Virtual Conversations: The Use of Internet-based Synchronous Chat in Basic Writing

  1. Near the beginning of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom, Hector Julio Vila discusses his trials with Yesenia, a basic-writing student who refused to participate in his classroom. Vila realized that Yesenia's refusal to participate was not indicative of his teaching style or ability, but was rather a symptom of a failed process. Vila writes that, in an attempt to teach all students without paying attention to the abilities, knowledge, and background of each individual student,
    [W]e have failed Yesenia--and many like her. Failure has become a model, a standard to achieve. And she's blamed for it, as we also blame everyone else... There's a large industrial complex built around the glorification of this type of failure ready-made for Yesenia to feel that she is not alone, that it is a sanctified avenue to take... No wonder she wants to run. (25)

    But what is notable about Vila's remark is not the recognition of failure; instead, it is the way that Vila attempted to solve the problem that merits examination. Later, Vila writes,

    I took [Yesenia's actions] to be an invitation to dialogue... I wanted to express myself to her correctly and carefully because I knew that language is always a matter of force, to speak is to exercise a will for power...Yesenia's will to power had been squelched. It was a whimper. (26)
    To connect with Yesenia, to give her power in his classroom so that her voice could become more than a whimper, Vila resorted to conversation. By telling Yesenia a personal story from his past and by opening himself up to his student, Vila created a solid foundation on which anything could be built.
  2. The idea of creating an atmosphere for conversation in the classroom, and specifically in the composition and the basic writing classrooms, has been a motivation and a goal of many instructors for many years. Richard Straub writes that teachers who use a conversational tone when writing their comments on student papers "foster independent, substantive thought in their [the students's] writing, and engage students in learning how writers and readers work intersubjectively through texts to achieve understanding" (375). Straub believes that on-going conversations between the teacher and the student and among students themselves have more power than simply to create a more exciting and enjoyable atmosphere. Dialogue, whether only on student papers or in other aspects of the classroom as well, has the power to engage students and allow them to work together to produce the best papers that they are able to create and, more importantly, to become the best writers that they can be. Therefore, many instructors go beyond Straub's conversational comments on papers by attempting to create an open and ongoing conversation both in and outside of the classroom. With the introduction of the Internet into the classroom (and the accompanying call for teachers to embrace this technology), a new environment has emerged in which the idea of conversation in the composition classroom must be examined. Through the utilization of Internet-based synchronous chat in my basic writing classroom (and through a substantial amount of trial and error), I have been able to develop a virtual conversation with and among my students that has created a virtual space where the students work together, writing and revising in an open environment.
  3. To really understand both my experience with Internet-based chat and the widespread benefits of its incorporation in the classroom, basic writing instructors must understand the software application itself. Chat software allows participants to communicate in an Internet or web-based chat room in real time. For example, with services such as AOL or MSN, subscribers can meet at a particular place on the Internet ("a chat room") to hold an on-line discussion, or "chat." When one participant types a message, it instantly appears on the screen of the other participants. Therefore, the participants are able to communicate in a virtual, synchronous, text-based conversation. But, unlike face-to-face classroom conversations, those that use chat software allow for and can provide a productive conversation that is not limited by class periods, a sometimes-hindering respect between teacher and student, or even shyness or fear that inhibits some students. Chat, because it seems more informal than face-to-face classroom conversation, allows the participants to "go off-topic" and explore other avenues and ideas apart from those connected to the topic at hand. It also allows the participants to think about and write what they are going to say before saying it and, perhaps most importantly, the chat software can be set up to allow the users of the chat room to remain anonymous. As I will discuss later, this anonymous state, impossible in the traditional classroom environment, provides a level playing field for the students as well as a place where the they have the freedom to say what they wish without being afraid of "sounding dumb." As J.A. Jackson, a writing consultant at the Purdue Writing Center, noted, "it seems to be the very absence of the tutor's [or instructor's] face, and the online 'screen' of anonymity for writers that allows the cathartic ability to say whatever they wish about writing in general or about themselves specifically as writers" (2).
  4. Unfortunately, the success of utilizing chat in the classroom and creating the cathartic atmosphere that Jackson describes is not solely determined by the inclusion of the computer program itself into the curriculum or onto a webpage. The success instead depends on the dedication of the teacher and, even more importantly, on how the program is incorporated into and promoted through the curriculum. For example, according to undergraduate student Paula Robinson, the inclusion of a chat program as part of one of her classes was a success. She discovered the potential of the Internet chat in a classroom environment and its power to create a new digital conversation:
    Only once, when our class used synchronous on-line chat, did I begin to know my fellow classmates as persons, not objects. It was through their stories that I gained a sense of who they were. Objective, formal text-based rhetoric was transformed into the informality of conversation, dialogue. (Robinson 113)
    But, again, such success is not guaranteed. In "Untangling the Web: Developing Web Enhanced Instruction for Political Science," Donald Goff looks closely at the use of a multi-faceted web program at the University of Maryland College Park that included such features as a discussion board, chat program, and a document reservoir. He concludes that "the chat room feature was the least used and the least liked by students. Only 37 percent had used the feature at all; 41 percent declared it 'not very useful' and 28 percent found it 'difficult to use'" (Goff 276).

  5. Likewise, my first attempt at using chat in my classroom, as part of a non-credit class that I taught on web design, was not very successful. In experimenting with using the Internet in a classroom environment, I set up a class webpage, posted copies of the syllabus and assignment sheets, and included a discussion board and chat room. I included the website URL on the paper syllabus handed out to the class and, on the first day, briefly commented on the tools available in the virtual classroom and how students could access the site. Over the course of the semester, I only spent five or ten additional minutes of class time explaining the chat program. Few students went to the website and only two entered the chat room. Finding that no one else was present, those students quickly left, never to return. Beyond being a temporary distraction to students who became explorers of the Internet when boredom set it, the inclusion of chat on my website did not serve any purpose. What I had failed to realize, and what I have since attempted to correct, is that I had not given the chat a reason to exist. I had made a place in the virtual world that attempted to mimic the four-walled classroom, but this new world failed at as a surrogate classroom because the traditional classroom at least has a purpose and a specific time to meet--two elements which my virtual conversation lacked. During that first semester that I experimented with the idea of Internet chat, I envisioned a place where students would go on their own to meet and discuss--both seriously overestimating the willingness of most students and seriously neglecting to provide a context or even a purpose for the program. After several semesters of significant trial and much error, along with some limited success, I was finally able to successfully incorporate chat into my curriculum, primarily while teaching composition and basic writing classes. Before illustrating this successful incorporation and providing guidelines for other teachers, I must explain the nature of the success itself and examine the context of the classes.
  6. I was finally able to successfully incorporate Internet-based chat into my curriculum while teaching two freshman-level basic writing classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee during the fall semester of 2001 and continued to refine that incorporation while teaching four additional classes from spring 2002 to spring 2003. In the fall of 2001, like in the following semesters, each class consisted of twenty students from a wide variety of backgrounds, ethnicities, educations, and, perhaps most importantly, technological experiences. On an informal survey students completed near the beginning of the semester, I found that only seven of the forty had a computer in their home. Six of the forty considered themselves fairly computer savvy and used their computers and the Internet extensively in any given week for both schoolwork and for pleasure (including the use of such popular Internet chatting programs as AOL's Instant Messenger and MSN's Messenger). Twenty of the forty stated that they were comfortable with using a computer for word processing and e-mail. Finally, fourteen of the forty said that their use and knowledge of computers was either extremely limited or non-existent--results almost identical to those of the next two semesters.
  7. From the first day of class on, I promoted the specific purpose of both the website and the chat program. I envisioned the chat room to be, much as I originally intended a few years before, a place where students could meet and discuss the class, readings, and the monthly papers. Instead of simply stating that purpose in class, I provided a set purpose--it was to be a place where, at a specific time and date, students could join their instructor online to discuss a specific assignment. For example, after passing out and discussing the first writing assignment, I informed the students that I would be in the chat room two weeks later from 7:00PM to 10:00PM. During that time, students were welcome to join me to ask last-minute questions about their papers or to get feedback from me and from their peers about sections of their papers. During the next two weeks, I promoted the upcoming chat in the class and, the night of the chat itself, I sent a quick reminder e-mail to all of my students. As a result, seven students showed up and, for about a three-hour period, we talked about their papers. Questions during that first chat session primarily focused on grammar, length, and citation format, but more significantly, however, this chat session represented the first time students engaged in a conversation outside of the classroom that involved their peers, their writing, and their instructor.
  8. By continuing this basic procedure of purpose and planning combined regular announcements (as well as, I like to believe, through the good will and word of mouth of the original seven participants), the number of chat participants continued to grow. As Figure 1 (below) shows, what started with just seven participants grew over the course of a semester to thirty-three. While the chart clearly illustrates the growth in participation, more startling is the number of chat sessions that were scheduled throughout the semester. At the beginning of the semester, I had intended to only have a single chat session per major writing assignment, or four total chat sessions. Halfway through the semester, however, I was approached by three students who said that the chat sessions were a tremendous benefit that helped them improve their writing. More importantly, they asked if I would be willing to change from one chat session per assignment to one per week. After giving this a try during the third and fourth chat sessions and experiencing not a reduction in participation as I had anticipated, but rather an increase in the number of students present, I continued the weekly schedule through the remainder of the semester.

  9. Graph of chat program usage. 7 students in one session in September, 13 and 13 students in two sessions in October, 18, 23, 25, and 27 students in November, and 30 and 33 students in December

  10. The number of students who participated in each chat session does not tell the most essential story. Rather, to fully understand the success of and demand for incorporating chat into a curriculum, instructors must look at an entirely different set of quantitative data--those that represent the conversation itself. Figure 2 represents the exchanges that I had with my students and that they had among themselves in the chat sessions. For each chat session, the portion of the graph and numbers on the bottom show the number of comments made during the three-hour chat session by the students. The numbers on the top of each column provide the number of comments that I, the instructor, made during each chat session. Only substantial comments (comments pertaining to the topic and excluding other conversational comments such as "Hi" or "How are you today?") were counted.

    Graph of conversation patterns showing increasing student participation and decreasing instructor participation over the course of nine conversations

    As the chart shows, I was doing substantially more (virtual) talking than my students in the first few chat sessions--87 more comments in the first session, 145 more in the second, and 110 more in the third. But during the fourth chat session, that despairing difference changed. Students began speaking more than their instructor--from just under 100 more comments in the fifth chat session to 451 more in the final chat session of the semester. In the end, students were talking more than me, and less to me and more to each other. Instead of simply asking a question and then waiting for the perceived omniscient instructor to provide the answer, the students began posing questions and asking for evaluations of their work and then providing the answers and the discussion themselves. Again, as the semester progressed, the chat sessions became more and more theirs and less and less mine, and true Internet-based conversation became a reality. If given the necessary motivation and the proper guidance and purpose, students will meet outside of the classroom on their own time and discuss their class, their writing, and their questions and concerns. They will also respond to each other, answering their classmates' questions, addressing their concerns, and evaluating and responding to their writing.
  11. The entire story of the chat sessions' success in my classroom cannot be told simply through quantitative data. Rather, the benefits of incorporating chat into the traditional classroom can be better illustrated by looking at the actual comments made during a typical virtual conversation. What follows is a transcript from about three minutes of the fourth chat session of the semester. Note that the dialogue, including the spelling, grammar, and capitalization, has been recorded exactly as entered during the chat session and that none of the conversation has been changed. Also note that, as will be discussed later, the students are automatically assigned an anonymous name (such as student9) immediately upon joining the chat session. The only person within the chat room that can be identified is the instructor (in this case, myself). During the transcribed session, the students and I were discussing the second paper of the semester--a summary and response assignment which required the students to look at an argument written by someone else and not only summarize it, but also respond to it through a logical and complete argument:

    STUDENT3: Hey does anyone know if we have to turn in rough drafts?

    STUDENT9: i'm having a problem with my transitional pharses. I'm not sure how to start the flow of my paper? my thesis is I think that the author persuaded me to change my mind therefore creating a good argument for himself. he appealed to my since of being a struggling parent and not knowing sometimes how to watch or find the time to watch my child and what my child is watching on tv. but, Males thought that I should find the time, and I agree. But, the rest of MY paper seems like a list. I summerrrize and respond. How cn can I get around this?

    Richard Hay: Student3, just like with your last paper, you do need to turn in your rough drafts, and peer editing worksheets with this paper tomorrow. How is your paper coming? Are you happy with it?

    STUDENT12: I had the same problem with my paper seeming to be a giant list, student9. On the first draft, I eneded up writing a paper with two paragraphs-one summary and one response. . Then, to correct this, I went back and rearranging my paper so that I would summarize a bit and respond to that section. Then, in the conclusion, I brought it all back together......

    STUDENT5: Hmmm, I didn't make the list. But, before you work on the transitions in your paper, I think that you need to work on your thesis a bit. What made you agree with his article? And, by the way, you should probably introduce the article a bit. Like Mike Males, author of...

    STUDENT11: Hey every akk. all. I'm not real far, but here's a start to my thesis... (ideas only) Can you look at thesis??>? """ Jhally and Katz were very good at blaming all of the school shooting problems on the idea of masculinity, but they totally forgot the influence of the parents. And then, I'm going to go on and look at how Katz defines masculinity and then respond to that and then talk about the lack of parental discussion--------------------- AND Student9, you've got a good start on your thesis. Try being a bit more specific... what do you agree with, like categories, in Males article? (hmm, i guess that I need to do that too!)

    STUDENT8: Student9, I agree with Student12's comments. Try briefly defining the major components and thenusingyouropinionstojustifywhether or not the author did that well. As long as you use your knowledge and your experiences, you should Ithink you'll befine

    STUDENT7: STUDENT11 SHIT-Excellent start... I didn't think about talking about what the authors left oiut at all. I should have. Parents and environment. Have you thought about including anything about the kids environment since they don't do anything with that either?

    STUDENT3: And, student11, you also may want to talk aboiut ot i---- talk about or include something from your own life (such as a story( to prove your point about parential influence.l

    STUDENT9: How about this??? In Mike Males article "Missing the Mark", Males convinced me... hold on. I'll be back after I type ee this out.,

    STUDENT3: My paper is coming along pretty good Richard. Can I somehow post my conclusion so that people can see it? How do I do that? Do Do DO I have to type the whole thing over?

    Even though this extremely brief excerpt from a typical chat session is limited in what it can show, it is enough to illustrate the range of conversations that occurred. Even in the three-minute transcript, it is possible to see that the students have, by this point in the semester, begun to answer their own questions and evaluate each other's abilities and concerns. While many questions are posed in any given period, such as the seven asked in the three minutes recorded above, they are quickly answered or at least addressed. Furthermore, the transcript suggests that the students are benefiting from the conversation itself and from the ideas that are shared in the communal, anonymous atmosphere. Finally, most of the instructor's comments have been limited to either reinforcing what the individual students have said already or to answering simple questions such as the length of the assignment or what should be turned in with the assignment--a role that, at least for the outside-of-class chat sessions, I gladly embraced.
  12. For the students who participated, the chat sessions had a real and recognizable effect on their papers. To show this, I will turn to the development of a thesis statement for the same paper discussed above by a student in one of my basic writing classes. In his first draft, Michael, who again was asked to summarize and respond to an article, wrote, "S.I Hayakawi, in his article 'English Only,' takes a stand on the English only debate in the United States." That evening, Michael anonymously (while the students cannot see each other's names, I can, after the chat session has ended, see which student was assigned what screen name) posed the following question: "Is anyone understanding the Hayakawi article about English only? I was wondering if someone could work with me through it?" After Michael asked that question, a lively debate ensued for about forty minutes, where all of the students who were working on that article began discussing the merits of the article and working to collectively understand what Hayakawa was trying to say. Out of this discussion, Michael rewrote his thesis statement: "S.I Hayakawi, in his article 'English Only,' believes that the United States should adopt English as its official language to promote unity within the country." His revised thesis statement is significantly more specific than before, but still not arguing for or expressing his own opinion.
  13. In the next chat session a few days later, Michael presented his thesis statement for critique and asked, "Do you think that I could make it more specific by talking about another article that I found that is against Hayakawi?" The comments that he received from his fellow classmates supported his idea to incorporate another author. Many in the chat session, however, thought that Michael needed to incorporate his own opinion, or his response, into his thesis statement. Because of this conversation and Michael's hard work, his third draft of the assignment, the first draft that I actually saw, had the following thesis statement: "S.I Hayakawi, in his article 'English Only,' believes that the United States should adopt English as its official language to promote unity within the country. But, there are many scholars, including Jason Witherman in 'Loosing Our Diversity,' that disagree with Hayakawi primarily because they believe that unifying the country through a single language will destroy the idea of diversity. While I can see why someone might want an official language, I agree that doing so will cause the diversity that is so important to America to be lost." While this thesis statement is not perfect, it is an improvement over Michael's first thesis statement. More importantly, because of his willingness to work on his essays both in class and through the chat sessions, I was able to begin commenting on a paper that was much better and much more developed than it would have been if Michael had stopped with his first draft.
  14. A few snippets of conversation or even a lengthy discussion of numbers cannot show the students' willingness to participate and their enjoyment of the conversation itself. This willingness can be shown by a simple anecdote: I would always leave the chat sessions at the scheduled ending time, usually at 10:00PM, shortly after announcing my departure. From the fifth chat session on, the students continued to chat about their papers and topic at hand after I left. During the fifth chat session, this extended conversation lasted for only ten minutes. But during the final chat session of the semester, it lasted for two full hours after I left. The conversation did not change in nature to casual dialogue, but rather consisted of earnest and honest critiques of suggestions for each other's writing.
  15. This engagement can be further emphasized by pointing out that, while a few students were using their own computers or their friends' computers to connect to the chat room, several had to come back to the university or go to a public library to use computer labs. Some students used their free time to find a computer and chat about their writing and their essays. By offering my students a place to meet and by establishing a purpose for those meetings, they were able to enter into a dialogue that would have been impossible within the boundaries of the traditional classroom. Furthermore, as illustrated briefly in the transcript above, because of the speed of the interaction and the medium itself, students were able to enter into multiple conversations at once and be immersed in new ideas that could be applied to their own papers, all the while honing their critical reading and critical writing skills. Students were also able to get feedback on portions of their own papers before the papers were submitted for a grade, so that they could take risks and test new ideas before committing to them. The weekly schedule of the chat sessions forced some students to begin the writing and revision process much earlier than normal and, therefore, allowed for the creation of much better revisions.
  16. Through many semesters worth of trials, mistakes, utter failures, and some successes, I have begun to discover a few basic procedures that help make the integration of an Internet-based chat with a basic writing classroom a success. When an instructor is ready to incorporate chat into his or her own curriculum, these procedures should be considered. Keep in mind that the following ideas are far more important than the specific Internet or web-based software programs used for the chats. Any program that provides a forum for on-line, synchronous conversation, such as Microsoft's Netmeeting or Blackboard's Tutornet, can be used successfully in the classroom. The basic guidelines to consider are as follows:
    • The instructor must remember that Internet-based chat cannot be used as a replacement for face-to-face classroom conversation. Chat is and can only be a supplement to a classroom-based curriculum and cannot be used to replace classroom group work or class discussions. In other words, chat should only be used as a method for extending the classroom conversation outside of class and allowing for that conversation to continue in a realm that is separate from and a supplement to the class itself.
    • The chat sessions must be built into the curriculum and be given a specific purpose, and that purpose must be communicated to the students. Students will not take advantage of a chat room that is just a static addition to a classroom webpage. Without a purpose, such as discussing a specific paper, students will not join the chat and participate. Given a purpose that conveys not only what will be discussed but also how that discussion will benefit the students will draw the students in and cause them to participate in the chat itself. The teacher must reinforce that purpose to the students in the form of in-class reminders and even e-mails to remind the students of an upcoming chat session.
    • Chat sessions must take place at a specific time, and the instructor must be present during that time. Students, even if they were somehow prompted to enter a chat room that has not been given a purpose or an operating time, would more than likely find the room empty. By scheduling chat sessions, the students are guaranteed that someone will be in the room when they join and that their comments will not fall on deaf ears. The teacher must be present, especially during the first few sessions, because the students will typically provide little dialogue even less substantive conversation. Instead, the students will rely on the instructor to provide the answers to their questions. Only after the students have begun to feel comfortable and gain some familiarity with the medium will they begin to converse with each other and to answer one another's questions. Once this process has progressed, the instructor's role and importance will diminish to the point that, ideally, the instructor becomes only an observer who occasionally comments on broad ideas or assignment-specific questions.
    • Students should be given anonymity during the chat session. Having tried chat sessions where the students had to login and provide their names as well as those where students were granted a penname, I have found that students seem to be a lot less inhibited with a chat room that is cloaked in anonymity. When students can write anonymously, they are less afraid of being perceived as sounding "stupid" or of just talking in a classroom environment in general. Instead, they will use their anonymity as a shield that allows them to comment earnestly and honestly on each other's ideas and thoughts. Through anonyminity, a discussion often becomes far more involved or at least more detailed than those sometimes found in a classroom. The instructor, though, should not be anonymous but should rather be easily identifiable in the chat room. Often, especially during the first few sessions and even to a lesser degree in the later sessions, the students will rely on the instructor's answers to especially assignment-specific questions (such as "how long should this assignment be?") and will wait for the instructor's comments.
    • Finally, the teacher should not be afraid of the technology. There are software programs that can be incorporated into any classroom by any teacher regardless of that teacher's technological knowledge and ability. And, as hopefully has been made clear in the previous discussion, the benefits of the inclusion of chat sessions into an established curriculum far outweigh any problems such as learning about a new technology or overcoming the additional time requirements of both learning and using a new software program.
  17. The procedures and the software itself are not the most important aspect of the integration of chat into a basic writing classroom, as any program that is capable of doing what is needed--extending the classroom conversation into the digital world--will be more than appropriate for this application. More important are the benefit that chat has for the basic writing student and the benefit that the chat has for the instructor. bell hooks, in her Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, writes that an
    engaged pedagogy not only compels me to be constantly creative in the classroom, it also sanctions involvement with students beyond that setting... In many ways, I continue to teach them, even as they become more capable of teaching me. The important lesson that we learn together, the lesson that allows us to move together within and beyond the classroom, is one of mutual engagement. (205)

    Using chat as a supplement to my in-class teaching allows me to work with my students in a new way. Through the chat interface, I can see my students change, observe the practices that I have professed in the classroom materialize, and watch my students move from being dependent on my leadership and guidance to being comfortable with their own abilities and ideas. When that transformation takes place, and when I can see that transformation in my classroom through my students themselves and through their writing, I finally reach that point where the students and I learn together and I continually rediscover the conversation that I love.