Full citation: Sherry, L. (2000). The nature and purpose of online
conversations: A brief synthesis of current research.
International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 6 (1), 19-52.
Emerging technologies such as the Internet, the World-Wide Web (WWW), computer-mediated communication (CMC) are being discussed around the world by teachers, administrators, parents, researchers, academics, and technology planners. The WEB Project (http://www.webproject.org) is beginning to show what is possible when telecommunications links participating schools and initiatives with the community-at-large. It serves as an educational environment for student inquiry and expression, a medium for presenting and assessing student work, a virtual faculty room for professional discussions, and a forum for civic discourse. Through its intensive use of the Internet, the WWW, and the WEB Exchange, the project has been supporting ongoing, public dialogue for the past three years.
This innovative project introduces several questions regarding the motives, the impacts, and the activities associated with computer-mediated communication (CMC). This innovative project raises many interesting questions. Why engage in online conversations? What is the nature of mediated discourse? What are its various forms? What are the factors that facilitate or impede it? How does the technology itself interact with different learner characteristics, thereby resulting in different learner outcomes than traditional, face-to-face conversation? Finally, what are the implications for changing roles of students, teachers, experts, and novices as they carry out collaborative inquiry, civic discourse, and design conversations in a mediated environment? These are areas that will be explored in this paper.
"The important thing is that there is some clarity regarding the goals of the electronic discussion because other instructional decisions are related to these goals" (Chism, 1998, p. 7). It is also important to plan electronic discussions so that they will complement what happens in the rest of the course. They should not be tangential to the course. In Chism's study, instructors and students recommended linking the on-line discussion to events that occur in the classroom by setting the agenda for the discussion, by referencing points made in the discussion, by linking assignments to class activities, and by showing students how they can use electronic exchanges to give each other support, encouragement, feedback, and new ideas (ibid., p. 12).
This shift in theoretical focus from knowledge "in the head" to knowledge being situated in an association between the individual intellect and the environment is reminiscent of Allen and Otto (1996) who note that if cognitions are fundamentally situated, then research that fails to take into account the social aspects of a learning task can be criticized as not being ecologically valid. It is also consonant with the view that learning is inherently a social, dialogical process in which learners benefit most from being part of knowledge-building communities both in class and outside of school (Jonassen, 1995). There are two schools of thought that relate to CMC activities: activity theory and situated learning.
These six elements are inextricably related. "Changes in the design of a tool may influence a subject's orientation toward an object, which in turn may influence the cultural practices of the community... The model provides a composite view that recognizes both the socially distributed nature of human activity and the transformative nature of activity systems in general" (Hewitt et al., 1996, p. 4). Thus, when studying CMC as a way of enhancing teaching and learning, one must consider its effects on the entire sociocultural system into which it is introduced, including the individuals who comprise it, the tools they use, the products and performances they create, the norms and conventions of tool use, the roles and responsibilities of individual group members, and the meanings they share as a cultural group (Engestrom, 1996).
In an activity system, the tools of discourse connect people not only with the world of objects, but also with other people as well (Wells, 1996, p. 77). "The tool is not simply added on to human activity: rather, it transforms it" (Tikhomirov, 1981, p. 270).
All CMC systems -- The Internet, the WWW, local area networks (LANs), bulletin board systems, e-mail, and computer conferencing systems -- can be described as socio-technical systems or networks, in which the technical and social forces cannot be clearly separated. "Technologies are social, because they are produced by, facilitate, and shape human interactions" (Falk, 1996). Correspondingly, the WWW is a technology with social and technical dimensions and implications...it mediates and contributes to social as well as technological change" (Falk, 1996).
The philosophical foundations of CSCL are based on situated learning (Suchman, 1987; Lave & Wenger, 1991), communities of learners (Brown, 1994; Brown & Campione, 1996), and cognitive apprenticeships (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989). Within these related schools of thought, researchers are now expanding the study of cognition and conceptual change beyond the individual mind to include learning that is built up by mediated conversations among members of peer groups, local learning communities, and broader cultural systems. CSCL shifts the focus of pedagogical thinking from learning as acquisition of knowledge and skills to learning as entry, enculturation, and legitimate, valued activities situated within a community of practice.
In a situated learning environment, students work on authentic, relevant tasks that take place in a "real world" setting, rather than participating in traditional instructional processes such as recall and recitation, drill and practice, and other forms of individual seatwork. This is totally consistent with Means and her colleagues' (1993) view of systemic reform. The core of educational reform consists of authentic challenging tasks, with nine associated elements:
It is also consonant with the engaged learning paradigm of Jones and his colleagues (1995).
Linking students with a community of practitioners, however, requires the extension of the learning process from the four walls of a traditional classroom and the usual 50-minute class period. The WEB Exchange is ideally suited for this purpose because, as a mediator of CSCL, it can link experts and novices electronically in order to carry out an online dialogue. This dialogue, in turn, can help students refine their works-in-progress and thus move from legitimate peripheral participation to a more expert status within a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991).
Thus, CSCL builds on the conceptual frameworks of both activity theory and situated learning. Used as a mediating tool, CMC enables students, teachers, and other community experts to share distributed representations (Allen & Otto, 1996; Crook, 1994) and to use distributed cognition (Norman, 1993; Fischer, 1995) to overcome the limitations of the individual, unaided human mind. It also supports teachers as they shift their roles from that of pedagogue to coach and model, and supports students as they become experts in the tasks they are currently working on. In this way, "the role of apprentice-master' is shared among students and with the teacher" (Winn, 1995, p. 164).
Transactions in a learning setting do not involve tangible objects. As in the world of public opinion where leaders and followers exchange mutually valued gratifications (Burns, 1978, p. 258), experts and novices in an electronic discussion exchange mutually valued information. Herrmann (1995) identifies these as academic or administrative conversations.
Transforming conversations are often of the nature of progressive discourse. Bereiter (1994) loosely defines progressive discourse as a set of innumerable local discourses that consist of clarifications and resolutions of doubts, and that generate ideas that advance the larger discourse. The important thing about progressive discourse is that "understandings are being generated that are new to the local participants and that the participants recognize as superior to their previous understanding (Bereiter, 1994, p. 9).
In contrast to the previous types of conversation in which knowledge is advanced, transcendent dialogue seeks to produce coordinated action among participants and to bring about genuine social change. Such dialogue "creates a special environment in which the tacit, fragmented forces that guide how people think and act can begin to be perceived and inquired into, and the underlying patterns of influence can be shifted" (Isaacs, 1996, p. 20). Besides being a potentially powerful mode of inquiry and collective learning, "it balances more structured problem-solving approaches with the exploration of fundamental habits of attention and assumption behind traditional problems of thinking" (Isaacs, 1993). Roy Pea (1993, 1994) refers to this as transformative communication.
The purpose of the online conversation will ultimately drive the type of conversation that will ensue. Jenlink and Carr (1996) have identified four types of conversation: dialectic, discussion, dialogue, and design. Discussion is the most familiar and pragmatic; dialogue is also pragmatic, but less common. Dialectic and design are more disciplined orientations. All may be appropriate, depending on how the conversation is linked to the course.
Dialectic conversation focuses on framing a logical argument for distilling the truth. It is a scientific approach, a disciplined inquiry into whatever is being examined. In dialectic conversation, participants are often rigid in their beliefs and debate for what they perceive as truths. The nature of the dialectic conversation is one of debate and logical argument within a context of limited negotiations for change. This often results in factionalization or breaking apart of individuals into different camps, because participants often see their personal viewpoints as the only truths, and consider any attempt to change them as a personal attack.
Discussion conversation is the forum in which many people advocate for their own individual position. Unlike the logical argument expressed by a dialectic, discussion is more subjectively influenced by opinion and supposition. Discussion conversations are transactional in nature, one participant negotiating with others with the advocacy and preservation of personal assumptions as the center of the discourse. Incoherence in thinking is brought on and reinforced by the advocacy or preservation of personal opinions and rigid mindsets, especially when ungrounded suppositions enter the discourse, and when participants are unwilling to disclose their beliefs or suspend their judgments of others' points of view. This results in a breakdown in communication.
Dialogue conversation is a conversation where meaning is constructed through sharing. It is a community-building form of conversation, and as such, shares some aspects of a form of online communication identified by Herrmann (1995) as "community building". Its purpose is to create a setting where conscious collective mindfulness can be maintained. To David Bohm (1990), dialogue is a sustained, mindful inquiry into the processes, certainties, and structures underlying human thought and action.
This form of discourse transforms the individual thinking and thought processes, creating collective thought. It requires that individuals first examine their personal assumptions or opinions and then suspend these assumptions before the entire group. They must step out of their advocacy for personally held assumptions as well as those of others. This type of conversation recognizes variously held common experiences and leads to the longitudinal continuity among learners that is described by Crook (1994). Crook defines longitudinal continuity as a shared, mediated resource of knowledge, experiences, understandings, beliefs, values, and assumptions -- dispersed in time and place -- that forms the "glue" that holds a community of learners together. Crook's conceptual framework shares aspects of Bereiter's (1994) concept of progressive discourse, in which participants suspend their individual thinking and begin to share collectively, thus creating commonly shared meanings and constructing a shared purpose.
Design conversation focuses on creating something new. There is a close relationship between dialogue and design conversations. Both have clear values that include a sense of community, open stakeholder engagement, a shared set of core values and beliefs for human learning, and a common language. Dialogues help the design participants create collective consciousness as well as clear the minds of distorting or conflicting assumptions that lead to incoherence of thinking. Through creating coherence of thinking, a community evolves wherein collective thought is possible and the creative consciousness may emerge to focus outside the constraints of old mindsets.
Design conversation, however, goes beyond the suspension of personal opinions and moves into a suspension of mindsets themselves. To Isaacs (1996), this type of conversation seems to involve shifts in the very ground on which they stand, transforming and expanding their sense of self, and deepening their capacity to hear and inquire into perspectives vastly different from their own. In sum, a dialogue may transform ideas, but a design conversation is capable of transforming the very perspective from which those ideas were generated. As a result, creative thought is able to flow freely among participants.
Though design conversations are rare, even in academic situations, Jenlink and Carr (1996) suggest some strategies for encouraging them:
When learners participate in inquiries at the frontiers of knowledge in a field, with mature communities of practitioners, "they endorse a view of communication for learning that I describe as transformative" (Pea, 1994, p. 298) -- resulting in generative learning and expansion of the ways of knowing. Such generative learning has been observed by Scardamalia and Bereiter (1996). They reported that students who are electronically linked through Canada's Knowledge Society network and who share databases via Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE) became actively involved in building and richly linking these databases, pointing out discrepant information, contributing new information or ideas, considering ideas from different perspectives, and forming important new working relationships and study groups. Likewise, Newman and his colleagues (1989) noted that LAN technology could be used successfully to coordinate small group investigations by science students and to facilitate class discussions that synthesized the contributions of the group.
In a three-year ethnographic study of a 400-member, international group of academics who communicated with each other on listservs, Herrmann (1995) found that three recurrent patterns of communicative activity emerged:
Herrman's academic and community-building conversations are very similar to Pea's information transmission and ritual views of communication. They are also very similar to the types of messages that were posted by students in an optional electronic conference associated with a traditional course (Sherry, 1998).
Pea (1993) explains how people use conversational space to construct their common ground of experiences, meanings, and understandings collaboratively. Norms arise from these shared beliefs that structure the joint activities carried out within a sociocultural learning group. Meaning-making occurs through successive turns of talk and action. In this two-way transformative communication process, members of the group progressively create, share, negotiate, interpret, and appropriate one another's symbolic actions. By internalizing these social interactions and processes, they transform their own meaning schemes. When this conversational space is mediated via electronic messaging or conferencing, the communication tool or network becomes an integral part of the system in which the dialogue takes place.
Pea considers communication, learning, and activity to be intimately linked, in the same way as Lave and Wenger (1991) consider learning to take place through legitimate peripheral participation in a community of learners. As a result, "the learner's appropriation of culturally devised tools' comes about through involvement in culturally organized activities in which the tool plays a role" (Pea, 1993, p. 269). Expertise is developed dynamically through continuing participation in the community's discourse, rather than simply through the individual's possession of a knowledge base and a set of problem-solving skills. This is very similar to Crook's (1994) concept of longitudinal continuity.
Similarly, Bereiter (1994) believes that meaning-making and new conceptual structures arise through a dialectic process in which members of a learning community negotiate contradictions and begin to synthesize opposing viewpoints into a more encompassing scheme. This process, which Bereiter terms progressive discourse, only works if the members have four commitments:
Progressive discourse is simply another term for what most educators call inquiry learning. It is especially useful in problem-based learning, where the field of inquiry is ill-defined, and where there are no simple answers nor straightforward answers. Though art and music are structured fields of knowledge, and though these structures can be taught, through the centuries they have relied on an apprenticeship model to enable students to evolve from novices to experts. Moreover, there are as many ways of creating excellent student products as there are students. By sharing information, fostering multiple perspectives, and suggesting promising strategies; and by negotiating shared meaning among students, teachers and experts, online dialogue incorporates all of the purposes that were presented at the beginning of this article.
Asynchronous communication, particularly mediated via the WWW, is a useful way to extend class discussions beyond the time and place of class meetings. Though the WWW is more often thought of as a presentation medium rather than as a form of asynchronous communication, it can serve as a place for posting content, a library of resources that can serve as a foundation for ongoing discussions of important civic or historical issues, a forum for joint problem-solving and inquiry learning, a place where students can post their work-in-progress, and a place where instructors, peers, and experts can provide critique and feedback to help students refine their products and performances.
Software that supports such collaborative projects is often known as groupware. Groupware can provide students, teachers, and other experts with a chance to communicate and ask questions online, to discuss issues relevant to the topic of instruction, to brainstorm ideas, to get acquainted with one another, and (given the appropriate software) to potentially modify a common document.
What is most important in design conversations is the variety of methods that are available to the learners, which provide multiple means of communication for students with different learning styles. If ideas can be represented in multiple forms, chances of their being misunderstood are decreased. "Good multiple media free people to think associatively and attach comments to the ideas being presented" (Ferraro, Rogers, & Geisler, 1995).
Technologies that connect individuals within a learning community can facilitate ongoing dialogue that supports both collaborative discourse and design activities that help students and teachers meet the types of goals that we have already discussed. However, there are technology implementation factors, individual learner characteristics, and a host of institutional norms and conventions that affect CMC use.
There is a delicate balance between the affordances and constraints of any form of CMC that affect operability, engagability, and functionality. Asynchronous conferencing allows for time-and-space independence but may not be compatible with individual students' lifestyles, personal philosophy, or communication skills.
Sophisticated systems like Koschmann's Collaborative Learning Laboratory (the Collaboratory) -- a local area network linked to a schoolwide network that permits both CMC and collaborative design -- permits high school science students to share graphic representations on a common screen in real time, as well as access the electronic resources of the library and the Internet (Koschmann, Kelson, Feltovich, & Barrows, 1996, p. 106). Interactive multimedia programs, like synchronous communication, make class sessions dependent upon time and place. Their effectiveness, too, depends on the skill level of the users.
Asynchronous communication -- especially in its text-based forms -- provides a certain degree of anonymity that may allow the student to concentrate on the content of the message rather than its presenter (Harasim, 1987). Berge (1997) points out that because computer-based conferencing is low in social cues (e.g., body language, tone, and pitch) as compared with face-to-face interaction, it can set the stage for more uninhibited behavior on the part of students than would occur in face-to-face conversations as well as misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Stone (1996) observed that the lack of social cues in an asynchronous, text-only environment requires that students suspend judgment and ask for clarification, and that when communicating, students use other methods to communicate tone and intent.
Time-independent forms of communication have several additional limitations besides a lack of social cues, specifically:
The use of CMC to enhance teaching and learning presents two new areas in which students must develop and improve their skill sets. These are process management (processes used to develop the ability to work in a new, technologically-based medium); and meaning-making (experiences with problems coupled with opportunities for reflection and for individual and collaborative work toward solutions) (Yakimovicz & Murphy, 1995). Process management is an issue that has been explored by Porter (1994). In a formative evaluation of six elementary/secondary and two secondary schools that participated in the New Directions in Distance Learning pilot project, Porter found that students needed support to make the transition to self-directed learning and to monitor their own progress. Specifically, they needed:
Other factors include the individual's personal mix of self-efficacy or confidence in using new tools and the perceived value in facilitating the performance of an assigned task, an interaction first identified by Bandura (1982). In a four-year study of student e-mail use, Sherry (1998) found that there was a strong, persistent relationship between "clear payoff and value" in using e-mail and student perceptions of self-reported skills with CMC tools. She also found the following important concerns among students who were using CMC tools to participate in class conversations:
Students also remark on the increased work necessary to keep up with the current topic so they can actively participate thoughtfully. They often complain of information overload, increased responsibility regarding online participation, difficulty in following concurrent discussion threads, and the lack of visual cues (Harasim, 1987). Some of these concerns may also be associated with an important student characteristic known as communication apprehension. Fishman (1997) and Berge (1997) explored the issue of communication apprehension, an individual learning constraint which Wilson, Ryder, McCahan, and Sherry (1996) refer to as "finding a voice and having something to say". McCroskey (1977) defines communication apprehension as "an individual's level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons" (p. 78). The anxiety associated with this state impacts both the level and the types of use of electronic conferencing.
One advantage of text-based communication is that written communication tends to be more reflective than spoken interaction. "The very act of assembling one's thoughts and articulating them in writing for a conference audience appears to involve deeper cognitive processing" (Berge, 1997, p. 10). Some students also commented that the concomitant practice in writing helps them improve their writing skills.
Berge (1997) notes that the time lag in computer conferencing "is particularly well suited to shy, thoughtful, or hesitant conversationalists and to members of those cultures where answers and responses are considered and carefully framed before presentation" (1997, p. 8). Before they respond to postings, "they can take time to reflect and consider their response, and they can accumulate data and references with which to substantiate their arguments and positions" (Berge, 1997, p. 8).
Stone (1996) posits that online learning is attractive to intuitive thinkers, particularly introverted types, whereas other types reported some discomfort with some aspects of online learning. Perhaps this is due to the time lag inherent in any type of CMC. Stone remarks that when she used asynchronous communication, she usually had ample time to reflect before answering a message; whereas when she used synchronous communication, she took advantage of the short time lag while other conference participants were busy composing their own messages. remarks, "I usually had time to reflect before answering a message, or in synchronous communication there was still a bit of lag time while people composed their messages" (Stone, 1996).
Wilson and Ryder (1996) offer some possible strategies that instructors might choose to adopt in dealing with the varying needs and levels of expertise of the teachers, students, and outside experts who constitute an online learning community. These strategies are based on classroom observations, interviews, and a series of focus groups with electronic participants that focused on successful interventions and promising practices.
Novices are particularly interested in the ease of use of the system. While they are in the process of mastering the mechanical tasks associated with electronic conferencing, they prefer personal scaffolding such as modeling and "show and tell" demonstration sessions rather than impersonal scaffolding. Private e-mail consultations with students who have already mastered these techniques are most helpful, as are one-on-one help sessions with technology experts. Standard problem-solving protocols, either on-line("Have you read our FAQ?") or via paper job aids, were found to be useful for frequently encountered technical problems.
In contrast, experienced users are more interested in advanced uses of the system. They made effective use of temporary on-line consultations (e.g., using "chat" or "talk") and private conferencing groups centered around specific issues, topics of interest, and jointly authored documents or works-in-progress.
Wilson and Ryder (1996) found that moderated lists were most effective for supporting in-class activities, since the moderator was able to focus the discussion on important issues. At times, it was useful to break the class up into small groups of students, and to vary the levels of discussion and on-line activities to match their levels of expertise and involvement. In all cases, it was important for the moderator to set an agenda for the conversation, to induct beginners into the conversation, and to move all participants through increasing levels of expertise as the class progressed.
In Sherry's (1998) study, students reported that an introductory training session (as a class) or a strategy sheet outlining expected/appropriate use of class conferences might be helpful for new users. Students did not feel that paper job aids and brochures, nor printouts of on-line messages, were useful. One student summed up the feelings of the class: "You have to have access and knowledge of how to use the software, but, more importantly, you have to have people you want to talk to and something worthwhile to talk to them about" (Sherry, 1998).
Student responses were mixed with regard to "netiquette" guidelines. Some of the more advanced users felt that posting netiquette information, strategies, and handouts may not prove useful in terms of getting people to participate and work together cooperatively. One student stated:
They are all trying to mandate people's interaction, which is a voluntary process. They can assist in getting people on-line, but the whole of cooperative participation is more than the sum of each of these parts. If you tell people they have to post two times a week, in a group, you will get compliance, but that is all" (Sherry, 1998).In contrast, novice users appreciated some guidelines, especially regarding lurking, flaming, posting information of a private or personal nature to a public forum, and strategies for when and how to reply to an individual rather than to the group.
Introducing students to group participation can be both exciting and challenging. When participating in online discussions, students must learn a different communication vehicle to supplement classroom meetings, which may not provide the social cues that they are used to (Chism, 1998). Moreover, class-related, mediated conversations engage students in actively responding rather than simply reading or viewing course materials.
This may be daunting to those whose communication skills are not fully developed or who experience time management problems. Participants may come from all over the world, with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, and with a wide range of experiences and viewpoints. As the organizer of resources and moderator of conversation, the challenge for the teacher is to link the variety of interests together so that there is some cohesiveness in the learning, and so that the course is enhanced by the experience, not distracted by it (Stone, 1996).
In her literature review, Mason (1991) identified three skill sets that computer conferencing moderators must possess: organizational, social, and intellectual. These correspond with Herrmann's (1995) academic, administrative, and community-building conversations. Mason (1991) suggests that moderators engage in three functions:
The most popular stance among instructors who use CMC to support and enhance classroom activities is to take the role of the moderator or facilitator of the conversation. "The teacher assumes the roles of a facilitator, a resource provider, or a research librarian rather than an expert dispensing knowledge to the student" (Berge, 1997, p. 14).
Mutual knowledge is constructed through an extended discourse between teachers, students, and experts. This collaborative discourse, organized and evolving over time, gives rise to shared understandings, which Crook refers to as a "longitudinal continuity" among participants in an ongoing, electronically mediated, conversation. He offers this as a possible explanation for the fact that students spontaneously turn to peers as resources of support in computer-based problem-solving, rather than turning to online help facilities, no matter how sophisticated and user-friendly they may be (Crook, 1994, p. 127).
In Crook's framework, the term longitudinal continuity refers to the shared understandings and ongoing dialogue among members of the learning community. This is facilitated electronically by sharing a common network and representational tools that can support a narrative state such as Bereiter's (1994) concept of progressive discourse. This enables the dispersed students to share beliefs, values, and assumptions that arise from their various actions, observations, and learning experiences (Crook, 1994, p. 107) and to actually create a self-sustaining, online culture.
To Crook, a longitudinal continuity of common knowledge and experiences and shared understandings resides not only within the instruction-in-progress but also within the talk and action that serves to create whatever becomes held in common. Creating a shared cognitive context depends on the participants' mutual appropriation of motives, intentions, and understandings. As a result, "teachers must become skilled at saying and doing things that precipitate and exploit such possibilities: they thereby establish resources of common knowledge and can build further upon them" (Crook, 1994, p. 128).
One example of this is sensitive, constructive feedback on student products by teachers, peers, and experts. Rimmington (1998) reports that students tend to respond positively to an organized peer assessment system, with learners indicating that they gained more from assessing others' work than simply submitting their own.
Wells defines the term "moves" as activities or dialogic contributions to discourse that result in an exchange of meanings between participants in order to perform some function(s) in a specific situation (Wells, 1996, p. 77). There are three types of moves:
In Wells' framework, an exchange -- a combination of moves -- constitutes the minimal unit of spoken discourse. "Every exchange consists of an initiating move and a response move. There may also be a third, follow-up, move" (p. 78). The simplest type of exchange is the "nuclear" exchange, which consists of a demand-give-acknowledge or give-acknowledge structure. Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) propose three categories of follow-up (or acknowledge) moves: "accept/reject", "evaluate", and "comment".
The moderator or teacher's skill consists in stepping up the prospectiveness of the "give" move, extending the student's response by adding a further, related suggestion of her own. Examples of such follow-up moves are "exemplify", "expand", and "justify". Brown and Palincsar (1989) use a somewhat similar set of moves in their reciprocal teaching technique for facilitating conversations regarding text comprehension: "question", "summarize", "clarify", and "predict".
Conversation that was made up only of such sequences, each consisting of a single nuclear exchange, would perhaps be efficient, but it would not be very interesting. Nor would it provide a very rich opportunity for learning about the ways in which community members conceive of objects and events being related to teach other -- i.e., the community's "theory of experience". (Wells, 1996, p. 85).In Wells' view, if moderators or teachers choose an "evaluate" option, then they create a situational context in which right answers will be given priority by students. In contrast, choosing an "extend", "justify", or "clarify" option emphasizes the collaborative construction of meaning, thereby encouraging students to critically examine and evaluate the answers that they make to the questions being posed.
Wells (1996) notes that most traditional classroom talk consists of a demand-give-acknowledge interchange (teacher poses a question, student recalls a fact and recites an answer, teacher acknowledges answer and may evaluate it or give praise or encouragement). This nuclear exchange promotes activities that are very low in Bloom's taxonomy. Higher order learning skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, require more than a simple demand-give. As mentioned above, Wells (1996) suggests an "extend" that can take the form of exemplify, justify, explain, and so forth. The support/share feature that Herrmann (1995) found on listserv exchanges may also be present in an acknowledge statement, and is usually (but not always) clearly distinguishable from a straightforward acknowledgment.
To conduct a discourse analysis, Spradley (1980) recommends four levels of investigation:
Discourse analysis attempts to answer the question: "How do these language functions relate to each other in an ongoing electronic dialogue - one that goes beyond a simple request - respond - acknowledge exchange?" These relationships, as well as the relationship of the conversation to the instructional goals of the teacher or moderator, will determine the subsequent structure of the conversation.
Teachers began to see themselves as co-explorers with their students in a world-wide learning environment. Shifting this focus meant that the teacher began to serve as a guide who helps students to construct their own meaning by modeling, mediating, explaining, redirecting focus, and providing options, and also as a co-learner who collaborates with other teachers and practicing professionals. As the teachers' roles were being redefined by the use of technology, there was an interaction between the use of technology and their teaching styles. This had to do both with their need for control and their vision of learning and perception of their classroom as part of a larger ecological system, in which the roles of teachers and students were beginning to change.
Fischer (1995) notes that the type of learning communities that are supported by networked environments allow all stakeholders in a design process to learn and work collaboratively with each other and with their computational environments. By grounding learning in self-directed, authentic activities, they support learning on demand as an essential element of lifelong learning.
The successful student or professional is one who learns how to use research materials, libraries, and computational environments, as well as knowledgeable humans (parents, teachers, peers, mentors, and practitioners from other disciplines) to master complex problems. Whereas things can store information (books, the WWW, electronic archives), people (coaches, peers, experts) can share understandings that are unavailable in things. This close interaction between people and things is the basis of activity theory and of the types of constructivist learning environments embraced by Jonassen and Murphy (1998). It also puts an increasing emphasis on the subject as constructor of knowledge.
In Wason's (1996) model of online Socratic dialogue, the teacher has three distinct roles -- (a) the master and organizer of primary resources; (b) the developer of effective questions leading to new insights on the part of the student; and the teacher who asks questions to clarify issues and promote understanding, especially in ill-structured domains. Teachers in these new roles provide a rich learning experience with meaningful experiences and activities. They also create opportunities for collaborative work and problem solving, for engaging in authentic tasks, and for sharing knowledge and responsibility. Lawyer-Brook and Sherry (1997) found that as students participated in collaborative, online activities, they learned interpersonal skills including negotiating differences of opinion which often arise in workgroups. Students described how they dealt with interpersonal relations, learned to function as a cohesive team with shared experiences and understandings, and resolved knotty issues as they arose.
These findings are in consonance with those of other researchers who have been working with LAN technologies, local computer conferencing, and WAN communications to engage their students in generative learning and the creation of authentic products. However, as the emphasis shifts from individual to socially constructed learning, a new problem arises: that of keeping the group and its learning activities on track.
Scardamalia and Bereiter (1994, 1996) worked for more than a decade with a Computer- Supported Intentional Learning Environment(CSILE). The CSILE network provides an online framework for student text comprehension and online knowledge-building that has a proven success rate. Features of CSILE are:
Throughout the long duration of the CSILE project, the developers' goal was to turn over high level operations to the students, to encourage more authentic peer discourse, and to emphasize understanding over memorization (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). These goals are entirely commensurate with the concept of engaged learning, which incorporates authentic tasks, interactive instruction, collaborative knowledge-building, heterogeneous grouping, and co-exploration by teacher and students alike into the classroom (Jones et al., 1995). In such an environment, facilitated by an experienced teacher, project-based groups naturally tend to cohere. (See also Sherry, Lawyer-Brook, & Black, 1997.)
The issue becomes more complicated when the "classroom" consists of a learning community that links teachers, students, and community members who are dispersed in time and place -- i.e., a virtual learning community. Collis and her colleagues (1997) studied the following clusters of problems that need to be managed when group-based project work is used for class-related activities:
Solutions to these problems must be specific to the type of project and the learning environment under consideration. Some of Collis and her colleagues' successful strategies were to:
As part of their ongoing research with WebCSILE -- a new, Web-based version of the traditional CSILE software -- Hewitt, Scardamalia, and Webb (1997) state that "there is a need for new technologies that support group cognition" (p. 2). Like Falk, Engestrom, Wells, and the other activity theorists, they do not assume that individual mental processes can be analyzed independent of other cognitive operations and environmental influences. The human mind and its surroundings should be examined as a larger unit of analysis, rather than considering the individual mind as the unit of analysis. This is why online dialogue should be analyzed within the context of the goals of the instruction, the environment in which it takes place, and the interaction of moderator and participants.
Wang (1996) conducted an empirical study of e-mail dialogue journaling in an ESL reading and writing classroom. She found that students who did not have typing skills took longer to write their dialogue journals and may have been frustrated by the user-unfriendliness of the available e-mail system. On the other hand, the student e-mail entries were more spontaneous and produced more language functions per writing session than those of the paper and pencil participants.
In a recent analysis of an electronic class conference, Sherry (1998) found the following trends:
These are the types of electronic conferences that Herrmann (1995) refers to as stimulating community-building conversations. These are intended to grow, rather than to close in upon themselves. These conversations create cohesive ties among group members, although some may be exclusively on-line. Their time frame is different, compared to the discrete and punctual time frames of the academic year. Here, intangibles are negotiated, and trust is built. They bring about companionship among a virtual society of learners, increase productivity, and allow for communal building and diffusion of knowledge. As a result, they can enhance and expand the traditional ways of teaching and learning and provide entirely new opportunities and models for learning.
Whether moderated or not, rich conversations encourage students to see complex issues and problems from a variety of viewpoints. Students valued such conversations -- especially dialogue and design conversations that focused on collaborative problem-solving and the improvement of products and performances. In fact, all students who participated in the on-line conference investigated by Sherry (1998) reported that participation had helped them raise their grade, and they would definitely participate in another conference of this sort.
Whether these successes are replicable in contexts other than the classrooms in which they were observed is open to question. Though the roles of an effective conference moderator have been identified from a wide array of research activities, a participant in a moderated discussion explained why she felt that the specific conference in which she participated was successful:
The reason this group was successful is because the teacher was successful in setting a good cooperative tone of inquiry for the class, the personalities who participated maintained that tone, and we had something worthwhile to discuss. (Sherry, 1998.)Currently, there is a great emphasis on engaged learning, collaborative learning, and interactive modes of instruction by systemic reform proponents. Electronic conferencing is one tool that supports this vision of learning. However, those who intend to use mediated conversations to enrich teaching and learning must remain aware of, and continue to study, the rich array of factors that affect the levels of participation and the modes of use.
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