Can Distance Enhance Quality?
Emerging Modes of Online Learning

Productive Assessment l Professional Development l Planning: Visions, Strategies l Boundary Crossing
LTAs - Low Threshold Applications l Nanovation Bookmarks l Individual Members Resources

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.

Collaboration: Why Bother?

When using 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.

First , 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, 1996)

Second, 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 quirks.

Little Movement Yet

When 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 providing

  • A virtual classroom, interpreted as a recognizable and bounded space for expert to student communication with some feedback possibilities,

  • A virtual text, viewed as a means to deliver primarily textual and graphical information with the possibility of some human-machine interactivity,

  • 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 scores.”

But few 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. 

Naive 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 possible.

Three Promising Themes

As we 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 systems:

  • Intensive interaction among the students in a "normal course"

  • 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 course

  • 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.


Intensive 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:

Ø       Post a question on an electronic bulletin board

Ø       Respond to another student's question

Ø      Comment on another student's response

Variations 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.

Distributed 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 courses. 

The 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 interaction:

  1. Peer-Peer Exchange: pairs of students correspond in a specified sequence of exchanges. This model produces large-scale active participation with minimal increase in the instructor's workload.

  2. Inter-group 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 class.

  3. Extra-group 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.

  4. Intra-group 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.

  5. Chain 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 sequence.)

  6. Global exchange: what each student writes is broadcast to the entire class. This model is useful where everyone's concerns are at stake.

  7. 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 (Dorbolo, 2000).

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):

    1. Students each write a story in response to an assignment and get a critique of that draft from another student.

    2. A student finishes his or her story draft, and registers "readiness" on the system.

    3. 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.

    4. The 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.

    5. The two students then comment on one another's drafts.  The annotated drafts are then automatically routed back to their original author, with instructions.

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).

Breaking Down the Walls: The Benefits of a More Diverse Student Body – Project ICONS

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

These kinds 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.

An ICONS 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.

Launching 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.

Before the 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.

Breaking Down Walls: The Benefits When Students Can Gather and Analyze Data Together – Journey North

Journey 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 or by e-mail.

For 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. 

Another 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 page.

Because 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. 

Combining the Three Themes – CULTURA

Our three 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 project ( (Furstenberg & Waryn, 1997) demonstrates how to combine these themes.

CULTURA is 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 understandings.

Students 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.

Stage 1: 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.

Stage 2: 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.

Stage 4: 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 prior classes.

Stage 5: 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

We have analyzed three themes for using computer communications to enhance student interaction:

a.      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

b.      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.

c.      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.

These 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.

The most 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. 

Vendors, 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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Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. (1987). Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

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Furstenberg, G., & Waryn, S. (1997). Cultura. Available:  [2000, Dec 10].

Hiltz, S. R. (1986). The virtual classroom: Using computer-mediated communication for university teaching. Journal of Communication, 36(2), 95-104.

Robson, R. (1999). WWW-based course-support systems: The first generation. International Journal of Telecommunications in Education, 5(4), 271-282.

Turoff, M. (1999). A summary of the invited plenary "An end to student segregation: No more separation between distance learning and regular courses". Available:  [2000, Dec 15].

University of Maryland University College. (2000). International Communication and Negotiation Simulations (ICONS). Project ICONS, University of Maryland. Available:  [2000, Dec 12].

About the Authors

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 President.

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.








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