Draft to appear in Active Learning. Do not cite without permission


Designing for informal undergraduate computer-mediated communication

Charles Crook and David Webster


Contact address: Charles Crook, Department of Human Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Lecis, Uk LE11 3TU

Email: c.k.crook@lboro.ac.uk




Evidence is summarised suggesting that electronic mail is not readily appropriated by undergraduates for informal study-related exchanges with either peers or their tutors. This claim is related to findings from a study focused on the informal culture of undergraudate communication in typical residential university settings. It is argued that the social affordances of electronic mail are not well matched to such established practices of interaction. The effort of design that supports informal disourse might therefore be directed elsewhere. A case is made for investing more effort in creating external, web-based representations of taught courses: these might better resource the various improvised exchanges that serve to construct stronger senses of common knowledge among the members of a residential learning community.



Most of us will be strongly commited to the idea that higher education is grounded in experiences of discursive exchange: that is, various kinds of conversation among students and tutors who congregate around shared disciplinary concerns1. We expect a significant part of this communication to have an intimate format. Sometimes this is arranged as focused person-to-person interaction. But, most of the time (in a stretched education system), students must settle for a more modest level of intimacy - such as might get created in the rather densely-populated teaching arenas of seminars, tutorials or lecture classes. On other occasions, useful communication occurs in the form of serendipitous talk precipitated in corridors and other shared spaces. However, such intimacy as we find seems possible only through the advantage of undergraduates participating in a sustained (often residential) institutional context. Yet the inevitability of the familiar institutional context of universities is now in question. Developments in distributed computing encourage the pursuit of what, at an earlier time, was termed the "de-schooling"2 of education.

It is not our concern here to debate the prospects or desirability of "virtual universities"3 . We shall assume the continuing stability of a higher education system based upon intensive, residential experience. This optimism encourages us to consider how new communications technology might enhance rather than displace traditional social practices within such places. Of course, this is not a novel concern. Already there are published many case studies of innovation driven by this ambition. However, we wish to stress some recent observations of our own concerning computer-mediated communications in a traditional university: deploying these observations to make a particular argument about how to design for interaction within distributed computing environments. Our position is readily summarised. Case study suggests that the most pervasive mode of communication mediated by computers (electronic mail) is not readily appropriated by undergraduate learners. We make sense of this by noticing how the medium has properties that poorly match to established practices of interaction within that community. This invites more careful thought about the problem of designing for such interactions. It invites attention to how existing social practices are reflected in those design features of technologies that suggest or encourage communicating. Elsewhere such design features have been termed "social affordances"4. This links to the principle of "affordance" as used by ecological theorists of perception - where the visible features of an object may be analysed as implying certain actions from observers. Traditionally such theories of perceiving do not consider actions that are interpersonal or social: so here we are extending the notion of affordance to recognise that technologies may be designed with properties that more or less comfortably elicit (or afford) social actions.

This position will be articulated below in the following way. First, we describe findings from three studies of email usage in a conventional undergraduate setting, commenting on students’ spontaneous use of this resource. Then we note some features of informal student-student and student-tutor communication documented in an independent study of one particular undergraduate community. We suggest that the observations reported argue against exaggerated expectations for email. Finally, we strike a more positive note by suggesting other design options for distributed computing resources - options that might be better matched to the prevailing patterns of informal communication.

Using electronic mail in higher education

Of all the communications tools made possible by computer networks, electronic mail (email) is the most familiar and the most far-reaching in its social impact5 . Documents (notably text messages) may be readily sent from one user to another or from a single user to all members in some defined group of users. This ease of communication has had enormous appeal in a wide range of organisational settings. Universities have been among these. Academics commonly use email for coordinating their research, but it is now common in the Untied Kingdom for undergraduates also to have an email account. We argue here that the impact on teaching in higher education is best described as a mixed picture. A comprehensive review of relevant interventions is not possible. Certainly there have been notable successes. The possibility for such easy asynchronous communication has been effectively exploited in distance education6 - where, by definition, students and tutors can not enjoy communication in the traditional intimate forms possible when attending a campus-style institution. However, in the more familiar institutional settings, there are also examples of effective use of email. Thus, it has been mobilised to support the delivery of courses to students following traditional patterns of campus education7 .

Examples that document the possibility of success are welcome and useful. However, it is hard to judge how readily such innovation can be made to work. It is reasonable to suppose that failures in this arena are not often reported. Although there are some telling accounts that dwell on a certain resistance among many of the student users recruited. For example, some researchers8 have described efforts to promote a particular style of using email with undergraduates that has been termed "skywriting"9 . Participants are encouraged to send email to a central address: messares are then posted into an evolving document that may be read by other class members in a hypertext (web browser) format. The result might be described as an electronic seminar: contributions are allowed to cumulate and can be browsed and reacted to by others. In practice, close study of this experience suggested that participation was not entirely comfortable. Only a relatively small number of students strongly engaged with the format. Some reacted in ways implying the format was oppressive - dedicating excessive amounts of their time to crafting carefully reasoned contributions. This seemed driven by a fear of losing face in what may become a very visible archive.

A generous conclusion from much of the literature on email use in course delivery is that it certainly can be very effective. However, the ease with which it is made to work may depend on dedicated tutors investing heavily in creating a structure in which email plays a focused and well-coordinated part. The experiences of skywriting hints that this need not always be a comfortable enterprise - even when it is very carefully orchestrated. Indeed, researchers’ interpretation of that experience8 implies a need to recognise entrenched social psychological factors associated with communication between undergraduate learners: factors arising out of students’ socialisation into firmly established cultural contexts. Our own observations of email use in a university community reinforce this position. We turn to describe them next.

The university hosting our research is a large, well-resourced institution embedded in a small city in the north of England. Departments, residence halls and other public spaces were well equipped with computer access at the time of our observations and students were encouraged to use email, to which they had access through a useable screen-based interface. The first of the observations we wish to refer to concerns students in the department of psychology. This department had taken an early decision (1986) to publicise the advantages of email to students. All staff became regular users and significant parts of departmental teaching administration were supported by this medium. All students were given (compulsory) guidance in how to use it. System logs indicated that, in fact, it was widely and regularly used. However, as documented elsewhere10 that usage was rarely appropriated into informal tutorial or learning contexts. In short, tutors were not overrun (despite their fears) with email from students raising academic questions. Neither was there evidence that students made significant use of the medium to support work-related exchanges with their peers. The possibility of serious student-to-student use was not unreasonable - given that the social structure of the university was more based on residences than on departments; a structure that tends to fragment students away from their disciplinary colleagues.

It might be supposed that these observations of low usage reflect something about the social climate in a particular department. Recently, therefore, we have conducted a second study of spontaneous email use. This was a more cross sectional study in the same university. By postal invitation and by direct approaches to small seminar groupings convened in a variety of departments, we recruited 65 second year students who agreed to archive their incoming and outgoing mail during a 15-day period in the middle of the academic year (February). The letters furnished us 30 students from a wide range of discplines. Those recruited from seminar groups came from sociology, psychology and computer science departments. It was arranged that all participants would be paid a small sum for coming to a computer room at one of a number of times offered. They would categorise the contents of their mailboxes on our behalf. 38 of the total sample turned up for such a session. This is less than we hoped but administrative difficulties narrowed the time frame in which the exercise was possible and we believe that the shortfall in attendance reflects benign practical difficulties rather than a source of serious systematic bias in the final sample. Items of mail that were not to or from members of the local community were excluded; the remainder were each categorised in a number of simple ways. Thus, as originally explained to them, students were not required to reveal the actual content of their mail or the identity of correspondents but their own categorisations gave a useful snapshot of usage patterns.

Here we will focus on only the basic information of identity and purpose. In particular, these students were asked to identify recipients and senders in terms of "other student" or "lecturer". They were also asked to code whether an email concerned academic work, recreation, or social-personal matters. We found that all students had made some use of email during the period in question. While the size of their mailboxes did vary widely, the summary pattern is appropriately described by arithmetic means. Thus, the average number of incoming mail items was 49 and the average outgoing was 18. The discrepancy is explained by significant numbers of email items being sent to them as members of various groups; such messages are usually announcements relevant to some project in which they were participating and which typically did not necessitate a reply. This might often be a work-related matter. Of the total email traffic, 74.5% was to or from other students. Of the incoming and outgoing remainder (i.e., that involving lecturers), on average only 12% was email sent to staff by these students. So the relatively small volume of communication involving staff at all was notably one-sided. Of the traffic that involved mailing other students, only 16% was work related. Moreover, this mail was more incoming than outgoing - suggesting the received work-related mail might largely take the form of student representatives or group work leaders reporting information to the members of various groups that our informants were party to. We conclude that, within this community, email is playing a relatively small part in study-related communication. For the moment, we shall not dwell on this observation as it relates to student-student exchange - except to stress again that the residential structure of this university did tend to disperse students studying the same subject and, thus, it is less appropriate to explain this low use in terms of an over-familiarity with peers on a face-to-face basis.

There is a more to say about the relatively rare occasions on which staff were contacted this way by students. First, it should be declared that we have found no basis for believing that academic staff actively discourage such contact. Then, if there is no stated objection to communication, we might turn to the appropriateness of the email tool in terms of its affordances4 for the study practices of these users. A computer tool might have poor affordances for social processes if it is not ready-to-hand: if, for example, it is not accessible at the moments when users might most urgently feel the need or inspiration to take advantage of it. How might this analysis apply to the circumstances of an undergraduate studying some course of academic study? We might suppose that there are significant moments when such a student might experience uncertainties that could best be dealt with in an immediate manner (the need for a reference, the clarification of a teaching point, the confirmation of some learning expectation etc.) Such moments are likely to occur in the places of concentrated study: perhaps these wiill usually be libraries or study bedrooms. Yet email is unlikely to be ready-to-hand in these circumstances. If it could be arranged to be more firmly integrated with learning activity then - if the usual decoupling was really an obstacle - we might expect more use of the medium for informal enquiries to staff. Our third empirical observation of email use by students attempts to address this issue. It has been reported more fully elsewhere11 and so we shall only summarise the findings here.

Two classes of Psychology students (over 150 students in total) were given access to (web-based) hypertext notes that offered a thorough review of lecture courses: material that was demanding and that was to be examined by traditional closed book examinations. The documents were authored by the lecturers concerned and were made available for a 6-week dedicated period of revising for this (and other) examinations. Questionnaire surveys (and system logs) indicated that these documents were valued and widely used. Embedded in the texts were frequent invitations to launch an email to the tutor concerned. It was advertised that such email enquiries were welcome and viewed as part of the revision support for these courses. Moreover, the HTML script for emailing was designed only to require the student to write their text into one box and their own email address into a second box (for reply purposes). Thus, messages could be launched from any anonymous workstation session and that activity had a comfortable interface. It was understood that replies would arrive in the correspondent’s own emailbox. Again, all these students were regular users of the medium - as explained above. From the students’ viewpoint, we might term this "just-in-time email": potentially it is available at the very moments we might imagine a student could experience the need to raise questions about academic material under study. Indeed emails were sent - but only by a small number of students and all enquiring whether these useful revision materials could be provided on paper (thus subverting the hypertext structure of the initiative). Otherwise, neither of the two lecturers concerned received any content-oriented electronic mail, although both of them (a male and a female academic) were otherwise judged approachable by students.

What can be concluded from the experience of the three exercises we have described? They all concern spontaneous or informal use of the medium: in these examples, email is not explicitly integrated into a larger structure of study activity such as to make it necessary for supporting the smooth running of that activity. There is no compulsory requirement to use the medium; no form of assessment depends upon it. Therefore, our observations of low engagement relate only to a general expectation: that this communication tool might be easily absorbed into existing traditions of unstructured, informal discourse - amplifying an informality that we probably suppose already exists in university communities. In fact, we find a lack of spontaneous use of this medium; even where it is ready-to-hand for learning they are motivated to do, and where they appreciate it is appropriate to make use of email. Perhaps lecturers are happy to discover this user resistance: they may fear the demands arising from uncontrollable volumes of email correspondence. The aim here is not to voice our own disappointment; neither are we writing in the interests of promoting an uninhibited use of email. Rather the point of focusing on the present pattern of observations is to reflect on the general lessons for managing the design of computer-mediated communications in an educational setting. Thus, we turn next to some consideration of these implications - by making a particular interpretation of the resistance that we have described.

Email and the prevailing culture of teaching and learning

As Gaver4 has argued: "new technologies seldom simply support old working practices with additional efficiency or flexibility. Instead they tend to undermine existing practices and to demand new ones. In this disruption, subtleties of existing social behaviors and the affordances upon which they rely become apparent, as do the new affordances for social behavior offered by technology" (p. 112). This analysis suggests that the process of design requires careful attention to established practices within the target community. In the present case of a traditional university, we can appeal to some relevant observations from a parallel study conducted at this same place12. To make the point we wish to develop, it will be adequate to draw only from one small set of observations. These arise from a comprehensive survey of how (second year) students went about revising for examinations in the traditional period of third-term preparation, where limited formal teaching was taking place (the same period mentioned above in the context of the hypertext course materials).

Students responded to a questionnaire survey which concerned how they organised their study activity during this period: where it took place, who (if anyone) else was involved, how others were involved, the resources referred to during study, and so forth. It is perhaps important to stress again that the residential arrangements were largely campus-like at this institution (most students living in study bedroom complexes) and that it is understood that staff are available for informal student consultation during this period of the year. As this is a time of concentrated but unstructured study and as students of any given course will be sharing the same concern, the period creates a sensible focus for questions about the pattern of informal study-related communication within this community. We can comment on this issue in relation interactions among students themselves and interactions between students and staff.

On the question of communication within the peer group, there are two statistics that are relevant here. First, in answer to a question about the utility of "discussions with peers doing the same course". 61% of the sample reported that this was "significant", "very significant" or "central" to their revision study. However, this claim has to be reconciled with the responses to a question about how the actual activity of revision was organised. Most of the time accounted for was in solitary, private study. On average, only 12% of time was spent working in collaboration with other students (moreover, the distribution was noticably skewed by large investments of this kind reported by a rather small group of respondents). The latter observation might suggest that students were not deriving the full advantage of being brought together in a full time, residential community. Out of class, they are not developing their academic interests by exploiting the possibility of organised discourse with their student peers. However, "organised" discourse may capture the important point about this observation. The two statistics above identify different ways in which social interaction with peers may be organised. The first statistic suggests that, in one sense, students are appreciative of the communal setting for study. They do value "discussion with peers doing the same course". However, the second statistic implies that the preferred orientation to peers having similar study agendas may typically be improvised or serendipitous. It arises from the more arbitrary encounters that depend upon joint participation in a circumscribed residential community. It is also a dimension of university life that is probably experienced as motivating and helpful to study. Our reports of revision practices suggest that the conversations that might arise in this spirit tend not to be further formalised by students. Thus, orchestrated occasions for gathering and discussing (or revising) study material remains rather unusual - despite the obvious opportunities available in the various designs for student living.

When we turn from peer exchanges to look at informal discussions between students and staff, we find that they are very rare. Although staff are acknowledged as generally accessible, 80% of respondents reported that "informal talk with tutorial staff" was of "marginal significance" or "not used" in relation to their revision. A simple interpretation of this might be that the pattern of routine social activity does not draw staff into the same social spaces that might facilitate the kind of serendipitous discussion that students can have with each other. A general reluctance to organise or formalise an exchange about some study-related concern mitigates against taking full advantage of the actual availability of these staff in the shared university environment. It might be argued that exam revision is an idiosyncratic study context: it may generate anxieties or pressures that exert their own effect in relation to the pattern we are describing. However, we have collected material at other times of the study year with diaries, sociograms, and focus groups: these tend to reproduce the present picture.

The claim that established practices for communication out of class are largely "informal" (rarely planned or coordinated) should prompt us to consider how the affordances of electronic mail relate to this pattern. The rhetoric surrounding email tends to refer to its informality. However, in practice, this concept may be slippery; its definition may be subtly related to the institutional contexts of using this tool. Certainly "accessibility" (which email certainly has) is not the same as "informality". It is also important to note that email exchanges are not conversational in the senses we normally experience conversation: the asynchronous exchange of discrete messages is not a convincing model of conversational discourse. Accounts provided by students in focus group discussions of email11 suggest a reluctance to mail staff because of a sense of "interrupting" or "disturbing" them. In other words, we may suppose that at least the initiating move in a potential email exchange is experienced as a rather formal communicative device. There are other features of this medium that might distinguish it from those on-the-fly study conversations that students do feel more comfortable with. For example, resistance may be associated with the written format of email messages, or with a tension arising from sending a message to someone who, shortly afterwards, might happen to be in the same room or corridor. We are not equipped to evaluate such interpretations. Here we merely wish to raise the possibility that a resistance to using email for informal academic purposes is potentially to be understood in terms of its status on a dimension of formality-informality. Moreover, that status may be nearer than we commonly suppose to the formal end of some such communicative dimension

As already declared, it is not crucial that the details of this argument serve to make our analysis of email use watertight. Our point is more to illustrate a proper attitude to the general task of designing for communication within distributed computing environments (although, hopefully, the illustration does have some credibility as a particular case). The appropriate design attitude must involve careful consideration of the social affordances of the medium and this must be set against entrenched social practices in the target community - in the interests of designing for relatively seamless continuities. In the final section, we adopt a more positive stance and suggest that the social practices of university communities might invite less investment of energy in mobilising email and more in mobilising another popular resource of distributed computing: the local web page.


Mediating the construction of common knowledge

As suggested above, for many people email seems to resonate with a simple model of communication: packets of information going to and fro among conversants. If educational discourse is conceived in these terms, email may thereby be a seductive tool for teaching innovators. Yet, there are other ways in which communication may be mediated by computers. With email we may say that the communicative interaction is mediated through distributed computing. However, the taxonomy of this mediation goes beyond that relationship: one alternative conception can be described as interaction in relation to10 distributed computing. In this model, the technology furnishes a reference point for the resourcing of communications that take place at times and places distant from the actual technology. This case may be made clearer by reflecting on the central feature of collaborative interactions: an investment in creating shared knowledge between communicators. Our suggestion is merely that distributed computing offers a technology to locate and specify some of the substance resourcing the construction of shared experience by participants in a community setting.

For the case where that community setting concerns education, the theoretical implications of this conception have been well rehearsed elsewhere. Thus Edwards and Mercer13 have illustrated how the teaching enterprise typically is focused on saying and doing things that reinforce learners’ sense of having knowledge held in common with others. Such achievements of mutual understanding then act as a strong platform for them to have further discussions and explorations. Returning to our earlier reference to "virtual universities", we may suppose that the residential, institutional context of universities should offer rich opportunities for creating (and then exploiting) common knowledge. However, the observations mentioned above about communication in the informal culture of these institutions, suggests that opportunities may rarely be fully exploited. A sense of common purpose may be facilitated by the various improvised encounters that a shared living space affords. Although we have illustrated above how this shared space may not offer easy support to more planned and coordinated collaborations.

We are proposing a reaction to this shortfall. Namely, the deployment of distributed computing to make more explicit the curricula and learning structures that undergraduates are relating to. The most straightforward device to this end is the world-wide web page. Displaying course materials as web pages is now less arduous for the developer, and the accessibility of web browers ensures that students would have ready access to such material. On the other hand, simply putting ones lecture notes on the web is a relatively despised activity by most theorists of educational technology - typically it is viewed as exemplifying a lazy approach to the medium, one that fails to realise its interactive potential and encourages mechanical attitudes towards lecture material among students. However, we are suggesting a strategy that goes beyond this form of lecture publishing. We suggest that most teaching courses have a richer texture than that described by a series of lecture notes. A course may involve tutorials, seminars, writing assignments, practical exercises, and reading requirements. It also involves a group of people (a class) with academic histories and motivations. Moreover, those people create disciplinary products, as demanded by some course syllabus. All of these matters can be documented and publicised. In a modest way, the portfolio that results serves to make the invisble more visible: makes the structure, purpose and outcomes of a teaching enterprise more available for reflection and interpretation by the participants.

In short, what we are proposing here is that distributed computing offers (in the form of web pages) a vehicle for resourcing a central need within the community of undergraduate learners: the construction of shared understandings. Such a web-based resource serves as one anchor point for that purpose; it catalyses learners´ informal discussions at other times by more firmly grounding them. The current preoccupation with email as a tool for computer-mediated communication may be unfortunate. We have argued that the mode of exchange supported by that tool is poorly adapted to social practices in the present undergraduate community. So it should be noticed that there are other forms of mediation made possible by computers. Here we have encouraged investment in an opportunity for sharpening the learners’ awareness of participating in a shared academic venture. Equipped with a stronger sense of that common agenda, it may happen that the institutional context is more effectively used for communication - at times and places where computers need not be present as part of the communicative context.




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Some of the research reported here was supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Foundation. The hospitality of at Aarhus University Psychology Department made the writing of this report possible.