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24 November 2016

Diplo keeps up with latest developments in online learning and e-diplomacy, but fortunately, we don’t throw out traditional tools if they are still the best option, even if they are lacking the shiny new bells and whistles of the latest trend. Our online courses meet once a week in real (synchronous) time to discuss the week’s hot topics. Although we sometimes do this in a webinar, we usually use a simple text chatroom, with a hypertextable transcript (something like Google Docs comment function) for follow-up discussion.

I love Google Hangout, Skype, and WhatsApp, even Twitter and other innovative online social and communications media. I’m an online participation aficionado, and use WebEx often, but prefer Adobe Connect for the ease of including spontaneous polls to capture the current positions of the participants. Text messaging is ubiquitous, because of its speed and immediacy.

With all of these options (and more) for an online class meeting, nothing beats an old-fashioned low-bandwidth text chatroom. Here’s why:

In an online class with students from all over the world, and all time zones and situations (including rural/urban), participants are logging in from offices, where they may not be able to use sound, from home, where they might not have a high-speed connection, or even from an Internet café, if they don’t have access to a personal Internet connection. This means that a low-bandwidth application is indispensable for our weekly synchronous live chat meeting.

If the class agenda is published ahead of time, participants can research and prepare their positions beforehand, and simply copy/paste them into the chatroom, saving time, and allowing for edited or translated input, especially for those whose mother tongue is not the one used for the class.

With a text chat, everyone can talk at once, without one drowning out another: the text transcript is an equaliser, and no one voice is louder than another.

Several parallel conversations can take place at once, as long as some kind of timestamp and identifier are used to clarify references to previous comments. I call it lively, some might find it chaotic, but there is no doubt a lot of interesting concepts are being discussed.

With a well-designed learning management system (like Diplo’s) which allows for hypertext comments on the transcript after the class, students who miss the class can add their input later, and the discussion can be taken to the next level if any issues are left unresolved. The transcript also allows for later reference and follow-up as a resource.

While this kind of discussion requires close attention (no room for multi-tasking) and flexibility on the part of participants, it also allows for brainstorming and knowledge exchange on a level I have never even seen in an in situ seminar. We had a Cybersecurity class chat last week, where 15 students made a total of 255 comments in one hour, and each one could be clearly read/heard. Can you imagine that in a classroom? Impossible!

As an added perk, virtual refreshments take no time to prepare, don’t get cold, and have no calories!

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