Creating Communities on the Internet: Electronic Discussion Lists in the Classroom

By Bender, Robert M. | Computers in Libraries, May 1995 | Go to article overview

Creating Communities on the Internet: Electronic Discussion Lists in the Classroom


Bender, Robert M., Computers in Libraries


The following case study offers insight into the process, pitfalls, and advantages of utilizing the Internet to form a communication community that can be replicated by any organization. In addition to fostering interpersonal communications within a defined group, electronic formats can facilitate virtual meetings, distribution of an organization's newsletters, and discussion toward establishing consensus, for example. In this case study, it was found that not only the process of "speaking" at the keyboard, but also allowing communication to take place without the normal restraint of time and place for group meetings, resulted in a freer exchange of ideas and greater learning, understanding, tolerance, and creativity. Any organization can benefit from that.

Computers have altered our lives in ways we have hardly begun to understand. In schools and colleges, the pervasiveness of word processing is astonishing. Ten years ago, few of us could have anticipated the effect this revolution would have on the way we write. I cannot remember the last time a student asked if essays had to be "typewritten" before submission. I am not alone in thinking that the shift to electronic communication is proceeding at breakneck speed, far faster than any of us imagined possible. In the Preface to The Electronic Word, Richard Lanham succinctly indicates some of the implications of this new means of communication:

Electronic text creates not only a new writing space but a new educational space as well. Not only the humanities curriculum, but school and university structures, administrative and physical, are affected at every point, as of course is the whole cultural repository and information system we call a library. In the university world, it is disciplinarity and its departmental shadow that will be most transformed.(1)

My experience using electronic lists for Internet communication in a variety of courses has convinced me that the potential for bringing students together into genuine discourse with each other has never been greater. There also is a potential for creating a sense of community on the Internet, and in the classroom, that can make us all more active learners. What follows serves as an illustration of some of the ways electronic communication can be used to enhance and extend the classroom experience.

Integrating Internet Communication into the Class Format

Interdisciplinary Studies 290, an upper level class in modern drama and the course used here to illustrate how electronic communication can enhance the classroom experience, was a Senior Seminar designed as a vehicle in which students complete a required capstone project. In addition to working on their capstone projects, the students were to focus discussion on gender studies and to keep a journal in which they recorded observations about gender differences. While the course was a success, the usual difficulties with the journals were encountered.

Journal writing is a useful tool for a great many courses in which students do a substantial amount of writing because it provides an unstructured space where students can record their "thoughts," do pre-writing, and explore topics of interest without having to pay attention to rules of grammar, spelling, and all those "things" they claim impede their "free expression." In courses designed to empower students, journals can also be useful for consciousness raising. One obstacle, however, is that many students consider journals "private space" and are reluctant to share their thoughts with others. In this course, the discussion list was used by the students as a way to keep a collective "electronic" journal. Even in a small class--just 15 students--there are always students who are reluctant to speak. Given the opportunity to "speak" at a keyboard, many found a voice in this class.

I set up my first class discussion list nearly two years ago using LISTSERV--a software program originally written for the BITNET Network Information Center and later revised by Eric Thomas of the Ecole Centrale de Paris--which provides for the distribution of e-mail to varying sized groups of "subscribers. …

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