Whose line is it anyway?
The instructor's role in course listservs [caps?]

by Lewis, Robert and Russ Hunt

Note: post abstract in "this issue"

ABSTRACT: The authors contend that course listservs can be sites for engaged learning, or for surface thinking, expression of unreflective personal reactions or dutiful, examination-style exposition. The ideal course listserv is similar to improvisational theatre. Three examples of varying roles the instructor can play in shaping the virtual environment are presented, along with some reflections on the instructor as backstage support.

The course listserv has been touted as an effective way to obtain actively engage students participation in learning by students. But as any teacher knows, there are many variants of active learning. Not all lead to deep, authentic engagement with the ideas under study. So, too, with course listservs. As many teachers have discovered, listervs they can host a variety of responses, from be a place for surface thinking to the expression of unreflective personal reactions to the creation of a or dutiful, examination-style exposition. [Is a "dutiful, examination-style exposition supposed to be a negative response?  If yes, then perhaps we should add "formulaic creation of a . . . " or something like that.]

Or, On the other hand, listservs they can draw students into exploration—into a critical examination of their own thinking and toward an appreciation of the unsettling and unresolved issues in the discipline. [I'm not sure what this last clause means.] The role the instructor adopts for participation in the discussion is a critical factor in limiting the discussion to the former [exploration?] or in encouraging movement toward the latter [appreciation of the discipline? These references are vague and confusing. Delete "former" and "latter" and just explain what you mean.]

There is not, as yet, much to guide teachers in the use of course listservs other than their own experience with professional lists of a professional nature. While the purposes of the course listserv are similar to those of the professional one, the context and relationships are sufficiently different to place students in something of a double bind. In establishing a listserv for students, a teacher may be signaling a change in relationship between student and mentor; he may desire to establish a forum in which he participates as a member rather than as an authority figure, or a forum in which he is only an invisible organizer.   But if yet because the new norms expected by the teacher are not explicitly stated, or because if student expectations [of what?] are so strong, the authority and reward power of the mentor may conflict with effectively squash the desired collegial relationship.

Typically students will infer the nature of the relationship based on several variables, including their previous experience with listservs, the manner in which participation is connected to course credit (and marks grades), and the frequency and perceived purpose of teacher participation. Clearly the instructor cannot adopt the same voice or discourse strategies he/she uses for subject matter conversations among with professional peers; equally clearly, the voice and discourse strategies of the that the instructor uses in a face-to-face classroom situation cannot be expected to transfer to this new the listserv context.

Our own experiences structuring listservs have ranged from dyad interaction to collaborative construction of academic resources. Based on these experiences, we offer describe four alternative ways to structure the social interaction rolesthat of editor, prompter, game show host, and producerthat an instructor might adopt on a listserv in order to prompt likelihood that deeply-engaged participation from his/her students will find ways to participate in more deeply engaged ways.

The Editor

In this role, the instructor invites reflections on class activities (or experiences related to class) and mediates the "publication" of these written reflections. The instructor uses student writing to deepen or extend thinking through by underlining student comments or by making explicit some of the theories implicit in student responses. The students control the agenda of the listserv while the instructor sets the agenda of the class.

A module entitled "Language and Culture" [whose module? used where? by whom?] used a variant of the listserv to allow class members to explore their thoughts and experiences. All members were required to reflect via e-mail on their language experiences for the week (which included an assigned contact with a person from a differing culture --this info isn't really relevant, but author may want to keep it) and on the course content.  Students sent their reflections were sent in the form of an e-mail message to the teacher, who read and moved them to a folder. The entire week's writing was then stripped of all but the writer's name [Do you mean that the writing was published anonymously? As this reads, it means that the only thing published is the writer's name.  This doesn't make sense.], changed into a column format with small font, printed, and "published."

In this variant of the listserv, the teacher does not enter the conversation but rather focuses attention on aspects of student comments that are valuable for extend the course objectives. By selecting valuable comments from each writer and highlighting them (boxing, shading, underlining), the instructor reinforces and directs attention to important class concepts. [I changed this sentence from passive to active.] By having With all the week's messages circulated together, students and teacher get an overview of what the group as a whole is exploring and accomplishing.

Instructor assessment of the quality of their student exploration (including divergent thought) is part of the mark for this module. The formative nature of the assessment allows students to see each week what their teacher values in their expression and, of course, what is valued in others' expressions. Though this approach is admittled manipulative, it is actually quite well received by students because they have early and constant feedback concerning their progress. Further, the pooled and hard-copy record of each week is available to all class members even when a computer is not handy.

The Prompter

The role of prompter places the instructor in is a more active one. The example below not only demonstrates the advantage of making the instructor's role explicit, but also explores the possibilities of shifting that role from the instructor to others.

Credit was offered in an education program for a one-hour module [module = course?] entitled "On Becoming a Teacher." [where? when?] The intent was to allow participants to integrate material from disparate sources into a personal view of themselves as teachers—to build a "pedagogic self."  As members of a small, collegially organized teacher education program, the participants knew each other intimately, were in continual face to face interaction, and knew and all their teachers well.

For three years the department chair served as the moderator for the listserv and expected it to function similar to professional listservs. Instead, the results were diluted student participation was negatively affected by the heavy influence of the chair despite his attempts to take a responding, rather than an initiating, role. In 1998 a former student who was teaching at a nearby university was employed to serve as moderator. The department chair remained on the list as a "lurker"; he received all messages but participated rarely and only as a fellow "becoming-teacher."

The change in leadership—and in the perceived position of the leader—revitalized the list. The outside moderator, unknown to all but the chair, was able to offer prompts to the members without some of the baggage that had accompanied similar offerings from the chair. Because the moderator had been a student in the program, he was familiar with most of what the members were experiencing. The participants found the entire experience very satisfying and facilitative of learning; indeed, some of them participated in a presentation of the model at a conference of the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (Lewis et al., 1998). [There's no Lewis entry in the references.  Is this supposed to be Craft? And should the web address be inlcuded here?]

In settings where list participants are in close personal contact, having an outside agent directing and facilitating a listserv discussion can be energizing; it can avoid also minimize the constraints implicit in generated by the perceived power of a teacher's voice.

The Game Show Host

The ideal relationship between class listserv members (and the closest to simulating a listserv for professionals) is one similar to in which members act like a skilled group of comics who are creating an impromptu skit. Each plays off the others, and each sumbits individual ideas that contribute to the group building of the result a cohesive structure built out of individual ideas about the theme. In this scenario, the instructor is analogous to a game show host who sets the parameters, enjoys the interplay, intervenes to redirect action, and cheerleads responses to exemplary action. [What does "cheerleads responses to exemplary action" mean?  Confusing.]

In an eighteenth century literature class [where, when?], the instructor asked everyone to post an "assignment"—a question, provocation, or challenge—with regard to a text that he/she had read. Members of the class then chose a number of such provocations to which they then responded. --reading the text, and responding to the assignment (and to previous responses by others). The instructor was one among other respondents because none of the assignments were "his"; further, he shaped the production of a printed booklet based on edited and shaped versions of the conversations. Because the student writers knew that the conversations had the potential to be retained, edited, and "published" (a circumstance, of course, unilaterally created by the instructor), their participation was significantly deepened and intensified, particularly as they became accustomed to the process. [How does this differ from the editor who selectes responses and "publishes" them?? There's not enough differentiation here, and not enough explanation of the game show host's specific characteristics.]

The three listserv approaches described above share a characteristic which we feel is important in the development of meaningful dialogue: the instructor's voice is constrained by explicitly defined roles. In three different ways, the instructor directs and insists on deep thinking while encouraging unlimited student exploration [participation?].

The Producer

A final role must be considered—one invisible in the discourse present, even if by default, in all listservs structures. The instructor is always the producer, or stage manager of discourse situations of this kind, whether he/she takes a starring role, waits in the wings, or even sits in the audience. Even if entirely invisible in the discourse, the instructor shapes the situation by creating the physical context and the social constraints under which the participants operate. (this may be related to "the Prompter," in that the instructor also creates the role of prompter).

Another role of Moreover, the instructor as "producer" which is not often acknowledged is as the chooses the listserv software and its configuration. The nature of the conversation on an electronically-mediated forum is shaped in important ways by the way in which the the software presentation. s the discourse to individual participants. For example, if an instructor configures the list so that responses must be manually addressed and so that responses go only to the individual posting, then it is much less likely that discussions will involve everyone.  More likely, they will devolve into separate individual conversations and lapse entirely. (For a more extended treatment of these issues, see Hunt, 1998.)

Equally important, and almost equally ignored, is whether the software is set to include the message to which one is responding (or in some way give the writer easy access to the text, and to a way of including it in the message being composed). This has the effect of making it more likely that a topic will continue, and deepen, from one posting to the text.

Even beyond this, selecting entirely different kinds of software to conduct such discussions can have powerful influence on the likelihood, for example, that participants have immediate access to all the relevant previous postings, rather than having to invoke an archive or locate saved messages. Web-based discussion software like HyperNews and Ceilidh can facilitate coherence by making it far easier to "remember" what has already been said, making associative wandering and superficial repetition of ideas less likely.  [This paragraph and the one above it are tangents on software configuration.  The point is that the software choice is important -- we don't need all this info on how software can be used.  I'd favor deleting.  The author's getting off track.]

Finally, as any dramatist knows, the secret of effective dialogue construction is to give the characters some freedom and responsibility—to not dominate them, but make sure that the plot proceeds from and includes them all. And as any producer of improvisational theatre knows as well, you can't often predict what's going to work.   [Need something that explicitly talks about the "instructor" and "students" rathe rthan the "dramatist," "plot," etc.  The ending shouldn't be in metaphor.  And this isn't a conclusion!  Need a summary.]

References [don't have time to edit -- class starts 5 minutes]

Craft, K. et al. (1998, April). The listserv as integrative vehicle, Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Annual Meeting, Sackville, New Brunswick. (http://www.mta.ca/stlhe98/sessions/sess-2.html)

Hunt, R. A. (1998). "Electronic Discussions in Learning and Teaching: Why They Don't Work, and How They Might." Connexions: Newsletter of the International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives 10 (2) 1-7. (http://www.stthomasu.ca/~hunt/connexns.htm)