Opening a Channel

Today I hosted a session that many would define as social learning. It involved connecting a group of people through a conference with chat, whiteboard and desktop sharing facilities. This post is mostly about the role of chat in these interactions.

Just a few minutes into the session, the expected learner patterns surfaced: active audio participants, active chat participants, and the quiet ones. Our conferencing system affords that extra option, chat,  that is very difficult to emulate in the classroom without spending lots of time in the process. When it comes to “social” learning, I have always supported the presence of as many participation channels as the underlying technology can afford.

We love audio participants. They keep things moving, and they are equally engaged in the class and in virtual classrooms. We can’t live without them. But it’s the second group, the chat type, that is intriguing in a number of ways.

It would be tempting to jump straight into some generalizations about the chat group. For example, that they are too shy to open the audio channel. I work in the software industry and frankly, there are some really quiet individuals indeed. Still, lacking statistics I can refer to, I will draw on personal experience to claim that the difference between software engineers and other professions is probably not that significant.

Also against this argument is the personal observation that many chat-type learners are very active. In fact, they are as chatty as the most eager audio participants, only they prefer… well, chat! So what’s holding them from using audio? Here is my personal list, by all means not comprehensive:

  • A personal style. Typing means there is extra time to think about what I am saying. That fraction of a second will allow me to better articulate my contribution, or help me reflect as I continue with my line of inquiry
  • Etiquette. I’m sitting in open plan, and six people around me can hear what I am saying. I don’t want to bother them, or I simply don’t want them to know what I am learning today
  • Technical fault. My headphones were fine this morning, but now they are not working. I don’t have time to fix audio before the session, fortunately I can still ask questions through chat
  • Environment. I’m sitting next to the sales team. They are on the phone all day and boy are they loud. If I open my microphone here, it will be the sales guys running the show
  • Language. Just two weeks in this country, my command of the language is poor and I’m still adjusting. But I need this training badly. Typing gives me a chance to spell- and grammar-check and my pronunciation is terrible anyway
  • Physical. I have a disability/injury/illness, I can’t talk

The presence of chat in audio conferences is an enabler. It will allow interactions that would otherwise be missed. But wait, there’s more: Have you ever worried about learner engagement in learning conferences? The chat thread acts as a parallel stream of information, a second channel the brain can tune to if for any reason it disengages from audio. Think of it as the scrolling titles in TV news, keeping the viewer’s attention as presenters work through uninteresting headlines.

The advantage of chat is that, unlike TV banners, they rarely go off-topic. At the session today, I even managed chat silence by typing contributions (paraphrasing, inviting questions, adding humor) when it was going quiet.

Is chat a channel you actively manage to keep learners engaged? I’d love to hear about it!

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