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Synchronicity: The Real-Time Virtual Classroom

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In the synchronous online class, small-group chat rooms can be one of the most integral and engaging portions of an online course, and they will make your whole-class chats that much more engaging. Small-group chat rooms provide excellent avenues for students to bond with one another as this venue offers a multitude of opportunities to discuss course material in more depth. 


The posting below gives some excellent advice on conducting live chat sessions with your students. It is from Chapter 4 – Choosing Your Course Format and Features, in the book Online Teaching in the Digital Age, by Pat Swenson and Nancy A. Taylor, California State University, Northridge, in Northridge, California. Copyright 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc. SAGE Publications Inc. 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Synchronicity: The Real-Time Virtual Classroom


If you choose to conduct your course synchronously, you will be in for a lively and invigorating experience! Real-time chat can be an enjoyable feature because the live format provides you with an opportunity to bond with your students. You may even have the chance to “see” their faces (as they will yours) if your LMS [Learning Management System] allows participants to upload images and avatars. You will have the opportunity to “hear” their voices, and in turn, they get to “hear” yours.

Moderating a Chat Session

Conducting a live chat session takes patience and a solid system. By providing an online handout on chat etiquette (see more about Internet etiquette in our appendices), you will be establishing a how-to-behave-online contract between you and your students. Students will understand the rules of participation, and they will understand that they must respect others. Creating guidelines for chat and disseminating them prior to the first class meeting will help you to maintain an orderly and prosperous live discussion.

When instructors choose to utilize real-time chat in their online curriculum, some common questions arise:
- What happens if I encounter technical difficulties? What do I do if the chat malfunctions and students get logged off?
- My students are so experienced chatting online, and I’ve never stepped foot inside a chat room. How will I be able to control and conduct a chat session?
- How do I sustain an in-depth and productive class discussion (one that engages and involves the majority of students) over the

entire designated chat time?
- How do I deal with inactive, absent, or rude participants?

Except for the technical difficulties, you would respond to these questions as if you were conducting an in-person traditional class. Most chat systems record participants: when and how often a student logs on and off and how many times a student participates. If a technical glitch occurs and the system goes down, simply encourage all participants ahead of time to find their way back into the chat room. The LMS re-records the names of those who re-enter the chat room. If the system remains down for several minutes, you may need to send an email with further instructions to your class LISTSERV. If chat goes down but the rest of the LMS is working, you can send your students back into a discussion forum to engage in a thoughtful dialogue by posting additional responses to peers. It’s the rare occasion when you will be forced to cancel the remainder of a class due to a lengthy system failure, but it can occur.

The LMS essentially takes roll for you each time a student logs on. However, it is important for students to realize that there is a distinction between logging on and participating in a chat. We recommend taking roll based on participants; merely noting that someone has logged on does not ensure that they actually have a chat room presence. The most effective way to ensure that students partake of and read the chat is to require that they participate. Students who remain idle for long periods of time may not be paying attention to the discussion. They may not even be in front of their computers! That’s why we have a chat participation rule on our syllabus:

In order to earn credit for participating in a chat, each student must make at least ___ quality thoughtful comment(s) per discussion. Fulfilling this mandatory requirement illustrates that you are satisfactorily interacting with the material.

By clearly mandating active participation and succinctly stating this policy on your syllabus, you encourage students to take responsibility for their own educations, and equally as important, you empower them through this required exchange of ideas. When you mandate participation, you maximize participation. Expect many students to “raise their hands” voluntarily (an exclamation point for a comment, a question mark for a question – for more etiquette rules, please see our appendices). Since the chat screen can scroll quickly when there is a lot of participation, we suggest that you keep a pad and pen handy, so you can write down the names of the students and call on them in the order in which they raise their hands. Although this allows for an orderly and structured method to conducting the course discussion, occasionally you will, as we have, miss a student’s name as the conversations can at times go by at a rapid pace. This is normal, and your student may bring it to your attention. Simply apologize, and place them next on the list.

If you notice that a particular student has not been participating, feel free to call on that student. Despite the fact that many students feel safer and more secure speaking through a computer keyboard, some students are painfully shy and reticent. For these types of students, we suggest that you have a list of simple questions nearby to pull from and then encourage these students to speak out by giving a short opinion. After a few responses, you will see your shy students begin to feel comfortable responding in a supportive online environment.

Remember that, if you require all of your students to participate, the list of raised hands may be long. If students are impatient, they may assume they have been skipped over and may click the enter button before you call on them. Gently remind students to avoid speaking out of turn, and encourage them to be patient and orderly. If a particular student speaks out of turn repeatedly or is rude or overly critical, then a brief email reminding the student of online etiquette rules, including your policy on respecting others, usually solves the problem. If you find that there is general impatience and frustration resulting from a long list of participants, you could limit the number of responders per topic or discussion question.

The key to live chat is to engage your participants by keeping the discussion both active and moving forward. Since the success of live chat depends primarily on student involvement and secondarily on live lecture, prepare a list of discussion questions, and keep these handy. Always prepare more than you need just in case. Then, simply check each completed item off your list. Remember that you control the tempo and topic. The more backup items that you bring to the table, the more at ease and in control you will feel. What is most crucial to your success? You will feel confident conducting a live chat session if your etiquette rules are clear, if you take charge and call on your students as they raise their hands, and if you encourage them, through your own example, to show respect to all participants.

One of the most effective aspects of real-time discussion is the ability to have instantaneous communication. Many students thrive in this invigorating environment, and so will you! If you choose not to include live chat or you are not offered a synchronous course, you still have the option to incorporate a live element into your classroom by maintaining a live virtual office hour. You will come to find that your students will feel more connected and bonded to you if they can speak with you live – they will feel as if they are actually with you in your office.

Small-Group Chat Rooms

In the synchronous online class, small-group chat rooms can be one of the most integral and engaging portions of an online course, and they will make your whole-class chats that much more engaging. Small-group chat rooms provide excellent avenues for students to bond with one another as this venue offers a multitude of opportunities to discuss course material in more depth. This group activity is very conducive, if not necessary, to ensure successful live group presentations, should you include them in your curriculum. Assigning five to six students per small group seems to be an effective number for productive discourse. One of these group members can then be selected to moderate a group presentation in your whole-class chat room. As with all group activities, choose your participants wisely! Avoid placing all of the vocal, high-profile students together in one group. When sorting groups in the LMS, make sure that you include yourself as a member of each group so you can participate in each group chat room when necessary.

Taking attendance and monitoring participation in small groups is relatively simple as long as your LMS system allows you to automatically record and store chat sessions (most LMSs allow for this feature). If small-group chat follows a whole-class discussion forum, then the attendance is usually pretty solid. Most students really enjoy the experience and intimacy of small groups, and we’ve often found that the students conduct themselves in lively and intelligent manners. With such a small number of participants, many of your more rigorous etiquette rules, such as mandating your students to raise their hands, will not apply. Many have commented to us that small-group chat is one of their favorite aspects of our courses (and much less stressful than whole-class chat), for they appreciate the opportunity to express more in-depth thoughts on the course material.

We set permanent small groups (more preferable to us than fluid groups) at the beginning of the semester, usually after the third week when enrollment has settled. Set up groups as you would in a traditional classroom. Group members can be randomly selected, chosen alphabetically, chosen based on a mixture of compatibility and skill, or selected based on student preference. Although we ask our students if they would like to work with an individual or a group of individuals, we make sure the groups have a balance of vocal, confident, and competent students. One must consider attrition and the consequences of having a live chat presentation decimated by absent and absent-minded students!

Adding Variety: Mixing Chat and Forums

Your synchronous virtual classroom will most likely contain a mix of small-group and whole-class chat rooms along with small-group and whole-class discussion forums. It is vital that the meeting times and lengths for each component be made clear on your schedule and on the LMS course page. We suggest posting highly visible links to the chat rooms and forums next to the times of the activities.

When setting up your synchronous course, you’ll want to consider how to best keep the students engaged during the lengthy three-hour meeting time. Real-time chat discussion works most effectively if it follows a whole-class forum discussion. Since forums are essentially teacher-free, they provide a safe exchange of ideas. So, beginning your weekly class with a whole-class forum discussion enhances live chat since students will have had the opportunity to bounce their ideas off one another. Forum discussions, when they precede chat, encourage student participation in the live chat room. Think of forum discussions as a warm-up exercise for chat discussions.

When discussion forums serve as part of a three-hour class block, we recommend requiring the students to post their initial responses early in order to maximize the effectiveness of live discussion time. Then, you can set aside the first hour of your class meeting for students to return to the forum to respond to their peers. Depending on the breadth of your forum prompt, you can also ask students to post their initial analyses and peer responses all within the first hour. As previously suggested in our asynchronous section above, you may require students to respond to responses made to their original post to increase the dialogue between the students – we recommend trying this approach at least once, so you can see how it increases the dialogue in your other live discussions, such as chat. After students have had the opportunity to read and respond to their peers’ ideas, continue the discussion in live chat. Designate a firm cut-off time and lateness policy for forum posts, so students don’t continue posting in the forum during your live chat session.

Maximize your students’ attention and participation by scheduling a variety of short and long activities into your weekly agenda; after your one-hour discussion forum, designate a one-half to one-hour small-group chat, followed by a one-hour whole-class chat, or skip the small-group option and simply engage in a two-hour whole-class live chat discussion. Should you choose a longer chat session, be sure to schedule in a five- or ten-minute break here and there – it will do wonders to help you and your students keep focused on the conversation. Again, clearly indicate all meeting times and locations, so everyone will be in the designated place at the correct time.