Stephen C. Ehrmann and Mauri Collins
Published in the September 2001 issue of
Educational Technology Magazine
In a 1999
paper, Murray Turoff quotes Thorstein Veblen as saying
"Institutions are habits of thought" (Turoff, 1999, p. 1).
So are courses and classrooms, whether paper or
face-to-face. In this essay, we suggest
that most instructors, administrators and software
developers are missing major opportunities because they
assume that online collaboration among students must follow
the same forms as traditional interaction in face-to-face
classrooms. Yet, dating back to the
1970s, a few educators and software developers have been
pioneering far more imaginative ways of helping students
learn with one another in virtual space; they have been
multiplying the advantages of extended access with the
strengths of enriched learning environments.
computers to complement or substitute for face-to-face
interaction among students, why go beyond student-faculty
e-mail and threaded newsgroups? There
are at least two major reasons.
, as Chickering and Gamson argued when
formulating the well-known "Seven Principles of Good
Practice in Undergraduate Education," interaction among
students is a powerful catalyst for improving learning
outcomes (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).
Computers have long been recognized as a means for fostering
such collaboration. (See, for example Chickering & Ehrmann,
collaborative skill is itself an important yet often
vestigial outcome of higher education.
For example, Boyatsis (1982) summarized research that showed
that a major difference in the competences of excellent
managers and those of average managers in the same roles was
that the superior performers were skilled in the creation of
coalitions. . Such skills cannot be
taught by a single course, any more than competence in
writing academic English can be taught in one course. Yet
how many institutions teach "collaboration across the
curriculum?" And, of those that do
emphasize collaboration, how many are adding to skills
specific to collaboration online, e.g., how to cope with
tension among online collaborators from different parts of
the country or the world, collaborators who do not initially
know one another's assumptions, cultures or personality
Little Movement Yet
cameras were a new technology, they were initially used to
make movies of stage performances. That
initial reliance on transitional forms has held true as each
new educational technology has emerged.
Thus our first generation of course management programs is
currently used as though all these programs can do is
support traditional roles borrowed from classical classroom
instruction. As Robeson (1999) says, if
you take “a step back, [such systems] may be viewed as
classroom, interpreted as a recognizable and bounded
space for expert to student communication with some
A virtual text,
viewed as a means to deliver primarily textual and
graphical information with the possibility of some
A virtual testing
room in which standard types of quizzes are given as
either summative or formative assessments, and
A virtual grade
book, meaning a way to keep track of students and their
courses or institutions appear to be using computer mediated
workspaces to foster new forms of educational interaction,
nor do most vendors seem to place a high priority on
software features or training that would support qualitative
changes in the ways that students work with others as they
learn. Instead course management systems are usually only
employed to provide the electronic equivalent of the closed
classroom, with in-course conferences and chat facilities.
faculty, new to teaching online, are lulled by custom and
system restrictions into believing that only very simplistic
forms of interaction (e-mail, threaded discussion relatively
disconnected from readings and projects) are all that are
looked back over the last three decades, we saw three
promising themes, each of which can be pursued with current
software and each of which could be pursued better if
vendors added features to computer mediated communications
Intensive interaction among the students in a "normal
Breaking down the walls of the classroom in order to
benefit from interaction among learners who are more
numerous and more diverse than would be found in any one
Breaking down the walls of the classroom so that
students can learn by analyzing data that no one course
or group of students could have gathered.
Communication - Delphi and InterQuest
Delphi: About a quarter century
ago, Jerome Woolpy of Earlham College pioneered an early use
of computer bulletin boards to support more extensive
interaction among students. Each week
each student in the course was required to do three things:
Post a question on an
electronic bulletin board
Respond to another student's
Comment on another student's
of this approach have been used occasionally since then as
generations of computer technologies have come and gone.
The faculty time required is relatively small and the
potential gains for students large. Yet this simple,
structured interaction format is still apparently little
used. Even faculty developers and
technology trainers seem to know little about these simple
kinds of interaction structures and so rarely inform faculty
members about the possibilities. Nor have software vendors
as yet automated this kind of structured interaction process
(e.g., offering the faculty member an "automatic readout" of
which students have taken which steps, or providing
"automatic reminders" by e-mail to students who do not
complete each of the three steps on time each week.
InterQuest and its cousins: Jon
Dorbolo (Dorbolo, 1997) developed a learning strategy he
called "Distributed Directed Discussion"
for his introduction to philosophy ("InterQuest") taught at
Oregon State University. InterQuest was
one of the first courses ever taught using the Web.
Directed Discussion allows students their choice of content
within the course, while they are directed through a series
of debates, critiques and other kinds of patterned
interaction with small numbers of other students.
The paths are predictable, and students’ progress is
paced. By designing the course this way,
asynchronous discourse can be managed by the specially
designed Questwriter software, holding the logistical burden
on faculty members to a minimum, even in high-enrollment
distinguishing features of a Distributed Directed Discourse
activity are: (1) the type of discourse, (2) the role of the
participants, and (3) group dynamics.
Types of Discourse: Dorbolo uses
Questwriter software to help manage seven different modes of
Exchange: pairs of students correspond in a specified
sequence of exchanges. This model produces large-scale
active participation with minimal increase in the
exchange: this class is arranged into conversation in
sub-groups. Groups may be designated by topics or
desired group's size. Each group member’s work is
broadcast to an entire group, but not to the entire
exchange: the class is arranged into conversation in
sub-groups. The whole class is
assigned the task of providing comments to sub-groups
other than their own. This way, a group receives
commentary from outside and can be directed to
deliberate and respond as a group. This model can
provide an impetus for subsequent inter-group exchange.
exchange: two (or more) groups exchange of results that
each group produced in an inter-group activity. The key
is to assign each group the task of fashioning a
collective message to be sent to the other group.
Exchange: a group of students performs a task
sequentially passing messages along the chain. Starting
the sequence with each individual allows all students to
participate in all parts of the sequence. This model is
effective for accentuating the articulation of a concept
or process (e.g. an argument, a calculation, a
exchange: what each student writes is broadcast to the
entire class. This model is useful where everyone's
concerns are at stake.
Auto-exchange: one student replying to his or her own
writing. The instructions guide students through steps
of revision of reflection initiated by their own writing
Here is an
example of how Questwriter is used to manage the logistics
of paper exchange in a calculus course (William Bogley, Jon
Dorbolo, Robby Robson, & John Sechrest, 1996):
each write a story in response to an assignment and
get a critique of that draft from another student.
student finishes his or her story draft, and
registers "readiness" on the system.
Questwriter pairs that student with another student
who has also finished a draft. Questwriter sends
each student an email indicating that the partner's
draft is ready.
student then links to the web page listed in the
email (or simply logs on to Questwriter when they
next visit the course site) and finds the partner's
draft available with instructions for commentary.
students then comment on one another's drafts.
The annotated drafts are then automatically
routed back to their original author, with
This can go
on for any number of iterations; i.e. one might break down
the commentary task into a) check for accuracy of fact; b)
assess the clarity; c) assess the strength of arguments;
etc. each task being exchanged in a new iteration between
the same set of partner's (or, if desired, different
partners each time) (William Bogley, Jon Dorbolo, Robby
Robson, & John Sechrest, 1996).
the Walls: The Benefits of a More Diverse Student Body –
International Communication and Negotiation Simulations
(ICONS) (University of Maryland University College, 2000)
each year offers a series of simulation exercises, held on
an international scale. These
simulations capture the complexity and subtlety of
international political issues by employing detailed
scenarios that focus on real or plausible problems. (For
more information, see
of negotiation role-playing exercises have been around in
one form or another for several decades.
They rely for their success on interactive computing, which
enables human participants at distant locations to negotiate
with each other through the assistance of a computer-based
communications network. ICONS originally supported only
university-level simulations but became involved in
secondary school programs in the mid-1980s. Since 1990, 162
universities and 129 secondary schools from 37 countries
have participated in ICONS simulations.
simulation draws together students from courses in colleges
and universities around the world. Students are assigned to
country-teams that represent each country in the
negotiations. Country-teams are linked via the Internet to a
University of Maryland host computer, but hardware and
software requirements are negligible - a personal computer,
a web-browser and connection to the Internet. Sometimes
students specialize, with some students conducting the
negotiation while others (specialists in foreign languages)
translate the communications.
the simulation is a written scenario that outlines the state
of the world based on present-day facts, and sets the stage
for the interactions both within and among country-teams.
The simulation involves both the asynchronous exchange of
diplomatic communications and computer-assisted real-time
conferences. Online conferences are scheduled to focus on
each of the issues in the simulation. They follow a detailed
agenda and are chaired by ICONS staff.
simulation begins, students conduct extensive research on
their assigned country and the issues. They produce a
position paper that specifies country goals and strategies,
and lays the foundation for their negotiation in the
simulation. After the simulation, instructors engage the
students in debriefing exercises and assignments to apply
the simulation experience to the real world.
Walls: The Benefits When Students Can Gather and Analyze
Data Together – Journey North
North is an International, collaborative study of wildlife
migration and seasonal change that, in spring 2000, involved
over 4500 schools and represented more than 250,000 students
in the United States and Canada. Students share their own
field observations on the journeys of a dozen migratory
species, with live interactive programming from February 2nd
to June 1st. Students share data with other students and
with scientists who provide their expertise directly to the
classroom. As the spring season sweeps across the
hemisphere, students note changes in daylight, temperatures,
and all living things as the food chain comes back to life.
Now in its seventh season, this program was not possible
before Internet technology. Free access to Journey North is
available on the World Wide Web at
http://www.learner.org/jlearner or by e-mail.
example, in the fall of each year students track the
migration of Monarch butterflies from their northern range
close to the border of Canada to their winter home in
central Mexico. Students make regular field observations
that are reported on a web-based form to the Journey North
office and entered into their database. Students can then
track the butterflies’ progress as new observations are
added each day from locations further and further south.
This raises awareness of the butterflies’ travel and their
value as a shared national resource.
project involves the students planting tulip gardens and
reporting their locations via a web-based form. Again their
data and comments are stored in a database that can be
accessed from the web page. Students can track soil
temperatures and report the date that their first tulips
emerge. These data are plotted on a map displayed on the web
Journey North activities can be conducted over the Internet,
teachers can choose one or more partner schools in other
parts of the country with whom to share their observations.
Students can track seasonal changes, predict the arrival of
spring and the first robins and earthworms, and guess where
their partner school may be located.
Over 4000 primary classrooms participate in these activities
and the whole Journey North project is of a magnitude that
could not be managed without Internet connectivity.
Three Themes – CULTURA
themes have been intensive communication (more than one
would find in a course that does not use electronic
communication when students are outside the classroom),
breaking down the walls to reach and involve students who
are different from one another in instructionally important
ways, and breaking down the walls to help students gather
and analyze more data. The CULTURA
(Furstenberg & Waryn, 1997) demonstrates how to combine
a steadily evolving project, designed and based at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by the
National Endowment for the Humanities. Its goal is to
develop and support students in an innovative approach to
learning about new languages and cultures. A community of
learners, in this case, from the United States and France,
is created, along with a collection of multimedia documents
and assignments that help them construct common
from classrooms at the same level – both high school or both
university – work in the classroom and also between classes
in a computer conference. Creating
cultural comparisons side-by-side on the same web page is
used to highlight similarities and differences. In computer
conferences, both groups of students write in their own
language to preserve the richness and authenticity of their
speech and provide the other group with colloquial and
contemporary discourse to analyze.
The faculty leaders developed three different kinds of
questionnaires to which both groups of students respond, in
their native languages. The
questionnaire results - word associations, sentence
completions and reactions to hypothetical situations - are
presented side by side on a web page.
Students examine the comparisons, first individually, then
with their own classmates. Many of them quickly realize that
the "same" words have different connotations for different
cultures; that associations are firmly anchored in their
cultures; and that words and ideas may be present in one
culture yet different or non-existent in the other.
Similarly, they learn that reactions to situations
can vary widely within and between cultures.
This produces material for lively conversations in
stage 3, as, for example, American students are given the
prompt of "police" and respond with "911" and "doughnut," or
when French students respond to the word "banlieue" (which
in a dictionary might be translated as 'suburbs') with terms
that translate to "delinquents" and "danger."
Stage 3: In
asynchronous forums, the students then communicate their
initial reactions to partners across the Atlantic. The
instructors watch the conversations but not correct
students. Students are encouraged to
form their own hypothesis based on their observations, to
ask and answer direct questions to clarify points, and to
explore topics more deeply.
The students search for and examine an expanding array of
documents in class or found the web relating to both
cultures. These new materials include,
for example, opinion polls and the archive of responses from
Students are encouraged to expand their forum discussions,
their reading and their analysis of the accumulating
materials and texts. They analyze and critique films in both
languages; news articles on similar topics, passages in
cross-cultural literature from different languages and in
different fields. In the classroom the
students bring the disparate elements of their experiences
together and, with the help of their classmates, develop
their own understanding of how the other culture works, on
what it is based and why it functions the way that it does.
By comparison, their understanding of the diversity of their
own culture and cultural assumptions also grows.
The Bottom Line
analyzed three themes for using computer communications to
enhance student interaction:
More intensive interaction, as
in the Delphi example where every student needed to ask a
question, answer another student's question, and comment on
another student's answer, every week
Breaking down the walls to
involve more kinds of students, as with the international
role playing simulations staged by Project ICONS in which
students from different countries represent different
countries in diplomatic negotiations.
Breaking down the walls to
include more kinds of data, as with the Journey North
distributed laboratory in which school children around the
country share the job of gathering data from their
neighborhoods, together creating a database that can show
patterns of bird migration and seasonal change of
temperature across the country.
themes can all be present in the same course, as we saw with
CULTURA's program to help US and French learners grasp the
subtleties of one another's cultures.
important lesson of these cases (and many – but too few –
others we could have cited) is that faculty members and
faculty developers can and should go far beyond the
conventional classroom, faculty office, and dormitory room
as the metaphors for the setting and nature of student
communication. The virtual classroom, to
use Roxanne Hiltz's phrase (Hiltz, 1986), creates new kinds
of possibilities for collaboration and for learning.
too, should pay attention to these and other models: almost
any current system can be used by sufficiently skillful
faculty members to implement these three themes but, for
faculty to capture the advantages of larger scale
interaction, we need better software. The good news for
vendors: the same kinds of capabilities could also prove
valuable for the design of groupware in the corporate world.
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Stephen C. Ehrmann directs
the Flashlight Program for the Study and Improvement of
Educational Uses of Technology at The Teaching, Learning,
and Technology Group, where he also serves as Vice
Mauri Collins serves as
Distributed Learning Designer at the Educational Technology
Center of the Rochester Institute of Technology. She is also
the moderator of the Distance Education Online Symposium
listserv (DEOS-L) and the editor of DEOSNEWS.