GLOBAL: Students benefit from online chat rooms

The social environment prevailing within higher education institutions in has seen many changes in recent years. Information technological tools such as internet chat rooms could be one of the cheapest and student-friendly tools universities could use to meet the social and psychological needs of their students.

A chat room was created for the students of Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia) and this paper explains the ways it was used by the students. Based on the observations made, this paper highlights the fact that chat rooms could be a useful tool for universities.

The real-time nature of chat rooms means that they can be used to provide quality services to the students with instant response capability. The chat rooms also can be useful to improve certain specific administrative areas, such as student enquiries, library services and student counselling.

The research has provided strong evidence that the chat room can serve as a valuable tool in helping students make a smooth transition to university life. By providing a virtual forum for new students to get connected with the university community, they will, hopefully, feel more comfortable on campus and also build a strong social support network.

This might then assist with their academic performance. The virtual nature of chat rooms encourages new students to get connected to the campus even before physically entering the university. This will significantly reduce the misconceptions students develop about university life and the services available within universities, and reduce any anxieties about the transition process to university life.

By providing valuable opportunities for the students to ask questions and listen to the experiences of senior students, chat rooms can help universities facilitate long-term friendships among their student communities.

Recent government policy changes in Australia have strong implications for the social environment prevailing within universities. The introduction of voluntary student unionism may restrict the financial capabilities of Australian universities to provide quality services to students. The student unions, which were previously the coordinators of student services on-campus, are now restricted in their capabilities.

These developments will continue to have many serious implications for universities, particularly those that are smaller or located in regional areas of Australia. While Australian universities are in the process of understanding the implications of these policy changes for students, there is an urgent need for creating a range of measures that will help students to cope with the policy changes and find ways to connect with one another. Internet-based tools, such as chat rooms, can benefit universities in this particular area.

Already, these tools are in use within the universities for academic purposes and require minimal effort and financial commitment to use these tools to help and support the students. Chat rooms can help to minimise the gap appearing between students and university administration that has been caused by the recent federal government policy changes. They can also create fora for a meaningful discussion between students. Student organisations can use chat rooms to help them reach students and establish a strong rapport at a minimal cost.

University campuses have undergone significant changes as a result of the revolution in telecommunications. Telecommunications technology has also influenced student behaviours in many interesting ways. Australian universities have come under intense pressure to fulfil the ever-growing needs of the digital generation by acquiring a range of 'high-tech' tools.

The internet chat room is one such tool and has much potential for future exploration. The Flinchat project indicates many advantages that chat rooms can offer to universities. The future will present many challenges to university administrations, which can be addressed through technological tools such as internet chat rooms.

Further research to understand the advantages and disadvantages of these technological tools are crucial for the universities to maximise their potential.

* A. R. Mubaraka, A. Rohdeb and P. Pakulski work in the school of social administration and social work at Flinders University Health and Counselling Service. This is an edited extract from The social benefits of online chat rooms for university students: an explorative study, published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, Vol. 31, No. 2, March 2009. The full paper can be read here.