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Using text chat to transform
your virtual classroom
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Hey, trainers, can we chat?

What’s your primary way of communicating with participants in your virtual sessions? Have you tried to engage learners via chat, but can’t coax them to type? Do you use chat for troubleshooting? Or not even that?

Perhaps, in the physical classroom, you managed classroom questions and discussions confidently and see no benefit to having people type during live sessions. You find the scrolling messages distracting and worry that participants’ comments will split your attention and theirs, and could derail your session.

What if I told you that you could use chat to create a stimulating, focused conversation as immersive and interactive as what typically happens in a physical classroom? Would you be willing to make a change to your design and delivery model that would transform your virtual session into a vibrant conversation where you can see that learners are with you and learning?

The trainer’s lament

Trainers who’ve been thrown into virtual instructor-led training (VILT) without enough preparation often complain, “If I can’t see people, I can’t tell if they’re learning.”

Sure, that silence feels awkward. So does the lack of visual feedback such as nodding or smiling, and the loss of familiar activities like keystroking and working in groups. Many trainers compensate by talking nonstop for 50 minutes before pausing to respond to a barrage of out-of-context questions. This is not an effective way to teach a live session.

Let’s be honest: People nodding their heads never proved they were learning anyway. In fact, we have very little evidence that the old, familiar, “chalk and talk” classroom model was effective in promoting learning and achieving objectives.

It’s plain to see why trainers in the virtual classroom often fall back into simply lecturing: It’s easier to just talk than to facilitate discussions and activities.

Interactions needed for deeper learning in VILT

In her research on how to learn something deeply, my colleague Patti Shank Ph.D, found that deep learning requires deep processing. A live, virtual classroom session supports two key types of interactions that allow for deep processing:

     1. Content interactions, which include reading, watching, and listening, and then processing the content so it’s meaningful; and

     2. Social interactions, which include reading multiple insights and perspectives from others and responding to them.  

Patti provides the following example: “Say the instructor is discussing changes to a company system. Chat allows the instructor to ask critical questions to see if the audience is following and can apply what they are learning.” The instructor shows a slide with the following question: “The tracking app will be offline each week on Thursdays from noon to 2 pm ET. How will this change the workflow in your department? [Please answer in chat.]”

A robust discussion ensues, Patti continues, which the instructor facilitates. Participants post challenges and solutions, and everyone discusses how they can use this information. People leave with important understandings that they can use on the job.

“Chat, as a social interaction, serves to deeply process both content and social interactions,” Patti says. “In fact, it’s the primary mode for engagement and involvement in virtual classroom sessions. You want to use it well.”

Designing for engagement

Realize that effective VILT means rethinking your instructional design based on the tools you have now, not the ones you wish you had. If you’ve been viewing chat as a poor substitute for “real communication,” now is the time to reframe it as a means to achieve even more meaningful communication.

To transform your virtual sessions into immersive, vibrant learning events, try viewing chat as:

~ A parallel, presenter-sanctioned channel for communication and learning.

~ A backchannel for conversations the presenter doesn’t need to attend.

~ A way to conserve time, especially at the start of a session when participants are introducing themselves and stating their goals for the session. Everyone can weigh in simultaneously!

~ A means of gathering and building a storehouse of solid-gold expertise in the form of FAQs, URLs, tips, and examples.

~ Evidence of living persons on the other side of the screen or other end of the network.

~ An effective way to respond to relevant questions and comments, and to redirect those that fall outside the scope of your session.

~ A springboard to future asynchronous conversations.

~ A challenge that requires learners to focus and reduces the odds you’ll lose them to their inboxes.

~ A vehicle for magical co-creation – an invitation for participants to learn not only from the instructor, but also from one another.

Getting the most out of chat

It’s important to recognize that many trainers are intimidated by chat; it’s distracting. They’re correct when they say, “I can’t read and present at the same time.”

Learners can be intimidated by chat, too. Perhaps, in an earlier session, they were scolded for using it in ways the presenter didn’t want. Or someone typed “I can’t hear” in the beginning of the session, and that chat remained at the top throughout, leaving the learner feeling exposed and foolish.

But rather than remain saddled with those fears and obstacles, can you imagine embracing the opportunity to create a community experience that captures the expertise within your group of learners?

To achieve that level of engagement, it becomes your job as presenter to:

  • Set the stage

      ~ Commit to teaching the audience how and when to use chat. Be precise: “Here’s what I want you to type in chat, and when.” Begin engaging before the session start time to establish that typing in chat will be the preferred communication behavior during the session. 

      ~ Establish ground rules at the beginning of the live session. To get participants’ agreement, say, “Please indicate yes by setting your status to Agree (green checkmark or thumbs up).” Urge participants to engage using the available tools. Say, “Please respond to the Polls and type questions and comments in chat. The chat text is being saved, and will be shared after the session.” Promising to share the string does two things:

       1. Increases the value of chat as a resource, and
       2. Minimizes inappropriate messages.


     ~ Describe precisely how and where to ask for technical support.

  • Develop a strategy for designing and using questions

     ~ Plan to ask strategic questions regularly. Active participation helps maintain participants’ attention, and the answers to well-designed questions can drive the conversation where you want to take it. Evaluation- and assessment-style questions, for example, confirm learning is happening.

     ~ Guide the learners to respond to your questions in order to support, not derail, your message. Consider a question like: “By what methods could you come up with the sum 27? Type in chat.” That will generate answers from all students on a topic that you chose, moving in a flow that you designed. Incorrect answers will be obvious, and learners are likely to retain the correct responses when they see or hear it repeated several times.

     ~ Avoid dead-end questions such as “Any questions?” Q&A periods can be random, time-consuming, difficult to manage, and confusing for some.

  • Manage the flow

     ~ Use chat to “park” questions. Tell participants, “Type in chat anytime. I’ll stop and respond to your questions and comments when I’m able.” Schedule pauses in your lesson plan to take a breath, and read and respond to questions and comments. I typically say: “I’m going to stop here and mute for a minute and read chat and sip my tea. If you have questions or comments, type in chat now. Stand by.” Do not try to deliver your pre-planned remarks and facilitate the lesson while simultaneously reading chat; it’s impossible!

     ~ Be kind to yourself. If rolling chat text keeps catching your eye and causing you to stumble over your scripted message, cover it temporarily with a sticky note. Peel it back when you’re ready to stop and read.


Are you ready to stop lamenting what you liked about in-person teaching, and start embracing the intriguing tools you now have at your disposal?

Trainers who use chat effectively increase learner engagement by creating a community experience that captures the expertise within that group.

Asking questions, telling participants how you want them to respond, waiting for them to respond and then acknowledging their answers and connecting them to the learning goals will transform the dynamic of your live, online sessions.

If you’re eager to amplify the learning experience by designing for a more strategic use of chat, give me a call! 585.370.2341.

Updated 7.10.20

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