Facilitating Convergence in Asynchronous Conferencing Environments

Jim Hewitt
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto



The educational advantages of asynchronous, computer-mediated conferencing are well-documented. Increased group interaction, more equitable communication patterns, higher degrees of reflection, and time-and-place-independent discussions are among the benefits cited by Harasim (1990), Eastmond (1992) and Hiltz (1986). This paper focuses on one of the limitations of the medium: the lack of support for convergent thinking processes (Eastmond, 1994). Online environments support electronic conversations that expand and branch, but provide few supports for drawing together discourse in meaningful ways. This has a negative effect, both on the learner's efforts to synthesize ideas, and on class' collaborative processes which become increasingly fragmented as discussion threads (and individual interests) diverge.

Over the years, a number of strategies have been devised to address this problem. One simple technique is to integrate computer interaction with face-to-face meetings. Other solutions include the use of moderators, whiteboards, videoconferencing, audioconferencing, voting mechanisms, and real-time electronic "talk" environments. None of these strategies directly facilitate convergent processes, but they do provide indirect support by centralizing decision-making responsibilities (e.g., moderators, voting) or by permitting the real-time exchange of ideas (e.g., person-to-person meetings, whiteboards, videoconferencing, electronic talk). This paper suggests a different approach. It explores ways of directly addressing the problem through new supports to conferencing software. First, enhancements are needed to facilitate idea linking and connectivity. And second, collaborative group processes need to become more visible. Specifically, a set of tools are required that permit individuals to better monitor communal knowledge-building activity and their own participation in that activity.

These tools should answer questions like:

Effective convergence within a distance education community involves bringing together ideas in ways that intellectually lift the entire group. To accomplish this, learners must be able to monitor both the directions that others are taking, and the ways in which mutual interests overlap. Computer conferencing environments need to provide explicit supports for these processes. Some of our more recent enhancements to a conferencing package called WebCSILE are presented to illustrate the design implications.

Eastmond, D. V. (1994). Adult distance study through computer conferencing. Distance Education, 15(1), 129-152.

Eastmond, D. V. (1992). Effective facilitation of computer conferencing. Continuing Higher Education Review, 56(1), 23-34.

Harasim, L. M. (1990). Online Education: An environment for collaboration and intellectual amplification. In Harasim, L. (ed.) Online Education: Perspectives on a New Environment. (pp. 39-64). New York: Praeger Publishers.

Hiltz, S. R. (1986). The `virtual classroom'. Using computer-mediated communication for university teaching. Journal of Communication 36, 2, 96-104.

Jim Hewitt
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(416) 923-6641 x2483
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©,1997. The author, Jim Hewitt, assigns to the University of New Brunswick and other educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive license to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive license to the University of New Brunswick to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the conference papers, and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.