Emoticons and Community Building in “Learn” (2)

… Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) found that social presence was a strong predictor of learner satisfaction in a text-based, web-based computer conference and that participants felt a higher sense of social presence by using emoticons … (Andreatta, 2003, p. 92).

“Used in context to illustrate a sentence that would otherwise be ambiguous, emoticons allow for an additional dimension of meaning to be achieved” (Andreatta, 2003, p. 97).

To recap:  our Sakai-based “Learn” CMS gives users the option to add emoticons to any Private Message or Discussion posting.  I can also add them to any Announcement.  While I’ve been trying to avoid comparisons between “Learn” and WebCT features and design, the fact is that many of my Rhetoric and the WWW students have previously used WebCT—which doesn’t include an emoticons tool.  I think this fact is relevant in framing recent student discussions in about emoticons (and netspeak) as strategies for rhetorically constructing web communities.

A bit of context setting: 
one of the major course assignments is a team seminar.  I won’t go into details yet about team formation and other kinds of scaffolding; for now it’s helpful to know that each team (3 or 4) had about a month to prepare a collaborative presentation on one of a number of given topic-areas pertaining to how web communities are rhetorically constructed.  I gave each team its own discussion forum to plan their work, upload work in process, and stay in touch. 

At the beginning of March, all teams submitted their presentations to me for content feedback.  I then assigned each team its own 3-day seminar presentation time and separate discussion forum.  So now every three days (weekends excluded), a new team uploads a final version of its presentation (a Word doc with visuals/links, or a PowerPoint), creates 3 – 4 threads with a governing discussion question arising out of its presentation, and then monitors/responds to/summarizes class comments.

One of the topic choices for the team assignment was to consider community building in “Learn.”  In focusing on emoticons and netspeak, the first team seminar chose “Learn” as one of three web sites under discussion.  With that in mind, the team asked such questions as—

•    Do emoticons and netspeak strengthen or diminish online community building?
•    When and where is it appropriate to use them?
•    Are emoticons/netspeak authoritative communication strategies—and if so, will that continue or decline?
•    Do emotions/netspeak help participants identify with an online community?
(I’ve paraphrased these questions and shall do the same with selected responses, except my own.)

In my last entry, I indicated a few reasons why I’ve chosen to use the emoticons-tool.  During the seminar, I tried to explain my choice to my students:

This team has raised the question—and several of you have also commented—on the use of emoticons here in Learn.  If this space is supposed to be the equivalent of a classroom, and if participants should therefore be minding their Ps and Qs, then why am I sprinkling them around so liberally?  I’ll not hide the fact that as the instructor, I’ve been trying to “model” or promote the idea that in this “classroom,” it’s okay to smile, laugh, frown, or groan!

Note, of course, my stress on trying to “model” a rhetorical act.  I set out using emoticons as a course design tool to help students feel they can identify with our “Learn”-ing community. 

None of the students responded to my post directly (which may or may not mean anything).  But as I followed this seminar, I picked out various attitudes about emoticons.  One student noted that in an online community, participants should follow the lead of those around them in determining how formal or informal their style should be.  There seemed to be a strong consensus among students that emoticons are informal.  Along those lines, several postings placed emoticons (along with netspeak) firmly under “casual communication only.”  In one or two instances, emoticons were equated with the way a younger generation communicates.

BTW, I’ve posted a link in “Learn” to an article from C-Net which notes that emoticons are now a quarter-century old, yet often still equated with “the younger generation”.

Several postings expressed the view that as an overused shorthand language, emoticons (again often equated with netspeak) can’t or shouldn’t be taken seriously.  One posting argued that emoticons are an unnecessary visual element whose use undercuts any value in the textual message.

At least one posting expressed dismay at the thought of emoticons becoming acceptable in workplace communication.  Interestingly, my non-U of W workplace uses Eudora (that workhorse of workplace e-mail systems), which has a built-in emoticons tool.  But I notice we use emoticons only for informal messages and only if the people already know each other.

At least two comments spoke to emoticons’ potential for irony, or even deception—traits endemic to any form of online communication.  How can we know that a “smile” really means a smile, asked one student.  Surely no one uses the “sad” face for any reason other than ironic, suggested another.

Finally, as this team noted, I—the professor—am the only one who uses emoticons regularly in “Learn” (one student uses them fairly often, and a few use them occasionally).  I have a theory about that, which I’ll share in my next entry.

Now that you have a sense of some of the students’ attitudes toward emoticons, look again at the two quotes at the beginning of this entry (as well as the ones in the previous entry).  See any contradictions? 
;- )  

More to come …


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Emoticons and Community Building in “Learn” (1)

Not only do new technologies, new ways of doing things, eliminate specific tasks and workplaces … but the remaining work is frequently done asynchronously in terms of both time and space.  But how and where … is discernment, trust, and collaboration learned, experience and caution passed on, when people no longer work, build, create, and learn together or share sequence and consequence in the course of a common task? (Franklin, 1999, p. 172).

Trust, discernment, and collaboration depend on empathy.  Can we engage in collaboration or create genuine community in the asynchronous, detached environment of a typical online class, when empathy and emotion may be absent or easily misread?  How do we effectively convey empathy in an online classroom—and what role does empathy play in building a community? 

Specifically, are emoticons an acceptable or feasible tool for community building?  Our JForum tool in “Learn” lets each participant choose from a roster of emoticon images, and the instructor can include also emoticons in Announcements.  In the next entry or two, I’m going to look at who uses emoticons in “Learn” and summarize some of the attitudes that came up about emoticons and community building, based on a student-run online seminar that has just finished. 

But first, let the scholars speak:

CMC instructors can use paralinguistic cues such as emoticons appropriately to express their attitudes toward the topic being communicated…. Usually, an instructor’s appropriate use of emoticons can give students a positive impression of a more vivid, dynamic, and graphic description of their feelings and actions than of a traditional textual description (Liu and Ginther, 2001).

Another study on feedback in web-based instruction notes that appropriate use of paralinguistic cues like emoticons “can give readers a [more] positive impression of … the writer’s feelings and actions than would otherwise be discernible through traditional text communication” (Reid, 1995, qtd. in Andreatta, 2003, p. 24).  Grounding this supposition is that emoticons represent social presence, and an increase in social presence enhances a learning experience.   Thus

... feedback messages that include the use of emoticons, along with supportive language, should work to further increase student satisfaction beyond that achieved through the use of supportive language alone. By providing a visual cue to establish emotional context, the level of understanding between the teacher and the students should increase, thereby improving student satisfaction  (Andreatta, 2003, pp. 24-25).

A series of studies in the late 1990s has also shown (unsurprisingly according to Andreatta), that “the use of emoticons was found to positively contribute to text-based communication in web-based environments (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Liu & Ginther, 1999; qtd. in Andreatta, 2003, p. 97)

Bolstering this theoretical case for using emoticons in online learning, a recent online learning guide advises students about the usefulness of emoticons, especially in group work—

It helps to use emoticons to convey your tone.  Having a conflict or misunderstanding doesn’t mean you don’t like the person any more, but people often forget that reality, or don’t like to say it.  It may be most needed during a tense interaction. (Lynch, 2004, p. 126).

On the instructor’s end, I found this comment in the KairosNews blog:  “I use [emoticons] all the time in corresponding with students with the idea that they should make a difference”.  This instructor tries to model a style of interaction that she/he would like to see students adopting (see http://www.kairosnews.org/the-secret-cause-of-flame-wars#comments for more).  This comment resonates for me because that’s the approach I’ve been using as an instructor in “Learn,” creating a model that says it’s okay to smile, laugh, groan, or be ironic in this particular “classroom.”

So how’s this been working so far?  Is “Learn” festooned with emoticons?

More to follow … !     :- D



Andreatta, P. (2003).  The effect of affective corrective feedback variation in web-based instruction on community college student satisfaction and retention.  Unpublished dissertation (123 pp excerpt).  University of San Francisco.  Available from http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/andreattap/dissertation.pdf (though there is currently a file-open error).

Franklin, U. (1999).  The real world of technology. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Liu, Y., & Ginther, D. W.  (2001).  Instructional strategies for achieving a positive impression in computer-mediated communication (CMC) distance education courses.  2001 Proceedings, Sixth Annual Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference, Murfreesboro, TN:  Middle Tennessee State University.  Retrieved 10 March 2007 from http://www.mtsu.edu/~itconf/proceed01/8.html

Lynch, M. M.  (2004).  Learning online:  A guide to success in the virtual classroom.  New York:  Routledge Falmer.

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Sakai and “hierarchical” discussion forums

On Feb. 25, Jeff (see comment beneath Feb. 18 entry) asked:

… why might the Sakai developers have rejected a hierarchical structure (or the option to toggle such a thing) within their CMS? What might be the rationale?

An interpretive approach to this question would take me back to my earlier rhetorical analysis of how the Sakai web site constructs ethos (posted at blog.ca).  I showed that Sakai places a positive value on such terms as open, free, collaborative, and ad hoc.  A discussion tool that implicitly weighs some topics or ideas more heavily than others would contradict those values.  Thus, Sakai’s expressed commitment to flexibility and freedom (for institutions, instructors, and students) likely influences the integration of an unstructured discussion tool. 

But it seems obvious there’s an equally strong practical rationale.  Sakai’s discussion tool (JForum   for Sakai) was developed by the ETUDES Consortium using the phpBB open-source graphical user interface (and this is the one we use in “Learn”).  The php  interface is easy to use and favoured by groups and organizations that want to keep expenses down and processes simple.  So from this perspective, it makes sense for Sakai users/developers to integrate ready-made, popular, user-friendly open-source systems (Jeffrey Young [2004]–see full ref below–notes the easy integration of other open-source products in his analysis of Sakai’s costs and flexibility). 

So I consider the “philosophical foundation” argument weak because the more you look, the more you notice these principles walking hand-in-hand with cost and development issues.  In a 2005 Sakai Project discussion about discussion tool development and pedagogy, “practical” terms and concepts occur quite frequently: innovation, lightweight development, tool interoperability, concerns about the expense of adding new features, and whether it’s worth adding more features if they’d appeal only to a small fraction of faculty or “niche” market.  Essentially, as one participant put it,

We believe that in some situations, we can enhance the teaching. . . . But we cannot afford to develop all the tools we would like. Developing a tool that ‘plugs in’ to Sakai/Bb/WebCT has advantages; (1) we can save a lot of user admin interface-type development and (2) we can exchange tools with other universities and reduce the average cost.

(From http://bugs.sakaiproject.org/confluence/display/ENC/Sakai+and+Pedagogy )

This same discussion noted that some faculty wanted what could be considered more “hierarchical” features, such as discussion “grading” tools to mark participation.  I also picked up (and may be reading too much into this) a Sakaiian (!) distrust of “hierarchy” from this comment:

If faculty have to fight with setting up groups, facilitators, etc; to come up with work-arounds with software tools that are built to support old top down teaching methods, and to spend an extra 10 to 25% of their time for a course to carry out the new methods—the instructors burn out in a few years and scare away other faculty . . .

But what Sakai thinks and what faculty or students might want don’t always mesh.  One disgruntled user (2006) found Sakai’s flat, featureless discussion structure hard to work with:

I find working with the “basic” LMS features within Sakai to be extremely frustrating. Given that it is a tool designed to support online and distance education, it is far from “user friendly” and has done little to create a sense of community with class members. As a prime example, the discussion feature is a disaster. There is no way to track previously read posts from one session to the next. I literally have to “expand all” then squint to read the date posted to guess which I have seen – a real treat now that we are in our 5th week of class with hundreds of posts to scroll through. In one class I am taking, the students actually set up a Yahoo! Group to facilitate our communication needs.

(From http://zacker.org/sakai-project-vs-moodle#comment-66 )

However, the newer version (featured in “Learn”) redresses these problems somewhat:

It sounds like this instructor is using the older Sakai discussion tool rather than the new one that does in fact track read and unread posts between logins. The newer tool was designed at IU and is called the Message Center as it has private student messaging as well like the old system.

(From http://zacker.org/sakai-project-vs-moodle#comment-85 )

Moving back now to my Rhetoric and the WWW course, I sense my students are managing the non-hierarchical discussion structure adeptly.  Near the beginning of the term, two or three expressed mild puzzlement about how to use the forums and private messaging. As mentioned in an earlier entry, many are supplementing the forums with “off Learn” tools like MSN and good old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face meetings.  But as students pound down the home stretch of completing their team projects, they’re using the forums actively and, I feel, productively.  I’m getting no indications that students are losing threads of conversation or are finding the experience frustrating. 

But are they forming communities … whatever that might mean in online teaching contexts? 

Next up:  invoking Franklin, Rheingold, and other advocates and critics of technologically mediated community building!


Young, J.R.  (2004). Sakai Project offers an alternative to commercial/course management programs. Chronicle of Higher Education 51. (24 September): B12–B15.


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More on Collaboration Tools–Forums or Project spaces?

Just a quickie entry …

Scanning cyberspace for any evaluations of Sakai and/or the role of discussion forums in promoting collaborative writing, I found these comparisons of various open source CMSs:

An Evaluation of Open Source Learning Management Systems According to Learners Tools
Hüseyin Uzunboylu, Fezile Özdamlı, and Zehra Özçınar (2006).

3.2 Student Community Building
Atutor: Students can create study groups. Students from different courses can interaction system wide
using shared discussion forums.
Bazaar: The system allow user to create collaborative spaces for students.
Bodington: The system allows users to control access to certain areas and documents. It lets user create
usernames for external collaborators working on projects. Committees can create their own private areas
to hold minutes prior to publication.
Claroline: Teacher can create study groups. Once uploaded there, their documents can be published to
the public area of the course website.
Coursemanager: The system does not allow to users to create any type of group.
ILIAS: Students can send e-mail to their groups, use a shared chat space and notice board, and share
material privately within the group.
Moodle: Moodle has a large and diverse user community on main site.
Sakai: Students can create project sites. It includes a calendar, announcements, e-mail list and discussion

My first reaction to this was dismay that I hadn’t thought of exploring Sakai’s project-space capabilities in my current course or invited students to create their own project spaces, especially since these spaces can be made accessible to any course participants.  On the other hand, the project spaces are fairly limited.  They let you do what it says above:  upload files, send messages and announcements, and in the case of Learn, present a “slide show”– a tool I cannot for the life of me figure out!! I understand could be very cool, allowing participants to display visuals to the entire site.

However, a creator can’t add any other Sakai/Learn tools such as a wiki, and project members would still have to go “off Learn” to do anything fancy like collaborative writing.  Also, given that my “not so secret” agenda behind creating open team forums was to make it easy for everyone to view each others’ process and best practices–i.e. share knowledge–then I’m not sure whether or how setting up team project spaces would have been an advantage.

Or perhaps I’m just rationalizing my initial oversight! 

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Is Online Collaborative Writing Worth Teaching?

For some years I’ve been building collaborative writing into 2nd – 4th-year writing courses, and peer critique (which isn’t the same thing) into 1st year courses.  Almost since the start of my online teaching efforts in the late 90s, I’ve taken various stabs at designing team-based online writing assignments that will prove effective in that faceless environment.  In my next few entries, I’ll take this process apart for Rhetoric and the WWW, looking at how my practices and my uses of “Learn” tools for managing this assignment (particularly the Discussion forums) affect online community building.

The collaborative assignment Rhetoric and the WWW asks students to work in teams to create a short interactive presentation (Word doc, PPT, or media-based) inquiring into how or whether at least two web sites rhetorically construct community.  The “Learn” Discussion Forums are supposed to be the main means for students to manage the inventional, organizational, and community-building processes involved in completing this assignment.

Before I get into what’s happening in the Rhet & WWW forums, though, I’ll talk a bit about why one would include teamwork or collaborative work in online writing courses.

First, many online instructors do build in such assignments.  There are sound practical reasons for this.  As Bates and Poole put it, “collaborative assignments are a legitimate way to reduce instructor workload”; as well, teamwork helps ensure that the resulting work is high quality [2003, p. 238] and, thus, easier to mark.  Another practical justification is the fact that individual, academic, and corporate projects are moving online.  Online instructors help prepare students for their future work by providing skills and strategies for “joint planning, developing and evaluating … [projects] from any location simultaneously and consecutively” (Peters, 2004, p. 88).  Pedagogically, a well designed online teamwork or collaborative assignment moves students into what Peters (2004) suggests is part of paradigm-shift in learning:  privileging collaboration, engagement, flexibility, and student autonomy.

Rhetoric and composition teachers who build collaborative writing into their face-to-face courses have long been part of this paradigm-shift.  The pile of literature discussing the rationale and benefits of this shift is now enormous, but for many of us in the field, Kenneth Bruffee’s 1984 article “Collaboration and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” constituted a paradigm shift in and of itself.  Bruffee defines knowledge as the property of peers rather than experts, and argues that learning takes place when peers work together to create knowledge.  It’s through this peer-driven, collaborative process—not a top-down model of teaching—that we create sustainable communities of learners and scholars.  Bruffee’s work, among others, has encouraged many writing teachers to shift away from “full frontal” mode and explore how writing can facilitate the growth of peer learning and viable discourse communities.

There’s so much more I could say to justify online collaborative writing assignments.  Doubtless, more will creep into subsequent entries.  For now, let these points stand as my main practical and pedagogical reasons for integrating a collaborative assignment in my current course.

Next:  what are the student teams doing to create “community” in the “Learn” online environment, and what role do the Discussion forums play?



Bates, A. W., and Poole, G.  (2003).  Effective teaching with technology in higher education:  foundations for success.  San Francisco:

Peters, O. (2004). Distance education in transition: new trends and challenges. 4th ed. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der
Universität Oldenburg.


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The “Learn” Adventure — More on Tools: Discussion Forums

Welcome to my LJ!  I think I’m going to like it better here … and I hope you will too.

I know “more” sounds a bit strange, given this is my first LJ entry about my Sakai/Learn online course redesign/independent study adventure.  I’ve published previous instalments over at my blog.ca site, but I’ve been finding that interface a bit clunky.  I hope LJ will prove friendlier.  And not that I’m expecting multitudes of comments, but if there are any … they can be threaded.  Which, given this next set of postings, is appropriate.

The general question ending my last entry on blog.ca was whether my assignment designs and my use of course tools within “Learn” (i.e. Discussion Forums) facilitate teamwork and community building for students of Rhetoric and the World Wide Web.  My next few entries focus on the Discussion Modules tool. 

Tony Bates and Gary Poole (2003) note, “[t]he main instruction or tutoring … is likely to take place in the instructors’ discussion groups …. Good discussions take time to build …” (p. 220).  It would be in Sakai’s interest for its collaborators to create tools that make it as easy as possible for asynchronous discussion “to build to a point where students are fully benefiting from the discussion” (p. 220) Indeed, one collaborator asserts that “[u]nlike traditional CMS tools, Sakai promises to provide a flexible framework where students and faculty can convene to engage in active learning”  (Foothill College, CA).

As an instructor, I’ve found the “Learn” tool fairly easy and flexible to manipulate.  I’ve created general arenas of activity (“Assignments,” “Class Participation,” “Team Seminars”) and within each arena created distinct forums, such as a forum for each team working on a collaborative project.  It’s also easy for me and the students to create our own personal profiles, complete with iconic avatars; to post messages using a basic editor; to create a new topic or thread within a forum; and to send up to 3 attachments (with a range of allowable suffixes) per posting.

So far, students are “convening” in the forums and engaging to some extent with the topics (with some teams doing a lot of work in their forum).  But the “Learn” discussion forum tool doesn’t allow nested threads.  That’s a very basic issue … to thread, or not to thread?  Bates and Poole favour threaded discussion groups for the following reasons: 

Threaded discussion software allows an argument or discussion to build over time … A good discussion topic will often generate several single threads with over twenty or more comments and generally, the longer the thread, the better the discussion, because the topic will have captured students’ interest and the thread of argument builds a momentum of its own (2003, pp. 226-229).

We probably all know what nested threads look like.  Check any popular LJ entry and see the hierarchical pattern of topic, sub-topic, reply, reply to the reply … all speaking to a lively and sometimes almost synchronous exchange. 

Here’s a sample of discussion topics within one forum in Rhetoric and the WWW:

Response to Module 1       
My thoughts on module
A Few Days Late.    
Rhetoric is…    
a good man speaking well…    
some thoughts on rhetoric through time        
Response to Module #1        
The power of time on rhetoric    
Rhetoric is…    
The foundation of rhetoric…    
Evolution and variation of the term Rhetoric        
My opinion of the evolution of rhetoric    
The Malleable Definition of Rhetoric    
late night with textual rhetoric.

Columns show the original author of the topic, how many responses the topic has received, and the name of the last person to post. Users can choose to “Watch” particular topics and/or to read the most recently posted topics first.  To see the direction of any discussion within a topic, you have to click on that topic, and all the conversations will open up.

I find it fascinating that there’s no nested-thread capability in this “Learn” platform—somewhat flying in the face of what Bates and Poole, for example, assert above about the role of threaded discussions in building argumentative momentum.  In my own experience with threaded discussions in teaching and being a student online, I’ve found them useful for tracing the pathway or evolution of a discussion, seeing at a glance how much “weight” participants give a topic, and noting interrelations of sub-topics with major topics.  It’s also handy to be able to reply directly to a posting without worrying about “quoting” it or being concerned that your response, even with quote, will get lost at the bottom.  At the same time, I can see that nested topics are somewhat hierarchical, whereas a PHP-based system like this is “flatter.”  Is it possible that the Sakai designers considered and rejected the incorporation of the “hierarchical” pattern used in traditional CMSs?

And if so, does that matter?  Especially for teamwork and community building in this site, is it significant that we don’t have nested threads?  I’m very much hoping to hear more from students about this, but will also be pursuing this, and other online community-building issues, further over the next few weeks.



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