Reviving a Digital Dinosaur: Text-Only Synchronous Online Chats and Peer Tutoring in Communication Centers

By Schwartzman, Roy | College Student Journal, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Reviving a Digital Dinosaur: Text-Only Synchronous Online Chats and Peer Tutoring in Communication Centers


Schwartzman, Roy, College Student Journal


A qualitative and quantitative content analysis was conducted of all text-based synchronous online chats at an oral communication peer tutoring center throughout a semester. As a comparative benchmark, chats at the same university's main library were analyzed over the same time period. The library's chats were much more heavily weighted toward task-oriented research questions. The communication center chats served almost entirely as a portal for making appointments. Suggestions are offered for more robust incorporation of chats to diagnose a center's operational issues, improve outreach, triage student needs, build a sense of personal connection, and reduce attrition.

Keywords: online education, distance learning, synchronous online communication, communication centers

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The pens of pedagogical pundits are astir chronicling and critiquing all things digital. Amid the frenzy of scholarship dealing with computer-mediated communication (CMC) in educational contexts, it has become tempting to embrace the polarizing mindset that categorically reveres or rejects digital tools that could revise the essence of what might count as co-curricular mentoring of students to improve their communication skills. Communication scholars and practitioners may need to reconceive what a personal tutoring session means once the mentoring relationship incorporates interactions mediated through computers, smart phones, tablets, and other electronic devices.

Successfully understanding, adapting to, and coping with these technological transformations will require going beyond dichotomies epitomized by the technophobia of Luddites and the evangelical fervor of "solutionism" (Morozov, 2013) that promises the digital deities will fix every problem. A deeper exploration of best practices related to interactive technologies should address the nuances of the tools in specific educational contexts, confronting their capabilities and their constraints.

This study seeks neither to praise nor to bury digital pedagogies. While many self-labeled "best practice" studies simply describe in glowing terms how well a technology worked in a given instance, this essay examines the extent that actual usage of an interactive, computer-mediated instructional tool realizes the pedagogical potential of that technology. More precisely, how does text-based, synchronous online chat constrain and contribute to the educational practices of communication centers?

Before proceeding, some definitional clarification may prove helpful. The site of this study is a communication center that offers peer tutoring to assist students in improving their oral communication skills: interviewing, public speaking, group presentations, and the associated preparatory activities (e.g., outlining, visual aids, etc.). Although this study was conducted on a center specializing in oral communication, the same principles and practices for use of technology apply mutatis mutandis to any variety of center that uses peer tutoring, be it writing, speaking, digital skills, or multiliteracies that combine these modalities.

"Synchronous online communication" refers to two or more people engaging in computer-mediated communication wherein each person addresses the other in real time and is aware of the presence of the other. Synchronous communication requires all participants to interact at the same time, but the medium can vary. Several types of synchronous mediated communication exist, offering various channels for interaction. These options include text-only, audio telephone, video phone (e.g., Apple FaceTime), videoconferencing (e.g., Skype, Google Hangout, etc.), and in virtual realities through avatars or characters (e.g., Second Life or multi-user role-playing games). Of course the most familiar form of synchronous communication is face-to-face interaction, such as conversations and live public speeches or performances.

The current study focuses on synchronous online communication using a text-only interface, with users typing messages to each other. …

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