Whilst most popular Chat rooms - available from individual commercial portals or through downloading IRC (Internet Relay Chat) software - are mainly entertainment-based and have little or no educational value, some teachers are beginning to use Chat as an educational tool by setting up a closed Chat services to link up with other schools and organisations world wide. In this section of the website Childnet gives 8 key advice tips on what to consider when setting up a chat service or assess a good and suitable chat room facility for your students. The Guide also gives examples of how Chat is being used creatively in schools.

Parts of this guide also appear on the UK's Department for Education and Employment's Superhighway Safety Website , which also contains extensive good practice advice on the Internet in schools.

Chat rooms have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the Internet. In part this is because many young people find them a great, fun, interactive playground in which to make new friends, chat simultaneously to a whole group of other users, or chat to just one individual. Most chat is text based i.e. conversation is typed like e-mail bouncing back and forward between a group and appearing immediately on the screen. However, increasingly audio is being offered which requires a microphone and speakers.

For further background to how Chat works click here.

Whilst most Chat rooms - available from individual commercial portals or through downloading IRC (Internet Relay Chat) software - are mainly entertainment-based and may have little or no educational value, there are a number of educational websites beginning to offer Chat facilities. If you are interested in using Chat, we recommend that before you start make sure you understand how Chat works and the skills needed. Whilst many pupils may be proficient typists they will need to think fast and type quickly to use Chat rooms effectively and keep up with the conversation.

Furthermore, make sure you understand the important safety issues involved in Chat rooms. When you use a Chat room you have to give an alias or nickname and do not know who you are speaking to.- In this way it is like talking to strangers, and just as with strangers in the offline world, you should never give out personal information, or agree to meet them. Sadly there have been a number of incidents where school aged children have been exploited after agreeing to meet strangers they first had contact with in a Chat room.

For further details on the dangers of chat click here.

For this reason it is important that the use of Chat is always supervised in a school context and schools may want to consider banning individual use of Chat by pupils in their Acceptable Use Policies.

For further information on Acceptable Use Policies click Here.

In recognising a good Chat room for use in an educational context you should consider the following:

A good Chat room should have a moderator or referee who checks what users are saying and ensures that the rules of the Chat room (no bad language, propositions, or other inappropriate behaviour) are observed. If those users who break the rules of the room are not thrown out, or warned publicly, the moderator is not online or is ineffective.

Clearly if the site does have a moderator it will be important to check whether they are a teacher, or recognised approved adult. Some sites have software programmes used, maybe in addition to human moderation, to screen the incoming text If so, what are the keywords they are looking for - 'expletives, sex' etc, or 'meet, MacDonalds, secret' etc?

A good Chat room should have a very clear Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement which should be upheld and enforced.

Whist there are some general web sites which have rooms to chat about specific topics, a good educational Chat facility should publish advanced notice of topics and questions being discussed, as well as ensure that a host oversees the chat and leads the chat as a teacher in a classroom. (Sometimes this host will also serve as the moderator).

Some popular Chat rooms have advertising and links to other sites and services. It is therefore vital that you check out who runs the Chat room and whether there is a clear educational objective from the service. Some Chat rooms include an archive of earlier Chat sessions - this can be a helpful resource in assessing the value of pupils taking part in future sessions.

For Chat rooms to be used most effectively within an educational context, it is vital that students have genuine opportunities to express their views, learn from one another and initiate new Chat sessions.

Can anyone join the Chat room ?
Is there clear differentiation of age groups ?
How does the Chat room verify its passwords and users ?

A good Chat room should remind users of the dangers and display prominent safety tips.

A number of schools and educational websites are using Chat constructively and through well-structured, moderated sessions, children can benefit from using Chat as it provides an excellent medium to discuss issues with other children (especially from other countries) about a common interest. Children can grow in confidence as they express their views concisely and "on the spot". Examples where Chat is being used constructively include:

An international website on animals which uses Chat to link children in different schools with a famous Children's author. Previous transcripts of Chat sessions with the authors are included on the site.

An international website called ENO - (Environment on line) which aims to be a global virtual school for environmental awareness. Already 50 schools, from every continent, have joined the network and are active in studying the environment locally and globally. The site has a carefully planned moderated Chat timetable see http://eno2000.joensuu.fi/html/default.html with archive of earlier Chat.

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