The Nature and Purpose of Online Discourse: A Brief Synthesis of Current Research as related to The WEB Project

Lorraine Sherry
RMC Research Corporation

[Copyright 1998, AACE]
[To appear in the International Journal of Educational Telecommunications.]

Emerging technologies such as the Internet, the World-Wide Web (WWW), computer-mediated communication (CMC) are being discussed around the world by teachers, administrators, parents, researchers, academics, and technology planners. The WEB Project (http:/ / is beginning to show what is possible when telecommunications links participating schools and initiatives with the community-at-large. It serves as an educational environment for student inquiry and expression, a medium for presenting and assessing student work, a virtual faculty room for professional discussions, and a forum for civic discourse. Through its intensive use of the Internet, the WWW, and the WEB Exchange, the project has been supporting ongoing, public dialogue for the past three years.

This innovative project introduces several questions regarding the motives, the impacts, and the activities associated with computer-mediated communication (CMC). This innovative project raises many interesting questions. Why engage in online conversations? What is the nature of mediated discourse? What are its various forms? What are the factors that facilitate or impede it? How does the technology itself interact with different learner characteristics, thereby resulting in different learner outcomes than traditional, face-to-face conversation? Finally, what are the implications for changing roles of students, teachers, experts, and novices as they carry out collaborative inquiry, civic discourse, and design conversations in a mediated environment? These are areas that will be explored in this paper.

What are some Goals of Online Conversations?

Chism (1998, pp. 7-8) gathered a list of possible uses of online conversations, with examples from her own research. CMC can be used for the following purposes:

Building group coherence among students. The main goal is social: students are encouraged to get to know one another so that other tasks can be accomplished.

Sharing information. Using a collaborative learning strategy such as Aronson et al.'s (1978) Jigsaw Method, different students in a learning group become experts in specific aspects of a project. They then have the responsibility to share what they have learned with the entire class. This is particularly effective in group-based project work (Collis et al., 1997).

Processing ideas. Listservs can be used to share cases, engage students in collaborative problem-solving, and create an online community as students elaborate on discussions that began in class or continue to deal with unresolved issues.

Online tutoring. Electronic discussions can be used to review for examinations. Students can ask questions of each other and of the instructor, and share their answers.

Refine communication skills. "Process" skills such as communication, critical thinking, and creative thinking cut across all content areas and can be enhanced through electronic communication. Students can be asked to frame arguments, lead electronic discussions, and develop their written communication skills.

Provide feedback to students. Students can share their papers, products, compositions, or drafts of their work for their peers and the instructor to critique. This feedback can be used to further refine and improve student-generated products.

"The important thing is that there is some clarity regarding the goals of the electronic discussion because other instructional decisions are related to these goals" (Chism, 1998, p. 7). It is also important to plan electronic discussions so that they will complement what happens in the rest of the course. They should not be tangential to the course. In Chism's study, instructors and students recommended linking the on-line discussion to events that occur in the classroom by setting the agenda for the discussion, by referencing points made in the discussion, by linking assignments to class activities, and by showing students how they can use electronic exchanges to give each other support, encouragement, feedback, and new ideas (ibid., p. 12).

Online Learning as a Collaborative Activity

The purposes listed above link students with one another, with their teachers, with experts in their fields of inquiry, and with the community at large. As stated in the first of The WEB Project's three goals, it "promotes in-person and online discussions of student work among students, teachers, administrators, and community members that centers on the Vermont Framework, especially the areas of arts, language, literature, history, and social sciences". The underlying philosophy behind this statement is that learning is a collaborative activity.

This shift in theoretical focus from knowledge "in the head" to knowledge being situated in an association between the individual intellect and the environment is reminiscent of Allen and Otto (1996) who note that if cognitions are fundamentally situated, then research that fails to take into account the social aspects of a learning task can be criticized as not being ecologically valid. It is also consonant with the view that learning is inherently a social, dialogical process in which learners benefit most from being part of knowledge-building communities both in class and outside of school (Jonassen, 1995). There are two schools of thought that relate to CMC activities: activity theory and situated learning.

CMC: A Mediating Tool in an Activity System

Hewitt, Scardamalia, and Webb cite Engestrom (1996), who views human activity as contextualized within an interdependent activity system. Drawing upon the research of Leont'ev (1981) and Tikhomirov (1981), Engestrom defines the framework of an activity system consisting of six elements:

  1. 1.the subject or actor (e.g., a student, teacher, or expert who is carrying out an activity);

  2. the object of activity (e.g, a product or message posted on The WEB Exchange);

  3. the mediating tools of the activity (e.g, the WEB Project's network, multimedia tools, etc.);

  4. the community of learners (teachers, students, coordinators, initiatives, all people who are connected electronically by the network and are concerned with the problems and issues discussed on it);

  5. the division of labor (the responsibilities commonly associated with the roles of "student", "teacher", "artist in residence", "expert", etc.); and

  6. the rules or norms regarding appropriate social actions (posting, critiquing student work, moderating a discussion, seeding a conference, participating in civic discourse, etc.)

These six elements are inextricably related. "Changes in the design of a tool may influence a subject's orientation toward an object, which in turn may influence the cultural practices of the community... The model provides a composite view that recognizes both the socially distributed nature of human activity and the transformative nature of activity systems in general" (Hewitt et al., 1996, p. 4). Thus, when studying CMC as a way of enhancing teaching and learning, one must consider its effects on the entire sociocultural system into which it is introduced, including the individuals who comprise it, the tools they use, the products and performances they create, the norms and conventions of tool use, the roles and responsibilities of individual group members, and the meanings they share as a cultural group (Engestrom, 1996).

In an activity system, the tools of discourse connect people not only with the world of objects, but also with other people as well (Wells, 1996, p. 77). "The tool is not simply added on to human activity: rather, it transforms it" (Tikhomirov, 1981, p. 270).

All CMC systems -- The Internet, the WWW, local area networks (LANs), bulletin board systems, e-mail, and computer conferencing systems -- can be described as socio-technical systems or networks, in which the technical and social forces cannot be clearly separated. "Technologies are social, because they are produced by, facilitate, and shape human interactions" (Falk, 1996). Correspondingly, the WWW is a technology with social and technical dimensions and mediates and contributes to social as well as technological change" (Falk, 1996).

Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning:
Support for Situated Learning

Computer-Supported Collaborative learning (CSCL) is an emerging paradigm of education that emphasizes a delicate balance between the individual mind and socially shared representations developed through ongoing discourse and joint activities that take place within a learning community (Koschmann, 1996). It breaks with traditional instructional computing that is more individualistic in nature, such as Taylor's (1980) classification of instructional technologies into "tutor", "tutee", and "tool" -- the use of computer-aided instruction (CAI), integrated learning systems (ILS), and the introduction of office technologies (spreadsheets, word processors, databases) and computer programming as subject areas within the school curriculum. In contrast, CSCL uses mediated communication in both its synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous forms to develop shared knowledge bases and to promote common understandings. As a result, CSCL incorporated communication among all stakeholders within an educational system, whereas CAI does not.

The philosophical foundations of CSCL are based on situated learning (Suchman, 1987; Lave & Wenger, 1991), communities of learners (Brown, 1994; Brown & Campione, 1996), and cognitive apprenticeships (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989). Within these related schools of thought, researchers are now expanding the study of cognition and conceptual change beyond the individual mind to include learning that is built up by mediated conversations among members of peer groups, local learning communities, and broader cultural systems. CSCL shifts the focus of pedagogical thinking from learning as acquisition of knowledge and skills to learning as entry, enculturation, and legitimate, valued activities situated within a community of practice.

In a situated learning environment, students work on authentic, relevant tasks that take place in a "real world" setting, rather than participating in traditional instructional processes such as recall and recitation, drill and practice, and other forms of individual seatwork. This is totally consistent with Means and her colleagues' (1993) view of systemic reform. The core of educational reform consists of authentic challenging tasks, with nine associated elements:

It is also consonant with the engaged learning paradigm of Jones and his colleagues (1995).

Linking students with a community of practitioners, however, requires the extension of the learning process from the four walls of a traditional classroom and the usual 50-minute class period. The WEB Exchange is ideally suited for this purpose because, as a mediator of CSCL, it can link experts and novices electronically in order to carry out an online dialogue. This dialogue, in turn, can help students refine their works-in-progress and thus move from legitimate peripheral participation to a more expert status within a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Thus, CSCL builds on the conceptual frameworks of both activity theory and situated learning. Used as a mediating tool, CMC enables students, teachers, and other community experts to share distributed representations (Allen & Otto, 1996; Crook, 1994) and to use distributed cognition (Norman, 1993; Fischer, 1995) to overcome the limitations of the individual, unaided human mind. It also supports teachers as they shift their roles from that of pedagogue to coach and model, and supports students as they become experts in the tasks they are currently working on. In this way, "the role of apprentice-master' is shared among students and with the teacher" (Winn, 1995, p. 164).

A Taxonomy of Online Conversations

Jenlink and Carr (1996) have identified three broad purposes of conversation:

1.transacting: conducted for the purpose of negotiating or exchange within an existing problem setting;

2.transforming: conducted when individuals suspend their own personal opinions or assumptions, and their judgment of others' viewpoints; and

3.transcendent: where the purpose is that of moving beyond or "leaping out" of existing mindsets.

Transactions in a learning setting do not involve tangible objects. As in the world of public opinion where leaders and followers exchange mutually valued gratifications (Burns, 1978, p. 258), experts and novices in an electronic discussion exchange mutually valued information. Herrmann (1995) identifies these as academic or administrative conversations.

Transforming conversations are often of the nature of progressive discourse. Bereiter (1994) loosely defines progressive discourse as a set of innumerable local discourses that consist of clarifications and resolutions of doubts, and that generate ideas that advance the larger discourse. The important thing about progressive discourse is that "understandings are being generated that are new to the local participants and that the participants recognize as superior to their previous understanding (Bereiter, 1994, p. 9).

In contrast to the previous types of conversation in which knowledge is advanced, transcendent dialogue seeks to produce coordinated action among participants and to bring about genuine social change. Such dialogue "creates a special environment in which the tacit, fragmented forces that guide how people think and act can begin to be perceived and inquired into, and the underlying patterns of influence can be shifted" (Isaacs, 1996, p. 20). Besides being a potentially powerful mode of inquiry and collective learning, "it balances more structured problem-solving approaches with the exploration of fundamental habits of attention and assumption behind traditional problems of thinking" (Isaacs, 1993). Roy Pea (1993, 1994) refers to this as transformative communication.

The purpose of the online conversation will ultimately drive the type of conversation that will ensue. Jenlink and Carr (1996) have identified four types of conversation: dialectic, discussion, dialogue, and design. Discussion is the most familiar and pragmatic; dialogue is also pragmatic, but less common. Dialectic and design are more disciplined orientations. All may be appropriate, depending on how the conversation is linked to the course.

Dialectic conversation focuses on framing a logical argument for distilling the truth. It is a scientific approach, a disciplined inquiry into whatever is being examined. In dialectic conversation, participants are often rigid in their beliefs and debate for what they perceive as truths. The nature of the dialectic conversation is one of debate and logical argument within a context of limited negotiations for change. This often results in factionalization or breaking apart of individuals into different camps, because participants often see their personal viewpoints as the only truths, and consider any attempt to change them as a personal attack.

Discussion conversation is the forum in which many people advocate for their own individual position. Unlike the logical argument expressed by a dialectic, discussion is more subjectively influenced by opinion and supposition. Discussion conversations are transactional in nature, one participant negotiating with others with the advocacy and preservation of personal assumptions as the center of the discourse. Incoherence in thinking is brought on and reinforced by the advocacy or preservation of personal opinions and rigid mindsets, especially when ungrounded suppositions enter the discourse, and when participants are unwilling to disclose their beliefs or suspend their judgments of others' points of view. This results in a breakdown in communication.

Dialogue conversation is a conversation where meaning is constructed through sharing. It is a community-building form of conversation, and as such, shares some aspects of a form of online communication identified by Herrmann (1995) as "community building". Its purpose is to create a setting where conscious collective mindfulness can be maintained. To David Bohm (1990), dialogue is a sustained, mindful inquiry into the processes, certainties, and structures underlying human thought and action.

This form of discourse transforms the individual thinking and thought processes, creating collective thought. It requires that individuals first examine their personal assumptions or opinions and then suspend these assumptions before the entire group. They must step out of their advocacy for personally held assumptions as well as those of others. This type of conversation recognizes variously held common experiences and leads to the longitudinal continuity among learners that is described by Crook (1994). Crook defines longitudinal continuity as a shared, mediated resource of knowledge, experiences, understandings, beliefs, values, and assumptions -- dispersed in time and place -- that forms the "glue" that holds a community of learners together. Crook's conceptual framework shares aspects of Bereiter's (1994) concept of progressive discourse, in which participants suspend their individual thinking and begin to share collectively, thus creating commonly shared meanings and constructing a shared purpose.

Design conversation focuses on creating something new. There is a close relationship between dialogue and design conversations. Both have clear values that include a sense of community, open stakeholder engagement, a shared set of core values and beliefs for human learning, and a common language. Dialogues help the design participants create collective consciousness as well as clear the minds of distorting or conflicting assumptions that lead to incoherence of thinking. Through creating coherence of thinking, a community evolves wherein collective thought is possible and the creative consciousness may emerge to focus outside the constraints of old mindsets.

Design conversation, however, goes beyond the suspension of personal opinions and moves into a suspension of mindsets themselves. To Isaacs (1996), this type of conversation seems to involve shifts in the very ground on which they stand, transforming and expanding their sense of self, and deepening their capacity to hear and inquire into perspectives vastly different from their own. In sum, a dialogue may transform ideas, but a design conversation is capable of transforming the very perspective from which those ideas were generated. As a result, creative thought is able to flow freely among participants.

Though design conversations are rare, even in academic situations, Jenlink and Carr (1996) suggest some strategies for encouraging them:

Take the stance of moderator/facilitator of the conversation, setting the interaction, monitoring its flow, and participating only to increase communication. Identify the voices that are to be authentically represented, respecting diversity and multiple perspectives. Create and share a common language. Engage in dialogues that reveal the tacit understandings, assumptions, and routines of the participants. Focus on building a conscious, collective mindfulness of community through dialogue that creates a common sense of purpose and shared vision.

Online Conversations as a Means of Supporting Generative Learning

Pea, a noted proponent of CSCL, describes two types of conversation that take place among members of a learning community:

1.ritual communication, with its emphasis on participation, sharing, taking part, fellowship, and continuous interaction among members that maintain the social order; and

2.transmission of messages to the learner that takes place orally, via written text, and now, via the Internet.

When learners participate in inquiries at the frontiers of knowledge in a field, with mature communities of practitioners, "they endorse a view of communication for learning that I describe as transformative" (Pea, 1994, p. 298) -- resulting in generative learning and expansion of the ways of knowing. Such generative learning has been observed by Scardamalia and Bereiter (1996). They reported that students who are electronically linked through Canada's Knowledge Society network and who share databases via Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE) became actively involved in building and richly linking these databases, pointing out discrepant information, contributing new information or ideas, considering ideas from different perspectives, and forming important new working relationships and study groups. Likewise, Newman and his colleagues (1989) noted that LAN technology could be used successfully to coordinate small group investigations by science students and to facilitate class discussions that synthesized the contributions of the group.

In a three-year ethnographic study of a 400-member, international group of academics who communicated with each other on listservs, Herrmann (1995) found that three recurrent patterns of communicative activity emerged:

  1. academic, or knowledge-sharing conversations;
  2. administrative, or process management conversations; and
  3. community-building conversations that included encouragement, warm and playful remarks, and expressions of gratitude.

Herrman's academic and community-building conversations are very similar to Pea's information transmission and ritual views of communication. They are also very similar to the types of messages that were posted by students in an optional electronic conference associated with a traditional course (Sherry, 1998).

Pea (1993) explains how people use conversational space to construct their common ground of experiences, meanings, and understandings collaboratively. Norms arise from these shared beliefs that structure the joint activities carried out within a sociocultural learning group. Meaning-making occurs through successive turns of talk and action. In this two-way transformative communication process, members of the group progressively create, share, negotiate, interpret, and appropriate one another's symbolic actions. By internalizing these social interactions and processes, they transform their own meaning schemes. When this conversational space is mediated via electronic messaging or conferencing, the communication tool or network becomes an integral part of the system in which the dialogue takes place.

Pea considers communication, learning, and activity to be intimately linked, in the same way as Lave and Wenger (1991) consider learning to take place through legitimate peripheral participation in a community of learners. As a result, "the learner's appropriation of culturally devised tools' comes about through involvement in culturally organized activities in which the tool plays a role" (Pea, 1993, p. 269). Expertise is developed dynamically through continuing participation in the community's discourse, rather than simply through the individual's possession of a knowledge base and a set of problem-solving skills. This is very similar to Crook's (1994) concept of longitudinal continuity.

Similarly, Bereiter (1994) believes that meaning-making and new conceptual structures arise through a dialectic process in which members of a learning community negotiate contradictions and begin to synthesize opposing viewpoints into a more encompassing scheme. This process, which Bereiter terms progressive discourse, only works if the members have four commitments:

  1. to work toward common understanding satisfactory to all;
  2. to frame questions and propositions in ways that allow evidence to be brought to bear on them;
  3. to expand the body of collectively valid propositions; and
  4. to allow any member's beliefs to be subjected to criticism if it will advance the discourse.

Progressive discourse is simply another term for what most educators call inquiry learning. It is especially useful in problem-based learning, where the field of inquiry is ill-defined, and where there are no simple answers nor straightforward answers. Though art and music are structured fields of knowledge, and though these structures can be taught, through the centuries they have relied on an apprenticeship model to enable students to evolve from novices to experts. Moreover, there are as many ways of creating excellent student products as there are students. By sharing information, fostering multiple perspectives, and suggesting promising strategies; and by negotiating shared meaning among students, teachers and experts, online dialogue incorporates all of the purposes that were presented at the beginning of this article.

Factors that Facilitate or Hinder Online Conversations

Factors that affect the levels and types of usage of CMC fall into three categories: the technology and its related tools and mediating artifacts (technological factors), the characteristics of the users (individual learner characteristics and perceptions), and organizational factors such as administrative and technical support, staff development time, distribution of equipment, and the like (Sherry, Lawyer-Brook, & Black, 1997). In the following discussions, the factors that influence the flow and effectiveness of online dialogue are presented.

Features of CMC Technologies

E-mail, listservs, and electronic conferences are useful methods of asynchronous (time-independent) communication that can gather participants together, transmit content, provide a forum for group discussions, and furnish a means for participants to receive technical or content help. They can facilitate a greater degree of interpersonal interaction in out-of-class discussion and "involve persons who are normally shy or wary in a face-to-face classroom" (Berge, 1997, p. 4). They also have a multitude of additional benefits:

they can be archived so that the instructor has a record of the kind and amount of participation by students; they enable prompt feedback by the instructor or peer learners; and they "establish a social environment that can help motivate the learner and create a forum within which ideas can be tested and applied" (Chism, 1998, p. 3).

Asynchronous communication, particularly mediated via the WWW, is a useful way to extend class discussions beyond the time and place of class meetings. Though the WWW is more often thought of as a presentation medium rather than as a form of asynchronous communication, it can serve as a place for posting content, a library of resources that can serve as a foundation for ongoing discussions of important civic or historical issues, a forum for joint problem-solving and inquiry learning, a place where students can post their work-in-progress, and a place where instructors, peers, and experts can provide critique and feedback to help students refine their products and performances.

Software that supports such collaborative projects is often known as groupware. Groupware can provide students, teachers, and other experts with a chance to communicate and ask questions online, to discuss issues relevant to the topic of instruction, to brainstorm ideas, to get acquainted with one another, and (given the appropriate software) to potentially modify a common document.

What is most important in design conversations is the variety of methods that are available to the learners, which provide multiple means of communication for students with different learning styles. If ideas can be represented in multiple forms, chances of their being misunderstood are decreased. "Good multiple media free people to think associatively and attach comments to the ideas being presented" (Ferraro, Rogers, & Geisler, 1995).

Technologies that connect individuals within a learning community can facilitate ongoing dialogue that supports both collaborative discourse and design activities that help students and teachers meet the types of goals that we have already discussed. However, there are technology implementation factors, individual learner characteristics, and a host of institutional norms and conventions that affect CMC use.


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