European Ph.D on Social Representations and Communication

Multimedia and Distance Learning System

2nd International LAB Meeting - Spring Session 2005

How students can make conferencing work
Ben Plumpton, Open University
There are a lot of papers around about how lecturers and tutors can best use online  conferencing for teaching. But there aren't many that look at how students can get the most  out of online discussions. This paper aims to fill that gap.  
Table of Contents 
1.  Introduction 
2.  Why do courses use online conferencing?
3.  What's in it for me? 
4.  What is an effective conference like? 
5.  So what can I do to help my conference 'work'? 
6.  What sorts of things do conferences do? 
7.  Handling particular problems 
8.  Conclusion 

1 Introduction 
I've used online conferencing for many years - as a student, for giving and getting technical  support, for communicating among distributed working groups, and most recently as a tutor  on the Open University online course T171 "You, your computer and the net". Some of these  conferences have worked very well, some have failed badly, and most have been somewhere  in between. I'm fascinated by what makes conferences work, and have done research on how  lecturers and tutors can best use online conferencing in their teaching. This paper looks at  conferencing from a student perspective - if you are a student on a course that uses online  conferencing, what can you do to make it work well?  Conferences vary. You might be involved with a conference for a small group project, a  discussion with a hundred people, or a technical support conference with thousands of people.  You may have a tutor actively directing the conference, a facilitator encouraging discussion,  or someone just watching out for problems. Conferencing might be an important and assessed  part of your course, or it might be optional. Despite all these differences, I believe there are  some general principles which will help you have an enjoyable and productive experience of  online conferencing, and these are outlined below. But first, it is helpful to understand why  courses use online conferencing, how you can benefit from conferencing, and know what an  effective conference is like, so you can see what you are aiming towards.  
2 Why do courses use online conferencing?
Feeling part of a 'community of learners' is particularly difficult for distance learners, who  may only meet their fellow students occasionally, if at all. If you are working mostly or  entirely on your own it can be hard to stay motivated. In the words of an OU student using an  early conferencing system, conferencing "takes the distance out of distance learning". It can  make a big difference to know that other people are struggling with the same issues as you,  and that you can share problems and ideas at any time of day or night.
Online conferencing is also a good way for students to work together, rather than individually.  Group working is becoming an important element of many higher education courses, partly  because it is also increasingly the way the workplace is organised.  Employers look for  evidence of group working skills. It has a sound educational basis too - educationalists believe  that group working tends to promote deeper understanding of a subject and better critical  thinking. 
Online conferencing is a new mode of learning, very different from the traditional classroom,  and both teachers and students need to learn how to do it successfully. You will encounter all  sorts of differences from face-to-face learning, for example, there will be much longer time  delays in a discussion, and there will be no non-verbal cues such as tone of voice or facial  expression. Some aspects of these differences will be positive (e.g. you have more time to  think about what you want to say) and some will be a nuisance (e.g. it's possible to  misinterpret people when you only have their words). 
So the next sections of this paper look at what you can get out of conferencing, what an  effective conference is like, and then how to go about participating so as to achieve those  things. 
3 What's in it for me? 
With most courses you can pass the course if you work alone, not bothering with  conferencing at all, or only doing the minimum required. So why should you put time and  effort into conferencing? 
-  You get support when you need it (in exchange for giving support to others); 
- You have a richer vein of experience to draw on, because you can pool examples,  references etc; 
-  Very often a group can produce better work than an individual. One person might put  forward a thought or idea, often not completely formed or finished, someone else  picks up on it and takes it forward, that sparks off more ideas in others, and between  them the group creates something much better than any could have done on their own; 
-  Learning by 'talking' is more powerful for most people than learning by reading - you  think about things more deeply, and are likely to remember things better;  
- The best way to check your own understanding is to explain it to others. Explaining  things for your fellow students is good practice for the kind of explanations you'll  probably have to do in assignments.  
4 What is an effective conference like? 
How can you tell whether your conference is working well? Here is a description of an  effective conference:  
-  Everyone participates, and everyone feels confident they will be 'listened to'; 
-  It is a supportive community, because people have come to trust each other, and 'look  out for' each other whilst respecting differences; 
- The group has typically worked through shared experience and/or fought shared  'enemies' (such as software problems!);  
- Everyone facilitates sometimes - taking some responsibility for discussions and  activities, and for encouraging and helping others;
- Everyone takes initiative sometimes - asking questions and starting discussions, not  being passive and waiting to be told what to do; 
- Arguments happen - people feel safe enough to challenge and disagree, which helps  everyone to think and learn; 
- Everyone writes carefully, putting their points clearly and constructively, and the  structure of the discussions is obvious and easy to follow; 
- People trust others to respect their words, to put a good interpretation on them and not  'steal' or misquote them.  
Clearly in real life very few conferences will have all of these characteristics all the time. But  this is a 'vision' of what we are aiming for in online educational conferences.
5 So what can I do to help my conference 'work'? 
You can make a big difference to the effectiveness of your conference. There are four main  ways that you can help the conference work well. I will describe these first, and then look at  how you can apply these principles in different kinds of conferences.

a) Get involved and make a commitment 
b) Help people get to know you 
c) Construct your messages well 
d) Take some responsibility
a) Get involved and make a commitment 

This means contributing regularly, putting in some time and effort, and 'being there' for  people - reading and responding to their messages, and giving support where you can. If you  are asked to do particular things in the conference, get on and do them! Making a  commitment is really crucial - once you feel it is 'your' conference, you will want it to work  well, and everything else will tend to follow.
If you can't be very active, let people know, e.g. "Sorry I can't be around for a while, but I'll  do what I can when I get back". 
b) Help people get to know you

This is particularly important in the early stages of a conference. People need to feel they can  trust each other, so as to be able to 'risk' putting forward their ideas or asking 'silly' questions.  Be yourself - use examples from your own experience, perhaps share a little about your life  outside the course, and write more or less as you speak, rather than very formally which can  come across as a bit pompous. Personalise your messages if possible, using simple things like  different fonts, colours and icons, if your software allows you, or even sound. But don’t  overdo this and create huge messages, otherwise people will get annoyed at the time it takes  to download them! 
c) Construct your messages well

If you can write your messages very clearly and make it easy for people to see how they fit  into the discussion, then it's more likely people will read and consider your messages, and  everyone will find it easier to follow what's going on.
-  Use 'threading' properly. If someone replies to a message, then someone replies to  the reply, and so on, then the whole 'chain' of messages is called a thread, and the  conferencing software will make it easy to follow a thread. If you are introducing a  new topic or issue, don't reply to an existing message, start a new thread instead with a  new and relevant subject line. 
- Be clear what the point you are making is. A good way to force yourself to be clear  is to put a one sentence summary at the top of a longer message, e.g. "This message is  to explain why...." Keep to one subject per message. It's much better to send several  messages if you have a number of topics to write about, because then people can reply  to whichever topic they want and the separate discussions are in separate threads  rather than being all jumbled up.  
- Give reasons for your opinions. It's hard to discuss something with someone if they  just state what they think without any justification. Use the word 'because' freely!  Examples often help.  
Invite responses to your messages, e.g. "Do you agree with me here?" or "Have I left anything  out?". 
d)     Take some responsibility 
This is all about paying attention to the 'process' of the conference as well as the content - if  everyone does this, your conference will feel like a community. The sort of thing I mean is  helping to keep things going and encourage others, starting discussions without being told to,  helping to summarise, and watching out for people feeling ignored or left out and trying to  help. 
6 What sorts of things do conferences do? 
There are four different types of activities in conferences:  
a) Social conversation
 b) Getting and giving help  
c) Group work and projects 
d) Discussion 
Not every conference will do all of these, but most conferences will have some elements of  them all at some point. Let's see how the four principles described above can be used to help  these different activities. 
a)     Social conversation 

The social chat that happens in a conference helps the group to 'gel'. If you meet your fellow  students at face-to-face tutorials, this happens naturally in corridors and during tea breaks.  You chat, discover things you have in common, find out who knows about what, have a moan  together and so on. The same kind of thing needs to happen among an on-line group - it's hard  to write messages addressed to complete strangers. So this is where the 'help people get to  know you' suggestion fits in. You should also show interest in others and offer support if  needed. Obviously social conversation is not the main purpose of the conference, and you  should be guided by your tutor or moderator - some may discourage socialising or prefer it to  go in a separate sub-conference. But generally a bit of social chat in a conference is an  excellent thing, and helps the group to work better. If your course has a face-to-face issue of ..... which fits in .....", or "When we talked about ..... we thought that ..... but  I've just seen an article which says ..... How can we incorporate .....", or "What if we  took the idea of ..... and applied it to .....". 
The experience of participating in a conference that is really 'constructing knowledge' through  discussion can be amazing. You feel a greater ownership of the conference, which leads to  greater commitment, which leads us to where we began in section 5, with the importance of  getting involved and playing an active part in your conference. 
7 Handling particular problems 

When you are involved in online conferences there are various problems that you can come up against that may cause you frustration or annoyance, and decrease your motivation to participate. Below I suggest ways of handling these problems.
 a) "I don't know what to say!"
 b) "Am I saying too much?"
 c) "Not everyone is participating"
 d) "I've got behind and there's too much to read"
 e) "Nobody is saying anything"
a)     "I don't know what to say!" 

It's perfectly possible to learn from what other people say without contributing anything  yourself. After all, at a face-to-face tutorial some people won't say anything, perhaps because  they feel shy. On-line you can't see other people smiling in encouragement, so it can be hard  to take the plunge and join in. Sometimes this reading-but-not-contributing is called 'lurking',  but I don't like the term because it has overtones of furtiveness. I prefer to call it 'hovering',  because it reminds me of hanging around on the outskirts of a group hopping from foot to foot  trying to think of something to say.  
The good thing about online discussions is that they generally happen over a longer period, so  you have plenty of time to think about what you want to say, and everyone will be able to get  their points in, unlike a face to face discussion where it's possible that the only people who get  heard are those who 'think on their feet' and talk loudest. And all sorts of things which can  distract attention in a face-to-face discussion (e.g. gestures, accent, racial differences,  disabilities) are not 'visible' online, which can be quite liberating. 
Here are some suggestions to get you started with contributing to a conference:  
- Look for other people's messages that you agree with, and say so, perhaps adding your  own examples;  
- Look for messages that gave you ideas you hadn’t thought of, or that set you thinking  about something, and let them know; 
- Ask a question about something you don't fully understand, and hopefully someone  will help you out. Don't worry about asking 'silly' questions, there will probably be  several other people with the same worry, and you'll have done them a favour by  asking; 
-  If someone asks a question you wanted to ask, help them feel less silly by saying you'd  like to know the answer too; 
- If someone asks something you think you know a bit about, answer it. The very best  way to check you know something is to try and explain it to someone else!
- Try to be sensitive to others who may be trying to catch up with an activity that is  already half-completed - it's not easy for them to join in an established group, so offer  what support you can. 
The good side of this is that by participating you will learn a lot more and probably do better  in your course assessment than people who don't. 
If you are someone who can't join in with the conference, for whatever reason (you don't have  to say), let other people know so they don't wait for you. Fellow students will generally be  very understanding and supportive, provided you keep them informed.  
d) "I've got behind and there's too much to read" 
If, for whatever reason, you join a conference later than the other participants, or are unable to  be involved for a while, the prospect of joining in can be a bit daunting. There will be lots of  messages you haven't read and you may feel that everyone else knows each other. The main  thing to remember is that everyone will be pleased to 'see' you when you do join in, and will  be helpful and supportive.
Here are some strategies you can use in this situation:
- If you don't have time to read all the messages, don't try! Use the message subjects and  senders to decide which to read. Read any introductory messages explaining what the  conference is about and telling you what the group is working on (generally these will  be from the tutor or moderator); 
-  Don't worry too much about discussions or activities which have finished. Maybe read  any obvious concluding or summarising messages, but concentrate on the current  activities;  
-  Send a short message announcing your presence and apologising for the delay; 
- Just read messages for a little while, so you get the feel of the conference and  understand what's going on;  
- If you're not quite sure what has been discussed already, acknowledge this in your  messages e.g. "Apologies if you've already covered this, but ...." 
e) "Nobody is saying anything!" 

A conference can be quite a fragile thing. If no-one says anything for a while, it becomes  harder and harder to break the silence, and no-one feels like being the first to contribute.  There can be a downward spiral until the conference becomes completely dormant.  Someone  needs to be brave and break the spiral as soon as they realise what is happening. Here are  some suggestions for things you can do at this point:
-  Ask a question that prompts a response, e.g. "Can anyone explain the bit where it  says..."; 
-  Respond if anyone else tries to break the silence; 
-  Conspire with someone else to get an argument going - take sides on an issue and  debate it vigorously, with appeals to the rest of the group to join each 'side'; 
-  Start a discussion on something crucial to the course, e.g. how to tackle the next  assignment, or prepare for an exam.  
8 Conclusion       
This paper has looked at what effective online educational conferences are like, and how  students can contribute to making conferencing a worthwhile learning experience. It has also  offered some detailed suggestions for how to join in with various different types of activities  that happen in online conferences, and strategies for dealing with common problems you may  encounter. I hope anyone studying on a course that uses online discussion will find at least  some of the strategies and suggestions useful.  
In summary, to get the most out of conferencing on your course, you need to participate fully.  This will take time and effort but it's worth it!  A group that helps and supports each other,  brings a variety of thoughts, examples and perspectives together, and challenges and builds on  each other's ideas, will make a big difference to your enjoyment and understanding of the  course, and hopefully also to your achievement in the course.
The key things to remember are  to 
-  Get involved and make a commitment; 
-  Help people get to know you; 
-  Construct your messages well, and  
-  Take some responsibility.  
You can't do this theoretically, the only way to do it is to have a go, make mistakes and enjoy  yourself in the process. In the end, the more you put in, the more you will get out.