With the rapid shift to online teaching, it is easy to forget that we’re now communicating with our students via software that was, in many cases, designed for business meetings rather than for education. A key feature of some of these platforms (a Microsoft Teams Meeting, for example) is dual-stream communication: speech and text in parallel, in the form of a spoken presentation and a chat thread. But I’m not sure we’ve had chance to reflect fully on the effect of this dual-mode communication.
In the role of session participant, I don’t think I multi-task perfectly. Reading the chat thread reduces my ability to concentrate on the voiced presentation, and vice versa. But whereas I’ll happily skim back over the chat thread if I think I’ve missed something, reviewing an audio recording feels less appealing.
Similarly, as the voice presenter in an online learning session with a free-flowing chat thread, I sometimes have a sense of information overload, and I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best to stop talking, allow a silence and give my full attention to the chat thread. The running audience commentary that now accompanies many of our voiced presentations is an innovation that will take some getting used to (and in some cases, a platform such as a Teams Live Event is chosen precisely because it doesn’t have a chat thread).
When used, the chat thread often feels like it has more significance, a greater aura, than the voiced presentation. The written word has a habit of doing that. I think we tend to view text as more permanent, more considered, a greater commitment. Indeed, Lando (2020) cautions that some learners find the type-your-comment mode feels more pressured (with more of a sense that contributions need to be perfect) than being in a face-to-face learning situation and voicing their thoughts.
Alongside that, students are often reluctant to unmute their mics and even more reticent about switching on their cameras. But they are usually happy to type, and this is unsurprising given our wider communication culture; for example, many of us now send Whatsapp or Messenger messages much more readily than we make voice calls. And the internet has a hierarchy to its modes: text and image are primary, the default; whereas sound is often a mere add-on. Scrolling through content, we are sometimes prompted to “turn sound on”, but we never need to be invited to turn the screen on. Even video content sometimes get viewed with the sound off and the subtitles on.
Sometimes the chat thread in a learning session stays closely integrated with the voiced presentation, but at other times it veers off or even becomes a separate discussion. There could be various factors encouraging the veering off (for example, a large group size might make it more likely) but it probably has meaning in and of itself: chat-focused participants might be communicating that they’re the rebels, the group chatting at the back of the virtual classroom. Perhaps the message is that this (the chat thread) is where the real action is happening.
Anyway, we probably need to set some boundaries, capitalising on the modern preference for typing but also setting clear expectations about how the chat column is to be used (Pates, 2020). We might pose a question (or use a poll) and ask students to reply in the chat, and most are happy to do so (Pagliari, 2020). Questions posted by students into the chat thread are easier to group and manage than verbal questions, and the teacher can choose a good moment to respond to them (rather than the presentation being interrupted), which could even be after the synchronous session is over (Chuah, 2020). Or, if resourcing allows, it can be helpful to ask another teacher to join the synchronous session in order to act as the chat manager.
When the chat thread is working well, I sometimes feel I could happily stop talking altogether. As teachers, are we sometimes speaking just because that’s what we’ve always done? Still trying to be the sage on the stage? Or would even the chat thread grind to a halt without the “noise” (ha) of a spoken presentation to bounce off?
When we go back to face-to-face teaching, will we miss the chat thread? Will we try to replicate it in real life? Will we be delighted that it’s gone? In 2020, we instinctively copy-pasted some of our face-to-face teaching habits into the virtual classroom, but in 2021, the reverse will happen: we’ll take some of the features of our virtual teaching and incorporate them into the real classroom.
(Photo: Beddow, 2021)
Beddow, T. (2021) ‘Flock of the New’, The World of Interiors (Jan 2021), 40(1), pp.62-67.
Chuah, J. (2020) Contribution to online discussion: ‘How has the chat thread affected teaching & learning?’ in City, University of London: Teaching & Learning Community private Microsoft Teams channel (Accessed: 25th November 2020).
Lando, E. (2020) Contribution to online discussion: ‘How has the chat thread affected teaching & learning?’ in City, University of London: Teaching & Learning Community private Microsoft Teams channel (Accessed: 25th November 2020).
Pagliari, S. (2020) Contribution to online discussion: ‘How has the chat thread affected teaching & learning?’ in City, University of London: Teaching & Learning Community private Microsoft Teams channel (Accessed: 25th November 2020).
Pates, D. (2020) Contribution to online discussion: ‘How has the chat thread affected teaching & learning?’ in City, University of London: Teaching & Learning Community private Microsoft Teams channel (Accessed: 25th November 2020).