WikiEdProfessional eLearning Guidebook/Assessment, feedback, and e-moderation/Moderating online learning/Computer conferencing: one-to-many communication

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Computer conferencing: one-to-many communication

Computer conferencing combines the functionality of electronic mail and electronic bulletin or message boards. Messages sent to a computer conference are stored in a central location rather than being distributed to individual e-mail boxes such as in a mailing list. Just as in face-to-face conference settings where participants have to move to particular rooms to hear particular speakers, participants in a computer conference are required to actively access the emails in computer conferences which will be waiting for action in that conference. Once they are logged into the conference, participants can read a response and act on it. This is asynchronous communication because a participant can respond to a message or contribute to a discussion at anytime and from any place. The messages sent to the conference are stored on the host computer from where a participant can read it, reply to it, or start a new thread (see Velayao, 1994).

Attributes of good conferencing systems

David Woolley (1996) suggested that no one computer mediated conferencing system has the potential to meet all the needs of someone. Having said that, he has put forth a number of attributes of good computer mediated conferencing systems. These are briefly reviewed in the following. For a fuller discussion of these attributes see

Separate conferences for broad topics

Most conferencing systems will afford this feature. Whether the discussion areas are called conferences, forums, or newsgroups, they provide a basic level of organization. Different conferences enable a focus on different subjects or topics, and allow you to establish small discrete groups or communities who are enthusiastic about particular topics. These communities can grow to cement their interests and relationships beyond the formal educational settings.

Threaded discussions within conferences

Most conferencing software also enable posting of messages in response to other messages such that a line of responses can be traced back to the original comment. This is called “threading” and it takes the form of a hierarchical structure, in which the topic is the starting point for a series of responses that follow. Most conferencing systems offer this capability for up to two to three responses to an original thought. Threads can get lost after that which is why it is very important to impress upon participants to keep their comments focused on the topic and to start a new thread when necessary.

Informative topic list

A conference participant should be able to easily see the list of the topics in a conference and the questions or issues that need a response. At the minimum, the list of topics in a conference should show each topic’s title and some indication of the amount of activity in the topic: the number of responses, date of the last response, or both. The topics should be able to be sorted in some form. Participants should always be able to go back to the beginning of a topic and follow it through to the most recent response.

Support for both frequent readers and casual browsers

A computer conference should support both, frequent reading and casual browsing. Those who wish to browse should be able to choose a conference manually and scroll through the list of topics, moving backward or forward sequentially through topics, and returning to the topic list. A frequent reader, on the other hand, should be able to move through a list of conferences, skipping topic lists entirely and getting immediately to the new, unread messages. Moreover, readers should be able to search messages by date, author, or keyword.

Access control

Publicly accessible conferences will require different types of access and control than those within the context of a formal online course. In a publicly accessible conference, a conference host or moderator will need control over who can access the conference and what level of access is allowed to participants. For example, it might be necessary to give some participants read and write permission, and others read only access. The situation in a conference within a formal course would be different as every participant there will be required to have read and write access. Moreover, the host of a conference should have good tools for managing a conference discussion, such as tools for weeding out obsolete topics, archiving those that are worth saving but no longer active, and moving a divergent thread of a topic to a new topic of its own.