Here, with similar immodesty, is an older piece I wrote for our local
teaching tips newsletter, with some other tried and more-or-less true
electrowriting ideas.  The "technical details" part at the end is highly
specific to the u of c system but I leave it in because--well, for some
reason or other.

Question--do you think the duck is specifically waiting for the word
"web" or is it just waiting for something that sounds sort of technological?


                   Electronic Conferencing in the Classroom:
                 Creating a Dialogic Environment for Learning

Doug Brent
Faculty of General Studies
e-mail: dabrent

As classes get larger and money for tutorials gets scarcer, teaching tends to
become increasingly monologic and students to become passive recipients of
knowledge rather than active learners.  Even in smaller classes in which oral
interaction is possible, written assignments are a dialogue only between the
student and the instructor-as-evaluator.  The ideal of learners making
knowledge together in a discourse community becomes almost impossible to

Electronic discussion groups provide an opportunity to change these one-way
flows of knowledge into a more genuine dialogue in both small and large
classes.  The Discuss system, a form of electronic bulletin board, provides
electronic meetings in which students can post messages ranging from
conversational notes to short research assignments.  Once posted, these
messages can be read and responded to by everyone in the class.

This opens up a new instructional dynamic.  First, everyone gets a chance to
"speak"; shyer students, or students who appreciate the opportunity to
formulate thoughts carefully before making them public, can participate more
easily.  Second, it allows students to collaborate on assignments, readings,
exam preparation, and other academic activities without having to find time in
conflicting schedules to meet face-to-face, as they do in conventional group
projects.  Third, it allows students to feel as though they are being read by
someone other than the instructor.  They become active participants in the
construction of their own knowledge rather than merely absorbing data and
repeating it back.

In addition to these benefits, electronic conferencing introduces students to
the electronic universe itself.  Given the current intensity of "electronic
revolution" rhetoric, we owe it to students to give them a chance to
experience and critically examine the new electronic media from the inside
rather than merely reading about it in Time magazine.  This opportunity may be
particularly important to students working outside of disciplinary areas that
normally emphasise computers as communication tools.

Here are some of the specific ways in which Discuss can be used in the

Informal discussion of issues relevant to the course.  An instructor can
simply set up a meeting and open the space for student-initiated discussion,
or post prompt questions and ask for response.

If this is not a required part of the course, only a few students may
participate.  However, students can be required as part of the course to post
a certain number of responses.  In one sense, this is antithetical to the
spirit of open dialogue, but, like marks for "class participation," it is a
way of forcing students to at least try a new mode of discussion.  Some
students will fulfill minimum requirements and disappear, but others will
become engaged in the discussion and use it as a true discussion tool.

I suggest that these postings should be graded only on a pass-fail basis if at
all.  If students feel that their responses are being weighed and measured for
quality and quantity, they will perform actions that look like conversation
but are really directed at the unseen evaluator lurking over their electronic

Collaboration on projects.  One way of involving students in each others' work
is to require them to post a brief proposal and working bibliography several
weeks before a project is due.  I also require them to respond to at least one
other proposal by a given date.

Again, some students respond with a perfunctory message along the lines of
"Your proposal sounds good to me" and log off.  Others, however, begin to
connect with other proposals that are similar to theirs, offering helpful
suggestions, borrowing ideas, sharing library resources.  Comments begin to
flow such as "I think I know a good book about . . . " or "Why dn't you talk
to . . . "  Aside from improving their projects, this process gives them a
taste of operating in a supportive community.

Collaborative studying.  This can take many forms, but I have found that
collaborative studying works best when it some prompting is involved.  Several
weeks before an exam, I post a list of specific questions that reflect the
general body of material that will be covered on the exam.  Each student is
required to post a provisional response to one of the questions, even if the
response is no more than a plea for help or an expression of confusion.
Students begin threads of conversation in which they try to help each other
understand the material, in the process improving their own understanding.

Depending on pedagogical goals, the instructor can either dip in from time to
time to clarify points or let the students wrestle with the material on their
own.  The former helps ensure that the students understand the material
correctly; the latter enhances the dialogic process itself.

Shared research.  A full-blown research paper is simply too big to deal with
effectively in the Discuss environment.  Uploading is difficult and scrolling
back and forth through text is a challenge.  But I have frequently used
electonic conferencing to introduce a small amount of original work into a
course that is too large for a full-scale written assignment.

I ask students to find one or more sources on a topic and post a short summary
of their research--no more than about fifty lines--which explains and comments
on the significance of the material in a form that can be understood by
someone who has not read the original sources.  I also require them to comment
on at least one other posting by a given date, thereby assuring them that they
will have an audience besides me.

Because it is more formal, this use of Discuss is more amenable to grading.  I
post grades privately, by ID number only, but I comment publicly by posting
paragraph-length holistic comments that indicate what I found most intersting
about each summary and where I would have liked more information, what I found
difficult to understand, et cetera.  My object is to provide a sense that
someone is genuinely interested in reading these postings rather than simply
justifying a grade.

Further possibilities.  One limitation in the research project described above
is that the process comes to an end once the summaries are posted and
responded to.  It seems a waste not to do more with such a rich source of
knowledge.  In future I plan to divide students into working groups with
different topics.  Members of each group will post their preliminary research,
and then they will identify connections among the sources and prepare a brief
report that draws conclusions from these connections.

The most developed stage of collaborative work would involve groups of
students composing co-authored texts.  Aside from the difficulties of any co-
authorship, the Discuss system is simply not sophisticated enough to support
such projects because it does not allow transactions to be edited once they
are posted.  However, a more sophisticated conferencing system is planned;
once it is in place, new possibilities will open.

Electronic conferencing is no panacea for the isolation and the monologic
learning that is escalating within the modern university.  It is also not
without cost to the instructor, who must be prepared to make a considerable
investment in familiarizing students with the system, trouble-shooting
problems, and responding to postings.  But it can provide a middle ground
between fully developed written assignments and machine-marked tests, and it
can change the dynamics of the classroom from instructor-student interaction
to a network of interactions in a discourse community.

                               Technical Details

The system requires some familiarization, but with guidence even the most
technophobic student can learn to use it after some inevitable false starts.
Students can access the system from any campus microlab that has a Develnet
connection, or from a home computer equipped with a modem.

Here are the steps involved in setting up electronic meetings using Discuss.

1. Obtain computer accounts for your class by filling out an Online Course
   Registration Form at Academic Computing Services.

   Ideally, this is best done just after the drop/add date for the class.
   However, a few students are always missed because of late registrations
   and other glitches.  These students can be given individual registration
   forms and added later.

   Your students will be assigned to a group named after your course.  All
   students in the course XYZ201 would be placed in a group called xyz201.
   This allows you to restrict your meetings to students who are in your
   course group.

2. Create one or more Discuss meetings using the mkds (make_discuss) coomand.
   See the usernote Electronic Meetings on AIX Using Discuss.

   If you make the meeting private, you will be prompted for a list of users
   who should have access to the meeting.  To set access permission for a
   course with the groupname XYZ201, you would enter


3. Make sure that your students can access the appropriate meetings.  This is
   easier said than done.  To gain access to meetings manually, each user
   must use the am (add_meeting) command with the full path for each meeting
   she wishes to attend.  To add a meeting called "project" located in my
   home directory, for example, each of my students would have to enter the
   following from the Discuss prompt:

       am acs:~dabrent/mtgs/meeting

   This process is not inherently difficult but tricky enough that you can
   end up spending more time getting your students properly set up than you
   spend teaching the class.

   To simplify the process, ACS has designed a system that allows you to
   create a setup script for your course.  The first time your students log
   into the system, they can run this script to modify the behaviour of the
   system in ways you have specified.  The script can substitute the simpler
   pico editor for the emacs editor, pre-set electronic mail options to
   eliminate some confusing prompts, and automatically add the discuss
   meetings you have created.  Contact ACS for detailed information on this

Students who have computer accounts related to previous courses may be denied
access to your meetings because their primary course group is still set to
their previous group.  If so, they can change their primary group by issuing
the command

   newgrp xyz201

If you would like a copy of the instruction sheet I have prepared for my
students, e-mail or telephone me and I can send it to you by e-mail or in hard
copy.  If you send me a diskette I can send you a Word Perfect 5.1 file so
that you can modify it to suit your own needs.
From:     Self <ACADEMIC/HUNT>
To:       [log in to unmask]
Subject:  plea for help (quick. please)