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1 Conferencing

Karen Power, Memorial University of Newfoundland

2 Definitions and background

Increased access to computer technology has lead to a rise in online communication being used for conferencing among groups of individuals with similar interests and/or goals (Passig and Sharbat, 2000). “Computer conferencing is structured communication among multiple participants from multiple sites, often involving group discussions and different access levels among categories of users” (Maher and Jacob, 2006, p.128). Maher and Jacob (2006) stated that asynchronous conferencing occurs when “multiple participants from multiple sites” (p.128) engage in online group conversations, in which they have the ability to read and write messages at any time, as they respond to and interact with each other. Computer conferencing can occur in a variety of platforms such as electronic bulletin boards, e-mail, and chat rooms (Quilter and Chester, 2001).

Beginning in the 1970’s, delivering curriculum via computers has been a part of the “higher educational agenda” (Nicholson, 2011, p. 39). Over the past twenty-five years, conferencing has been the focus of numerous pedagogical studies that have examined its use as a teaching tool (McIntosh, Braul, and Chao, 2003). The constructivist learning theory recognizes the importance of students constructing their own meaning of information. (NG and Murphy, 2005) and educational researchers have ascertained that such constructed meaning occurs readily and effectively, when teams of individuals share knowledge and work together. (Peters and Hewitt, 2010). Researchers have discovered that conferencing provides a valuable forum for such collaboration and interaction, and thus it has become especially popular in distance education (Lawlor, 2006).

3 Affordances

“Conferencing is an ideal medium to support online interaction and promote the development of a sense of community among learners” (Moisey, Neu, and Clevland-Innes, 2008, p. 18). Learners are provided with the flexibility to contribute to a discussion from a variety of locations and at a time that is personally convenient (Nicholas, 2011). Nicholas (2011) expanded on this notion of flexibility when he discussed the move of many universities toward open learning that attracts people from all over the country or world. These students often have work and family responsibilities that can be met while they complete studies in an online conferencing environment (Nicholson, 2011).

Researchers have discussed many advantages of conferencing, including the benefit of deeper critical thinking processes (McLean and Morrison, 2000). Without time constraints and need for immediate response, as seen in a typical classroom, students have time for self-reflection which leads to creative, well formulated responses that often include experiences and information beyond what is normally presented in “face to face responses” (Quilter and Chester, 2001, p. 14). The exposure to other students’ ideas and viewpoints further develops critical thinking skills while advancing learning (Hewitt and Brett, 2007). Researchers have also discovered that the availability of a print record when conferencing has lead to increased levels of “interaction and reflection” (Winter and McGhie-Richmond, 2005, p.127). This in turn can lead to an “increase (in) performance, motivation, achievement, higher level thinking skills, and satisfaction” (Winter and McGhie-Richmond, 2005, p.127). Beyond the benefits of thought development, conferencing provides many “unique opportunities for participation not found elsewhere” (McLean and Morrison, 2000, p. 18). The quiet, shy student is able to contribute the group, while the more outspoken student cannot easily monopolize the discussion (McLean and Morrison, 2000). Similarly, conferencing aids in the removal of bias from group interaction as “gender, racial, and hierarchical status” (Moisey et al., 2008, p. 18) no longer play a role in the group. The collaboration that occurs during conferencing leads to students being responsible for each other’s learning thus increasing learning for all participants (Moisey et al., 2008).

Student learning is further advanced through conferencing as this medium provides opportunities for increased interaction between students and teachers (Quilter and Chester, 2001). Conferencing is also beneficial to instructors through the formation of professional learning teams that lead to more effective teaching and increased reflection on teaching practices (Winter and McGhie-Richmond, 2005). Winter and McGhie-Richmond (2005) determined that when professional learning teams use conferencing, it is an effective, mutually beneficial method for experienced and inexperienced teachers to share knowledge and ideas.

4 Constraints

At a very fundamental level, conferencing can be frustrating and non-productive when technical issues such as frozen computers and a lack of program knowledge are present (McIntosh et al. 2003). Further to this, frustration develops when there is unequal access to computer conferencing based on students’ access to computer equipment and students’ computer skills (McLean and Morrison, 2000).

Along with physical computer problems, frustration arises when a discussion board has a large number of threads and associated replies, since the amount of reading and the organization of the topics and responses can cause the learner to experience difficulties with “sythesiz(ing) and put(ting) into context” (Peters and Hewitt, 2010, p. 954) the information presented. This in turn leads the participant to skim messages or focus on only certain threads (Peters and Hewitt, 2010). Students also participate in selective reading where they focus on posts made by certain people who they perceive to be knowledge and well written (Peters and Hewitt, 2010). When posts are presented in a long essay format or do not provide an opportunity for discussion, researchers have discovered that students and facilitators become overwhelmed and the conference is no longer effective in supporting learning (Painter, Coffin and Hewings, 2003).

Similar to an in-person experience, participants in conferencing may feel a sense of insecurity when developing threads and responding to those of others (Peters and Hewitt, 2010). Unlike the in-person experience, the inability to see a person’s facial expression or hear a person’s voice, there is no opportunity to use cues to interpret how one is perceived in the class (Peters and Hewitt, 2010). Further insecurity is felt when there are no responses to a particular thread, since the participant is unsure if his/her ideas are correct or acceptable (Peters and Hewitt, 2010).

Although variety in participants’ knowledge is vital to effective conferencing, it does not lend itself to a variety of learning styles (Fahy and Ally, 2005). Fahy and Ally (2005) noted that some students find online discussions stimulating, while other learning styles find regular interaction less valuable and even tiresome. If participants cannot participate based upon their individual learning styles, conferencing “may ironically become a barrier to learning” (Fahy and Ally, 2005).

5 Links

Conferencing and Collaborative Learning

Online Conferencing: A Guide for Virtual Group Discussion

Eight Ways to get Students More Engaged in Online Conferencing

Faculty Focus: Conferencing Online Real time Document Conferencing

6 Works Cited

Fahy, P.J. & Ally, M. (2005). Student learning styles and asynchronous computer-mediated conferencing (CMC) interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 9(1).

Hewitt, J. & Brett, C. (2007). The relationship between class size and online activity patterns in asynchronous computer conferencing environments. Computers and Education, 49(4), 1258-1271.

Lawlor, C. (2006). Gendered interactions in computer-mediated computer conferencing. Journal of Distance Education, 21(2), 26-43.

Maher, M., & Jacob, E. (2006). Peer computer conferencing to support teachers' reflection during action research. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(1), 127-150.

McIntosh, S., Braul, B., & Chao, T. (2003). A case study in asynchronous voice conferencing for language instruction. Educational Media International, 40 (1/2), 63-73.

McLean, S., & Morrison, D. (2000). Sociodemographic characteristics of learners and participation in computer conferencing. Journal Of Distance Education, 15(2), 17-36.

Moisey, S. D., Neu, C., & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2008). Community building and computer-mediated conferencing. Journal of Distance Education, 22(2), 15-42.

Ng, K. C., & Murphy, D. (2005). Evaluating interactivity and learning in computer conferencing using content analysis techniques. Distance Education, 26(1), 89-109.

Nicholson, B. (2011). A case study of campus-based flexible learning using the World Wide Web and computer conferencing. Research in Learning Technology, 6(3), 38-46.

Painter, C., Coffin, C., & Hewings, A. (2003). Impacts of directed tutorial activities in computer conferencing: A case study. Distance Education, 24(2), 159-173.

Passig, D., & Sharbat, A. (2000). Electronic-Imen-Delphi (EID): an online conferencing procedure. Educational Media International, 37(1), 58-67.

Peters, V. and Hewitt, J. (2010). An investigation of student practices in asynchronous computer conferencing courses. Computers & Education, 54(4), 951-961.

Quilter, S. M., & Chester, C. (2001). The relationship between web-based conferencing and instructional outcomes. International Journal of Instructional Media, 28(1), 13.

Wearmouth J, Smith AP, Soler J. (2004). Computer conferencing with access to a ‘guest expert’ in the professional development of special educational needs coordinators. British Journal of Educational Technology, 35, 81-93. 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2004.00370.x

Winter, E. (2005). Using computer conferencing and case studies to enable collaboration between expert and novice teachers. Journal Of Computer Assisted Learning, 21(2),118-129.