When my college went online in March, the overarching education philosophy was Let’s try to keep things normal. Of course none of us knew what that would look like, including me. I’m an undergraduate who works as a writing fellow—a cross between a peer tutor and a TA—in an introductory writing seminar. My “normal” had been walking around a classroom as students worked on their projects, answering questions and giving feedback, while the professor took aside small groups in another room.
When the professor and I translated this structure online, some of it worked: We could keep the small group/large group dynamic with a breakout room and a main session. But in that main session, I struggled to help students the way I could in person. I had no way to look over someone’s shoulder at her draft or gather the three students who were having problems sourcing research. More than that, I couldn’t address individual students without the discomfort of the entire class looking on. I couldn’t walk over to a student who’d been having trouble understanding the literature review genre, and ask him if he’d been able to emulate the model lit review’s style of reasoning. In a physical classroom, that’s a routine check-in; in a Zoom meeting, it’s a public shaming.
So our first few online classes were very quiet. Students couldn’t sort themselves into groups or partnerships in the main room, and I didn’t know how to talk to them beyond asking, “Any questions?” at the beginning of each session. And eventually we all realized something I was experiencing in my own classes, too: The least effective virtual classrooms are the ones that attempt to imitate physical classrooms.
The urge to imitate makes sense. We want things to feel as normal as possible, so shouldn’t online classes feel like offline ones? But there’s an inherent problem when standard classroom techniques are translated online: They discourage student-to-student interaction. In person, students’ physical proximity facilitates an incredible amount of casual communication; they can sit next to a feedback partner or tap someone on the shoulder to ask for clarification on what the professor just said. When we take away the proximity, though, we’re left with videos of students’ heads trapped in isolated boxes. And the classroom community vanishes.
Because of this isolation, approximations of physical classrooms actively damage students’ opportunities to learn. When there’s little to no interstudent communication, everyone’s learning is limited to what they understand on their own. But if we prioritize facilitating communication, we can allow students to do what makes classrooms successful: combine their learning into a greater, shared whole.
Enter the Zoom group chat.
It sounds counterintuitive that a shared message board could be anything other than a distraction, let alone actively conducive to learning. But embracing the chat was the first step in creating a community again once my writing seminar went online in the spring. Students started to use it instinctively. No one wanted to break the silence out loud by naming a topic to go over. Typing a topic in the chat, though? That was doable. That was when we started moving toward a real normal again.
Over the past six months, I’ve seen the chat’s usage expand enough to transform the online classroom. All those benefits stem from the same concept: The chat allows multiple speakers to talk at the same time, but doesn’t draw attention to any one of them. And I think that’s radical. It can shift the classroom from a space of individual learning to a space of collective learning.
The chat isn’t just helpful to start a conversation, with students suggesting topics the professor or tutor can chose from. In fact, I’d say that it’s even more helpful when a verbal conversation is already occurring. Why? Because it allows students to react to one another’s comments in real time—something that’s extremely restricted in video, with Zoom’s tendency to feature only the moment’s speaker. In a discussion-based seminar, when I agree with a point that one of my classmates is making, I can’t make eye contact with them and smile. But I can type “I agree” in the chat. The same goes for compliments.
In fact, I’d argue that the chat provides better opportunities for affirmations and compliments than anything we find in person. Over the summer, I directed a virtual creative writing camp for middle and elementary schoolers. During the readings on the last day, kids typed, “I liked that line” or “so suspenseful” or “wow, that was really good!” as speakers read their pieces out loud. If verbalized, those compliments would have been rude interruptions. But the chat allows students to talk respectfully while someone else has the floor, which in turn allows them to better express their appreciation of one another. And what that ends up doing is encouraging them to listen and stay engaged—in other words, to learn.
This double channel creates a classroom experience that’s richer and more interconnected. And that has the compound impact of encouraging students to collaborate as they grapple with new information. To return to the example of one student tapping another to ask for clarification as a professor lectures, the chat can provide another—perhaps, once again, superior—route to the same end. How? Students can ask those same kinds of questions in the chat, but posed to the entire class, so that any of their peers can answer.
The benefits here are exponential. For the students who are seeking help, it’s much less stressful: Not only are they more comfortable, but the nonverbal communication makes it easier for students who don’t like to ask questions out loud. Other students in the class can practice what they’re learning by explaining it to someone else—a tactic that is among the best ways to solidify knowledge. This interaction occurs, unobtrusively, while the professor is talking, which allows the pace of the class to continue; it also occurs in front of the professor’s eyes, so the professor can supplement the students’ explanations if necessary. This dynamic has transformed the classroom of the introductory writing seminar in which I work this semester, especially in comparison with the silence of March. I’m seeing an incredible feedback cycle emerge: Community leads to stronger group understanding, and stronger group understanding builds community.
These benefits are even stronger in the private chat, which allows for student-professor, student-writing fellow, or student-student communication. This can be as low-stakes as sending a student a more detailed compliment, or a link that’s relevant for them but not the rest of the class. More crucially, though, it means that I can do my individual check-ins without the full class—or even the professor—watching. (Contrary to rumor, not all private messages are shared with the meeting host.) In addition, shy students can message professors or tutors to ask for help, in a faster and lower-stakes way than sending an email. Often, if given the choice between asking publicly and not asking at all, these are the students who wouldn’t ask at all.
When we lean into what makes the digital classroom different from the physical one, we can create classroom organization methods that encourage communication. I believe that these enhanced opportunities for communication can improve in-person learning, too, once we return to it. The question is how to preserve the function of the chat as a feature of the physical classroom. The private chat function is most difficult to mimic, but I think that students have gotten into the habit of communicating more openly with professors, and we’ll maintain that same openness through email and office hours drop-ins. But how will we continue to meet the needs that the general chat addresses?
I suggest … just keeping the chat (albeit on a different platform than Zoom, of course). Most in-person classes allow students to take notes on laptops, and most professors keep presentations projected behind them as they teach. Besides, many courses already have shared message boards built into their digital interfaces. What if we all kept those message boards open during class time, too? This would allow us to keep the key benefits that the chat provides—responding in real time, multiple voices speaking at once, and unlimited contributions—while the (objectively terrible) video screens become real people again.
Real people! May that day come soon.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.