Tuesday, January 4, 2011

brb: Using chat in an esl/efl writing class

(the following is part of TESOL 2008 presentation called Teaching Writing in Online and Paper Worlds; it was originally at http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/tw6.html. Some of the links may have been compromised by the restoration and are still being worked on)

This year, watching people routinely spend more and more time chatting, using whichever language or system they felt most convenient, I came to understand that chat is at the center of social networks springing out of the new media. Facebook is moving toward chat; blogs also are beginning to make chat available; people are leaving a trail, making it so visitors to their various spaces can always contact them, and chat, as long as they are online, which they invariably are. How quickly we moved here, to a situation in which chat is omnipresent, and the skills that accompany it necessary, from an era like the one I grew up in, in which one always had time to reread the written word, and one could always afford to think before writing.

Our culturally-based assumptions about the permanence, the weight and the origin of, or intent behind, the written word, are bound to shift. But our students will be caught in an era whereby, on the one hand, they will have to master chat skills in order to integrate socially, compete in the business world, maintain relations within their field, or even get a job; yet, the established order, teachers, authorities and judges, will judge the written transcripts with all the solemnity that they now reserve for a term paper. In such an environment, the sooner they learn chat fluency, the better.

I began teaching with chat in 2006 and continued this year, 2008; I was unable to, in various terms where either I didn't teach writing, or was so burdened by meeting the traditional objectives of the class, that I could not figure out how to slip in a chat unit. My reasoning for teaching it was simple: although the medium may be associated with lower social functions, at the moment, it's too useful to remain that way for long. Business will pick it up soon, and it will be an accepted medium internationally for all kinds of diplomacy and commerce, within a decade. It is already becoming more common in education, as online schools point out that teachers who are available by chat, available to chat, are in fact more accessible than those who aren't, can't or don't; forward-thinking teachers who have moved into the medium point out that chat is quite personal, and very immediate; thus, online education often has more, and more personal, student-teacher contact than the traditional classroom, with its traditional office hours (1). With the expanded role of chat, however, comes new challenges: formal language is now used in chat; one must judge quickly and carefully what is appropriate in any given chat; and, in fact, one must speed up the process of evaluation, of both what people say, and of the people themselves, in the world of chat; this can be daunting, especially in a new language. Again, I decided that my students would benefit; that they'd need various chat-related skills; and, the sooner the better.

Among the target skills, first is the ability to react quickly, socially and appropriately in the written medium. I compare this to teaching relatively good readers to do the same in the live, oral communicative medium. Quick reaction time is essential; yet it is not enough to just react, one must keep one's steady awareness of the consequences of what one says. Second, chat often involves keeping track of more than one conversation at once; this can be considered an advance skill, but it is one that is difficult for anyone who is new to the medium, not to mention someone who is struggling with the language as a non-native speaker. Third is a general quickening of the judging functions, as was pointed out. Last but not least, there is a host of technological skills, involving logging in, reading directions online, getting oriented to chat space, successfully reading the lines until one knows what will happen when one types, etc. Among these skills is knowing what a chat space is, knowing where there are more, knowing where appropriate ones are, knowing how to set one up, etc. These are general categories of skills; surely there are more, but I have not carefully deconstructed them. I started teaching chat because I felt that that would be the best way to give my students some of these essential skills; mere exposure to them would encourage the best students to pursue them further, and since I presented it at first as an experimental lesson, I was prepared for limited success in case students resented trying it, or got into the chatspace and abused the privilege.

I chose Tapped In, a non-profit educational technology support area, and chose a main room off of the general reception area to plant myself and wait for students to log in and come visit. I gave them assignments: bring me URL's from your hometown or from other various places. I hypothesized that lifting URL's through copying, and pasting them onto a chat area, though neither could be done at the time with our browsers, would ultimately be a useful goal for anyone exploring a chat space. How do you communicate about who you are, where you've been, and what is important to you? I had to master this art first, and it wasn't easy. I was familiar with Tapped In, but hadn't copied and pasted from the keyboard.

This last term I did this with two different classes, a total of 26 students from diverse countries. Students clearly had a wide range of previous exposure to the medium, from absolutely none in any language, to some, but none in English, to plenty, including plenty in English. For the students who had done extensive chatting in English, I had to surmise this by the assumptions they made about how much other chatters would understand, with respect to abbreviations and emoticons; it was not necessarily the students who used them most frequently who were the most experienced chatters. I surmised that students who had actually used chat extensively, in many different environments, might actually be more conservative with the abbreviations and emoticons, but I had no evidence.

It was immediately clear to me that in many cases I was in their territory, in the sense that they were much more free with their emotions in chat space, even in English, than I had ever seen them, and far more free than I was, since my total previous experience with the medium was actually quite limited. I noticed immediately that not only was I learning more about them very quickly, far more than I would, for example, if I had just put them in a circle and started visiting, or if I had visited their apartments; but also, at various times, people were saying things that I thought could be interpreted as impolite or forward, and I found myself asking for more politeness, as I would, for example, if a class discussion had simply gone over an invisible cultural line. I felt it urgent to teach that even chat spaces could be classroom contexts in which participation is required, but a modicum of politeness and respect is required; this may not have been obvious to everyone. I know that no teacher had ever led me into a chat space, expecting me to follow certain rules of politeness, so I was easy on them; I didn't expect them to know anything, coming into the situation.

I detected some resistance to the experiment, perhaps because I'm a parent who sometimes asks my teenagers about their Facebook accounts or about the chatting they do in video games. I attribute the resistance to the same impulse, the awareness that any time an authority figure comes into this environment, flags go up about the possible things that person had best not see. But it was not quite that exactly, as there was nothing in Tapped In specifically that they had to hide. It was more that, I felt, some of them associated chat with a kind of interaction that was beneath a formal teacher and formal class environment, and were disappointed that I would stoop so low as to go into this kind of place for any reason. I have to admit that I don't really know the source of this kind of resistance; it could be that it was the end of the term, they were busy, and they didn't want to learn something completely new, or do something clearly experimental. In any case, some were dismissive of the experiment, and didn't take advantage of it to its true potential. It was similar to office hour: one can force students to try using it, for their own benefit, but they are rarely going to use it more than what they are required to do, and some will never quite master the art of using it at all.

When I started teaching with chat in 2006, I did a survey with my students to ascertain their feelings about it (2), but I have never felt my students were completely honest with me about all their feelings about the medium, the exception being those who were experiencing it for the first time. In other words, it's a powerful medium, and your experiences with it are strongly influenced by the experiences you have with it.

I would like to incorporate it more successfully as the routine class environment of the writing class, since it is far more immediate, and personal, than the oral interactions that they are accustomed to, and so adept at minimizing. My first reaction to it, in fact, was, how could I have gotten used to knowing so little about their personal feelings, and about their real lives outside of class? The answer to this question was really that I had become very busy in making writing assignments that allowed them to hide this, or avoid it; chat, by being more immediate, brought back a personal sense of communication between friends, that one might have at the beginning or end of class, when everyone is a little less formal. It was a pleasant feeling of knowing each other a little better, a little more personally, and I think they responded to it also.

I feel that in many ways, the lessons that communicative teachers used to draw out students who had so little fluency in the oral sphere, must now be adapted to this medium, as some students have relatively high proficiency in many areas, yet are totally incapable of responding or conversing successfully in a chat medium. A couple of experimental trials at the end of a term, that count as simply an assignment, is perhaps selling it short, when its true value to writing students would be immense, if I could incorporate it more successfully into the daily operation of the class. "brb," by the way, is commonly used in chat to mean "be right back," used when one steps away from a conversation, with every intention of returning shortly.

1. This was first pointed out to me on a Webheads chat (webheads chat 12-16-07, 2008), but those who have spent hours teaching online have made many other interesting observations, some of which can be gleaned here. For more insight into the changing world of education, online and otherwise, see Baxter (2008).

2. The survey, referenced below (Leverett 2006), has been criticized as difficult to read; one to be used with the more recently taught class was never given, due to a ladder accident.


Almeida d'Eca, T. (2003, June 1). The use of chat in efl/esl. TESL-EJ 7, 1. Accessed 2-08.

Baxter, A. (2008, Mar. 17). Better interactivity benefits students and faculty. FT.com, Business Education.
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/4bdbaa60-f1a3-11dc-9b45-0000779fd2ac.html. Accessed 3-08.

Leverett, T. (2007). Other fluencies explored, in Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration, Writing IS, Demonstration, TESOL Convention, Seattle.

Leverett, T. (2006, Mar.). Survey on blogs and chat, thomas leverett weblog.
Reynard, R. (2008, Jan.). Tips for using chat as an instructional tool. T.H.E. Journal. Accessed 2-08.

Webheads chat 12-16-07. (posted 2008, Feb. 28). where u at w/chat weblog.

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