Education-line Home Page a reflexive critique of cooperative networked learning

David McConnell

University of Sheffield


This paper looks at one future scenario for adult education: networked learning.

Networked (online) learning across electronic systems such as the Internet is an emerging area of interest amongst adult educators (Mason and Kaye 989; cConnell 1994). Groupware, such as computer conferencing systems, supports the work of networked learners and offers the opportunity for adult educators to sustain their educational values in what might seem like a technologically determined learning environment.

Working in this novel environment offers new opportunities for us, but also requires constant critical reflection. This paper focuses on an MA in management learning for part-time adult learners which is run using a combination of face to face workshops and 'online' computer conferences (Hodgson and McConnell 1992; McConnell 1994). On the course, we try to develop a critical perspective on our role as tutors, in terms of working with participants on the design of the programme and in carrying out cooperative, action research of the experience of taking part (as tutor and participant) in the programme. This paper considers only one aspect of the overall research: participants' experiences of working online. It is very much 'research in progress'.

A phenomenological case study of the experience of participating in the course

The focus here is on the groups' defined purposes within the computer conferences and their experience of working collaboratively online. This part of the study is concerned with developing an understanding of the ways in which groups 'function' in computer conferences, from the perspective of the participants in the groups. These are essentially a series of phenomenological case-studies aimed at being open to the concerns, constructs, assumptions and logic of the participants in the groups. This cooperative research design allows us to match the groups' defined purposes with their own analysis of the groups' functions, processes and longitudinal development. In addition we (participants and tutors alike) are in a position to develop an understanding of the process of learning as it occurs online.

This was done by gathering the groups together for such occasions. We focused on why the group worked in the way it did. We used transcripts of the computer conferences to stimulate recall of the group work where necessary. We were interested in how participants perceive the online group processes and what sense they make of working in this way; their views on the 'benefits' of online group work; gender issues; group development over time; roles people adopt online, and so on. All of this was underpinned by an interest in the ways in which the groups communicate online, and the ways in which knowledge is negotiated, presented, received, shared, controlled, understood and misunderstood by tutors and participants.

The study

For the purposes of this research we worked intensively with one learning group which varied in size from six to nine people and which worked together over a two-year period from April 1993 to March 1995. These were people who are themselves educators and trainers, as well as being participants on the MA, and who agreed to work with us in a process of thoughtful reflection on their experience of working together online.

We met with them on three occasions during that two year period with each session lasting around two to two and a half hours. Each meeting was tape recorded. In addition we analysed the groups' computer conference material.

The analysis

I want to focus here on only two aspects of the analysis : the development of the group throughout the online period; and critical learning incidents chosen by participants.

The development of the group throughout the online period

Conference transcripts ware analysed to determine how the group's development proceeded throughout one online period (March 1994 - July 1994). Four conference items had been set up by the participants. Table 1 shows how the groups' collaborative work proceeded :

Table 1:  Group Development                                                   

Item 1                                Item 2                 Item 3/4           

1)  Introduction and sharing ideas                                              
about what they were working                                                    

2)  Formal summary of groups' work                                              
presented by one participant who was                                            
acting as 'manager' of group (April                                             

3)  Consensus making period           Reflection on their                       
                                      group processes                           

4)  Each participant working on       Emergence of some                         
their assigned part of the work       reservations about                        
                                      what they are doing                       

5)  Participant 'manager' managing                           Two participants   
the the process and timescale                                upload their work  
                                                             and offer each     
                                                             other comments.    
                                                             Tutors also offer  

6)  Comments on participants work     Disclosure about                          
offered by all                        frustrations and                          
                                      non-participation by                      
                                      some people                               

7)  Participant 'manager' managing                                              
and anticipating deadline                                                       

8)  One participant asks others how   General discussion                        
they are getting on with their        about the group's                         
sections of the work (critical        process continues                         

9)  Another participant enters her                                              
section of work                                                                 

10) Participant 'manager' managing    positive feelings                         
the process, with much discussion     about the process                         
from others; moving towards the       noted by some                             
deadline; asking themselves how to    participants                              
transfer what has been happening                                                
online to next face-to-face workshop                                            

11) Participants attend face to face workshop - process continues concerning  
collaborative seminar paper.                                                  

Several points can be made about this :

- the punctuated nature of the group work : the work of the group does not proceed continuously but is characterised by periods of activity and periods of inactivity (commented on at stage 6);

- the group's development does not conform easily to any existing 'model' of group development that I know of, but there is a 'start', 'middle' and 'end' period of online work. This requires further analysis.

From the analysis of the group's face-to-face discussions about this online period, several themes emerged which are briefly listed below :

Problems of working cooperatively and making collective decisions. Here discussion centred round the way in which the group actually communicated about its collective online project. At times there was good communication about what they were trying to achieve, but also at times they failed to communicate and some people felt they were just 'running' with whatever was last on the 'table', with little discussion or checking out amongst themselves.

The cooperative learning contract: implicit or explicit. Participants discussed their expectations concerning the level of commitment and cooperation in the online group work. Although an informal 'contract' about this had been agreed prior to the online period, it soon became evident that in practice there was much that had not been negotiated. It was only during the activity of being online and trying to collaborate on their project that issues relating to the contract merged. This concern over the 'contract' was a major theme running throughout the entire conference, and one which was not resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

Roles online: formalised and non-formalised. The group had elected one participant to act as conference 'manager' or facilitator with the express power to manage the group. This seemed to work very well in the early stages of the group's work, but in later stages the manager experienced frustration about the lack of collective clarity in purpose, and the decreasing level of activity which he perceived in the group.

Other participants from time to time were perceived to take on specific informal roles, such as questioner, observer, 'lurker', information giver and so on. None of these roles had been formally negotiated by the group, and there was considerable discussion about how and why people had chosen to work in this way.

'Troughs' and non-interaction. The concern here was around the question of what leads to something 'suddenly' happening after an inactive period, and discussion taking off again? Participants perceived that the work of the group was not evenly distributed throughout the period. They were aware that there were times when there was a frenzy of online activity, where they were all (mostly) engaged in working together. At other times, little happened. No one could easily say why this punctuated group process (as described above) took place. A detailed examination of the conference transcript may provide some illumination of this issue.

Problem of asynchronous communication and responding online. Participants observed that working asynchronously had its advantages in cooperative work, but also proved difficult at times. For example, during the period when there was considerable discussion online, participants' comments tended to get entered out of sequence, so making it difficult to disentangle the line of thought taking place.

'Barriers' to group work and cooperation online. Here the interest was around whether the group's online (MA) work was perceived as being somehow different to their paid work. There were three different perspectives on what constituted 'group work', and what constituted 'paid' work: some participants viewed the groups' work as a major part of their working life. There was no distinction between the participant's online work and their 'paid' work; some did not view it as 'work' at all (work was where they did their 'paid' work); others could not easily make any distinction between the two views. This might be viewed as a continuum:

online group is work----------- online group/work distinction blurred ------------------ online group is not work

The consequences of these different perceptions seemed to determine to some extent how people engaged with the online group work. For those who saw it as 'work', the group was a major (sometimes main) focus for their professional lives. They looked to the group to provide support, challenge and discussion which they could not always get anywhere else very easily. One person who shared this view was self-employed. Those who did not see it as work often had colleagues in their place of paid work with whom they worked cooperatively on other projects, and they felt less need to have this relationship online.

During discussion about this, participants showed an awareness of the consequences of these different views for the success of the online learning community. Those who viewed the online work as 'not work' said they now saw what their position meant for the community. There was a real willingness to address the issue in the next online period.

Critical incidents

At another meeting of the group, the focus was on a mixture of identifying 'critical incidents' during the last online period of work (during which they were carrying out their research dissertation projects), and discussion of these incidents. The two were not clearly separated during the meeting.

Some of the incidents raised were not discussed in any depth. One particularly interesting aspect of this discussion was the way in which the group reflected on their online work as a group, their relationships, expectations and different approaches so that the lines between 'doing research' and personal and group learning were blurred.

As with much of this research, aspects of the online experience were highlighted, but interpretations of what a particular aspect meant, or what caused it, varied greatly. For example, this group had a number of unusual aspects to it. Four people dropped out for various, and legitimate, personal reasons in the two weeks before the course began leaving just six participants in the group. During the two years of the MA, one other participant left, one tutor moved to another post and another participant died. Clearly all of this had a huge impact on the group and made it very hard to disentangle aspects which were directly related to the online work.

Out of the analysis a number of themes emerged.

Expectations/responsibilities. Some broad, general comments were made in this area. Explicit distinctions were made between how people saw their responsibilities to the rest of the group online and face to face. Some people felt more accountable when they were face to face; others felt a greater obligation to be supportive online. When they were face to face, some felt an obligation to be more probing.

Experience of and approaches to being online, and the technology. Comparisons were drawn between face to face and online discussions. One participant felt the asynchronous nature of conferences stopped continuity of discussion, yet he felt that there was enormous creativity online. Another talked of the dilemma of multiple online conversations combined with the ability to be reflective, weighed against the possibility of up-loading screenfuls of 'thoughtful' (yet perhaps longish) text.

One conference item in the transcript was begun by a student as part of her data gathering for her dissertation on the topic of career management. She asked the rest of the group to say something about their career and what the term meant to them. Everyone responded over the next few weeks. They all said how interesting and engaging they had found these discussions. This was portrayed as an example of the medium and the group 'working well'.

One difference in approach to 'going online' was in terms of how different individuals presented that to themselves and others. One person spoke of it in mechanical terms. A lot of his usual day to day work was on his PC and so connecting into Lancaster was not seen as that different. It was another work task. 'It's not 'I'm going on for a chat' or 'I'm going to do some work' it's 'I'm going online'' Another participant talked of 'I'm just going to talk to Lancaster for twenty minutes' and made a point of bringing in and involving his partner and friends. Another had involved his children but stopped doing that because of the swearing online!

Tutor/participant roles and relationships. There was a view that there was a sharp split between tutors on the one hand and participants on the other. This seemed more marked online where it was easier to 'split' off tutors. One tutor certainly spoke of not feeling as 'heard' online as face to face, and having greater 'power' face to face. It felt as if sometimes online the tutor was never sure how his comments were received. Other tutors, however, did not experience this and felt their contributions were 'heard' and received online.

Discussion focussed on what the role of the tutor was generally in a programme like this that had a philosophy which involved cooperative tutor-participant design - a major and unresolved issue for the group. And what then happens when you go online? Does it become magnified, dealt with, avoided?


We have found that this 'reflective critique' approach to researching online learning has helped both tutors and participants understand the nature and processes they are involved in during their online work. The experience of working online has become observable. This approach to learning has allowed participants and tutors to make changes to the design of the MA programme on the basis of their collective experience, and to the participants and tutors becoming more observant of their relations online.


Hodgson, V and McConnell, D (1992) 'IT-based open learning: a case study in management learning', Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 8, 3, 136-150.

Mason, R and Kaye, A R (1989) Mindweave: communication, computers and distance learning, Oxford, Pergamon Press.

McConnell, D (1994) Implementing computer supported cooperative learning. London, Kogan Page. Networked learning : the Internet, computer conferencing and adult education

David McConnell

University of Sheffield

This workshop will be of interest to anyone using, or thinking of using, the Internet and online communications in their professional practice. In particular it will be of interest to those involved in 'second generation' distance learning who want to move to 'third generation' (McConnell, 1995) (interactive and discursive) distance learning.

In the workshop I will focus on networked (online) adult learning. By way of an example of networked learning, I will focus on some postgraduate Masters programmes that I am involved in which employ the use of the Internet and computer conferences for networked, cooperative learning purposes.

During the workshop I hope we will be able to link into the Internet. I will demonstrate a Web (World Wide Web) site designed for an MEd in Telematics Learning, and indicate how it supports, and is used by, the distant learners on the course. I will also demonstrate the use of online discussion groupware and introduce the audience to computer conferences.

Computer mediated communications

A major concern of the workshop is to consider the potential of computer mediated ommunications in adult learning. Computer mediated communications (CMC) systems, of which computer conferencing is an example, allow users to participate in educational activities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year round. Users communicate with each other (at different times) by typing the text of their communications into the computer conference area, where all other communications can be read and commented on. Computer mediated communications allow for communal, interactive group communications between people who may be dispersed geographically or temporally.

This workshop will look at the educational implications of CMC for adult learning. Some questions about the use of this new medium which we might consider include :

What are the characteristics of CMC ?

What are its educational strengths and weaknesses ?

How can it be used in adult education ?

What are the problems and difficulties in use?

What actually happens in an educational computer conference ?

How can CMC be incorporated into adult education ?

It is hoped that participants in the workshop will have the opportunity to formulate their own questions about the use of CMC and the Internet in their own professional practices. Examples of CMC group work with adult learners will be available for analysis and discussion. Participants may be interested in comparing these examples with their experience of adult learners' discussions face to face.


McConnell, D (1995) 'From distance learning to computer supported cooperative learning - a new paradigm for distance learning', in I Bryant (ed) Vision, invention, intervention: celebrating adult education: papers from the 25th SCUTREA annual conference, Southampton, SCUTREA.