Engaged conversations: text-based vs. verbal (Module 5, ISTE-CS 4)

For our last post on ISTE Coaching Standard 4: Professional development and program evaluation, we’re thinking about what technology rich professional learning looks like, in the ideal. In my own typical fashion, I am generalizing the population to “learners” before thinking about the specifics of professional development (PD) for teachers.

Ideally, an online learning community looks like a group of people engaged in meaningful, virtual conversation/sharing/collaboration which supports their learning.

But how do you have meaningful conversations in virtual environments? What does it require? What’s different than in-person communication? Why does it feel more difficult?

How can we use what we know from our experiences in other online communities to inform our interactions in the online learning communities that we wish to create? 

How can we use that information to support teachers in creating virtual communities of practice that support them in their professional learning?

Talking with the experienced

I’ve had a hard time finding information about what online community members themselves can do to develop their shared community and learn from each other. There is a lot of information on what facilitators and community leaders can do to encourage community participation, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the community members to engage. So what should community members know about engaging in rich discussions through text to help them have successful text-based discussions? (When I refer to “text” I don’t necessarily mean “texting,” I just mean any form of text-based communication – e.g., texting, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Reddit, etc.)

My primary tactic for answering my questions this module was to talk to a handful of people I know, who are both thoughtful and have spent a considerable amount of time participating in online communities or otherwise engaging in text-based communication.

Through these conversations, I realized that I was conflating two things: actions that community members can take that support participation in the community and its discussions, and actions that people can take that support engaged conversations. This may or may not be a subtle distinction. The difference is like participation in discussion threads, which may not have much of a back and forth conversational element, versus participation in an engaged conversation where there is a back and forth between participants. For example, if someone posts a question and everyone simply gives their own answer, versus if someone posts a question and a debate begins. One of my friends proposed this definition for an engaged conversation: “engagement is usually when both parties are kinda, aware of and committed to the outcome/effect of the conversation on the other person.” I haven’t fully explored if I think this is a complete definition for my use, but I think it’s worth considering, and for now it’s the most concise and accurate definition I have to work with, so I will use it.

What I was really after was how to support engaged conversation, but there was a noteworthy similarity in what everyone said about how to support participation. The two main things that community members can do to support participation in the community and its discussions are:

  • Post content
  • Respond to posts (even when you disagree)

On the one hand, “yeah, duh,” but on the other hand, even though it’s obvious, there seems to be no escaping that this is the bottom line for an online community. And the smaller the community, the more important it is for community members to commit to doing these things.

Engaged conversations

However, having an engaged text-based conversation is not dependent on participating in a community, since it really only requires two people. So whether your participating in a community, or just one-on-one discussion, what’s different about communicating through text compared to verbal conversation? For text-based conversations:

  • It can require more energy – Typing your thoughts takes time and effort, and communicating through text is slower, overall. The thought of putting all you’re thinking into coherent sentences can feel like walking through pudding.
  • The ability to put ideas into sentences becomes very important – Sometimes we don’t have the words, but in person we still manage to communicate our thoughts or questions through half-sentences and body language. There’s a certain concreteness that becomes very important in a text-based conversation.
  • Multiple people can share ideas simultaneously – Conversations don’t need to be as turned based. You can complete your thought while the other person is typing. In this way, you don’t have to be interrupted and everyone can keep contributing to the conversation. While this can work really well in one-on-one conversations, it seems plausible that this could also work against large-group conversations; if there’s too much to respond to, groups may break out into multiple, smaller-group conversations.
  • You can keep track of multiple conversations simultaneously – For example, in a one-on-one, real-time conversation, while I respond to conversation 1, the other person can respond to conversation 2.
  • Tangents can be easier to come back from – If you are talking about some topic, and you go off on a tangent (or a few), in a verbal conversation it can be hard to remember what point you were initially discussing. But when talking through text, you can make your tangential point and then refer back to what you were discussing earlier to get back on track.
  • They can be very focused – Being able to look back at what you’ve been talking about (like in the above bullet) can promote focused conversation on whatever central thing you’re discussing.
  • Miscommunication or misunderstanding may be more challenging to overcome
Handling miscommunication

The challenge of miscommunication was my husband’s central focus during our discussion (which was verbal). To him, the main thing that seems hard about text-based conversation is preventing and fixing miscommunication. Indeed, when I am writing for people that I don’t know well (like posting to a discussion board for a class), what stresses me out the most is worrying that I will be misinterpreted…and offend someone. And I can easily think of examples where a conversation essentially ended due to unfixed miscommunication. But miscommunication isn’t a difficulty unique to text-based conversations, so what is it about text that makes it feel so much harder?

Signaling misunderstanding is a slower process than the immediate “wait, what?” of verbal conversation. It can take more time and energy to fix miscommunication, and it might be one of those things that feels like walking through pudding. Because the whole process is so much slower, it might amplify how much it feels like clarifying derails the flow of the conversation.

And we all know that lack of tone and body language can lead to miscommunication. But there are two specific ways I can think of that the missing tone and body language can cause a miscommunication to effectively end the conversation:

  • Emotions are muted in text, and emotions are a huge indicator that miscommunication is happening. Therefore, we can’t necessarily see that miscommunication is happening in real-time. And if tension is on the rise, being able to respond to the miscommunication is time-sensitive. If you’re upsetting someone, and you can’t see it, the conversation may be over before you even know what happened. (This happened to me recently. I was pressing for clarification and didn’t realize I was upsetting him.)
  • When miscommunication is realized, and emotions are affected, we don’t have access to tone and body language to smooth things over, which we rely on heavily in verbal conversations. This just increases the difficulty of managing certain types of miscommunication.
Implications

So what does this mean for those of us who are trying to engage in an online community or otherwise trying to have a meaningful conversation through text (whether it be for an online class or professional development, or for a hobby)?

  • Commit to putting your thoughts in writing – There are a handful of people I communicate with regularly, and primarily, through text. There are times when I have to make a conscious decision to sit down and take a minute to write out what I’m thinking. I can feel that I’ve stepped into the pudding, and I can either choose to step out, or walk through it. If you want to have that meaningful conversation, accept that you’re going to walk through it.
  • Work to clarify miscommunication or misunderstanding – Ask for clarification. Put in the time to clarify. Be patient. While it can derail the flow of the conversation to go back and hone in on something you didn’t understand, luckily, tangents are easy to recover from. And it’s worth it. Trusting that someone will work with me to resolve a misunderstanding makes the effort of communicating worth it – because if we’re not going to work to understand each other, why are we even communicating?
The ultimate question

The ultimate question we need to ask each other, and ourselves, when trying to encourage meaningful communication online is:

What will make you choose to participate in engaged conversation in an online community? What do you need in order to commit to writing your thoughts and responding to others? What do you need in order to commit to working through miscommunication?

If we want to intentionally build online learning communities, I think it’s important that we figure out what our own answers to these questions are. If we are going to use virtual communities of practice to support teachers’ professional learning, we need to know what the teachers need in order to participate; and the teachers need to know what their own needs are, too.


Resources

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches