Tag Archives: rhetoric

Emoticons and Community Building in “Learn” (Final)

In this last entry about emoticons in “Learn,” I’ll try(ha!)  to reconcile scholarly views about the value of paralinguistic cues like emoticons and students’ (and some instructors’) ambivalence about whether their use is credible or rhetorically appropriate. 

First, what do emoticons do?  Rhetorically, what’s their function?  I see them not only as a feature peculiar to online communication but, in Burkeian terms, as a strategy for enabling identification with others, or the sharing of substance—inseparable from persuasion (you’ll find here a note-form sketch of “identification”).  Emoticons can help create identification among participants who have reason to trust each other, or in a situation when they can reasonably assume they can “give face” without being threatened, or when power relations are theoretically equal … or all of the above.

In “Learn,” I think it’s safe to say relations are cordial, trust is present and has increased (at least among students), and all participants feel safe enough to express reasonable positions without feeling a threat to their “face.”  These conditions are basic to productive learning and knowledge-sharing.  But as you said, Jeff, in your comment on my previous emoticons entry, students and even sometimes instructors are uncertain about how to “read” an emoticon in terms of what that says about not only the person’s character but (in the case of an instructor reading a student) what it says about the writer’s ability to construct academic discourse.  Since “Learn” is necessarily grounded on a student-teacher power dynamic, unavoidably, within that dynamic, undoubtedly students will always feel they’re being “judged” in some way, shape, or form (sometimes by each other as much as by the teacher). 

When I posted in the “Emoticons” student seminar forum (see previous entry), I also said this:

I find it fascinating that WebCT doesn’t have emoticon tools.  As a student in a WebCT space, I hesitated for the longest time to use emoticons in case it made me “seem” less serious than all the other deep thinkers in the group.  (I wonder if some of you have been experiencing the same uncertainty here—essentially a concern about ethos.)

Student postings implied that it’s almost always rhetorically infelicitous to transfer one type of online language, Netspeak, into a classroom setting, which is (even in online form) traditionally associated with “formal” discourse.  It’s reasonable to assume that because emoticons are often equated with Netspeak, an informal (even semi-literate) shorthand form of communication, then using emoticons within a learning community places the speaker at greater risk that her or his “good character” will be “judged” and found wanting.  (It’s almost on a par with attitudes about using the first person in academic discourse, but that’s a whole n’other topic.) 

Yet I as the teacher not only use emoticons in “Learn” but do so a lot more often than the students.  In the context of ethos, identification, and giving face (I mean this in Erving Goffman’s sense), I have less to “lose” by using emoticons than do the students.  I see using them as a way of giving face, which means in this case relinquishing the privilege of creating a formal “professor”-ethos because I want to flatten that pesky student-teacher power curve a bit.  In this way, I hope to convey an ethos of as much trust and “safety” as possible, within the constraints of a student-teacher power dynamic, which in turn I hope creates a more productive learning environment.

But does my emoticon strategy work?  Does it make any difference? 

If both students and teachers seem reluctant to transfer these paralinguistic cues into online classroom discourse, then I wonder if this is partly because what Peters (2004) calls the “dominance of expository teaching” (p. 31) still pervades online learning communities.  Or the ethos of expository teaching predominates?  Either way, online collaborative teaching/learning is shot through with (creative) tension between that dominance and the process of shifting toward a more eclectic, interactive, and autonomous learning universe.


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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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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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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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