Passing Notes in Class: Collaboration, Community, and In-Class Synchronous Chat
I should begin this post by admitting that I originally presented on this topic at the 2012 Computers and Writing Conference. There, I was part of a panel with three of my PhD program colleagues (who will themselves be posting here over the next three days), a collaboration that was itself borne out of our interest (and delight) at the ways in which community formed and evolved in our own program. Those musings led us to try to extrapolate and complicate what we'd experienced. Our hope was to figure out how to see our small experience in the context of bigger things, in terms not only of our academic ancestors and academic descendants, of those who teach us and those we teach, but also of the very structures of "the classroom," "the academy," and even "writing" and "thinking" painted with the broadest of strokes.
For my part, then, the central question I tackled was this: How does synchronous digital chat alter the notion of a "live" classroom, and what might that shift afford students and instructors?
The "underlife" of a classroom has long been of interest to faculty, to highlight the ways in which synchronous chat works (or doesn't) in the digitized classroom. Articles like Derek Mueller's 2009 Computers and Composition article "Digital Underlife in the Networked Writing Classroom" moved that conversation along into the realm of the digital classroom, urging teacher-scholars to "take stock of the ways in which digital underlife is framed as promising and productive through curricular developments" (248-49). Though synchronous chat is certainly not the only species of digital underlife (or "backchannel," as some like to call it), it is perhaps the one that is met with the most anxiety, particularly as it occurs during class time and alongside the goings-on to the classroom "proper." However, I'm happy to report that there are many ways in which synch chat can, in most any classroom setting, create chances for collaborative composition and research, improve course efficacy and content retention, and build discourse communities within and beyond that particular course.
The "flood" (and intertexuality)
Especially in upper-level classes, where discussions tend to roll along quickly, many great ideas can get lost simply because, with so many people trying to speak, the conversation often moves on before a student can bring upgood ideas that come to mind (my colleagues and I affectionately called this the "flood"). With synch chat, students can still throw ideas out that might otherwise not make it to the surface of the oral class discussion, as in this excerpt from the synchronous chat stream in a graduate online writing pedagogy course (names changed, of course):
What often materializes, then, is a complex and multi-faceted para/sub-text that enriches the discussion without interrupting the overall flow of the class agenda.
In situations where technology makes life rough for a student or group of students, often the synch chat stream can save the day for everyone involved. If, for example, someone's video feed is choppy, that information can be conveyed and often handled via synch chat, empowering all participants with a "back-up" plan when primary means of communication falter.
Flattening the distance
In our program, about half the students attend class live on ODU's campus, and the other half participate via live 2-way audio and video, often from miles away. Synchronous chat augments the primary classroom "space" in ways that seem to melt away the miles; the small talk that happens in a face-to-face classroom ("@Cheri: love that mug" or "Mark, you shaved your beard!!") can circulate concurrent with the primary goings-on of the class itself, drawing students together and building more personalized networks within the classroom.
Make ‘Em Laugh
Even when students are behaving "badly" on synch chat, that isn't necessarily bad news for the classroom. Some instructors are unnerved when they get the sense that students' attention is directed elsewhere, and yet we can see, both with and without technology, that underlife has the potential, even when it IS distracting, to have a positive net effect on the course as a whole. A little deviance allowed from time to time offers just one more point through which students connect to one another and feel more a part of a community. So, even if every once in a while students are IMing each other with off-topic jokes or unrelated banter, perhaps the very levity of those moments, in some ways, reinforces overall student engagement with the course.
Some final thoughts
Used in conjunction with other tools that encourage more fluid conversation, synch chat can draw community members together. Its use can provide a solid undercurrent of useful information and enrich the circulation of ideas presented in other course spaces, affording both students and instructors a broader range of opportunities to create community that supports and nurtures scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge. So, instead of bristling at the impropriety of passing notes in class, perhaps it's time to embrace synch chat as a viable avenue for community-building in the classroom.