The Zoom chat is a tremendous teaching tool. So why aren’t more educators and facilitators using it?
I’ve been teaching and facilitating in Zoom since pre-COVID times, and the Zoom chat is one of my all-time favorite teaching tools. And yet, here we are, two years into the rise of Zoom that took place during the (still occurring) global pandemic, and more than half of the Zoom learning experiences I’ve been a part of barely acknowledge the chat.
I just read this article in Inside Higher Ed reporting on a study that analyzed students’ experiences learning online during the (still occurring) pandemic.
“Sometimes students found that faculty members limited student interaction on chats or discouraged student interaction during courses — a critical choice that students recognized affected their ability to share questions, concerns and clarifications.”
That’s wild, y’all! We have an incredibly adaptable tool that supports people and pedagogy, so why aren’t we making use of it?
I want to cover three main points in this post:
- What’s so awesome about the Zoom chat (or the chats in other online conferencing tools, but I’m a Zoomer, so I’m just going to say that)
- Barriers to teaching with Zoom chat
- What Zoom chats can teach us about improving on-site learning (that’s what I’m calling it this week)
Why Zoom Chat is Awesome
I started reading Tesha Fritzgerald’s book, Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building Expressways to Success, over the weekend. It’s phenomenal. Go buy it immediately. This is required reading on the syllabus.
She keeps asking this question that I love: who is important? Who is important in your classroom?
I was thinking of that this weekend as I attended an online course outside of higher education. It ended up being great, but as I’ve seen so many times before, the facilitator dove in to her introductions and presentation without any invitation or direction to us about how to engage with her. No mention of the chat until about 30 minutes into the session when finally, we, the learners, voted with our keyboards and just took over the chat without permission.
In our Zoom classrooms, when we begin teaching without any opportunity for our learners to greet us and each other, when we make no mention of the chat, who is important?
You. Whether you intend to or not, by not giving learners an opportunity to engage with one another in the chat, you are communicating that you are the most important person in that Zoom room.
Inviting learners into the chat from the moment they enter the room communicates that everyone is important and that everyone brings expertise into the classroom.
Here’s what that looks like in practice:
- I often start session with a Welcome slide that includes images of the Zoom controls and other notes about how learners can engage in our learning experience. This is where I mention that cameras are optional and encouraged. As learners enter the room, I read through these prompts a few times, encouraging everyone to say hello in the chat as they enter. Nothing fancy or formal here. Think of this as the equivalent of signs to let people know where the bathrooms and cafeteria are in an on-site classroom. A Welcome slide acclimates learners to the shared space.
- Then, after a very brief introduction and welcome, I share a slide called “How to Engage.” This lists about ten different ways that learners might choose to engage with me, the content, and each other. It includes the chat as well as other things like doodling, the backchannel, etc. If I want my learners to engage, I need to clearly communicate with them how they can do that. They aren’t mindreaders and neither am I. I tell my learners that I hope they’ll be active in the chat. I remind them that they know things that I don’t know, and that their participation there is valuable. I also tell them that I don’t think of the chat as “whispering in class,” but rather an important learning tool.
- Next, I include some sort of introductory activity that asks people to respond to a question in the chat. Lately, I’ve been asking people, “What is something outside of work that brings you joy.” Think of this as a chat warm-up.
- Throughout the session, I continue to ask questions and encourage responses via the chat. As a rule, before I introduce what I know about an important concept, I ask learners to share what they know first. This is called activating prior knowledge, and it’s a simple but powerful pedagogical practice. Sometimes, depending on the size of our group and time, I also weave in video and audio. But the chat is absolutely the center of engagement in my Zoom rooms.
Barriers to the Zoom Chat
Remember, around here, we talk about faculty/staff success AND student success. We seek spaces of mutualism that benefit both educators and students. We don’t do educator self-sacrifice in the name of student learning. Instead, we aim to create cultures and communities of care. As such, it’s important to chat about some of the potential barriers to the Zoom chat.
Many facilitators tell me that they can’t do both the Zoom chat and the facilitating/speaking part of things at the same time. They find it way too overwhelming and/or overstimulating. Understandable. I’m neurodivergent, and I feed off the chat. It’s just the right of stimulation for me, but not for everyone.
If you can’t do the Zoom chat and the facilitation/teaching piece at the same time, don’t. Don’t do both. Set aside time at the start of your session, and perhaps at a few other pause points, where you can just focus on the chat.
But Karen, if I make time for the chat, I won’t have time for the content!
Friends, content without connection is going to get you nowhere fast. You’ll get more value from building connection first, even if that means less time on your content. I promise you that.
Once you spend five minutes setting the tone for the chat at the start of the session, you don’t need to keep monitoring it if that’s not your bag. Let the students continue to chat with each other, and you can continue to encourage them to do so. “I’m not able to concentrate on both the lesson and the chat, so I’m just going to focus on the content I’m sharing right now. At half past ten, I’ll take a short break to review the chat.”
Mutualism. Everyone wins here. You’ve built connections, students are chatting and engaged, and you’ve done so in a way that supports engagement, learning, and your own needs.
Many facilitators also like to identify a “chat wingperson.” This can be a casual position or you can ask students to sign up for the role. Again, mutualism in action here. You get some support, and students gain the valuable skill of helping to manage a Zoom chat.
In short, I think the biggest barrier I see around using the Zoom chat is that folks feel overwhelmed. If that’s the case, put first things first. And connection and engagement should always come first.
Edit: some amazing Twitter friends reminded me about how Zoom chats stink for learners who use screenreaders. Here are a few tips to address that barrier:
- Read out, or ask a volunteer to read out, a few comments from the chat over audio.
- Read out, or ask a volunteer to read out, any key themes that have been developing in the chat.
- Links to resources shared in the chat might be an issue for screenreader users. Consider sharing your slides via email or other means for easier access of those materials.
- Here’s a great collection (thanks Mandy!) of some Zoom accessibility considerations.
Online Isn’t Second Best
The Zoom chat allows for total participation in a learning experience. Can you say the same of on-site classes?
Many educators tell me that they encourage class participation by asking questions in an on-site class. When I ask them how many students raise their hands to respond to those questions, they admit that it’s only a handful, and it’s often the same students every time. While small group activities and collaboration can allow for total participation in an on-site course, it’s just not as efficient and adaptable as the Zoom chat.
You can get instantaneous total participation with Zoom chat. Students thoughts are immediate shared with you and with their peers. In a classroom of twenty students, I can know everyone’s answers to my question within about sixty seconds. That’s good stuff. Of course there’s value in slower learning as well, and efficiency isn’t always the goal, but what a tool to have at our disposal.
Some on-site educators harness this potential by having students work in a shared Google Doc on their personal devices, for example, and then posting responses on a screen in the classroom. Total participation. Food for thought. We’re so used to asking what on-site teaching can tell us about how to teach online. Let’s remember to also flip that question.
TLDR: Who is important in your Zoom classroom? Declining to use the Zoom chat communicates that you are most important. Inviting learners into the Zoom chat from the moment they enter the room creates a learning journey grounded in shared expertise, where everyone is important and valued.
What else? What did I miss? How do you make use of the Zoom chat in your teaching? What barriers did I fail to address? How can we communicate that our learners are as important as we are in our classrooms?