Distance Education Using Internet Relay Chat (IRC) - Lessons the Teacher Learned!

Go to author's original draft with reviewer comments

Go to critical reviews

Abstract: IRC allows teachers and students to communicate in real-time (synchronous communications) providing opportunities to address student's questions, demonstrate problem solving and to work in groups. However, IRC and similar text-based real-time technologies suffer from a variety of problems which instructors should understand before integrating IRC into their distance learning courses.This paper summarises my experience with IRC and highlights the problems I encountered.

I set out to teach chemistry, via the internet, to young teens either at home or through their traditional schools. I was delivering this instruction on my own (not affiliated with the university where I work). Teachers in other environments may find that their experiences differ due to the support they might receive from their schools. I assumed the student had access to the internet via a Web browser, e-mail and IRC. Most of the "lecture" materials were presented as Web pages and e-mail offered the opportunity to deal (asynchronously) with individuals having difficulty. These two technologies are sufficient for a distance learning program (and will be discussed in a subsequent article) but I was enthusiastic about the possibility of using IRC to interact with the students and provide some "realism" to the teacher/student relationship. I wanted to use IRCs to supplement my Web page lectures, present problem-solving sessions and encourage interaction with and among the students.

I advertised for students through several relevant newsgroups and recruited four girls and two boys, ages 13 to 15. They varied in their science education background, computing ability and hardware.

After e-mailed introductions the course began with the distribution of the first set of readings from the "hypertextbook" (Web pages). I e-mailed detailed instructions about how to use the software (mIRC), where we would meet (a chatroom I would create on the Undernet channel) and the password to use. I planned that our first "meeting" would be mostly about IRC technology and that the chemistry would start in the second meeting. [It would be helpful to provide URL links to the "hypertextbook" so readers can see what you're talking about. -N] [The original hypertextbook no longer exists. However, I could point the reader to an online example of the hypertextbook that evolved from this expereince.]

This session was scheduled for an hour but lasted much longer and did not cover the basics of IRC as well as I had hoped. First, I showed the students how to "ping" me and each other. The purpose of the pings is to determine the time for a round-trip message. My pings to some students were as short as 5 seconds but to other students they were as long as 100 seconds. Ping-times changed frequently throughout the session. Throughout the session the channel connections were being cut randomly, causing individuals to mysteriously "disappear". This is a common occurrence in IRCs. When dropped from a channel you must reconnect, rejoin the chatroom (via the password) and pick up the discussion having missed all that was said in your absence.

I was aware of the problems of disconnections and long ping-times when I planned the course but juggling these among six students was far more difficult than I had expected. By the end of our first session we had agreed that we should find a better time to meet in order to get the fastest pings and fewest disconnections. [I think this section could be shortened into one paragraph. Basically, you're saying that network response time was highly variable, workstations crashed, and disconnects occurred. You may then want to comment on how these problems impact instruction. -N] [I've trimmed out several bits. Below I hope that the long (winded?) section that follows will illustrate how instruction was harmed. Let me know if this is what you have in mind.]

Through a series of emails I rescheduled our IRCs. Students wanted to meet at a reasonable hour but that meant we were meeting during some of the heaviest internet traffic times and some pings were as long as 20 minutes! Eventually we tried evenings and weekends, but we were always plagued with disconnections and long pings. These two problems, as well as my typing speed (which is not slow), created a spiral of confusion and irritation for all of us.

Here is an example I pieced together to illustrate the problem.

Cathy asked a question indicating that she was confused about the difference between a radioisotope and a "general" isotope. While I typed an explanation, Mark told me (and everyone in the chat room) that he had read somewhere that protons and neutrons are of different mass so the total nucleon count could not be used to determine mass. Suddenly Peter chimed in to tell everyone that the difference in mass is because of a hidden electron in the neutron. (Which is sort of true.) Sorting this all out was a nightmare because Peter and Mark had a quick connection between them (short pings) so they continued with a series of convoluted ideas. I sent "Hold on we'll get to that in a moment. Let's deal with Cathy's question first.", but discovered that now I had been disconnected! So I reconnected and found that Peter and Mark had had a long dialogue while I was gone and had produced lots of questions for me that were not on topic. Cathy was repeating her question. I resent my explanation to Cathy's question and started to deal with the hypothesis the boys had created. But both the boys thought my reply to Cathy was a reply to their (strange) ideas about the neutrons and got the impression that neutrons are radioactive (or something) and they then both asked questions along that line.

This overlapping of messages makes explanations very difficult in a chatroom with several people. I tried to establish some rules to cut down on the confusion but these slowed us down in the long run and stifled spontaneity. The rules also caused students to resent the person (student or me) who, through no fault of his/her own, was holding up the class. The solution was to use separate chatboxes (private one-to-one chatrooms) for each student, but then we were no longer a class, just a series of one-to-one tutorials.

I do not type as fast as I talk and neither do students. They sent me incomplete sentences with cryptic spelling errors but I felt I should not do the same. Naturally, I had prepared some material beforehand so I could copy and paste it into the IRCs to get us rolling. However, once the interaction started it was a typing race! The demand on typing speed makes it very difficult to be "nice" in real-time. A good teacher would say, "I can see where you went wrong but try to remember that there are two electrons in each covalent bond just like in your Lewis structures. All new chem students get confused about it. It's a common mistake so don't feel bad." IRC brevity demands I type, "No. Study your Lewis structures again." These short, terse statements are not conducive to learning and sound hostile.

Each session lasted much longer than I expected. Some students could not stay because they had other courses to attend. Homeschooling students were more flexible, but their parents were becoming concerned about all the internet time because they pay by the minute for the connection. Indeed, time ruled our lives—time in the extended IRCs, time arranging when to meet again (in hopes of finding a better channel and pings) and time clearing up the confusion.

By the fourth session the course was starting to fragment. I emailed transcripts of what was said to those students who could not stay past our scheduled time. Students began to email me before an IRC to ask, "Could you go over such-and-such during the IRC?". By the time the IRC would meet I usually had a list of requested "such-and-such" topics and no time to cover what I had planned. So, I started answering the emailed questions with emailed replies.

Emailed replies to emailed questions, emailed transcripts of missed IRCs and most of the course material was presented on the Web pages anyway, so you can imagine what happened. My IRC chemistry sessions died. [Again, this section is far, far too long and detailed. You have added a couple of other constraining factors here, including student typing speed and scheduling. You may want to combine both of these sections into one section, about three or four paragraphs long. -N] [I've combined the two sections into one. I'm sorry, N, but I think this (long) section is a good illustration of the problems and solutions that evolved to deal with them. It shows how email took the place of IRC. I think the "devil is in the details" and that's why I want to leave them in. General statements may be mistaken for opinion while details allow the reader to see the reasoning.]

I was surprised to learn that the students enjoyed a lot of the IRC in spite of the problems! They all agreed it was not a good classroom activity but they were happy that I had introduced them to the technology and to each other.

Ancillary benefits and warm feelings aside, as a teaching device IRC suffered from the confusion and frustration caused by:

  1. IRC channels disconnecting frequently and randomly.
  2. excessive delays in transmission (pings).
  3. the fact that real-time chat is actually real-slow typing.

Some of the problems could have been avoided or made less severe with some careful planning and minimum requirements in hardware, computing ability and overall support at the student's computer. Also, IRC on the Undernet channels was a mistake because of the slow speeds and common disconnections. A dedicated server would have made IRC more stable and enjoyable. Perhaps the very nature of the subject I was teaching was inappropriate. Scientific explanations do not fit well into short phrases.

Regardless, real-time typing is not an effective way to teach (unless you are teaching Typing). Students get frustrated, confused and, eventually, demotivated when they don't receive your reply quickly. Time is money and time spent typing is NOT time spent educating.

It was with regret that I abandoned IRC. By relying on email and webpages I felt I was cheating students. However, when I stepped back and looked at the teaching/learning going on using IRC I had to admit it was an unsatisfactory type of real-time interaction. Someday, videoconferencing will be easy over the internet and real-time interactive teaching will not be limited by typing speed and technical glitches. Until then I will stick with asynchronous communications (webpages, email, bulletin boards, etc.) to teach and assist in distance education. [You may want to explore other alternatives as well … what about CUSeeMe or NetMeeting for one-on-one sessions? What are the implications for moving into a videoconferencing environment. What about e-mail groups? Since you did not conclude that synchronous class experiences are not valuable, what are other alternatives that you can explore today? You might also want to talk a bit about the scaling implications of your work … e.g. moving from an environment of six students to one of 60, or perhaps 600. -N] [All of these suggestions are good but I have very little first hand experience with them. Each of these questions could be another paragraph, if answered, or be only rhetorical. ]


Critical Reviews

Critic B

1. I really liked this article very much, because it got right down to why it's almost impossible to use IRC or live chat as the primary basis for interaction in a course. With some revisions to tighten things up, this will be a fun read for many people considering incorporating chat or IRC into their courses.

[I hope I've tightened it up enough. Again, I use examples (which I feel I should because they are useful) so it tends to run long.]

2. The most important revision necessary is to beef up the first paragraph to include a thesis statement along the lines of: this article discusses my experience with IRC and outlines why I don't think it's a good tool. And then outlines how the paper is laid out. This is important because that is the conclusion and main argument of the piece.

[I've been brief in order to keep it short(er).]

3. After changing the first paragraph, other changes to the structure may be necessary to tighten things up.

4. I think the title is cute as is, but might be more useful if changed to something that reflected the central conclusion that IRC is not so hot for teaching chemistry at a distance.

[Hmmm. What would you suggest? : -)]

Critic N

Although the article has been improved, it is still a "micro-article" that describes experiences with only a handful of students. The conclusions are not unexpected, and underscore why IRC is used more for one-on-one communication between friends than for instruction. It's also curious why the author pointed out that this was an independent activity and "not affiliated with the university where I work" … was it a research effort or a community service experiment? Because the article has little impact for classroom or larger instructional settings, I would not recommend publication.