Computer conferencing

You may find that your tutor uses computer conferencing as a way of encouraging you and fellow students to work together in groups. This is particularly likely if you are studying at a distance, and do not have the opportunity to meet your fellow students face to face. However, increasingly tutors are also using computer conferencing in face-to-face institutions. It is often set up so that students can work together on a joint project or activity.

Computer conferencing is similar to email but has some added advantages. Once you are placed in a particular group, all the messages you send in that group go to all the members. You always go to the same 'virtual' place to talk to your group, and you will find a record of your discussions in this special space, which is like an electronic seminar group. Computer conferencing systems normally use some kind of 'threading', so that messages on the same topic and with the same message heading will be grouped together. This makes it easy to follow a topic discussion. Depending upon the system in use in your department you may be able to add to your messages hotlinks to web addresses. It is also easy to attach files to your messages so that you can send written or visual texts to everybody who is working on the same activity.

Computer conferencing usually takes place asynchronously - that is, you will be posting and reading messages at different times from your fellow students. This gives you the opportunity to read and respond to messages at a time which is convenient to you. Some universities also make use of synchronous systems so that you can communicate in 'real time', with everybody being online simultaneously. The advantage of asynchronous computer conferencing and email is that you can reflect upon electronic discussions with other students and your tutor, and build these into your own thinking. You have the flexibility to think about your response for some time before posting your own message. You can also edit and refine your message before sending it. You can use these kinds of electronic writing to try out ideas which you may later go on to use in your assignments. This is similar to the use of learning journals, which we discuss in detail in the next chapter.

Electronic writing can help you to:

Try your ideas out by writing about them to and with others.

Be reflective about your ideas.

Get feedback from others.

Prepare for writing your assignments.

The examples we have given here are of sites set up by tutors or the university more generally. You might also like to think about using your own social networking sites to work together with other students.

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