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Mary. R. Lea, Open University, UK

Work-in-progress paper.

Academic Literacies and Learning through Computer Conferencing

Mary. R. Lea, Open University, UK

Paper presented at Higher Education Close Up, an international conference from 6-8 July 1998 at University of Central Lancashire, Preston. This conference is jointly hosted by the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University and the Department of Education Studies, University of Central Lancashire and is supported by the Society for Research into Higher Education


Recent research into student writing has illustrated the importance of academic literacy as a useful framework when considering the ways in which students construct disciplinary and course based knowledge through their writing (Lea & Street, 1998; Lillis, 1997; Stierer 1997; Lea & Stierer, forthcoming). The focus of such research is on an examination of the social practices that surround writing in university contexts. In order to understand the complexity and diversity of student writing, it has been necessary to look in depth at the different practices involved and the varied social and cultural contexts within which student writing is taking place. This paper extends this existing body of research further and reports upon the early stages of a project, being undertaken at the Open University, which is looking at the relationship between academic literacies and students’ use of computer conferencing for learning. As such, this paper is best described as some reflections upon work-in-progress.

The project is using an ethnographic-type methodology; on-line reflexive interviews are being carried out with students, and conference interactions are being analysed as part of the research data. Additionally, the data includes analysis of students’ written assignments and tutor feedback on these. At all levels of data collection, the research considers tutor and student understandings and interpretations of learning through conferencing, and the ways in which this form of learning is implicated in students’ assessed, written assignments. Although there is a body of research concerned with computer conferencing and student learning (Mason & Kaye, 1989; Mason, 1993), it appears that very little is known, as yet, about the relationship between students’ use of computer conferencing and their assessed written work. The present project is looking at what students do in conference interactions and how they use these interactions in their own construction of academic knowledge; it is examining how, and in what ways, such knowledge might be implicated in students’ written work. In these new domains, in which conferencing is being used for learning, both students and tutors are having to become familiar with new ways of constructing knowledge through writing. Early findings from the research suggest that conference contributions are no more homogeneous in nature than the ‘academic essay’ or the ‘report’; each contribution reflects a particular and contextualised academic setting. The research is, therefore, examining conferencing in a number of different courses and the part that this new form of written communication plays in student learning within these different academic contexts. homogeneous

The experience of learning on-line

Within higher education in general moves towards teaching on-line are becoming more common. As a result, an increasing amount of research is being carried out into the nature of these on-line environments for teaching and learning. Much of the research has been concerned with the collaborative and co-operative nature of these new ways of learning and has therefore focused on the social and collaborative nature of learning and the success of learning on-line for enhancing the student experience of learning (O’Connell 1994; Mason & Kaye 1989). Work in this area often highlights the advantages for students of being able to work together with others, particularly in distance learning settings where students have traditionally been at a disadvantage because of their lack of face-to-face contact. Computer conferencing is able to offer these students opportunities for communication which have previously been denied to them.

Computer conferencing is also being used in more traditional university settings where, additionally, students have the possibility of face-to-face and more personal contact. In these circumstances the conference is usually used as an adjunct to traditional modes of course delivery. It may be used to supplement existing course structures, or in place of these, in circumstances where some group of students are constrained by the amount of time that they are able to spend ‘on campus’ despite the fact that they are not actually widely geographically dispersed. Again the social advantages of working with others are often presented as good pedagogic practice.

The research reported upon here is less concerned with the collaborative and social nature of learning than with the ways in which conference interactions are used by both tutors and students in the construction and negotiation of academic knowledge, both through the written texts of the conference and through the relationship between these texts and assessed work. It draws on data from four different conference sites to examine this perspective more fully. If we take as given the notion that academic literacy practices are central to the construction of academic knowledge, then, in order to understand more about learning in these new environments, we need to understand more about the kinds of literacy practices that students engage in when they are using computer conferencing for learning.

Research method

The research method being adopted for this project has developed from the first research encounters. Initially, this was intended to be a qualitative project using conventional research methods, such as in-depth, face-to-face interviews with students and tutors. Additionally, following in the tradition of other work concerned with academic literacy, (Lea & Street, 1997) students have been asked to make available copies of their TMAs (tutor marked assignment) including tutor feedback on these. It was always envisaged that the conference transcripts would form valuable textual material for the research. However, it became apparent in the early stages of the research that valuable material could be gathered by conducting a substantial amount of the research directly with students on-line, either by contributing to conferences as a participant researcher or by approaching students by individual e mail. This has now become the primary method of data collection -although it is envisaged that some in-depth interviews, probably telephone interviews, will also be conducted with students and tutors at a later stage in the academic year. The best way of describing this research method is ‘doing ethnography’ on-line. As a researcher, I have been immersing myself in the structure of the conferences and trying to make sense of them from the perspective of the participants. On two of the conference sites, H802, ‘MA in Open and Distance Learning’ and AWO 98 ‘Academic Writing On-line’, specific spaces have been set up to explore the research dimension of the course. In one of the sites the research has been integrated into the conference structure through the creation of a ‘reflection zone’, within which participants are being asked to reflect upon their own experiences of using the conference for learning. Additionally participants are being interviewed ‘on-line’ through the use of individual e mail at a number of points throughout the course. This will give participants the opportunity for more private reflection on the course. It is envisaged that my participation as researcher in this way will remove some of the problems of the ‘observer’s paradox’ normally associated with ethnographic-type research. In some senses researching on-line may be blurring the distinction that Green & Bloome (1997) make between ‘ethnography as a process of inquiry’ and ‘ethnography as primarily an act of writing’. This approach does, however, concur with their description of ‘ethnography in education’ as teachers and students adopting ethnographic perspectives ‘in order to explore their own communities’; the different positions and discursive practices of the participants in these developing communities of practice are being highlighted through the research process itself.

The courses

Four different Open University courses which use conferencing as an element of course delivery are being used for the research.

H802: MA in open and distance education

H802, ‘Applications of Information Technology in Open and Distance Education’ is a module of the Open University’s MA in Open and Distance Learning , a course delivered primarily via the Web. This course uses a web-based Electronic Bulletin Board System for conferencing and the conferencing is used as a major site of learning for participants on the course. Students are divided into four different tutor groups with tutors acting as facilitators. Unlike traditionally delivered, print-based distance learning courses, students on this course have little in the way of ready prepared printed material. Instead they have access to web-based materials and links to other suggested web sites. Students on this course are expected to make their own contributions in terms of other relevant web-based course materials. Additionally, as an integral part of the course students are required to show evidence of their use of conferencing when answering their TMAs (tutor marked assignments).

The course guide suggests that :

The amount of time you will spend reading set material is much reduced from normal OU courses, and the amount of time you will spend in practical activities, on-line interaction, collaborative work and Web searching is much increased.

.....working in this way is different from learning through studying traditional print materials.

The students studying H802 may be located anywhere in the world, and therefore they bring a diverse and varied set of backgrounds to their studies in terms of their familiarity with using technology for learning, in terms of their own academic subject areas and experiences and in terms of their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Some students have already completed H801, Foundations of Open and Distance Learning, an earlier module of the MA in which conferencing was an option for participants in the course but was not compulsory.

T102: Living with technology: a foundation course

The second course being studied is a foundation level course in the Technology faculty. In this case conferencing is available as a complement to a face-to-face tutorial system. Students are likely to be geographically quite close, although this is not always the case, and they do have the opportunity to meet regularly (about once a month) at tutorials. Although not a compulsory part of the course it is recommended that students do participate in the conferences. Students are expected to e mail their tutor and to download an article as the basis of their second TMA ( tutor-marked assignment). Other use of the conferences is purely voluntary, although later TMAs in the course also make use of material which is only available through the conferencing system. Conferencing is seen as a complement to the tutorial system. T102 uses an intranet system, First Class, for conferencing. Students have access to a number of different national conferences and an individual tutor conference. Each conference is itself subdivided with different virtual spaces, ‘rooms’, which can be used to focus different discussions, for example, for specific TMA discussion. As with H802 the academic content of the course is itself concerned with technology which, arguably, could be implicated in the ways in which students are using conferencing for learning.

A423: Philosophical problems of equality

In A423, a fourth level, undergraduate Philosophy course, students are required to use the conferencing as a compulsory part of the course. Students who need it are provided with very basic hardware and software to enable them to access First Class. Face-to face tutorials are provided but, since student groups are more geographically dispersed within the UK, some students have difficulties attending these tutorials and in theory the use of computer conferencing should be able to fill this gap. Students have access to their own tutor group conference, and this includes particular sub-conferences on each written assignment. Students are encouraged to make contributions concerning their course to their tutor’s conference, in a sense mimicking a face-to-face seminar. However, they also have access to a national conference for A423 and to a ‘Philosophers’ chat’ area for all OU philosophy students. The use of conferencing was not built into the original course design but has been developed during the life of the course.

AWO 98: Academic writing on-line course

This course, as its name would suggest, is run entirely on-line using the First Class conferencing system. It is available internally for full time research students in the Faculties of Education, Technology, Science, Social Science and the Business School. The students receive no printed material but the study guides which form a basis for the course are available to be downloaded and, therefore, can be printed off if necessary. The course is designed to support students in writing an article of publishable quality. Students are located in the same physical space, the Open University campus, and they also have the benefit of both e mail and face-to-face contact in the same time and space; this is in contrast to the other three sites being used for the research.

Discourse communities and student learning

Computer conferencing is often presented as a homogenous category when it is being discussed in relation to student learning (O’Connell, 1994). In contrast, this project is concerned with variation and difference between conference sites and in examining the ways in which students are using conferencing for learning in relation to any particular context. It is looking closely at the ways in which conferences are being used by all participants, both students and tutors. It seems problematic to group computer conferences together under the heading ‘conferencing and learning’ in the same way that it would be if we were to try and group ‘books and learning’ in a print based medium, as if all books were the same and would inevitably result in the same kinds of learning whatever the context. We know enough about literacy to be able to make nuanced distinctions between different literacy practices (Street, 1984, 1995; Barton & Hamilton, 1998). Such distinctions between different literacy practices and the evidence from research in different contexts helps us to understand about the social nature of literacy. Additionally, work on genre theory and academic writing (Bazerman, 1988; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995) gives us more understanding of the complexity of reading and writing practices around academic texts.

In adopting a similar methodological stance to previous work on academic literacy and academic written genres, this project is concerned with making distinctions between the different contexts within which conferencing is being used for learning by students and tutors and the different practices that are associated with these contexts. Research on the textual features of computer conferences (Yates, 1996) suggests a ‘conference genre’ incorporating features of both spoken and written texts. Looking at the difference conference sites involved in the four different courses being studied, we find evidence not merely for one conference genre but for a number of different textual genres, each reflecting the different academic context within which the conference plays a part. These genres and their associated written texts reflect the different positions and identities being taken up by tutors and students in the different conferences.

In a ‘chat’ area contributions take on particular features normally associated with ‘day to day’ spoken informal conversation; a Philosophy tutor replicates the genre of the face-to-face Philosophy tutorial; the philosophy student uses particular linguistic devices, hedges, to tentatively challenge the tutor; the MA student posts up a long and focused message elaborating upon a piece of research she has read recently. Each contribution reflects and constructs the academic context and generic textual features between these contrasting contributions are hard to discern. Students are making use of these learning environments in different ways, resulting in different practices associated with their learning and therefore the production of different texts.

It is hoped that by examining difference and contrast in conference settings, the research will increase our understanding of the diverse and varied contexts that exist around conferencing and thus increase our knowledge of the processes of learning in these new learning environments. It is, therefore, comparing conferencing systems and the organisation of learning zones within the conferences and the ways that the use of these might be implicated in student learning. It is also comparing student and tutor interactions both between and within sites. Additionally, it is looking at the ways in which different bodies of academic knowledge -which go to make up the body of any particular course- might be implicated within different conferencing systems. In other words, what kinds of relationships can we discern between the way in which the conference is being used as a vehicle for learning and the learning itself? Do different academic knowledge bases lend themselves to particular ways of using computer conferencing and are there implications for the kind of leaning that is taking place in particular contexts?

It is important to examine more fully what is meant by the relationship between conferencing and learning. Conferences being used for learning differ by the academic context, the type of system and in terms of time and space. The conference sites in the four courses being examined in this research all embed very different academic contexts in terms of the subject areas and disciplinary genres that are being drawn upon, and being created, by both tutors and students. Two different conference systems are being used, each with their own particular interface. The organisation of the conference in terms of different virtual spaces and rooms has implications, not just in terms of where knowledge is being constructed, but also what kind of knowledge it is. Participants have choices to make about where to post messages- in which space or room- and who to respond to. Students and tutors can take on a number of different roles, identities and personas depending upon the choices that they make around time and space: when to post, where, how and to whom. They may choose to compose a detailed message off-line or make an immediate response to a posting. The conference structure results in participants engaging in a variety of different literacy practices and these practices have implications for the kind of knowledge that is eventually recorded as a conference contribution, and therefore results in knowledge being codified within the conference setting.

Whether we do more than replicate traditional ways of learning in conference settings depends upon the learning environments that are being created within any particular course. It is likely that these new environments will still replicate some aspects of traditional forms of learning since they are still replicating institutional structures -and therefore practices- which have not been replaced just because students are now using conferencing as part of their learning. A423, the Philosophy course, appears to replicate what we might consider a more traditional model of tutor-led learning; the conference seems to provide students with a structure that has similarities to a face-to-face tutorial. In H802 the tutors act as facilitators and their presence on the conference is much less apparent. The conference structure is designed to be student driven and the written genres of the conference contribution appear to reflect the academic context of the course: an innovative course about learning and technology which in some senses challenges traditional academic concerns. T102 conference contributions to the tutor-led conferences appear to be much shorter and less discursive, with students looking for confirmation from either tutor or peers that they are ’on the right track’. In these conferences the knowledge content of the academic context appears to be almost ‘out there’ with students checking for fine detail that they have ’got it right’. Again, this reflects the orientation of this foundation level course with its focus on content and less upon discursive argument. Conference contributions to the AWO 98 course are not based around an academic knowledge base, since students are using the conference to get feedback from supervisors, peers and journal reviewers on their own writing. The conference is designed as a collaborative and reflexive environment but students make fewer contributions than tutors, and the supervisors have had some difficulties creating a space which does something other than replicate the traditional relationship between supervisor and research student. As such, the conference contributions include helpful and sympathetic commentaries on student work from tutors but little peer review, despite this being one of the major aims of the course. Each conference then embeds a complex array of literacy practices resulting in what appear to be very different experiences of learning from the student perspective.

The particular textual nature of conferencing makes it possible to make transparent elements of the learning process which have previously remained hidden. Nevertheless we need to be cautious about the emphasis that is placed on the value of the conference transcript as a record of learning. It would appear that the obvious starting point for researching conferencing and learning is an examination of the conference transcripts. As Jones (1998) suggests, the transcript itself has tended to be seen as evidence of the very process of learning. However, his research illustrates how partial a representation of learning the conference transcript can be and he points instead to students’ broader experiences of learning, of which the conference interactions are themselves only a part. We need to be cautious, therefore, about treating our textual knowledge of the conference interactions as evidence of the construction of an academic community on-line. Conference texts may well be a very partial representation of both the experience of student learning and of the participant’s own sense of being a member of this community of learning. In fact, concentrating on the conference text alone may give us a very distorted view of this on-line community. Successful use of the conference in supporting an on-line learning community may also depend to some extent upon the organisation of virtual space within the conference. The interface of First Class, for example, being used in three of the research sites, can be used to recreate something akin to the contexts that speakers normally depend upon to make sense of everyday face-to-face conversation. These artificial structures constructed within conferences reflect the different contexts that speakers naturally ‘read off’ in everyday conversation.

Hymes work on the ‘ethnography of communication’ illustrates the importance of the speech community, the speech situation, the speech event and the speech act (Hymes, 1994). He suggests that we need to be concerned with the shared contextualised knowledge of speakers of the different elements that go to make up a speech act including: setting; scene; purposes; channels; norms of interaction and interpretation; genres. These contextualised features which he identifies in speech are also mirrored in conference interactions, although the texts produced are written rather than spoken. Although his focus is on speech, because he is primarily concerned with interactional and contextual features of communication, Hymes work is also useful in analysing conference interactions and the part that they play in the process of learning. Hymes suggests that an ‘ethnography of communication’ is essential in understanding language use and that we should not separate off different elements of language usage for research purposes. It is always important to focus upon the use of language in the complete context:

take as context a community, or network of persons investigating its communicative activities as a whole, so that any use of channel and code takes its place as a part of the resources upon which the members draw. (Hymmes in Maybin 1994: pp 11)
Following from Hymes, it is important to consider all the different elements of the conference, including interactions not recorded by the conference transcript. Jones refers to the use of private e mail between students or from student to tutor, which is not recorded in the conference history (Jones, 1988). If we regard participation in the conference as a ‘communicative event on-line’ -evidence of communication within a speech or discourse community- then we can begin to examine the ways in which students have to engage with a whole range of different practices in order to be successful participants. Since the electronic texts being produced are always written, then students are engaging with a variety of literacy practices which may or may not be apparent from examining conference contributions in isolation without the addition of student commentaries upon their contributions, or evidence from their own assessed written assignments. The on-line ‘interviews’ with students about their use of conferencing and the way in which they see this as related to their written assessed work give us this further level of interpretation; this enables a more complete understanding about the kinds of practices that are involved in the construction of academic knowledge.

At this early stage, the research process itself has been hampered by the fact that many students report difficulties and frustrations using the technology and this has led many to give up making conference contributions. As one student put it:

These difficulties have interfered with my learning and time spent ‘getting on-line ’ is time not spent working on the written work.
Nevertheless, initial responses from students participating in the research have revealed the different kinds of practices that they have adopted in order to become successful participants in the on-line community. Not surprisingly, students often tend to adopt familiar literacy practices when they are unsure and anxious about contributing to the conference. Some report that they will print out long messages to read as hard copy and prepare material off-line before making a conference contribution. Others make spontaneous contributions; others only contribute in student or ‘chat’ areas and not to tutor led spaces which are perceived by students as being more concerned directly with academic course content. Message histories also allow us to us see how much students read other messages even if they feel unsure about making their own contributions in particular spaces.


Comparing difference conferences makes it possible to explore the varied textual features present in conference settings. There is evidence from looking at these different contexts that computer conferencing itself does not have specific textual features but that each set of features reflects a particular academic context and produces a particular conference genre. These varied genres remain dynamic and shifting depending upon the on-line practices of each learning community. For students, making sense of their learning through conferencing often requires a different set of textual practices from those with which they may be more familiar. Conference interactions indicate an intricate relationship between the academic context and the learner’s experience of this context; as such these new forms of written text and their associated literacy practices have implications for both the student experience of the learning process and of assessment. Students may be engaging in new kinds of learning but we do not yet have any evidence of the relationship between this and their written work. We need to explore further how academic knowledge is constructed, through being a participant in of one of these on-line learning communities, and how students move from the text of the conference to the text of their assessed work.


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Mary R.Lea
Institute of Educational Technology
Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes

This document was added to the Education-line database 26 June 1998