Connecting by Online Talking

Without a doubt, we need to connect more with others during this global pandemic. Too many people feel isolated due to unpredictable lockdowns and quarantines. In today’s schools, online learning further challenges human connections. The interaction between teacher and student is not the same as face to face.

Misunderstanding can arise when teachers interact with their students through video conferencing. The personal computer’s camera and microphone do not accurately capture body language, facial expressions, and audio utterances. And when technology is not working, such as a slow Internet feed, the delay in video and audio streaming hinders accurate interpretation for the conveyor’s message.

In the face-to-face setting, what has humanized conversations is the use of protocols. The concept of conversational protocols comes from the work of the Critical Friends Group. Conversational protocols are a set of rules guiding the behaviors during a discussion. Usually, a facilitator conducts a protocol-driven meeting to ensure participants adhere to the agreed-upon actions. Some may think that such conversations feel unnatural because the facilitator can dictate when someone talks and for how long. Nevertheless, many teachers who use protocols in their classrooms and faculty meetings find such discussions more meaningful and engaging. Repeated practice of protocol usage fosters deeper relationships and trust amongst the speakers.

Protocols build trust because they create predictability in a conversation. When speakers are clear about the flow of a discussion, they can trust their message can be heard by others. Take, for example, a group of people presented with a topic to discuss. Some may dominate the conversation, while others may remain silent. Some people may have difficulty figuring out how to join in. At the same time, some do not know when to end their turn in speaking. Protocols provide the sequence for speakers and listeners to follow. So no one is spending time deciphering body language and facial cues to move the conversation. Instead, speakers concentrate on conveying their message clearly, and listeners give their attention to the speakers. Having a reliable system to carry a conversation is how trust builds.

Much literature for conversational protocols draws from research in the physical setting. I posit that such protocols can be equally effective online. 

Two conditions to foster deep conversations

Two suppositions underlie protocol-driven conversations, whether face-to-face or online. One, everyone has something worthwhile to contribute. And two, the conversation is a safe space for speakers to fail or make mistakes. Therefore, the implication in designing a classroom protocol is to ensure participants hear all voices. Teachers must also ensure everyone is open to each others’ experiences and perspectives. Finally, they must ensure that all participants feel safe enough to take risks. Only when the teacher has established these conditions will authentic connections happen within the class.

Tips for teachers getting started with online protocols

Establish a Culture of Receptivity and Vulnerability

Take the time to reach an understanding of the two suppositions on running a safe environment for online conversations. These will become the norms for how the online classroom will operate. Help students understand that everyone’s contribution is valuable. Likewise, just as important as speaking, listening is essential for a successful online community. Model the behaviors for listening and acknowledging the speakers online. As well, everyone has a part in encouraging each other to take risks.

Design activities that allow for everyone’s input.

When designing online activities, consider ways to maximize everyone’s input. Do use online tools to allow each student to express their opinion. Backchannel chats, shared documents, and digital surveys are some examples of such tools. And be sure to set time limits for an individual’s or group’s talk time. 

Consider the consequences

Think about what happens when a student breaks a protocol. What if a student spoke over the time limit? What if a student made another classmate feel uncomfortable? Would a reminder be sufficient? Consider the facilitator’s next move in light of maintaining a safe, trusting environment. Will the facilitator’s action build or destroy this trust? Remember, when one is upfront about the consequences beforehand, people are more likely to trust that person.

Plan for technical difficulties

Consider technical problems that disrupt communication. Plan protocols that can address these problems. For example, when the audio or video feed is lost, all students must respond by alerting others in the chat channel.

Plan protocols for basic conversation flow

In every conversation, there is a start, speakers’-talk turns, and an end. When designing a protocol for online discussion, consider the rules for starting, speaking, listening, and ending a conversation. Think about how time will be allocated and how adherence to the protocol will be monitored.

Building relationships is a social learning activity that requires mental processing of another person’s perspective. Teachers can significantly help this process by designing a safe online environment for students to express their thoughts. Teachers must gauge the class. When there is high mistrust, facilitators should exercise more control in adhering to protocols. Over time, if teachers are persistent with protocol usage, they will see the fruits of their work in establishing a trusting online community.

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