Education and Technology:
Serendip's Experiences 1994-2004

Synthesized by Paul Grobstein and Jody Cohen
October 2004

Web as Interactive Conversation (forums)

Theory (from Education and Technology Directory Page):

The interactivity of the Web is perhaps its most important characteristic. For the first time in human history, it is becoming possible for all humans to play an active role in world-wide cultural and intellectual interchange. This means not only that everybody's ideas/perspective can be made available, but also that people can develop their ideas and perspectives in extensive interaction with other people.

The Issue:

Think for a bit about your experiences with classrooms. In many (most?), there is a teacher who provides information and students who do (or don't) acquire it. In some, there is enough conversation so that students might learn from each other as well. And in a few, perhaps, the teacher and the students exchange things in ways that make it not only easier for the students to learn but may help the teacher learn as well. Maybe being a teacher is as important to learning as being a student? Could one imagine an educational environment in which students really were also teachers, not only for those in the classroom but for people beyond the classroom as well? How could it work? What advantages and problems would it have?

Serendip's Experiences:

Serendip's Commentary:

Public on-line forums can be used to facilitate an interactive classroom environment but they also make available an opportunity for a whole new perspective on the classroom. For the first time, students and teachers can think of their activities not only as meaningful to themselves but as significant contributions to a larger process of developing understandings. On-line forums can break down constraints of the classroom both temporally and spatially. Conversations can continue outside of "class" time and can contribute to and draw upon the thoughts of people worldwide. Students (and teachers as well) can, in consequence, come to think of their course activities not as simply "academic" but as potentially playing a significant role in the world community.

Serendip's Pedagogical Musings:

The use of public on-line forums raises a number of issues important in their own right and depends on a serious pedagogical commitment from both students and teachers.

Both students and teachers need to be explicitly made aware of the "public" nature of the work and some potential consequences of that. In courses where "privileged" or "confidential" materials are under discussion, participants need to be careful about what is and is not said in a public on-line forum. In all courses, participants need to recognize that things said may be seen by anyone in the world and, once said, are recorded and, in general, non-retractable. On the other hand, "ideas in progress" are generally valuable to others and by making the evanescent concrete, often to speakers as well. Moreover, the need to be aware of and develop skills in deciding how to speak in public spaces is not unique to the web but rather one which, like the need to critically evaluate information, is simply made more apparent by the web.

For successful on-line forums, in our experience, it is not sufficient to simply make the forum available. One needs to give the forum a significant role in the classroom atmosphere as a whole. Among the absolute requirements is that teachers need to be involved in forum activities. This may involve postings by teachers in the forum or the active use in class of comments made in the forum by students. Frequently, on-line forums need also some direction in terms of topics to be considered at any given time and some efforts to synthesize or summarize thoughts and move conversation in new directions. Forum participants need not only a space to write, they also need to be encouraged to listen, and to be provided some evidence that they are being heard and are engaged in a activity productive to others as well as themselves.

Teachers who are used to engaged, interactive classroom conversations need to learn to transfer their understandings into the forum environment. Those less familiar with such classroom environments can make use of forums as a way to develop their confidence in this realm.

Examples, exercises, and additional resources:

Further Questions:

How many people are using this approach? What inhibits or discourages it? Is it better for classes in some areas than in others? How could it be encouraged, and should it be?

What variants of the approach could be developed for different contexts? How does it relate to other kinds of on-line activities such as blackboard forums, listservs, and email? IMing? [an error occurred while processing this directive]