In this article, I wish to reflect on my experience using the messaging app, Telegram, as a teaching tool. I will begin on the motivations for adopting Telegram, and then proceed to discuss how I carried out the use of Telegram in my teaching, and my observations of how students responded to it.
In the past 3.5 years of teaching here in NUS, I have learnt through my conversations with many local students that so many students perceive barriers to various modes of consultation that are typically available to them. These obstacles revolve around fear and issues of ‘face.’
In public settings, like asking questions in class or on the online forums, students are afraid of making a fool of themselves by asking a “stupid” question in front of everyone else, or at least saying the wrong thing, and risk the embarrassment of being corrected in front of everyone. In other words, they fear losing ‘face’ by asking questions in a public setting.
On that same line of thought, there is also a fear that speaking out or asking certain questions can make one stand out so much that it creates pressure on the student to maintain that expectation or risk losing ‘face.’
Three years ago, I commended a student for her excellent writing on the online forums. After class, she approached me saying how she wished I did not do that as it had “revealed her true abilities” to the rest of the class. As it is, the forums were already very stressful as she did not want to stand out from the crowd, nor did she want to embarrass herself by saying anything wrong. But now that she had been “outed” by me as having excellent writing, she now has to deal with the added stress of maintaining the same standards. In a competitive culture, many students perceive this as a bad thing, because they worry that doing so would mean having to work extra hard to maintain that reputation. Failing to meet that public expectation, would result in a huge loss of ‘face.’
And while our local students prefer to seek help in a more private setting (face-to-face consults or e-mail), there is still an obstacle that puts them off: they perceive these modes of consultations as too formal, and they feel that this apparent “formality” requires them to prepare well beforehand so that they do not waste the teacher’s time, or to say or do something that will cause them to look bad before the instructor.
This became very apparent to me two years ago when I had to tutor a module on computational thinking to FASS undergraduate students. Because the nature of the subject was so alien to these students, many of them simply did not know how to articulate their questions. The ones who asked for consultations (or e-mailed me for help) knew how to articulate their questions, or at least questions on issues they were clear about. But it was apparent to me that many students did not understand. They wanted help, but they were too afraid to ask. And when I asked what kept them from seeking consultations with me, they said that they wanted to get everything in order, that they wanted to compile a list of questions before approaching me. They thought that it would be a waste of my time and that it would be embarrassing to reveal how much they did not understand.
This was the same answer I got from many students. And because they struggled on such a fundamental level, they could not achieve the level of preparedness they wanted before they saw it fit to arrange for a consultation, or even draft an e-mail with their questions. In other words, the formality of a face-to-face consultation, or even a private e-mail was an obstacle for students to seek help even when they urgently needed it. The fear of losing ‘face’ was just too great.
To summarise: many local students feel that the act of asking questions or seeking help is an act that risks losing ‘face,’ or tarnishing their reputation before their peers or teachers.
When I was tasked to develop and teach a new compulsory module for FASS students – GET1050 “Computational Reasoning” (which was, once again, an area alien to most FASS students) – I remembered the experiences and conversations I had with my former students, many of whom felt that questioning was a terrifying act of risking one’s ‘face.’
I decided to experiment with setting up a Helpline chat group on Telegram, a popular instant messaging app that allows for the creation of large chat groups. The helpline would serve several functions: (1) it would be an informal setting and to some extent, an almost anonymous platform where students can ask questions without drawing too much embarrassment to themselves; (2) if students were afraid to post questions on the helpline, they can still reach out to me privately on Telegram; (3) since the module is a blended-learning course, Telegram was the one platform that allowed me to engage and interact with my students on a regular basis (especially for students who are not in my tutorial groups); (4) the platform is the ideal means for cultivating a safe and positive learning culture where students should not feel afraid to seek help; and (5) the instant communication allows me to converse with students so as to help those struggling to articulate their questions.
I have since used Telegram for two semesters with great success. Here, I’d like to document what I did and several observations I made:
In the first two weeks, Telegram was rather quiet. There were not many queries. That was because students were still exploring and wondering what sorts of questions they could safely ask on the platform. The first couple of questions were sent privately to me on Telegram, and I made it a point to post the Q&A to the Helpline, even though students may have felt that the question was silly, pointless, or irrelevant. Nonetheless, I did it anyway because it served two purposes: (1) it allowed me to share the knowledge as I believed that there were other students with similar questions; and (2) it was a way of educating the cohort about the kinds of questions they could ask, and I wanted them to know that they can always expect a safe environment where I would answer them without judgement.
Every few days, I would also post light-hearted remarks and other jokes, or joke around with students on the Helpline. This was my way of interacting with students and building rapport with them. After all, I don’t have the luxury of interacting with all the students in a lecture setting (all my lectures are in the form of videos online). I also made a point to involve my TAs in the chat. They would help to answer queries, and occasionally post light-hearted content. This was my way of reinforcing the idea that this is an informal setting, a safe environment where we can learn together and be silly together. That this helpline was a community of learning.
As the weeks went by, not only were there more students joining the Helpline, but there were also more students daring to ask questions publicly on the chat group. I believe the interactions that my TAs and I carried out in the first few weeks of the semester were very critical in establishing that trust in students, that they could trust us enough to ask questions without fear.
And what was most amazing, was that by the time we got to Recess Week, there was a sense that the community on the Helpline had grown and matured. There were moments where I would inform the Helpline that I’m too busy to respond to queries. Not long after, I’ll find students rising up to the occasion, and answering queries from their peers. The same happens when students ask questions very late into the night.
So not only is there an increased sense of trust and respect for all on the Helpline, but I believe that students have begun to feel safe to seek help and to help others on such a platform. That is, of course, once the culture and environment has been set right at the start, and continually maintained.
In both semesters, the feedback from students have been incredible positive about the use of Telegram. Here I’d like to conclude with an excerpt of a reflection that a student wrote that best summarises how the use of Telegram and the Helpline played a critical role role in helping students grow comfortable with seeking help:
“My main learning point is summarized by the phrase: ‘No one can push you if you don’t want to push yourself; we all grow through struggles’. Having a good attitude towards learning is important. I particularly got this takeaway because this module is by-far the most encouraging, most-interaction (during tutorial) and most interesting module I took . The instructor and my TAs from tutorial class are really encouraging and I like how they always assure us that they are very willing to help us as long as we seek help. It really motivates me to want to do well for this module since I know that I am equipped with all the resources that I need and in addition, I have approachable people that I can turn to when I need help. However this also means that it is a test of self-discipline as we take charge of our own learning progress. If I choose not to help myself, then I will not learn to the best of my ability no matter how encouraging the instructors and TAs are. This module made me realized that I cannot have excuses to justify as to why I didn’t do well for this module because I can no longer say that I find it hard to seek help/the professors are not approachable, thus a good learning attitude is important.”