Conferencing in communities of learners: examples from social history and science communication
In the literature on computer conferencing, many educators (e.g. Rowntree, 1995 and Kaye, 1995) write about creating a learning community that is learner centred and potentially collaborative: a view that emphasises peer interaction, collaboration, and active learning. It has also been argued that computer conferencing can change the role of the teacher to facilitator and provide a more democratic and autonomous educational environment. For example, Lea (2000) discusses students’ writing as a way of thinking against conventional academic discourses - and challenging teacher centred hegemony. Too much tutor intervention, or ‘correction’ is seen as maintaining the balance of power with the teacher.
However, such arguments often assume that the medium itself is of paramount importance, and ignore critical features such as the aim in using conferencing in a particular teaching context and how the conferencing is used. Computer conferencing is not unidimensional but will vary along many dimensions including its role and integration with the course, the rationale for using it; the course content; whether tasks are set and what they are and participants’ experience and confidence. A further issue is the nature of the discipline and discourse. A surprising number of conferences that are discussed in the literature are self-referential: conferences about computer conferences, or at least, about on-line and independent learning. These contexts, which often have mature and postgraduate students, lend themselves to an emphasis on the peer interaction. There is no one accepted view that students need to have understood. In the physical and biological sciences, however, the situation may be quite different: if students were discussing the transmission of nerve impulses, it would be at the least unhelpful not to intervene if there were a factually incorrect summary.
Conferencing can also play an important role in developing students’ skills in argumentation and debate; however, the nature of the discipline may be very important here too. For example, the nature of the argument may differ and the kinds of evidence that students bring to bear may range from their own experience in courses on on-line teaching, through the use of texts and sources in social history to the marshalling of empirical evidence in science. It may even be the case that the very skills we wish students to develop will differ according to the nature of the discipline, and so we might want to structure the experience differently depending on the subject taught.
It is therefore important to study and document the different ways and contexts in which computer conferencing is used in order to develop some understanding of the relevant issues in particular contexts. This paper will consider and illustrate some of the dimensions in relation to two case studies of computer conferencing at the Open University (OU) in very different domains: one in Arts and one in Science.
Computer conferencing at the Open University (OU)
At the OU, computer conferencing is well established on courses in different areas; some of these making large-scale use. For example, Living with Technology, a level one course, provided access to 4500 students in 1998, and there is increasing use of conferencing alongside a more resource based approach, where there is access to on-line resources. Harasim (1995, p8) describes three basic approaches for educational applications of computer networks:
“… as an enhancement to traditional (face-to-face or distance) courses, as the primary teaching medium for a portion of, or an entire course or as a forum for knowledge networking, participation in discussion groups, or information exchange with peers or experts and/or access to online courses.”
Computer conferencing is usually used alongside other face to face tutorial support, (although this may be reduced) but on some courses, often postgraduate courses with low student numbers, conferencing is increasingly the primary teaching medium.
This paper discusses evaluation case studies of computer conferencing in a Master’s level course in the Science faculty and a fourth level social history course in the Arts faculty. To-date there has been little use on Arts courses, although one other fourth level, low population course, in philosophy, has also used conferencing. In both courses, conferencing is the primary medium for discussing academic issues and getting feedback. In the Science course it is also a forum to discuss more general relevant issues, and in the social history course it also effectively replaces face to face tutorials.
Case study 1: “Charles Booth and Social investigation in 19th Century Britain”: the course and its use of conferencing
The use of computer conferencing is one component of a small fourth level Arts project course, on social history, entitled Charles Booth and Social investigation in 19th Century Britain. Particular features of the course and its use of conferencing are that:
The computer conference system also includes a student-only common room and chat-shop, a notice board, an enquiry conference, a ‘starters’ and icebreaker conference, and a CD-ROM conference for questions related to using the CD-ROM. The course team wanted to use conferencing to enable students to communicate with their tutor and other students regularly and frequently and tutor conferences were used for this. These tutor conferences were very structured, so typically the tutor gave the students a question to debate, and it is these debates (from two academic conferences) that are discussed in this paper. Students were not obliged to use the conferences, but were encouraged to do so and the questions discussed in the conferences related strongly to their tutor - marked assignments.
Case study 2: “Communicating science”: the course and its use of conferencing
“Communicating Science” is a module of a part time Master’s course on studies in science and is designed to develop students’ skills in communicating scientific ideas to a variety of audiences and in studying science communication.
Study materials aim to help students to critically evaluate relationships between original accounts of scientific phenomenon and accounts produced for other audiences. They include published articles, commissioned articles from experts, material on what the public needs to know about science and why, material on how scientific ideas are communicated to the public and also on the relationship between scientists and the media. Extra resource materials are provided on CD-ROM. Assessment of the course tests students’ understanding of the material and also the development of their skills in communicating or studying the communication of science. Tutorial support is mainly electronic, via the FirstClass conferencing system, which is also the main communication method for students and tutors. Students also access the World Wide Web, to search electronic databases and use various resources including examples of science teaching, museum-based sites and electronic repositories of debate surrounding controversial topics.
The conferences include a Noticeboard for administrative and other announcements, a Course Forum for discussing issues that emerge from the course material, a Cafe for informal chat and a tutor discussion forum for planning assessment and teaching. These run for the whole course (32 weeks). There are also seminar conferences of limited duration with a focused discussion on particular topics. These involve groups of around 20 students who participate in discussions and group work and both students and tutors are asked to assess whether the conferences have led them to revise their opinions of the topic discussed. This is the students’ main opportunity for collaborative working with the exception of one-day school.
Both the science and social history course share the aim of inducting students into a community of practice. In the social history course, the aim is for students to ‘be’ historians and to learn to use the IT tools available to conduct research, (and evaluate the usefulness of these tools) which they do via their project. In the last two decades, the use of information and communication technologies has radically changed the working practises of professional scientists. It is important for students to be able to become part of the scientific community through participation in debates, particularly in ‘Communicating Science’ where debates play such an important role.
Evaluating computer conferencing use: methods and analysis
For both courses we wanted to investigate the patterns of participation of students and tutors; the content of the messages and the extent to which they formed an academic debate and students and tutors’ perceptions of the use of conferencing for teaching and learning. The methods adopted included a survey, student interviews and analysis of the conferencing messages. In this paper, we will concentrate on two tutor groups’ contributions to a selected academic conference within the social history course (Traditions in Social Investigation) and to a seminar discussion (on Genetically Modified Organisms) in the Science communication course. We will not consider the social, organisational or technical help conferences. The written messages sent to the academic conferences form the main body of the data.
In the literature, typically, analysis of computer conferencing is at a number of different levels. These include the frequency/patterns of interaction (e.g. counting messages and participation rates); categorisation of messages (e.g. student suggestions); categorisation using other units of analysis to allow a much more detailed interactional analysis (e.g. referencing of messages) and message content. Individually, none of these allow analysis of how collaborative learning takes place but a combination of detailed interaction plus content can be very helpful.
The social history course has a small population of students, and the conference participation rate is discussed in a later section. Thirteen and eleven students took part in the two tutor groups who were discussing Traditions in Social Investigation. In the Science communication group, twenty students formed the conference discussion group on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s). Clearly, small numbers like this do not support comparisons between the different corpuses of data, and it is not our intention to make such comparisons. However, we were struck by the opportunity of having two case studies with similar numbers of students, where the tasks set were comparable but where the domains are quite different, and so these two case study examples are used to explore some of the issues raised in the introduction. For example, we were particularly interested in the nature of the arguments used in each context, the extent to which students drew on evidence (and what kind they used) and how much they drew on each other’s contributions.
In both courses, conferencing contributions were analysed in two different ways. The number of messages and their length were recorded and also whether they were from students or tutors in order to investigate the pattern of interaction. This will only be discussed briefly here – a fuller report for the social history course can be found in Jones et al (1998) and for the science communication course in Scanlon et al (2000). The content of the messages was also scrutinised in order to investigate how students answered the questions posed and the extent to which they referred to other messages. Each student message in the selected conferences was categorised, and the categories were derived using a grounded theory approach (Strauss, 1987). Although this conference is for academic discussion, some messages related to social or other aspects of the course. We chose to focus on only the messages related to academic discussion so not all the messages in the conference are included in the analysis.
Case study 1: the ‘Charles Booth’ course: evidence from the data
Participation and pattern of use
In the evaluation survey of the social history course, 25 out of the 46 students on the course returned their questionnaires and nearly all of the respondents (23) indicated that they were using the conferencing system. They were asked to indicate what use they made of the conferencing system and their replies are summarised in figure 1 below:
Figure 1. Students’ use of computer conferencing on the Charles Booth course
As can be seen from figure 1, there were nearly as many students who contributed as those who only read messages and students also shared on-line documents provided by the course team and discussed the material related to these. The total number of messages for academic conferences was 844, making, on average, 211 messages for each topic in the academic conferences and about 50 messages for each tutorial group in each topic. Of course, the number of messages differs from group to group.
Looking at the two tutorial groups selected for further analysis, tutor messages formed 43% of messages in Group A and 37% of all messages in group B. This is rather lower than the 60 - 80% suggested by Wells (1992) for face-to-face tutorials but higher than Harasim’s figures for computer conferencing of 10-15% (Harasim, 1989). This is still consistent with the arguments in the literature that computer conferencing can lead to changing roles, and in fact in the first three academic conferences, the tutors’ contribution ranged between 12.5 and 47%. Only in the last academic conference, which is the project conference, is the tutor’s contribution higher and for some groups was around 70%. However, tutors were posting messages about selected project topics for each students and also providing advice for the research and writing up of the projects.
Analysis of contributions in the two tutorial groups
Student contributions from two tutor groups, referred to as A and B, in the academic conference on Traditions in Social Investigation were analysed further in the way described earlier. The categories derived are given below:
These categories are not exclusive. Together they provide some evidence about the extent to which the contributions fulfil two of the main criteria that we might expect of such an academic conference:
These categories were also used as a starting point in analysing the contributions in the Science course. Clearly, although we are aware of the limitations of making such a comparison, using the same categories would be helpful in highlighting any similarities and differences in the two courses. However, because of the different nature of the tasks and domain, the category set used in the Social History course needed to be modified for use with the Science data, and these changes are described later. The classification used in the Social History group was examined by a second evaluator and there was 96% agreement overall. However this examination was simply checking agreement with the categorisation which had been done from the data on one tutor group, not an independent classification.
Figure 2 shows the number of messages in each category in tutorial group A, and figure 3 gives the same information for tutorial group B. For this analysis only messages which can be classified as ‘answering a question’ are considered. Other messages (social, ‘meta-level’ or organisational) are not included in the analysis. (See table 1).
Table 1. Distribution of number of messages in each tutorial group with respect to originator and numbers included in the analysis
In both conferences the largest category is ‘supports with references’. Within this category, students adopt different styles. Some are close to a written genre, as in the example below, and will perhaps be easily re-used for a later essay:
However, social investigation entailed team work where men and women contributed ideas; not just data…These ideas may be considered sociological in nature whether they were from Mayhew’s team or Booth’s: surely both may be seen as different branches of the same sociological tree (Retrieved Riches, p26)
In both conferences, supporting an answer with argument is well represented too. This suggests that there is successful academic discourse.
However, in group B, there is much more evidence of interchange between students and acknowledgement of other students’ contributions as shown in the second category (agrees/acknowledges others). This collaborative feel is much less evident in group A. Students may be taking each other’s contributions into account, but they are not explicit about doing so. In the group A conference there is a more systematic question and answer style, without too much discursive commenting. The style is of short contributions answering the question as can be seen from three examples of messages responding to the question posed by the tutor:
What do you think is the main difference between social investigation and sociology?
Sociology is the study of human society and comparing it with previous societies thus providing a continuous history of those societies. Social investigation is more to do with statistics, survey, census, etc. providing factual information on a particular aspect of society at a particular point in time.
Social investigation is a more practical data gathering exercise while sociology is concerned with widely applicable theories.
Social investigation is principally concerned with the collection and analysis, to a certain extent, of empirically derived data to a specific end. Sociology is more the study of society as a whole in all the facets.
Examining student messages in more detail
To give a flavour of the conference an example student contribution is given in Figure 4. Extracts from the student’s message are in italics with a commentary following each extract. Jo’s contribution is the 6th student contribution in the conference, which is directed at the question: “What is the difference between social investigation and sociology?”
The contributions in this conference suggest that this media allows students to use a range of styles. The extracts in figure 4 are from a relatively long contribution that may have been composed off line and is in a style appropriate for a written assignment.
Case study 2: Communicating Science: evidence from the data
This case study focuses on one of the seminar conferences in which smaller groups of students (around twenty students) discussed a particular issue in detail. Before the start of the conference period, students were asked, as an on-line seminar group activity, to select an area of controversy to discuss and they conducted a straw poll to decide on the topic. Two topics were chosen: genetically modified organisms and nuclear waste disposal. As the presentation period of the course coincided with a great deal of debate in the British media about genetically modified organisms this topic proved to be particularly fruitful for discussion and is discussed here.
The focus here was on scientific controversies rather than political or moral debates.
The conferences were carefully structured to take place over a two-week period and students had a week’s notice of the topic selected. Days 1-3 were for students to post opening statements. Days 4-8 continued the discussion. The tutor then drew together some threads, focussed the questions and finally students posted closing statements and commented on how their discussions had influenced their final opinion. Students were asked to keep their contributions to between 50 and 200 words and not to attach files, because the conference was intended to simulate face to face seminar discussion: the aim was to stimulate the exchanges of thoughts but not to encourage individuals to make long speeches. It was suggested that if other delegates did not grasp the appropriate points students could send further messages. It was also suggested that very brief statements of agreement with others were fairly pointless and were better supported by comments justifying a minimum 50-word limit for contributions.
The data includes student responses to questionnaires (both postal and on-line), analysis of on-line activities and content analysis of messages, transcript records of the conference and the message history of each contribution. A post-conference questionnaire to all students, elicited participants’ perceptions of the value of the experience and also, for non-participants, their reasons for choosing not to participate. Another source of data was students’ attempts at an essay assignment on the topic as part of their overall course assessment.
All students used First Class to communicate with their tutor group, and read messages in general course conferences. Seventy per cent of the students actively participated in a seminar conference on controversy, 23 students (i.e. 40%) in the particular example we analyse here, with a further 17% reading messages. There are several other examples of conferences and indeed three other tutors running conferences during the year, but we are not exploring the variation in this paper.
Contributing, discussion and change
The topic of genetic modification of foods was successful and generated great diversity of views and considerable discussion. This included an extensive discussion about the role of peer review in scientific controversies, starting with the view that controversy occurs after peer review has been bypassed. Students were also interested in the nature of evidence, what counts as evidence and what constitutes acceptable risks. Issues surrounding difficulties in communication between scientists of different disciplines and the independence of scientists and especially scientists on funded research projects were also raised.
When students acknowledge each other’s contributions, there is very little overt disagreement. One reason for this might be that students’ initial presentation of issues concentrated on other peoples ideas/findings from references as factual information. In their effort to examine the issue objectively without revealing personal beliefs too much, there may be a tendency to hold back. However as the conference progresses there are signs that more personal views emerge. Also, although the category of disagreement is really small (see Fig 5 below) careful examination of messages raises the difficulty of references which begin ‘I agree with X’ and continue by expressing views which shows the student actually disagrees.
The opening statements in the conference took the form of mini essays with referencing of sources with a more informal style developing over time. Support for arguments was from various sources including journal articles, popular scientific magazines, Web sites and the public affairs media, radio, television and the broadsheets. One posting, which resulted in a number of responses, was the report of a public scientific lecture attended by a delegate.
Figure 5 shows how contributions fell into one or more of the eight different categories in the categorisation scheme that had been modified so that it could be applied to the Science communication conference on GMO’s. The following categories were retained unchanged: supports answer with references; adds new dimension, question; has reservations/disagrees with another contribution.The categories “acknowledges one or more other contributions and agrees with other contributors” were combined to form one new category and two additional categories, which reflected the content of the Science communication conference, were introduced. These were: reasons for controversy and solutions to controversy. The categorisation was subsequently also checked by a second researcher, who found good levels of agreement for three categories: ‘examines reasons for controversy’ (90%); ‘agrees/acknowledges other(s)’ (65%) and ‘supports with reference’ (85%). The first two of these were the most frequently occurring categories. The two raters differed, however, on their views of what constituted a disagreement/reservation, adding new information/poses question and solutions to the controversy. The major point of disagreement was the category ‘adds new information/poses question’. In the social history course, this category was applied most when students were responding to and discussing the question that had been posed for debate. In the Science course, opening statements were requested from the students (this did not happen in the social history course). One rater put these opening statements into this category whilst the other did not.
In fact, the majority of the postings in the Science course were specific contributions, which answered the opening question of the conference about genetic modification as a controversy in science. Of these 108 contributions, more were in the category of examining reasons for controversy (67) than in considering solutions (41).
Below we give an example of contributions to the main categories
E.g. “A further concern is that of antibiotic resistance which may be transferred from animal feed to human pathogens, however antibiotic resistant genes which have been inserted into plants are very difficult to transfer to bacteria in the laboratory and the possibility that a human being would be affected in this way by an antibiotic resistant bacterium is impossible.
E.g. “And Kelly has made the very interesting point about the divide that generally exists between those practise science and those practise communication. And as matter of interest - I was looking through next weeks' Radio Times and saw that on Sunday 16th May (Ch 4) the lecture given by C P Snow 47 years ago pointing to a growing separation between the worlds of art and science (The Two Cultures) is being re-visited. This look as though it will be interesting for us.”
E.g. Finally, Kim… said that "…the scientific literature is the place for the scientific debate to take place not in the pages of the press.” Surely, this is anathema to the very concept of science communication. Why should the public not be involved in scientific debate? I admit that the media twist stories to suit their editor's viewpoint, but that does not mean that we should dismiss a huge section of the population because they are not scientists. Would you expect to be excluded from the cinema because you are not a filmstar?
E.g. “I think Bill’s statement "..when the scientific results become subject to interpretation.." is a very important one.
Scientists in all disciplines, like everyone else, may be risk seeking people or risk averse. So, even if a group of scientists agree about the methodology and the results from a particular piece of research, and even if they agree broadly with the conclusions, they may disagree widely about the next step and about advising for any appropriate action, which should be taken. The risk averse scientist is more likely to feel that the precautionary principle is the right path to follow and the risk seeker is more likely to consider that some risks are acceptable. Given that the methods and results of some of the GM and nuclear waste research are far from agreed upon, the scope for debate and controversy between scientists, even within the same limited field, is likely to be huge”.
E.g. “So I think there are no easy solutions to how best to communicate information within scientific controversies as there are so many variables which can have an effect. However, an awareness of the many different factors, whether we are participating as communicators or audience, can only help successful communication.”
The modified categorisation scheme worked quite well for this conference. However, given the focus was on controversy, it was necessary to start to categorise content based contributions according to whether the contribution was about reasons rather than solutions to the controversy. Another challenging area was the previously mentioned difficulty in classifying the degree of agreement with other contributions. As pointed out earlier whereas a contribution may appear on first reading to be agreeing with another contribution, this may be a ‘grammatical’ debating device, or etiquette, and may actually be quite a strong disagreement.
Evaluation of the conference
When students were asked to comment on whether the conference had changed their views, their perceptions varied. Several delegates mentioned a feeling of widening perspectives. Many felt their central opinion on the topic was mostly unchanged but they had become more informed and they had considered new evidence, e.g.:
I have enjoyed 'listening' to you all very much and thanks to everyone. Although more enlightened I'm not sure I have actually changed my mind all that much - the sign of a closed mind? Oh dear! In the end I think it is going to come down to a need for society (scientists themselves, communicators and the general public) to have a better understanding of scientific issues (including risk assessment) and no doubt improved communication by scientists would help - but I think it is probably the ability to communicate with and handle the media in an effective way that matters (i.e. recognise and devise a strategy to cope with potentially contentious issues, proper briefing of appropriate recipients etc) rather than improved communication within the scientific community itself
In my opening statement I expressed concern over the way Pusztai had by-passed peer review. After this debate I still feel that effective communication of science is best achieved through the established channels.
Whether this electronic collaboration is a useful and productive activity for science students cannot be settled by looking at a single instance of a conference and its impact on a group of students. Here we have described one example of a conference that was one part of an extensive period of time spent by students on conferencing while studying the course. More work can be done in tracking students over a longer period. Evaluation criteria for the impact of media on science learning are difficult. The structuring of the tasks which students are set must be key in this. For example, in the seminar conference is the aim that students should discuss a topic widely appropriate or should we focus on students reaching a consensus? The literature on collaborative learning contrasting the effectiveness of conflict and co-construction of knowledge might be appropriate here. In our future working on the evaluation of the computer conferencing in science communication it will be important to separate the impact of new media and distinguish between benefits of media and benefits of thoughtful pedagogic choices.
We started by arguing that the view of conferencing as leading to more student centred, peer driven and collaborative learning is based on a rather unidimensional view of conferencing and suggested that it is important to document different uses and contexts in order to gain better understanding of the critical issues. Our own illustration has drawn on a science communication and social history course. In both courses, the content (and form) of the discussion in the academic conferences was tightly structured (and somewhat similar) so that students, were, in effect, debating particular questions and sub-questions. In the social history course, the degree of peer collaboration as indicated by acknowledging and referring to other students’ contributions differed in the two tutorial groups. There has not been space here to consider differences in tutor styles and contributions but one obvious route for investigating this further is to focus on the tutors’ contributions. However, although the degree of collaboration varied, and tutor intervention may have been higher than in courses built on a strong peer participation model, we have argued that the conference was indeed successful in fostering effective academic debate. This was also true in the Science Communication course, where the instances of ‘agreeing/acknowledging’ other contributions was somewhat higher, suggesting more reliance on peer contributions. We would suggest therefore that conferencing can also operate successfully in more ‘traditional’ models than those often discussed in the literature, where on-line conferencing is not so much a revolution in teaching and learning, but an environment that simulates face to face tutorial discussions for students who would otherwise not have access to them, and, of course, benefits from the additional features such as asynchronicity and a written record of events.
We also raised the issue of differences in disciplines and how this might impact on the nature of conferences, and in our case studies we were initially somewhat surprised to find that the nature of academic discussion in the two courses was so similar. However, this is probably at least partly because the Science course is a course on communication, where debating the value of different sources of evidence is a key component. It shares this aspect with social history. We do think it is important to continue to investigate the use of conferencing in a range of discipline and inter-disciplinary contexts. Engaging in comparison of different experiences should help us to continue to clarify whether and how conferencing is changing the experience of study within disciplines.
We acknowledge with thanks the course teams, Associate Lecturers and the students on the "Communicating Science" and the "Charles Booth and Social investigation in 19th Century Britain" courses, who enabled us to carry out this work.