I remember the first time I taught a course via web conference many years ago. My co-worker and I were both new to the technology, and it was the blind leading the blind. We noticed the chat feature and promptly turned it off as we decided that we didn’t want people chatting while we were talking - that would be too distracting, we surmised.
Now as an experienced web conferencing practitioner, I can’t imagine a web conference without an active chat panel. Do I expect participants to chat as the facilitator speaks? Yes. Is it distracting, or does it mean they aren’t paying attention? No. If you copy and paste the chat text at the conclusion of a web conference and review what participants typed, you will usually see that the majority of the text contains comments about the session, answers to questions posed during the session and clarifying questions from participants. According to the eLearning Guild’s 2008 research report on Synchronous Learning Systems, chat ranks at the top of the feature satisfaction list and feature ease of use, and it’s the fifth most commonly used feature.
In today’s world of texting and microblogging, participants are more comfortable than ever with the chat panel in a web conference. Encourage your audience to use the chat area early in your session by doing something simple such as typing in their location. Give feedback early by acknowledge those who are the first to use the chat area, to send a signal that you will be responding to chat comments. As you verbalize a question, post it in the chat area as well. You may receive verbal and chat responses, which means more participants had the opportunity to contribute. The facilitator doesn’t need to respond to every chat comment or example, just acknowledge that there are many good examples and highlight a few. Weaving chat comments and questions into the verbal discussion or presentation opens up a huge door for interactivity.