Russell A. Hunt

Electronic Discussions in Learning and Teaching:
Why They Don't Work, and How They Might

[As published in Connexions: the Newsletter of the International Society
for the Exploration of Teaching Alternatives 10.2 (Summer 1998), 1 - 7]

We've all heard so much hype about the potential of computer mediated communication to revolutionize teaching that we've begun to dismiss it automatically. We need to recognize, though, that it's not all hype. Even once you've discounted the snake oil salesmen selling off-the-shelf electronic course guides, style checkers and "interactive" computer-assisted learning programs, in fact there are still some startling opportunities. There are many reasons to expect that computer-mediated written discussions -- to pick the one that I'm most interested in -- should afford unprecedented learning opportunities, combining the flexibility and interactive engagement of oral conversation and the power of written language to foster reflection and allow complex ideas to be accumulated, revised, extended and polished.

But there haven't been many demonstrations of this potential. Indeed, the most common consequence of setting up an "electronic discussion group" for a university class or a group of faculty at an institution, or a set of colleagues with common interests, is a flurry of initial greetings ("Hello, everyone, isn't it great to have this new way to communicate"), followed by an enduring silence. The flurry may last somewhat longer for students in class-oriented discussions -- especially if participation is made a course requirement -- but even in those cases, most often the quality of the participation quickly becomes perfunctory and unengaged . . . usually not long before the instructor quietly allows the requirement to lapse.

To think about why this happens, and what we might do to avoid it, it's important to be clear about what sorts of programs and situations we're talking about. For many people, "it's all e-mail," but that oversimplification masks some distinctions that are worth making (these distinctions are pursued in a more extended way in an article called "Affordances and Constraints of Electronic Discussion Programs," which is available on my Web site).

There are a number of ways we can group such programs to help us think about the characteristics of the different kinds of thing we're talking about here. One is to distinguish between "synchronic" and "asynchronic" types. Synchronic programs work in "real time"; that is, you write, someone reads immediately, and the text is gone, usually scrolling up the screen to oblivion. These include structures ranging from Internet or local "chat rooms" to highly developed MOO sites, where conversations take place i n virtual environments which can be fairly richly detailed. On the other hand, "asynchronous" programs like list servers and bulletin boards tend more toward the status of written correspondence -- or even publication. Messages persist (for instance, in your incoming mail) until they're read, and in fact can be easily saved after reading, and responded to at your convenience. Most programs used in classes other than computer-dedicated writing classes are of this latter kind.

It's important to remember that these categories aren't neat oppositions: programs aren't simply one or the other. In a synchronic conversation -- as in oral conversations -- it's possible (but difficult) to go back to something someone said earlier, to re-open a subject, even to save what someone said (with a tape recorder, for instance) and quote it at a later point. Similarly, there are synchronic elements involved in email or listserv exchanges -- people can be online simultaneously while "conversing," making the time lag almost negligible. Further (also as in oral conversation), beyond a certain temporal point, subjects get passed by and are no longer opened in practice -- in part because they're difficult to get back to; in part because the interest of the group and the momentum of the conversation has passed them by.

It should be obvious that one characteristic of all electronic communication is a tendency toward increased immediacy. It skews discourse, in other words, toward the synchronic. Not since there were multiple daily mail deliveries in 19th century London has it been possible exchange extended written communications at a distance more than a time or two a day. This potentially short time span between utterances is one of the properties of this sort of discourse that we'd expect to foster continuing, sustained conversation, and the kind of learning we think follows on that kind of engagement with literacy and ideas. Why it so rarely works that way is the question I want to try to deal with here.

Another way to categorize electronic discussions is by thinking of them as tending toward either of two extremes which are often characterized as "push" or "pull" technologies. In a "pull" technology, you have to do something to access the conversation. In traditional bulletin board program, for instance, you have to log in to the board and read the current messages (usually the program tracks your reading and only shows you the ones you haven't already seen). If you don't think to log in regularly, you drop out of the conversation. It's like having to go to the newsstand to buy your paper rather than subscribe to it -- with the additional complication that sometimes (perhaps most of the time) when you go down to the newsstand there's no paper to buy, and so it's pretty easy to get out of the habit of checking.

At the other extreme, a list server based program (one that redistributes email sent to a central address to everyone subscribed), is a "push" technology, in that messages come to you, whether you remember you're subscribed or not. Again, of course, these categories aren't neatly distinguished: you do have to log on to your system and check your email for those messages to come to you, so it's not entirely passive. But anyone who regularly uses a networked computer will probably have many motives for checking her email, so that can be taken as a given, like turning the car radio on. One would expect that "push" programs would generate more regular participation and contribution than "pull" ones; again, however, the difference isn't as strong as we might expect.

There are other important distinctions to be made among various ways of mediating electronic text (see my "Affordances and Constraints" for more on this), but the one with the most important consequences for teaching is one that was first made clear to me when I began to encounter the increasingly widely used programs based on the World Wide Web, which in some ways are a dramatically different kettle of fish. These programs use the graphic capabilities of the Web (especially Hypertext and HTML) to produce interactive sites which combine the advantages of list servers and bulletin boards, and which can be seen both as push and pull technologies -- that is, you need to go to the site to post, but there is, or can be, email notification of postings as they occur, to remind you that there's a discussion in progress. More important, they do not isolate messages from their context the way the older bulletin board and listserv programs do.

That this was important first came clear to me as I considered that every bulletin board-style program has a built-in process whereby the program keeps track of which items you have already read, and does not present them to you again unless you specifically ask for them (and often getting them is extremely complicated). So, for all practical purposes they're not there, and thus the messages in front of you at any moment appear to have no past. Even to see the message the one you're reading is immediately responding to is itself pretty difficult (most programs have conventions for including the text of the message being responded to, but this convention itself poses problems for readers not used to it). To go further back and see what may have come before the immediate message is, for most users, simply impossible in practice.

This is equally true for list server programs. If you're saving all messages, it's possible to get back to them -- but very few users do this habitually, or have time or expertise to sort the saved message so they're readily accessible. Sometimes lists are "archived" on a Web or FTP site, and can be searched, but, again, this requires a relatively sophisticated level of computer expertise.

Equally important, the messages have, in one very practical and important way, no future either. As you're reading a message, you usually can't be sure whether someone else has already responded to it. Sometimes you'll be able to see a list of subsequent messages, along with their "subject lines," and be able to infer that one or more of those messages might be later responses to the one you're reading, but when you move on to check, the target message becomes part of that lost past. Once you've read the later messages, you can't easily go back to the one you wanted to respond to. If you're adept with computers, you might have saved it to a file, or printed it out, or moved from one window to another, but most of us don't do this. What in fact happens is that you don't respond to the message -- either you find that others have already responded, or that they haven't but you can't get back to it to hold its text in front of you while you respond. After experiencing this a few times, you learn that if you're going to respond, you should do it immediately, before trying to look ahead -- so, in practice, messages on bulletin boards and listserv programs have, in practice, no effective past and no effective future.

What this means for most users -- and especially for most newer users -- is that they don't, in practice, look back or forward at all. Thus their attention is focused on the immediate edge of the wave of discourse creation. And thus either they're dissuaded from entering a conversation (if you'd only heard -- or could only remember -- the last remark anyone made at a table, you'd be reluctant to jump into the exchange), or to responding immediately and without much reflection. Thus, often they find that the conversation tends to be repetitious and superficial. One of the common complaints of long-standing members of listserv groups is "we've been over that a dozen times," as new members, with no practical access to the past, join in. Another is, "why do I have to read the same trivial comment sixteen times, from sixteen different people?"

It is possible at least to imagine a situation in which the context of utterances is immediately and perceptibly available to the participant in a useful and accessible form, offering more functional information for planning and shaping the discourse: offering, in fact, what I call "back pressure" that is very similar to what a conversational dialogic situation offers to the creation of an oral utterance. It is possible to imagine a program which doesn't insist that you respond now or never, one that fosters reflect ion, using the power of written language to support extended and engaged discourse. It has recently become clear that alternatives are not only conceivable but also possible. New ways of structuring written discussions are appearing, using some of the logic of the traditional programs and adding new elements made possible by the development of the World Wide Web and the various "web browser" programs for navigating it. One program I am aware of which demonstrates this potential is called HyperNews, developed at the University of Illinois and currently available as freeware. Another is Ceilidh, designed by Richard Hughes in San Diego and also available at nominal cost (more information on them, and similar programs, is readily available on the Web. If you're interested, the addresses are listed below).

What such a program offers us, primarily, is a different, and more immediately visual (and more uniform, from user to user), way of presenting the list of read and unread postings, based on the cross-platform flexibility and graphic capabilities of the World Wide Web and web browsing programs. It makes possible a number of activities that older programs for conducting, constructing and recording text-based discussions don't, and thus addresses these problems -- including the disappearance of context.

The fundamental trick is this: instead of one message at a time, these programs present the entire conversation, displayed in outline form, with each message identified by a useful subject line and hot linked to the full text of the message. The structure of the display is very simple: the messages -- identified by author and subject line -- are arranged in an outline form hierarchy, with the structure of the relations among the messages marked by indentations. It might look rather like this:

(Actual examples of such pages are available on the HyperNews and Ceilidh Web sites.)

One consequence of this, obviously, is that chronology becomes less important and the logic of he conversation more so. Another less obvious consequence is that the way the relationship is presented graphically is determined not by what subject lines the writers choose for their message, but by the actual relationship among them: if you respond to a message, your response will appear below it, whenever you choose to do so. This means that subject lines themselves can become more descriptive of the nature of the message. They don't always do so, of course, but the situation allows the reader to signal things about her message and still preserve its position in the graphic display (on a newsreader, changing the subject line would cause the message to start an entirely new category of message, beginning a new chain of message & responses -- if, that is, anyone responded without, in turn, changing this new subject line).

What is most important about the fact that the program is based on the World Wide Web is that each message listing is a hot link, meaning that if you click on it, the message it designates appears immediately onscreen, replacing the outline list of postings. Going "Back" with the web browser returns you immediately to the outline; "Forward," to the message again. This ease of navigation back and forth from structure to discourse is an important part of the way such programs promote keeping participants in touch with the past and the future of each message -- with, that is, the context of the discussion.

How much difference does this access to the structure of the discussion make? The best way to find out is to explore a class discussion conducted with such a program; one example is my eighteenth century literature class forum, called "Will's Virtual Restoration and Eighteenth Century Coffeehouse," whose address is listed below. My own view is that such programs are as great an improvement on bulletin boards and list servers as those programs were on paper and ink.


"Affordances and Constraints of Electronic Discussion Programs" is at:

The main Ceilidh web site is at:<
The main HyperNews site is at:
Examples of sustained class discussion conducted on HyperNews are at: et/tisarch.html