Discussing Milton via Skype Chat

05 Nov 2012

When classes were canceled due to Hurricane Sandy, a graduate English class was unfazed. Instead of missing a class, the professor and students in Milton and Reader Response Criticism (ENGL 546) decided to meet virtually via Skype chat. The general consensus was that the virtual class was a success! Professor Daniel Shore and students Kate Zavack and Whitney Williams reflected on the benefits and challenges of running a discussion via Skype chat.

Professor Shore: From the perspective of the instructor, I was willing to try Skype chat because I know and trust the students in my graduate course.  I knew, for example, that they would be understanding if the whole conversation turned out to be a total flop.  To my surprise and delight, discussion turned out to be useful and illuminating.  It moved more slowly than talking in person, but it also allowed the students to review what their peers had said more closely.  Nothing got lost, because it was all printed on the screen for everyone to see.  I had worried that the need to type things up would disrupt the continuity and linearity of class discussion - basically with everyone talking at once on different topics or, worse, no one willing to jump in to direct discussion with their own questions or observations.  But neither problem materialized.  Sometimes multiple lines of thought would unfold at the same time, but without confusion or difficulty.  The week's presenters did a great job of moderating discussion, allowing for both coherence and openness.

Perhaps the most interesting thing was to see how class dynamics changed.  Some of the students who are a little more hesitant to speak in the seminar format seemed to feel more comfortable typing out their comments, while those who usually guide and drive discussion took more of a back seat.  The online meeting wasn't just a weak substitute for our usual class discussions; it was a useful way of reshuffling the usual class dynamics.  That said, I don't think it would have succeeded if the class didn't already have a strong rapport and comfort level in place.

Kate Zavack: Our generation grew up on instant messaging, but I wasn't sure what to expect from a class session on Skype. It took some time to adjust, but after ten or fifteen minutes, I think we all felt comfortable and we had a really productive discussion. One of the challenges was that we couldn't moderate the discussion the way we normally do - we couldn't rely on nonverbal cues, and everyone could type at once. But one good thing is that writing, even extemporaneously, forces us to be more exact than we usually are in conversation, so having class via Skype messaging definitely helped me clarify my ideas.

*Whitney Williams: *I was personally a bit nervous about the possibility of a class Skype chat, especially since it coincided with one of two days I was scheduled to give a class presentation. However, I really enjoyed the online "chat" format of the class. It worked well for me as a presenter when asking discussion questions, because I was able to see when students were typing, which meant they were responding to questions. Sometimes, I think that can be a challenge in class, because it's difficult to interpret silences...what I mean by that is that it can be challenging to tell, especially with a class I'm not used to leading, whether the silence means the students are synthesizing information or if I should regroup and ask my question a different way. Afterward, I was also able to conference with Professor Shore about my upcoming seminar paper, and it was especially helpful to be able to accomplish all this on a "day off" so that I didn't feel behind or lose a week of productivity toward the assignment.