a comment before someone else said the same thing."

These were typical reactions which supported the observation that it was "easy to get side-tracked or miss good comments due to quick responses, length of responses and general timing of responses."

Some used the word "awkward" to describe their disequilibrium. Others called for changes in UMConnect's format: a larger chat window or the ability to scroll through the PowerPoint slides (which only the instructor controlled.)

5. What about this online session surprised you the most?

The surprises were bimodal: pleasant and unpleasant. They were happy "to know what people are thinking right then and there." But they cautioned that "communication needs to be done with care because we can put people off unintentionally which, nevertheless, can interrupt or hinder learning," and lamented "not being able to communicate expression."

6. How did your involvement in this synchronous online session compare to/differ from the asynchronous learning modules?

Reactions were mixed. Most did not have enough experience to have an opinion on this question. But for those who like to set their own pace and liked independence, asynchronous was the choice. Some felt it was,

"Great to relate in real time. [It] felt like I was in a classroom and accountable to everyone as a participant. There was some added pressure and partly, anxiety of using a new tool that made me very alert.

Similarly, another added, "[With synchronous] I was definitely listening more and thinking faster."

We hoped that asking the question would prompt them to think about how they felt while in the student role and apply that to teaching their forthcoming online classes.


  • Wed, 21 Oct 2009
    Post by Leandro Codarin

    Hi Carol,

    Interesting article. It is a novel approach to the proposal applied to elearning usability but from the perspective of instructional design.

    But not very clear to me how usability is tested. Could you complete the idea?

  • Tue, 24 Mar 2009
    Post by Geeta Bose

    Hi Carol, your article has some interesting suggestions. We being both a usability consulting and learning solutions company, we conduct a lot of usability testing round the year. What you have proposed works well if the user/learner has task-based activities to perform. These suggestions are ineffective when we use them to measure cognitive triggers from elearning. We use observation techniques and detailed interviews to test the cognitive effectiveness of the module. We call it the learnability testing phase. This is typically done in an environment that is close to the learners'' real-life learning environment.

  • Thu, 20 Nov 2008
    Post by Sumita Johnson

    I second you about experiential learning and agree that learners learn only when they find it relevant to them. A simple question any person would ask before he/she takes a particular course is "What is in it for me? or WIIIFM". I was wondering if this is the same as scenarios that we keep building with each lesson''s context and ask the learner what would he/she had done in that particular situation, or the kind of role he/she would have played to handle that situation. Thoughts?

  • Sat, 07 Jul 2007
    Post by saadiya Batool

    i just wanna say tht i have gone through one of the story of your story centered curriculum bcz of ur visit to lahore recently(18th april). i have just read this article n i cd say for sure tht this really works cz as being a teacher i still cd recall all tit bit tht i hve learnt through tht simple story was fun learning!!!! i hope one day actual learning will occur which will last for long ....

  • Mon, 25 Jun 2007
    Post by Jim

    "Second life" sprung to my mind while I was reading this and how incredible it would be to "learn" from a virtual tutor / mentor / club and then apply what I learned to "real life" situations.. and yet with little or no risk in making errors in judgment - highly experiential .. but low stakes learning.

  • Wed, 20 Jun 2007
    Post by Patricia McClelland

    The practice of students constructing and scaffolding their learning and being able to connect it to the "real world" and perhaps more importantly having something to use when they are done the course seems like "such a simple plan." Recently in our Working with Families course we tried the literal concept of "telling a story" each online group was assigned a chapter their challenge was to connect the course objectives, key concepts etc and continue a story about a family - the first chapter was written for them, from there on each group continued writing - each group was assigned a chapter - they left a cliffhanger for the next group to pick up on , at the conclusion of the course each group wrote a final chapter, so in essence a "choose your own ending" idea. The 6 chapter completed novel , was stunning,the group work went well ( not always the case, but part of the course invovles learning to work in a network. ) Your article has spurred me on to think broader.

  • Tue, 22 May 2007
    Post by Roger Schank

    Thanks for the kind words - glad you liked Tell Me a Story - let me suggest you look at Making Minds Less Well Educated Than Our Own -- which is a book that explains more clearly what I have in mind for schools and how schools got that way. We are working on a third grade cultural ambassador curriculum in which students try to explain their world to a class in a very different part of the world, by writing histories, making web magazines, making movies and so on. We work on anything we can find money to work on; the world needs many of these kind of curricula I think it is more or less impossible to convince teachers or schools to behave differently; they simply don''t know how and are prevented from making changes at every turn; we just need to start building the alternative.

  • Tue, 01 May 2007
    Post by Maria do Carmo

    I teach in a public school and one of my duties is to help others English teachers to prepare their classes.This article is very interesting and important too. I do believe in all these words but I wonder how to convince my mates to prepare and play another kind of classes.

  • Sun, 29 Apr 2007
    Post by Norman Constantine

    ARe you working on any curriculums in the social sciences or history? Tell me a Story changed the way I look at school.

  • Wed, 25 Apr 2007
    Post by samanya peter

    it has been a good article well researched on.Another one is highly needed