Conferencing in communities of learners: examples from social history and science communication

Jones, Ann; Scanlon, Eileen and Blake, Canan (2000). Conferencing in communities of learners: examples from social history and science communication. Educational Technology and Society, 3(3) pp. 215–226.



A commonly encountered view of computer conferencing focuses on peer interaction, student empowerment and a shift in both teacher and student roles. This paper argues that this view over-emphasises the medium and minimises the importance of factors such as the setting and structure of the conferencing and the discipline area. To gain a better understanding of the relevant factors that affect conferencing it is important to investigate the different ways and contexts in which it is used.

The paper discusses two examples of conferencing at the Open University: one in the Science faculty and one in the Arts Faculty. With relatively low and dispersed populations, an important reason for using conferencing is to simulate the kinds of academic discussions that face to face tutorials would otherwise allow. Conferencing also allows students to discuss and debate relevant issues and to have regular contact with their tutors. An evaluation of the conferencing drew on a variety of data to provide information about the patterns of interaction, the kinds of contributions students made, how they referred to and made use of other student contributions, and their perceptions of the experience.

The evidence from the evaluation suggests that on both courses conferencing fostered effective academic debate, and provides an example of a successful model that is a little more 'traditional' than some of those encountered in the literature.

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