The Nature and Purpose of Online Conversations:
A Brief Synthesis of Current Research

Lorraine Sherry
Senior Research Associate
RMC Research Corporation
Copyright 2000 AACE.

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.

What are some Goals of Online Conversations?

Chism (1998, pp. 7-8) gathered a list of possible uses of online conversations, with examples from her own research. CMC can be used for the following purposes:

"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).

Online Learning as a Collaborative Activity

The purposes listed above link students with one another, with their teachers, with experts in their fields of inquiry, and with the community at large. As stated in the first of The WEB Project's three goals, it "promotes in-person and online discussions of student work among students, teachers, administrators, and community members that centers on the Vermont Framework, especially the areas of arts, language, literature, history, and social sciences". The underlying philosophy behind this statement is that learning is a collaborative activity.

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.

CMC: A Mediating Tool in an Activity System

Hewitt, Scardamalia, and Webb cite Engestrom (1996), who views human activity as contextualized within an interdependent activity system. Drawing upon the research of Leont'ev (1981) and Tikhomirov (1981), Engestrom defines the framework of an activity system consisting of six elements:
  1. the subject or actor (e.g., a student, teacher, or expert who is carrying out an activity);
  2. the object of activity (e.g, a product or message posted on The WEB Exchange);
  3. the mediating tools of the activity (e.g, the WEB Project's network, multimedia tools, etc.);
  4. the community of learners (teachers, students, coordinators, initiatives, all people who are connected electronically by the network and are concerned with the problems and issues discussed on it);
  5. the division of labor (the responsibilities commonly associated with the roles of "student", "teacher", "artist in residence", "expert", etc.); and
  6. the rules or norms regarding appropriate social actions (posting, critiquing student work, moderating a discussion, seeding a conference, participating in civic discourse, etc.)

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).

Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning: Support for Situated Learning

Computer-Supported Collaborative learning (CSCL) is an emerging paradigm of education that emphasizes a delicate balance between the individual mind and socially shared representations developed through ongoing discourse and joint activities that take place within a learning community (Koschmann, 1996). It breaks with traditional instructional computing that is more individualistic in nature, such as Taylor's (1980) classification of instructional technologies into "tutor", "tutee", and "tool" -- the use of computer-aided instruction (CAI), integrated learning systems (ILS), and the introduction of office technologies (spreadsheets, word processors, databases) and computer programming as subject areas within the school curriculum. In contrast, CSCL uses mediated communication in both its synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous forms to develop shared knowledge bases and to promote common understandings. As a result, CSCL incorporated communication among all stakeholders within an educational system, whereas CAI does not.

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: