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Manuals and Guides: Networking

The Electronic Forum Handbook
Study Circles in Cyberspace

Pamela B. Kleiber, Ed.D.
Margaret E. Holt, Ed.D.
Jill Dianne Swenson, Ph.D.

This Handbook is dedicated to the memory of Susan Ginsberg Hadden. Susan Ginsberg Hadden was a professor at LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin at the time of her death on January 15, 1995 in Cambodia. Gary Chapman, friend of Dr. Haden wrote in an e-mail message (Tuesday, January 17, 1995, 10:30:53) carrying the tragic news of her untimely death, "Susan was an empassioned activist for social justice, environmental quality, and, especially in recent years, for a public, civic, and democratic vision of new technolgies." Susan was raised in Austin, Texas, attended Radcliffe College, and earned her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. The message continued: "Beyond all the biographical data, Susan was a warm, generous friend, a great source of energy and passion, someone who just embraced life....She will leave a large hole in our lives and in our work for a better world." It is in Susan Ginsberg Hadden's memory that we dedicate this handbook.

The authors of this electronic forum handbook acknowledge the help and ideas from many others in the shaping of this handbook: Deborah Witte, Charles F. Kettering Foundation; Deborah Templeton, Ann Tunmer, Brad Cahoon, and Maria Cseh, fellow interenet travelers, graduate students in the Department of Adult Education at the University of Georgia and, Phyllis Emigh and Martha McCoy of the Study Circles Resource Center.

Manual Index

Introduction
Organizing an Electronic Discussion Group
Moderator Guidelines for an Electronic Discussion Group
Participant Guidelines for an Electronic Discussion Group
Lessons Learned
Appendices
a. Dialogue versus Debate
b. Netiquette
c. Emoticons
d. Moderator Technology Checklist
e. Ground Rules
f. Evaluating the Experience

Contents

Introduction

Forward

This handbook results from the experience of moderators trained in traditional face-to-face approaches to moderating forums and study circles who experimented with an electronic version on the Internet. We planned and piloted a forum before linking classrooms in an electronic study circle. One class at Ithaca College in New York with senior undergraduate journalism majors taught by Dr. Jill Swenson and a public policy and adult education seminar with graduate students at the University of Georgia taught by Drs. Margaret Holt and Pam Kleiber joined together in electronic dialogue during Fall 1994.

Since there are so many lessons learned, it seemed worth sharing our experiences with people who are considering similar electronic adventures. It is our hope that people can avoid some of the errors we made and benefit from some of the things we have learned.

Because the Manual for Study Circle Discussion Leaders, Organizers, and Participants served us well as a guide to learning face-to-face methods, we followed its example in shaping the Handbook for Electronic Forums: Study Circles in Cyberspace and hope this manual may be useful in similar ways. We recommend that this manual be used as a companion piece with electronic versions of study circles and forums.

The Electronic Study Circle and Forum Handbook is available on the World Wide Web. Copies may be downloaded and copied as long as proper credit is given to the authors. Print copies are available from the Study Circles Resource Center, P.O. Box 203, Pomfret, CT 06258, (203) 928-2616, FAX (203) 928-3713 for a nominal fee.

Introduction

This handbook presents the basics of planning, conducting, participating in, and evaluating electronic forums and study circles. It includes points to consider in creating successful discussions and encouraging deliberation in small on-going groups or larger one time forums. Based on the authors' experiences with forums and study circles and trying them out on the Internet, this handbook attempts to share lessons learned. We encourage those who use it and learn further, to share insights and experiences for future updates. The authors who have contributed various writings on the virtual discussion experience invite your comments and experiences as educators and citizens develop new communication opportunities for discussions on the Internet. Please send comments to: pkleiber@uga.cc.uga.edu mholt@uga.cc.uga.edu swenson@ithaca.edu

The study circle process employs methods for learning that draw upon the experiences and knowledge of participants by sharing opinions and perspectives in deliberative discussion. Study circles at their best are considered small group democracy in action and are held in countries around the world. Sweden is known for the prevalence of study circles as a major adult education effort with considerable political influence. While study circles generally meet episodically over a period of time, forums may be one time discussions and may include more participants than the study circles. Public forums and study circles remain vital for civic development and democracy. The legacy of town hall meetings in Colonial America is found in today's forums and discussion groups and tomorrow's electronic study circles.

New Neighborhoods and Communities

Study circles and forums have been a neighborhood and community phenomenon with dynamic face-to-face interaction. The increasing fragmentation in society and in our lives along with the growing popularity and access to the Internet have created considerable interest in making connections between people separated by space and time. Issues considered in electronic meeting places range as widely as the geographic locations represented. Themes discussed by members of Internet neighborhoods are common to civic concerns in geographic communities. For electronic discussions, in fact, the experiences and lessons from one geographic community become resources for another community. Geographically remote communities remained isolated until public access to the Internet allowed new dialogues. Electronic discussion groups are often referred to as "communities" and "neighborhoods," implying shared and common interests and concerns transcending limitations of time and space. Howard Rheingold, in The Virtual Community (Addison-Wesley, 1993), notes that "perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public places where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall."

The potential for the Internet is a very exciting and challenging opportunity for enhancing public dialogue and encouraging deliberative democracy. It is a challenge to create an atmosphere for deliberation in any environment. Cyberspace poses its own challenges. The potential for creating dialogue not bound by space and time is a challenge worth considering as new forms of associational life emerge in our global village.

I. What is an electronic study circle?

Deborah, a librarian in Ohio, turns on her computer, checks her e-mail and finds five messages under the subject "Boundaries of Free Speech." Twelve participants and two moderators all have the same messages on their computers because they are part of a group discussion using a listserv on the Internet. The most dated message is four days old and was posted by the moderator of the study circle who is in Georgia. Our participant from Ohio reads the message which asks a provocative question about censorship and children. The next message is a response to that question from a participant in Washington, D.C. who offered a reflective response to the question. Two more messages one from Ithaca, New York, and another from Seattle, Washington raise different points in response. The fifth response is a private message under the same subject heading. The moderator has sent a private message to Deborah telling her that her comments about her experiences as a librarian have been very helpful in focusing the discussion. Deborah spends about 20 minutes reading messages and makes a mental note to find time tomorrow to reread the material on this topic and write a response to the current discussion. She mulls over what she thinks about the topic and reflects upon what others have posted.

This scenario describes one interaction in an electronic study circle. An electronic study circle is a small group of individuals (15-20) who are interested in a topic or issue and are voluntarily committed to devoting time, thought and discussion over a designated period of time to discuss the issue through electronic means; this may mean through simple electronic mail or computer conferencing using more sophisticated software. A face-to-face study circle includes multiple meeting times and participants study the issue in some depth. Some study circles may meet once a month for a year while others may meet twice a week for a month. The advantage of the electronic study circle is that it allows individuals separated by time and space to come together to discuss issues that are divided into manageable topics to encourage dialogue among participants. Reading materials provide a common orientation and reference to the subject matter. The experiences of the participants offer important perspectives on the issue as everyone tries to develop an understanding of the values that underlie opinions.

A simple e-mail listserv can provide the necessary support for moderators and participants who wish to participate in electronic study circles. Many organizations such as schools, libraries, and workplaces have the capabilities of setting up a listserv.

II. What is an electronic forum?

Karl signs in on a computer at his school. He is a senior who is doing a project on campaign reform, and one way he is researching the topic is through participation in an electronic forum his teacher told him about. The forum will take place during one week, Sunday night to Sunday night. Thirty-seven participants have requested to be added to the electronic large group discussion. He has introduced himself, read introductions of other participants and has read at least twenty messages about special interest groups financing political campaigns. He has been a bit reluctant to write a message but he has decided to pose a question for his research topic to the group. He pulls out his notebook, finds his note to himself, jots down the question, rereads it and then types it into his computer keyboard before sending it to the listserv address. Minutes later all thirty-six participants have his message in their box. Karl reads some other e-mail messages and then sees that he has "new mail." He scrolls down to retrieve the new message and finds that another participant has already responded. They converse by sending each other brief messages. Other participants will read their late night interaction at various hours as each can "log-on" to the forum independently and at self-selected, convenient times.

An electronic forum is a group of people who discuss a topic or issue for a limited time, certainly less than in a study circle. A face-to-face forum is a one time meeting with any number of people who may participate. Generally, a forum includes more participants than the study circle, requires less time and consequently the issue may be discussed in less depth. It is considered manageable to have no more than twenty participants using simple e-mail. For larger groups, software packages such as First Class, Lotus Notes, and Caucus, to name a few, are recommended. These software packages help organize threads of conversations that may be occurring simultaneously.

III. What are the functions of these electronic group discussions?

The purpose of electronic study circles and forums is to create public dialogue and deliberation on issues which would not be possible otherwise. The intent is to increase the participants' understanding of various perspectives on an issue through dialogue focusing on values and experiences that underlie opinions. The group functions as a small democracy with emphasis on participation in active speaking, listening, considering, and deliberating in order to make choices among alternatives offered. Agreement is not necessary, but appreciation for different perspectives is encouraged. John Gastil presents an interesting analysis of elements of the deliberative process in an ideal National Issues Forum. The following chart is from "A Thought Piece on Deliberation," prepared for the Kettering Foundation by the Institute for Public Policy, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. DELIBERATION Aspect of a Deliberative Process Deliberative Activity in an Ideal National Issues Forum 1) Identify the problem for study Moderator/group selects an issue book 2) Establish Evaluative Criteria Participants articulate their values (Identify the Relative Values, at the beginning of the forum Weigh the Different Values) 3) Identify the Range of Possible NIF Issue books identify basic Solutions to Problems choices. Other choices may arise during the discussion. 4) Estimate the Costs and Participants discuss each issue Benefits of Solutions to Problems in turn, weighing its pros and cons. They rely upon information in the issue book and participants' knowledge and direct experiences and 5) Determine the Optimal Solution Group tries to identify range of common ground and disagreement to speak in a more public voice after the forum

IV. How are electronic study circles and forums different from the face-to- face study circles and forums?

In a face-to-face discussion, we have the benefit of non-verbal as well as verbal messages. When we are speaking or listening, we convey a great deal about how we feel about what we think. This information further shapes the discussion. We bring a host of preconceptions to the discussion about age, race, class, and gender; some of which may be unconscious. These preconceived attitudes may affect the way we "hear" what some people have to say. For example, if we are deferent to age, we may not want to interrupt an older person who is speaking even if they are dominating the discussion. Or without realizing it, we may pay closer attention to what people of our own racial and ethnic background say than someone who differs from us. These factors are eliminated when we cannot see or hear discussants, but can only read one another's words. Their is no eye contact or other body language to help us understand how what we communicate is being received in time to modify it. This can make understanding a challenge.

In a face-to-face discussion the pace may not allow us to reflect before we speak. In electronic discussions we can take more time and reflect longer before responding. On the other hand, strands of the same discussion can occur simultaneously in the electronic version. The lack of a linear discussion overwhelms some participants.

One thing is certain, participation patterns are different. People who may enter into dialogue in face-to-face discussions may hesitate and feel uncomfortable initially in the electronic discussion. Likewise, people who have been reluctant to speak in groups before, sometimes find their voice in the electronic medium. The moderator's role is vitally important to the success of any study circle or forum, but particularly for the electronic mode. Each format for discussion, face-to-face (f2f) and electronic, has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Perceptions of Positive and Negative Features of Face-to-Face and Electronic Forums

Face-to-face Forums

Positive: debates; spur of the moment; responses; body language; emoting; intonations; gauging strength of argument; "guaranteed" responses; immediate gratification; continuity; lively, "heated;" personal contacts

Negative: lack of participation; creates more nervousness; dominating by some

Electronic Forums

Positive: fuller participation; greater involvement shy/reserved people; no one dominates; anonymity; choice of time to participate; not as nerve-racking; easier to say what you feel; say as much as you want as long as you want

Negative: technical difficulties; not as fluid, rapid, continual; absence of emoting; anonymity; impersonal; unnatural dialogue; less chance for clarification

V. Who leads the electronic study circle or forum?

A moderator or team of moderators is designated to take the responsibility for managing the listserv and facilitating group discussion. In organizing a face-to-face study circle, many decisions will need to be made. Deciding on the issue, on the moderator, the reading material, recruitment of participants, and ground rules are just a few of the decisions to be made. There will be logistical issues such as determining where, when, and how long the study circle or forum will meet. In an electronic study circle, the moderator will be responsible for similar planning and the fact that the discussion will be electronic will affect those decisions.

The logistical planning of a time and location for a face-to-face study circle or forum is replaced by making arrangements for communication connections to the Internet. The listserv (a simple electronic mail discussion group) is relatively low cost and less technologically complicated for study circles with up to twenty participants.

VI. What is the moderator's role?

In face-to-face as well as Internet discussions, the moderator conducts the electronic discussion by facilitating dialogue. The moderator does not contribute his or her own views to the dialogue. It is the moderator's responsibility to: 1. Introduce the topic 2. Set the tone 3. Model good communication principles 4. Establish ground rules 5. Maintain focus while creating an atmosphere which allows various perspectives to be shared 6. Draw the electronic discussion to a close by "harvesting" the voices. (See Section on Moderator's Guidelines for further information.)

In an electronic study circle the moderator may have additional responsibilities. a. solve technical problems and respond to individual participants' technical glitches. b. encourage participants to communicate with one another. c. send affirming messages to those who post. d. send inquiring and encouraging messages to those who remain silent.

Participants in an electronic discussion participants are expected to: 1. Read preliminary information that is sent out. 2. Become somewhat familiar with their own Internet support system. 3. Agree to follow netiquette and ground rules as set up by the moderator(s). 4. Listen and respect one another's perspectives and experience. 5. Contribute to the discussion by relating experiences and perspectives on the topic. 6. Continue to think about the topic. This process is often referred to as "stewing."

Manual Index

Introduction
Organizing an Electronic Discussion Group
Moderator Guidelines for an Electronic Discussion Group
Participant Guidelines for an Electronic Discussion Group
Lessons Learned
Appendices
a. Dialogue versus Debate
b. Netiquette
c. Emoticons
d. Moderator Technology Checklist
e. Ground Rules
f. Evaluating the Experience