Tips for Better Zoom Chats

Zachary Nowak, Michelle-Marie Gilkeson and Samantha Tracy offer advice on how avoid their downsides and embrace the best pedagogical outcomes they offer.

May 26, 2021
(Smartboy10/Digitalvision Vectors/getty images)

It’s hard for instructors not to see the chat function of Zoom as a distraction from the main event: their lecture. While many instructors have posted their thoughts about the chat on their blogs, we’ve not seen a broader discussion of the chat function as an integral, rather than tangential, part of remote instruction.

What was written on the chat in the early days of the pandemic often started with the same suspicious tone frequently used in debates on laptops in the classroom. The title of one early primer (March 2020) on Zoom -- "Zoomnosis: Avoiding Mischief and Mayhem in the Great Leap to Zoom" -- makes that clear. The author recommended turning the chat function off, because “having a whole backchannel person-to-person communication system is probably an invitation for some chaos.” She did, however, suggest later in the article that a monitored, curated chat could be a useful adjunct to the class (a comment on the article reiterates this point).

This distrust for the chat abated somewhat in fall 2020, when some professors rethought the chat as a way to reconnect students separated by the pandemic. Disabling the chat risked recentering the teacher as the sage on the (digital) stage; by keeping it open and trusting students to use it thoughtfully, the chat became “the first step in creating a community again.”

Now that we were finally used to seeing Zoom’s basic functions, we could see this way of teaching from a perspective of abundance and start to explore the chat function’s pedagogical possibilities. One instructor who wrote in February 2021 called the function a “chatalist,” which “can be a multimodal form of class participation.”

For our three-week course on urban agriculture for the Harvard Extension School, we initially tried to set what in retrospect were rather stern limits on the chat. Our experience showed both the utility of a slightly more liberal approach to the chat while also illustrating the limits of that policy. In this essay, we discuss some of the key issues surrounding chats and offer our advice on how avoid the downsides yet embrace the best pedagogical outcomes they offer.

Accessibility. Zoom has extensive documentation on the chat, but the basic settings are straightforward: the host can either disable the chat entirely or allow participants to chat, either solely with the hosts or with anyone else on the call. There is also an option to automatically save the entire contents of the chat, something we would recommend. Like the three valves on a trumpet, these settings allow for a wide range of chatting, and any use of the chat should start with accessibility considerations.

Innovative teaching platforms have been vital to the advancement of student education, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Zoom platform comes with additional challenges for students with disabilities. Instructors using the Zoom chat feature should note that not all students may find it equally accessible, so the feature may unintentionally allow some students to contribute more than others. This is particularly important if engagement in the Zoom session is a component of the overall course grade, as students will have differing degrees of access in both typing in or accessing the chat feature. Appropriate accommodations for students with motor, visual or learning disabilities that prevent chat accessibility should be made through a student services office before the online course starts.

Students join Zoom sessions from all sorts of locations -- among them from a phone while in the car (thankfully, in our class, none were driving) and an iPad in a hotel lobby. Zoom chats are user-friendly on traditional computer devices but are more challenging to use on iPads, tablets or Zoom-enabled phone applications. These applications make finding and responding to the chat more difficult and distracting for students accessing Zoom classes through various platforms.

The Zoom chat is also unavailable as a feature for students who may need to call in to classes using the Zoom-provided audio connecting phone number. Calling in presents numerous issues -- for example, the inability to use video or see a shared screen -- and also prevents the phone user from participating in the chat, potentially causing them to miss important information, links or logistical notes that were added to the chat feed. You can eliminate this by recommending that students use a laptop or desktop computer to access class sessions and by making the saved chat available later.

In contrast to these issues, the chat feed offers, in fact, a remedy for another accessibility problem: low bandwidth and microphone malfunctions. Instructors can prompt students who are present yet unable to participate verbally due to these technical problems to input their responses in the chat, thus ensuring their attendance and engagement in the class discussion.

Optimizing student usage. The chat provides an additional layer of communication to further mimic real-world classrooms, where side conversations occur in natural ebbs and flows and might include a student introducing an idea or asking a question. Thus, another issue is how students can make the most of that capability. Chat usage is often dependent on the class environment and established norms of usage -- such as whether it is a casual place to exchange ideas or a formal platform for asking questions. Our class used Canvas, so using Zoom as both a synchronous discussion board and as a convenient place to add links to assignments, calendars, readings or additional course logistics was a relatively logical addition.

The private message feature let students tell us, right away, about internet connectivity issues, personal emergencies or questions not appropriate for the larger class setting. This one-on-one messaging allows for additional relationship-building between teaching staff and students that is often challenging to facilitate in a virtual environment, where little interaction between TAs and students occurs during the class session.

Timing of student comments. Students use the chat to provide real-time feedback or ask logistic and/or content-related questions. Specifically using the direct messaging feature, they can contact the course instructor, teaching staff or another student to ask for clarification regarding an assignment or to address an in-class concern. That can bring up concerns about timing.

For example, the teaching assistants in our urban agriculture course noticed that some students would use the chat to ask logistical questions about assignments -- “Anybody know when the lit review is due?” -- or how to navigate the Canvas platform. Those interactions coincided with the formal lecture or group discussion of course concepts and would not have been considered acceptable interjections in the middle of a traditional in-person setting. In such cases, instructors should communicate the expected parameters around these kinds of questions when articulating the chat policy; a possible fix is to request that these types of questions only be asked in the last five minutes of class, during office hours or via email. Alternatively, instructors can link to a running Google Doc where students can put questions and get answers without disrupting the flow of the chat with logistics.

Privacy concerns. Along with adaptive features for real-time use and communication, Zoom chat logs can also be saved and downloaded as part of the virtual class recording. That allows students and instructors to revisit topics, links or questions posed by students or teaching staff during the class session and provide more context to accompany the recording transcript. At the discretion of the Zoom host, chats can be shared and distributed among all attendees of the meeting. However, you should ensure proper information privacy and notify all attendees before the chat recording to prevent inappropriate or unprofessional content from being stored in chat documents.

Self-conscious students. The chat allows reserved or self-conscious students to connect with the group and contribute to the discussion without having to be on camera. Since the chat feed minimizes the perceived pressures of public speaking, we found these students increased their written comments over the three-week course, and their rapport with classmates grew. This observation suggests you should consider awarding participation credit for the chat as a way of acknowledging forms of contribution beyond verbal comments. When one student who did not contribute often wrote something insightful in the chat, it was great to see a number of his classmates follow it with enthusiastic carets (^^) to second the comment.

Overactive students. In our urban agriculture course, we found that a few students tended to post a disproportionately high volume of comments in the chat. For example, in roughly a dozen separate comments, one student gave an interesting, but tangential, review of the cultural relevance of truffles to Italians; other students’ on-topic comments were passed over in the onslaught of truffle trivia. This tendency parallels the common occurrence of one or more students dominating in-person class discussion.

We assume that the option of utilizing the chat feed as an outlet to express ideas had the positive effect of minimizing their impulses to dominate the verbal class discussion. Their contributions were still received by fellow classmates, but the verbal discussion moderators could ensure more balanced participation between students. Another idea we had after the class was to have the students crowdsource a code of conduct about the chat after a few days -- we imagine some soft limit on posting in the chat would be part of that.

Distractions. We were impressed with some of the more productive tangents that developed in the chat -- especially with students who were more reluctant to intervene out loud. But there are trade-offs to a totally laissez faire chat. A few students reported that the chat was distracting them, as their peers were engaging in off-topic conversation or additional side tangents not relevant to the class discussion. In the course evaluations, one student wrote, “During class, side discussions were a free-for-all that were distracting to other students because of the constant notifications. If it is going to be enabled, comments need to be germane to the course.”

You can solve this problem either by a creating code of conduct, selecting a TA monitor (as this student suggested) or even encouraging students to have side conversations by direct chats rather than messages to everyone. In our experience, students tended to stay in the realm of course themes but occasionally moved away from the session’s specific curriculum content. All this said, unless the chat correlates to the students’ grades, those who wish to simply ignore the feed can do so, thus staying relatively distraction-free.

We found that most disadvantages of the chats, such as the minor inconvenience of a distracting blinking yellow chat box and the time it takes TAs to monitor, were outweighed by the benefits of this tool. At times, in the flurry of student comments, teaching staff may miss direct messages between one another -- such as a prompt to prepare the next audiovisual component of class. The only remedy is vigilance on the part of support teaching staff and forethought in communicating the class agenda. We found that a shared Google Doc with the day’s materials and links allowed for quick retrieval of course content and little interruption to class flow even in the event that a direct message was overlooked.

As we noted in our introduction, we had initially posted a brief, semistern note on the chat in our Canvas module on Zoom guidelines for the class: “Stay on topic in the chat -- the chat is not a place for socializing but can be a good place for asides. Just as in an in-person class, respectful behavior and speech is expected in the chat.” Students largely ignored the first part of this injunction while almost always following the second part. After a few days of a rather voluble chat, we decided that it was truly energizing the class. We had been focused on building student rapport through both class-adjacent socializing sessions and in carefully structured breakout rooms, whose participants we constantly shuffled so students would get to know their classmates.

We saw that students were doing serious analytical work in the chat but also creating inside jokes there, something that allowed an esprit de corps that is hard to come by in any classroom, not to mention a virtual one. While some people’s visions of the chat seem utopian to us -- one commentator suggested that in in-person courses the chat could be “an anonymous feed integrated onto projection screens for students to externalize their thoughts as a lesson progresses” -- we definitely see the utility for both future courses (online and perhaps in some form for in-person meetings) and even work meetings, too, to encourage collaboration.

All in all, the online chat is not like those three annoying students in the back of the classroom who are talking about the last episode of This Is Us or some such thing. Rather, it’s a simple, useful tool that you, the instructor, can wield to enlarge and enrich your course.

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Zachary Nowak is a lecturer in the history department at Harvard University and an instructor at the Harvard Extension School. He is also the associate director of the Center for Food & Sustainability Studies at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy. Michelle-Marie Gilkeson has master's degrees in women's and gender studies as well as gastronomy and has been a teaching fellow at Harvard Extension School. In her work, she considers the impact of food systems and wellness culture on the lives of those with chronic pain at vivforlife.com. Samantha Tracy is a master of science student studying environmental exposure assessment at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and has been a teaching fellow at Harvard Extension School.

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