14 June 2015

Transforming Talk in the 21st Century

Does this have to Facebook? No. Does it have to be asynchronous and social?Yes.

Many skills are touted as '21st century' in nature, but the reality is that many, if not most of all them, are little more than refinements of abilities that are arguably more human than reflective of any particular era in history.

That said, there is at least one skill which strikes me an unique, maybe not unique to the 21st Century as it has been in existence since at least the late 90s, but it is unique, it is digital, and it is easily one of the most powerful, transformational applications of digital technology I have encountered, what is it? It's the ability for groups of people to interact, and interthink, online, or to frame this in the words of the title of a thesis that is a little more academic:

The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue

The above title is taken from a 362 page thesis written by a doctoral student called Rebecca Ferguson (Ferguson, 2009) that I have recently finished reading, and that is the inspiration for this post. This is not a post about the actual pedagogical practice of using this medium for learning, that is the subject of another post here. This post focuses on the big picture, the WHY medium is not only unique but actually essential, critical, pivotal, and in my experience, one of the most genuinely transformative applications of ICT that I have ever encountered.

All quotations that follow, unless specifically cited otherwise are taken from Ferguson's thesis (ibid). The original thesis is available online, here, all other works cited can be referenced from Ferguson's thesis.

What follows is a summary of the thesis, curated through the lens of the way this looks in a TELE (technology enhanced learning environment), like those that reflect UWCSEA since at least 2010.

Critical to this entire context is the uniqueness of this medium, it is essentially unlike any form of human communication that has ever preceded it, in that "asynchronous exchanges are enriched by the use of textual affordances that are not available in speech." (p4) These online asynchronous environments are ubiquitous, mainly thanks to the unprecedented rise in society of social networks, (and to a large extent email, another asynchronous social medium, albeit not as ) that are in their very essence 'fora', online communities where text based dialogue, often enriched by image and video are commonplace, and yet, despite it's profound presence in society as a whole, it is very rarely leveraged as tool to enhance learning, even within TELEs.

This post is in many ways a pleas to change that, in classrooms of the 21st century, asynchronous dialogue should be the norm, in every subject, every day, just like it is in the lives of arguable most students and teachers.

--- Page 18 ---

In the first five years of this century, the number of Internet users in the UK almost doubled, rising to 37.8 million in 2005 (CIA, 2001, 2006). For the first time, the majority of the population was able to interact, and to learn together, in virtual settings (Dutton, di Gennaro, & Millwood Hargrave, 2005). As a result, some learners and teachers who have spent years developing the skills necessary to communicate, work and build knowledge together in face-to-face settings face the challenge of adapting those skills for use in an asynchronous, textual environment.

What is asynchronous dialogue?

'Asynchronous dialogue' describes the ways in which online learners construct knowledge together in both the short and the long term without [necessarily] being co-present at the same time or in the same place."

--- Page 21 ---

Asynchronous dialogue is defined here as a sustained discussion, involving two or more people whose contributions are not expected to be produced in temporal proximity, in which language is one of the elements used to convey meaning.

--- Page 23 ---

Users of asynchronous forms of dialogue such as email and online fora make use of various structures and patterns, referred to here as discursive devices, within their communication in order to increase both coherence and comprehension.

--- Page 32 ---

Learning is fundamentally social in nature, even when individuals are separated by time and space

--- Page 35 ---

Vygotsky regarded language as the most powerful of these mediating tools and as the primary tool for thinking

--- Page 42 ---

Different media bring different resources to, and also impose constraints. Relevant factors include copresence (the ability to see the same things), cotemporality (the ability to access messages as soon as they are sent), simultaneity (whether participants can communicate at the same time or must take turns) and sequentiality (the possibility of turns being accessed out of sequence) (Baker, et al., 1999).
In an educational context, an important form of language is dialogue: a sustained discussion, carried out through speech or online, in which language is used to convey meaning. Participants in an effective dialogue are both contributors and active listeners (Moore, 1993). Through dialogue, they share knowledge and jointly construct understandings of shared experience that support learning (Crook, 1994)

--- Page 43 ---

One of the earliest recorded forms of educational dialogue is the dialectic employed by Socrates (470-399 BCE) and therefore described as ‘the Socratic method'. This was originally an open-ended dialogue, which was gradually formalised, eventually being codified by Hegel (1770-1831) as a form of logic that proceeds from thesis to antithesis and thence, eventually, to synthesis. In educational settings, dialectic is employed when people need to combine their knowledge by sharing, comparing and combining contrasting views ...

--- Page 44 ---

In schools, dialogic has been used to emphasise collaborative group work and the uptake of children's ideas, to encourage pupils to recreate accounts in their own words and to emphasise a collective, reciprocal and cumulative approach to learning (Skidmore, 2006).

Less IRF, more IDRF

Less Initiation, Response and Follow-up (IRF) [Also IRE, Initiation, Response, Evaluation] exchanges and more Initiation – Dialogue – Response – Feedback (IDRF) (Wegerif & Mercer, 1996) does not focus on the teacher's input but incorporates dialogue between students, allowing learners a more active role and supporting them in working together. (p45)

--- Page 46 ---

[asynchronous discussions help] students to participate in collaborative and critical argumentation, rather than being too embarrassed to criticise others or to state their opinions directly. Other studies drew attention to students overcoming emotional barriers such as shyness, discomfort or a lack of confidence (Ravenscroft, 2007).

--- Page 47 ---

These forms of communication may be synchronous or non-synchronous, or they may offer both possibilities; they may be text-based, audio-based or graphics-based; they may be used for group communication, for two-way discussion or for personal reflection

--- Page 48 ---

Until recently, it was rarely necessary to distinguish between physical and virtual settings and so the dictionary definitions of many English words take a physical setting for granted. The words ‘talk' and ‘dialogue', with their assumptions of synchronicity and co-presence, both make an uneasy transition to an online setting. [...] there are major differences between oral and written modes of expression

--- Page 52 ---

It is an important tool that teachers and learners employ in a variety of ways: to build social relationships, to mediate collaboration, to construct online learning environments, to supplement face-to-face interaction and to support distance learners who are working individually.

Asynchronous dialogue: distinct from writing and speech

Asynchronous dialogue should be considered as a new form of communication, rather than as a variant form of speech or writing.

--- Page 54 ---

Asynchronous dialogue, being a new language tool, has the potential to produce far-reaching changes. It is a complex blend of inner, oral and written speech, and Mercer's view (2000) is that its combination of characteristics of speech and writing makes it a welcome and valuable addition to the toolbox of language. Although it has some characteristics of both talk and writing, its chronology and its use of layout and typography mean that it has emergent properties that belong to neither. These emergent properties are not the same as those of synchronous online dialogue, which is characterised by immediacy and fast responses (O'Connor & Madge, 2001).

Five techniques

--- Page 58 ---

Build the future on the foundations of the past by eliciting knowledge from learners, responding to what learners say and describing significant aspects of shared experience:

• Literal recap: Recounting past events.

• Reconstructive recap: Aligning accounts of the past with current pedagogic concerns.

• Elicitation: Prompting the recall of relevant information.

• Repetition: Repeating responses in an evaluative fashion

• Reformulation: Presenting responses in a clearer form.

• Exhortation: Asking others to recall relevant past experiences.

Affordances of asynchronous dialogue

--- Page 63 ---

Asynchronous dialogue is distinct from other forms of communication not only because of its textual nature but also because of its unique chronology.

--- Page 69 ---

Researchers studying online learning have identified a variety of relevant affordances of asynchronous dialogue. These can be broadly classified in three groups: affordances of the technology, affordances of the medium and affordances of the dialogue.

--- Page 70 ---

Asynchronous dialogue appears to provides the classic components of cooperation and collaboration – discussion, dialogue and community – without the traditional constraints of time and place.

Martini affordances' of the technology – any time, any place, anywhere

--- Page 71 ---

Learners and educators may use a variety of technologies to encounter each other face to face or online

[Unlike face to face dialogue, online there is always a transcript of the dialogue] that can be consulted, edited and reworked

The dialogue can contain hyperlinks to other resources and dialogue, and may also have documents, pictures, sound files or videos attached to it.

Other affordances of the medium include the ability to link messages through threading

The time commitment is minimal as all of these forums use conventions that are common across online working spaces [ubiquitous in social media].

Students' asynchronous dialogue

--- Page 72 ---

Analysis of students' asynchronous dialogue (Blanchette, 2001) demonstrated that having time to consult sources and check references meant they were able to provide each other with very accurate information. Blanchette also observed that the learners in her study were more likely to ask questions, ask for clarification and seek feedback than those studied in a face-to-face environment.

When learners have time to deliberate, their responses are more likely to be focused and purposeful

--- Page 74 ---

Cooperation versus collaboration

Co-operation is a goal-centred activity (Panitz, 1996) in which different things are done by different actors in order to achieve their goal (Van Oers & Hännikäinen, 2001). It involves splitting work, solving sub-tasks individually and then assembling the partial results to produce a final output. Because the majority of the work is done individually, this way of working makes limited use of the affordances of asynchronous dialogue.

Collaboration, on the other hand, involves partners carrying out work together (Dillenbourg, 1999). It is a co-ordinated activity, the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem (Lipponen, 2002); an interaction in which participants are focused on co-ordinating shared meaning (Crook, 1999). It requires more than the effective division of labour that constitutes cooperative work. Participants must negotiate mutually shared or common knowledge in order to work together to solve a problem or perform a task together (Littleton & Häkkinen, 1999).

If learners are to make effective use of these affordances to support the co-construction of knowledge, they need appropriate skills and resources to engage effectively in online educational dialogue but may lack these if they have limited experience of online learning (Kreijns, et al., 2003). The importance of learning how to interact should not be underestimated.

Sticking to the point 

--- Page 83 ---

In face-to-face situations, learners modify their talk over time in relation to their context and their understanding of what they are doing. Because they use speech, which is ‘not simply perishable but essentially evanescent' (Ong, 1982, p32) they face the double challenge of pursuing a line of thought systematically and then preserving their understanding of what has been achieved. They employ discursive devices to overcome these challenges, shaping transient speech into shared knowledge (Mercer, 2000).

Discursive: of speech or writing, Tending to digress from the main point; rambling.

In an asynchronous setting, learners do not need to employ these devices [chit chat] to help them to remember what they have said or done, because they have access to the complete text of their past dialogue in the transcript automatically generated by the software (Kaye, 1989).

--- Page 85 ---

Argumentation, for example, can be described as ‘a reasoned debate between people, an extended conversation focusing on a specific theme which aims to establish “the truth” about some contentious issue' (Mercer, 2000, p96) and is thus task focused. Collaborative reasoning, which includes challenges, evidence and evaluation, is specifically a taught approach (Anderson, Chinn, Waggoner, & Nguyen, 1998). ‘Effective discourse' is also teacher led, being dependent on the educator to create a situation in which participants can ‘advance beliefs, challenge, defend, explain, assess evidence and judge arguments (Mezirow, 1997, p10). Accountable talk is similar, including elements such as listening, clarification, extension and elaboration (Michaels, et al., 2008; Resnick & Helquist, 1999)

Kinds of talk... 

--- Page 86 ---

Disputational, cumulative and exploratory talk in the classroom have the advantage that they not only deal with the productive interaction that helps the group to extend its understanding and to achieve its goals, but they also deal with the unproductive interaction that makes a group less likely to achieve its goals

These social modes of thinking are therefore referred to as cumulative, disputational and exploratory dialogue, rather than talk, because their characteristic elements can be observed both online and offline.

--- Page 87 ---

Disputation should not be confused with argumentation, in which conflicting views are presented, sometimes forcefully, but the intention is to reach a resolution

Cumulative dialogue is much more constructive. In cumulative exchanges control is shared. Speakers build on each other's contributions, adding their own information and constructing a body of shared knowledge and understanding, but they do not challenge or criticise each other's views.

--- Page 88 ---

Exploratory dialogue is the type considered most educationally desirable by teachers (Wegerif, 2008b). Learners who engage in exploratory dialogue constantly negotiate control, engaging with each other's ideas both critically and constructively

Exploratory talk, by incorporating both conflicting perspectives and the open sharing of ideas, represents the more visible pursuit of rational consensus through conversations. It is a speech situation in which everyone is free to express their views and in which the most reasonable views gain acceptance.

--- Page 89 ---

They are working to develop ‘a new understanding that everyone involved agrees is superior to their own previous understanding.

Conflict between learners is not necessarily unproductive because the challenges and counter-challenges of socio-cognitive conflict are important for the development of knowledge. Exploratory dialogue is likely to involve the confrontation of different approaches in socio-cognitive conflict. Such conflict may result in different views being coordinated to form a new approach, more complex and better adapted to solving the problem (Doise, 1985). In such cases, conflict and difference between individuals are brought into productive play to support learning

Improvable objects [Ongoingatives]

--- Page 93 ---

The improvable object is an analytical construct that was developed to help explain how learners are able to develop ideas over time. It is associated with the use of ‘progressive discourse'

Progressive discourse is associated with the sustained development of improvable objects over time (Wells, 1999). They also need to be able to identify, augment and maintain common ground as their work progresses (Baker, et al., 1999) and improvable objects offer a way of achieving this.

Resources available to groups can be characterised as improvable objects if they meet certain criteria (Wells, 1999). They must be knowledge artefacts that participants work collaboratively to improve because they involve a problem that requires discussion. They must act as a focus for the application of information and experience by the group. Unlike many assessed assignments, an improvable object must provide a means to an end, rather than being an end in itself. Finally, an improvable object must be both the inspiration and the focus for progressive discourse.

The key elements of improvable objects – a problem that provides as a means to an end, inspires progressive discourse and acts as a focus for the application of experience and information – can therefore all be assembled in asynchronous settings to support the shared construction of knowledge.

Improvable objects are dynamic representations of a changing situation.

Improvable objects are more akin to the rough drafts that Vygotsky (1987b) described as a powerful means of reflecting on work. Not only do they support the development of understanding by groups of learners, but they are also developed as part of that progress. They are a means of sharing and building ideas over time; sites not only for the display and comparison of different understandings but also for their manipulation and development.

Learning is fundamentally social in nature, and that knowledge is not a static entity, but is co-constructed by learners with the help of meaning-making tools.

--- Page 242 ---

Postings that are taken up, quoted and re-quoted, commented on and reposted come particularly close to being improvable objects.

--- Page 267 ---

The text-based nature of dialogue supports collation of work and also the direct and detailed comparison of different understandings.

--- Page 300 ---

An important role of the tutor is therefore as a discourse guide (Littleton & Whitelock, 2004) who, by modelling skills and behaviours, can help students to develop appropriate ways of talking, writing and thinking in an asynchronous group environment. Wertsch speculates that the skills called for by online environments will ‘have a major impact on how we define success, intelligence, and other aspects of human functioning in the years ahead' (Wertsch, 2003, p903). If such skills are not identified, modelled, or explicitly taught, learners will find it difficult to make effective use of them.

--- Page 304 ---

Improvable objects allow learners to regain an important element of online study: time independence. Online learning is commonly assumed to allow students freedom to choose when they work.

--- Page 317 ---

Asynchronous dialogue can be far more detailed and complex than face-to-face talk, that to groups of learners offers affordances that are not available in face-to-face situations. [...] 

... prompting groups of learners to share knowledge, challenge ideas, justify opinions, evaluate evidence and consider options in a reasoned and equitable way. 

... increasing understanding of the skills and meaning-making tools that support the shared construction of knowledge.


Ferguson, Rebecca (2009). The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue. PhD thesis, The Open University.