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Information overload in video chat classroom

June 17, 2011

Well it happened again: one student’s insightful remark gives new perspective.  This week, during class, or I should say virtual class, the back channels were buzzing.

This is a grad course with ten students, all logging in to my virtual class through a desktop or laptop videoconferencing system from different parts of the province.  In that system (Adobe Connect), we all see and hear each other and there is also a text chat window where everyone and anyone types comments or questions.  In addition, we also run a Twitter hashtag conversation on the side.  Although the main conversation occurs in the audio/video channel, the two text-based channels are also very busy.  Some students use these to ask questions or to add comments without interrupting the live discussion while others use these text chats for parallel discussions – sometimes on topic, sometimes on peripheral subjects, and also often as a social sharing space for humour or semi-private exchanges.  Whatever the purpose, the text chats are an active backchannel that the professor can see, has to pay attention to, and even has to participate in.

Back to the student’s insightful remark, or was it more of a question: “Is this more of a distraction than an enhancement to the course?”  As we all thought about it and discussed this, an interesting set of elements emerged as having impact on the course as a whole.

1- Needed Focus:  It was agreed that simply to follow all the discussions does require an incredible amount of focus and discipline just to keep track of it all and not to lose track of your own train of thought.  For the professor, it is compounded as you try to “manage” your course.  So maybe it is sometimes a distraction, in that it can interfere with one’s thinking.

2- Added Voice: On the plus side, it gives the students the opportunity, as stated earlier, to put thoughts down immediately without interrupting the conversation directly.  These short written comments and questions remain visible to all and act both as a working memory of thoughts and as a queue for the group to move from one part of the topic to another.

3- Access to collective intelligence: Another interesting phenomenon was identified in that when a question remains unanswered, or a term needs precision, or a quick fact would be helpful, instead of the students waiting for me to dig and answer, they all quickly do web searches and one of them will immediately post a link to the chat- instant answer, and it came from the students and all can go to see for themselves!  You will also often see two or three other links appear…

4- Link to outside community: I created a Twitter hashtag for the course and so the students even use this to post some comments about certain topics they find particularly interesting but the difference here seems to be that these are what they direct to not only the other students in class, but to their friends and colleagues outside of class, either other students or co-workers.  Then interestingly, these “outsiders” also sometimes add comments to the class hashtag.  To me it brings the whole class more in touch with the outside world.

So is it a distraction?  Maybe. But I think for the moment, that these backchannels, by the sheer fact that they occupy more of the consciousness of everyone in class, they help focus attention.  In a traditional lecture hall, at best students will generally pay some attention to the lecture, but their minds will be all over what they did last night or the upcoming weekend.  They will likely be chatting, texting, e-mailing or doing something else totally unrelated to the topic.  The use of these back channels in the manner we do here, at least seems to capture that attention and focus it on the actual subject being discussed.  But maybe that does create a situation of information overload…. or distractions…

One thing is for sure, these, for the moment, are just impressions and a good literature review should yield some interesting bits – if not, then this could be a good research topic… One more!!

… And this is another clear demonstration to me of how different online learning is to classroom lecturing…..  or can be.

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