College Quarterly
Winter 1998 - Volume 5 Number 2
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Computer Conferencing and College Education.

by Lawrence G. Hopperton

Introduction

Computer conferencing has been used for research and teaching purposes in Ontario universities since the mid 1980's. Its history in the Ontario college system, however, has been briefer, having been introduced only in the early 1990's. Since conferencing systems at the time that they were introduced were primarily text-based, their earliest teaching applications were in purely discussion-based subjects. But since the release of conferencing packages, which capitalize on graphical user interfaces and support full graphics, their application has expanded rapidly to include a wide range of business, technology, and general education subjects. With the release of fully integrated, world-wide web-based systems such as Virtual University, Netscape Collaborator, and FirstClass '97, and the potential educational markets in distance and life-long learning, the applications for computer conferencing are beginning to be realized.

The relatively short history of educational computer conferencing shows that it is a valid learning environment, either as an alternative or supplement to traditional classrooms. The growth in its use at all educational levels shows that we can expect widespread application of the medium in education. Being a networked environment, it is now supporting communication between classes, schools and other institutions (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1989), thereby offering a new dynamic to education.

Description of computer conferencing

A computer-based conferencing system is a powerful communication tool that allows users to meet, break into small groups, complete work assignments and discuss readings or other issues in electronic space within a central computer system. Berge (1994) describes it as a delayed-time messaging system. But computer conferencing also provides facilities for structuring group processes and organizing the results of those processes. It provides opportunities for education outside of the walls of the institution, thereby providing the opportunity for increased enrolments for institutions, and flexible life-long learning for the learning population.

Computer conferencing is a database system that provides some degree of organization to messages, and an interface through which participants can discuss interests held in common (Wolfe in Harasim, 1990). It provides an environment, which allows multiple individuals at multiple locations, and disparate times to communicate, exchanging information, ideas, and learning through the keyboard (Cross, 1983; Berge, 1996). It is designed to facilitate electronic, group-oriented communication by automatically filing notes into topical discussions; notifying users about any new notes (Hargreaves & Harasim, 1986), and providing for the retrieval of previous notes (Santoro in Berge & Collins, vol.1, 1995).

The technology required for an educational computer conferencing system is neither extensive nor expensive. At minimum, conferencing requires a single host machine, which provides the software functions of database compilation and storage, and one or more networked terminals, which the host can access. To capitalize on the graphical capacities of the most up-to-date systems, users need only the appropriate hardware which can access web applications.

Conferencing allows participants to input free-formed information as notes, either graphical or text-based, that are generally focused around a specific topic within hierarchically related conferences. Hence, to facilitate a logical grouping of items within conferences, a general topic can contain levels, or sub-topics, branching from the central root. The system records and posts input to participants sequentially and archives all entries, as computer storage space permits, so that they are available for re-examination according to the search procedures embedded in the software. Searching is generally conducted through the use of text string matching with Boolean operators, condition matching such as date ranges, author or conference name, or through assigned hypertextual links. Students have access to the progression of the whole course rather than simply the readings, their private lecture notes, and whatever they may recall from immediate class discussions. Further, the sequential notification to users of new postings provides a linear rather than random organizing structure for conferences while still allowing for non-linear searching according to predefined parameters.

Asynchronous educational computer conferencing

While the traditional, face-to-face classroom relies upon the spoken word, fixed timetables and geographical location, computer conferencing is largely based upon the written word. Since it can be distributed and asynchronous (place and time independent), it supports those learners who are unable to attend classes at specific geographical locations or at specific times, while encouraging social support and academic linkages among students and between students and instructors (Hartley et al., 1994). Students can structure their learning around their own weekly or daily schedules rather than those imposed out of necessity by institutions, instructors or personal commitments (Ellsworth in Berge & Collins, vol.1, 1995; Hartman et al. in Berge & Collins, vol.2, 1995). This is particularly significant to adult education, continuing education, distance education, and life-long learning.

Asynchronous educational computer conferencing consists of the network of texts which are contributed to and read by the participants in a given course (Wolfe, 1990). Students and instructors work through computers and communicate through the keyboard at their convenience, accessing the host machine for direct communication, either through networked computers or through home computers with modems and internet connections, in order to participate in on-line learning activities in authentic contexts (Hartman et al. in Berge & Collins, vol.2, 1995)

Computer conferencing encourages responsibility and active learning through the expectation of regular participation in on-line discussions (Collins & Berge, vol. 2 1995). Students cannot sit back passively while a lecturer dictates to empty vessels (Barrett in Berge & Collins, vol.2, 1995); instead, they must become actively engaged in the process of knowledge creation and expansion through interaction with peers. Further, although asynchronous, computer conferencing preserves the advantages of spontaneous interaction because students may respond to every entry if they so choose (Paulsen in Berge & Collins, vol.3, 1995). Since students are not constrained by classroom schedules, they should have sufficient time to consider each message that they receive and to compose appropriate responses, which means that every learner has equal opportunity to participate in discussions. Participants can respond to any aspect of the conference and, while some systems with hypertextual capabilities will directly link responses to the notes which prompted them, in most systems, all new notes are added to the end of the sequence.

Advantages of educational computer conferencing

While text-based communication means the loss of visual cues, it trades these for specific advantages. These include the development of a retrievable, verbatim transcript of an entire course, and the potential for a greater level of cognitive interaction and intra-action. Written language, in the context of educational computer conferencing, is interactive, anticipating or reacting to the ideas or queries of other participants (Hunt in Berge & Collins, vol.2, 1995; Barrett in Berge & Collins, vol.2, 1995). The process of writing allows students the opportunity to see what and how they think, to share this, and to rethink it over time in an authentic, problem-solving activity (Berge & Collins, vol.1, 1995; Hartman et. al in Berge & Collins, vol.2, 1995).

Education as group-work

Education is a form of communication for social and decision-making reasons, and hence it is more than a process of filling empty heads with facts from a dispensing teacher who completely controls the process of learning (Ragsdale, 1988; Kay, 1995). Education can be considered as a social, dialectic process, actively involving students, teachers, and information in the construction of meaning (Jonassen et al., 1995). Because of the potential diversity of attitudes and approaches to a subject, not only can teachers and other resources be considered as a source of useful educational information, but also students with their diverse approaches. Just as the diversity of attitudes and opinions on a jury can foster discussion leading to consensus through interaction, so too can the divergent perspectives of individual students lead to the furthering of educational goals. These can be brought together through discussion which is supported and augmented through consultation with collaborating teachers and peers. This describes a form of education which centres around interactive group work. If interactive group work is identified as a desirable process within education, then any system or procedure which facilitates this deserves consideration. Since computer conferencing is premised upon group collaboration (Harasim, 1990), it lends itself to any educational situation which is similarly based upon group discussion and collaboration in the creation of knowledge and meaning (Berge & Collins, vol.2, 1995).

Collaboration and interaction in education

Vygotskian educational psychology defines learning as the acquisition of special abilities for thinking about a variety of things. In essence, learning is the developmental process of achieving cognitive maturation (Vygotsky, cited in Wertsch, 1985) which occurs through interaction and discussion. This, then, suggests that social interaction is an effective vehicle for education (Bruner in Wertsch, 1985). Further, the act of discussion discourages pre-emptive closure and conceptual rigidity, since conceptual crystallization cannot occur while interaction continues (Norris, 1991).

Following from Vygotskian educational psychology, modern pedagogical theory suggests that the social interaction of students through collaboration and peer tutoring adds significantly to peer education (Forman & Cazden in Wertsch, 1985; Scardamalia et al., 1989; Sneddon et al., 1996). The students can produce something more than an individual could do independently. Through peer tutoring, individuals are forced to verbalize their thoughts to each other and therefore must strive to make their statements clear, organized, and informative. This concrete verbalization forces the continual clarification of vague thinking into new mental constructs which can be fully internalized by both tutor and tutee.

Through open access to conceptual development and the expectation of participation, both required and perceived, computer conferencing encourages peer interaction in the learning process and this interaction augments the process of logical reasoning through an active and continual reorganization of information induced by cognitive conflicts. It forces students to recognize and reconcile conflicting opinion, thereby encouraging their integration of a variety of perspectives presented in a discussion (Forman & Cazden in Wertsch, 1985). This reorganization means that students are actively involved in their own process of knowledge building.

Through collaboration in a mutual task, peers are able to produce a result, which no individual could accomplish alone. Since computer conferencing can facilitate collaborative interaction in the educational environment (Yeoman, 1995), it assists in the group creation of an original, synergistic process in which the identification and solving of identified problems depends on the creative thinking and informal but intentional, written discussion among a group of individuals with diverse experience and expertise (Beckwith, 1987) in an authentic environment (Hunt in Berge & Collins, vol.2, 1995). Further, because of its asynchronicity and geographical distribution, it alleviates problems associated with this kind of problem solving such as assembling all individuals with the necessary expertise for sufficient time, tapping that expertise at an appropriate time, structuring the interchange so that ideas can build towards a solution, and largely eliminates dominant voices within a discussion. Computer conferencing stimulates and supports multiple viewpoints, so multiple authors can contribute without specific attention to the order of entries (Feenberg, 1986). The synthesis of this, if properly managed and supported by an expert facilitator, can produce a unique form of collaborative writing which supports cognitive development (Fowler & Wheeler in Berge & Collins, vol.1, 1995).

Computer conferencing significantly changes the nature of interaction, de-emphasizing teacher input and accentuating interaction and collaboration between peers (Jonassen et al., 1995). Berge (1996) suggests that in general, instructors should contribute approximately one-quarter to one-half of notes in on-line courses. Harasim (1987) has shown that in the traditional classroom environment, speech by the instructor uses about 80% of the available time. But in two computer conferencing based graduate courses which were monitored, the instructor input represented 10% and 12% of the posted notes respectively. In these classes, students reported an awareness of pressure to communicate with their peers. In conferencing classes taught or monitored at one Ontario college, instructors in a variety of disciplines typically posted between one-quarter and one-third of the notes in classes with enrolments of at least twelve students. These included content delivery, stimulation of interaction, group remediation, and curriculum enrichment.

Student motivation and activity requirements

Since computer conferencing can lead to a more satisfying learning experience by shifting delivery from a lecture mode to one of increased participation, it can lead to increased student motivation and interest. But, because computer conferencing is premised upon active participation, it does make demands upon students other than those to which they are accustomed in traditional face-to-face classes in which students are prepared to be docile and passive (Fedderson, 1993). While the technology may present an initial, intrinsic attraction, the medium alone cannot provide sufficient motivation for participation. Individual, extrinsic motivation and a regular participation schedule are key elements in student success in computer conferencing courses (Kaye, 1987). While assignments can require regular participation, the absence of strict schedules in a computer conferencing class requires fully motivated individuals who are taking direct responsibility for their own education. This, it could be argued, describes adult learners who have freely chosen to pursue education for their own, personally motivated reasons. Further, because of maturity levels, these are students who are more likely to spend increased time on task, and who will be able to evaluate different viewpoints.

Supporting Educational Processes

Harasim (1990) argues that in order to facilitate sense making and knowledge building within an educational computer conferencing environment, the system needs to support three essential educational processes:

  • the divergent process of idea generating through such tasks as brainstorming, exploration, analogy and idea sharing;
  • the convergent process of idea linking which involves reflection and synthesis; and
  • idea structuring which entails organizing ideas into some structure, either hierarchical, sequential or both, which enables the ideas to be applied in problem solving or decision making.

Current systems support idea generation and provide mechanisms for idea linking and structuring, although much of this is left to the learner. This is not necessarily a limitation to educational computer conferencing.

Kay (1995) argues that most learning in the future will be concerned with complexity, and educational computer systems should not necessarily make everything easy. Students should be challenged to delve deeper into interesting areas which they identify through their own questioning. Students should be challenged to consider differing perspectives, seeking answers in many places, and to engage in a lively exchange of views with others in order to test their understanding. Computer conferencing supports this.

Teaching with conferencing

In most cases, learning outcomes, and the content mastery which they require, remain constant. The variable from one semester to the next is the population of learners. It can be argued that the role of the teacher is not to dictate the same information to empty vessels but to facilitate the demonstration of the learning outcome for the changing population. This points to the real advantage of computer conferencing.

Once a subject is fully developed, the main content notes can be reused as long as the learning outcomes remain constant. This frees teachers from the repetitive job of delivering lectures and allows them to focus on the process of learning facilitation and enrichment for the changing population. Experience has shown that the development of a standard, discussion-based subject, involves the commitment of development to delivery time at an eight to one ratio. Subsequent delivery of the same subject, with significantly enhanced interaction with students, can be accomplished within the time constraints generally accepted for traditional classroom teaching. This reality supports both curriculum standardization and the employment of subject experts who can focus upon learner needs, either locally or at the distance.

The danger of computer conferencing is information overload. Because many participants can be actively contributing information and ideas, conferences can become very large and information management can become problematic. Further, because the potential of bringing a broad range of educational resources into computer conferencing, this problem can be compounded significantly. However, research into supports for structuring information and assisting in information synthesis and analysis is currently being conducted and such systems are being tested (Probert, 1994; Hopperton, 1997).

Conclusion

Computer conferencing, either as a primary or adjunct delivery system, holds promise for the future. Effective computer conferencing facilitates communication and collaborative problem solving, using current and authentic information, under the direction of an expert instructional facilitator. While encouraging active learning it allows for the individual assimilation of knowledge and collaborative mastery of learning outcomes. As we move towards college specializations and nationally or internationally distributed education, it provides a medium for life-long learning and shared populations of students.

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At the time of the writing of this article, Dr. Hopperton was working in the Faculty of Continuing Education, Seneca College in Toronto where he worked for 19 years as a teacher and academic co-ordinator. He is currently the Manager, Operations Training at American Express, Canada. He invites comments from readers and can be reached at Lawrence.G.Hopperton@aexp.com

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