[Note: this is an expanded version of the paper delivered at EdMedia 2000. The additions are highlighted in yellow.]
Learning via Computer Conferencing: Aspirations, Requirements and Hard
of the West of England
This paper explores the validity of contentions
made in the literature concerning the advantages of computer
conferencing in facilitating learning. It asserts that much of
the supporting research is lacking in conceptual clarity, methodological
rigor and systematic analysis. The
findings have frequently emerged from studies conducted under conditions
removed from everyday instructional contexts.
Consequently, these can only be generalised with difficulty to
extra-research settings, if at all. The paper includes a report of case
studies on the use of computer conferencing in settings that probably
approximates more closely the typical instructional context in
many institutions of higher education.
Non-moderated computer conferencing was employed on a number of
courses and the results compared to others that employed traditional,
non-electronically mediated, pedagogic approaches.
The results indicate that in the absence of any moderator input,
students can achieve results comparable to those attained by more
The literature on computer conferencing
is already very extensive and has periodically been subjected to
extended reviews (e.g. Kaye 91;
Mason 91; Paulsen
95; Berge) Its
presumed benefits derive, of course, not from the medium itself, but
from it being an exemplar of collaborative work.
Currently it is widely accepted that collaborative work results
in learning outcomes that are superior to those of individual
scholarship. In the list of
benefits Kaye includes: (a) the achievement of deep-level understanding
arising from conversation; (b) the development of general
problem-solving skills and strategies; (c) the sharing of different
perspectives; and, (d) the enhancement of communication skills through
the externalisation of cognitive processing (op.cit., pp.3-4).
Although a significant volume of work has been undertaken to
establish whether or not the deployment and use of electronic mediating
technologies enhances learning outcomes, many findings have been called
into question on conceptual, methodological and empirical grounds. (e.g.
99; Neal; Cooper and
Robinson; Springer, et al. )
Moreover, the findings tend to be somewhat inconsistent, as Kaye
(91) has noted. Although there appears to be a broad consensus that
computer conferencing can enhance the learning experiences of students,
especially as far as distance learning is concerned, not much evidence
has been adduced that the learning/pedagogic outcomes are in some sense
superior to those attainable via more traditional face-to-face
Much of the literature is comprised of
case studies of the ongoing experiences of educators. Generally, this has a tendency to be methodologically
unstructured. It is
often non-comparative in orientation, does not include adequate control
groups, and is rarely enlightened by appropriate statistical analysis. Even
when some of these studies meet the minimal requirements for
experimental design, the conclusions drawn by the authors could be
construed in some cases as being somewhat problematic1.
Consequently, many of the findings are essentially anecdotal, being, for
the most part, reports from the electronic frontier.
Although it may very well turn out in the medium to long term
that many of these “common-sense” assertions are borne out by
subsequent research, at this juncture many of the claims that have been
made appear to be unproven, not a few of which are, in Popperian terms,
To illustrate with one example, the
literature abounds with claims concerning the benefits of computer
mediated group work without specifying clearly what the dependent
variables are, and what would constitute reasonably adequate
confirmation. Thus, Henri 91, (see also
Kaye 91; Harasim
that group-work “consistently yields results of a higher calibre than
those attained by the average group member.
This is due to the greater amount of information available within
the group, the greater diversity of interpretations of fact and the
opportunity to test individual ideas.
…the combination of social osmosis, the circulation of ideas,
and the links established among the participants all contribute to the
efficiency of CMC group exchanges.” Perhaps, but a very elaborate and
problematic research design would be required to provide evidence
attesting to this (see Berthold M.R. et al.,
et.al., 94, on mailing list
interactivity). At present the most frequently employed objective evaluative
criterion is grade performance, whilst the subjective counterpart
is student satisfaction. Detailed qualitative analyses of exchanges are
the only means of grappling with such wide reaching claims. The required
research designs are intensively resource demanding, and the findings
are unlikely to meet requirements of replication and objectivity,
however loosely defined. (see Mason, 91;
Berthold M.R. et al.,
et.al., 94; Henri 91; Graham, et al.,
99, on the need for qualitative assessments of
In these reports there is all too
often-insufficient consideration given to the large number of
interacting variables plausibly associated with perceived outcomes,
learning and other. Some of the most significant relate to
characteristics associated with participants in conferencing exchanges.
There is no question that until very recently most case studies
were based on experiences with distance education students. (e.g., Kaye
91; Mason 91; McConnell
Soby, 91) A disproportionate number involve students taking
information technology related courses, students who can be expected to
be more favourably disposed toward pedagogic programs employing
electronic platforms (e.g. Hiltz 95).
The student subjects in many studies tend to be older than the
typical campus-based student, and differ from them in other important
respects which probably have a direct bearing on learning related
outcomes. Their motivation
and commitments, their social relations, the nature of their social
networks, their economic situation, and their pedagogic backgrounds and
experiences, all potentially relevant to learning outcomes, are probably
significantly different from those of the vast majority of students
undertaking campus-based higher education courses. Also,
many of the case studies include relatively small numbers of students. (e.g.
Warren and Rada, 98 [n1=15, n2=11)
The list of potentially relevant
variables is too lengthy to include a detailed exposition on here. They include, but are by no means limited to: (1) The
category of student [mature/school graduate; graduate/post-graduate;
experienced electronic communication media users/inexperienced
electronic communication media users; continuing education/life-long
learning]. (2) The conferencing system employed and its organisation,
[which relate to ease of use, difficulty of hierarchical inclusion and
integration, feedback on activities engaged in by participants,
availability of private and public fora, integration with other
electronic applications and their transparency/ease of use]; (3) The extent to which the conferencing system is integrated
with other electronic applications [e.g. use of the Web, electronic
revision/testing applications]; (4) The role of the conferencing
component in the overall structure of the delivery of pedagogic
materials. (5) The overall pedagogic context and its structure. (6) The nature of the task undertaken. (7) The mode of assessment linked
to the task undertaken.
Two other clusters of variables that I
wish to draw attention to here are the instructional context and instructor
moderation. In the research literature on computer conferencing
there is often a failure to emphasise the somewhat ideal
conditions under which a significant number of these projects have been
undertaken. Many studies,
as noted earlier, have been carried out on mature and highly motivated
students, frequently undertaking courses at a distance. The sample
sizes, or tutor/student
ratios, are frequently relatively
small (e.g., McConnell 91; Soby
91; Warren and Rada
88; Mason, 91; Heath
98). Many studies have been
funded with additional financial resources that have enabled instructors
to carry out such projects unburdened by
the same degree of teaching and administrative constraints that the
majority of instructors in higher education institutions have to
such research is conducted in an educational context in which there is a
relatively good tutor/student ratio. For instance, in Mason’s (91, pp.161-2) study, the ratio
was 18.1, whereas on the modules that I am responsible for the ratio is
as high as 1:120. Also, a disproportionate number of studies reported
tend to involve students who are taking courses in open and distance
learning or are related to computing and information technology.
Rather less appear to involve, for instance, students taking
basic science courses, philosophy, or languages.
The instructional context in which the
case studies described below were carried out approximate more closely
the conditions described by Hiltz as obtaining at NJIT, namely, “first
generation college students”, who must work while attending school and
who commute rather than live on campus, who are faced with overcrowded
classes and lecture halls, and who are tutored by staff who are
themselves under severe time constraints.
My use of the terminology instructional
context subsumes the whole complex of pedagogical related
experiences and programmes that the student encounters within the same
time frame that includes the research project.
The performance of students in a collaborative group environment,
whether mediated by electronic platforms or not, is affected by the way
in which that experience melds with the pedagogical approaches employed
in other courses that they are pursuing.
Many of the presumed benefits currently attributed to
collaborative conferencing and other work might, in considerable
measure, be a consequence of a high novelty factor, something that I
would expect to be substantially dissipated if all courses were
undertaken employing similar approaches.
As far as computer mediated communications based on conferencing applications are concerned, the role of the moderator has frequently been taken to be of critical importance. (Brochet 89, quoted in Paulsen 95; Paulsen 95; Feenberg 89; Mason 91; Collins and Berge 99; Berge; Kaye 91 [“access to computer conferencing….is not a sufficient condition for successful electronic collaboration. …the role and active presence of the team leader in the electronic environment is crucial to a successful outcome.”, p.12 He concludes that “the role of conference organiser in the CMC environment is the major critical factor in determining the quality of online collaboration in work groups.” P.12] ; McConnell 91) Numerous roles are allocated to the moderator in the literature, most of which are deemed to be important to the success of conferencing outcomes. The more effectively implemented, the greater the benefits. Paulsen, who reviews the literature, lists 15. There is no reason to assume that if these roles are effectively adopted and implemented that students will not benefit. However, and related to the point that I made earlier concerning the relationship between the research and typical instructional context, this literature also stresses the amount of time that is required to carry out such roles effectively. Mason (91), in reviewing one such study, carried out under the auspices of the UK Open University, noted that the 300 students had the benefit of the attention of 16 tutors, in addition to a “super-tutor” who moderated and organized the conference, “under whom the other tutors made their own contributions.” This ratio of 1 to 18 is somewhat removed from that of 1 to 95-120 that applies with respect to the case studies that I discuss below.
empirical study focuses on the analysis of computer conferencing by
undergraduate students at the University of the West of England.
The students were drawn from two programmes. Those enrolled in the Faculty of Economics and Social Science
and undertaking one of the programmes of study in Social Science that it
offers, and students who were taking an Inter-Faculty mix of programmes,
one of the two strands being a programme offered by the Faculty of
Economics and Social Science.
The University of the West of England
is one of the newer UK universities.
Located in Bristol, in south west England, it currently has an
enrolment of some 28,000 students undertaking a wide variety of degrees,
diplomas and certificates, ranging form sub-degree vocational courses to
PhD programmes. It has a
mix of full and part-time students, weighted toward the former.
The students who are the subjects of
this study were all undertaking undergraduate programmes, the
overwhelming majority of whom were 18 to 19 year-olds who entered
university directly after the completion of their secondary education.
Hardly any of them had had any prior experience of using a
conferencing system. All students undertaking programmes offered by the
Faculty of Economics and Social Science are provided with the
opportunity to attend IT induction sessions, which include
familiarisation with the use of FirstClass conferencing, the majority of
whom take this up.
FirstClass conferencing is widely used
by staff in the Faculty of Economics and Social Science, principally as
a broadcast medium, providing information to students on administrative
matters relevant to courses, and as a repository of articles and lecture
notes relating to specific modules.
Other than in the modules discussed below, FirstClass
conferencing in the Faculty of Economics and Social Science is not
employed in interactive mode, nor are conferencing contributions used as
part of course assessments.
In the Faculty of Economics and Social
Science the academic year is divided into three trimesters. In practice only the first two are teaching terms, the summer
term being used principally for examinations.
Studies Course Modules:
The students whose conferencing work
forms the basis of the discussion and analysis below were taking the
following course modules. The
term assigned work below refers to coursework other than tests or
Methods of Analysis. A
1st year undergraduate module that all students studying
Social Science programmes are required to take.
Its aim is to provide students with critical appraisal of
qualitative and quantitative research methods.
The analysis and discussion below is based on work undertaken by
students during the first trimester of the 1999/2000 academic year.
There were 119 conferences. The total number of students taking this
course in the first term of 1999/00 =420. Comparison was made with assigned written,
non-conferencing, work carried out by students taking this course in
1998/99, the number of students =290
Introduction to Social Psychology. This is a compulsory module
for those majoring in Sociology but optional for all those taking other
Social Science programmes.
It can be taken by 2nd and 3rd year students.
Analysis is based on assigned work undertaken during the first
trimester of 1998/1999 N=61, divided into 19 conferences, membership
ranging from 3 to 6, 11 of which had 4 members, one with 6. Comparison
was made with performance on assigned and examination work on other
modules taken by the students, excluding (iii) below.
Students were posed essay type questions relating to the subject matter of the courses that they were undertaking and were required to discuss this through the medium of the FirstClass conferencing system. Because of the large numbers of students involved, and student commitments and time constraints, very few of these students met face to face in connection with the fulfilment of conferencing course requirements. Students were allocated to conferences alphabetically, or on the basis of surname after they had chosen an assignment topic. They were assessed on the basis of the quality of the contributions that they made to the conferences, and written work that summarised their own conclusions concerning the essay questions. Students were given detailed information concerning what was expected from them as far as the volume of contributions they should make, when these should be made, the range of issues that should be covered (e.g., methodological issues, relevant theoretical frameworks, status of empirical data), and, in the case of course (i) above, requirements concerning alternating turn-taking in assuming a lead and reactive/interactive contributing role. All students were given the opportunity of having 30 minutes training using the conferencing system.
The overall course grades for (ii) and (iii) above are made on the basis of the assigned work and a final examination, each contributing 50 percent to the total. The assigned work was a mix of conferencing contributions and written work related to the question posed for conferencing contributions. All other modules are also assessed on a combination of written coursework and final examinations, each contributing, with few exceptions, fifty percent of the total. None of these other courses use conferencing for assessment purposes, although instructors on many courses employ the conferencing system as a broadcast medium. Students taking these courses take a total of six courses per year, with the exception of the very few part-time students. The performance of the students on the conferencing courses was compared with their performance on the other courses that they took in the same academic year. The comparison was with the average performance on coursework grades, examination grades, and the overall average of coursework and examination grades on these other courses. In most cases these were averages of performance on five courses. However, in some instances the comparison was confined to a comparison of performance on the conferencing related module with performance on four other courses, as some students opted to study both courses in the same academic year.
As far as the methods course was concerned, (i) above, comparison was made between the assessed work on the conferencing system of students in the first term of the 1999/00 academic year, with that of written coursework undertaken by students taking the same course in the first term of the academic year 1998/99. These latter students did not use the conferencing system for assessed work in any courses during that year.
I designed the essay questions, wrote the guidelines relating to
conferencing work requirements, and administered the conferencing
system, the assessment of conferencing contributions, written, and
examination work, was undertaken entirely independently by the course
seminar instructors. The methods course had 10 seminar instructors,
whereas (ii) and (iii) had one each. None of the conferences were
moderated. None of the instructors made any contributions to the
conferencing discussions, with a few exceptions when it was necessary to
intervene for administrative purposes, for instance, informing students
that they were sending the message to the parent conference rather than
to the project group conference. Consequently, students undertook
all conferencing work independently.
With respect to modules, (ii) and (iii) student t-Tests, paired two samples for means, were carried out on a number of data series, the Null Hypothesis being that there was no difference between the means attained on conferencing work modules and the averaged performance of students on all other modules. For module (i) the t-Test two sample assuming unequal variance was employed. This was undertaken separately for the assigned coursework and examination grades. No significant difference was found at the .01 level in respect of (iii) for the second term. There was, however, a significant difference for (iii) in the first term, the mean for coursework on the conferencing module being 3% higher than for the average for all other modules. There was a 6.7% difference between the final mark on the conferencing module and the overall final mark, for (iii) in the first term. Significant differences persisted when the tests were carried out separately for males and females. However, for (iii), term two, no significant differences were found respecting any of the data series, although the means for performance on all of the data series relating to the conferencing modules were higher than those with which they were compared. The differences between terms (i) and (ii) could conceivably be interpreted as being a product of the wearing off of the novelty effect, but many other explanations are equally plausible.
For module (ii), the only significant difference was between the means for the overall grade for the module and the average overall grade on other modules, the mean for the former being nearly 6% higher. The means in all other comparison were higher for the conferencing module.
the methods course, (i) above, the t-Test between the written assignment
work for the 1998/99 and the 1999/00 conferencing work was significantly
different at the .01 level, the means differing by 4.2%, being higher
for the conferencing work. The t-Test between the 1998/99 and the
1999/00 written work was not significantly different at the 0.05 level,
the mean for the former being higher.
analysis, along with mixed effects regression and correlation analysis,
not reported upon here, indicate that conferencing undertaken without
the benefit of moderation is not reflected in poorer performance, as
measured by grades in written and examination work, compared with
courses using traditional higher education instructional modes. In
fact, students performed better on average on two of the conferencing
modules (ii, iii), than they did on other coursers. There are various
reasons that can be advanced for this. As noted earlier, as the
pedagogic context is one in which conferencing work is a novelty on the
case study courses, this may impact on student interest, perseverance
and motivation. Another possible explanation is the impact of what
social psychologists refer to as social facilitation. It is also
possible that the subject matter of the assigned conferencing work is
perceived by students to be more interesting than that than which they
are required to undertake on other courses. It is also plausible
to argue that many of the benefits singled out by other researchers as
being associated with collaborative work, are also active in the
minimalist intervention computer conferencing contexts that applied in
the present case studies.
Summary and Conclusion
Although there is now a substantial body of literature dealing with varied matters relating to the deployment of interactive communication technologies in educational settings, we are still a long way from knowing or understanding how to deploy them effectively in order to achieve pedagogic outcomes. This is hardly surprising given that disputes concerning the effectiveness of more traditional pedagogic mediums, such as lectures and seminars, are far from being settled. Some of the reasons are not difficult to track. Much research has been anecdotal, case study oriented, findings being applicable to very specific contexts, and therefore non-replicable. Much research has been carried out under conditions that do not approximate those of typical educational settings. Many of the assertions deployed with missionary zeal by educational technology enthusiasts have not been systematically tested. At the same time, it is possible to demonstrate that such technologies might be effectively deployed under less than ideal conditions to achieve modest improvements.
findings from the case studies reported on here, which found “no
significant difference” with minimalist intervention in terms of
moderation/facilitation, are in line with results from other studies on
collaborative learning work in asynchronous learning networks (Alavi et
al., 97; Benbunan-Fich and Hiltz,
99; Hiltz, 94; Russell,
Although the case studies therein reported on cover so many different
mixtures of variables that it is very doubtful that the meta-conclusions
are based on like being compared with like, at present it does seem
clear that there is no significantly perceptible disadvantage associated
with ALN based instruction at the college/higher education level.
This seems to apply whatever the degree of moderation/facilitation
It is not my position that “minimalist intervention,” that is, the absence of moderation/facilitation in collaborative ALN work, is an objective that educators should actually aspire to. However, given that we cannot with any degree of certainty specify what the cognitive pedagogic advantages of moderation/facilitation are, or measure them, that ALN collaborative work may hold some appeal to students independent of the presumed benefits of moderation/facilitation (eg., novelty, social facilitation, transferable skill acquisition), and that for many educators time-management considerations would prevent anything other than cursory moderation, it appears that there are few reasons not to utilise ALN collaborative forums for teaching purposes. The one caveat, of course, is that the structure of such non-moderated forums, and the tasks allocated to participants, need to be carefully considered.
The recent study by Benbunan-Fich and Hiltz (99) can be used to
They employed an experimental design that was “a 2x2 factorial
crossing teamwork (individual vs. group work) with communication support
(manual-offline vs. asynchronous computer conference),” exploring
differences between students undertaking a case study on “computer
ethics”. The students were divided into four groups: (1) those who
worked offline on their own; (2) those who worked offline in a group;
(3) those who worked online on their own; (4) those who worked online in
The online students employed a conferencing system application.
The dependent variable was the reports produced by the students in the
different conditions, which were evaluated by independent experts. The
grade point averages achieved in the different conditions are reproduced
in the table:
= Significant at p=< .05
authors conclude: “According to the score provided by the judges, ALN-supported
participants (individuals and groups) submitted higher quality reports
than their manual counterparts. The online mean (62.31) is significantly
different from the manual mean (56.13) at p = .05, which supports the
prediction of H1b.” The prediction H1b is: “Participants working
through an ALN will produce higher-quality solutions to an ethical case
scenario than will their manual counterparts”
are a number of points that are worthy of some additional
reflection. First, the difference between the summative manual and the
online conditions, although significant at the p=0.5 level, is, in
absolute terms, not particularly large. Secondly, it is not clear
what the rationale is for summing the group offline condition with the
individual offline condition, or the group online with the individual
online condition. Third, the difference between the two group
conditions is less than that between the group and manual conditions.
Finally, what the authors fail to explain is the “no significant
difference” between the individual and group online conditions.
Thus, although the ALN conditions produce superior results in contrast to
the offline conditions, there is no difference between the two online
is somewhat perplexing, as in their theoretical overview the authors
claim that “Groups are more creative at generating options and probing
their advantages and disadvantages than are single individuals (Nunamaker,
et al. 1991; Turoff & Hiltz, 1982). Groups are also better than
individuals at making decisions (Hill, 1982; Rice, 1984). There is some
support in the moral reasoning literature that groups produce better
solutions to ethical and social dilemmas than individuals do (Peek, et al.
1994). At the individual level, moral judgment is the product of an
individual's basic structure for perceiving reality, while at the group
level ethical discussions force members to share not only facts but also
values and work with different viewpoints and moral frames of reference
(Nichols & Day, 1982). Therefore, the solution of a moral dilemma
decided upon by a group should be superior to an individual's
consideration of a dilemma.” Given that there is no difference in the
average grade mark in the individual and group ALN condition, the
hypothesis that group solutions are superior to individual one’s is not
justified by these findings. (inter alia, the notion that group moral
solutions are superior to those of individuals, is, in my view, untenable
on both epistemological and ontological grounds.)
it happens, the data that they provide permits the inference that
individual online results are superior to those of collaborative groups.
The data includes figures for the length of reports, the average for the
individual online condition being 462 words, that for the group condition
being 756. Given that the grade point averages were virtually
identical for the two conditions, it is not unreasonable to infer that the
individual ALN condition leads to superior results in the sense that they
achieve the same end more succinctly. There is, however, nothing
that would account for this in their theoretical overview.
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I am grateful to Dr Wayne Thomas, University of the West of England, for valuable assistance in analysing the statistical data.
Document compiled by Dr S D
Last update 14/07/2000
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