Towards equal discourse in Web-based interaction

by Maarit Saarenkunnas, Leena Kuure & Peppi Taalas


This article considers the implications of the teacher-student relationship and interaction in an online Web-based learning environment. It presents the arguments for new, more flexible models for teaching - which are particularly applicable to online Web-based teaching/learning environments - and argues the case for a more equal relationship between teacher and student.

Links checked 17 February 2010


Interaction is a prerequisite for learning

Interaction may be one of the buzz-words among teachers, learning researchers and educational technologists today, but not in vain. The socio-constructivist views on thinking and learning argue that most knowledge is an interpretation of personal experiences and is social in nature. In other words, knowledge is jointly constructed in interaction (cf. Resnick, Levine & Teasley 1991; Salomon 1993). Lave & Wenger (1991), among others, have put forward the idea of cognitive apprenticeship (see also Collins, Brown & Newman 1989). According to this view, learning is a process of participation in communities of practice, at first legitimately peripheral, working its way to more central positions. Learning occurs in interaction through cognitive apprenticeship in real contexts, in authentic learning tasks.

This learning theoretical framework sets forth teaching/learning interaction, i.e. the meaning-making and knowledge-construction process as a focal point for developing new educational solutions and redefining the role of teachers and students. What we need are ways to support interaction in such a way that it enhances the learning of the group. However, teaching and learning interaction (be it from the point of view of expert mentoring, process tutoring or technical facilitation) is never straightforward transmission of knowledge. Instead, it is a complex process of negotiation of meaning, in which listening as much as active participation plays a central role.

This section discusses interaction and the teacher's role in Web-based learning environments. We take a critical look at models which solely focus on the teacher's interactional moves, i.e. the strategic approaches. In our conclusion we suggest a new metaphor for teaching in Web-based environments. This approach, "the teacher as an ethnographer", involves developing working practices which advance active listening skills and a research perspective among participants into the activities around the study process. As teaching and learning interaction on the Web lack many of the immediate means of meaning-making available in face-to-face communication, this sets special challenges for the teacher to meet in Web study projects.

Teaching discourse

The traditional classroom interaction pattern puts the student in the position of an object of assessment: the teacher initiates, the student responds, and the teacher closes the sequence by either accepting or rejecting the student's turn (Sinclair & Coulthard 1975). The teacher examines the performance of the student almost in every turn, but is not him/herself who is subjected to assessment with reference to the acceptability of his/her actions in the context of learning tasks. This pattern is problematic for many reasons. If most interaction is initiated by the teacher then there does not seem to be much space for negotiation of meaning and collaborative knowledge construction. In ordinary conversations all interlocutors initiate and close conversations and this is the way shared understanding, shared knowledge and shared goals are built. What is missing in traditional classroom discourse is active listening, and in a sense, genuine participation in learning interactions. Such a pattern does not give the teacher much possibility for analysing and utilising the skills and resources the students already have unless students have a chance of initiating topics. We suggest that the patterns of ordinary conversation should be taken as models for learning and teaching interactions as well.

It seems that teacher discourse style affects the kind of discourse created in learning situations. Ahern et al. (1992:307) point out, for example, that the conversational approach by the teacher in computer-mediated discussion increases peer-peer interaction and the quality of responses. This seems to be the case even though the institutional context of study sets certain requirements upon the teacher to fulfil (e.g. responsibility for the process, encouraging all the students in the study, contributing to the communicative atmosphere so that the participation threshold is low enough). In other words, the whole context of the learning/communicative environment should be considered from the point of view of what kind of interaction it allows and encourages.

Silverman’s (1997) observations in his treatment of the discourses of counselling seem relevant here. He suggests that focusing on particular strategies in interaction may lead to the counsellor ignoring the communicative resources of the other interlocutor. We claim that his situation is transferable to the learning context as well. Still, this does not mean neglect of focused teaching but proposes that the practices, framework, goals, etc. of what is being done should consciously be renegotiated together between those who are involved in the learning environment.

New flexible models for teaching

Current learning theoretical advancements, together with the emergence of new learning environments, thus suggest a need for changes in teaching: We need new flexible models for teaching practice. The role of a teacher, as well as that of the learner, is no longer stable, but the requirements change from day to day in the spirit of lifelong learning. Following the idea of legitimate peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger 1991), we cannot truly talk about learners and teachers, but, instead, of diverse identities which produce a continuum at the other end of which we have the "newcomers", in the middle the "journeyfolk" and at the other "old-timers". A teacher may be an expert of his/her specific area, but the students also have different kinds of expertise. This principle becomes obvious in computer-supported learning projects, in which students often are the masters of the medium instead of the teacher.

Several approaches to developing the teacher's role to meet these demands have been suggested. A reflective practitioner (Schön 1983, 1987) is a teacher who critically examines his/her teaching practice and develops it further. Teachers could also be seen as co-learners. This metaphor suggests that instead of delivering content to the students from an expert point of view, a teacher should engage in collaborative research projects with the students. This approach would involve the teacher assisting the students in the process, but also learning from it as an equal participator. As authenticity and originality of the learning process are essential for successful learning projects, and good learning outcomes, the students should also be engaged in planning the learning tasks, processes and environments. In a sense, a new working metaphor for a teacher could be a co-designer: an expert of learning and content area who designs learning tasks and processes together with the students. When the students are involved in planning the process and contents of learning projects their motivation towards and engagement with them increases.

New learning environments, or the learning applications of ICT, are demanding for teachers and students, especially in distance learning. Students need to be autonomous, independent and self-directed agents of their learning. Teachers have to be able to support the learning, without the aid of face-to-face interactions, in most cases through written communication. In reality, Web-based learning projects rarely rely on Web-based instruction only. These projects are usually also supported by small-group meetings, lectures and other more traditional forms of contact teaching. The need for straightforward distance education rises almost solely in remote areas, or in the case of educating isolated and distributed expert groups.

At the same time, pedagogical applications of ICT allow collaborative or team teaching, which is one of the most powerful benefits of networked learning environments. On Internet-based courses, for instance, it is possible to bring in several different kinds of experts and novices together to share issues for study (cf. Saarenkunnas et al. 2000). Indeed, the theories of distributed cognition (Salomon 1993, Hutchins 1991) and socially shared cognition (Resnick et al. 1991), emphasise that the power of a group in building new knowledge and solving problems is more than the sum of its individual members. Students are entitled to this opportunity of shared expertise, which is now easily available via networked environments, in projects where several teachers and their students collaborate.

In a sense, the demands for redefining our roles in Web-based environments is no different from the demands we meet in traditional classroom teaching. However, new Web-based environments and ICT provide us opportunities to reshape instruction by forcing us to redesign teaching practices. Involvement and commitment to a collaboratively built process is a key issue here. A teacher has no way of knowing whether a student is attending the course, let alone learning, if you cannot make them to interact and express themselves. A silent student in a classroom may give the teacher feedback by extra-linguistic means, a silent student in a Web-based environment does not have this possibility.

Strategic approach to teaching in Web-based environments

With the evolution of the pedagogical applications of ICT, different kinds of tutoring approaches have been developed and discussed. Even though many of these approaches are highly structured, they offer a fairly simple model to start with. Through these classifications of tutoring moves, teachers/tutors may increase their awareness of their own interactional repertoires and expand them. Bonk & King’s (1998) twelve forms of learning assistance below illustrate a strategic approach into mentoring.

  1. Social acknowledgement (e.g. I agree with everything you say.)
  2. Questioning (e.g. Can you justify this?)
  3. Direct instruction (e.g. Doesn't "x" write about this?)
  4. Modelling, examples (e.g. I think I solved this sort a problem once when I...)
  5. Feedback, praise (e.g. I am impressed.)
  6. Cognitive task structuring (e.g. OK, now summarise your case.)
  7. Cognitive elaborations, explanations (e.g. Provide more information here that explains your rationale.)
  8. Push to explore (e.g. You might want to write to Dr. X for...)
  9. Fostering reflection and self awareness (e.g. Describe how your teaching philosophy will vary from this...)
  10. Encouraging articulation/dialogue prompting (e.g. Does anyone have a counterpoint or alternative to this situation?)
  11. General advice/scaffolding/suggestions (e.g. I know that I would first.)
  12. Private email or discussion (e.g. Don't just criticise... please be sincere when you respond to your peers...)

This list serves as a good point of departure, through which different aspects of the role of mentor and teaching/learning interaction can be explored. It shows, for example, that direct instruction and questioning - unlike in the traditional classroom pattern - are not the only possible moves. However, developing successful mentoring practices cannot solely be based on a strategic approach.

First of all, since interaction is a process in which meanings are negotiated, we cannot be sure that the feedback we give will be interpreted according to our intentions. For example a move, which is aimed at serving as social acknowledgement could as well be taken as a criticism. Kuure, Saarenkunnas & Taalas (1999) point out, that from the teacher's perspective it is impossible to find out what kind of thought processes individual mentoring moves evoke in a student. Their analysis of mentoring in the COW (Conferencing On the Web) environment shows that, for example direct mentoring questions were seldom answered by the students in their postings. This does not necessarily mean, that the questions the mentors pose do not support learning and evoke thoughts. However, because the students rarely seem to respond, we have no way of knowing how they interpret the teacher feedback.

Intentional teaching moves are not the only clues according to which participants in a Web-based environment interpret the teacher's and students' roles. There is also a complexity of social and interactional relationships negotiated in pedagogic situations which teachers and students are rarely aware of what shapes the practices of learning (cf. Sarangi 1998:90 & 106). On the other hand, there are the institutionalised statuses of teachers and students with their expected and predictable behaviour patterns, and on the other, the variety of roles and tasks, negotiated by speakers and hearers in natural conversation. This means that different students may have very different perceptions of what appropriate learning behaviour is: what kind of interactional roles are acceptable.

Towards equal discourse

The concept of co-researcher has already become established in the university context to describe an ideal teacher-student relationship. This involves a desire towards equality: teachers are ready to hand (at least some of) their power over to the students. This is seen as a prerequisite and opportunity for the students (and teachers) in making their learning tasks ‘authentic’, real-world-like and meaningful.

In the course of such a development, some dissatisfaction with the situation has also grown among teachers speculating whether students really are ready to take over any power or responsibility for their own learning. Learning contracts are made in the attempt to raise the level of commitment of both teachers and students in the study processes (i.e. to ensure the ‘quality’ of learning), which indicates that it is all participants in the learning community that have responsibility for its success. In relation to the strategic approach, which emphasises the teacher’s role as the facilitator of the learning process, the co-researcher approach described above puts the whole learning community into focus.

Borrowing from the terminology of qualitative research, we would like to further define the co-researcher perspective as an ethnographic process as the latter in perhaps more thoroughly conveys the ideals connected with new learning theories. Ethnographers rely on qualitative study, which involves a variety of data, methods, researchers and practitioners in the pursuit of achieving a deeper understanding of the phenomenon in focus. One single source of information or student feedback shows merely one perspective into the issue of quality of learning/teaching. Ethnography requires time and communication between the participants and it examines the target of study in its wide context, challenging what seems obvious and everyday. Such an ethnographic perspective minimises the danger of incorrect conclusions such as uncritical claims about causal relationships between teacher actions and student reactions. We would like to stress that listening is at least as important a communicative skill for the teacher as speaking.

The nature of ethnographic study is often "doing research with people", not "on" them. Creating an ethnographic atmosphere in a learning community is a challenge for a teacher as the traditional pattern of classroom interaction and interaction around the ‘institutions’ of education places the participants in an unequal power situation even though this is not desired. It cannot be denied that the institutional status of teachers does assign them more power, and there is no need to get rid of all of it either. Instead, it is necessary for us to admit the existence of such constraints (e.g. the right of the teacher to pass or fail students on a course) that underlie the learning situations and how they are interpreted by teachers and students.


The following three extracts from an international Web-based course in the field of teacher education (Spring 1999) illustrate the kind of teacher activity, which aims at equality and co-partnership in learning among teachers and students.

Example 1

Student: School is in turbulent change because of [...]
Teacher: This seems a topical question in Finland at the moment - our school laws have just changed and [...] So it is exciting times here - will these new laws prompt good practice or will they be exploited for saving purposes?

Commentary: The comment by the teacher identifies the student's point as important. Such "evaluation" of the student's contribution as relevant or not relevant is a typical feature of traditional classroom discourse. However, in this case, the teacher continues by bringing in different alternatives for development in terms of the problem, and, finally, leaves the issue open.

Example 2

Teacher: I was thinking that actually it should not so much be a question of how you plan your computer activities and lessons but also how you see the whole learning process and what your ideas about the goals of teaching/learning. It is enlightening sometimes to stop and ask yourself: "What ARE your goals now, really?" Only secondary is how these goals are achieved. I've felt this kind of questioning of what you are doing helps you to SEE these goals (which are often something else than you might say at first) and then it is easier to choose the way(s) to reach them and make it clear to the students as well.

Commentary: Here the teacher softens her comment through hedging. This means that instead of a direct opinion or point of view, which from a person of higher institutional hierarchy (e.g. teacher vs. student) might hamper free exchange of ideas, the teacher makes the point "vaguer" or softer (e.g. I was thinking, actually). The example also illustrates the teacher's role as an "ethnographer" in showing the importance of questions leading below the surface of phenomena. The consideration also serves as an example of the work of the teacher as a reflective practitioner.

Example 3

Teacher: I was tutoring two student teachers last spring. [...] I was astonished at the question technique they were using [...]. It was really great to see how the students got the children involved in the discussion and skilfully led the course of action by questions when needed and encouraged the students to talk. Those situations have puzzled me ever since and I have thought that I should try to develop that technique more consciously myself. [...]

Commentary: Here the teacher positions herself as a co-learner by indicating that teacher expertise does not mean that the teacher should have all the answers, but is dynamic in nature. She implies this by presenting a classroom situation in which she had felt to be a novice in relation to the student teachers. The comment also suggests that problems in the field are often complex and require a long time to consider. Being a teacher involves constant learning from others.

Learning task

This learning task is a real long-term "research project":

  1. Write down your own conception of learning. Consider what this means in practice in terms of the pedagogic choices you make.
  2. Draw a diagram of the relationships between participants (including yourself) in a particular learning community in which you are the teacher.
  3. Mark on the diagram the people who have a "voice" in that community (expressed through language or not). Make a list of things that strengthen the voice and those that reduce it (e.g. aspects related to communication, topics, group relationships, self-esteem etc.).
  4. What could be done to give all the participants a voice in the community? By the way, does everyone want to have an active role in learning? Is it necessary? Remember that this is only your interpretation of how things are!
  5. To confirm your interpretation, make the students your co-researchers. If possible, use a video recording of a face-to-face situation or the written documents in a Web discussion to examine what is really going on in a study project in terms of the above themes.

Discussion topics

  1. What is your view of equal discourse in the classroom?
  2. What makes a Web learning community similar or different?
  3. What is there outside the classroom that has an effect on equality in teaching/learning discourse?
  4. What about the Web environment? What in terms of these aspects is visible for the participants (students and teachers), and what is not visible? If something can be changed, what is it? If something cannot be changed, why not?


Ahern T., Peck K. & Laycock M. (1992) "The effects of teacher discourse in computer-mediated discussion", Journal of Educational Computing Research 8, 3: 291–309.

Bonk C.J., & King K.S. (1998) "Introduction to electronic collaborators". In Bonk C.J. & King K.S. (eds.) Electronic collaborators: learner-centred technologies for literacy, apprenticeship, and discourse, Mahwah, New Jersey : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Collins A., Brown J.S. & Newman S.E. (1989) "Cognitive apprenticeship: teaching the crafts of reading, writing and mathematics". In Resnick L.B. (ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: essays in honor of Robert Glaser, Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hutchins E. (1991) "The social organization of distributed cognition". In Resnick L.B., Levine J.M. & Teasley S.D. (eds.) Perspectives on socially shared cognition, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kuure L., Saarenkunnas M. & Taalas P. (1999) "Negotiating a new culture of doing learning". Paper presented at CAL99 conference, London, 29-31 March 1999.

Lave J. & Wenger E. (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: CUP.

Resnick L.B., Levine J.M. & Teasley S.D. (eds.) (1991) Perspectives on socially shared cognition, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Saarenkunnas M., Järvelä S., Häkkinen P., Kuure L., Taalas P., & Kunelius E. (2000) "NINTER - Networked interaction: theory-based cases in teaching and learning", Learning Environments Research 3: 35-50.

Salomon G. (1993) Distributed cognitions: psychological and educational considerations, Cambridge: CUP.

Sarangi S. (1998) "‘I actually turn my back on (some) students’: metacommunicative role of talk in classroom discourse", Language Awareness 7, 2-3: 90–108.

Schön D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner, New York: Basic Books.

Schön D.A. (1987) Educating the reflective practitioner: towards a new design of teaching and learning in the professions, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Silverman D. (1997) Discourses of counselling. HIV counselling as social interaction, London: Sage.

Sinclair J. & Coulthard R.M. (1975) Towards an analysis of discourse: the English used by teachers and pupils, London: Oxford University Press.

© Saarenkunnas M., Kuure L. & Taalas P. 2000