Passing Notes in Class: Collaboration, Community, and In-Class Synchronous Chat

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.

Tech support
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.


Being the beneficiary of the backchannel, I can say it does a great deal to help our synchronous online learning environment. I find, also, that students who become used to collaborating during class feel less awkward about collaborating on group projects outside of class. I have taken one asynchronous class and found that those of us used to this classroom experience were very communicative throughout the semester, helping each other to set up and improve individual online presentations. Those who were not were less likely to share information through other avenues.   Part of the reason might be that we knew the value of synchronous chat to build community. 

As an on campus student with regard to technical problems, the first time I had to interrupt professors to let them know they could not be heard or had to move back into the camera was intimidating. I am not yet sure why, perhaps because I feel like I am telling the prof how to direct the class. 

Danielle provides an excellent overview of the benefits of backchanneling.  Though I am an on-campus student, various backchannel conversations have enabled me to forge and sustain personal and professional connections with cohort peers at a distance and have opened doors to several collaborative research projects.  Something I appreciate about the synchronous chat is the ability to engage in brief exchanges that are meaningful, exchanges that are funny or that relay fragmented follow-up thoughts but are nevertheless appreciated within this space and may potentially spark other important threads of discussion.

Interestingly, last week when classes resumed for the spring semester, I witnessed firsthand just how important the backchannel is to students - and even some instructors.  Our campus has recently implemented Cisco Jabber to facilitate distance classes, and last week was the first course I have taken using this new system.  With only three of eight students onsite, we immediately realized and reacted to the fact that Jabber (at least what was available to us last week) did not offer a chat feature.  Being the industrious students (and addicted social media users?) that we are, we immediately set up a Facebook group for class and used the group chat feature for the night.  This was especially nice when Jabber shut down promptly at 9:50 p.m., cutting off one of our peers in mid-sentence.  We were at least able to respond to our peer through the Facebook chat and say our goodbyes there, too.

One thing I noticed about both the back-channel chat and the "official" class chat is that it permits a student-centeredness that perhaps even the best teaching philosophies can't reach. More than the traditional classroom, the students have a responsibility for helping the class run smoothly (beyond the required participation of the traditional classroom) as well as several outlets of discussing and setting themselves up at the "expert" on a particular subject. The "flood" that Danielle talks about here is a good example of how this flurry of contributions can play out in the classroom.

Part of the allure of passing notes in class (thinking of grade school here) was the ever-present threat of being caught. In fact,  constructing elaborate and creative schemes for secretly conveying a message was more fun than the message itself and often simply an excuse to attempt a daring transaction from across the room. 

Even though back-channel conversation is a welcome complement to the classroom discussion, the devious joy that went into undermining the instructor has been significantly diminished. Certainly this is attributable to the professionalism of grad school vs. high school (*smirk*), but it's worth noting that not only have these channels been usurped by classroom administration but, thinking of Sarah's response, it is the students that comes to the rescue when modes break down. 

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