Monday, January 3, 2011

Where to chat: Choice of venue for an esl/efl class

(the following originally appeared at but was moved here in 2011. It is part of a 2009 TESOL presentation: Uncharted but breathtaking: Chat in writing class which can be accessed here.)

I should preface this by saying that I myself have a hard time getting a 12:00 out of a vcr; my own ignorance and naivete might be so colossal as to embarrass me in front of those who truly know their way around cyberspace, but, having found a way to use chat with esl/efl students, and using it, and finding other ways of using it, I thought I'd at least share my thought process with regard to the choices at hand and how to choose among the possibilities. One has to know what one wants; you may want something entirely different from me. But I have decided that I need multi-user chat capability (I want all my class to be able to be in the room at the same time); I want transcripts (a record of what happened); and, I want basically to be left alone; I don't need to see my students striking up conversations with random strangers as or while our class progresses. I can tolerate an occasional uninvited visitor, as I do in my own classroom, but wouldn't go out of my way to make this an everyday occurrence. Finally, if my students have to register somewhere to take advantage of a public forum, I want that registration to be private, non-threatening, and as spam-free as possible.

I've always taken my students to Tapped In, but I've tried to be mindful of different options and possibilities, of where we could actually do what I intend. My main reason so far is that I am familiar with Tapped In; it welcomes use for academic purposes; it is even there to encourage it; but mainly, because it provides transcripts on request, and I think this is good; I think I should always be able to go back, look at what was said, and even print it out if necessary. I consider this protecting myself, for some reason. It may be that, as part of an older generation, I consider the written word lasting, more serious and more consequential by nature, and thus must be able to cover my tracks, so to speak. I am sure that, since it's just conversation, it is unnecessary to record every minute of it; however, it's also because we deal in URL's, that students bring them to the chat, and that I want to be able to recover them and use them later, that I like having a written transcript, and an online place, my email, from which I can just click on the url's. The only other place I know of that provides and sends chat transcripts to users is Second Life, though I know there are more, and I know that even some of the places I've listed below may provide transcripts if one were to just figure out how to access them. The mere fact that I haven't figured out how to access them says very little more than that it's not immediately obvious, to the novice, exactly how to do it, or transcripts have not been requested often enough for anyone to bother making it possible. But I also believe that this whole scenario will change soon. I asked my university if they provided a chat client so we could set up our own internal chat, but they didn't; they did, however, set up a meebo chat on their own IT help desk with positive results. It was over this meebo chat that I asked; I was surprised that the technology wasn't available. I was also surprised that chat had gotten so integrated into the functions of the university so quickly.

Blackboard, or whatever online learning environment you are using. We have yet to connect our classes to Blackboard, though our university offers it, partly because our students are not enrolled university students, so there are bureaucratic problems involved in setting up the system. Much of Blackboard is this way; you have to understand and work with the totality of the system to successfully take advantage of one of its better component parts. Some schools subscribe to more open learning environments, or ones in which the parts themselves, such as the chat, can be used more easily, without having all student users enrolled in a tedious process. And again, is there a transcript? I'm not sure, nor am I sure I'd want to invest more time trying to find out. Blackboard has the advantage, if you could call it that, of being controlled; non-students will never log in. Your own class has its own space, and it's easy to find; others won't ever be there.

What about Moodles, you might ask (these are essentially free alternatives to Blackboard, and also offer chat), or any of Blackboard's competitors? Some of these are quite good, and I can only say that I don't have much experience in comparing online environments. When I find the chat, I'd ask if it had transcripts. Online educators are known to deliver entire lectures on the chat function, so I know students wanting to keep and go over the lectures would want transcripts available. Yet again, I often don't know how to ask; I figure that, since chat is still in its infancy, people may have made the transcripts available, but they haven't become good at showing you how to get them.

Tapped In is free, always open, and usually has someone in the reception area to help with logistics and how to recover transcripts, if one wants to go further back than one's e-mail. I usually let them know what I'm up to, then click on the Comfy Conference Room on the upper right to go to an empty room where students and I can talk. Occasionally people will find us and enter our chat room as we speak; this has never been a problem. TI has also said that regular users of their service should consider giving them a contribution to help keep their services available. I know very little about their set-up except that it was originally funded by a grant, I believe, and was intended to help get educational institutions like us more involved in educational technology.

Meebo will install a chat window on any blog or website; from there, visitors can get a logon name and begin chatting, if they happen to be at that blog at that moment. The little window will provide each visitor with a code name and will provide a clean ongoing chatstream, yet it won't record or send the transcript that I know of. Meebo is extremely popular with people who simply want to set up a chat site at an information center, say a conference that is opening, where the function of the chat is basically temporary but the need for an immediate connection between visitor and host is apparent. I've considered putting one at our blog but haven't; I have, however, put one at my own, yet had no occasion to use it.

Dave's ESL cafe chat room, or public spaces that are more or less like it; taking a class here might like taking your class to downtown main street, encouraging interaction with whoever might be there, and hoping that something you say to them will sink in or be remembered, when downtown is competing for their attention in the background. There are a number of places like Dave's, which are not specifically ESL, or which don't even necessarily have an educational goal permeating. All we want, really, is a place to chat and be left alone; surely there is one out there somewhere. If one doesn't need to be left alone, or one doesn't need a transcript, such venturing out into the world is worth considering. But I also feel the need to have a somewhat protected environment, like the classroom - a place where I can call security if I'm hassled, or better, a place where the trouble-causing elements simply won't find me. And that's why I'd begin asking questions: is there a room here that I can use? Do you provide transcripts? What do you have that is, at this moment, informing the world of where all the people are chatting, thus encouraging them to come and find us? Dave's at least provides multi-user chat, such that having a few other people around is really not a problem, and might even be considered useful.

Facebook chat, with one of the cleanest and most pleasant chat applications, has the advantage of being controlled by virtue of allowing only your friends to have access to the ability to start up a conversation with you. However, in my case, that's almost 200 people, so even if I made all my students set up accounts (1), and learn how to maneuver around the area, I still could be interrupted at any time by any of my other friends. There is, as I write, no way to set up a sign saying, chatting but busy; no way to set up a small, isolated community of temporary Facebook users, connected to each other; no way to separate a "teacher" profile from other personal uses I might have of Facebook, and no way to do the same for my students; and finally, no way to protect them from the vagaries of Facebook account-holders' risks, such that they couldn't be harassed in the future by spammers or other charlatans. Facebook also doesn't allow multi-user chat, that I know of, though that could and probably will change.

Nings that provide chat rooms. What is to stop your class from setting one up, and using it? Nothing. Nings are public, free, community spaces which offer chat rooms and assume that everyone using a given Ning has reason to be in a single community, and most certainly willing to register in a database of communities. This is where I get stuck; not that I have anything to hide, only that I don't feel chatting with my students is by itself a reason to announce our class to the world, and invite strangers to see who we are and what we do.

Second Life has the advantage of giving you a virtual body (avatar) to walk around with and use while you chat with people; the obvious disadvantage is that you, and your students, presumably, have to learn how to maneuver this avatar before even starting. The dramatic possibilities are unlimited (2), but since SL provides chat transcripts, this also would be an advantage in language learning situations. I have no experience with it, but know of language practitioners who use it successfully.

To me the use of SL in language learning brings up the combination of chat, or conversational writing, in other environments; for example, explaining to someone how to fold an origami, while actually doing it (with an avatar, perhaps). It's one thing to carry on a conversation in writing when 100% of one's attention is focused on the chat screen, but these days, more is required of your average chat participant, and this could be reflected in SL assignments.

There is even a case to be made that the web is moving toward 3D, so that soon most websites will require an avatar, or at least provide one, so that visitors can enter and experience an environment. I find this hard to envision, but the technological capability is there to make the web like a live television, with clear 3D pictures and the viewer given the capability of walking right in and experiencing virtually everything. One might point out that, if so, people will prefer sound capability in these situations, since they can provide music and monitor the quality of voice; chat requires a live presence. Yes, but, looking forward, chat offers privacy that sound doesn't. A favorite SL story of mine is of a guy who walks into a bar (in SL) and notices that plenty of people are there, all drinking (virtual beer? does it free up your virtual inhibitions?), yet not a sound to be heard. He soon noticed that they were all chatting to each other- many private conversations, all online.

Elluminate and WiZiQ. These are online learning environments where you sign in, go to a space where you can often watch a speaker, one who has a webcam and sound capability; then, everyone has access to a whiteboard, on which you can color different messages, draw or present a picture or some notes; and finally, to one side, a running chatstream where everyone involved can carry on a discussion. I was unable to think clearly or carry on a discussion of any substance, the first few times I was on these; then, when I tuned in, I noticed that a good amount of chat messages involved people complaining about the sound quality, webcam capability, or some other technical problem, of which there were many. The places are, after all, in their infancy, and the number of people who use them with fluency and adeptness is still small. A teacher who takes a class up into one of these would have the option of bringing pictures and powerpoints, in effect making a presentation, at which the chat window could be used to carry on a running discussion.

Similar to the situation with SL, it would be an opportunity to point out: conversational writing will become more common in your future. You will need to be able to focus, copy and paste, and present things in this format. Your fluency with this kind of online presentation will be very important. By the way, I don't have any trouble convincing my students of this; I generally could say it, and move on. With teachers, it's more of an issue (see Chat resistance). Actually getting the skills to function in these environments is another story. I have been in them a number of times, and still feel dazed virtually every time, although I can usually say, here I am, what would you like? (3) I don't think the technology is a big issue; eventually this will be smoother, every time. 1-09

1. I hesitate to make people set up Facebook accounts; Facebook is a hot issue, but it's also a social venue, and to me the whole issue is complicated by how much a student wants a teacher in his/her face, socially. Some do, and really appreciate the opportunity. To others, it's an intrusion on their freedom, and their ability to speak freely. If there were a "mini-Facebook" (as I'm sure there will be soon) where they don't mind multiple identities and multiple user access, and have some tolerance for the temporal nature of classes, I would suggest that a class indulge, purely for the sake of the chat function.

2. People have had their eye on Second Life for educational purposes, from the first minute that it was developed. The resources below barely scratch the surface; there is quite an active contingent of educators online, especially in the field of language education, where drama (putting a student in another dramatic persona) has always had uses for freeing students of inhibitions and teaching language. See Leverett 2008a, below.

3. Again, I owe what little experience I have to the webheads, who regularly get up in these places and discuss subjects like these. One reason I'm dazed is that it usually happens on Sunday mornings, my time...

Blackboard Assistance at Boise State. (n.d.). Blackboard FAQ Response. Boise State University. Accessed 1-09.

Leverett, T. (2008a, Oct.). Second Life and language learning: an interview with Thom Thibeault. where u at w/chat weblog. lets.html.

___ (2008b, April). brb: Using chat in an esl/efl writing class. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2008c, April). Digital fluency as goal and objective. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2008d, April). Always in MyFace: Social networking becomes a necessity. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2007a, Mar.). Fluency first: Fluency as a construct. From Student weblogging for fluency, skills and integration, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2007, Seattle WA.

___ (2007b, May). Dialects in a changing language. Global Study Magazine 4, 3. London. pp. 56-57. Available online at:

UNC-Chapel Hill Help & Supprt (2008, Mar. 24). Blackboard: Chat tools. Tutorial. Accessed 1-09.

University of Victoria Distance Education Services (2005-2007). Communication Tools - Chat. University of Victoria. Accessed 1-09.

Links and resources

Tapped In
Online chat resources for teachers
Dave's ESL Cafe Web guide: Chat
Second Life
Second Life in Education wiki
Second Life Grid: links for educators
Second Life in Education: Vance's ESL Home
Second Life bibliography and resources

Presentation home
Introduction & table of contents
Chat and esl/efl bibliography

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