Digital Learning & Design

Student sitting on the green with trees nearbyDoes your course need a chatroom? 

Please note that in this guide "chatroom" refers to a largely un-facilitated, asynchronous ongoing discussion space for students.

“ There is consensus in the literature about the benefits of a student’s sense of belonging. Researchers suggest that higher levels of belonging lead to increases in GPA, academic achievement, and motivation. ”

Carey Borkoski, “Cultivating Belonging”

A significant part of the college experience is bonding and forming relationships with new people, and interacting with new ideas and different views. At a time when social distance learning is the new normal, instructors can offer to help create chatrooms for peer-to-peer social interactions. If fostering such a community is an important part of your teaching, consider providing an online forum for students to chat. An online forum might be a great equalizer in a course, offering a mode of interaction for both in-person and remote students. 

Such an approach is an example of trauma-informed teaching, which encourages us to adapt to the current needs and contexts of our students and the world. Such an approach affords us the opportunity to meaningfully involve our students in designing online communal spaces. 

What are advantages to having a chatroom for students? Chatrooms:

  1. Empower students to ask and answer questions outside of class
  2. Support socialization and community-building
  3. Increase student support and provide more robust learning opportunities
  4. Increase interaction and touch points with students to foster inclusion and connectedness 
  5. Create a sense of belonging to the course community
  6. Demonstrate that you value the importance of student-to-student connection 
  7. Offer a space for students to chat about the course or things that they want to talk about with classmates

Your students will rely on you to set up the chatroom and to cultivate the conditions for maintaining respectful civil discourse. Share your expectations for communicating and building knowledge “in a spirit of free inquiry,” as Brown University’s Mission promotes.

Involve students in developing the norms, selecting the appropriate platform, and establishing the purpose of the chatroom. Work with students to come up with concrete examples of the norms, and reasons why they are important. Depending on the class size and the chatroom’s purpose, you can ask students to rotate being the moderators or community builders.

Gauge how things are going by checking in with the student moderators or other modes of feedback. Unlike during teaching, you don’t have to facilitate the chatroom; this is a space for the students to respect and build.

You can increase student engagement by soliciting student input about what kinds of asynchronous discussions should be included in the course. Would they like a course Google Chat or Slate channel? Or would they prefer to share images and audio files via Harmonize. Do they want the conversation to be guided by questions posed by the instructor, or would they prefer to allow the conversation to evolve organically? The answers to such questions will help you decide on the tool and manner of fostering informal discussion in your course. 

Both Zoom and Canvas allow you to easily ask such questions with polling and survey features. By using these tools to ask how students would like more informal discourse to happen during the course, you’ll give students greater incentive to be more involved in the course content.

In Zoom, you can deploy polls by using the polling option. You can either create the questions during the Zoom session, or you can do so before the session begins. For more information on how to deploy polls in Zoom, please see the following article:

Using Polling in Zoom

Canvas too allows you to deploy surveys. For more information on deploying a Canvas survey see How Do I Create a Survey in My Course?

You can also use a more informal means of surveying students through Google Forms. With Forms you can easily create a poll or survey, deploy it via a link, and then see student feedback. For more information on Forms, see How to Use Google Forms.

Whatever tool you use, make sure to deploy it early on in the semester. The sooner you can determine student preferences, the sooner you can start building community and encouraging conversation in your course.

Some factors to consider when choosing a chatroom tool: 

  • What are your students already using? Poll students to find out what systems work best for them currently. The most effective tool is the tool students will use.
  • How many students will be using the chatroom? Does it make sense to break out the conversations into smaller groups?
  • What security measures are built into the program? Are there built-in reporting tools that identify hate speech or self harm language?

Looking to discuss nuances around choosing the right tool? Contact for a consultation.

A largely unmonitored asynchronous forum requires all participants agree to engage in respectful and inclusive discourse. To ensure students are aware of this obligation, you should clearly state discussion expectations. This statement can take the form of a message included in the syllabus, or a “contract” that asks students to abide by certain rules of decorum and engagement. 

What should be included in such a message? This depends on the course and the purpose of the asynchronous forum. At the very least, you should outline the purpose of the forum. If it is intended to hew to course subject matter, then say so. If it is intended to be a space where students are encouraged to build community by engaging in conversation on whatever topic interests them at the moment, then inform them of this. 

Above all, make it clear to students that the forum, whatever form it takes, is a space created for them, and as such entails certain responsibilities. Make clear what is considered unacceptable speech, and outline some ground rules for engaging in the forum. The Anti-Defamation League has some tips for fostering respectful communication in a public space and developing such guidelines. 

The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning also has some helpful guidelines for facilitating effective discussions.

You can model the type of conversation you’d like to see in the forum, or you can designate certain students as “discussion facilitators.” Both approaches will ensure students understand how to engage with one another, ensuring everyone will feel at home in this virtual space.

Have questions about creating an asynchronous discussion forum for your course? Then email or sign up for a consultation with a learning designer through our consultation calendar.