Published in the Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies, 5 (1999), 129-42.

Daniel Eisenberg
Regents College
7 Columbia Circle
Albany NY 12203
(518) 464-8699
daniel.eisenberg@bigfoot.com

Fostering Student-Faculty Community through Online Chat

Daniel Eisenberg

     Regents College offers a master's degree in Liberal Studies that requires neither residency nor campus visit. We primarily serve adult students who are unable to relocate or commute to place-bound classes. While Regents' administrative offices are located in Albany, New York, there is not even a conventional campus to visit. Our Liberal Studies students hail from Maine to California, as well as several other countries. Our faculty are less dispersed, but spread out over several hundred miles.
      It would seem, from recent discussions on the AGLSP discussion list, (1) that the concept of faculty and students never meeting face-to-face is threatening to some. How does one "know" these students, how does one interact with and teach them? Isn't this type of education frighteningly impersonal?
      My goal in this article is to explain how a virtual environment can offer a possible, even an intimate environment for interaction. We did learn by trial and error, however, what mode of interaction was most fruitful.
      Initially our program used a web site with bulletin boards. Students could post comments and queries on their readings or on course discussion topics. (The readings themselves are not online.) Responses came from faculty facilitators or from peers. Pictures of works of art, or links to other resources, could also be made available through the boards.
      While the bulletin boards remain available, they have not been used to the extent we expected. The delay between the postings of a query and its response made dialogue akin to playing chess by mail. It also made it hard to intervene when postings drifted off to topics we felt inappropriate for a course environment. We also found that some students did not want to post queries or musings online. It is the "reluctance to raise one's hand" syndrome, but strengthened by the relative permanence of the postings. We assisted these reluctant students in contacting faculty facilitators through email or telephone.
      Students and faculty are provided with each others' email addresses; they can "click" on any name on our web site to send a message. The program office uses email as our main means of communicating with our students. Each class also has an email address; we use listproc (a mailing list manager) to maintain the lists of student and faculty addresses. Any enrolled student, faculty, or staff member can send mail to these class addresses. There are separate lists for communication with and among the faculty only. Listproc also manages the AGLSP email list.
      As a means of fomenting program community, however, email was not particularly successful. There is no middle ground between a private message and one sent to members of a relatively static list of subscribers. Email lists are a useful way to foment interaction among professionals who do not need intensive, daily communication. For the intensity needed in a course, email is much too slow. Email is also less confidential than many users think. Perhaps most important, the average level of civility is far lower in email than in traditional mail, or in fora with more immediate feedback.
      Telephone contact is another option, and we have also taken several steps to facilitate it. All faculty have a toll-free number that students can call, as do Regents' offices. A group telephone conversation is a good potential basis for group interaction, but the implementation is surprisingly difficult. To link a group of people together by telephone, and also insure that all they can hear each other, requires specialized, expensive equipment.
      Our students themselves gave us, indeed requested, the best solution: live chat. Chat, as the term is used on the Internet, is text-based communication between two or more participants. Typically it takes place in a "room," a specific area which participants "enter" or "leave." While this is only a name applied to a feature of the software, the familiar metaphor makes it easier to understand. The room is a box on the screen, in which typed messages appear sequentially, scrolling up as new ones appear. That it is typed text (digital), rather than audio (analog), means that the technical problems of linking multiple participants are easily solved through software.
      Chat offers the advantage of immediate feedback: in this regard, it resembles a telephone conversation. But like a movie or TV screen, it draws users in, makes us focus, and forget, temporarily, the surroundings. The participants may be at work, at home, with music in the background, dogs barking, family members watching television. The mind dismisses all of that temporarily, just as while watching a movie or reading a novel we sometimes "forget" our surroundings. In the chat environment all visual information is stripped away, and we are left with "only" words. The focus on the words alone can make the conversations surprisingly intense.
      Chat has one enormous disadvantage, which led us not to implement it at first. Those who wish to participate must be on-line at the same time ("synchronously," in the jargon). There is no time that will suit everyone's schedule. We found, however, that students were so eager to have this interaction that when possible, they adapted their schedules to it. For some, the chat is their main opportunity to talk with anyone about intellectual topics.
      Each course has at least one chat per week, with a faculty member present. There is also a weekly "general chat," in which students from the different courses can interact with each other. I try to be present at the beginning of all chats, or have another staff member do so, to assist with administrative questions, password problems, and the like. Since the chat facility is always available, students organize spontaneous review chats at times they determine.
      Students and faculty need only an Internet browser with Java support, such as the free Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. Any standard Internet service provider will work; the cost of this service is currently about $20/month. Our technical problems have been almost exclusively with students using the nonstandard provider America Online (AOL), which requires students to take extra steps. The software we are using to host our chats is WebBoard 3.50, from O'Reilly Software (http://webboard.oreilly.com). It will run on any Windows 95 PC that has a permanent connection to the Internet. Rather than purchase the WebBoard software and administering it ourselves, however, we find it cheaper and simpler to rent the use of it from a specialized web hosting company.
      From trial and error, we have learned some lessons which I recommend to others who wish to implement live chat:
      A moderator is very helpful. Students chatting on their own are akin to students left alone in a classroom. Useful discussions can take place, but interaction can descend into unproductive monologuizing or chitchat. A moderator helps keep the group focused, and also prevents the most verbal or assertive from controlling the interaction. In one case, we banned a disruptive student from further participation in chat.
      Consistency of chat times encourages participation. Our students, for example, know that the chat for Structure and Change, one of our core courses, is always held Wednesday at 9 P.M. Eastern time, regardless of semester or instructor. This makes it easy to remember, and the consistency seems to be essential for participation to grow.
      Technical problems are routine and should be expected. In the transcript presented below, students mention problems getting online that evening (the host computer was briefly "down"). Students and faculty vanish and reappear, as glitches cause connections to become briefly disrupted.
      Technical assistance needs to be readily available. The College's information services (computer) department is not prepared to offer assistance in the evening, when most of our chats take place. We therefore pay one of the more experienced students to assist other students and faculty with technical problems. He is provided with an 800 number. Students and faculty can also reach me via 800 number. Both of us are available during evening chats.

      We hope that students will participate actively in our chats. However, a number choose not to, or are unable to do so because of various practical problems, including other commitments at the chat times. Therefore, and to permit review, transcripts of the chats are edited and posted on the course bulletin boards, usually within 24 hours. (The transcription process is not automatic, and sometimes sensitive personal material is deleted to protect privacy.) We have learned that the transcripts are read regularly by those who cannot participate "live." If they are not posted promptly, we hear from them. The WebBoard software also allows students, if they wish, to receive the transcripts by email. For reasons not clear to me, the knowledge that the chat transcript will be "posted" does not inhibit interaction in the way that bulletin board postings do.
      Topics include discussion of readings and questions discussed in our Course Guides, topics suggested by the faculty facilitators, and queries related to program regulations and administration. The discussions, however, often go off onto issues in contemporary society, students' own experiences related to the course topics, and personal matters. A community has evolved in which the students know, ask about, and look after each other.
      In response to student requests, we set up a "cyberparty" devoted to socializing, rather than purely academic discussions. We are about to explore this format for monthly "cybermeetings" of our faculty.
      We have found, then, that live chat, conducted over the Internet, can be an effective means for faculty-student and student-student interaction in a Liberal Studies program delivered through distance learning. With a minimum of technical complications, it allows students and faculty to interact from any location with Internet access. It also serves as a cohesive force and has asocial function.
      There follows, as example, an arbitrarily chosen evening chat, taken from our course "Structure and Change: Our Place in the World" (whose syllabus follows the article). The names are real. On the evening in question two faculty members were present: Drs. John Murray and Van Hartmann. The topic was the influence of Marx's thought.
      Please remember that this conversation was not made with the expectation that it would be published and analyzed in a magazine (although the participants have given their permission). The comments are offered as an example of chat interaction, not as profound or reflective thought. As is typical in chat, various conversational threads take place simultaneously. As in a traditional classroom, some allusions, such as the "posting" mentioned, require context to be meaningful.

__________________________


Start of #mls_601_chat_room buffer: Wed Jul 28 1999

{John_Murray} Hi Barbara

{John_Murray} Hi Jim.

{John_Murray} And hi John.

{John_Murray} How are things going with you folks? I just got a very quick look at your posting, Jim.

{John_Garrison} Hi, John....

{Barbara_Latragna} It's going so slow.... I think I'm lost...

{John_Murray} I understand your comment re: his verbosity, but only 500 pages???

{Jim_Dwyer} 500 words.

{John_Garrison} It seems that our problems are solved....

{John_Murray} Barbara, can you elaborate a bit re: being lost?

{John_Murray} Yes, that's right, 500 WORDS!!!

{Barbara_Latragna} I bought a book The Communist Manifesto edited by F. Bender...it had a introduction called historical and theoretical background... I just finished it.

{John_Murray} Did you find it helpful, Barbara?

{Barbara_Latragna} I have never had a class on economics only history with sweeping generalities about Marx and Locke

{Jim_Dwyer} My journalist background makes me think and hopefully write compactly.

{John_Murray} David McClellan's stuff is very good and very readable.

{John_Murray} That's readable.

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{John_Murray} Hi Kathleen.

{Jim_Dwyer} Hi Kathleen.

{Jim_Dwyer} Hi Marcy.

{John_Murray} Hi Marcy.

{Kathleen_George} Hi everyone..it seemed to take forever to get on tonight

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} hi, all — sorry I'm late, had a very hard time getting online tonight

{John_Garrison} Hello, K, K, & M

{John_Murray} We all did, Marcy

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} So it's not just me — that's a relief

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{Marcy_Goodfleisch} Hi, Dan

{Dan_Eisenberg} Hello — glad to see everyone made it!

{Barbara_Latragna} yes in a way but the material is slow going.... I was having trouble with understand what he meant by middle class...

{John_Murray} Hi Dan, we're here!

{Barbara_Latragna} busy looking up definitions and trying to understand the background

{John_Garrison} The middle class is anyone who is not of royal blood, or a peasant/serf.

{John_Murray} Barbara, by "middle class" Marx meant the "disappearing" independent business people, those between the aristocracy and the emerging proles, as John notes.

{John_Garrison} was, that is, at that time...

{John_Murray} Barbara, see if you can find a copy of McClellan's intro to Marx. It's very approachable. The title is mentioned in the Course Guide.

{John_Murray} And, by the way, lots (most?) people find Marx to be anything other than an "easy read."

{John_Garrison} I found that Smith was a bit more cogent, at least, in his presentation of his Philosophic concepts, and had fewer contradictions...

{John_Murray} Smith is/was a superb writer.

{John_Garrison} Agreed...;

{Jim_Dwyer} I agree with John. I think Marx went overboard with detail.

{John_Murray} But Marx is more than his match as a thinker, I'd suggest. That's bait.

{Barbara_Latragna} thanks...I will do that. Bourgeois is one who belongs to the middle class...a capitalist...a bad guy according to Marx. The wage earner is he the middle class?

{John_Garrison} I think that we should also at least touch on Rand, who seems to have brought many of these philosophies together in a more palatable form...

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} From what I've read of Marx, he seems to contradict himself in the idea of having government controlled and owned factories but still retaining individual pride or accomplishment in work.

{John_Murray} Barbara, yes re: the bourgeoisie, about to become the "new ruling class." The wage Earners are the factories, etc. laborers.

{Jim_Dwyer} A powerful mind does not necessarily translate into useful communication.

{John_Garrison} Absolutely true...

{John_Murray} Marcy, Marx wasn't really after gov't. control. That was something that would occur during the transition from socialism to capitalism, according to Marx.

{Barbara_Latragna} I'm sorry about the questions...also it seems he uses socialism and communism interchangeably.

{John_Murray} Fair enough, Jim. Marx, remember, was writing in 19th century German!!!

{John_Garrison} I think that in that concept, Marx had no clear ideas of how the transition would take place, in a practical sense...

{Jim_Dwyer} I was wondering about the translation. Did we miss much?

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{Jim_Dwyer} Or is nineteenth century German that convoluted.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} I guess I'm interpreting what he said to mean that the source of many goods (factories, etc) would be for the good of all, and not for the wealth of many, but he doesn't explain how someone will avoid drudgery — working just for subsistence rather than for satisfaction.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} Hi, Van.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} I mean wealth of few, not many.

{John_Garrison} Actually, in German, the Language is more concise than English, or even more so than French...

{John_Murray} Barbara, he does, and it gets slippery at times (Jim?). but keep in mind the distinction. Socialism, which meant active government control, was transitional. Communism was, for Marx, the true future. He describes the communist society only very briefly at the end of Part 2 in the CM. One sentence.

{Van_Hartmann} Hello folks. I had some trouble getting connected earlier. What

{Van_Hartmann} 's up?

{John_Murray} Hello, Van.

{John_Garrison} Hi, Van.

{Jim_Dwyer} I liked what Marx said about the possibility of non-violent revolution in his speech at The Hague.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} We all had a rough time with the Internet tonight.

{John_Murray} Yes, Jim. And he was convinced that that would be what would occur in the US.

{John_Murray} And why didn't it?

{Van_Hartmann} Good to hear if only to confirm that I am not as inept as I feared.

{John_Murray} No way, Van!

{Jim_Dwyer} The idea of working this out on political grounds makes much sense since it gets everyone involved in his or her own destiny.

{John_Garrison} Fear is the first step on the road to chaos.

{John_Murray} Marx is/was wildly misunderstood, for all kinds of reasons. But I recall that the Wall Street Journal, in its centenary edition early in the 1990s, referred to Marx as one of the 3 intellectual giants of the modern world.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} Jim, I have trouble seeing how everyone has a role in his or her own destiny as much with that theory as with capitalism

{John_Murray} What's that, Marcy?

{John_Garrison} They really don't, as far as I can see..

{Jim_Dwyer} Marcy, if you can vote, you have some control.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} What Jim just said about politicizing production of goods (isn't that what you meant, Jim)?

{John_Murray} Jim, that's exactly what Marx meant re: getting everyone involved.

{John_Murray} I've lost the thread here. Let me back up.

{John_Garrison} The reality is, that the clever ones find a way to garner the power, and do less, while the producers wind up carrying everyone else on their backs....a system doomed to failure...

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} Yes, but are people as personally involved in reality as it would appear in theory? I think that the control is actually by the few, just as in our government.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} YES!

{Jim_Dwyer} Production is politicized in this country, since unions tend to vote en masse.

{John_Murray} Is that capitalism, John?

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} And the clever/powerful ones end up controlling the lives and destiny of those not so fortunate or in power

{Jim_Dwyer} Its unionism working with capitalism.

{John_Garrison} In case no one really noticed, our destiny really is controlled to a large extent by a plutocracy....

{John_Garrison} Just follow the money...

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} At least you can still pick which career or union you choose to have for your livelihood

{Kathleen_George} Would any of you like to work in a right to work state or under the union?

{John_Garrison} There is, at least, the APPEARANCE of that....

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} Texas is a right to work state.

{John_Murray} I'll take the union.

{John_Garrison} I do, and I don't...

{Jim_Dwyer} I've worked in both, in unions and out.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} I'm not sure I agree — I grew up in a union environment, (Ohio) and there's something to be said for open shops.

{Kathleen_George} We are divided on that one..we must come together and start a revolution!! :)

{Barbara_Latragna} I really can't understand how Marx thought his theory would work...maybe I am seeing it from this side.

{John_Garrison} Unions wind up being a tool of the management....... Once you're in that cage, there is no REAL way out....

{Van_Hartmann} Unless there is government restraint on a pure market economy or there is a strong labor union movement, how does one restrain the excesses of 19th /c capitalism?

{John_Murray} I grew up in a closed-shop state (Mass.), and much of its prosperity (along with its sometimes-wrenching social changes, could be traced to union "power."

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} During his time, I'm sure that opening up the benefits of production to the multitudes was an attractive answer to the poverty and inequity.

{John_Murray} Fair enough, Van.

{Barbara_Latragna} There were big problems with capitalism during that time i.e. child labor etc but with the input of social programs like welfare, unions etc it seems like a better system.

{Jim_Dwyer} We have the same problem with over development in southern Arizona. You tell people about the limited water and the lack of roads and they come and build anyway.

{John_Garrison} I think that it also depends on the union, and the degree of enlightenment of management..... GM's management certainly isn't "enlightened."

{John_Murray} Yes, Barbara, and those social programs were a direct response to the threat of Marxism.

{Van_Hartmann} Right, Barbara. I agree that the key is a counter force to pure capitalism that forces it to become more human.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} What I recall about the union environment was that it seemed to be closely followed by the Mafia. There is not nearly the social concept of Mafia power in a non-union environment

{Jim_Dwyer} Without government control, southern Arizona could become a slum, a dry one.

{Kathleen_George} Do you think Barbara, we should keep the welfare system going? OR go along with the recent changes... do you see it for the better???

{John_Murray} Yes, Jim, and think of the Tenn. Valley Authority.

{Van_Hartmann} There is some very interesting footage of Al Capone railing against the encroachments of communism on American free enterprise

{Jim_Dwyer} Al Capone!

{Barbara_Latragna} I think there must be direction and controls...you can't have someone on welfare for the rest of their lives but we do need it

{John_Murray} He was a superb entrepreneur.

{John_Garrison} The problem, though, Jim, is that the people really don't get involved in their government enough to have ANY control over it....

{Van_Hartmann} Interesting little historical tidbit.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} I agree that Marxism helped force some good changes, but it's a sad commentary on humanity when protecting children, etc., is done by pressure.

{Jim_Dwyer} Al Capone as a superb entrepreneur. I love it.

{John_Murray} Smile.

{John_Garrison} A bit Draconian for my taste..

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} There was an excellent article in the NY Times a few months ago about welfare and it revealed some of the abuses and abusers.

{Jim_Dwyer} Has anybody written a book about how 20th century America would be without Government controls and unions?

{John_Murray} The welfare system's recent "reforms" indeed have been "Draconian."

{Van_Hartmann} I don't know of one that is reputable, but that is the thrust of Milton Friedman's book.

{Barbara_Latragna} The thing that is great about capitalism is that there is opportunity.

{John_Garrison} Yes, and while those "reforms" appear to work in the short term, they don't work in the long term....

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{Barbara_Latragna} maybe that was what Marx was looking for.

{John_Murray} Jim, there's certainly been lots written about the LACK of real union influence in America. Today it's about 12 percent of the workforce; at its height, about 34 percent (post WWII).

{Jim_Dwyer} Right, unionism is declining.

{Jim_Dwyer} I think people have gotten far enough away from 19th century capitalism that they are no longer afraid of it.

{John_Murray} And that's an interesting question. Why in America, unlike the rest of the capitalist counties. Locke, I know, would be pleased.

{John_Garrison} To have a viable relationship between the Unions and the Government, there MUST be a system of checks and balances, so that neither gets absolute power!

{Van_Hartmann} Actually, Michael Moore's movie, Roger and Me, is in part about the effects of that decree of the union" power.

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{Van_Hartmann} My typing is atrocious.

{John_Murray} It shows it starkly!

{Barbara_Latragna} I just got the video last night...haven't had a chance to see it...although I thing I have seen it in the past.

{Jim_Dwyer} The whole culture of unionism, which was very much a family thing, has been decreased by our mobility.

{Barbara_Latragna} oops think not thing

{John_Garrison} Van, I think that the unions were the instruments of their own demise.....Again, we were looking at absolute power, or near to it...

{John_Murray} Good point, Jim. Mobility certain has played a major role.

{Van_Hartmann} Good point, Jim, and also by the shift from industrial production to service industries.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} I agree, John — along with lots of corruption.

{Jim_Dwyer} I think that unions, like governments, should allow all members to work in the power structure.

{Jim_Dwyer} Sort of like the polis.

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{Dan_Eisenberg} Back again

{John_Garrison} I would like the polis' structure........ but we need a LARGE decline in the population....

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} Marx's ideas somewhat espouse the same ideas/values of Polis life.

{Jim_Dwyer} We need another planet.

{John_Murray} Marcy, I think that the "corruption" issue, while real, has perhaps been overplayed by a "less-than-labor-friendly" press, the same press that historically ignored the corruption of corporations.

{Van_Hartmann} I would have to qualify what sounds like a rather monolithic image of mafia driven unions here. The union movement had both corruption and wonderful successes.

{John_Garrison} Almost sounds like the ingredients for another global war........ "Lebensraum," all over again....

{Jim_Dwyer} Marx and the International were very smart to move their headquarter to New York. But where would they move today?

{Jim_Dwyer} To China?

{John_Garrison} I think Marcy is very near to the mark, actually.

{John_Murray} Purchase, NY?

{John_Murray} Smile.

{Van_Hartmann} I wonder how much a film like On the Waterfront contributed to that image of unions in general.

{John_Murray} That's a gem of a film, Van.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} Possibly true — but then, I'm from a journalism background, so that explains why I'm a believer in the corruption of many unions, but I also know where they've done good.

{John_Murray} Fair enough, Marcy.

{John_Garrison} I worked for the city in Kansas City, Mo. Nothing happened without the tacit approval of Nick Civella or his associates....

{Van_Hartmann} Yes, but very clearly anti union and a bit of an apology for the McCarthy witch hunts.

{John_Garrison} Remember Pendergast....

{Jim_Dwyer} And Harry Truman.

{John_Murray} There's a terrific book written by Werner Sombart (Why No Socialism in America?), published in 1903. It's a wonderful little piece and responds to a number of issues raised this evening. When you have some time, enjoy it!

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} Just to be perfectly fair, let me make it clear that I don't trust much of corporate America (look at the tobacco crap) nor do I think the government is totally honest. I'm going to move to that other planet, with Jim.

{Jim_Dwyer} Bring your lunch.

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} You drive.

{John_Murray} Come to Purchase.

{Jim_Dwyer} I'd rather fly.

{Van_Hartmann} As we talk about the lack of democratic process in unions, I wonder if we would apply the same standards to Texaco, or IBM, or other corporations?

{Jim_Dwyer} Purchase, purchase.

{John_Garrison} Tom Pendergast was the Mayor, and he also owned a concrete company with his Mafioso associates...... There is a creek bed in the city in which the concrete bed is 40 feet thick..... An engineer said that if an archeologist came along in two thousand years, that he would wonder how that monolithic structure was made to stand vertically...

{John_Murray} I've enjoyed very much chatting with you this evening. I think it's time for me to depart.

{Jim_Dwyer} Thanks for coming, Dr. Murray.

{John_Murray} Take care, and keep in touch.

{John_Garrison} OK, Goodnight, all.

{John_Murray} That's "care."

{Van_Hartmann} I too will take my leave. Good night.

{John_Murray} bye

{Marcy_Goodfleisch} Goodnight, all

{Jim_Dwyer} Peace and unionism. Love to all.

{Barbara_Latragna} goodnight everyone... thanks for the info.

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      Daniel Eisenberg is Director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Regents College. Previously, he was Distinguished Research Professor of Spanish at Florida State University, and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at Northern Arizona University.


      1. This email mailing list or "listserv" enables AGLSP member institutions to share information concerning Liberal Studies. About 100 institutions are members as of this writing (September, 1999). To become a member of this list, send an email to daniel.eisenberg@bigfoot.com with your name, email address, and institutional affiliation and position.