Chapter 8

Interactive Discussion: Group Tools and Collaboration


Email from Dr. Johnson to the Dr. Horton, Educational Technology Consultant:

I like to show videos in class, but there are two problems. First, the students sit back and switch into couch potato mode: no thoughts, no notes. Second, even if they did think and take notes, they can't share those ideas with each other, except for the simple utterances of approval or disapproval. Next week I am showing a video on future trends in education. It is packed with ideas that go by too fast. They are going to miss it all. What do I do?

Email from Dr. Horton to Dr. Johnson:

I know the problem! Try this: Get all of the students into the multi-party chat program. You can ask the students to type comments while it is running, but it is more effective to stop the video every five minutes or so and ask the students type in a dialogue. You could even assign groups of students the responsibility to comment on different aspects of the video: artistic quality, message, etc. At the end, let all of the students have access to the chat file.

Email from Dr. Johnson to Dr. Horton:

It worked beautifully. I have never seen the students get so involved. At points it was a little out of control, but over all they did an excellent job picking out ideas and reacting to the video. Here is an excerpt of the chat session:

(Full text from the dialogue)

It may be argued that the most basic educational process is interactive dialogue. It is the exchange of ideas not the stockpiling of them that leads to lasting impact on the student. In the vignette above the students not only reacted to the video but to each other as well. The Socratic dialogue examines, refines, and alters the foundation of thought. The methods of dialogue, discussion, and other forms of interaction are age old. As in the vignette above, the effect is bring each party into the exchange. In the switched-on classroom a number of tools such as multi-party chat sessions can be used as a surrogate for verbal dialogue. A number of issues arise from this scenario and from other electronic tools.

In terms of design, there are two questions, "How can these forms of interaction be implemented in the electronic media?" and "In what ways can interaction be enhanced in the electronic media?" The first question is one of metaphor. How can we translate the dynamics of interpersonal communication into effective software functions and screen design? The second question brings the electronic abilities discussed in Chapter 2 to bear on class discussion. How is interaction facilitated by input-ability, display-ability, etc.?

In this chapter we will explore a number of implementations of interactivity in HyperCourseware as well as in more generic applications of email and listservs. In each case we will discuss the application of the tool and its pros and cons.


In the last chapter interactivity was defined principally as the exchange of information between the student and the instructor and between the student and the course materials. In this chapter interactivity pertains to the exchange of information primarily between students in the context of the course materials. The focus in this chapter is on the synergistic effect of one individual interacting with other individuals interacting with the course material. Dialogue occurs either when two individuals agree and bolster one another's position or when two individuals disagree and challenge each other's position.

The level or type of interactivity that occurs can be classified in terms of the number of individuals involved, the direction of the exchanges, the number of exchanges, the way in which course material is folded into the process, and the anonymity of players.

Group Aggregation of Individual Input

An essential function of classroom interaction is to bring the contributions of individuals together for the group as a whole to benefit. The reason is that each student may have (a) a different perspective, opinion, or attitude on the subject, (b) different experiences, abilities, or skills to bring to bear on the subject, or (c) simply a different take on the same subject.

Group Response. In the last chapter we looked at a group aggregation tool which simply posed a question, allowed each student to input a response, and displayed all of the responses to the group. This tool can be used effectively to help students see their responses relative to the other members of the class. At one end students may find that there is a striking commonality of responses. Reactions to the group response may help to build a feeling of group consensus. At the individual level it may be affirming to see that one's own reaction is similar to the rest of the group. When students were asked in one class to enter the most interesting thing that they found in the reading for the day, one student commented, "When I saw what everyone else said, I felt better about how much I got out of the reading."

On the other side, students may gain an appreciation for the diversity of responses and a better understanding of their position relative to others. Subjects that might otherwise become highly polarized in open class discussion can in the group response be seen as highly dimensional and multi-faceted. The group response can be used in subsequent discussion to elucidate a multiplicity of viewpoints rather than a few stereotypic sides. The way in which the group response is handled by the instructor is critical. Even when responses are anonymous, it is important that no one's input is belittled or singled out for ridicule. Instead the class, with the help of the instructor, will need to maintain a balanced and even handed comparison and contrast of positions. A number of educational objectives are met when students begin to understand the complexity of their own and others viewpoints on a socially charged issue and start to move beyond the differences to explore the reasons for the differences.

Group Notes. A very practical form of group aggregation of input is the generation of collective notes. In the traditional classroom students may share the notes that they took during the class or that they wrote down from their readings. Things that were missed by one student may have been caught by another. Comparison of lecture notes may help to correct mistakes and misunderstandings. Students will often form groups in which one student will read each of the assigned readings and provide their summary notes to the group.

In the switched-on classroom this sharing of notes can not only be facilitated electronically, it can also be enhanced, structured, and monitored by the instructor. If all of the lecture notes are stored not only in the Student Space but also in the Interact Space, it is possible for all students and the instructor to inspect all of the student generated notes. Since this would probability be too time consuming, one or several students can be assigned for each class period to filter all of the notes to generate an editing set of aggregate notes. The instructor can not only read these notes for accuracy but also add additional points. The students would have not only their own personal notes but also the corrected notes from the whole class.

Similarly for notes on the readings, all of the student notes could be collected and edited for the class. A more efficient approach used in many seminars is to require everyone to do the reading but assign one or two students to take summary notes and to discuss them in class. Using the Readings Module in HyperCourseware, these notes can be imported into the field for the assigned reading and distributed to all of the students prior to the class meeting. These notes can be modified during the class discussion.

Running Dialogue: Chat Channels

There have been many implementations of multi-party chat systems. These have been used in many different contexts and for many different purposes. The same is true in the switched-on classroom. The class and the instructor can use a shared dialogue space for many different educational purposes HyperCourseware uses a set of chat channels that initially set up by the instructor. Like most other modules the first card is an index. The index lists the channels available and the name of each channel. Figure 8.1 shows the index for a course on thinking and problem solving. If other students are participating in any of the channels, their identifiers are listed in the field on the right. To go to a channel, one can either click on the channel name or click on the identifier of one the participants.

Figure 8.1 An index of chat channels. The user can go to a channel by clicking the name on the left. The right side of the screen shows the users currently in each channel.

When one of the channels is selected, HyperCourseware opens a screen for that topic as shown in Figure 8.2. The top of the screen gives brief instructions for the use of the channel. More detailed instructions are shown if the "More" button is clicked. The list of participants on the channel is shown if the "Participants" button is clicked. Entries are added to the dialogue by typing in the input field and clicking the "Send" button. Each entry is given an identifier and a time stamp. The identifier can be the either the student's name, the workstation name, anonymous, or an alias. The instructor can either preset the type of identifier for a channel or leave the choice up to the student. The running dialogue is shown in the scrolling field at the bottom of the screen. On the instructor's screen at the right there are options to store, print, or clear the dialogue.

Figure 8.2 The screen of one chat channel. The field at the top is the comment being sent. The field at the bottom is the continuous dialogue.

HyperCourseware merely provides the facility for running multi-party dialogues. How this facility is used and incorporated in the switched-on classroom makes all the difference in the world. Over the last two years a number of applications have been developed and tried. The remainder of this section will discuss a number of them.

Running Group Reactions. As we present a lecture, show a video, run a simulation, or another event in class, we would often like to tap into the running group reaction to the event. We would also like to stimulate the students not only with the event but also with the reactions of other students. In general, students tend to be rather passive and unresponsive in class. The problem is that such reactions are usually disruptive and have been trained into repression since the elementary school. However, as illustrated in the scenario of this chapter, a chat channel can be used to express and share reactions with others in a non-disruptive way. Whispering that reaches only the one person and disrupts the rest, can be shared by all and disturb no one.

The instructor can control the level of reaction by encouraging everyone to enter at least comment during or after the shared event. Ownership of the reactions can also be varied by allowing the students to enter comments anonymously or using aliases. Some students may even enter positive and negative reactions using several different aliases when they have mixed feelings about a subject. The instructor can also participate in the interaction and can, if necessary, add fuel to fire by inputting his or her own anonymous comments.

At the end of the session, the transcript of the dialogue of can be stored and analyzed. Both the students and the instructor can replay the reactions to the event since they are in sequence and time stamped. This transcript then may be subject for further discussion.

Focused Dialogue. In many class discussions one would like for students to focus on a topic, pick a side of the issue, state their opinion, hear a rebuttal, and provide the opportunity for a counter-rebuttal, and so on. In the few cases when this actually works in classroom discussion, only a few students are willing or have sufficient class time to contribute. On the other hand, using a chat channel can ensure complete class participation in a running debate on some topic. To do this the topic needs to be presented and students need to be told to take an initial side on the issue. They must enter their opinion with a short justification in the chat channel. They should then wait for at least two other intervening entries and come back with other a response to a previous entry or a defense of their previously expressed view. At a minimum the students must make two entries. Instructors might also set a minimum on the number words to be typed. Students need to be told that they will be graded on their completion of the assignment. This approach leads to the uniform participation suggested in Scenario 2 opening Part II but requires a careful counting the responses. Fortunately Chapter 10 presents tools that can be using to analyze chat channel responses.

Figure 8.3 shows the dialogue for one of these sessions in a statistics class. In this case the students were as to take a stand on whether statistics tended to de-humanize people by reducing them to data points or helped society by analyzing the results. All responses were made during out-of-class time.

Figure 8.3 An example of focused dialogue. Students were asked to take a position and enter their viewpoint. After a number of other entries were posted, they had to either defend their viewpoint or comment on others.

(Full text of the dialogue.)

Brain Storming Sessions. An obvious use of chat channels is to run a brain storming sessions during class. In brain storming the idea is to generate as many ideas as possible; to use one person's idea as a stimulus for one's own idea in a sort of chain reaction; and to withhold judgment on the acceptability of any idea until the end. Once the problem has been presented, students can start entering ideas. As they see other ideas go by, they can use them to generate new ideas. Within five minutes a large number of ideas can be generated. When the session is over, the class can go back over the ideas, rate them on novelty and acceptability, and come up with a final solution to the problem. Figure 8.4 shows a chat channel screen for a session on the problem of what to do with the millions of obsolete 3.5 inch floppy disks that will exist in the near future.

Figure 8.4 An example of a brainstorming session.

(Full text of the dialogue.)

Brain storming sessions can be used for many purposes in the classroom besides tests of creativity. Many topics can be opened up using a brain storming session to evoke interest, involvement, and class synergy. For example, one could ask the class to generate causes for some phenomena (e.g., smoking among teenagers), solutions for some problem (e.g., need for new sources of energy), or examples of some concept (e.g., ego defense mechanisms).

Q & A Space. Chat channels can be used for an exchange of questions and answers. For example, students can enter questions in the dialogue. Perhaps other students will answer the questions or perhaps the instructor will supply the answers. The advantage of this technique is that the dialogue is open to all of the students in the class rather than just a select few that might talk among themselves or visit the instructor during office hours.

Question and answer dialogue may center around some topic such as the content of the last lecture, material on the upcoming exam, or an assignment or project. In general, it is good to have at least one chat channel for this type of interaction and for the instructor to monitor the channel regularly to provide guidance.

Small Group Discussion. Individual chat channels can be assigned to small groups rather than to the class as a whole. If the class is large this is essential. A running dialogue of 50 students can be overwhelming creating too many threads and too much text between related entries. It makes it difficult for both the instructor and the students to read and keep up with the dialogue. Small groups allow the students to keep track of the various positions of the participants and to follow the exchanges and theme of the dialogue. For focused running dialogues the groups should be between 10 and 15 students. For working groups and teams the groups should be from 5 to 10.

A great advantage of small group discussion in chat channels is that while it can be conducted during class time it can also be run asynchronously outside of the classroom. Students can sign on anytime during the day, read the dialogue to date, think about their response, and mindfully enter it in the dialogue.

An obvious advantage of small group discussion in chat channels is that full text of the dialogue is constantly available not only for the participants of the group but also for the instructor and for participants in other groups to inspect. Thus, as one is participating in one's own small group, a student can eavesdrop on the conversation of another group. When the small groups are given different topics for discussion and are asked to report to the class as a whole, they can use the recorded text in producing their summary of the discussion.

Two Person Dialogues. Chat channels can also be used for a number of interesting two person exercises. For example, students might be anonymously assigned to pairs. Each student is given a role to play or a theory to defend. They are then to enter into a role playing dialogue. One student might be given the role of a therapist and the other a patient with manic-depression; or one student given the role of a salesperson and the other the role of a customer. At the end of the session particularly good exchanges can be saved and used as examples for the whole class.

Two person dialogues can also be used for study sessions and quizzing on another. The instructor can pair students and have them ask each other questions about the course material. One student might drill the other for a time and then switch or they could alternate questions and answers. The records of these exchanges may help the instructor diagnose weaknesses in the material, the knowledge of the class on particular subjects, and the needs of particular students.

Social Dialogue. Finally, chat channels can be used for mere chatting among the students on topics unrelated to the class. Social dialogue can help the class form a more dynamic and cohesive group. Students can establish a social identity and presence in the class through these exchanges. Friendships can be made; interests shared; and humor expressed. Because these dialogues totally unstructured, they can go in a number of directions. Figure 8.5 gives an unusual, yet typical dialogue.

Figure 8.5 An example of a social dialogue in one class.

(Full text of the dialogue.)

Instructors need to be aware of the possibility that exchanges in these chat channels can turn hostile. "Flaming" may occur in which students attack the instructor or each other at personal levels and with vulgar insults. Ethnic, racial, and religious stereotypes, prejudice and hatred can emerge. It is important for the instructor to constantly monitor these channels and to take corrective actions if necessary. The channel may need to be purged at times or totally shut down; and individual students may need to be admonished for their inappropriate comments.

It is best to set some parameters on open chat channels from the beginning similar to those specified in the "terms of service" for on-line services such as America Online(TM) and CompuServe(TM):

* no vulgar language or swearing

* no expressions of hatred or racial, ethnic, or religious slurs

* no threats

Finally, it might be useful for the instructor give illustrations of positive interactions that are acceptable or encouraged in the open chat channels. The instructors may also seed some of these interactions by adding comments themselves..

Mail Messages

Email and Listservs have been used with varying degrees of success in education. Email has been used for everything from distributing materials and submitting homework to feedback and small group discussion. Listservs and mail reflectors have helped to distribute the messages to all of the students in the class. These systems have either been used outside of class to supplement classroom activities or have replaced the classroom altogether in distance education. Unfortunately, most of these systems have not been well integrated with course materials and tools. Email and Listservs have often been used for functions that they are not well suited for and have resulted in laborious work arounds. They have deluged the instructors with too many messages and too much to type. Some instructors have suffered from carpal-tunnel syndrome as a result of the interaction. Although not yet fully implemented, HyperCourseware attempts to integrate electronic message handling with the whole system of electronic courseware and to reduce the amount of effort necessary for communication among the class members and the instructor. Figure 8.6 shows the current message handling screen in HyperCourseware.

Figure 8.6 Message screens. The top panel shows the screen for sending messages and the bottom panel the screen for reading messages.

Three types of interactivity are supported by electronic message handling in HyperCourseware: Instructor-to-Student, Student-to-Instructor, and Student-to-Student. In the case of Instructor-to-Student messages, the instructor enters the message and can then select the student or set of students to which to send the message or select an option to send it to all students. Messages can be selected from a set of stock messages and personalized. The instructor may use the message system before or after class to alert students to problems or to encourage in their assignments. Reminders and instructions may be posted to all of the students.

For Student-to-Instructor interaction, the students enter the message into the message field and then select "Instructor" as the recipient. When the instructor receives messages from the students, they can be scanned, commented on, and replies bounced back to the sender. All correspondence between the instructor and the students is stored for the entire semester and is accessible from the instructor's list of students. Students may use the message system to ask private questions about grades and assignments that the instructor can respond to outside of class..

Finally, for Student-to-Student interaction, the students should also have the option to send messages to individual students, sets of students, and to all of the students. The presence of unanswered mail is indicated by a highlighted or blinking Message Icon on the Home Screen. Students may use the message system to contact other students before, during, or after class about assignments, study group arrangements, or social engagements.

Collaborative Project Spaces

When a small group of students are assigned to work a project together, the electronic environment can be used to facilitate and enhance the process. HyperCourseware can be used to provide shared spaces for the students to work in. There are many ways to initially structure these spaces. Alternatively, one can leave their formation up to the small groups themselves. In this section an example will be given to illustrate the process of collaboration.

The project was to invent, design, and market a novel electronic devise that would help people with cognitive processes, that is, process information, make decisions, etc. The project was intentional vague and ill-specified. The class of 20 students were highly diverse. They ranged in age from 20 to 50 and from upper level undergraduates to graduate students. Their majors included in order of frequency psychology, computer science, biology, linguistics and library science. It was decided in class discussion to divide the class into five subgroups with four members each so as to maximize diversity. This was accomplished by coding age, major, and other variables taken from self-descriptions and evenly distributing the variables across the groups using a database management program.

Once the groups were determined, a chat channel was assigned to each group. This channel was used for group discussion, brain storming of ideas for the invention, coordinating assignments and schedules of work on the project, and general discussion among the members of each team. The Projects Icon on the Home Screen jumped to a listing of the five teams. By clicking on a team name one can open the project space for the team. The project spaces can either be set up to allow only the team members to enter the space or can be totally open to allow anyone to inspect the work in progress and possibly make suggestions. The project spaces were structured by the instructor to have four screens, one for each of the following parts of the project: (a) a brief description of the innovation, (b) a cognitive rationale supporting the idea, (c) a description of a research and development plan, (d) a marketing plan. In addition, two screens were added for comments by other teams and for comments and evaluation by the instructor. Figure 8.7 shows part of the input for one of the teams.

Figure 8.7 Collaborative projects. The top panel shows the index screen for one team. The bottom panel shows one of the screens that is shared among team members.

Overall, the collaborative project was a great success. Although the students complained that the task was too ambiguous and too hard at first, at the end they appreciated the dynamics of the process and all that they had learned about collaborating in an electronic environment.

White Boards

A white board is a shared space such that all of the students can see what is displayed in it. Whatever is entered in the white board is immediately available for everyone to see. In HyperCourseware this is currently only a text field as shown in Figure 8.8.

Figure 8.8 A shared whiteboard screen with controls to pass the control to the next person waiting in the que.

Input to the white board can be from various sources. The instructor can control the white board so that only what he or she enters is seen by the students. In this mode, the students are passive recipients. On the other hand, control can be passed to a student who can then enter or change what is in the white board. Other students who want add to the white board can do so successively as control is relinquished and passed to each one who has entered the wait list.

Many white boards allow simultaneous input by all participating parties. While this is an effective method of collaboration for small groups (e.g., 2 to 4), it is chaos in classroom of 10 or more unless there is some social mechanism by which the class "passes the chalk" from one student to the next.

The sequential white board can be used in seminars when different students take turns presenting information or discussing some topic. In the same time/same place classroom it is generally awkward to type and to speak at the same time. The white board is only effective if the student has prepared the text in advance and copies it from another source into the white board. The sequential white board is more effective in the same time/different place model of distance education when other channels of communication are limited. More will be said about this in Chapter 15.

General File Exchange

All of the interactive methods described above are forms of file exchange integrated into HyperCourseware in various forms. In a number of situations, however, more powerful and generic file exchange tools are needed. These are needed to distribute HyperCourseware modules, copy graphic files, and swap files across the network. Operating system level tools exist or can be written as batch files or scripts, but these tools require extensive technical knowledge and are not well adapted to the environment of the electronic classroom. In this section we will look at a general file exchange tool that can be used to support additional interactive and collaborative exercises in the switched-on classroom.

Figure 8.9 shows the file exchange screen available to the instructor. At the top of the screen the instructor selects the name of the file to be exchanged and its source directory, either the Instructor Space, the Handout Space, or the Student Space. The file may be either all of the Student Spaces or a specified set. Several useful routines for copying can be selected.

Figure 8.9 Paper passing screens. The top panel shows an index of papers passed to one student. The bottom panel shows one of the papers and the student's comments on it at the bottom.

Random Pair Swap. In a number of classroom exercises one would like to swap files between random pairs of students. For example, in a writing exercise each student may write a composition swap it with another student who then critiques it and sends it back.

Rotation. Alternatively, one the file from Student 1 may be copied to Student 2 and the file from Student 2 is copied to Student 3 and so on back to Student 1. In the first step students may start a story. In the second step each student is to continue a story that has already been started. The files may be rotated several times.

These and a number of other file exchange techniques can be used increase the exchange of information among students in the switched-on classroom. Rotation of files can be among small groups. Files can be started by one student and sent like a chain letter to two others, who in turn send the file to two others and so on.


Conducting successful class discussions is an art that many instructors have never developed. Attempts to lead in class discussions often fail due to the reluctance of many students to enter into the dialogue and/or the tendency of a few outspoken students to dominate the discussion. Although techniques exist to facilitate better discussions in class, many instructors would rather spend class time on other activities. Electronic discussions do not solve all of these problems but can help to overcome the inhibitions to speak up in class and can help to continue discussion during non-class hours.

Managing and monitoring all of the interactions that can occur can become a formidable task in the electronic environment. It is essential that the instructor has tools for this purpose that are efficient and easy to use. Chapter 11 will address this problem in greater detail. At this point the possibilities for new levels and types of interactivity in the switched-on classroom are exciting. We are already seeing the benefits of this interactivity in education and students are beginning to appreciate the new involvement that they can experience with their classmates.

Exercises and Projects

1. Think of another use or group exercise that could be done using the chat channels.

2. Write a 250-300 word paper on your attitudes about the use of anonymity and aliases when submitting comments or opinions.

3. Think of another collaborative exercise for small groups in a class. Write out how you introduce the project, set up the small groups, monitor the progress, and grade the results.

Suggested Readings

[Table of Contents] [Chapter 7] [Chapter 9]