Last month’s column looked at using the virtual classroom whiteboard as a tool for interactivity rather than just a screen for pushing slides. Another often-underutilized tool is participant chat, available in most virtual classroom products. While chat is often viewed as, literally, a place to just chat or offer commentary, it’s actually a great tool for conducting activities and structured discussions.

Working with large groups?

I have no problems with a busy chat area; I now think of my 2003 introduction to webinar chat as an introduction to what Twitter would look like just a few years later. But if you find it overwhelming for yourself or your participants, or otherwise just want to manage groups for a chat (or whiteboarding) activity, you can do it by selecting different people throughout the session. Ask them to respond based on criteria such as:  

  • Everyone wearing glasses.
  • Everyone with blond hair.
  • Want fewer? Everyone with red hair.
  • Everyone born January through March.
  • Everyone with brown eyes.
  • Everyone wearing blue.
  • Fewer: Everyone wearing orange.
  • Dog owners and/or cat owners.
  • Fewer: Ferret or parrot owners. No answer? Try hamsters, guinea pigs, or fish. Or no pets.
  • Everyone wearing socks.
  • Fewer: Everyone who is barefoot.
  • Everyone whose name starts with a vowel.
  • About 10 percent of the group: Everyone who’s left-handed.
  • For the first three minutes, people with last names that start with A through M; for the next three, people with last names that start with N through Z.

Be sure that everyone has a chance to participate at some point in the session. Not everyone has a pet. Some don’t have hair. Some don’t have eyes or feet. But everyone has a birthday.


Figure 1 is from a train-the-trainer class. The facilitator displayed this penny image and asked participants to write their birth years on it. The virtual classroom tools allow this to be done anonymously, as you can see. Participants were asked to discuss reasons for anonymity in some class activities, a feature unique to the webinar environment.

Figure 1: Brainstorming in participant chat

Role play

This can be especially useful for those whose work involves using chat, such as some customer service reps. In this example, Odessa was instructed to be the angry caller with a broad, sweeping complaint. Dave was the new customer service rep tasked with identifying the problem.

Figure 2: Role play

Dave’s made a misstep with the “I can’t read minds” comment, and the conversation is not becoming any more productive. At this point the facilitator might stop the chat and ask Dave to stop and reflect, coach him on ideas for improving the conversation, or open up a larger group discussion.

Sentence stems

Display a partial statement on a slide, and ask participants to finish it in chat.

Sentence stems:

  • One thing I know about ________________________
  • The best boss I ever had always __________________________
  • The biggest challenge with setting up the work flow for that is _____________________________


Ask participants to take turns adding ideas to a common goal, elaborating on a process, or building an idea. If you need to, you can just let them go in the order in which they appear in the participant list (that’s usually alphabetical) or assign numbers.

In the example in Figure 3, a group of workers who deal with eligibility for Medicaid benefits used a round-robin chat to construct a sample family that would be the basis for the case they would subsequently work through.

Figure 3: Group builds a sample family to use as a case for their class activities

Stimulate prior knowledge


  • What are some key tips for making a good first impression?
  • What were some traits of the best boss you ever had?
  • Who remembers the last software implementation? What are some lessons we learned from that?
  • What do you know about immunotherapy?

Private or paired chat

Virtual classroom chat tools usually allow two participants to message each other. This is usually private and can’t be seen by other participants or the facilitator. (NOTE: Be sure to check the tool you are using to confirm that the chat is indeed private. If not, be sure to tell everyone that so they’ll know their comments are visible to others.) Use this capability to have people work in pairs.

Here’s an example of a private chat from a class for new supervisors. The facilitator has set up pairs of participants. Figure 4 shows Jamie starting a private chat with Anna. Other participants cannot see this conversation. Pairs are given five minutes to talk about their challenges with handling difficult discussions with employees and to develop one suggestion for improving (Figure 5). At the end of the activity, each pair will close the private chat and share the suggestion with the rest of the class.

Figure 4: Participants can privately message each other

Figure 5: Paired chat from class for new supervisors

Want more?

I hope this discussion, along with last month’s column, gives you some ideas for making the webinar environment more than a passive, lecture-only experience for learners. For more information on pulling information rather than pushing content, see “Let the Learners Hold the Spoon.”