Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Developing tools to foster online educational dialogue

Martin Dougiamas
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
In the past five years since the Web brought focus to the Internet, educators wishing to use the obvious advantages of it for teaching and learning (widespread, standards-based, relatively cheap, instantaneous) have tended to focus on two aspects - delivering "content" (such as reading materials, assignments, examples, and simulations) and providing "communication" (such as bulletin boards, chat and MUDs).

In this paper I try to present a different perspective, based on developing new tools for teachers and learners to enable richer forms of dialogue combining content and communication through which teaching and learning can occur. The tools allow both teacher and learner to construct environments in their computer within which they can construct representations of their understandings of the subject and share them with others in a variety of ways. Tools are based on web-enabled databases, and I emphasise keeping things simple to maximise their potential use.

This is part of research in progress, and I am seeking feedback from the teaching community in order to continue developing and realising tools based on this framework.


As a student, teacher, researcher and supporter of Internet media for education, based at Curtin University of Technology, I have had the opportunity to see the use of new technologies in education from a variety of perspectives. From this have emerged a number of problematic areas.

I see people learning about the Internet, and today's tools, and attempting to convert their existing courses to these "new" paradigms. Initially, the prospect of distributing handouts electronically is appealing, then the idea of purpose-built web pages takes hold and later the communication possibilities of email, bulletin boards and perhaps synchronous chat and video are added.

I see people struggling to use existing tools to construct Internet-based media, such as web editors and office software. Often, they give up doing it themselves, and apply for large government grants to hire professional web designers to construct online course web sites. Once the grant runs out, however, development of the web site stops or slows to a maintenance level. Courses are relatively static, and slowly die, rather than being dynamic environments with emergent properties (eg Brown, 1998). The web is littered with hard-coded courses produced this way that can rapidly become less useful than the textbooks, lectures and academic resources they are based on.

I see early adopters leaping into these new technologies only to be discouraged by the lack of student participation, or the amount of time to develop, maintain or support an online course to give it life. Without expertise and tools, the investment of time and money required to produce successful courses is still quite high, both before and during the course. In these times of economic rationalism, a growing number of voices are cautioning against blind acceptance of the "cool" new technologies, and urge careful evaluation of the educational needs in any particular situation before applying technology (eg Fox, 1998)

However, a problem apparent to me is that thinking about educational processes is inevitably constrained by knowledge of the technologies used to implement them. The metaphors used in most Internet courses are those of traditional paper-based methods of communication, such as "pages", "bulletin boards" and "mail". They don't convey the possibilities of dynamic databases of information, or the amount of work that computers could do to organise and process that information for us, freeing us up to concentrate on communicating knowledge to each other.

In my view we need to develop the technologies more, not back away from them. Technologies are a moving target - they reflect what we want to do with them. The often-specialised developments in computer science and information systems can have wider applications than originally intended. These applications can be guided by referents of meaning making such as constructivism (Dougiamas, 1998) to help us focus on what we are really trying to do with education. I feel there is unrealised potential for increasing the tool sets available to teacher and learner to increase the flexibility of their interactions and favour the advantages of Internet-based education while minimising the problems.

This paper outlines an aspect of my early work in this context as an attempt to construct a framework for the activities of teaching using the Internet as a medium that allows and fosters a breadth of teaching styles, and is liberating rather than constricting. I hope to simplify the processes involved, and increase the contact between teachers and learners in order to encourage meaningful communication. In particular I will focus on the construction of representations of knowledge, both teacher and student. More work is needed yet, and I am looking to stimulate discussion among educational researchers in order to develop this framework in a practical way.

Anatomy of today's Internet-based courses

In general, most Internet-based University courses I have seen are created from the following tools (although very few courses use them even to this extent):

Email For sending personal messages between students and lecturer, and between students.
For submission of assignments and the return of marks.
Web browsers For accessing the course web site
For accessing Internet resources
Web site To provide course resources (text, graphics, maybe audio, video)
To create quizzes to collect assessment
To create self-tests
To provide bulletin board, perhaps with threading
To facilitate surveys, tracking and other feedback
Word processor Constructing assignments
Constructing course resources

To create a web site, many of the tools are provided by higher-level software packages such as WebCT, First Class, and Lotus Learning Space, and some attention has focussed on those as defining an "online course". However, creating an online course involves choosing some tools over others, and implementing them as part of processes in a context determined by the teacher, the subject matter, and the social, cultural and political environment of the institution.

'Coarse-grained" construction

One of the most important parts of conducting a course online is the construction and sharing of "evidence of knowledge", both by the teacher and the students. There is some evidence that the very process of construction is an important tool in learning (eg Gergen, 1995).

In any course, teachers construct materials for students to use, such as lectures, readings, quizzes, exams and so on, in order to help students build their knowledge by reading and reacting to the materials. In the process the teacher often learns something themselves about their subject. To be assessed, students must also construct some evidence of their learning, whether it be an essay, a program, email or answers to exam questions. The students construct these assessable items in reaction to the constructions of the teacher and other students (in activities and forums).

Since many Internet-based courses have very little personal contact (as indeed for many non-Internet-based University courses!) assessment can completely rely on these constructions to provide evidence of student learning. However, many Internet courses follow the patterns set by traditional lecture-based courses of a very small number of large assessable items, worth between 20% and 100% of the entire mark for the unit. I suspect this is largely to reduce teaching load rather than any particular educational benefit. I call this a "coarse-grained" approach to course communication.

Students can be basically left on their own for most of the semester, since they are not required to "attend" throughout the course. Teachers (and students!) may have little idea of how most students are progressing until the first assessment. The student may hand in their one big assessment and find they've failed the unit!

To combat problems such as this, more courses are starting to put emphasis on assessment of the discussion areas. This definitely helps reduce the "coarseness", but the inflexible format of a typical threaded web-based bulletin board can make it difficult to assess the contributions of every individual student qualitatively (and sometimes even quantitatively), particularly for large classes.

A fine-grained approach to construction

My proposal is for the creation of new types of educational tool to facilitate constructions of knowledge evidence, while encouraging a "fine-grained" interaction between the participants of a course.

At the core of this tool is an object database, to store many 'fragments' of text and images in a presentation-independent manner. 'Surrounding' the database are interfaces for :

These interfaces themselves will be constructions, customised by individuals. They may utilise the web, or they may connect to other tools such as email, palm computers, telephones and so on. The result is a flexible and growing personal collection of reusable information.

Although there are potentially many uses for such a tool, one possible application would be to create online courses. Here is an illustration of such an application:

Imagine the database contained hundreds of jottings, musings, ideas and explanations of concepts gathered over a significant time by the teacher. These are combined, edited, and linked to form a set of course materials (in many ways this is analogous to how modern web site editors work), with the content remaining in the database. The content can then be published directly from the database as a secure web site.

Inserted liberally throughout these materials are "forms" - open spaces where the student can enter information. Perhaps these would be for short reflective passages of text on the preceding text, or perhaps they would be short exercises or test questions based on the content at that point in the course. For the teacher, inserting these forms would be simply a matter of specifying the location and type of the form, rather than the complicated process it would be using an ordinary web site. All fragments the student enters in these forms goes in the database, is owned by the student, and most importantly, appears to remain part of that page of content whenever they return to it in future.

At any time, both the teacher and student can access all these student fragments, and they provide valuable information that can be reused in a number of ways. For the student, the entries as a whole represent a personal "journal" of their experiences throughout the course, and can be used later in constructing representations of their knowledge (such as an essay) in much the same way as the teacher constructed the original course materials. For the teacher, the entries can be used to check on the progress of a particular student, or combined across a whole class so they can analyse the reactions of a class to any particular concept. This may cause the teacher to update the content, contact individual students, or raise the issue as a topic of discussion in an online forum.

Needless to say, the online forum is part of the same database, and messages posted there are included as part of the records for each participant. Automatic tagging by context means links can be automatically generated between the course content, feedback and the discussions.

The final component is the attachment of assessment to individual records. I'm sure there are ways to attach marks in a fair way to individual entries so that least part of the total course mark is automatically calculated by the database for each student, but it's a topic needing much further research on my part. It might even be necessary: as Ron Oliver of Edith Cowan remarked during a seminar at Curtin University of Technology in October, 1998, "Students won't do anything unless they get marks for it.". At the very least a database can help manage marks.

In this way a cross-linked database of "knowledge" is co-constructed by the class as an ongoing process, facilitated by the teacher and supported by students. The teacher has the ability to check and intervene on individuals early if they appear to be having trouble, while students who are doing well can work at their own pace.


To me this appears to be a viable framework for further development of tools to conduct new types of online courses that would be much easier to put together and maintain than current methods of producing an online course of similar quality. However, it will require more research in real-world scenarios to help define the detail of the interfaces.


Brown, A. (1998). Wise design for WWW courses. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 44-48. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf98/brown.html

Dougiamas, M. (1998). A Journey into Constructivism. http://dougiamas.com/writing/constructivism.html

Fox, R. (1998). What are the shortcomings inherent in the non-problematic perception of new technologies? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 96-101. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf98/fox.html

Gergen, K.J. (1995). Social Construction and the Educational Process. In L.P. Steffe & J.Gale (Eds), Constructivism in education, (pp 17-39). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Please cite as: Dougiamas, M. (1999). Developing tools to foster online educational dialogue. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 119-123. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/dougiamas.html

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