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"Are they talking yet?" : online discourse as political action in an education policy forum Klinger, Shulamit Sara 2002

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"ARE THEY TALKING YET?" ONLINE DISCOURSE AS POLITICAL ACTION IN AN EDUCATION POLICY FORUM by SHULAMJT SARA KLINGER B.A., Oxford University, 1992 M.Phil., Cambridge University, 1996 A THESIS SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY in THE FACULTY OF GRADUATE STUDIES Centre for the Study of Curriculum & Instruction We accept this thesis as conforming to the required standard  THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA December 2001  © Shula Klinger, 2001  UBC Special Collections - Thesis Authorisation Form  In p r e s e n t i n g t h i s t h e s i s i n p a r t i a l f u l f i l m e n t of the r e q u i r e m e n t s f o r an advanced degree at the U n i v e r s i t y of B r i t i s h Columbia, I agree t h a t the L i b r a r y s h a l l make i t f r e e l y a v a i l a b l e f o r r e f e r e n c e and study. I f u r t h e r agree t h a t p e r m i s s i o n f o r e x t e n s i v e c o p y i n g o f t h i s t h e s i s f o r s c h o l a r l y purposes may be g r a n t e d by the head o f my department or by h i s or her r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s . I t i s u n d e r s t o o d t h a t c o p y i n g or p u b l i c a t i o n of t h i s t h e s i s f o r f i n a n c i a l g a i n s h a l l not be a l l o w e d w i t h o u t my w r i t t e n p e r m i s s i o n .  Department of The U n i v e r s i t y of B r i t i s h Columbia Vancouver, Canada Date  9\t+  DfcC  2JOO{  Page 1 of 1  ABSTRACT This thesis examines the dimensions o f user engagement with an online forum on British Columbia's new policy on educational technology. Contributors to this site included elementary and secondary schoolteachers, distance educators, parents, students, researchers, B C Teachers' Federation staff and officers o f the Ministry o f Education. In the main, they did not respond to Ministry documents directly. Analysis o f the site discussions reveals that participants mostly used the forum to debate the principles o f teaching and learning with technology. While many messages included collegial expressions o f support, others revealed the political, ideological and pedagogical boundaries between the various education sectors in B C . In follow-up interviews, participants reported that the discussions were often fragmented and hard to follow, that it was virtually impossible to tell i f anyone else was listening, and what the impact o f their contributions was. They were conscious o f their professional status and uncomfortable about not knowing the size or identity o f their audience, which included the Ministry o f Education (BC). From the interview data I argue that the forum did not significantly increase public contributions to policy debate. However, while they acknowledged the shortcomings o f the medium, participants still agreed that a forum o f this kind was a valuable feature o f their professional and political landscapes. In conclusion, I argue that different users differed enormously i n their expectations o f what the site offered, what their contribution might be and how such a site contributed to the realm o f policy discussion at large. The political and educational agendas o f those who did participate remained separate, fragmented and occasionally conflicting. The terms o f engagement and motivation, as well as the shortcomings o f this type o f discussion, form the subject o f this analysis. The conclusions reached here are critical to understanding the potential o f this new medium for encouraging greater dialogue around political and professional issues i n education and other fields. Finally, I argue that, i f the Ministry o f Education could show a more effective listening presence, the texts which are produced on a future site would be more likely to answer their policy consultation needs.  T A B L E OF CONTENTS  CHAPTER I  C H A P T E R II  C H A P T E R III  CHAPTER FOUR  Title page Abstract Table o f Contents List o f Tables List o f Figures Acknowledgements  i ii iii v vi vii  Introduction  PAGE 1  Background  2  Thesis Overview  3  Literature Review  8  The Role o f Deliberation  9  Challenges for Deliberation The Internet: A Deliberative Space Online Equity Cautionary Tales Summary Framing the Question Methodology: The role o f the moderator, the role o f the researcher  16 18 26 27 34 36  Building the Site Furnishing the Site Moderation Skills Closure Participant Interviews Methodological Concerns Virtual "Fieldwork" K n o w i n g the Participants Language as Social Organisation: The Vitality o f Text Message Summaries  39 42 45 52 53 57 62 69 75  Discussion o f the Postings  87  Examining the Data The Forum Content  87 96  39  79  iii  CHAPTER V  CHAPTER VI  Participant Connections Message and Thread Coherence Classroom Narratives Challenge and Conflict in the Online Debate Invitations to Speak Citation o f Sources Speaking With Authority Political Content  97 100 103 106 Ill 114 118 119  Discussion o f Participant Interviews  135  Perceptions o f the Forum Audience Reaching the "Public" Comments on the Debate Private Knowledge Ministry Perceptions " M y Advice"  139 143 152 154 157 162 164  ;  Conclusion  169  Policy Contributions Further Questions Closing Remarks  171 175 178  REFERENCES  181  Appendix I  Screen Shots o f the Site  188  Appendix II  Interview questions 2.1 Teacher participant 2.2 Ministry participant  191 191 193  Appendix III  E m a i l Interview Transcript  195  LIST OF T A B L E S Table Table Table Table  1 2 3 4  The Order o f Events During Research Summary o f Forum Messages Summary o f M y Advice Messages Summary o f Participants  PAGE 41 81 82 83  V  LIST OF FIGURES Figure Figure Figure Figure Figure Figure Figure Figure  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8  The Public Forum Home Page Forum Threads Sharing Readings Side-Stepping Digressions The Moderator at Work A contributor points to a moment o f irony Initiating a discussion with a set of priorities Building on the earlier contributor's points  PAGE 42 43 116 123 188 189 189 190  vi  ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I could not have completed this research without the unfailing support o f my parents, Simon and Adrienne Klinger. I have greatly appreciated their help and encouragement, and that o f m y brothers, Daniel and Jonathan, over the last four years. I would also like to thank m y supervisor, Dr. John Willinsky, for his guidance during this time. D r . M a r y Bryson and Dr. Linda Farr Darling have also been a tremendous help to me i n academic and professional matters. M y colleagues have offered invaluable editorial feedback and moral support throughout this endeavour. The Centre for the Study o f Curriculum and Instruction has been a rich and rewarding environment i n which to study. Dr. Karen Meyer (Director, C S C I ) , Dr. Carl Leggo (Graduate Advisor, C S C I ) , Fleurette Sweeney, (Peer Advisor) and D r . L y n n Fels (Writer i n Residence) have all contributed to this experience. To Graham Harrington, Jackie Seidel, V a l i a Spiliotopoulous, Constance Chai, M a r c i a Braundy, thank you all for your friendship, encouragement and good humour during the months o f research, writing and editing.  CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION This thesis examines the intersection o f three critical areas o f concern: information technology, policy development and public deliberation. More specifically, it investigates what happens when technology is used to facilitate deliberation among members o f the public as a contribution to government policy on educational technology. It is about how this technology, as well as our own private, political and professional contexts can influence the extent o f our access to and benefit from that discussion. Using the example o f a website developed i n the Canadian province o f British Columbia in conjunction with the B C Teachers Federation and the Ministry o f Education, known as the Public Knowledge Policy Forum ( P K P F ) , this study examines how technology was used by educators and the public within the public realm o f policy discussion and development. In short, it explores some initial efforts to transform the political landscape by altering the kinds o f information shared and the facility with which they are used, with the intention o f making the process o f policy development more transparent and inclusive. Throughout this discussion, I write with the understanding that public deliberations about policy - and their potential contributions to policy itself - are not "rational, objective and systematic" (Cherryholmes, 1988, p. 92). They are not described by a set o f linear processes. Instead, and like the numerous, other texts which mediate our experiences o f the social world, these discussions are shaped by "the discourses and ruling relations that regulate and coordinate beyond the particular local setting o f their reading or writing" (Smith, 1999, p. 80). In turn, these political discussions may also be understood as talk which, rather than being about the world, they are instead a way o f intentionally "[making] and [remaking]" it (Barber, 1984, p. 177). The full import o f these discussions may therefore not be appreciated until one considers the contexts i n which they are created, as w e l l as their attendant, symbolic meanings for those who have taken part i n them. The research I shall discuss here springs from m y interest in educational conversations which take place online. While I am certainly interested i n the new information technologies themselves, they are described here as the stage on which an emerging human drama is enacted. I am interested in exploring how the human actors on this stage contribute to a growing body o f digital discourse. H o w do educators develop, manage and describe the  discourse that arises i n text-only environments? A n d what are their motivations for doing so? I w i l l ask how far coherent, engaging and fruitful dialogue is produced, to what ends, and what the effects are o f interventions by teachers, moderators or emergent leaders. I also want to understand the way i n which other forms o f information find their way into this talk as newspaper articles, research materials, staff-room conversation, policy group meetings. What kinds o f information are shared and what contribution might this make to other policy discussions within schools and government offices? This study examines the contributions o f 69 participants to the threaded discussions on a web site designed to gather feedback on a new education policy initiative being developed by the Ministry o f Education, B C . The site, which had a three-month life span, also housed a collection o f research articles, ministry publications and other background resources for the discussion. A m o n g the participants were high school and elementary teachers, distance and home school educators, high school students, officers o f the Ministry o f education, staff o f the B C Teachers' Federation and university researchers. This analysis draws.on both the content o f contributors' messages as well as on interviews with sixteen o f these authors about their experience. These interviews asked questions about the significance o f the P K P F and forums like it; the actual impact o f the P K P F on current policy and educational practice; and finally, they inquired about the very quality o f contributing to the online forum. What was it like to take part? W h i c h features promoted fruitful debate and which did not? Were there any extraneous, limiting factors? Background Between January and June, 1999,1 was employed by T L E T A C (Teaching and Learning Educational Technology Advisory Committee), the group which generated the first document (Conditions for Success) leading towards the Ministry's technology plan. This was the intended subject o f public dialogue on the P K P F web site. I was fascinated by the ways i n which various texts were developed through the course o f the group meetings. A m o n g these texts were the group discussions, the numerous reports and articles which were read and written i n the process o f establishing policy, and finally, the policy itself. Groups o f stakeholders met, conversed, inscribed their concerns i n documents which were then circulated among officials at the Ministry and other groups and individuals within the education community. However, only limited numbers o f stakeholders could be present at  2  these meetings, hosted by the Ministry and moderated by an external author with policy deadlines to meet. Debate was restricted by group schedules and by the requirements o f the policy process: the group would close in June 1999, whatever conversations had taken place. This experience led me to ask questions about the practice o f inviting public consultation in the development o f education policy. Who was invited? W h y ? When? A n d what form did their contributions take? Further, I was curious to find out what the impact o f these contributions would be, both on the individuals concerned and the policy debate at large. During numerous conversations with committee members, I found myself believing that these contributions were crucial to the creation o f a policy which genuinely represented the majority o f stakeholders. The voices o f teachers, parents, students and administrators simply must be solicited i f decision-makers were to develop a policy that truly answered to their needs and experiences. When asked, " D o you see yourself in this document? Does it reveal an understanding o f what teaching with technology means to you?," a teacher would be able answer, with complete conviction, " Y e s , absolutely." What I found, however, was that soliciting the voices o f "stakeholders" can be only one step towards truly participatory policy making. The process demands finding stakeholders who wish to speak, creating a forum in which they are able to do so, listening to them, creating written records o f their goals and concerns and advice to government, responding to these concerns, asking for more information when they are unclear or contradictory, developing policy which reflects both the desires and the conflicts and communicating back to the contributors just how their needs have been answered. These were just a few o f the steps which - to me - seemed crucial i f the public consultation efforts were to be effective and credible. This research has grown from the professional climate among both educators themselves and the governors o f education in B C . The B C Teachers' Federation ( B C T F ) not only advocated the formation o f the original T L E T A C group, but continues to advocate growing participation in the policy process (Listserv discussion, A p r i l 24, 2000). It asks questions about who should take part and why, and what form each party's participation should take. Thesis overview In this chapter I offer an overview o f the thesis structure, with a brief description o f the research conducted and the findings this work has generated. The chapter which follows  3  describes the literature which has informed my inquiry. This account fulfils several purposes. Firstly, I review the literature i n order to explain the role played by dialogue i n shaping public thought, and the contributions that this dialogue can make both to individuals and society at large. This literature is concerned with the ways i n which agendas for discussion are established, how these agendas are debated, who is present at these debates and the kinds of activities we understand to signify "participation." A l l o f these factors are understood as contributions to an activity generally construed as policy debate. Next, i n order to provide a context for the P K P F , I review literature which explores the contribution o f information and communications technologies to the realm o f public policy dialogue. I contrast research material which reports on current projects i n online activism with the P K P F . A l l o f these sites have used the Internet to increase public awareness o f social issues and the part that individuals can play i n seeing that these issues are handled appropriately by governments. These sites reside on servers i n British Columbia, across North America and internationally. I shall argue that these applications o f technology reveal an increasing dependence upon and demand for I C T as the tool for raising public awareness and converting talk into action. These applications are not straightforward, however, especially i n the many countries where governments may actively prevent debate through explicit or implicit threats to the citizens' safety. This is followed by some cautionary tales about the assumptions we bring to these online, political endeavours. What do we believe about the interface between technical facility and human frailty? What kinds o f assumptions and principles do we bring to our use o f computers as mediating devices i n our communications? D o we know what we value and are we able to articulate it? D o new technologies alter our moral or political outlooks? D o we know how? This chapter closes with a look at some directions we might take to focus our research efforts. I sketch out the research questions which brought me to m y inquiry, namely, what can we expect from an online environment designed specifically to solicit greater participation in the policy-making process? What do we take away from our interactions in these settings and are they as emotionally or professionally affecting as i f they had taken place i n an embodied, face to face environment? Where do minds meet when there is no gathering place?  4  In Chapter Three, I describe the Public Knowledge Policy Forum i n detail, giving an account o f its development, moderation, maintenance and closure. This third chapter also offers an account o f the research interviews with participants which followed the site's closure. A s both researcher and moderator, m y interest i n fostering productive dialogue on the site was two-fold: I hoped for a large body o f research data but I was also keen to promote public awareness and use o f the site. Here, the methodological and ethical concerns which accompanied m y work on the site are explored. These ethical concerns begin with the moment o f determining one's research population to gaining access, developing relationships with participants through to "leaving the field." I ask, what do these features o f qualitative research mean to the online policy researcher, and how can we ensure that the same degree o f tact, empathy and responsibility is shown to online participants as the subjects we might meet in a school building, a museum or a government office? I argue that the process o f establishing ethical research practices i n virtual settings is a dynamic process o f constant exploration and re-negotiation. Chapter Four explains how the themes and categories o f analysis were established for the site discussions. It offers a detailed examination o f the site discussions. It describes the types of information offered, the topics which emerged (such as access to I C T , the value o f improving existing teachers' skills, the relative merits o f distance and school-based learning), and the ways i n which policy materials and other information were used. In this chapter, I also explore the rhetorical strategies employed by participants to develop convincing arguments. I look at the ways i n which individual messages either paved the way for further discussion or brought it to a close, and the ways i n which professional and ideological positions were established. I argue that the contributors were often more motivated to discuss educational matters such as the I C T curriculum, and their pedagogical, ideological and practical concerns around implementing it, rather than examining policy documents or making further recommendations. From the forum data, I also argue that, while many messages include collegial expressions o f support, others used the environment to render explicit the political, ideological and pedagogical borders between the various parties responsible for education i n B C . Chapter Five reports i n detail on the interview responses o f P K P F participants about their experiences o f the site. These participants include officers o f the Ministry o f Education who  5  read the site as w e l l as a staff member responsible for analysing and interpreting the data resulting from public consultation exercises. I also heard from several teachers at elementary and high school level, as well as home school, distance education and online teachers. These teachers brought a wide range o f experiences to the P K P F i n their use o f technology, their years spent teaching and their previous contributions to policy. The interview materials offer some insights into participants' own interpretations o f the site's impact on their own learning and their views on its limited efficacy as a public, political tool. Next, I report on the participants' accounts o f their own contributions as readers and authors. These include reports o f dialogue which was often fragmented and hard to follow, where it was virtually impossible to tell either i f anyone was listening, or what the impact o f one's contribution was. Audience proved to be a key factor i n contributors' postings. In the last section, I show how contributors were conscious o f their professional status and uncomfortable about not knowing the size or identity o f their audience. In being unsure about the number and identity o f their audiences, contributors to the P K P F (as w e l l as the other education stakeholders I consulted) were occasionally guarded about speaking frankly or even speaking at all. The public nature o f the forum was a common concern i n the online discussions, the interviews and other professional settings in which the activities o f the P K P F were debated. A l l in all, this penultimate chapter describes a population which believed i n the value o f the forum and hoped to see it - or an endeavour like it - continuing, but who found it challenging to communicate effectively online, both i n terms o f following others' contributions and in making oneself understood. This chapter closes with a look at the lessons afforded by the P K P F for the designers, policy makers and moderators who might contribute to future sites o f this kind. A key division was clear in the participants' motivations towards discussions which either concerned educational matters (the reality o f classroom practice, the IRPs) or political matters (how policy was developed, who attended the virtual debate, who was excluded). Such divisions, as w e l l as the sparse and occasionally stilted nature o f the forum as a whole, create a sense o f tension between different participants' understanding o f what counts in information technology policy.  6  In conclusion, I show that the different writers and readers on the site exemplified a diverse set o f online reading and writing practices. I argue that different users differed enormously i n their expectations o f what the site offered, what their contribution might be and how such a site contributed to the realm o f policy discussion at large. This thesis is therefore not about the teachers' positions on the policy itself, because the conversations they chose to have did not place policy at centre stage. The following analysis pursues the direction taken by participants, both in the postings themselves and i n the follow-up interviews. A t one extreme, I found educators who hoped to share ideas with colleagues, socialising, developing a sense o f collegiality and sharing anecdotes and references. A t the other extreme were authors who only wished to express their individual concerns to the government and had no interest i n developing peer group relationships. I f these divided themes, expectations and topics do indeed merit different discussion sites, then designers must facilitate the creation o f these separate environments i n the future. Finally, I argue that, i f the Ministry o f Education could show a more effective listening presence, the texts which are produced on a future site would be more likely to answer their policy consultation needs.  7  C H A P T E R II LITERATURE REVIEW  The Public Knowledge Policy Forum was a response to recent developments i n education policy i n British Columbia. This policy would be concerned with the way i n which educational technology was used in B C schools, and was an ongoing concern for the B C Teachers' Federation ( B C T F ) . The B C T F wanted the new policy to reflect the values and recommendations o f members o f the public, and i n particular teachers. It was therefore vital that the largest population possible gained access to the ongoing conversation about this policy. In reviewing the literature, I shall be describing the theoretical context o f the P K P F . This context describes the context for the site's development as well as the research which has emerged from it. This chapter introduces the key preoccupations and themes from which my final research questions emerged. These include participation i n policy development; transparent or inclusive policy processes; deliberation i n public spaces; ownership and mediation o f communicative spaces; online discussion and last but not least, challenges to deliberation i n both traditional and online settings. Current events i n the news today confirm that the public is also being encouraged to question the nature and importance o f inclusive policy development. The recently elected Liberal government announced that twenty members o f the public, including a number o f journalists, would be invited to attend the first televised cabinet meeting. The C B C morning show coverage focused almost exclusively on the extent to which this gesture was actually a meaningful attempt to open the ordinarily closed doors o f government. While this discussion pushed aside the policy topics o f the day, such as transit and healthcare strikes, it revealed the media's enduring skepticism i n the face o f such developments. This skepticism is a theme I w i l l pursue i n Chapter Five, which accounts for Forum participants' experiences o f the discussions. The role played by online media i n political activities o f powerful nations is also gaining media coverage. While watching an evening bulletin on C T V (July 4, 2001) about the trend among young Russians to idolise Vladimir Putin, I heard that the government now retains almost full control o f the electronic media i n that country. In China, too, the government  8  recently shut down 1943 Internet cafes altogether and temporarily closed 6071, citing the mass circulation o f pornography and "information harmful to the government" as the reasons (International Herald Tribune, June 15, 2001). Such sudden gestures betray an anxiety on the part o f some governments, eager to restrict the communicative potential o f the medium, which, as this thesis aims to show, we have only just begun to explore. The role o f deliberation In this first section o f m y literature review, I shall describe the significance o f developing public spaces for dialogue i n tandem with policy processes which are under pressure to become more transparent and accessible to the population at large. I take the view that, while we might understand the notions o f "freedom o f expression" and "freedom o f information" to be ends in themselves, they are i n fact the means to larger ends: those o f creating education policies i n ways which both include the contributions and recommendations o f the public and ultimately reflect those contributions in the final publications. Discourse is construed here as the medium through which one may develop a greater understanding o f one's social context. In turn, this understanding enables individuals to take more active roles i n the changes which are being wrought on these contexts. So why might it be beneficial and desirable for members o f the public to engage i n discussions about political matters? What impact would this discussion have on the individual? What effect would this have for the public at large? First o f all, we must consider the impact o f political debate on the private individual. According to J. S. M i l l (1859) dialogue is essential to each person's learning about his or her environment. Open discussion is not only a right, it is the responsibility o f each individual to put forward his or her opinion in order to have it challenged, he says. It may be toppled or it may be reinforced through discussion, but the testing o f one's ideas against those o f others necessarily implies taking a step toward a mature intellect: N o wise man ever acquired his wisdom i n any mode but this... the steady habit o f correcting and completing his opinion by collating it with those o f others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation... is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, having been cognizant o f all that can, at least obviously, be said against h i m , and having taken up his position against all gainsayers - knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties instead o f avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject... he has a right to think his judgment better than that o f any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process... (p. 82)  9  This account shows how people learn through challenge; the process o f debate refining and sharpening our ideas, leading us towards a fuller understanding o f the issues. It describes a competent political actor, sharing his or her opinions with courage in the face of possible opposition, denial or outright rejection. It describes a rational situation devoid of professional risk or a significant but burdensome personal investment i n one's convictions. It also implies that our political opinions are being entered into some kind o f ideological stock exchange and that a process o f natural selection by truth value w i l l determine the currency o f each o f these ideas. The problem with this, as we shall see, is that the sharing o f ideas through our own texts is not value neutral, nor do ideas "survive" owing to their quality. It is erroneous to assume that Darwin's "fittest" intellectual creatures are also the "best" when it comes to human communication. The resilience o f a species is not dependent on moral or ethical factors, or, as Primo L e v i has observed, it is only the strongest - not the morally superior who survive. Furthermore, the advancement o f one's ideas is not a process devoid o f personal risk. The value o f each individual idea is not equal. Rather, it depends to a great extent on who has said it and i n what circumstances. Cherryholmes (1988) observes two features which alter the apparent strength o f one's arguments: "some beliefs are treated as unproblematic because o f institutional pressure... or some individuals may dominate because o f their positional authority" (p. 89). Here, Cherryholmes is pursuing the arguments o f Habermas, concerning the "social arrangements that constrain and distort communication" (p. 89). H e is rejecting the notion that any speech can occur in a vacuum, "institutionally unbound" to the interests, ideologies and power structures o f the human, social world. I w i l l pursue this theme later, throughout Chapters Three and Five. The contribution o f an individual to talk i n public settings can, however, alter more than just that individual's horizons. Each person's opinion can, J.S. M i l l (1859) argues, be construed as a public good, a commodity to which others may also claim ownership because of the contribution this makes to the discussion. H e explains the value o f this commodity by describing the opportunity cost o f its loss to society: Were an opinion a personal possession o f no value except to the owner; i f to be obstructed i n the enjoyment o f it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the  10  peculiar evil o f silencing the expression o f an opinion is, that is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. I f the opinion is right, they are deprived o f the opportunity o f exchanging error for truth: i f wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression o f truth, produced by its collision with error, (p. 79) In other words, i f public opinion is silenced, both society and the individuals within it w i l l suffer now and i n the long term. The "collision" o f truth with error results i n greater wisdom, he argues. For M i l l , this wisdom is seen as the output o f a market i n which the competing commodities are truth and falsehood. There is a sense i n which an absolute truth may be reached, and reached through some kind o f battle between good and evil (truth and falsehood) which w i l l inevitably lead to equilibrium or consensus. Schmitt (1923) describes a similar situation i n which "The truth can be found through an unrestrained clash o f opinion, and the competition w i l l produce harmony" (in Kester, 1998, p. 35). Talk, it would seem, can find a natural equilibrium i f allowed to flow freely i n the public sphere, but as I shall show, the free flow o f talk cannot be taken for granted, whatever our best intentions may be. In this thesis, I am specifically concerned with the role of public contributions to policy debate, or the ways i n which these contributions can alter the political landscape. I understand the three themes o f technology, dialogue and policy to exist i n the relationship o f an equation, where the status quo implies that the equation is balanced (whatever our ideological judgement o f that balance may be) and where a change to one factor i n that equation unavoidably influences the others. So, given that this talk does not occur i n isolation but i n relation to other societal factors, how might it be used as the intentional tool for change? Barber (1984) takes up this challenge i n debating the nature o f and possibilities for "strong democracy." H e is concerned with the ways i n which we engage i n "the judicious exchange o f opinion about the sphere of public life (p. 165), and argues for a political epistemology that is socially constructed, where our judgement can only be formed through interaction with others, and where the sum o f these interactions form the political establishment: "In designing our political institutions we are sculpting our knowledge. In founding a constitution, we are determining the shape and character o f our own political epistemology" (p. 166).  11  For Barber, then, dialogue is what moulds the vessel into which our understanding o f public life is poured. H e breaks down this political epistemology into nine stages, or elements of talk, which he characterises as strongly "democratic." These elements include the moment where interests are articulated; where persuasion occurs amongst the parties concerned; where the agenda is set; where mutuality is explored; where affiliation and affection are developed; where autonomy o f each party is maintained; where witness and self-expression take place; where reformulation and reconceptualisation o f ideas occurs; and finally, where community building occurs. A t this point, public interests, common goods and active citizens are nurtured. Reading about Barber's nine stages o f talk was a significant turning point i n m y understanding o f the policy development process. In having attended Ministry committee meetings, I had seen several o f these stages i n person. I had not, however, been present at the moment where the agenda had been set. This, I have learned, is where power resides. A s Barber himself acknowledges, "what counts as an 'issue' or a 'problem,' and how such issues or problems are formulated may predetermine what decisions are reached" (1984, p. 181). The arguments in favour o f promoting public discourse around educational matters therefore gain in currency, since a topic which has not been discussed i n staff rooms, newsrooms, government or union offices cannot make its way onto an agenda or be included in future policy. It must register as a concern or it w i l l be ignored. There is simply nothing to resolve. The agenda which then reaches the policy table is seen as "fixed and self-evident, almost natural, and in this sense, incidental to... deliberation and decision making" (op. c i t , p.180). It is this semblance o f naturalness with which I take issue in the next few paragraphs. Apple (1993) takes this notion o f "what counts" a step further, placing it in the context o f a political epistemology i n education. He interprets what counts to be a question o f legitimacy, arguing that "What counts as legitimate knowledge is the result o f complex power struggles among identifiable class, race, gender and religious groups... it is at times o f social upheaval that this relationship between education and power becomes most visible" (p. 26). The question o f visibility is key, since, as I mentioned above, that which does not register on the radar o f political discourse w i l l not be taken up and acted upon (or rejected) by others. Apple's honest appraisal o f the political origins o f the agenda for discussion hearkens back to the commentary o f J. S. M i l l , who understood discussion to be a symbolic  12  battle between the ideas and opinions o f individuals. A p p l e ' s take on this subject is deeply politicised and acknowledges the power inequalities between people, arguing that "those in dominance almost always have more power to define what counts as a need or a problem and what an appropriate response to it should be" (p. 10). Both M i l l and Apple thus accept the reality o f people and their ideas competing for the public spotlight, for media attention, legitimacy (or currency) and dissemination. Or, as Burbules and Rice (1991) show, it is one thing to be furnished with the requisite information and quite another to possess the psychological, political wherewithal to step into this spotlight: .. .there are dimensions of power and privilege that divide [different communities] and set their interests i n conflict. Furthermore, communication across such subcommunities is not simply a matter o f goodwill and persistent effort, and it is unrealistic and unfair to ask groups already put upon also to take on the burden o f trying to understand, and make themselves understood by, those who harm them or benefit from their deprivation, (p. 403-4) So while Barber understands that there is an element o f competition i n the act o f public dialogue (p. 191), he still considers the main task o f those who would improve this situation to be one o f "stimulating artificial kinship" among strangers (p. 189). H e advocates intimacy, affiliation and affection as the remedies for "the babble o f raucous interests and insistent rights vying for the deaf ears o f impatient adversaries" (p. 175). L i k e M i l l , he seems to ignore the significance o f subjectivity, implying that there is some absolute quality o f truth or meaning i n the contributions o f speakers to public discourse. After all, what he considers "mindless convictions" (p. 190) might be true beliefs for me. W h o is anyone to assess whose convictions are mindful? I f we genuinely believe that members o f the public need a forum i n which to debate issues which concern them, we cannot simultaneously promote the cause o f public discourse and censure those discourses we consider inappropriate or unproductive. There is, however, acknowledgement i n the literature that the desire to speak does not always come naturally. Sometimes this desire must be learned: i n other words, while the act of speaking out may itself be educational i n broad terms (we learn from listening to the commentaries o f others), sometimes just getting to the point o f speaking out requires further education. This education can occur through greater access to information which is pertinent to the policy in hand. I f we do not have the necessary resources for discussion and on which to form and reform our opinions, the conversations we w i l l have w i l l be limited by our limited  13  knowledge. F o r this reason, Pateman (1970) advocates the circulation o f more information about policy processes to the general public. She argues that members o f the public are inhibited by a lack o f information, which places them at a disadvantage compared to those who may be i n direct contact with decision makers, have access to government committee meetings and be copied on correspondence and publications throughout the policy process. Stichler (1998) and Page (1996) agree with Pateman (1970), arguing that the public needs more than to have their political desires gratified. They need to have them nurtured and developed so that their full potential can be recognised: .. .If we consider how social and political conditions can restrict and deform people's ability to desire certain kinds o f information... promoting intellectual freedom should aim not only at satisfying but at actually educating people's desires so that they are able to desire a form o f fully human functioning (Stichler, 1998, p. 172). In Stichler's view, information is the key to altering the political landscape. There is therefore a direct relationship between texts and the degree o f success with which individuals operate i n political societies, or as Page (1996) argues, "Even i f the public is capable o f a high level o f rationality and good sense, public opinion is bound to depend, in good part, upon the political information and ideas that are conveyed to it" (p. 2). So who w i l l show leadership i n altering the public's relationship with this information, vital to the "fully human functioning" o f the populace? Stichler believes that the role o f the government in this climate o f open talk is one o f facilitator: If the informed citizen is a person who has the ability to deliberate and think critically about a wide range o f decisions that affect the well-being o f his community... the broader task o f the government.. .is to identify and remove the obstacles that prevent people from using these resources effectively, (p. 172) Doctor (1998) agrees, stating that "only government actions can create equitable distributions of information resources" (p. 237). What we are seeing here is another step towards making policy processes more transparent and inclusive, a motive which Barber (1984) also applauds. H e argues that "the task o f democracy must be to invent procedures, institutions and forms for citizenship that nurture political judgement" (p. 166). While I concur with the spirit o f his argument, though, I am wary o f personifying (and romanticising) democracy in this way, since it takes our attention away from the human beings who bear real responsibility for instituting these procedures and forms o f citizenship. It renders abstract the  14  very real burden o f political leadership on decision-makers, union staff, teachers, parents, students and any one else who has taken on this "task o f democracy." I would also take issue with Barber's argument against information elites, since it separates the notion o f equality from democracy, as i f one were not a vital condition for the other: " I f we reserve talk and its evolution to specialists - to journalists or managers or clerics or packagers or bureaucrats or statesmen.... Then no amount o f equality w i l l yield democracy" (p. 191). I f all equality means is an absence o f overt oppression, then it would be straightforward to maintain that all is well with the world and that there is no need for change. A s far as Apple (1993) is concerned, though, equality (a precondition o f a healthy democracy) is not a state that anyone can take for granted, it is one which must be made and remade to ensure its endurance. It is not a hardy, self-propagating plant, but one which needs nurturing and constant surveillance. The research literature published over the last five years shows a continuing concern for this theme o f public deliberation. Fung (2000) argues i n favour o f deliberation as the means to creating more effective policy i n many sectors, including education, policing and environmental management. Increased citizen participation would, he claims, encourage states to be more responsive and prevent the majority from leaning towards tyranny. Payne (1996) agrees, observing that "deliberative political mechanisms featuring relatively open participation.. ..seem to offer a promising means for identifying, recognising and/or constructing generalisable interests" (p. 129). Benhabib (1994) neatly parcels up the value o f deliberation in public life as "procedures for generating necessary information; for revising beliefs and for the articulation o f 'good public reasons'" (p. 26). Having now seen the arguments in favour o f promoting dialogue among members o f the public. W e have understood that more information pertaining to policy-in-progress and issues at large is necessary to inform and refine this dialogue, and we are beginning to understand what kinds o f actions might be taken with respect to roles and responsibilities associated with making information more widely accessible. The government - or whoever decision-makers are - might themselves take an initiative in nurturing the curiosity o f the people. In asking more direct and searching questions, the people w i l l then demand information o f a higher quality, greater accuracy and relevance to their needs. In combination with the arguments o f M i l l , Barber and Pateman, we begin to see how the impetus for a more representative policy  15  development process comes from the joint desire o f the public to debate their concerns and the government themselves, who - more than simply providing information - might actively promote its sharing and remove any obstacles to its application in resolving social problems. Dialogue, then, is to be an essential part o f developing the collective knowledge base o f a society. It is also essential for the people to debate new policy directions as part o f the general endeavour to improve the quality o f society i n which we live. Collective understanding ( i f not "truth") can be approached by the sharing o f contradictory opinions. The tension, the "collision with error" M i l l describes, is thus evidence o f living democracy in progress, not evidence o f its failure. Challenges for deliberation While we may believe wholeheartedly in the necessity for public deliberation as part o f the policy making process, we should be wary o f assuming that its achievement is straightforward. Public consultations are not always conducted i n a smooth and trouble free manner, nor can we expect the discussions to have the outcomes we anticipate or hope for. Pelletier et al's (1999) research investigates the influence o f deliberation on participants' views o f the policy domain. He conducted participant observation concluding that the outcomes were not fair or good and that the discussion perpetuated inequalities, rather than resolving them. Button and Mattson (1999) also concluded that deliberation was "a complicated process marked by conflict, differing orientations, and political inequalities" (p. 609). Even more outspoken is Sanders (1997) who actually argues against deliberation on the grounds that "preconditions o f mutual respect and equal participation" have not been met (p. 347). Finally, another complaint is launched by Page and Tannenbaum (1996), who argue that " i n modern mass societies much political deliberation is mediated by professional communicators, who may fail to represent the values o f ordinary citizens" (p. 33). This echoes the authors concerned with public confidence in cybersystems, since the appropriation o f issues by newspapers and television reports means that deliberation is mediated, is not held directly between citizens. Overall, though these arguments are, rather than being a case against deliberation altogether, simply signposts for the bends i n the road, or maybe notices o f hazardous rockfall. They do not suggest that promoting genuine deliberation is a futile or worthless endeavour, merely that achieving this goal is a significant challenge. Even knowing when  16  this goal has been achieved can be a challenge. I f opinion is not shared publicly, citizens who might have been persuaded by new information w i l l be deprived o f the opportunity to expand their political judgement. Given that we now recognise the importance o f taking part i n public debate, and have learned to gain more - and higher quality - information, we now desire to do something with it: namely debate i n more depth, examine our sources, challenge them and perhaps make decisions based upon what we now know. W e may even take on leadership positions i n society as a result o f these activities, developing policy documents for our own professional situations, bringing them to the attention o f colleagues and superiors. M y purpose i n describing this process is to remind m y readers that, whatever the impact o f these activities may be on individuals, there are other outcomes to consider. Concerning ourselves solely with the act o f speaking out suggests that we are ignoring the goals o f these speeches. Barber (1984) claims that: Citizenry [speaks] to power i n a voice rich with affect and commonality, a voice coloured by its origin in autonomous wills seeking imaginative self-expression and by the public medium through which it is conveyed, (p. 167) It may be easy to let ourselves be over-awed by the "imaginative" potential o f public discourse. However, while the act o f engaging i n political dialogue may include an element of artistry, the artistry is the means to a political end, not an end in itself. Members o f the public - and, i n particular, professionals contributing to policy which w i l l affect their profession - can bring diverse perspectives and a wealth o f experience to the policy debate. M o r e than simply being heard, however, they must be recorded and explored for their value to be recognised and understood. A s M i l l observes, "[Man] is capable o f rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted" (p. 82). Furthermore, there must also be action. The research presented in this dissertation w i l l demonstrate that even when avenues for further dialogue are provided, even when a wealth o f information is supplied in order to bolster the quality o f that dialogue, there are still obstacles remaining in the path between talk and action. The Internet: A Deliberative Space In recent years, research on the use o f the Internet as a political medium has developed into its own discipline. M o r e and more, governments, interest groups and individual citizens are  17  using the medium to expand their inquiries about and contributions to their political lives. A t the same time, there is an abundance o f literature restating and re-examining the significance o f online dialogue i n public life (Adler, Gent & Overmeyer, 1998; Stromer-Galley, 2000; Whillock, 1997). W h o should be debating political issues, in what kinds o f arenas, and to what end? Taken together, although not always overlapping i n their concerns, these two realms o f research describe a need for thorough inquiry into the potential o f web sites which both foster productive dialogue and supply accurate up to date information, and which are developed with the cooperation o f governments and interest groups so that each party's information needs are met and so that the climate o f open discussion might be nurtured. Politically oriented, virtual media have proliferated i n many countries since the early 1990s. M y first search on this topic turned up results gathered i n fifteen countries across Asia, North and Central America, Eastern, Central and Western Europe, the M i d d l e East, Africa and Australia. These countries include Denmark, the U K , China and Tibet, Indonesia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Russia, Northern Ireland and the U S . Canadian content is extremely limited at present. What do these online facilities look like? In this chapter, I shall refer to bulletin boards, listserv discussions, newsgroups and web sites. Since I am largely concerned with media which facilitate discussion, let me illustrate some key distinctions between the first o f these three items. A l l o f them allow ongoing discussions to take place, but i n slightly different ways: on listservs, the messages arrive i n one's private inbox and are typically addressed to a group o f subscribing members. These members must have previously expressed an interest i n the topic o f discussion i n order to receive these messages and w i l l receive this mail until they choose to unsubscribe. The messages they receive can be treated the same way as all other messages, being read and filed, or read and deleted, depending on each individual's habits o f information management. Text-based listservs are often (but not always) moderated. While the moderator is typically responsible for making sure that the facility is used appropriately, definitions o f what is appropriate can vary, as can the extent o f the moderator's presence. In some lists, the moderator is virtually invisible, only stepping i n when he or she finds a member using the list in ways for which it was not designed. A n example o f this might be posting an advertisement for an apartment sublet or a boat sale to a moral philosophy list. The list may offer access to a  18  large number o f people at once, but such bulk mailings are considered taboo and thus junk mail. Continual posting o f inappropriate messages can be considered foolish at best and a rude or aggressive flouting o f group etiquette at worst. O n an internet-based bulletin board, the discussion is housed on a web site, with all o f the messages showing at once. Unlike listservs, which deliver messages to individual mailboxes, the user must make a conscious decision to "visit" the discussion i f s/he wants to read or post to it. Again, unlike a listserv i n which all participants receive messages in the same order, the bulletin board format is non-linear, allowing numerous different topics to be pursued at once; many o f them only gain the attention o f a few visitors. The messages are also surrounded by and large - by others tackling the same or related topics. In one's email inbox, they may be sandwiched between letters from friends, notes from colleagues and listservs mailings on another topic entirely. Newsgroups operate i n a similar fashion to bulletin boards, i n that users must visit the location where the discussion is actually housed. The comments appear i n a separate window, rather than being emailed to individual contributors' inboxes. Having clarified the subtle differences between bulletin boards, listservs and newsgroups, I shall now explore some o f the arguments i n their favour as appropriate media for fostering productive, collaborative dialogue between members on the public on topics o f a political nature. The uses o f I C T for political ends are several. Web sites and email are being used by legislators to interact with constituents (Adler, Gent & Overmeyer, 1998), by government ministries, interest groups and individuals. The appeal o f I C T is easy to understand: it is an infinite space, ready to accommodate an unlimited number o f opinions; in the absence o f time zones and conversational immediacy, it fosters a permissive and welcoming environment for dialogue; that it operates as an effective medium for storing and sharing information and that, since all comers are able to read and reflect upon all o f the public contributions posted there, the impact o f the contributions on government officers and decision makers reading this material might be richer owing to the extent and conviction o f the ideas represented. A s Stromer-Galley (2000) notes, the medium diminishes the effects o f geographical distance, allowing campaign managers to store and disseminate vast amounts o f information  19  with much less effort than traditional mailing procedures would demand. She argues that political messages can be targeted more effectively using online communications and provide more interaction between candidates and voters. Her research examines the extent to which these facilities can enable participants to enact the nine stages of participation for strong democracy articulated by Benjamin Barber (1984). The nine stages include the articulation o f interests, agenda setting, the articulation o f affiliation, bearing witness and reconceptualisation o f the original agenda. Stromer-Galley's finding is that, i f the w i l l o f the people is behind them, the technologies w i l l ultimately help participants achieve Barber's goals. Governments and would-be governments are also using online communications to further their own ends. Online marketing was employed during the 1996 U S elections (Whillock, 1997) and the internet was also used extensively by Chinese authorities defending their rule in Tibet (Bray, 2000). Bray argues that the Chinese web site had an identifiable impact on the World Bank, which subsequently altered its programs in the region. In other words, information is not only being disseminated, it is being read and acted upon i n ways which materially alter the fabric o f our social and political lives. Given the potential for free circulation o f information, the internet is already being used in response to power imbalances and the limits to freedom o f information which are being exercised i n some countries. Political protestors are using online media i n order to promote and share their ideas and strategies worldwide (Ayres, 1999). H i l l and Hughes (1999) found that newsgroups devoted to countries governed by non-democratic regimes carried a significantly higher number o f anti-government messages than those discussions on democratic countries. Finally, H i l l and Sen (2000) have made a case for the internet as a significant factor i n the decline o f President Suharto's fortunes in Indonesia. O n the basis o f these accounts, one might reasonably argue that the medium has done something to redress the imbalance o f power by altering the nature o f information being shared, something which would likely be impossible i n regions where, for example, publishing a subversive newspaper or broadcasting a controversial radio program would constitute a serious life risk. Ghareeb (2000) actually found that information technologies have "transformed political discourse in the [Arab] region within a few years" (p. 395), allowing discussions to take place across national borders.  20  These discussions may certainly help to redress an imbalance o f information and power in regions where citizens feel that the government does not represent their needs accurately. A s Henderson (2000) argues, the information sharing capacities o f the internet enables opposition groups to damage the public image o f totalitarian regimes quite effectively. Ott and Rosser (2000) also make a case for increased access to I C T i n Africa, i n order to remove the obstacles between members o f the public and the policy processes which govern them. In areas where political situations are less hazardous and the possible dangers o f speaking out are less immediate and severe, there is a greater likelihood o f bringing the government and concerned members o f the population into closer contact. U s i n g web sites such as the Public Knowledge Policy Forum, it is, theoretically, possible to bring members o f the public together with the decisions makers themselves, so that each party's concerns can be articulated, debated and attended to properly. Given the rapid rise o f politically motivated, online media, there is now a need for further inquiry into whether the positive changes to public participation i n policy processes have indeed materialised (Coleman, 1999). Several significant challenges to the productive use o f virtual media have already emerged. First o f all, there is the question o f public confidence i n the systems being used. A s Feldman (2000) found, many users o f online political media are reticent about speaking up themselves and do not trust them, on account o f the parties who o w n and manage the web sites. H e argues that user confidence i n these systems would rise i f the information they carried was more reliable, the medium more straightforward to use and the site owners more accountable to the public. Feldman is correct i n drawing our attention to the element o f site ownership: i f a reader suspects the motives o f the site producer, he or she w i l l be most unlikely to trust the information carried on it. This finding is supported by Taylor and Burt (1999), who argue that the philosophy o f the initiators has a profound effect on the extent o f participation enjoyed by any politically motivated web site. Fandy (2000) also comments on the importance o f trust in Arab countries, where oral sources are often considered more reliable than written ones. This guardedness would seem to be justified at the moment. Researchers who have investigated email and internet use o f congressmen i n the U S were interested i n seeing how the new media had, as promised, made the politicians more accessible, more responsive and  21  more accountable to their constituents. The findings were, however, that rather than altering the ways i n which these politicians conducted their business, the new media merely reinforced old habits. E m a i l and websites are thus being used to advertise political candidates and constituents' needs are scarcely being addressed (Carter, 2000; Owen, Davis & Strickler, 1999). Researchers in Slovenia have also found that, while the government is providing more information, public use o f the websites on offer is still limited and cautious (Vintar, Decman & Kunstelj, 1999). In other parts o f Europe, civic networks have suffered from low adoption rates and inequality o f access (Tambini, 1999). Furthermore, a review o f 270 Californian municipal web sites which examined the extent to which participatory models o f reform were being supported found that most sites lacked a clear mission and favoured entrepreneurial endeavours (Musso, Weare & Hale, 2000). Only one o f the articles I turned up in my search of political science abstracts unequivocally stated that digital media had made a federal government more accountable and responsive to its citizens (Mambrey, Neumann & Sieverdingbeck, 1999). These findings illustrate a key aspect o f political (and other) web sites and remind us not to assume that all sites are o f the same species. This feature distinguishes those web sites which are created to disseminate or broadcast information on a one-to-many model, versus those which deliberately promote discussion on a many-to-many model, within the very medium o f the site. The distinction reminds us that, while deliberation itself is understood as a desirable and necessary feature o f a participatory democracy, fostering discussion without accurate and reliable information is largely unproductive. Citizens who are well-informed but have nowhere to share their information amongst themselves are unable to refine their understanding and discover new perspectives. Individuals and groups who have a forum to discuss political matters but have no way o f accessing government documents or their sources, w i l l also be at a disadvantage; even i f they contribute to policy discussions, they w i l l only have their own opinions and experiences to draw upon. For digital media to serve a real purpose i n informing policy, provisions must be made for circulating reliable information which contributors might use as the springboard to their learning. If the information and discussions are housed i n one place and can easily be referenced within discussions, using  22  live U R L s for example, the medium w i l l have been used to its advantage as the place where information can be stored, retrieved and discussed with ease. The concern over ownership might also be resolved i f web sites with a political orientation were developed by groups or individuals who were known to the public, or whose affiliations were considered acceptable. The web site I describe i n the following chapter, the Public Knowledge Policy Forum, was created i n circumstances quite unlike those described so far by the research. Apart from the fact that it was hosted by a university research team with an interest i n academic inquiry (and without a specific political affiliation), its inception was itself the result o f an unusual collaboration: that between a government ministry, two universities and a teachers' Federation. While the teachers' federation has a high profile in the provincial media i n the interests o f its members, it is a professional organisation, not an elected body in need o f campaign time to secure votes. Hence, while the issues promoted by the forum under investigation may be seen to advance the concerns o f the Federation i n some way, the site did not rely on promises o f government reform, which might be interpreted as voter manipulation. Let me return to the question o f access for a moment. Even where individuals have computer access, there is no guarantee that they w i l l use the tool for the task intended by policy developers or interest groups. A s Docter et al (2000) discovered, many web site visitors only look at the first page, neglecting to explore any other materials or possible discussion areas. They consider this to be a result o f voter apathy, concluding that only a highly active political minority would actually use and benefit from a political forum online. This is a concern for any web site developer hoping to gain the attention o f the populace, but it is also a problem for researchers interested i n gaining access to a reliable sample o f participants. A s Rosenblatt (1999) observes, research into the value o f online polling is still extremely limited i n its findings, owing to this problem o f sample selection. These limitations reveal the need for the wide promotion o f politically motivated web sites. If deliberation is to be a political possibility for the majority o f voters, they must know where and how to find the forum. To that end, the job o f moderating the Public Knowledge Policy Forum included liaison with the local media, direct correspondence with parties who might be interested and postings to numerous professional and educational listservs.  23  Where governments and private citizens are communicating directly with each other, it is easy to understand the power inequality felt by some contributing to the exchanges. W e might expect, though, that among peers who share professional or political motivations, digital media could foster a spirit o f collaboration and therefore participation i n policy procedure. To date, however, this has not been established. Day (1999) found that interest groups using email were no more likely to develop inclusive decision making procedures than their counterparts, who relied on face to face meetings. The increased potential for information sharing did not have a positive effect on the social behaviours o f group members. Overall, then, and i n spite o f increasing use o f and good faith in the medium, empirical research seems to show that, rather than overturning power structures in democratic countries, digital media are still reinforcing these structures (Lofgren, Andersen & Sorensen, 1999). The current lack p f qualitative, locally relevant data which ties the motivation o f site developers, the political context o f its creation and the actual outcomes for policy makers and participants alike demanded that research be conducted i n this realm, within British Columbia. In securing the cooperation o f the provincial government, the site was not intended to be an antagonistic move, rather a gesture towards collaboration which opened the doors to conversation with the Ministry o f Education about the genuine impact o f the Forum on decision makers. The Public Knowledge Policy Forum has therefore paid attention to the challenges described above i n terms o f site development, ownership (it was not owned by the government or the public media, but by a university) and moderation; its concern with ongoing deliberation rather than one-time polling on pre-established issues; its interest i n developing a collaborative space for both information sharing and discussion; the opportunities it created for gathering qualitative data regarding the number and quality o f contributions as w e l l as the participants feelings about those contributions after the event; the impact on policy makers o f these discussions. The research I discuss also describes the actual dimensions o f authors' contributions to an online discussion forum. More than just providing recommendations for analysis (Lascher, 1996), it examines actual data collected during the course o f debates surrounding a policy  24  which was i n the process o f being drafted. These discussion data are examined along the lines o f discourse analysis models developed i n educational settings, not according to the lights o f political science theory. In so doing, the analysis reveals how members o f the public accept the invitation to participate i n policy creation i n an authentic context, rather than "identifying the inadequacies o f existing discourse relative to an ideal model o f democratic deliberation" (Gastil, 1992). M y goal in doing this research has been to expose the practical ' application o f online discussions so that future policy makers, site developers, moderators and participants might bring realistic expectations to the discussions and to their intended impact on policy development. The ideas o f free speech and freedom o f information have long been central to the culture we understand as the internet. "Cyberspace" has been conceived o f as a public good like air, free to those who desire access and i n which no passions, no opinions can be quelled. Software is to be shared freely, any accessory that can conceivably be downloaded should be downloaded and the prospect o f government regulation or ownership was positively horrifying. The Internet's cultural origins are, however, a peculiar and ironic mixture o f academe and the military. Beginning i n 1968 with the establishment o f an email system, its purpose was the protection o f a cautious superpower against the threat o f war; the network's cultural significance has since undergone a drastic transformation. Ironically begun as the tool o f a powerful government, the network rapidly expanded throughout the world's universities; with academic abstracts being swapped online and the establishment o f listservs in numerous disciplines, free speech became an end rather than a means. Certainly the technology aided the rapid transfer o f information, but it was the principle o f the thing that counted. The internet has come to be seen as the abode o f alternative views, the place where free thinkers reside when they find the physical world too (intellectually) restricting. Unsurprisingly, this preoccupation with digital spaces has spawned a new generation o f science fiction i n which humans transcend their mortal capacities by connecting themselves, bodily, to the technology, such as in The Matrix. But to what extent can this environment be fertile ground for social action? H o w far can political desire be represented online, where the medium is largely silent, text-based and more often than not, asynchronous? Heated debate must surely cool rapidly when subject to the delays o f days and weeks. The teachers I know in B C are among the busiest, most  25  committed and passionate individuals I have met. Imagining how these people might invest themselves in the silent virtual world o f a moderated web site has seemed more like a flight of fancy than a real possibility at times. The literature about online policy debates only takes us part o f the way towards an understanding the nature o f this possibility, but it is a start. Online Equity In a setting where participants are all invisible, their age, ethnic origins, social class and sexual orientation all unknown, it might be reasonable to hope that the following finding may be generalised across all settings: W e came to understand how anonymity frees some students from inhibitions about writing and critiquing each other's writing, and how it dissolves class, race, gender and even personal identity issues (Handley & Oaks, 1997, p. 114). Teachers who correspond online may also be freed from the social hierarchies that affect their daily, professional lives. "People actually listen to each other without making judgements about the person talking based on pre-conceived stereotypes" (Fusco, Email Correspondence, 1999). Correspondingly, Harasim et al (1995) assert, " W h i l e recognising the role o f authoritative information and teacher [or moderator?] guidance, many new networked learning systems aim to give learners "increased control and agency i n the knowledge-building process" (p. 272; citing Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1991). I f an author wishes to contribute to a discussion on a bulletin board, all she needs to do is read the previous postings, reflect on her response, type it and hit send. She need not wait for another person to finish speaking before she submits it and is in no danger o f having the bell ring before she gets her moment. W i l l i n s k y ' s book, Technologies of Knowing: A Proposal for the Human Sciences (1999) discusses the challenge o f managing vast amounts o f research data which are scattered on servers and hard drives worldwide; i n the meantime, the public has little knowledge of, access to, or application for this valuable data. W i l l i n s k y ' s concern is for the way in which data are transmitted and translated into useful knowledge and - potentially - action among members o f the public. H e proposes that a centralised corporation for information management be created which would house publicly accessible and multiply hyperlinked research findings, which could be examined and debated freely by everyone. Not only this, members o f the public could add their questions to the research agenda, which could lessen the potential for self-serving but cumbersome and socially irrelevant research. The  26  corporation would help to rationalise the social science research endeavour, minimising duplication and making it more responsible to the people it was ultimately designed to serve. W i l l i n s k y stresses the public service aspect o f research, demanding that technology be used to nurture and promote a participatory intellectual climate which would, ultimately, ensure that government could become responsive and accountable, while also being founded on solid research findings. I f a field o f research remained in conflict throughout the decades - for example the "Phonics vs. Whole Language" debate i n reading instruction - the two sides o f the argument could at least be easily discerned and the core principles behind each side extracted for practical application to policy making. If used effectively, then, communications technologies might help to promote a greater degree o f civic engagement among all members o f the public. W i t h access to accurate and relevant information, researchers and non-researchers alike would be able to meet their own information needs swiftly, addressing whatever social concerns are nagging them. N e w avenues for dialogue would be opened up, enabling the population greater access to peer groups and decision-makers alike, flattening the traditional structures o f communication among different sectors o f the population (Schuler, 1996). Cautionary Tales If we are going to adopt these new channels for communication, we must be aware o f the real reasons for doing so, and be able to discriminate between decisions based on theoretical or ideological advantages and decisions based on the tested, proven value o f these channels. In recent years, ideological arguments have been made repeatedly in favour o f virtual discussion environments. These complement the technical and logistical arguments about the speed o f information transfer and the facility for many-to-many communication. Cautionary questions about the nature o f online interaction are also raised by contemporary writers i n philosophy. These authors ask what our reliance on these new media really means for our moral lives. They ask questions about the equations we draw, not between the factual elements of, for example, the time- and paper-saving features o f email, rather the abstract, ideological notions attached to this technology. What do we think it brings to the quality o f our lives and why? What abstract - after the fact - justifications do we make for living with and depending upon these media?  27  Kester (1998) criticises our adoption o f new media, not on the grounds that they are useless, rather on the basis o f what he perceives to be a moral economy. H e argues that we attach value to information as an end in itself, rather than as the means to fulfilling some other purpose (such as participatory policy development); thus, where information is free flowing and accessible, we draw the conclusion that society has moved ahead and that we are now living i n a morally advanced, satisfying world, regardless o f the uses to which this information is put. "The flow o f information... is taken as a paradigm for a broader cultural progress towards the telos o f a democratic society" (Kester, 1998, p. 213). A s a result, Kester argues, new information technologies are understood as the tools o f unequivocally positive change, since they facilitate the rapid transfer o f vast amounts o f information, stored in numerous formats and media. A t this point, it is important to distinguish between the two ways i n which the plea for improved "democracy" is made, with respect to new technologies i n general and online discussions i n particular. Firstly, it is used to refer to the ways i n which participants i n online discussions treat each other and is a result o f either the medium's asynchronicity or the absence o f spatial and conversational cues, gesture, movement and other information such as race and gender. Secondly, however, the term "democracy" is favoured i n conversations which pertain to the impact o f the technology on society at large. In other words, the arrival o f the technology is seen to alter some facet o f our public, social, political lives by interrupting the ways i n which we habitually seek and use information, and by the kinds o f information to which we have access. Using the technology as evidence o f social progress (rather than the impetus for social change o f any kind) is seen by some authors (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Kester, 1998) as an error o f interpretation and one which only repeats the mistakes o f those who saw the advent o f educational television, chalkboards, steam power or electricity in the same light. Online discussion environments do not necessarily facilitate egalitarian discourse, nor are they settings i n which every visitor w i l l feel comfortable speaking out. Internally, they can be characterised by as much tension and politicking as our everyday, face-to-face interactions, although with less cunning and more bluntness. In this section, I shall attend to some o f the reasons given i n support o f an increased use of I C T for political and educational purposes. These reasons typically depend on a set o f  28  equations, where change and progress are considered to be equal; where computer-mediated connections are equal to community building efforts i n physical spaces and where the very provision o f new applications is equal to their use, and their use is equal to to positive effect. These positive effects are typically described i n terms which appeal to a sense o f profound hope i n the improvement o f society. These improvements are suggested with language that promises greater prosperity and more equitable arrangements for sharing information and education. I write with the intention o f steering around some popular conceptions about online communication and discussion forums i n particular. I begin with a look at the uses o f "Democracy" and "Community," followed by brief visits to "Information" and "Knowledge." I have taken my lead from Kester (1998), who observes that: N e w technologies or technological forms... are celebrated - or feared - for their capacity to generate unlimited power, mobility or productivity, and to transcend the boundaries o f existing forms o f social experience and organisation, (p. 207) Open access to information is not a public good - an end - in itself unless it is read, assimilated, understood and used by the citizenry to inform choices and shape educational change. Just because the facility is there, people cannot be expected to communicate in different or better ways than they have before. It was, however, worth creating an environment which might effect change. However marginal the change, it could be a first step towards the general application o f similar facilities i n future. Staff at the Ministry o f Education's Technology Branch recently expressed this hope, while acknowledging that it may take more than one experimental phase to establish a workable model. While we may hope for an improvement in the social dynamics o f online discussions over their face-to-face counterparts, we should not expect that our own groups w i l l necessarily conform to this positive model. Hollenbeck's (1998) article purports to be an analysis o f the claims to improved classroom democracy via computer-mediated learning. H i s introduction promises a balanced, critical inquiry: Coupled with the rhetoric o f school reform, the Internet-driven curriculum is seen as a place for students to create meaningful knowledge on their own, using an environment o f experts waiting to be interviewed and vast amounts o f information ready to be mined. It is my contention that most o f these knew promises remain based upon the computer delivering information to the student, (p. 38)  29  However, having asserted that "there is a sense o f a more democratic... environment" (p. 39), he does not actually explain what he means by "democracy" (Freedom o f speech? Freedom o f information? The possibility o f a party in power and an opposition? Consensus among the population?). H e then brushes aside the difficulties he has himself observed i n an online classroom. A m o n g these difficulties were student loneliness, a lack o f collaboration, a feeling that interactions were dominated by the medium and the length and number o f postings submitted by certain individuals. This latter problem persisted even when conference size was altered. A n y o f these problems might be interpreted as diminishing student ability to contribute meaningfully to the governance o f the learning space. That may sound like an "undemocratic" learning environment, however loose one's definition o f democracy, but it wasn't the conclusion reached by Hollenbeck. Resiliently, the author declares that inequities are greatly reduced when we move classes online, that teachers i n this setting become "learned peers" (p. 42). I am not disputing Hollenbeck's conclusions, but I remain unconvinced by them because, although his study involved the collection o f data in the form o f transcripts, none o f this material is made available to his readers. W e are therefore unable to decide for ourselves whether the data, the analytical procedure and the conclusions are o f the same family. Most importantly, we are unable to judge whether the data met his (unstated) criteria for "democracy." W i t h scant proof such as this, critical readers are left wondering whether the researcher adopted the results through prior bias alone. H e advocates "the challenge is to be aware of... difficulties while seeking evidence o f truly democratic action that is a result o f computer conferencing"(p. 44). I would respond that our first task is actually to define what we mean by democratic actions in educational C M C (computer-mediated communication) v i a discourse or other analysis, to make our thinking transparent to our peers and only then ask, to what degree these actions are achievable. Otherwise, we risk doing just what Kester, Doctor and Stichler have cautioned against, that is, assuming that the technology - and not the user - determines the kind o f communications (and therefore social dynamics/power structures) that people have i n this setting. Participants in online forums can adapt and experiment with their textual self-presentation far more easily and whimsically than they can their physical appearance. Blundering around in eWorld, I enjoyed the new sense o f mastery that can be derived from re-writing oneself  30  online. However, this genre manipulation as a way o f altering one's self - empowering though it is - represents a degree o f online fluency or literacy at the high end o f Markham's scale. It comes with hours and weeks o f practice and the sense o f control it affords can be appealing. A s Markham (1998) quips, "I could find that backspace button on the keyboard in an earthquake, on m y deathbed or with amnesia" (p. 135). W e may know that this is possible, but we may not immediately assume that this degree o f freedom and fluency with the medium can be expected from educators participating in an online debate about policy. It may be time for a conversation about the kinds o f communication skills we expect o f ourselves and our peers; it is also imperative that we allow time for this renegotiation. A s Misanchuk (1997) observes, it takes time for these skills to develop. Let's pause for a moment to think through some o f the other ways i n which the medium might "fail us." It allows for absolute anonymity. It allows for name, shape and gender shifting as well as the uninhibited articulation o f our worst prejudices and greatest intolerance. Walther, Anderson and Park (1989) found: Name calling, swearing and insults, flaming, impolite statements, threats or putdowns, crude flirtations o f a demeaning or sexually explicit nature and attacks on individuals. (Walther, Anderson & Park, p. 473) Rather than hoping for an invisible but egalitarian group o f disparate participants, then, we might reasonably expect the social and linguistic structures that permeate our real-life practice to be lived online as well. Gruber (1995) found that existing hierarchies, gender prejudice and racial stereotypes persisted i n online settings. The performances o f gender in men and women were consistent with classroom interaction analyses. Wolfe (1999), too, found similar relationships between gender, discourse and power online. In her study o f mixed groups, men received more directed questions than women; women agreed with men more than with each other; tangential comments were more likely to come from male participants; women were less likely to respond to oppositions but responded well to tangents, taking the discussion a step further. In addition, Coate (1997) draws our attention to the personality traits which describe a comfortable contributor to online debate. W e are reminded that this environment appeals to "people who love wordplay, language and writing... [It is] a place to debate, to joke, to schmooze, argue and gossip" (p. 167). He acknowledges that " i f the balance tips to anyone's  31  advantage, it's i n favour o f those who are better at articulating their views. Some people are amazingly skilled at debating" (p. 173). Many, however, are not. Educators may find Coate's analysis somewhat limiting in the lack o f attention paid to equity factors: we must remain aware that online interaction is not always and only liberating, that it may in fact silence and exclude those who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the medium. The empowerment o f online discussions - as the place to develop both a sense o f "mastery" and "community" - described by Davie and Wells (1991) is not necessarily the norm. The medium o f online bulletin boards allows for the close examination and critique o f other debaters' comments. A s we shall see i n the case o f the P K P F , authors can use the medium to pin their adversaries down more forcefully than they might in everyday conversation. Comments are not issued contemporaneously, they are not fleeting observations, rather they are printed, (possibly) permanent and can be read and mulled over during the course o f several hours. More references can be found and other arguments marshalled i n opposition, and in the absence o f the first author. Where a site is created for the express purpose o f interrogating policy documents, these oppositions can promote an atmosphere o f formalised academic debate. It is worth noting that this style o f debate can lead to verbal sparring which makes some participants extremely uncomfortable: The academic culture often rewards acquiring an aggressive style o f communication, epitomised by an 'adversary method' that assumes that the best way to evaluate another's ideas is to subject them to rigorous and severe questioning. This communicative style impedes dialogue i n many situations, especially given contexts o f previous frustration, insecurity or silencing. (Burbules & Rice, 1991, p. 412) In these closing sections, I shall examine the use o f some terms which have gained currency i n publications about online communications i n education i n recent years. B y revealing what I do not assume about the nature o f these communications, I hope to add some background colour to the methodology chapter which follows. These assumptions are extremely significant because, as I shall show here, they often mould the questions we bring to our research, the way we conduct it and the conclusions we reach. First, I'd like to look at the term, "community." Commonly used i n texts investigating the character o f "democracy," it should be applied cautiously, since it carries powerful intimations o f an ideal collection o f human relationships. W e should also be wary o f labelling casual groups as "communities, since "Not every collection o f people... form the  32  sense o f trust, mutual interest and sustained commitments that automatically deserve to be labelled as communities" (Kling, 1996,1-V, p. 426). One example o f this use o f the term can be found i n the writing o f Serim and K o c h (1996), who describe communications between Russian students and American teachers as a community without examining or defining the term. They have not described a sustainable community, developed over several months or years, rather they offer a narrative about the fleeting excitement o f making a new contact via email. W e do not learn about the values brought to the online interaction by the students, nor whether any o f his students made comments that were ill-advised or blundering. W e only learn that the communications, while brief, were unequivocally positive, which should make their readers suspicious o f their conclusions. According to Harasim et al (1995) "Networks are group communication environments that augment social connectivity" (p. 274). If we compare them to sitting alone with a computer terminal at home, sure, but not i f the alternative is sitting i n a classroom with m y fingers covered i n glue sticking blobs o f tissue paper onto Kirsty's drawing o f a sheep. Again, the network is said to promote "shared interest rather than shared geography." It is rather ironic that the most popular argument i n favour o f (remote, computer-mediated) online instruction is that the medium allows students to be more sociable. Finally, what have "information" and "knowledge" come to mean i n this new climate? A n d what relevance do these features have for the education system? Firstly, I would like to assert that information and knowledge are not the same thing. Despite popular rhetoric to the contrary, I interpret information to be text, graphics or other audio visual representation; it is not elevated to the status o f knowledge until it is assimilated i n the m i n d o f a reader or viewer. The O E C D recently published a book entitled, Knowledge Management  in the  Learning Society. It is described as a text which "analyses and compares concretely the processes o f knowledge production, dissemination and use." Even bearing i n mind the 1  O E C D ' s preoccupation with economics, we may still doubt the relevance o f applying the language o f production lines to a debate about educational systems. In other words, knowledge is not something that we produce v i a rational systems any more than policy is the result o f some machine process.  ' 33  The term, "knowledge," applies to a learner. It is not a discrete product which stands apart from the knower any more than "democracy" can be separated from its constituent features. Furthermore, there is no single, measurable "cognitive diffusion gradient" (Hodas, 1996) between the information (or the teacher) and the taught. Where information is increasingly being seen as a commodity to be bought and sold (Stichler, 1998), it is inappropriate to refer to employees as "knowledge workers" and the market as a "knowledge economy." In a society that claims to value an equitable public school system, are we promoting the value that knowledge "should" be bought and sold? This is i n direct contradiction to the rhetoric o f improved "democracy" achieved through computer networking (Agre & Schuler, 1997). If we are looking for neutral terms, we must surely resort to "text." Ignoring for a moment the political nature and origin o f all texts, we might at least abandon the fashionable assumption that all text is information and all information is valuable. There is a great deal o f text on the Internet, but I am loath to promote it to the status o f information and even less willing to credit it with the label o f "knowledge." Information, and that produced through dialogue, is commonly understood to be a public good and a right, not a privilege (Kester, 1998; Murdock & Golding, 1989). W i t h information becoming more o f a commodity than a public good, however, it follows that our values w i l l shift around the process by which texts, information, and therefore knowledge, wisdom and power reach individuals in society at large. That process is what we usually call education and as we know, this process is never value neutral. It is as vulnerable to the structures o f power and inequity as any system described by, influenced by so much information. There is the information that passes from Ministry to school district, from principal to staff, from staff to students and parents and from the media to just about everyone. H o w we manage the role o f the Internet i n future education policy development depends on the values we attach to information: What we think it is for, who we think "deserves" to have it and (most importantly) who "deserves" to use it. A s Charles Ungerleider has commented (Western Research Network on Education & Training, March 24, 2000), public policy is the evidence o f values - and not rational systems - at work. W e would do well to bear i n mind that former generations have regarded political judgment as being based i n "doctrine" rather than i n truth ( M i l l , 1859 in Acton (1972) p. 173).  34  Summary The literature draws our attention toward the importance o f public dialogue both for the individuals concerned and society at large. It convinces us that, i f we are to promote the engagement o f private individuals in the processes o f government, then they must have both the incentive and the means for doing so. The literature has also shown me that what people say online - as i n every other realm - shapes both the world they live i n and their understanding o f it. In creating texts, authors are announcing their presence, populating a virtual environment and contributing to the moment o f negotiation i n which the norms o f discourse and behaviour are established. I have learned that participants in online settings understand their contributions i n many different ways, using metaphorical terms which speak to their different investments (or literacy) i n that setting. I have also been reminded that the relationship between conversational texts and their audiences is fluid and dynamic, not static and concrete. Audiences help to determine the very texts created for them, which should make us particularly wary in settings where the audience is unknown i n number or identity. The literature has described the potential o f and rationale for using the internet as a locus of political dialogue, but so far, has failed to establish with any precision the dimensions o f doing so; furthermore, there is an absence o f material concerned with dialogue about government policy, especially by those professionals who w i l l be charged with the responsibility o f enacting that policy. Frameworks for understanding casual, social interactions i n online settings abound, as do interpretations o f student discussions i n virtual classrooms. The quirky, imaginative and often ungrammatical uses o f English i n chatrooms, listservs and M O O s have been central to numerous literary and sociological studies (Markham, 1998); they have asked questions about the psychological profiles o f individual users (Turkle, 19xx) and the formations o f groups; they have explored the behavioural norms and infringements which arise in many settings and have looked at notions o f social equilibrium and justice as well. They have asked whether the communications which occur here are "real," whether the connections one forms are tantamount to relationships and whether the discussion groups merit the description o f "culture" or "community" (Jones, 1996; K l i n g , 1996). Nonetheless, these studies have yet to integrate their interest with the sociological and linguistic norms (or idiosyncrasies) o f online settings with the current interest i n examining  35  purposeful, political discussion spaces. Wilhelm's (2000) analysis o f a political newsgroup has been a valuable addition to research in the realm o f online discourse analysis, but the environment he explores is one characterised by incidental meetings o f dispersed contributors, not professionals or members o f the public who are personally invested in the education system o f the province they live in. While there is a move towards this kind o f inquiry, research has not yet asked questions about the relative value o f these spaces in either uniting groups o f like-minded individuals or bringing together those with strongly opposed convictions. They have focused in general on the social qualities o f the discourse and, while there is a growing body o f ethnographic research into online discourse, there is little information about the relationship between the online discourse and the professional and political discourses into which the online discussions are inserted. Online discourse may seem to be abstracted from the world i n which we live, but it is certainly not "new" i n the sense that the terminology and shared understandings o f many participants are often borne o f years spent as an educational practitioner. Framing the Question In moderating the Public Knowledge Policy Forum, I therefore tried to lay aside the assumption that simply creating the site had improved the quality o f civic participation in policy development, the quality o f "democracy" i n British Columbia. I f the quality o f public debate has indeed been improved, it must be because there was a need for the tool at that time and because its potential users saw its immediate value. I do not understand the technology to be a "metaphorical embodiment o f democratic organisation" (Kester, 1998, p. 208). The metaphors to which Kester refers are not merely linguistic toys that w i l l vanish from our speech i n the way that once fashionable words do. Metaphors show what we have learned about ourselves; they illustrate what we think the significance o f our world actually is. A s Hodas (1996) observes, "each shift to a new metaphor drastically affects the way cultures view the natural and human worlds" (p. 203). In other words, I have been prepared to have m y expectations o f - or hopes for - the technology weathered by m y experience o f it. I also understood that the P K P was becoming party to an online culture with specific and amply catalogued features. It is a culture that values (and indeed promotes) intellectual freedom, as is evidenced by the activities o f the Electronic Frontier Foundation, dedicated to  36  preserving free speech i n cyberspace; it is only one o f many such organisations ( I did not, however, assume that "material abundance, decentralisation and democratic community" (Kester, 1998, p. 209) would necessarily result from the mere provision o f these new technologies; I recognise the significance o f the existing human structures into which they are assimilated (cf. Hodas, 1996; Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Kester, 1998). M a n y contributors were new to forums o f this kind. They had not spent numerous hours online, nor were they comfortable or knowledgeable about managing their selfpresentation i n these environments. While we might hope for Habermas' "ideal speech situation," one that might be "free o f [sic] repression and argumentative inequality" (Dallmayr, 1990, p. 9), we cannot necessarily expect it, and i f we do, we risk producing self-fulfilling research like that o f Hollenbeck, explored above. The Public Knowledge Project attracted a diverse group o f individuals, even within the public education sector, among whom there were (in no particular order) elementary and secondary teachers, students, administrators, distance educators, B C T F and Ministry o f Education representatives, academic researchers and parents. Where some participants had no teaching experience, others brought twenty years o f experience to the conversation. Others brought doctoral degrees, masters research (in progress) and the challenges they faced as online teachers. Clearly, hierarchies would emerge among this diverse population. I knew, however, that not all participants would be experienced, keen contributors to online discussions. I was also conscious that some o f them might have been burned by previous exercises o f this genre: being asked to contribute their time and energy i n a field they felt passionately about, but finding that their efforts made no difference or were simply ignored. In setting up a web site with the express purpose o f (re-)creating a political domain, we hoped to facilitate dialogue which would contribute both to the educational and political landscapes o f the province. B y altering the nature and extent o f information available, we wanted to find out how a change to one part o f the equation might unbalance the other factors. Having read the theory defending such an application o f I C T , I was no longer interested i n fulfilling the imaginative predictions o f authors who would advocate a growing reliance on computer-mediated communications i n which change was taken to mean  37  progress, information was construed as knowledge, or where a fleeting connection might be understood as the construction o f a learning community. In short, I wanted to see what political actors would actually do with the new informational, educational, political and technical reality. A s Schmitt (1923) observed: In the domain o f the political, people do not face each other as abstractions, but as politically interested and politically determined persons, as citizens, governors or governed, politically allied or opponents - i n any case, therefore, i n political categories. In the sphere o f the political one cannot abstract out what is political, leaving only universal human equality. W o u l d this be the case online? Who would speak out? Who would be listening? What kinds of contributions would participants choose to make? H o w would they respond to each other, what would they learn and what kinds o f action would they take as a result o f their learning? The P K P F activity was a determined effort to find answers to these questions. In conclusion, the literature examined here has brought to light some key areas o f concern in the field o f online, political discussion. It has enabled me to refine the general  1  questions about whether people would take part into more detailed questions. These questions concern the conditions which enable or hinder prolonged, purposeful discussion. They also include questions about the participant population and the moments when they choose to contribute their perspectives and to whom.  38  CHAPTER THREE M E T H O D O L O G Y : T H E R O L E OF T H E R E S E A R C H E R , THE R O L E OF T H E M O D E R A T O R  Building the site Given the climate o f inquiry around public contributions to policy using the web, the site I shall describe here was designed to find out just what would happen i f an open forum were created for this purpose. The site I describe was developed specifically to facilitate discussions about, and contributions to, recent developments i n B C education policy. The policy i n question concerned the new information and communications technology applications i n B C schools. While teachers are currently invited to contribute to B C Ministry policy, these contributions usually take the form o f a single letter or email, from an individual or group, to the government. One example o f this sort of public review was the Special Education policy consultation, which was conducted in 2000. This review was conducted by means o f a coordinated email campaign by the B C T F and addressed to teachers throughout the province. There is, however, no prolonged public discussion, nor does the Ministry usually engage i n two-way exchanges with the educators who contribute i n this way. The Public Knowledge Policy Forum was therefore designed to increase both the volume and quality o f public contributions to educational technology policy by offering discussions lasting up to three months. In November 1999,1 was offered the position o f online moderator for the Public Knowledge Policy Forum. The software for the forum had already been designed, intentionally shadowing the structure o f the Ministry's planning document, Conditions for Success.  The Public Knowledge site offered a niche for me to combine m y research  interests i n policy, educational technology and the possibilities for online discourse. The online discussions would offer data for comparison with current research i n the field o f educational telecommunications. Further material could also be gathered on the quality and sense o f purpose behind participants' contributions by interviewing them when the forum closed. The site was the second i n a series o f initiatives organised by the Public Knowledge  39  Project at U B C . The project's overall goal was to bring salient questions and findings o f academic research into the public sphere to promote public inquiry and understanding about them. The first stage began at U B C i n early 1999 with a web site developed i n collaboration with the Vancouver Sun. This site was tied to news articles on education published i n the paper. The emphasis was therefore on local circumstances: the newspaper's readership were residents o f B C concerned about education i n their own province. The agenda for discussion was effectively set by the newspaper so that its numerous readers would, literally, be on the same page when they logged onto the site. The P K P F was developed to tie i n with the concerns articulated i n Technologies of Knowing (Willinsky, 1999). It was an experiment in nurturing open communication between decision-makers and the public, specifically members o f the public with an interest in education. The project developers hoped to answer the need for teachers and the public at large to have a greater hand i n offering policy feedback. A s Beane and Apple (1995) observe, teachers and other educators have a right to contribute to the governance o f a field which they have themselves shaped. The aim o f the site was therefore to draw out some o f these problems and issues. The P K P site's database o f approximately 300 articles and other references was created to give visitors a context for the discussion and an opportunity to become better informed about the subject in hand. This database included numerous research articles and links to newspaper reports, organisations and educational web sites. L i k e the discussion area, the database was organised according to the headings used i n the original Conditions for Success publication and i n the headers for the P K P F discussions themselves. The P K P F was created at a specific juncture in policy development. B y November 1999, two documents had been published by the Ministry on the subject o f I C T i n B C schools, Conditions for Success and its sequel, Plan for 2000 and Beyond. The policy process was therefore well under way. A n original advisory committee on technology ( T L E T A C ; the Teaching, Learning and Technology Advisory Committee) had closed i n June 1999. The ministry doors were not closed to public contributions, however. Educators were given until January 14, 2000 to respond to the two documents, either through hard copy or email. In spite o f these efforts, by January 18, 2000, only 37 written responses to the Ministry's planning documents had been received from the following groups: education partnership organisations, school districts, individual teachers and technology coordinators. Does this  40  figure indicate a lack o f interest i n the new policy? A r e teachers simply not concerned? A r e they happy to wait for new curricula to emerge without their engagement? The answer to all of these questions is clearly "no." When the Education Technology Branch at the Ministry advertised the provincial forum at Vernon they were deluged with responses and had to turn at least forty applicants away. The motivation was there but the facilities simply didn't allow for their attendance. Other would-be delegates were unable to secure the funding to attend. The provincial forum took place A p r i l 6-8, 2000. It was attended by up to eight representatives from each school district i n the province (Ministry o f Education, Conversation, M a r c h 14, 2000). Further to this, the B C T F hosted an invited policy seminar to review the draft policy (January 21-22, 2000) which was attended by several members o f the original T L E T A C committee. Issues discussed here included professional development, distance education, online education and funding. I presented the Public Knowledge Policy Forum on the second day o f the seminar and chaired a discussion about its potential and some challenges we still faced. Lastly, the B C T F has itself a number o f established listservs, which anyone can j o i n to discuss a wide variety o f concerns for education i n B C . The following table shows the order o f events during the period o f research: Period  Activity  June 1999  M a r c h 2000+  T L E T A C committee closes and Conditions for Success completed. Conditions for Success made available to P K P team for publication online. Forum open Invitations sent out Plan for 2000+ made available for publication online. Ministry deadline for submission o f formal responses to Conditions for Success and Plan for 2000+ Forum closes, research interviews begin  June 2000  Research interviews completed and transcribed  July 2000  Writing  October 1999 Nov. 22, 99 - M a r c h 3, 2000 November 1999 January 14, 1999  Table 1. Research schedule The site was the result o f a collaboration between U B C and the B C Teachers' Federation ( B C T F ) ; the B C T F had been instrumental i n forming a committee at the Ministry i n 1999  41  (Teaching and Learning Educational Technology Advisory Committee; T L E T A C ) which ultimately reported to the Deputy Minister for Education, Charles Ungerleider. In addition, technical development personnel were housed at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology, with database support being provided by the B C T F ' s research personnel. Access to the Ministry's latest publications on technology was granted by its Education Technology Branch and I was i n occasional contact with the information officer there throughout the life o f the forum.  W e l c o m e t o t h e P u b l i c K n o w l e d g e Policy Forum! T h i s is w h e r e y o u c a n j o i n d i s c u s s i o n s a b o u t t e a c h i n g , l e a r n i n g a n d e d u c a t i o n t e c h n o l o g i e s . Y o u c a n v i e w t h e C o n d i t i o n s for S u c c e s s ' R e c o m m e n d a t i o n s or t h e M i n i s t r y ' s P l a n for 2 0 0 0 + in a s e c o n d b r o w s e r w i n d o w . If y o u h a v e a n y c o m m e n t s o n t h e d e s i g n o r p u r p o s e o f t h e s i t e , y o u c a n j o i n t h e d i s c u s s i o n i n P u b l i c K n o w l e d g e P o l i c y F o r u m C o n c e p t . Y o u c a n a l s o c o n t a c t m e p r i v a t e l y a t< s h u l a m i t l S ) i n t e r c h a n q e . u b c . c a > , f o r a n y c o m m e n t s o r c o n c e r n s . look forward to s e e i n g y o u online! Shula Klinger Public Forums Moderator R e s e a r c h A s s i s t a n t f o r Conditions for Success. Available  F o r u m s  Visions and Principles  P o s t s : 17  L a s t P o s t : 03-02-2000 15:45  Student needs and expectations  P o s t s . 44  L a s t P o s t . 03-02,2000 23:29  Curriculum and Learning Resources  P o s t s : 21  L a s t P o s t : 03-02,2000 15:47  Educator Training and Support  P o s t s : 32  L a s t P o s t : 05-25-2000 10:02  Social Impact  P o s t s : 22  L a s t P o s t : 03-02,2000 15:49  Electronic Delivery  P o s t s : 57  L a s t P o s t : 03-02-2000 15:50  Research  Posts: 5  L a s t P o s t : 03-02-2000 15:50  Decision Making  Posts: 2  L a s t P o s t : 11,24-1999 14:57  _HLiS£  i£i  ^  ±JL  Figure 1. The Public Forum home page. Furnishing the Site The site was designed to tie i n closely with the Ministry documents, with discussions divided into two main areas, the public forums and another section entitled " M y A d v i c e , " for people to write directly to the Ministry. Each o f these two areas was divided into nine subsections according to the chapter headings i n Conditions for Success. The design team did this to facilitate easy cross-reference between the report and the forum conversations. In addition, an area entitled " P K P F Concept" was included for participants to comment on the use o f the medium itself. The forum software, "Phorum," was a free package downloaded from the Internet, chosen for the clarity o f its interface (and o f course its price). The topics were laid out on a  42  Forums home page at, as shown i n Figure 1, above. C l i c k i n g on one of the topic choices takes the visitor to an individual discussion such as "Visions and Principles." W i t h i n this discussion, the moderator and contributors can post new topics as threads. These appear with responses at hanging indents, spreading out like a family tree (Figure 2)(Additional screen shots o f the site can be found in Appendix 1). •  P O S T M E S S A G E S W I T HL I N K S ! n e w  •  T e c h n o l o g y  B  S c h o o l union blocked grant from I B M H 3  report r e c o m m e n d a t i o n s  n e w n e w  R E : S c h o o l union blocked grant from I B M - B R E : strings '—  R E : strings  - B R E : Y N N H E 1 B C T F  n e w  S h o u l d it b e ?  n e w  Policy: B u s i n e s s / E d  R E : B C T F B  n e w  n e w  URL..?  Partnerships  Policy: B u s i n e s s / E d  n e w  Partnerships  n e w  n e w  La R E : U R L . . . ? n e w  JFigure 2. Forum threads Contributors could choose whether or not to give their names and email addresses, but many did not realise this and gave both sets o f details. They did not have access to their messages once posted, so as far as they were concerned, any posting was permanent. A s the moderator, I had privileged access both to my own messages and those from contributors. I could return to m y old posts for editing or deletion i f I determined that they were no longer necessary or were incomplete. I also kept an eye on those messages which included  URL  links to research sites and went by to paste i n the H T M L code to make these addresses hypertext, rather than plain text. For the web address, for example, I would paste in the code A H R E F = "" to the left o f this text, and "/A"  to the right.  Numerous efforts were made to recruit participants to the debate. The P K P F team hoped for  large numbers o f visitors because we were hoping for material which could be used as  research data later on. The more contributors we had, the more data we had on which to base research papers and conference presentations. Furthermore, a high number o f contributors would validate our claim that the site fulfilled a real need among B C teachers to be heard on matters o f education policy development. The  B C T F was also keen to see the forum adding momentum to the emerging  conversation about educational technology, as they have argued that "information and communication technologies can and should be used as tools for democratisation and citizen  43  influence, not just for economic ends" ( B C T F response to Conditions for Success, 2000). Some teachers (pseudonyms used here) had already gained access to the debates within T L E T A C , but many more "concerns could be articulated in the public arena" (Joe). A B C T F staff member described the P K P F activity to a reporter from the Vancouver Province in late 1999. Faxes were also sent out alerting schools to the forum on December 2 , ten days after n d  the site opened. A t this point, the forum was expected to last from November 22 until January 31, a span o f just over two months, or 70 days. A flashing notice was also posted on the B C T F web site on November 19, 1999, three days before the site opened, and a further message was added indicating that the discussion was indeed under way. Messages were sent out to the Computer U s i n g Educators o f B C ( C U E B C ) listservs and to other lists organised by the B C T F . A colleague whom I met at a policy seminar also posted a message to a separate social justice list. The Ministry was also hoping for large numbers o f responses to support their policy development activities. In interview, officers o f the Education Technology Branch described it as an "opportunity . . . to provide us with lots o f useful information" (Catherine, M a r c h 14). They promised to circulate messages about the site among their own contacts. Having searched the web for other interested parties, I wrote to school principals all over B C , having found email addresses listed under the Web66 school network. I specifically contacted schools i n remote districts, for example, i n Northern B C . None o f the principals I wrote to responded i n person, although they may have visited the site with or without posting (the site statistics alone do not identify them). Finally, I listed the P K P F i n the "Yahoo!" search engine and joined a Microsoft web community for technology i n education for this same purpose. I encouraged colleagues at U B C to drop by v i a emails to the faculty and student lists. I wrote to a faculty member the University o f Victoria who I heard was working i n a similar area, with a request to publicise the site among his colleagues, but got no response from him. I also was i n regular contact with an education reporter at the Vancouver Sun who promised to write an article about the P K P F in December 1999, but (in spite o f regular phone and email communication from me) failed to follow up i n the new year.  44  Moderation Skills The web site went live on November 22, 1999 and I was employed as the moderator for the public discussion areas. M y tasks were to include the recruitment o f participants, as described above; welcoming newcomers and offering support where needed; adding research literature to the resource database and promoting the ongoing dialogue with occasional prompts and suggestions. Ultimately, m y public role fell into three main parts: convening, maintaining and closing the site. I developed m y goals and expectations as a site moderator through three strands o f experience. The first was the position I had held as volunteer moderator for eWorld, Apple's now defunct online service (1995-96). I had visited and chatted i n the women's section several times when one o f the hosts suggested I apply for a position. Even though most o f the hosts were US-based, m y location (Cambridge, U K ) did not count against me and I interviewed i n real-time chat at midnight m y time. M y interviewer coached me with the basics o f online expression and I was hired on the spot. I received further online training through eWorld as well as informal pointers from other hosts during chat sessions. The atmosphere among the hosts was supportive but not uncritical. I f a new host were to speak out o f line or present herself inappropriately, she would be notified immediately. Suggestions on how to improve one's style were always forthcoming and delivered with grace. The eWorld environment itself was generous and welcoming. It was easy to become familiar with regular visitors, since we would all share information about our whereabouts and interests. In 1995 news o f Internet stalking had not broken and, with a subscriber base o f only 125,000, eWorld hardly counted as a teeming, online metropolis. It didn't take long before I recognised, for example, the login names o f a doctor i n San Francisco and a young woman i n Germany who had recently had a knee operation. It was friendly and the , conversations were easy, like the chatter at a yard sale or i n the lineup at a concert. I credit the women who created this environment with having established this kind o f discourse. It was a safe place, which welcomed a brand o f humour characterised by wordplay, irony and comic reflections on the medium itself. M y work at the Ministry also helped me develop a sense o f what moderating a policy forum might entail. Early i n 1999,1 had been recruited by the Ministry advisory committee on technology ( T L E T A C ) as a research assistant to one o f their sub-committees. In writing  45  an annotated bibliography for the final report (Conditions for Success), I drew on many o f my own readings. These pertained to the social impact o f technology, the inherent value o f bringing new technologies to bear on education practice and - i n particular - the implication of teaching children remotely, v i a the Internet. In working for this committee, I had an opportunity to attend meetings moderated by a policy consultant who had been jointly recruited by the B C Teachers' Federation and the Ministry. I watched how she kept time and order amongst these people while, on occasion, several would request the floor at once. These people had a very limited amount o f time i n which to agree on the principles for planning educational technology policy i n B C . Despite the evident conflicts that arose, the meetings swept ahead regardless and (incredibly, to me) documents were submitted, edited and published. I do not say that I hoped to mimic all o f the skills she displayed, especially since the P K P F did not aim to produce a collaboratively authored document, only the discussions themselves. Nonetheless, I certainly learned how it might be possible to steer a straight course around numerous conflicting opinions without aggravating the conflict further. I hoped to convey a similar sense o f generosity and hospitality toward a diverse set of opinions in m y own work as a moderator. This was a space for others to shape as they would. I exhorted, "Please feel free to contribute your own [questions] and to direct the debate as you see fit" (Educator Training & Support; 23 N o v . 1999). Here I actually used the word "free," suggesting that we value the freedom o f expression in public spaces. The second strand o f experience was m y reading o f the online moderation literature. I drew heavily on the work o f John Coate (1997), who emphasises the importance o f hospitality i n online settings. A s a moderator you are effectively the host o f a gathering and must learn to hold entertaining exchanges or your guests w i l l not return. They might need to be gracious, informal conversations, but they could equally be characterised by hostility and ritualised put-downs. The point is, the host needs to establish the colour and character o f the environment from the outset. K n o w i n g how to establish rules o f engagement with participants and when to step in to see that these are followed are both crucial aspects o f the host or moderator's role. Visitors must know - more or less - how they are expected to behave from the outset, so that everyone can be sure o f a consistent environment i n which the rules are clear. There are bound to be skirmishes on the periphery i f people disagree about the "true" character o f the environment, as described by Giese (1996), but an element o f soul-  46  searching can be a valuable ritual to members o f any community (Dibbell, 1996). I f we assume that most o f the visitors are strangers to each other at the beginning, it is important to err on the side o f caution i f you want your witty, provocative comments to cause laughter rather than offence. I drew heavily on Howard Rheingold's recent guidelines for online behaviour (; these were a great help i n shaping m y attitude towards - what I hoped would be - a mature, professional environment characterised by informed debate. The education literature corroborated m y understanding o f what made a "good" conferencing environment. Kuehn (1994), for example, found that "a conversational style o f teacher messaging produces the highest levels o f student participation" (p. 175, i n Mackinnon & A y l w a r d , 2000). I deduced that maintaining a somewhat casual interaction style would encourage people to post; excessive formality might make the environment seem forbidding to those visitors who were unfamiliar with the bulletin board format or with the material we had posted. I was conscious that, since a person's presence is declared by their text alone, I would have to be careful with what I said. H o w might the online discourse be affected (or not) by the removal o f all physical and spatial cues? These include nodding, smiling or gesturing, "go on" (Kimball, 1996); as moderator, I would also be unable to walk among the participants as they worked, observe the groups they formed by themselves, or notice which discussions broke away from the assigned task and covered new ground. Nonetheless, I could follow the advice o f Mackinnon and A y l w a r d (2000), offering "periodic input" (p. 59) posting messages to "clarify, to focus, to pose related queries, or to lend closure to non-productive asides" (ibid.). M y initial concern, then, was with promoting cohesive, collaborative groups i n online settings. I was interested i n the possible development o f new language practices here, with specific reference to the role o f teachers' interventions (Kimball, 1996; Powers & Mitchell, 1997; Johnson, 1995; Tagg, 1994). I asked, "What was the impact o f these interventions on the shape, direction and 'classroom' atmosphere? H o w did the literature describe these phenomena? H o w might I help to foster fruitful, engaging and relevant discussions?" In conceptualising what this environment actually was and how it might be perceived by our participants, I found Markham's (1998) categories o f online interactions to be invaluable. She divides her own, online research participants by those who view computer-mediated  47  communication as a tool, those who conceive o f it as a place and those for whom it has become a way of being. In some settings the communications may be viewed as a tool, simply for getting information across, for getting the job done. Her second category, place, has resonated most strongly with me because it takes our thinking about online interaction a step further. It suggests that forum or classroom contributors might conceive o f their activities as the means to co-construct an environment in which they can (to a limited extent) live, share experiences, negotiate appropriate behaviours, reflect on their thinking and, in fact, replicate a number o f the interactions which characterise staff room or policy committee talk. In this way, a shared virtual space can also become something o f a collective virtual brain: a reflective, inquisitive, inspiring place. So much has been made o f the lack o f physicality (Streibel, 1998) i n virtual classrooms that it is easy to be sidetracked. While our physical beings and voices can be filtered out online, I would argue that, as educators, reflection on our language practices w i l l allow for the preservation o f a significant portion o f the linguistic richness o f in-person policy debate. For educators, the last category - " W a y o f B e i n g " - remains troubled. T w o teachers commented to me i n January that, while their children were more than happy to invest many hours and a great deal o f emotion i n their online interactions, for them it remained a cold medium, with the same personal and cultural significance as a red letterbox i n the U K . They did not see it as an environment which they might "inhabit" psychologically. Such large scale personal transformations - to a situation where our sense o f agency is greatly invested i n the life online - have not taken place yet. A s one interview participant observed, "the web is not a place where I feel I can participate... I use email for that" (Joe, M a y 30). The literature i n online forum moderation also offered valuable insights into managing online discourse warmly and reminded me that vigilance i n our online language practices is essential (Rheingold, 1993; Coate, 1997). Since my main goal was to promote dialogue, I wanted - i f it were at all possible - to diminish participants' (possible) communication anxiety i n any way I could. The more our visitors spoke up, the greater the possibilities for improving the quality o f public participation i n decision-making. This participation might then be the means to developing a more sophisticated public understanding about the issues at hand and the processes by which they are resolved. I therefore hoped to appear friendly, approachable and - most importantly - available for  48  comment or assistance within an hour or two o f an email being sent. I wanted to stay away from feedback that seemed too critical or divisive. I knew that many opinions could be represented and that consensus would be unlikely i f not impossible. I therefore gave an account o f myself i n the forum (Public Knowledge Policy F o r u m , ) as follows: Author: Shula Klinger ( Date: 11-22-1999 15:48 "A community... online?" A s I ' m sure many o f you know, there has been a lot o f talk about "online communities" i n recent years. The potential o f the Internet to bring together people o f different cultures and beliefs, to share knowledge and build understanding, to forge bonds with colleagues and peers whom we would never have met otherwise and still may never meet i n person... To some extent we hope to promote a sense o f community here. W e invite the opinions o f people who share a common interest in educational technology, whose interest is rooted i n the province o f British Columbia and who have a stake i n the policy determined by the Ministry. It is, however, a brief gathering, akin to a professional development conference or a public debate at a town hall. The site w i l l be running until January 31st, 2000, so we do encourage you to step up to the podium as soon as you choose. New to online discussion? This is the first site o f its kind in B C and it may be the first opportunity you have had to take part i n a web-based discussion. A s you find your way through the site, please don't hesitate to ask me by email i f you find any part o f it difficult to navigate. This is an experiment i n public policy, so w e ' d like to hear how we might improve later incarnations o f the site. Come in and relax In the meantime, I'd like the forum area to be a welcoming place for us to share our experiences and perspectives. If we were able to turnish this site, w e ' d include comfortable chairs, endless supplies o f coffee and plenty o f cinnamon buns. Your forum, your privacy Y o u can remain anonymous i n your contributions i f you w i s h by omitting your name and email address from the message fields. However, i f you do include your personal details, your pithy observations may well be featured in our "quote o f the week" section. 1  A n y questions or concerns voiced to me privately, by email, w i l l remain so. Nothing sent to m y inbox w i l l ever be copied, pasted or distributed without permission. W e  This offer directly contradicted the wishes of the Ministry of Education Technology Branch. They wanted to know who each contributor was, they told me; this would allow them to "filter" their understanding of each message depending on its origin. 1  49  value your contributions and trust that all contributors i n this space - although virtual - w i l l be afforded the same dignity as i f they were speaking before an audience. I ' m looking forward to hearing from you, Y o u r moderator, Shula Klinger I had read that "it is fundamentally important to encourage the psychological feeling o f belonging to a group" (Davie & Wells, 1991, p. 18), and took this advice seriously. I hoped to convey m y desire for a gracious, dignified environment i n which differences o f opinion could be respected. Since the P K P F was a non-linear document, I knew that not all visitors would find their way here, so I also posted individual welcome messages to each topic. The welcome messages included a brief reference to Conditions for Success and a short, bulletted list o f suggested topics for further discussion. Although it closed with a friendly salutation, my language was more formal than the friendly address above. This was because I was imagining myself standing on a podium, giving a keynote address, a responsibility to which I am genuinely unaccustomed. M y formality was a way o f raising m y (graduate student's) voice both i n terms o f status and volume. I was responding to a ministry document. It seemed fitting to boom a little, even i f few o f these welcome messages developed into threads o f any length. In the end, visitors mostly started their own threads, interpreting the forum topic (such as Visions & Principles or Student Needs & Expectations) as the question on which further discussion should be founded. In m y efforts to maintain the dialogue on the forum, I also sent private welcome messages to every participant, where email addresses were given. The questions I faced as the moderator o f this site were many. W h i c h conversations did I join? W h i c h participants did I respond to i n private and which i n public, on the forum itself? A s M i l l (1869) comments, " a l l silencing o f discussion is an assumption o f infallibility" (in Acton (1972), p.79). Was the power to silence discussion mine? What other influences were at work among the participants i n their external social, political and professional lives? I was challenged on what I thought constituted "useful" and therefore "good" discussion. For example, did I expect or hope that everyone on the forum might agree by the end o f the debate period? D i d I value resolution over conflict, answers over questions? A n d what kind of information did I privilege? D i d I read accounts o f personal experience more closely than densely referenced arguments? Or was I pushing visitors toward Ministry materials? What value did I appear to attach to the Resource section?  50  A s the moderator, I represented the P K P F team, based at a university and working in collaboration with the B C T F as well as the Ministry, to a limited extent: I described myself on the site as a former research assistant to the Ministry committee. It said nothing about m y engagement with the B C Teachers' Federation, but it did not reveal m y origins (i.e. that I was not a B C teacher). I wanted to remain as neutral in my presentation as possible, to avoid giving the impression that I was pushing the Ministry documents at people, or that I was uncritically pro-technology. M y understanding o f the site population, based on m y conversations with teachers, was o f people who had plenty o f one-way information streams delivered to them already. They were, I felt, i n greater need o f a forum i n which to expand their own understanding and to form collegial links. I do not attach an atmosphere o f resentment to this observation, I merely wish to convey the sense that the teachers see the Ministry as a population separate from their own. A t the risk o f stating the obvious, this research w i l l demonstrate that teachers seemed not to see the Ministry (or the B C T F , for that matter) as being o f the same "community," as having the same priorities, goals and understanding o f their profession. Even as I worked on the P K P F site, my understanding o f the parties involved deepened, through face-to-face conversations and extensive email correspondence. Several site participants were extremely frank about their concerns, which greatly challenged m y confidence i n the contribution we could make. A researcher's growing understanding o f an environment increases the richness and detail o f the report she is able to give, but it also teaches her what to expect from each party. These expectations o f a research environment and the people who inhabit it w i l l direct the research questions a researcher asks. I struggled to remain neutral and lay m y expectations aside, fearing that the unthinking enacting o f them would skew both the questions I asked and the results I got. Most o f what I know about hosting i n asynchronous, virtual settings I learned through doing it. I struggled throughout with a set o f challenges quite apart from m y research interests i n policy debate and educational technology, wondering what is "good" moderation? H o w far can and should the moderator influence the form and content o f conversation about education policy? The biggest challenge was - o f course - bringing participants to the forum at all. The hypothesis that a moderator would be sufficient for this task (without the coordinated efforts o f a marketing and public relations team as well) seems to have been  51  disproved. The site was changed continuously, even after the November launch date. W e wanted to keep the home page lively to reinforce the impression o f a dynamic environment, so that regular visitors (including ourselves) did not become bored with its appearance. These changes were also made with the cooperation and assistance o f forum participants. A n elementary teacher i n Coquitlam who was also enrolled in the Masters Program i n Education at S F U wrote to me asking i f she could post her questionnaires on our site. I encouraged her to do so and flagged her request on the home page that week. She had also drawn up a comprehensive list o f BC-based web sites and research resources, so I added a link to this too, entitled "Made i n B C . " This was i n direct response to a comment from another participant who had found the database lacking i n BC-specific content. Each week we quoted recent participants on the home page. A n y comments which struck me as being observant, witty or simply heartfelt were copied with links to their home location within the forum. The H T M L was changed by Henry K a n g as soon as he received the U R L s from me. One week we quoted a high school student from the island who had posted a thoughtful comment to the site. I later heard from the student's teacher that he had been delighted by this. Closure: March, 2000 The site closed its doors to contributions on March 1, 2000. This came after a correspondence between myself and a colleague at the B C T F about the possibilities for continuing the forum after the end o f February. The final decision was made in correspondence between the site's project manager and the B C T F . Since the site was under their auspices, m y role was coming to an end. They were not able to employ a moderator o f their own at this point, so continuing seemed impossible. The other route open was to freeze the site, so that it would remain online as a "read-only" document. This proved to be impossible, however, so I was advised to post notices o f closure on the web site with immediate effect. It was a brief message and one which I was sorry to post. Having developed good working relationships with a number o f participants over the previous three months, I contacted this group individually to let them know what was happening. Then, as soon as I had finalised the text with the project's lead investigator, I posted official (public) closure notices to each forum.  52  A l s o , a message was posted on the home page i n red text, advising chance visitors that, "The feedback process is now complete and the site's effectiveness is now being analysed. Although the site's discussion and advice forums are closed, you are still welcome to use the resources database which provides links to key topics i n educational technology." Participant Interviews: March-May, 2000 Interview questions were developed in early March, i n consultation with the project's principal investigator, Dr. John W i l l i n s k y and Dr. Pamela Courtenay-Hall, a U B C professor with whom I was taking a policy course at the time (for interview questions see Appendix 2). I had initially been curious about the number and identity o f site participants. W h o would step forward? W o u l d they be teachers, parents, students, principals or policy makers? H o w many would there be? It soon became clear that the vast majority o f participants were not members o f the public but professionals: teachers, distance or online educators, staff o f the Open Learning Agency or the B C T F . I then started asking more detailed questions. W h y were teachers choosing or not choosing to participate? I f they did join, what had their experience o f policy making been beforehand? Although every school in the province received notification about the site, teachers in the vast majority did not take part. For those teachers who did not contribute, was their silence owing to lack o f time, the technological expertise to access the debate or perhaps a lack o f confidence in their ability to contribute meaningfully? There was also the chance that they had simply not heard about the forum. O f course, accessing the views o f non-participants was my biggest challenge, because visitors who had read without posting left no evidence o f their stay. Most o f the commentary I have on the silent majority is therefore derived from accounts given by teachers who did actually speak up but were also prepared to recount their experiences with less confident or technologically fluent colleagues. A s soon as the forum closed, I wrote to every participant who had posted an email address asking for an interview. I offered a face-to-face conversation, a telephone interview, or the opportunity to respond by email. I originally suggested that interviews be conducted as a correspondence by email, but once I had been interviewed myself by email (March-April 2000), I started to realise the time commitment this implied. They can be draining and rather intense, since it is hard to convey "I am tired and need a break" to a person one barely knows. The conversation can also proliferate, being unbounded by time, and the questions  53  may seem relentless. The emailed interview questions were then sent as an email attachment on two pages o f a Microsoft W o r d document. I saved it as an R T F file so that M a c and P C users were able to read it. I also emailed the document to participants who had consented to a telephone interview. Since I did not know several o f them in person, this gave them a chance to do some advance preparation and to feel as relaxed as possible during our conversation. Having established some basic background data, (years in teaching, patterns o f computer use, involvement i n policy-making) m y questions elicited general feedback on the site design and on the ease with which they had found their way around. I also asked them how they had engaged with the various materials provided by the site: did they focus entirely on the conversations or did they spend some time reading documents i n the database? W h i c h aspects o f it had been the most helpful and which had been less so? W h y ? Next, I was interested i n learning about the impact the site had had on their understanding o f contributing to policy in process. I therefore took the conversation toward a discussion o f the site's general principles. Were its general aims appropriate? D i d it respond to a genuine need o f B C teachers? D i d they feel that the site had an impact on the degree or nature o f public contributions to the policy making process? I then asked them to reflect on this question from their own experience. H a d the site allowed them to find mentors or peers with similar experiences to share, or to locate literature which supported or added to their pedagogical knowledge? Finally, I asked them i f they contributed to policy development before so that I might establish whether there was a link between their previous experience and the expectation that they had something useful to offer on this occasion. O f the 69 authors who contributed to the forum, I interviewed 12 men and 5 women. I also interviewed one Ministry participant w h o ' d chosen not to post, a member o f the B C T F development team and a Ministry staff person responsible for collating the results o f public policy consultations. Although these individuals had not posted, they had a keen interest i n the progress o f the forum. Our conversations helped to broaden m y understanding o f the site's implications for policy makers, and the lessons learned for future debates. I received responses from ten participants within three days o f sending out m y requests. However, not all participants who agreed to be interviewed sent back the online questions I had written. I wrote again some weeks later, but received no replies and let the matter drop. I  54  interviewed the site's most regular contributor and another who had read a great deal but expressed none o f her own opinions. I interviewed two others who had read little but posted twice and another contributor who had read everything on the site, posting only replies to others. Each interview was subtly different, depending on each respondent's motive for contributing. The Ministry personnel were asked about the site's value as a medium for gauging and responding to public opinion. From them, I hoped to learn about its potential as the means to enhance the quality o f discussion between government and professionals. Their feedback was especially valuable to me since the Ministry was the ultimate destination for the text we had facilitated; furthermore, the officers o f the Education Technology Branch only posted one message between them, making our interview dialogue all the more valuable. A s I mentioned above, most conclusions reached by online researchers about lurking participants can be no more than conjecture (if not complete fiction). In our case, we were able to review the project methodology in cooperation with the government, learning from our early attempts to facilitate dialogue from numerous angles. Was the site immediate and engaging? What other kinds o f data might we have sourced from this medium, and was dialogue (social exchanges o f information and opinion) the only possibility? What about instant polls based on simple agree/disagree questions? Likewise, an interview with a B C T F staff member brought material on the value o f online communications media to a union. In this conversation I learned a great deal about the B C T F ' s twenty-year history o f using networked computers among its leadership. I found that protocols o f communication had long been i n place, but the web was a new tool and one which operated on a different set o f social assumptions. I also interviewed a former C U P E staff member and journalist (now a teacher), teachers who had taught from between two and thirty seven years located i n the lower mainland, on Vancouver Island and i n the Kootenay region, a graduate student whose work had itself been in online communications and a graduate student i n education from Denmark. The P K P F was not operating i n a political or professional vacuum and it was far from being the first opportunity that some o f our participants had contributed to policy development. K n o w i n g that these processes can be complex and challenging, I hoped to develop a medium that was open and light (without being trivial) and yet which merited the  55  contributors' intellectual and political efforts. It responded to the B C T F ' s call for greater participation i n policy processes without limiting attendance to eight delegates per school district, or demanding that teachers find replacements for their time out o f the classroom. Participation was not limited to school hours, nor was it influenced by school budget considerations. A s part o f m y research approach, I felt it important to establish the participants' attitudes towards and experience with previous policy consultations. Several participants described their previous experiences o f policy development to me. One said that she "enjoyed [her previous contributions to policy development] immensely." However, she added ruefully, " i n the end, I thought it produced little in terms o f change and results for classrooms. I was naive, I thought something might come o f it... I would think carefully about spending the better part o f a school year working on something that produces negligible results" (Anna, March 26). Another participant commented that " A l l curriculum is politically determined and I don't think educational considerations or educators' opinions are the foremost determining factors i n Ministry policy" (Alan, March 26). Another participant argued for urgent changes to the communications infrastructure i n B C Education, say that "teachers' voices finally have to be heard i n the policy making process" (Joe, M a y 30). K e v i n was totally i n favour o f "anything that can be gathered and used as ammunition to get the government moving" (April 2). H e described his response to hearing about the P K P F , "I wasn't so sure how it would actually move the powers that be, but you just never know, and I thought... maybe this is the time... things were on the move... momentum was building... maybe this was the big push that would do it." The P K P F participants quoted above range i n perspective from skeptical to guardedly optimistic. Others, however, spoke warmly about the opportunity the site afforded them. For example, Gregg considered that "it is tremendously empowering to participate i n such a forum and have one's comments seriously considered. Educational practitioners need to have a forum" (March 26). I shall pursue this theme o f empowerment i n Chapter Five. I understand the characteristics o f empowerment to be "the courage to state an intellectual position, to support one's stand with well-constructed arguments, to be flexible enough to consider challenges to one's position and to modify one's position as a result o f dialogue with others" (Davie & Wells, 1991, p. 16).  56  Derek, too, commented that the site was "a good way to 'take the pulse' o f the education community" (April, 2000). H e added that "The P K P F was an effective way to bring together the thinking o f a diverse population o f educators and others." E m m a also responded warmly, arguing that "this is a good way for.. .someone like me [a beginning teacher] to get involved" (March 25). A Ministry officer working i n the area o f public consultation also spoke positively about the potential o f online fora from the government's perspective (for full interview transcript see Appendix 3). H e had not taken part i n the P K P F , but as the person responsible for developing research methodologies at the Ministry, his task was to handle the logistics o f interpreting and summarising public feedback to new policy developments. H e described the benefits o f conducting feedback through the medium o f dialogue rather than survey instruments as follows: A disadvantage [of soliciting feedback through questionnaires] is that provision o f crude response categories can entirely miss unanticipated responses, lose nuances that give real understanding or even suggest responses that participants might not have made unprompted. Unstructured responses give a richness o f texture that is entirely missing from most surveys. [They] can flesh out a wider range o f responses. In more detail, he went on: A strength o f the medium is that venues for input can probably be operated at lower cost, so that more frequent measures can be taken o f public positions on issues. Turnaround time for information might be reduced. Another strength is that this medium can support continued dialogues and evolving positions and perspectives. It goes beyond a single, fixed response and can operate more like a panel or a longitudinal study. (Andrew, email correspondence, 15 M a y 2001) Methodological Concerns Before describing the analytical backdrop against which I examined the P K P F discussions, the following section tackles some o f the methodological concerns which arose during the research process. It unravels some o f the complexities o f conducting participant observation online, arguing that, while the notion o f participant observation may be familiar to us, its practice i n online settings presents some unfamiliar conundrums. Put simply, this section takes into account the human context i n which the P K P F text was located. It serves as a reminder that, while the online discussions did not take place between people who could see each other, they were nonetheless real interactions between individuals and groups who were thoroughly invested i n these exchanges. It also responds to the concerns, recently articulated  57  in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that "on-line researchers are not consistently employing the safeguards that are used to protect participants i n traditional research" (Hamilton, 1999, B 6 ) . Since I had two roles within the P K P F , my methodological concerns were twofold. First, I hoped to conduct academic research using the web site, both as the means o f collecting data and as the "field" itself. It was here that the participants would congregate, share and debate ideas; it was also here that I would be copying and pasting text into m y own research writing. Next, I had been hired to work as the moderator and therefore hoped to provide a "sense o f continuity" (Gregg) for visitors who might otherwise feel that there was no "central link" (Kevin) to the gathering. The moderator's role, as I have said before, was largely to fuel the conversation by drawing attention to appropriate reading materials and encouraging those with similar interests to continue the discussion together. I hoped that my contributions would support and validate the author's efforts. Most o f all, I was cautious about striking a good balance between being interested and simply being intrusive. I understood this dual role to be somewhat delicate and spent a great deal o f time considering what it meant to research and to moderate "ethically." A t times, the dual nature o f this work presented me with ethical challenges o f its own. These concerns are expressed as a continuing thread throughout this chapter. This chapter reflects the view that our current methodological - and ethical preoccupation needs to be i n understanding how contributors operate within a virtual, political medium. It is concerned with how, as educators, we can use this understanding to create an environment i n which contributors can approach new topics and revisit old ones safely, and possibly take action as a result o f their learning. M y concern has been with developing and sustaining online groups in which individuals can enjoy a sense o f engagement and ownership o f their virtual space for as long as this is deemed necessary. Although I had read about the ethics o f conducting online research before I embarked on this project, it was m y first opportunity to put my theoretical understanding into practice. The reading showed me that choosing to conduct one's research online meant grappling with many unfamiliar ethical challenges. Having determined what one's questions are, "access" to the desired population w i l l likely be gained v i a email or the Internet. W o r d o f mouth referrals  58  may also help to promote interest in the research project, but the researcher rarely knows when this is the case and certainly cannot count on it. But what does it mean to "gain access" to an online population? Does it simply mean that you have secured the email address o f a participant? A n d do you use the address as soon as it arrives i n your inbox, courtesy o f the forum administration software? Or is there a polite period to wait before entering into private correspondence with the author? E m a i l and other online communications can help to shorten the period between learning o f potential participants and getting a message to them. However, time is not always o f the essence. E m a i l may not require paper but it can still qualify as junk. Moreover, an online researcher needs to learn patience because teachers are not living i n "Internet time" like graduate students do: they may not get to their email more than once every few days, i f that. It may only take a second to send an email, but, unless someone is explicitly asking for help, a rapid response time may come across as impatience or excessive eagerness, both o f which may prove irritating. A s the site moderator, I was also responsible for raising public awareness about the site. In this role, the period o f "gaining access" was continuous. Although the number o f participants rose at varying rates throughout the life o f the forum, there was no point at which I could say that we had "enough" participants. When a project's aims have to do with the quality o f public debate, there is no fixed sample size and no point at which you can say you have "finished." U n t i l it was clear that the forum was coming to a close, I continued to send out welcome messages, encouraging participants to carry on the conversations they had started. A s both moderator and researcher, I hoped that a large number o f contributors would visit the site. However, even though the desired outcome was the same, the dual motivations sometimes seemed to be i n conflict one another. A s a researcher seeking participants, one hopes to invite rather than advertise. However, given that our field was online, we could not approach them i n traditional ways first and this "advertising" was a necessary factor i n raising awareness about the policy debate and the research. A s time went by and I realised that Ministry officials would not be contributing regularly to the debate, I also became concerned about the kind o f advertising we were doing. The home page described the site as a place to deliberate about, and advise the government on, the direction o f the new policy. While Ministry staff were indeed reading the site, they left no evidence o f their visits and I  59  was concerned that their invisibility might perpetuate the sense, among disenfranchised teachers, that they were simply being invited to talk amongst themselves, a conversation which might be helpful but would certainly prove less influential than one targetted at decision-makers. I had also thought of inviting public figures in education such as well-known researchers in educational technology. The idea had been to profile them and, perhaps, bring their work into the spotlight for discussion. Eventually, I dropped the idea for several reasons. First of all, there simply weren't enough participants to merit inviting a "speaker." The pace of discussion could not be guaranteed and I did not want to give anyone the impression that they were speaking to an empty hall. Furthermore, I had quickly become aware that some participants were acutely aware of their own status within the B C education system, and they brought this awareness with them in the forays online. More than one participant told me that this affected the amount of time and effort they put into composing their messages, while others simply chose not to post at all, preferring to read instead. Were I to draw attention to the profile of "visiting" academics or government personnel, I reasoned, this might exacerbate the sense of status inequality within the discussion. In the end, I did contact professors who I thought might be interested, but did not flag any postings as being more influential or weighty. Developing trust with research participants was also a key preoccupation. How does one do this in qualitative research settings? B y asking questions which demonstrate the researcher's concern for the people who live and work in that setting, by attending to the routines and rhythms of that setting and taking care to excuse oneself from situations in which one's attendance may inhibit those routines. However, in a silent environment which prohibits the engagement of our physical selves, even the most scrupulous scholars find themselves challenged to conduct their inquiries responsibly and compassionately (Thomas, 1996). We cannot ascertain from a participant's body language that he or she is becoming uncomfortable with the direction our conversation has taken. We cannot hear an altercation in the school gym resonating down the hallway and know that this is a place to avoid for a while. We cannot offer the subtle physical cues of nodding or smiling to teachers whose virtual classes we are observing. "Listening" to our participants takes on a new meaning, as we are unable to practice the tact and empathy we  60  have learned i n methodology classes i n familiar ways. W i t h a potential population as large as the number o f working teachers i n British Columbia, I was aware that a wide range o f technical ability could be represented. This ability might range from first-time internet users to experienced real-time chatters, typing sixty words a minute while simultaneously projecting a web-site to a colleague. This range o f experience - or literacy - would have a bearing on the ways i n which different visitors to the P K P F would use it: the longer one has used the internet and the more chatrooms, discussion boards and listservs one has participated in, the more one begins to see the nuances i n etiquette between these various media. H o w could I be sure that m y attempts to develop trust with members o f this diverse population would not be misconstrued? M y understanding of what constitutes a gentle approach might not be the same as somebody else's, which can lend a feeling o f walking on egg shells to one's early correspondence. In situations where I felt a good rapport was developing, such as with Bruce, Leah, W i l l i a m and Gregg, I let down my guard a little and developed a more social correspondence style. W i t h Derek it was more straightforward, since I had met h i m before seeing his messages on the forum. I already had a sense o f what interested h i m and what his concerns were, and could therefore pinpoint appropriate readings for h i m without a lengthy correspondence beforehand. In one case, however, trust had to be regained even before it had been properly established. Here, a staff member o f a B C education agency had been reading over Electronic Delivery and felt that I was promoting antipathy towards his organisation. The gentleman in question wrote me a personal email letting me know o f his dissatisfaction, at which I swiftly apologised, deleted the posting to which he objected. I also saw to it that the news o f his agency's research program was posted on the forum home page. H e was pleased with the result, but the exchange left me feeling extremely wary. It can therefore be as intimidating to approach strangers online as it is i n person, especially when one senses that discontent is brewing. While we are invisible and largely anonymous to these people, we are still more than capable o f embarrassing ourselves and experience a degree o f social anxiety. The job demands tact and an ability to recover one's Over time, email users drop the greetings and salutations of printed letters, capital letters become scarce and full sentences become optional. Entire words are never capitalised in conversation with a stranger since this is understood as "shouting". 2  61  composure as an earnest seeker after truth rather than as someone who looks blundering and ill-informed. In cases where an online researcher loses the trust o f the research participants altogether, it is difficult to bring them back into a study. The researcher cannot "run into" them by accident and strike up a friendly conversation, and she doesn't necessarily know o f any mutual acquaintances who can be relied upon to encourage them back into the study. Contacting the former participant by email to ask "are you still interested i n being a part o f this project?" more than once might be construed as heckling. In an environment like the P K P F , the roles o f watcher and watched may also be reversed: where once the researcher posted occasionally but read every message which appeared, a disgruntled participant may now come to the forum incognito, reading messages but leaving no mark o f his or her attendance. This participant has effectively jumped off the stage into the audience, leaving the researcher i n the onstage "performance" (Anna, M a r c h 26) with the remaining contributors. Compare this situation to a more traditional field-work setting. Suppose that a child feels that there has been a breakdown i n communication with a researcher and withdraws from a classroom study. The child still knows that this person w i l l be on the periphery o f classroom conversations with other participants. In watching others interact with the researcher, the child might regain her confidence i n the researcher and enter into dialogue once more. Virtual "Fieldwork" What do we mean by "field work" when the field is virtual, not physical? Online, there is no physical school and there are no set meeting times. A s the host o f the medium, I may be aware that I am i n a research environment with every foray into the P K P F . However, m y research participants may have forgotten. O f course, the "Terms o f Participation" indicated that this was indeed a research environment, but since a web site is not a linear document, some readers may have never even seen it. A s Hamilton (1999) notes, even i f an online researcher is exceptionally scrupulous, including a debriefing page for participants on completing the project, one cannot make a participant read it. "Researchers have.. .little control over the nature o f participants' experiences in on-line research" (Section B , p. 6). A s the site's moderator, I was mostly concerned with the policy debate we were hosting and therefore did not take pains to remind visitors that we were using their contributions as  62  data (evidently, m y priorities switched around the moment the site had closed). H a d they taken the trouble to read about the P K P project team on the site, they would have come away with a more detailed understanding about who we were and what we hoped to achieve. In talking to some participants after the site closed, I found that, i n several cases, their memory o f the site was sketchy. They were unclear on how the site had been laid out, which parts o f it they had used and even - i n some cases - the number and quality o f their own contributions. The participants who were absolutely clear that it had been a research environment said that this had not bothered them. One respondent even said that it had added weight to his conviction that taking part was imperative. The interviewees who had not been clear about the P K P F ' s status as a research site told me that this would not have altered their decision to contribute; it is important, though, to recognise that those who did experience some discomfort - perhaps on receiving m y request for an interview - simply deselected themselves from the study. This potential for rendering oneself invisible to the researcher can prove frustrating. A researcher may be satisfied to find an online population with the capacity to help her answer her research questions. A t the outset, she may feel as though she has secured a sure population, but her grasp on this population is extremely tenuous, as are the bonds o f trust which emerge between her and individuals within the group. In essence, then, m y work may have included covert observation, but it was a strangely complex situation: i n physical settings, a researcher knows when she is covert. She simply omits to tell the members o f the community she is in that she is recording their activities for research purposes. F o r as long as they are ignorant o f her intentions, the same relationship is maintained between researcher and researched. This may also be true online, where, like Herring (1996) and W i l h e l m (2000), one seeks naturalistic data which has not been skewed by the presence - or the "glare," as W i l h e l m puts it - o f an outsider. Both authors rely on the fact that the internet is a public medium and that permission to use the communications o f others for research purposes need not be sought or granted. Certainly, there are tremendous advantages to this kind o f research because the medium o f interaction and the medium o f recording are one and the same: text. Online conversations represent instant data: there are no tapes to rewind or transcribe and we can enter the material i n our o w n writing i n only the time it takes to select "copy/paste." In the P K P F , however, there was potential for discontinuity i n the understanding o f the  63  research participants. I could not know whether the message I was reading was written by someone who knew that I was a researcher, who knew but had temporarily forgotten, or who never knew. I might think I am doing overt participant observation, but the participant himself has no idea. On the other hand, a different participant may be in regular contact with me, sharing research literature and asking me how my studies are going. The relationship between the PKPF researcher and the participants was therefore complex, where the understanding of different participants of the environment had the potential to differ greatly. There were other considerations, too, which concern the nature of a teacher's work and domain and the relationship between the teaching and research communities. Unlike adults in many other professions, teachers are commonly observed during their daily work. Not only are they subject to frequent scrutiny in the media, they may, reluctantly, be accustomed to having their practices observed by outsiders (Emma, interview). Having called teacher librarians to gather quotations for my T L E T A C work, I found that an educational technology research project is not always the most welcome calling card. A slow approach was often best. In one case, I took several minutes to explain that, while I was indeed working with technology, I did not expect the teacher to bear witness to the tremendous, enabling value of technology in elementary schools. As a researcher in the PKPF, I therefore took care not to assume that a teacher's door was always open, even if the door was only a virtual one. The real-world corollary of covert online observation, then, would be entering the classroom while the teacher's back is turned, sitting down and fixing one's gaze on her, unannounced. There is a reported tension between authors who advocate covert investigations and those who call for ethnographic descriptions of lived experience with online participants (Baym, 1996; Markham, 1998). Herring (1996) and Wilhelm (2000), both discourse analysts, argue in favour of covert research practices. In making text the main player, these discourse analysts explore the sociolinguistic features of online talk. This talk may be used as a toolfor examining group formation, knowledge sharing and power structures. In admitting the theories and practice of conversational analysis in classrooms and other group settings, it can be readily transposed to the online environment. As mentioned above, Wilhelm and Herring defend their data gathering methods in the name of securing naturalistic data which have not been tampered with through the interactions of the researcher. On the other side, we find Waskul and Douglass (1996), who  64  advise us to advance cautiously and purposefully within our research environment, seeking to understand the population's own definition o f the borders between private and public spaces. Thomas (1996) also argues that: Responsible and ethical research is not a matter o f codes, policy or procedure. Rather, responsible and ethical research centres on a commitment to protect the participants o f one's study from potential harm. Such a commitment necessitates a keen eye o n . . . the interpersonal dynamics o f the group, and the implicit, as well as explicit, structure o f group interaction, (p. 130) Thomas uses "harm" to mean "the loss o f dignity, self-esteem, personal autonomy (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), and the disruption o f day-to-day activities (Sullivan, 1993)" (p. 133). Online, where "it is not possible to safeguard the emotional well-being o f participants in [familiar] ways" (Hamilton, 1999), it is doubly important to take this advice seriously. In talking to P K P F participants, I heard harmful situations described as "professional risk" and their fears for self-expression as "being too contentious." This contention concerned one cautious participant who feared damaging her academic progress by "things [she] might say online" (Leah, Interview). Thomas (1996) goes on to describe ethical research i n virtual settings as a continual process o f negotiation. Discourse analysis, however, does not necessitate this type o f commitment to a setting. It allows the researcher to determine an inflexible ethical code or policy, collect data and then retreat. Where the socially defined meanings o f "public" and "private" are established through dialogue with participants, Thomas says, the researcher can be a great deal more certain that a high standard o f ethical inquiry has been met. Here, the sensitivities and boundaries observed have been those o f the group under study, and not those imposed by the researcher. These subtleties may not be immediately evident to the online researcher, especially when she is not party to the teaching culture to which her contributors belong; when she is also the moderator o f the forum, it is doubly challenging to determine where these boundaries lie, because she has a hand and a spade in building their foundations. K i n g ' s (1996) work offered powerful corroboration for m y sense that caution and patience would be important features o f m y own manner o f conducting online research. K i n g describes a research project conducted i n an online support group for sexual abuse survivors. Members were not asked for their permission before publication and subsequently suffered great  65  distress at finding this safe, private environment destroyed. These discussions over the boundaries between private and public are evidence o f a concern greater than the location o f our academic flagpoles. They tell us that - apart from not knowing where we should plant our stakes - we don't even know what the territory is. I f we conduct research on our participants' discburse alone, we are treating the environment as a set o f symbolic exchanges, the exchange o f text. W e are not necessarily accepting its potential as the place where a person's self-esteem, private concerns and political beliefs may also be invested. Furthermore, there is no sense that the interactions as a whole represent the articulation o f a culture or a community and that any external code o f etiquette needs to be observed. The researcher who, like W i l h e l m (2000), reaps the text and retreats to harvest his meaning has invested none o f his own social being i n the environment, nor has he considered the quality o f his own responsibility to the speakers whose words he is now using to further his own ends. A r e their words now his? Was their ownership ever i n question? The vague distinctions between covert and overt research in this domain are not merely a matter o f concern for the researcher concerned about "doing her best" i n the environment. Let's set aside the ethical problem o f covert research now, and pay attention to its methodological features. After all, what is an emotionally charged ethical question for one person may simply be a momentary methodological dilemma for someone else. W i l h e l m (2000) tells us, for example, that he was only interested i n the dialogue which he found online and paid no attention to any external features o f his research population: Political postings and the threads o f discourse i n which they are embedded comprise a defined context or horizon from which a discussion can be evaluated. It is not necessary to know who the participants are, from what walk o f life they come or with what political parties they are affiliated to paint a compelling portrait o f the deliberativeness o f these discussions, (p. 91) Wilhelm's language tells us that he is considering is analytical procedures here; he is not interested in whether or not the participants were politicians, primary school students or pet shop owners. This dismissal o f the participants' identities, however, gives a critical reader room to question the claims he has made, based on this particular set o f data. Here, the author brings to mind the question posed by Dorothy Smith (1999), " H o w can consciousness operate as i f it had no body and were not located i n a particular local site, i n place and time?" (p. 76) The answer to Smith's question would thus seem to be "online." In virtual spaces, one  66  can abstract one's political self from one's physical, emotional and social self. However, as I shall reiterate throughout this work, my concern has been that such exercises in abstraction are unproductive and unenlightening. In other words, "human belief cannot swing free of the nonhuman environment" (Rorty, 1999, p. 32). Based on this material, Wilhelm argues that the messages are "powerful" evidence of the "wide-ranging effects of C M C " (p. 91) but he does not convince us of this range since his own inquiry is limited. The author opens his discussion by asking, "Is there a sense that the messages... comprise a series of conversations? Is the knowledge and information transmitted in any way discursive, geared towards coordinating action among participants?" (p. 89) He then develops a covert research exercise which positively prevents him from answering this question. Acting covertly, one cannot break one's silence and ask the participants if they have pursued these conversations elsewhere, in private. He cannot ask them about the extent to which they have moved "from the state of disengagement to one of salutary involvement in public life" (p. 87). And there's the rub: he has created a situation in which only he has the privileged understanding that this interaction was in fact public. Nobody else present knew this, which calls into question Wilhelm's very claim to be conducting political research at all. In such a situation, the researcher, protecting his participants from his own inquisitive "glare" (p. 91), is also prevented from checking his interpretations with them. He has no way of knowing whether or not his assessment of the situation was accurate. Ultimately, however, he dismisses the gathering of additional material such as questionnaires or ethnographic interviews on the basis that participants "may exaggerate the extent to which they participate politically and deliberate on party platforms" (Ibid.).  3  By remaining covert, then, triangulation - and therefore the testing of ideas against other data sets for accuracy - is impossible. In conducting research on the PKPF, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the ways in which participants engaged with the medium, whether or not some of their answers were guarded, exaggerated or distorted in their recollection. As it turned out, the follow-up interviews were extremely valuable, revealing that a significant portion of some users' engagement was invisible. In other words, users engaged with the forum in a fashion which had as much to do with conditions in the external, social world as 3  If this were indeed the case, the vast majority of qualitative research could be dismissed as unsound. 67  they did with the ongoing discussions or the intentions o f the site. Burbules and Rice (1991) remind us that the discussions can never be divorced from their social, political context: It is not enough merely to create the conditions o f a forum i n which all parties present have the right to speak. In a society structured by power, not all differences reside at the same level. Therefore, further questions may be posed: W h o may feel unable to speak without explicit or implicit retribution? Who may want to speak, but feel so demoralised, or intimidated, by the circumstances that they are effectively 'silenced'? What tacit rules o f communication may be operating....? (p. 397) Thus, although the coding categories developed by W i l h e l m have helped me to evaluate my own observations o f the P K P F , his arguments seem to be divorced from the human, political reality o f government, i n its broadest sense and including the actions o f people who cast their votes. Earlier on, I described a site which was created to foster public discussion, but this discussion was not an end in itself. Participants were offered a clear invitation to j o i n the site on the grounds that this would intentionally alter the communicative landscape o f discussions about B C education. Furthermore, the site was furnished with policy documents and declared itself the locus o f localised, professional and public inquiry and discussion. O n the other side, the Ministry o f Education officers who read the site explicitly asked for contributors to name themselves because they felt that each speaker's identity lent meaning to the posting. They wanted to know to whom they were listening and, i f action were taken as a result o f their readings, they would also want to know which group's - or individual's - interests had been represented. This element o f anonymity was the most immediate and gripping concern for several actual and would-be contributors. O n giving a presentation at a B C T F policy symposium, I found the delegates to be concerned with this feature above all others, excluding the appropriate number and roles o f contributors to such a discussion. This symposium contributed a great deal to both my understanding and m y dilemma as the moderator and researcher i n one. M y political sensibilities told me that participants should indeed be allowed to contribute anonymously. I understood their self-consciousness i n addressing a public, virtual and potentially influential void. However, I also believed that names added credibility to this conversation as a public document. M y concern for conducting academic research contradicted this urge, o f course, since I knew full w e l l the promise o f confidentiality where human subjects were concerned. Finally, as the moderator, I thought this confidentiality element to be a hindrance, since, the better a group knows each other's  68  true identities, locations and roles, the more in-depth, lively and productive that gathering is likely to be. In the end, the P K P F research is a strange hybrid. The forum site is still public, so that any reader o f this work can visit it and match m y quotations against named contributors. I shall take up this line o f thought again i n chapter five, where I discuss the implications o f anonymity for the quality o f talk generated by the P K P F site. It w i l l be presented i n the context o f a discussion about the influence o f various kinds o f texts within education, government and the public media; it w i l l consider the different language practices and information needs o f these communities, and therefore, the impact o f audience on the texts we may hope to create i n the name o f "public knowledge." K n o w i n g the Participants Throughout this work, I have been preoccupied with the strange sense that I did not "really know" many o f the P K P F contributors. I was concerned that, despite m y best efforts, I was merely working within a transient "pseudocommunity" where what looked like participation was really no more than observation, the illusion o f "being there" (Franklin, 1990). Even those authors with w h o m I had some continued correspondence were scattered between the Kootenays and the west coast o f Vancouver Island. A s I moderated, I tried to visualise the policy discussions I had witnessed in person. With no other physical cues to go on, I imagined the a group seated at a conference table as a reminder that this was still a gathering and that all speakers needed to be acknowledged. I f I confused two contributors whose names sounded familiar, I cringed and re-read their messages to help reinforce their separate identities i n m y mind. Having only "known" these people for a short time, it was hard to maintain a sense o f their individuality. A s the forum developed, I learned to recognise the textual practices o f regular contributors. In a sense, they became their textual practices. One author posted numerous newspaper articles, but rarely articulated his own position on them; another was recognisable by her pithy, laconic posts. I knew roughly where she was teaching but had to reach for a map to be sure. I settled for picturing a woman i n her mid-forties with dark brown hair, both of which features may have been wildly inaccurate. Does any o f this matter? I f one is only the moderator, perhaps not, but I was also intending to gather research data from and with these individuals and felt that the better I "knew" them, the more at ease we all felt with each other, and thus the more fruitful the  69  research endeavour would be. Still, one might argue that familiarity with a participant's physical characteristics, tone o f voice and facial expressions are redundant information; needing a sense o f them might just be force o f habit. A t this stage, though, we are still more accustomed to dealing with research participants who have bodies. The adjustment to dealing only with the latter brings with it a certain discomfort. A s a research site, the P K P F was a strange hybrid. Whereas a researcher might ordinarily enter a field inhabited by people from another community or culture, the P K P F was created by the research group and its inhabitants were invited to join it. In a sense, it removed the research population out o f their own environment, in the same way that we might remove children from school i n order to observe their behaviour i n a different setting such as a science museum or a public library. While they have not literally been removed from their own settings - they are likely using computers i n their schools or homes - they are i n an unfamiliar intellectual space. A researcher who is concerned about doing "good" work online would therefore be wise to acknowledge the potential discomfort o f a first-time visitor in the virtual setting. The protocol o f "going into the field" is thus reversed, putting the researcher in a position o f greater ownership or belonging than her participants. But is this really so? The culture o f public schooling i n British Columbia exists independently o f the P K P F and continues to develop and grow long after the forum closed. In moderating the forum, I may have invited the participants to take seats at a debate o f our making, but I could not have done so as effectively had I not spent more than two years in the province already, volunteering i n schools, working with the Ministry, and learning the ropes o f academic research in North America. M u c h o f the work I did was internal: learning how my own perspective was culturally distinct from those o f people who have both taught and been taught i n British Columbia. In other words, I spent this time working m y way into the culture o f B C schooling, not the other way around; so, just as the feature o f covertness may be turned on its head online, the question o f whose culture is really under investigation must be asked and asked again. W h i c h features o f the "real w o r l d " culture are being replicated online? W h i c h features have we left behind or demolished, and, perhaps, rebuilt i n the image o f our own choosing? In the early days o f online research, there was a great deal o f debate about the assumptions researchers brought to the setting. Was it fair to this particular brand o f  70  qualitative research, "ethnography"? Could we assume that the online "gathering" was indeed a culture with social, linguistic and other mores which would stand up i n the academic court? There are plenty o f arguments against it: the population may never meet; they do not share food or drink i n public spaces; they do not engage in leisure or community pastimes or protests; they do not know what the other members o f that group look like because their engagement is purely textual-cerebral and probably don't have an accurate mental picture o f their home or work environments. However, social mores have certainly grown out o f these online gatherings, offering evidence for those who would argue that textual engagement leads to shared understandings of what is "good" online behaviour and what is "bad" online behaviour. Granted, we cannot engage our physical selves i n these interactions, but, some argue, people are inventive and corollaries have been developed within the parameters o f the online setting. The Public Knowledge Policy Forum exists, as I have said before, with one foot online and one foot i n the door o f a more traditional policy symposium. While the forum itself took place online, it would be inaccurate to describe it in any way as an "online community." Certainly, there are indications that a sense o f "community" exists between participants in some o f the discussions: there are collegial expressions o f agreement, gracious requests and thanks for information supplied, and solid, sincere expressions o f disagreement backed up with evidence and anecdotes. Some o f the participants I interviewed also told me that they found professional kinship i n the postings o f the other visitors. However, as a relative newcomer to the online landscape i n B C , this community only exists within the context o f other, previously established communities. These include the long-term communities which grow up around regular events such as staff meetings, the A G M , P A C (Parent Advisory Committee) groups and district planning committees. Online, there are the B C T F ' s P S A (Provincial Specialists' Association), bctf-news, pd-issues, edtech-news and bctf-research listservs. Some o f its contributors may well run into each other i n future and develop professional connections as a result, but I do not consider the forum, with its short life span, to have gained the status o f a "culture" or "community." Furthermore, given its entirely public nature, it offered - and still offers - free admission to all comers. While this feature was in keeping with the B C T F ' s political values, it generated a great deal o f discussion at the January, 2000 policy symposium. The key challenge, as described by the symposium  71  delegates, was i n practising the theory o f participatory democracy: a tension existed between hosting a public forum which welcomed all perspectives but which might have a limited sphere o f influence, and hosting a forum for a group o f invited contributors; this select group would be specialists i n their field. This would mean taking the forum out o f the truly public realm but, potentially, extending its sphere o f influence as an instrument o f policy development. A l l o f these concerns - over gaining access, developing and maintaining trust, collecting data and writing up our participants - point to one key division. This division is between that which is "private" and that which is "public" i n the virtual domain. Is it always clear which is which? Since I am using a mixture o f data from public forum discussions to interview transcripts and email correspondence (private but covered by informed consent agreements), I am reminded o f the need for absolute scrupulousness. Clearly, a web site - and particularly one called the Public Knowledge Project - is a public research document, and most people are clear about the protocols o f tape recorded interviews conducted over the phone or in person. Emails, however, are a grey area. Someone might email me with something I find funny and I might select "forward" while still chuckling and without thinking. While I ' m at it, I might cc it to the entire list o f graduate students in m y department or teachers i n m y school district. In a fraction o f a second, that email has gone from being a hastily scribbled gag between two colleagues, to being a document which is widely circulated among people who w i l l now recognise another name on a conference badge (it's too bad that I forgot to delete that part o f the message). O n another occasion, this person had no problem with me forwarding something which started off i n private, so I've taken the liberty o f assuming that this is always the case. This time, though, I was wrong. The borders between private and public are not only described by the simple functionality o f our email programs, however. Different users o f the same medium, such as an online discussion board, may have vastly but subtly different understandings o f what it means to participate in that medium. The teachers and members o f the public participating i n the P K P F were not a homogeneous group o f computer users. Even the contributors I interviewed described a broad range o f comfort i n using the public bulletin board format, and these had, with one exception, been people with the skills and confidence to actually post messages. Given the diversity o f ability, we cannot necessarily assume that every visitor to an online  72  research setting has the same understanding o f the medium, meaning that each correspondence - and perhaps, each interaction - with an online research participant must be negotiated i n isolation. What can we know about a visitor who reads but does not post? A s the researcher, I was keen to see the numbers o f authors increasing so that m y pool o f potential interviewees would be larger. I also knew that a higher number o f participants would act as an implicit endorsement o f our research endeavour. A s the moderator, I wanted more people to participate so that the discussion would be more lively and a wider variety o f perspectives shared. In both o f m y roles I was frustrated that I could not offer any encouragement or incentive for shy readers to declare themselves. It would have felt like calling children i n from the garden for dinner when they are playing hide-and-seek. Y o u have a faint sense they are out there, you just don't know where (The simile has a weak spot, o f course. Online, you could call "Dinner!" to six children and find yourself feeding thirty seven, one o f whom is actually a forty five year-old bridge builder. Online, identities can be fabricated). It is hard to be sensitive to the needs o f a research population you cannot see and whose number you don't know. A t times I felt as though I was walking on eggshells. When doing field-work i n physical settings like schools, police stations or union offices, a researcher can be confident that the participants understand the boundaries between private and public life. They are used to making personal choices about the kind o f information they give out and the kinds o f environments to which their colleagues have access. A s adults who are used to interacting i n the social world, they can mostly understand and control the boundaries around these environments. However, where the environment is virtual and the visitor a "newbie" or novice, that person may not be as socially literate as we might hope, or even as they might think. Just as a small child is unaware o f the mores surrounding when we speak, when we are silent and when we choose to move around: It's a different way to communicate with people and we don't have the social rules i n place yet for how to behave. I mean people who go there all the time definitely have solid rules i n place and i f you break the rules, boy! They let you know it. T h e y ' l l freeze you out i n a second... not everybody knows how to dial up access to the internet, go to a chatroom and communicate in a socially responsible and acceptable way. (Adam, M a r c h 9) A s the moderator, I hoped that the participants would place a high priority on conversing with respect for a diversity o f opinions and respect for conducting dialogue across difference  73  (Burbules & Rice, 1991). I hoped that they would be able to contribute along the lines described by Davie and Wells (1991), described earlier i n this chapter: being able to state opinions while remaining open to differences and able to modify one's position based on new information. A s a researcher, I also hoped that visitors would speak frankly about contentious issues, and that these two ambitions would not conflict. A s long as any disagreements were professional and not personal, I reasoned, I would have no reason to delete any messages. If all were welcome to post and be heard, then all are able to become part o f the emerging debate and thus gain a sense o f ownership or belonging i n that environment. O n the other hand, by deleting another person's message a forum administrator may be letting the author know that they are not welcome i n the conversation. Even i f that same person is happy to contribute material which is deemed appropriate, that sense o f being "[frozen] out" may remain and the author is left with the impression that the forum is not for them. In January 2000, a message was posted which raised the hackles o f at least one other participant. It prompted a flurry o f emails between myself, Bruce (a regular contributor), and the project leader about whether or not it should be deleted. The P K P F was new. There was no party line. The correspondence which resulted turned into a discussion about what the rules were and should be for living responsibly i n this setting. W e also wondered about how those hosting (or i n power) are seen to behave by the general population. Bruce told me that "a few meteor showers" were inevitable (correspondence, January 19), and that this was valuable experience i n teaching us to expect in future. Bruce wondered how many other people were represented by this man's point o f view and whether it was a response to someone or something specific. M y conclusion, as you w i l l read later, is that it was not a response so much as oratory, but it led to some useful discussions around the value o f having a forum which was entirely open to the public. O n one occasion, however, I did choose to delete a thread. Ironically, it was immediately after I had attended a class i n faculty o f Computer Science in which the professor described the challenges o f patrolling online discourse. I returned to m y office to find that four o f five messages had been posted i n which the contributors purported to be arranging a sexual liaison. I deleted them as soon as m y inbox chimed with their arrival. One o f these messages remains because i n the time it had taken me to return to my office, somebody else had  74  already responded, reprimanding the author for his/her coarseness. I did not feel comfortable deleting the respondent's message as well, and thought that this exchange might serve as evidence o f where the virtual boundaries o f the discussion had been drawn. It is important to recognise that moderators have more privileges than simply deleting whole messages. They are also able to go i n and edit after the fact, which is how I managed to create live links from all o f the U R L s posted i n the bodies o f messages. The short life span of the forum did not allow for the time to bring everyone up to speed on including H T M L tags i n their messages. A moderator might also edit ferociously, changing the subject headers o f messages to make the top layer o f the discussion more fluid, and she might even fix typographical errors i n punctuation or spelling. I did not do any o f these things. A s the moderator, I wanted to remain neutral and unobtrusive but, on occasion, I wondered i f I should have been more open i n m y communications with participants, restating (or explaining) the dual policy/research goals o f the site. I didn't want to deluge contributors with email and therefore settled for keeping my research profile modest, i n the hope that my label o f "Doctoral Student" would convey the academic as w e l l as educational and political backdrop to our efforts. In moderating the P K P F , I found myself challenged to reflect on what I really believed the medium was and, therefore, how far our current ethical sensibilities were applicable to it. I felt a considerable degree o f communication anxiety i n m y hybrid work, finding that it can be as intimidating to approach strangers online as it is in person. While we are invisible and anonymous to these people, we are still more than capable o f embarrassing ourselves by failing to observe some vital aspect o f etiquette. A n email address alone does not convey a person's status, but they - and you - can often forget this. A great deal o f tact is therefore necessary. A simple, off-the-cuff response to a contributor who is used to being treated with great deference may be interpreted as rudeness. A discussion about the shortcomings o f an educational program might be conducted i n the spirit o f earnest inquiry but be understood as hostile criticism by a coordinator i n that program. Language as Social Organization: The Vitality o f Text A s a researcher who participated i n the research setting, I write with the understanding that, online, we conjure ourselves - like our participants - through type and must therefore strive to be conscious o f our textual practices. Our language use w i l l depend on our comfort with  75  the setting and w i l l act as our citizenship papers for the online group. W e cannot pretend that language is invisible, can be taken for granted, since it is the only material proof o f our presence. It is both the currency o f culture and its artifact. A s V a n Maanen (1988) says, "Culture... is created, as is the reader's view o f it, by the active construction o f a text" (p. 7). Online, the culture under observation literally is a text as w e l l as the internal constructions o f it formed by its individual members. In text-based virtual spaces, then, we write ourselves into being. In other words, "the body is a text controlled by the user" (Markham, 1998, p. 209). Our presence is established by the fact that we have said something to a participant; in real-time chat scenarios, our arrival may show up on someone else's screen, but until we speak, we are no more than a faceless ID. Once we begin to type, we can determine how others perceive us, carefully choosing the words we use to shape their perceptions. The text we generate is inextricably linked to our perceptions and representations o f self, our sense o f space and human dialogue, or engagement. I f we consider that: Language is how social organisation and power are defined and contested and the place where our sense o f selves, our subjectivity are constructed. Understanding language as competing discourses, competing ways o f giving meaning and o f organising the world, makes language a site o f exploration, struggle. (Richardson, 1994, p. 518) we begin to see that the online environment is one i n which Our textual practices, and thus our social organisation o f power, can be rendered visible. It is here, i n text, that we can find out "who has the power to initiate, terminate or interrupt the exchange" and where we learn "what counts as valid knowledge, and how knowledge is validated" (George, 1995, p. 29). It is here that we find out which kinds o f information are treated as knowledge and wisdom, which kinds are - and are not - afforded a high status and our continued attention. In this setting, researchers must be prepared to seek out the expressions o f these relationships and boundaries through texts. After all, "the ruling relations are text-mediated" (Smith, 1999, p. 77). There are, then, no "best" ideas, competing i n the same currency. The politics o f human life are such that human interactions are not created equal. There are exchange rates between speakers and between individual utterances, all o f which determine the kinds o f attention which are afforded to them. Online, there are also no other physical clues to the structures o f power i n virtual settings,  76  no observable seating patterns at lunch time, and no way o f casually observing the students' social groupings. Our invisibility online prevents us, too, from casual encounters over newspapers at lunch time or the passing conversation i n a hallway. Privacy is heightened by sending individual emails, but this can fragment rather than galvanise our research population. In an environment that is entirely disembodied, gesture is impossible (Rice & Love, 1987) paralanguage and non-verbal cues can still be represented by text. Numerous writers (Reid, 1991; Marvin, 1994) have accounted for the use o f smileys and acronyms denoting moods. Examples o f these include happy, sad, thoughtful, sickened "emoticons" and acronyms such as I M H O (in m y humble opinion), L O L (lots o f laughs), R O F L (rolling on the floor laughing) and B R B (common i n chat rooms - [I'll] be right back). Learning to use these symbols represents nothing less than a rite o f passage, an initiation into the select group. L i k e any other discourse community, including the one I am typing m y way into right now, our language shows where we belong. In M O O settings, the user can convey mood or gesture by typing "emote" followed by whatever action he or she desires. A m o n g the commonest are expressions such as "emote smiles/nods/shrugs/scratches her head in disbelief." It is important to recognise, however, that these contributions are all conscious. W e might laugh out loud at a colleague's posting, but nobody shares our mirth until we think to type "emote laughs out loud." W e must actively choose to share our moods, and the way in which we do this tells our readers something about our approach to life online. If, instead o f saying "emote is pleased," a user types i n "emote does a little dance" or "emote chuckles smugly," the other members can imagine or visualise our mood even i f they cannot see it. The added detail gives the impression, too, that the author is happy giving away more than a minimal amount o f detail about her inner life. In the P K P F , however, we asked visitors into a medium which carried with it all o f the language practices, hierarchies and prejudices which governed their daily working lives. This was not textually disembodied, free from the restraining factors o f their professional lives, but an embodied actor in a rich, flawed and political human setting. W e might therefore expect the language practices o f the P K P F to have more i n common with other forms o f dialogue common to the political system which it inhabits, rather than a social, online culture within which it seemingly resides.  77  A s Markham (1998) amply demonstrates, a large investment o f time and emotion in an online setting can bring a sense o f living i n that space; a sense that the online medium develops from a textual format to a place we inhabit, and finally to a way o f being. B a y m (1996) fully endorses Markham's position, advocating the use o f ethnographic research methodologies. Ethnography is preferable to discourse analysis as the means to understand a population because it allows us to explore how groups "communicate social information and... create and codify group-specific meanings, socially negotiate group-specific identities , form relationships..." (p. 160). Only ethnography, she argues, would enable researchers to describe how cultural contexts develop and are validated in this environment. Since the P K P F was only i n use for a matter o f weeks, its lifespan prevented me from undertaking a full ethnography o f communication in this medium. Nonetheless, and as m y analysis w i l l show, ethnographic methods o f gathering data and interpreting human discourse within the context o f their lived environments have greatly influenced m y research practices. In mid-January 2000,1 was copied on an email correspondence which had taken place over the holiday period between the P K P F project leader and a B C teacher. Since the correspondence had taken place between two individuals - with myself and another team member being c c ' d on it (ie. lurking) -1 was asked to post it to the forum. I understood that the correspondence was evidence o f our rising profile and was pleased that our advice was being sought by practising teachers, but felt i l l at ease with the task. It had taken place i n private and we were posting it i n a public bulletin board. Nowadays, few emails are spellchecked, edited for grammar, or flanked by the appropriate salutations. Should I edit these fragments o f conversation? Should I post them all i n the same thread (or even the same message?) or should I scatter them like hoops at a side show? Finally I bit the bullet and posted the entire thread. I was, however, playing with time as well. The original conversation took place over three days, but I was copying all o f the messages in within half an hour. Anyone looking at these messages would be amazed at the dedication o f these two correspondents. What rapidfire emailers they were! The two correspondents' computer clocks were set to different times, so on occasion, it looked as though responses had been sent before the questions. It took a while to sort them out. Having read about, experienced and now reflected upon the challenges o f conducting  78  ethical research online, I have reached several understandings. Firstly, that while the technology facilitates the speedy collection of data, it does not diminish the need for empathy, patience, courtesy and humility when working as a visitor in someone else's professional terrain. Doing the research online might limit the mileage on your car and the drain on your expense account, but the emotional investment required by this work is still considerable. Gaining the trust of research participants is not optional simply because you do not see them, nor are the consequences of poorly chosen words any less weighty. The messy and occasionally unsettling aspects of qualitative research - the sense of self-consciousness in an unfamiliar environment, the knowledge that you are scrambling to communicate effectively and appropriately in it - are constant. Message summaries The last part of this chapter offers two aerial views of the site. In the tables which follow, I summarise the site contributions first by message. The table shows which of the topics drew the most interest according to both the number of threads and the total number of messages. The feature of "replies" shows the instances in which authors joined existing discussions rather than striking out on their own. The table also offers an overview of the gender balance of contributions. The last row shows total messages in each column, excluding the column entitled "Longest Thread," where this sum was deemed to be redundant information. The second summary offers a breakdown of contributions by participant. In other words, I looked at each contributor and followed their individual paths through the site discussions. This table shows who we actually reached, according to (where possible) their professional affiliation and gender. B y offering these two kinds of summaries, I hope to convey how the site content could be interpreted both by an outside reader and by the individual contributors. In all cases, the numbers in parentheses indicate my contributions. For example, where the total messages reads "17 (10)," there were seventeen messages in total, ten of which were mine. I have also indicated the numbers of threads I started, since this shows my move to start new discussions. Where I have contributed to the number of replies, my messages were part of the ongoing discussion, an attempt to keep it going. The column marked "female authors" emphasises the far greater propensity of men to respond to the call for feedback on policy matters. Having discounted my own messages from this column, the number of contributions by female visitors is strikingly low. In these circumstances, it would be simple  79  to judge contributions by gender according to the simple number o f men and women who took part. These numbers would be misleading. If a forum is visited by equal numbers o f men and women but the men each post three messages and the women only post one, there a clear gender imbalance i n communication.  o"  Xi ii •J-- a  &  o  £  s  ON"  o  CN  TT CN  ON  ro  00  Tf  Tf  NO  CN  s  ~ra 5 E -5 1> a ^ !  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Vancouver Vancouver CN CN  2 2 2 PH  2 2 2  oo OS m SO o CN CO in SO so so SO SO so SO so SO so  Student (1)  D-Delivery (2)  Student (1) Social (2) Educator (1) Educator (1) Funding (1)  Curriculum (1)  Visions (1)  C H A P T E R IV DISCUSSION OF T H E F O R U M POSTINGS  Examining the Data The first set o f data gathered i n the course o f this project were i n the form o f postings to the Public Knowledge Policy Forum ( P K P F ) discussion boards. In working through the messages, I looked for common themes which might describe the dimensions o f user engagement with the site. Having established what the patterns o f discussion had been, i f any, I hoped to draw a link between the discussions themselves and the site's value as a policy feedback mechanism, as described by those who contributed to it. Having examined the content o f the site, I therefore went on to match the themes against the interview material I gathered later, to see whether there was material to support or explain the participants' impressions. During my readings o f the forum messages, I divided m y observations between those which described simple message content (for example, "Internet addiction" or "social isolation among online learners") and those which described the type o f message; these latter labels included "teacher autobiographies," "formal responses to Ministry," " F A Q s " or the simple posting o f news articles in the spirit o f " F Y I . " I was initially interested to see how far the participants had actually followed the agenda set out for them by the nine chapter headings from Conditions for Success, which had been used to establish headings for nine distinct forums (see Screen Shot 4.1). D i d the messages show - however subtly - that participants had read the Ministry literature before speaking up, or did they head straight to where the other people were? Where the Ministry documents had not been followed explicitly, I paid attention to the new topics which arose through discussion. Within this feature o f message content, I noticed that the messages each had a social - as w e l l as informational - character. The degree o f warmth i n each contributor's posting conveyed the author's patience, tolerance and willingness to listen (Burbules & Rice, 1991). I also looked at the participants' tendency to respond to the specific concerns or commentaries o f others and to express affiliation and understanding (Barber, 1984), which were also features o f productive discourse. Coloured by collegial expressions o f support, validation for the arguments o f others or simply by friendly greetings and salutations, these  87  messages encouraged me to consider the affective, relational aspects o f site contributions as well as the extent to which its overt political and educational intentions had been fulfilled. In examining the online texts, I found that participants' contributions showed two significant and quite distinct preoccupations. One was concerned with the pedagogical challenges for teachers and the strategies employed by learners when using I C T in schools. A n example o f this would be a message concerned with Grade 7 Geography teaching. The author told her readers which software package she'd used and which curriculum goals she'd set out to meet. The second preoccupation was with the structural and political aspects o f introducing new technologies to schools. These latter concerns could be found in discussions about decision-making in schools and government, the challenge o f securing funding for hardware and software and the possibilities for increasing access to computers among students and teachers. Clearly, these preoccupations were not mutually exclusive. Individual respondents often tackled both sets o f concerns within the same message, and forum threads frequently paid attention to both at various points i n the discussion. While the forum participants discussed these matters i n the context o f their own work as teachers and the material they had read, the threads paid scant attention to the policy documents and research materials provided within the site. In other words, the discussions were mostly used to establish brief discussions and professional connections according to the general concerns o f the Ministry documents, but they did not pay close, discriminating attention to their recommendations. Nonetheless, the themes and descriptors which emerged from close analysis o f the online discussions helped to provide a framework for understanding their overall content. From participants' communicative strategies, I hoped to discern what their motivations had been i n contributing to such a website, as well as their expectations o f how the site might best be used. Was it a place to meet like-minded colleagues, or those whom one hopes to challenge through disagreement? Was it a place to have one's mind changed through debate, a place to promote reflection and perhaps alter one's professional perspectives? Having read that "electronic discussion groups represent a different conversational dynamic than [face-toface] discussion" (Adrianson & Hjelmquist, 1993, i n Mackinnon & A y l w a r d , 2000, p. 57), I tried to keep m y expectations o f policy talk - derived from in-person meetings and seminars - at bay.  88  I was also cautioned by W i l h e l m ' s (2000) observation o f online political forums as being used typically for "facilitating self-expression and monologue, without i n large measure the 'listening,' responsiveness and dialogue... such as prioritising issues, negotiating differences, reaching political agreement and plotting a course o f action to influence the political agenda" (p. 98). In reading over the forum postings with the interview transcripts close at hand, this concern about listening had been among the first to emerge during analysis. The concept o f conversational coherence became key to m y understanding o f the site discussions as an intellectual space inhabited by professional educators. I deal with this concern i n more detail later on i n Chapter Five. The taxonomy o f online conversations described by Jenlink and Carr (1996) has been helpful i n keeping this analysis focused on where the P K P F discussions were headed. In their analysis, there are four kinds o f online interaction patterns, ranging from the posting o f numerous, discrete orations to rich exchanges i n which authors learn from each other, and suspend their own judgments and subjectivities; they add new information to their knowledge base and ultimately alter their entire outlook on the matter i n hand. These conversational types are respectively named dialectic, discussion, dialogue and design. In keeping these categories i n mind as I developed m y own set o f codes, I have stayed alert to the instances o f information sharing, collaborative knowledge building through critical interpretation o f various sources and articulated assumptions and the transformation o f ideas with wellsupported arguments and respectful debate. In short, this work has reminded me that i f learning does indeed depend largely on social interaction (Sauntson, 1995, p. 39), the online exchanges provide ample information regarding the extent to which the site performed as the locus for fruitful, educational dialogue about a specific policy initiative. The methods I describe i n this chapter have been developed through readings o f various forms o f textual analysis. While they all offer the means to explore and understand the dimensions o f public deliberation in online spaces, they have been developed i n a variety o f educational settings and are based on the traditions and premises o f a number o f disciplines. These include discourse analysis i n classroom settings (Flanders, 1970), linguistics (Herring, 1996), socio-linguistics (Stubbs, 1983) and semiotics, i n which we are concerned with the meaning received through text rather than the intention conveyed by its author (George, 1995). While all o f the methods employed by these authors offer useful examples o f textual  89  analysis, they do not apply themselves equally to examining the social, political, cultural and institutional contexts within which these texts are generated.  In this work, these contexts  were extremely important, affecting individual contributors' messages even when the discussion board appeared to be quite removed from them. The process o f visiting a wide variety o f perspectives and methods has been valuable and essential for two reasons. Firstly, the field o f inquiry into computer-mediated communication is still relatively new, so it seemed wise to advance with caution i n establishing the foundations for m y inquiry. Secondly, as a body o f information, the P K P F has something in common with both formal, published text and casual, ephemeral conversation, despite the apparent differences between these two forms o f communication. The parameters around the inquiry i n this interactive medium were less clear, and the process o f inquiry less immediately obvious than they might if, for example, we had been handling a work o f narrative fiction. A s Herring (1996) observes, "[computer-mediated communication] is both [conversation and published discourse], at different times and in different places, and other things besides" (p. 165). Selecting the appropriate analytical tools for this medium has therefore been a process o f extensive review, revision, selection and dissection. It has permitted an exploration o f the contributors' behaviours as writers and readers; o f the effects o f individual messages on the discussions within which they sat; o f the site as a communicative space, and finally as the place to offer feedback on specific government documents. In dealing with data which were derived from online exchanges, m y first resource was the literature on discourse analysis. Discourse analysis offers the means to explore the texts which arise from interactions between real people, typically accessed through audio recordings taken during periods o f overt observation and/or participation by the researcher. This is a method o f breaking down a complex mass o f textual data by themes or codes, "a way o f identifying categories and, relationships between exchanges, sequences and episodes of messages" (Sherry, 2000, p. 39). Not only does it permit the examination and categorisation o f individual utterances, then, it allows the researcher to explore the ways i n which some utterances can influence the ways i n which others achieve (or do not achieve) expression.  90  Further, having originated i n the classroom, discourse analysts have been preoccupied with "what teachers say... and the consequences for pupil achievement and involvement." (Flanders, 1970, i n Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975, p. 15). Given its educational preoccupations, this method has traditionally been used to explore the ways in which dialogue reveals student interest, focus, participation and learning. Although the Public Knowledge forum was not a typical online classroom, the discussion was certainly intended as the medium for learning and the text may be therefore be used as the means for assessing the contribution o f these discussions to the participants' understanding o f issues and o f other people's ideas or perspectives. The early literature on discourse analysis in educational settings provided me with the foundations o f m y inquiry. M a n y o f the key concepts described by Flanders, Sinclair and Coulthard and Edwards and Westgate were applicable to the P K P F exchanges. One example of these concepts, which you w i l l see recurring through m y own analysis, is the idea o f lexical cohesion between exchanges. Taking the lead from Stubbs (1983), I read the P K P F messages to establish whether participants had used a "common store o f semantically related terms" (p. 26). Where speakers share the same terminology, there is a greater chance that the discussion w i l l progress smoothly without further clarification o f terms or assumptions; i n other words, this shared vocabulary reveals an implicit endorsement o f someone else's perceptions and therefore creates a sense o f cohesion between messages. N o t only does it make for easier reading after the event, it is evidence that participants understand each other and are able to enjoy, at the very least, a "polite surface consensus" (op.cit, p. 28). This concept was extremely valuable i n analysing exchanges which tolerated a high degree o f disagreement without overt expressions o f hostility. In these cases, authors took care to respond with terminology carried over from earlier messages, conveying a sense o f shared concern and mutual understanding. Conversely, it was also helpful i n understanding why some exchanges read like challenges when contributors were, i n fact, agreeing with each other. Where language use is not carried over between messages, the apparent (not actual) change o f subject creates a sense o f dissonance which, on closer reading, undermines the real motive o f the author. Secondly, the concept o f the "boundary exchange" - one which opens or closes a lesson section or alters its direction - has been extremely helpful, since these messages acted as  91  linguistic signposts. According to Sinclair and Coulthard, the boundary exchange is made up of two linguistic moves: framing and focusing. These two moves help listeners to negotiate the limits o f an activity, concept or exercise, making it easier to understand as a discrete unit of "knowledge." In thinking through this concept o f the linguistic boundary, I have learned to pay attention to the ways i n which some interactions flourished and others perished, and encouraged me to find stimuli for both o f these scenarios. It also encouraged me to pay close attention to the actual effect o f each message on the discussion, and whether or not these effects were intentional. It is also important to recognise that the context o f the P K P F discussions differed greatly from those which have typically been explored by many discourse analysts. The first obvious difference is that, even though the discussions may look like transcripts when printed out, they have only ever existed as text, never as a live debate. This means that, however much we gratefully appropriate some o f the conceptual foundations o f discourse analysis (or any other method designed to examine the dynamics o f human talk), it is important to be aware that the text was neither generated i n the same circumstances, nor were the emerging mores of contributing to that medium necessarily the same as i n other environments, however much those other environments had influenced participants' expectations o f it. First o f all, the conversational dynamics are structured around different assumptions: unlike i n the classroom interactions which have commonly been examined, no one contributor "[retained] the conversational initiative" (Stubbs, 1983, p. 29) o f the P K P F . In other words, nobody performed the role o f teacher, initiating conversations, tracking their progress according to right or wrong answers and offering feedback or constructive criticism on these answers (Flanders, 1970). Although m y messages may be understood as validation or support for contributors, I was in no position to shut lines o f inquiry or exchanges which I considered unprofitable. Clearly, the I R F model ("initiation-response-feedback," describing a teacher's utterances (Edwards and Westgate, 1994)) would be insufficiently complex as the means to describe the interactions on the P K P F . Let me pause for a moment to look at the area o f conversational analysis, a subset o f discourse analysis (Klinger, 1996). This has been described by Edwards and Westgate (1994) as "talk between equals" (p. 27), as opposed to that o f a single teacher. W e might be tempted to consider the P K P F discussions as a set o f conversations because, as mentioned above, no  92  single speaker was i n the position to manage and redirect the talk. Furthermore, Edwards and Westgate (1994) admit the very real possibility o f power inequities within conversations, even i f the speakers do appear to be "equals." Very often, speakers reveal an "implicit claim to superior knowledge and insight" (p. 48). This perspective was o f particular importance in examining the discussions housed on the P K P F because, as you w i l l see, a significant element o f the contributors' energies in argumentation were spent on lending maximum weight to their positions. W i t h this i n mind, close analysis would be more likely to reveal the ways i n which contributions encode the social relations o f power into their language. In other words, "who has the power to initiate, terminate or interrupt the exchange, what counts as valid knowledge and how knowledge is validated" (George, 1995, p. 31). These social relations might become apparent through movements within individual exchanges. This could happen where a contributor posts a message about a specific classroom experience, where the respondents take the exchange into a discussion about the policy recommendations pertaining to some aspect o f that experience. Since these exchanges took place i n text alone, however, many o f the conversational cues on which speakers generally rely were actually missing. M a n y publications have described the challenge o f holding discussions with people one never sees (Streibel, 1998; Harasim, 1995; Marvin, 1994). Their focus has been the absence o f aural, visual and physical cues such as tone o f voice, facial expression, gesture, physiognomy and so on. However, there are more subtle and abstract (yet influential) absences, which depend on the combined factors o f time and audience. A s George (1995) observes, written and spoken language differ in their "level o f abstraction, and the potential for spontaneity, immediacy, retrievability and reflection" (p. 36). These features may be less obvious to the researcher who is preoccupied with comparing online discussions with face-to-face debates, but their subtle implications are nonetheless extremely significant. For example, as Stubbs (1983) observes, "[conversationalists] constantly take account o f their audience by designing their talk for their hearers..." (p. 21). The conversation itself offers "ways i n which speakers can check on whether their hearers are following, ways in which speakers provide feedback to keep the talk going, and ways i n which hearers can claim or prove their understanding" (op. cit. p. 22). In other words, "conversation is a joint production composed i n real time." This joint production depends on many unarticulated contributions to the flow o f discussion such as  93  approving facial expressions, murmurs, incomplete sentences or nods. So while other authors have brought to our attention the lack o f physical cues i n online discussions and the sense o f unease this can arouse i n participants, the meanings o f physical cues themselves are less important than their actual influence on the depth and direction o f the ensuing conversation. This is the work I shall address here, i n exploring how rhetoric is actually used i n the absence o f speakers' bodies. I also look at how claims to knowledge are made and how far the exchanges are conducted i n ways that contribute to the development o f fluid, dynamic, generative discussion. So while the material collected on the P K P F may have been a "joint production" o f the seventy-two participants, it was an asynchronous medium which did not always allow them to "take account o f their audience." In actual fact, i n most cases, authors did not know who their audience was because they could not know who would open their messages without posting replies. This factor o f knowing whom one is addressing i n order to tailor our selfexpression had, as we shall see later on, a significant impact on contributors' comfort i n submitting public messages to the forum. Given these concerns about the kind o f medium to which the participants were contributing (and which they, themselves, were actually making), I have therefore chosen not to refer to the body o f text as a set o f "conversations." While contributors certainly batted ideas back and forth amongst each other, this was not i n real time, and, as the following analysis w i l l show, much o f their rhetorical preoccupations was with getting their points across with maximum gusto and conviction. George (1995) interprets this gusto as evidence o f the lack o f neutrality i n all forms o f communication. H e argues that "the production and interpretation o f texts [is] a political endeavour," meaning that both the P K P F participants and myself (both online and here, on this page), were communicating i n a medium ripe for "exercising power within social relationships" (p.30). This perspective has encouraged me to look for the meanings and implicit actions connoted by P K P F messages, as well as their explicit content, so that I might understand more completely the character or genre o f the medium I was investigating, and therefore its potential contribution to the existing channels o f policy development and feedback i n B C . The concept o f turn-taking protocols, familiar to classroom teachers, students and observers, is also redundant i n an asynchronous medium. While "speakers" are prevented  94  from actually interrupting each other mid-sentence, this does not necessarily imply that participants showed each other a greater degree o f courtesy i n their interactions. It does not even mean that we know what "courtesy" looks like i n an environment such as the one under discussion here; it simply means that the data are evidence o f a group which is sharing ideas, testing each other's suppositions and reading new interpretations into their messages i n ways which are unformed and developing on the fly. I may have been moderating, but m y role gave me nowhere near the kind o f authority afforded to the teachers we find i n discourse analysis transcripts. A s mentioned before, I may have been seen to endorse contributions (the " F " o f " I R F " ) simply by responding to them and I may have had the administrative power to delete them, but I was not i n a position to instruct others i n what counted as valid knowledge or a useful contribution. The authors' understanding o f what constituted useful, valid or significant postings were determined by their own interpretations o f what one does when responding to policy documents as part o f a group discussion. Without the familiar student-teacher dynamic or the turn-taking protocols common to classrooms and chaired meetings, one might suppose that the forum was an unstructured and informal encounter, that "speakers" would congregate casually, engaging i n spontaneous, unplanned dialogues. The P K P F was, however, an environment which had been created with the specific intention o f provoking thoughtfully composed contributions. A s interview respondents would later tell me, these contributions endured up to an hour o f editing and revising before being posted publicly. They were also directed towards policy makers as well as the visible audience, meaning that their purpose was broader than a set o f simple exchanges between a group o f declared participants. In this way, the forum messages were far from being examples o f natural or unselfconscious utterances. This feature does not, i n m y mind, limit the quality o f the data to which we have access. It simply means that we must allow for the fact that more chairs were occupied i n this debate than might have seemed the case at first. I also make these distinctions i n order to show how I am steering some familiar methods, using unfamiliar data as the impetus for re-examining and renewing them. The lens o f discourse analysis has been an extremely valuable start i n focusing this analysis. It has given me the tools to distinguish between the content o f P K P F discussions and the specific rhetorical strategies employed by each o f the participants. Having closely  95  examined a number o f exchanges within it, we begin to see how the more productive and engaging o f these elements were fostered, and how they might be extrapolated and adapted in other settings. Apart from other policy consultation endeavours, these might afford some insights into the negotiation styles among dispersed work groups i n the private sector, in online literature discussions among university students, or indeed any setting i n which the element o f advocating and supporting a perspective on any problem - abstract, theoretical or practical - is demanded. The analysis which follows is not intended to be an exhaustive review o f the frequency with which certain kinds o f messages or exchanges were posted to the P K P F . It is instead an illustrative account, which draws attention to some key features o f participants' discussion strategies and the ways i n which these individual strategies fed into the site's effectiveness as a whole. The forum content In the sections which follow, I ' l l be looking more closely at the individual messages and threads on the site, asking "What were people actually 'talking' about?" Throughout the chapter, I assume the role o f researcher, laying m y concerns for effective online moderation aside for the moment. For the most part, contributors did not comment specifically on the Ministry publications. Instead, they used the forum to discuss the broader values, principles and priorities on which teaching and learning with technology should be founded. The contributions were extremely rich and diverse, including, among others: position statements or essays about government planning and priorities; autobiographical material about teacher's professional lives; descriptions o f specific classroom activities; references to, summaries o f and discussions about research (and newspaper) literature; " F A Q " type questions and requests for input to B C professional development plans. A s mentioned earlier, this analysis also pays attention to the actual content (not simply the type) o f the messages. These included, among others: the problems and meanings o f "equal access" to technology and to the P K P F debate itself; the importance o f student choice i n taking provincially examinable courses online; and the degree o f importance we attach to furthering teachers' technical skills. I was initially interested i n exploring the communication styles exhibited by participants. These styles were evidence o f what these authors understood to "count" i n this environment,  96  as well as o f the social, educational, political and rhetorical ends served by these styles. A s W i l h e l m (2000) notes, there is a significant tendency in political forum participants to start new "seed" threads rather than reading, reflecting on and responding to what other contributors have said already. The tendency, then, is to start one's own conversation instead of finding out where the conversation - which is already in full swing - is going. The extent of engagement between the participants themselves was therefore determined - rather than looking at the simple shape o f the forum threads - by the detail o f the messages, namely the extent to which participants demonstrated a close, listening attention to other's opinions, values or anecdotes. This engagement was further evident in instances where participants refined the arguments o f others by building upon or adapting them (see Appendix 1, Figures 7 and 8), adding anecdotal data o f their own, supplying references for their arguments or simply arguing i n strong language and with zeal. The social element o f discussion (as distinct from "task oriented" elements (Walther, Anderson & Park, 1989)) was established by their use o f each other's first names, expressions o f common interests, friendly salutations and expressions o f personal support. I also looked into " R e p l y " protocols vs. " N e w thread" protocols, asking, "What does the opening o f a new thread suggest? D o the authors look for connections with each other before they post, and are these connections profitable? H o w are themes o f the various discussions integrated and mediated among participants? What are their respective points o f reference and rhetorical strategies?" A message which visually appears to be a reply but - semantically - is not makes for confusing reading. Was there a sense o f overall consensus regarding when to start new threads and when not to? I understood new topic initiation to signify, "This is a new conversation," and understood it as another indication o f conversational etiquette on the site. It also showed the desire o f participants to negotiate new topics around the themes laid out for them. Participant Connections In many instances, there were clear indications o f social connections between participants, whether they were born within the forum or whether they were carried over from other environments. In Electronic Delivery, Bruce responded to Bernie's comments about distance education with a welcoming " G o o d to hear your views." While Bruce agreed with Bernie's view, he  97  amicably described it as "cynical;" the adjective thus brought a sense o f irony and familiarity to the exchange. It closed warmly and diplomatically with the comment, "I welcome this opportunity to find the best i n both [distance education and school based learning]." Later on, we encounter Gregg responding to Mathew with a solid " W e l l said..!" (17 Jan) Restating Mathew's case with some v i m (he makes his case strongly before posing his questions), Gregg may give the impression o f sparring but he is actually offering his full support. Later in this same exchange, Gregg offered some material with a concerned, "Hope this helps" (17 Jan). A while later, on 26 January, A l i c e joined the discussion using another strategy. Rather than engaging with an individual posting, she showed that she had read and understood all o f the previous messages i n that thread. Her posting addressed four other contributors by name, summarising her understanding and contributing her own take on the established topic, "Electronic Delivery" (based on Conditions of Success). "Electronic Delivery" was the most heavily populated forum and included the longest, most topically coherent exchanges. Its fifty-seven messages included both brief exchanges and longer debates, attesting to the strength o f feeling o f the contributors, several o f whom posted numerous times to this forum. A similar corralling strategy was employed by Mark, but to a different purpose. Whereas A l i c e was summarising the messages o f others i n order to bring forth a new point on a structural theme (about the tensions between parents, public schools and educators), M a r k ' s goal was to elicit information from his colleagues directed toward educational ends. A s the chair o f a professional development association, he had been on the lookout for advice regarding the association's course o f action. In other words, like the P K P F team, he was using the forum as a sounding board and research medium. To that end, he retold the story he has heard so far from various sources, and asked i f the participants had any more to contribute. Other messages which exemplified the theme o f social coherence can be found i n Visions and Principles, where Bruce opened the debate on a congratulatory, political theme note: "I am delighted to see the web being used for its true democratic purpose" (25 N o v ) . Lauren then addressed me by name and Joe responded personally and personably to her as well. A s the moderator, I hoped that the atmosphere would remain warm and tempers cool, or at least cool enough to sustain an ongoing debate. In the interests o f fuelling dialogue, I  98  referred contributors to other conversations where similar views were being expressed or related topics being covered, for example m y post to Valerie on December 4 i n Curriculum & Learning Resources. The outcome o f these directions, i f heeded, would ultimately be the segregation o f a total population into groups o f like-minded individuals. In retrospect, I see that skillful moderating means finding a subtle balance between encouraging conversation and collaborative inquiry without effectively herding people into contact with others who think alike and may be less likely to challenge them. A s Burbules and Rice (1991) caution, one might actually discourage dialogue by herding discussants into homogeneous groups. This promotes separatism among the total population, preventing anyone from making approaches to those who think differently. Nonetheless, i n reviewing m y own comments and the (overt, textual) actions o f participants, I found that m y direction was heeded on at least one occasion. The visitor to whom I had suggested mingling did indeed return to the forum two days afterwards to engage i n a discussion with the participant I had named. This was the thread about the potential and limitations o f the Ministry's Instructional Resource Packages that served as official curriculum guides. A t this point, A n n a responded to Valerie, articulating the belief that technology should not be employed as an add-on, rather as a feature infused throughout the curriculum (In so doing, she echoed the values which are explicitly declared i n Conditions for Success regarding the Ministry's intention to "enhance learning across the curriculum by applying I C T skills" [Catherine, Funding;\A Dec]). Having offered support for Valerie's observations on the scope o f the IRPs, however, Anna went on to disagree with Valerie's theoretical take. She positioned herself in allegiance with Joe's comments about Constructivist Theory but ultimately changes the topic, focusing her questions towards "What are the IRPs enabling teachers to do?" This alters the original route o f the discussion, introducing a much broader question, and Valerie did not reply. The gesture o f sharing reading materials contributed to the social climate o f the forum. In finding research interests i n common, contributors (including myself) opened up opportunities for further conversation. While this feature may also be considered an element of citing sources (see below), I have included it here because o f its evident contribution to the warmth o f interactions between speakers. One example o f this comes i n Electronic  Delivery,  where I learned that Derek and W i l l i a m shared m y interest i n online education. Derek  99  contributed a reference for people to consult on 28 January, to which I responded with questions. I supplied another U R L and the exchange continued. Both o f us expressed gratitude as more readings arrived, this time about learning styles on the web. During this week o f regular interaction, I suggested that Derek talk to Bruce about this topic, since I knew that he was also interested i n online education. Sure enough, Bruce joined the discussion having visited Derek's recommended site. The site, he said, concerned university education, while he was interested i n younger students. Specifically, he was interested in the meaning o f "moral attentiveness i n online classrooms" (27 Feb). So, while I had been encouraging these contributors to speak to each other, the common literature we shared also enabled a sense o f social cohesion. Five more messages were posted on this educational theme before this interaction closes, including personal anecdotes; a journal reference and an argument against its main supposition; a moment o f advocacy for collaborative, networked learning; the argument that "stemming the flow o f social isolation i s . . . a moral issue with which teachers are entrusted" (Bruce, 28 Feb); and finally, one last resource from the Canadian Ffomeschool Resource page about student socialisation. This last message functioned as more ammunition i n the pro-homeschooling debate, pursued elsewhere. A s this same author returned to another posting by Bruce (his regular sparring partner), the message implied a jarring change o f agenda, specifically to an agenda which had been declared and exhausted somewhere else already. Prior to the arrival o f the last author, the conversation was progressing amicably and well. The frequency o f the posts, the spirit o f collaborative inquiry and the evidence that authors were reading both the messages and references contributed by others describes a high level o f engagement. W i t h nothing further to go on, I can suggest one o f two tentative reasons for the abrupt closure o f this fruitful dialogue. The message about homeschooling was not followed up either because the literature itself was not deemed relevant to the ongoing conversation, or because the other authors had specifically chosen to excuse themselves from the company o f this last contributor. In any event, the conversation came to an immediate close. Message and Thread Coherence Individual messages often pursued numerous points, with elements crossing the boundaries o f several discussions at once. Messages i n which single arguments were pursued were, i n fact, rare. However, one exceptional example o f message coherence can be found i n Social  100  Impact, between January 13 and 14. Responding thoughtfully to the declared topic o f the forum, A d a m argued that technology-shy, older teachers tend to distance themselves from younger colleagues whom they perceive to be technology enthusiasts. H e agreed with Bruce (8 Jan) that "common sense w i l l prevail," demonstrating that he had read the first author's message. This agreement set up a sense o f allegiance, which was then modified by his urgent desire to see results "expediently." H e tempered this urgency with some detail concerning his own situation as a teacher-on-call and reached out to the assembled company, "I am curious i f anyone else has noticed this or i f anyone perceives it as a problem." The problem described by A d a m is that o f novice teachers losing their most valuable resource: the wisdom o f more experienced educators. This straightforward point was clearly framed within a response to a colleague explaining that his good faith is guarded; it was further clarified with personal experience and took a moment to find out whether or not others shared his perspective. It was well measured and carefully composed, situated within concerns about the teaching profession as a whole. The following day, I responded to A d a m , asking h i m - rather tangentially, it seems now whether or not he thinks that online mentoring might, i n part, compensate for the loss o f mentors within elementary schools (I was trying to focus the discussion towards finding solutions beyond simply identifying problems). That same day, this line o f thinking was taken up by Gregg, at which point A d a m ' s invitation was effectively derailed. I had nothing specific to offer A d a m i n response to his actual question, and evidently asked h i m a question about a topic with which I felt more confident. The unfortunate derailment went unremarked, however, as Gregg told me with some enthusiasm that he had written an article on this exact topic. H e added the names o f the authors he has found useful - revealing that he worked within a context in which academically supported argumentation was the norm. In favour o f online mentoring himself, he supported his thinking with material by Tyack and Cuban (1995), a text with which I was familiar and had enjoyed reading. M y response, as you would expect, is friendly, a reflection o f our common interests. B y this point i n the forum (mid-January), I had seen his name appear a few times and felt modestly comfortable with our conversation. I included a smiley ( © ) i n m y message and directed h i m towards K i m b a l l (1996) and another text about promoting meaningful discourse online through clickable hypertext. Feeling pleased to have encountered a like-minded researcher, m y  101  message cheerfully (and wordily) addressed those who were reading but not posting. I invited the participants to "join" me i n PKPF  Concept so that we might discuss how best to use the  forum i n its very setting. Reflecting on the exchange described above, it is clear that an initial idea from A d a m (mentoring) did survive into the next message, which I authored. However, this concept was abandoned as soon as the discussion took on the specialised flavour o f online learning research. Almost a month earlier, i n Educator Training & Support, K e v i n had also raised the problem o f the aging teaching population, but these two authors did not have a chance to recognise their common concerns i n public, nor how they could be directed toward aspects o f the ministry's proposed policy initiative. Their discussion remained within the realm o f educational issues they faced as professionals. In Educator Training and Support, A n n a joined the discussion about teacher training with the specific intention o f changing the agenda. Rather than altering the group's perspective on the matter at hand, she wanted to alter their very perception o f "what counts." A s far as she was concerned, training teachers is not the answer to teachers' technology woes. It was far from being at the top o f her list o f priorities. She cast the challenge within the politics o f daily school life as "roadblocks.. .to the use o f computers i n [her] classroom... lab access, software problems, licensing issues, insufficient technical support." She closed with a question, " A m I unique?" (16 Jan) In this message, the author reasserted what she perceived to be the main concerns for decision-makers. Jumping i n to offer training is, she says, mindless i f the teachers who already have skills are being prevented from achieving their current goals. She herself was a confident computer user and has no need for training, she said. In response, Mathew asked A n n a how she had developed her technical competence, directing the conversation back towards an educational concern, or how one learns to use the computer. H e offered his own story with gentle humour, "I learned by borrowing school computers... and letting m y kids teach me" (16 Jan). H e considered home-computer use the key to developing teachers' technical skills. The discussion was thus pursued i n a friendly fashion, but look at what has happened: Anna's question, " A m I unique?" has not been answered. M o r e significantly, she had categorically told her audience that teacher training was not the answer and therefore not the core o f this debate; meanwhile, the real concerns o f  102  managing an uninterrupted, bug-free computer classroom were a high priority. W i t h Mathew's response, however, the conversation has wheeled around, returning to the very topic which A n n a had already discarded. Her attempt to change the agenda for discussion and develop a conversation about the relative priority o f solving administrative and legal problems over teacher training has been sabotaged by the change o f subject. A n n a and Mathew's "misses" are common i n online conversations, but they are all the more concerning where the goal o f that very conversation is to promote the authors' sense o f efficacy i n online discussion environments, and with a view to increasing their participation in the processes o f government. When a conversation ends abruptly like this, there is little incentive for the original author to return. The potential for conversational coherence is limited, which i n turn limits the sense o f agency and reward experienced by the speaker. Classroom narratives The P K P F received numerous messages discussing abstract theories and principles around which the new technology curriculum might be constructed. Others among them actually offered descriptions o f what was actually going on i n schools. These messages showed the real, daily concern o f participants i n doing their jobs well. They portray some o f the hardware, software, pedagogical and curricular applications o f new technologies. Since the messages were part o f a larger debate on policy development, these descriptions were naturally interspersed with position statements and expressions o f personal values, to put the description i n context. Here, for example, is Valerie's list o f school technologies, her impressions o f their use and the curricular value o f doing so: Even now that I am working i n schools which have fairly sophisticated computers (iMacs) and good networking capability (macJanet and proxy server) the basic program is Appleworks (previously Clarisworks) and we also have HyperStudio. W e use a digital camera, can use video although we haven't done so yet. W e use Yahooligans as our search engine o f choice and students have not been disappointed as yet. The District subscribes to W o r l d Book on-line and students have been very happy with the results. I work in rural schools with multiple grades. Grade ones have developed number books and alphabet books as slide shows i n their first few weeks o f school. Grade sevens have both Appleworks and HyperStudio to use as tools for curriculum related topics. The computer is no longer the issue. What students are asked to do with this tool is (15 Jan). Note that this message followed a similar pattern to those written by A d a m , who began his message with a classroom example from which he developed a set o f principles before  103  closing with an argument or new question. Such messages were semantically coherent and thus straightforward to follow, since they only pursue one avenue per posting. Those messages which visited several arguments or topics were much harder both to comprehend in terms o f the author's positioning and to respond to, as a secondary author. When several baits have been laid, one is never sure which one to bite. In the forum on Curriculum & Learning Resources, Valerie also offered accounts o f her own practice, telling us about a specific topic (weather phenomena; Grades 6-7) and its impact on society. She explained how the topic was chosen, the assessment criteria determined and the I R P requirements met: Together (i.e. W e and the students) articulated several questions that needed to be researched. Students looked for information i n electronic and print resources. They learned how to move between Internet applications and other applications for the purposes o f noting information. They are working on a HyperStudio project where they are depicting, with animation, how the weather phenomenon starts, progresses and results i n devastating consequences. W i t h the students we have established criteria for the content and for the presentation (please note, expertise with technology is not an issue). W e are working within the guidelines o f the Science K - 7 IRP. W e are integrating technology. W e are using a variety o f instructional strategies. W e are i n tune with pedagogical best practice (4 Dec). This description grabbed the interest o f John, who wanted to make contact with Valerie's partner teacher. Their conversation did not continue on the P K P F . Cole's tale o f the field was also mixed with a position statement i n which he "fully [supports computer and I C T training i n elementary school i f it's done properly and effectively" (Student Needs &Expectations,  17 Jan). L i k e A d a m and Valerie, he also  developed an individual perspective out o f the classroom narrative: A t [my school] we have developed an extensive I C T program with a focus on research skills. W e are training and gaining skills i n several areas: a) familiarity and comfort with I C T ; b) learning general strategies such as Internet Workshop and learning more specific teaching strategies to teach navigation, content, and curriculum; c) developing a research model to apply both i n the classroom and the computer lab; and d) using ideas from other curricular areas such as 'Assessment Across the Curriculum' to examine what students' writing / research look like and how to assess it. This idea has been pushed further into examining how students are processing and handling the information. W e realize it's a long road but a worthwhile one. The author's value statement showed approval o f the long-term goals determined by his school. H e framed his position statement i n the context o f the working wage: the average  104  income is lower i n Canada than it is i n the U S . This opened up a conversation with Luke who argued that our priority should be the curriculum, which he placed within the political theme of the school's responsibilities, namely that "the fast pace o f technology makes us think that an economic urgency is the same as an educational one" (17 Jan). Electronic Delivery housed a sustained conversation which might just as well have taken place in Social Impact. In fact, to a lesser degree, it did. It centred around the question, "Should we do distance education by computer?" (Emma, 23 Jan) and tackled the problem o f students' ability to learn i n complete isolation. L i k e the discussion about the value o f teacher training i n I C T , the thread addressed the question, "What are teachers concerned about, and how does technology fit within these concerns?" This thread restated Bruce's earlier concern, adding, " W e construct our culture, our reality, together. Learning i n isolation... is like watching T V : it's almost all one-way." In making this point, E m m a unwittingly revisited Lauren's original question about transmission-based versus Constructivist pedagogies. Her comment took the discussion towards social, political concerns with how we engage with and construct "our reality." The topic was applied to a concrete teaching situation, namely the distance education model with a new (electronic) twist. T o m , a student from Vancouver Island, responded to Emma. H e told her that O S C A R courses are indeed isolating and therefore challenging. This experiential material supported her contention that isolation hinders learning. The theme o f student isolation had also been raised by Mathew i n a previous exchange; this elicited a question from W i l l i a m . H e wanted to understand the difference between O S C A R and "traditional" distance education courses from the learner's perspective. " H o w do these different delivery models impact interpersonal skills, i n your opinion?" Note that here, W i l l i a m ' s interest, i n returning to a more strictly educational theme, was categorically in "your opinion." H e had made contact with a person whose concerns lay i n a similar field and wanted to know how that other person understood the situation. In the meantime W i l l i a m had also joined Research, asking about studies o f O S C A R learners, a question he had also posed to A l i c e , within Electronic Delivery. This participant was a determined researcher who repeatedly approached the other contributors with the same question. H i s approach to the forum might be characterised - like M a r k ' s - as a fact-finding mission, i n which he tries to broaden his knowledge before offering further recommendations.  105  Challenge and conflict i n the online debate In many cases, exchanges on the P K P F were continued because the discussants did not agree. H o w did participants express disagreement? What kind o f language did they use and were these disagreements expressed as personal, intellectual, professional or political differences? In contrast with the exchange between A n n a and Mathew, who were exchanging views i n Educator Training & Support, D a n pursued the same topic as the previous speaker, but disagreed with the content. In other words, although he challenged the opinion, he allowed the agenda itself to remain intact. D a n argued that ongoing, seamless integration o f I C T into teaching practice is impossible. In principle, he agreed that it's a good idea, but that he has found it impracticable. In support o f his argument, he offered the model o f inservice developed at his o w n school. This kind o f disagreement was professional and pertained only to the education o f the teachers themselves. K e v i n ' s comment i n Educator Training and Support about the "aging, tired group o f teachers trying to get up to speed or simply ignoring the problem because they w i l l be retiring" (18 Dec) aroused the displeasure o f at least two o f his colleagues. Valerie (12 Mar) took exception to the suggestion that older teachers were inflexible or anxious. Jackie, too, told us that she is (13 Feb) "a long way from retiring" and that the problem is deeper than K e v i n has described. She described her working life as a "constant state o f frustration with technology," and bitterly reported how, as a single mother o f two, she has been told to go home and "play around on [the computer]." Her District Technology Manager clearly has "more time on his hands" than she does, she said. Apart from the evident strength o f feeling in Valerie and Jackie disagreements, these messages are also significant as examples as a form o f disputation. Rather than simply preferring a different course o f action i n technology training, they claim that the very assumptions on which the original argument was based are false. Her message is cutting but professional and sharpened by the nugget o f emotion it carries. This conveys the strong message that one's station i n life determines one's opinions, or rather, that one holds the beliefs that one can afford to have. In sum, for this author, one's political and educational orientations are dependent on the privileges one enjoys. In Funding, A d a m posted a message (27 Jan) which followed a similar argument structure to his earlier (Social Impact, 13 Jan) contribution about the lack o f valuable mentors to novice teachers. H i s message - on the subject o f a news story, "School U n i o n Blocked  106  Grant from I B M " - followed a linear development from a personal statement, from which he then extrapolated to reveal its wider implications; from this he developed a set o f questions which he then interrogated i n order to reach conclusions: Does anyone give you a million dollars with no strings attached? A s I choose to remain living i n a liberal, capitalist society I am not really against big business, but I recognize the pervasive feeling that big business wants our societies education system to reflect what has made them successful. They want our education system to have clear achievable goals and to reward those schools that achieve them. I don't blame them for wanting this. It reflects the culture they live in. The question is, "Is this the same culture our schools are in?" Should it be? Is it fair to criticize a person for being socially irresponsible i f they feel or have no connection to the society to which they are being irresponsible? Is it fair to say slaves were socially irresponsible for running away from plantations? Is it fair to say that I B M is being socially irresponsible for wanting to set up conditions that helped make them into the company they are today? Is it socially irresponsible for schools to resist the push? A r e we resisting because o f philosophical differences or because we fear change? B i g business has a lot to offer our schools, but it w i l l always come with strings. The more we understand ourselves and our motivations the more I think we can successfully integrate their help. I B M and corporations like them are a part o f our existing society (not the only part), but to leave them out i n the cold when we badly need their funds doesn't make sense. Their fundamental beliefs are a part o f our system already (not the only part) and I think we are strong enough to take their funding, maintain the integrity o f the other parts o f our system, and not have to bash big business for wanting us to mirror them. What do you think? These conclusions form the basis for a closing moment o f advocacy. The closure, "What do you think?" is typical o f this author. Note also how A d a m answered his own question at the beginning o f the second paragraph. This is the hook he needed to pursue his argument, which is delivered persuasively, yet i n a detached, depersonalised fashion. Overall, it is cautious but optimistic message, with historical detail (the slaves i n plantations) tactically helping the author to seem less confrontational than i f he had stayed with immediate, local concerns. The motivation o f this message was clearly a disagreement, but his disagreement did not bring the conversation to a close. In contrast with the messages surrounding his, he believes that it is possible to retain one's dignity and integrity despite reaching business agreements with industry. H e advocates self-knowledge on this point and his closing invitation brings Mathew back with more readings and another question about the ethics o f the current  107  education economy. Should students be "For sale to the highest bidder?" he wanted to know, bringing his mentoring concerns back to the political issues o f classroom influences. A keen and committed reader, A d a m thanked Mathew for the article and reiterated his position. H e did not take an unshakable stand on his opinions, qualifying, "I am still thinking about this, but would love to know what you have come up with (or anyone else reading this)." Courteously acknowledging the possibility o f silent observers, Thor invited commentary on what was clearly a sensitive subject. Since Mathew had wondered (28 Jan) about policies governing industry donations, I posted the U R L for the B C T F policy on business partnerships. The discussion had, by then, travelled through agreement, through disagreement supported by personal experience but tempered with expressive caution, and the sharing o f external resources. Since Mathew chose not to accept A d a m ' s invitation, the exchange between these two contributors closed. In spite o f this conversational closure, a latecomer posted another resource to the thread. This came from Aaron, and included the Conference Board o f Canada U R L . A conversation that began on the theme o f industry gifts to the education sector ultimately became a clearinghouse for reading materials about business-education partnerships. A s anyone who has joined a listserv w i l l know, there is a great difference between a courteous, rationally explicated disagreement and a "flame." While no "flame wars" erupted on the P K P F , the atmosphere could certainly be described as cool at times, i f not overtly hostile. To clarify, by a flame war, I mean a situation like the ones described by Walther, Anderson and Park (1989) i n which personal invective over-rides the members' capacity for reasonable conversation. In such a situation, veiled threats and self-aggrandizing language can silence the textual activities o f the whole list. While I would not describe it as necessarily good-humoured, the apparent conflicts on the P K P F were never more than sparring. Disagreements were occasionally pointed. Participants bristled on several occasions, but thankfully, no personal invective was posted. In the debate over the value o f distance education and electronic delivery, Bruce posted a powerful argument to the ethical debate about online learning (19 Jan). H e placed this argument i n the context o f his real priority, however: the students. Online tools, he explained, "add a certain panache, gusto, salience, timeliness to my lessons. But first and foremost... I  108  value the interaction between teacher and student A N D student to student." For this reason, face to face teaching is essential to public education, he concludes. O n the same forum, Mathew started a new discussion entitled " G i v e n the Choice," elaborating on why he believes that distance education is a "good" thing. In response, Bruce defended his position on distance education, but at this point, Mathew abandoned the exchange. H e returned later, however, for an opportunity to call Bruce on one o f his previous points. This he copied and pasted into the body o f his message. This capacity for copying and pasting may, baldly, be a good way to call other people on the strength o f their arguments. It allows us to point clearly to self-contradiction and inconsistencies. However, it can also come across as a rather ruthless gesture, as i f one were barking at one's "opponent" or pinning them against a w a l l . W e might be interested i n hearing clarification because we 1  agree with another person; alternatively, we might want clarification i n order to understand the opposition. In either case, pointed questions can be interpreted as antagonism or as mere posturing. The function o f the text as a tool can therefore be undermined by the other meanings conveyed by our use o f that tool. Bruce's reply suggests that he has understood the gesture in this way. Somewhat defensively it seems, he referred Mathew to his degrees i n psychology and administration rather than building a new argument based on reasoning, referenced literature or his own teaching experience. H e countered, " H o w do you base your beliefs? D o you require documentation, certification, research results, or do you believe that there is common sense about nurturing a child?" (17 Jan) The message was clear and forceful. While Bruce was prepared to stay and defend himself, he would do so by deflecting the conversation away from himself and i n so doing, he let Mathew (and the rest o f us who observed from the sidelines) know that he considered the line o f questioning pedantic. If we remove the emotional content o f this exchange, we are left with a pair o f individuals who began their arguments from an entirely different set o f assumptions. Bruce believes that, through experience, there is a collective wisdom - or "common sense" - about teaching that all professional educators inevitably share. Mathew, however, wanted to debate the fine  This communicative strategy is commonly used by this particular participant. On 20 Jan he addresses a BCTF staff member by name with a pointed question about the future of distance education. His message also argues various points. It receives no public reply. 1  109  detail and again, opted out o f the conversation. This discussion took place at the intersection described by Cherryholmes (1988): What counts as sound argument, proper authority, appropriate norms and reliable evidence are different for theory and practice. What is published i n research journals is evaluated i n terms o f its scientific persuasiveness.... Practical discourse has different immediate interests.. .Because [it] often occurs face-to-face, there is less need to document and validate assertions. Tacit knowledge is not derogated; it is often elicited and elaborated. External validity o f practical knowledge claims is not a major issue (p. 86). A t such an intersection, Bruce and Mathew were talking at cross purposes, one seeking external validity i n keeping with academic, theoretical discourse (and the print medium) and the other sharing professional anecdotes or "commonsense about nurturing a child" (in keeping with the spirit o f a professional meeting discussion). In future, designers o f sites like the P K P F would do well to make a statement at the outset with respect to this apparent dichotomy. Here, the different approaches ruffled feathers even though, i n separate circumstances, both would have been deemed appropriate. Shared concerns are set aside i n favour o f conflicting expectations o f discourse and the discussion came to a standstill. The same day, however, a diversion was caused, which seized m y attention and that o f another participant, Bruce. In a politically motivated message, Lewis issued a direct, scathing attack on public schooling. "Our public schools have become more a conditioning ground... than a healthy conduit for concerns and ideas," he said. H e went on to describe the B C T F as "social engineers" who have abandoned "real academics." The school system, he said, is " i n the process o f collapse" under the weight o f the B C T F "social engineers." H e closed with a rallying cry that it can only be rescued from complete annihilation i f teachers would "take back control o f the B C T F . " This message certainly gave me pause for thought. O n the one hand, it was a tremendous example o f how the P K P F had brought together representatives from populations with differing views (could they be more different?) It was a sobering reminder that this was an open, public forum, and that the politics o f education were not simply a professional concern. A s I write, I have a much better understanding o f what he meant. O n the forum's closure, I wrote to Lewis to ask for an interview about his experience with the forum. H i s reply was direct - "I'm not sure you want to interview me!" - and told me about his grave concerns for  no  school discipline and the manner i n which B C public schools were "promoting" the GayStraight Alliance. While I had been wondering what to do about this message, i f anything, Bruce jumped i n to take issue with Lewis. I was glad o f this intervention because I wanted to maintain my position o f neutrality, such as it was. Bruce described L e w i s ' comments as "uninformed" and took the opportunity to articulate his belief - reiterated elsewhere i n the forum - i n the B C T F as a democratic institution. Perhaps L e w i s ' posting is what one Ministry officer referred to as an "off the w a l l " comment? Whatever our understanding o f it, the exchange closed following Bruce's defence o f the Federation. N o other participants took up L e w i s ' point and the virtual, political border rested where it has been laid, around this single author, shooting arrows at the B C T F battlements. O f course, the P K P F was not set up to discuss the epistemologies and teaching beliefs o f the various education sections i n B C . Furthermore, we had not anticipated its role to be i n rendering explicit the ideological boundaries between these populations or individuals within them. However, this would seem to be the evidence represented by the textual contributions o f these authors, who, while they were discussing the relative merits o f distance and schoolbased education, or home schooling i n the context o f an "anti-democratic" union, were categorically not offering detailed feedback on the Ministry's latest policy publications. Alternatively, we might say, this is the manner i n which they had chosen to interpret the invitation for feedback. Clearly, all o f the parties involved i n creating a site like the P K P F its designers, partners and participants - need to reconsider how a policy focus is to be maintained ( i f this is indeed desirable) and where the boundaries between " o n " and " o f f topic debate lie. Before closing this section, I would like to return to m y point about quotations because I do not wish to give the impression that contributors exclusively quoted each other as an act of aggression. They also did so as a gesture o f solidarity. O n 2 March, Mathew quoted A l to establish agreement, a way o f saying "well done;" A l showed the same courtesy to Brian Walker on 28 February, prefacing his quotation with " W e are talking the same language here" (Electronic Delivery). This clarity showed the audience without doubt that this act o f quotation was not a sparring tactic, or one intended to diminish or humiliate the listener. Invitations to Speak  ill  Various messages fall into the category of "invitation." Overall they may be recognised by specific requests for information or by their initiation of a new line of debate which includes an element of soliciting feedback. I have not considered the simple initiation of a thread as an invitation as such, since I have chosen to explore their significance as moments in which the agenda of the discussion is established. They are evidence of the close, listening attention paid by participants to each other. The most obvious of these messages was the question posed by Michael in My Advice. He was looking, very specifically, for implementation models for school computer labs and issued his question in much the same way as one would frame a contribution to an F A Q board hosted by, say, a software manufacturer. This kind of forum use was a long way from the anticipated activities of individual reading, collective inquiry, critique, debate, advice and, quite possibly, consensus forming. Correspondingly, this message was addressed coolly to the other conference participants and includes no social or emotional features, little detail concerning his own teaching situation and no efforts to connect on an abstract or philosophical level. John also posted an FAQ-type question to Funding, asking "Does anyone know anything about the relative maintenance costs of IBM/Mac?" (3 Feb) He also hoped to learn something from Valerie, asking her on 4 January i f she might be prepared to swap notes on her classroom practice (Curriculum & Learning Resources). Their conversation may have continued offstage since we do not see it in public. Mark also offered a specific invitation, but his search was for information which would contribute to the professional development association. His request was initially uttered as a one-time offer, but once the request as heeded and advice began to arrive, he re-issued his invitation in order to continue the discussion. In the end, it seems, a longer and more in-depth consultation process suited his needs. A l l of the invitations referred to above reveal moments in which contributors set forth new agendas, letting others know "what counted," in their opinion. There were also numerous instances of Mathew posting news articles. Unlike my exchanges with Derek, Bruce and William (in which we shared material we valued and with which we agreed), Mathew's motivation in posting references seemed to be the spark of a debate. The articles he chose were contentious, often characterised by political themes of social justice. He did not always explain his perspective on this material or defend his  112  position (This is not the same as citing sources, because sources are typically used to support the argument being made within the author's own narrative. Invitational messages are simply instances where participants have offered either more material or another incentive to speak up). Nonetheless, I did appreciate his efforts as a voluntary moderator greatly. H e copied and pasted articles into the body o f his messages, which was a real boon because the newspapers themselves do not provide easily accessible archives. H i s reference to the article from the Province about internet addiction sparked off one o f the site's longer exchanges, including 10 separate messages, most o f which were from B C students. Invitations also took a more subtle form, as invitations to share debates and intellectual inquiries. A n n a wanted to know whether what counted to her also mattered to others on December 4. O n January 16, she also asked " A m I unique?" at the end o f a message about her technical concerns. It is not surprising that, by January 16, she was unwilling to discuss the nuts and bolts o f teacher training: she had already done so over a month earlier, i n a message to Educator Training & Support (Mathew was, we may suppose, not reading this section and has therefore had no chance to follow this line o f thinking). Here, A n n a stepped past m y initial posting about equal access to the P K P F , instead thinking aloud, or issuing the invitation, "I wonder how other participants i n this discussion feel about training teachers i n tech skills and providing a bit o f p r o - D . . . . " While I (tangentially) suggested to her that she take her comments to Curriculum & Learning Resources, Simon accepted the invitation to pursue A n n a ' s agenda. H e pursued the idea o f teacher training, looking at the values o f project-based and just-in-time learning. L i k e D a n (4 Feb), he showed a preference for inservice that is directly related - rather than abstracted from - the classroom. D a n and Simon did not engage i n any discussion on this site, so the two exchanges remained isolated under different topic headings. Another example o f this kind o f material came mid-message, as W i l l i a m asked, "I am very interested i n hearing from others who are involved with O S C A R delivered programs, or who are managing Pathfinder / Nautikos / Successmaker / T L E programs" (Electronic Delivery, 25 Jan). This invitation came between a direct question to Mathew about his opinion and a moment o f advocacy for online learners. Each o f these questions, expressions of opinion and moments o f advocacy may be understood as the moment i n which each individual steps up to the podium to declare, "This house believes...." Each contribution  113  represented a subtle shift i n agenda, another issue which must be counted and yet another moment i n which the government documents were set aside i n favour o f test-running new ideas. In the cases quoted above, the author's self was largely used as the point o f reference, rather than the Ministry documents or any other research material. A d a m offered a similar, but more specific invitation i n the posting described above (Social Impact, 13 Jan). Since his invitation was framed by "I am curious i f anyone else has noticed this...," he was not so much thinking aloud or abstractly as issuing a gentle but direct offer to pursue a new line o f inquiry. This is a strategy I used myself as the moderator (29 Nov) i n response to Paula's message about the privatisation o f online schooling: " W o u l d anyone like to respond to this?" While this is clearly an appropriate tactic i n face-to-face meetings where the conversation lags, its significance online is somewhat different. Online, the very posting o f a message may be interpreted as an invitation to others to speak, meaning that this explicit articulation is redundant. Nonetheless, at this stage, I still consider the overt expression o f hospitality to be a common courtesy which can diminish the sense o f oratory signifying as it does, "I am aware o f your presence and I wish to listen to y o u . " Even i n the short set o f exchanges described above, there are several lessons to be learned, not the least o f which is that the initiating thread established by the moderator was often side-stepped completely. Clearly, no exclusive obligation was felt by P K P F participants to follow the lead set by the first message o f any given thread or, for that matter, the lead o f P K P F itself with its policy focus; at the very least, it showed that there was no need for a moderator to set new agendas i n the semantic space between the forum headings and the subject headers o f messages posted by visitors. In speaking from their experience and understanding, the teachers worked through the issues which they faced, leaving it to others to draw out any potential policy implications They were more than capable o f showing leadership in choosing their own agendas, above and beyond the goals o f the P K P F and the Ministry documents at its source. Citation o f sources Apart from Mathew, the site's most regular contributor, other authors such as M a r k (Funding, 15 Feb and 16 Feb) submitted U R L s for news and research reports to the bulletin boards. I posted these contributions to the resources section and added H T M L to make the U R L s live. One contributor conspicuously did not reference external literature, putting his  114  opinion forward as follows "I don't remember reading what I consider the most valuable type of support for teachers trying to integrate computer technology into their instructional repertoire: T I M E " (Educator Training & Support, 2 Dec). In Electronic Delivery, the topic o f online pedagogy brought with it additional reading. O n 28 January, Derek offered a reference to a report on this topic. H e did not comment on it himself, but his posting o f it may be understood as implicit endorsement. One assumes that, i f he had disagreed strongly with its argument in any way, he would have said so explicitly. Following this, I went in as the administrator and turned the U R L into hypertext. This gave Mathew easy access to the material i n his browser and he responded the same day. H i s response took the debate deeper as he commented on specific sections o f the article, with reference to the relationship between "quality teaching" and class size. H i s message was a productive m i x o f quotations and personal commentary, showing that he had internalised his reading and was prepared to build on it: Thanks for the link. I think it is important for E D E teachers and students to have a maximum "class size." D E schools should have student "class size" limitations just like "regular" classrooms in B . C . schools. I like this comment: " i i i . H o w many do I teach? (Section 5) H i g h quality teaching online requires smaller student/faculty ratios. The shift from the classroom to online has been described as a shift from "efficiency to quality." W e also believe a motivational human touch must come into play as well in the online environment as it does i n the classroom. Students should feel they are members o f a learning community and derive motivation to engage i n the material at hand from the attentiveness o f the instructor." The exchange closed, however, when he posted another message i n rapid succession - i n a reply to himself - with an article from the Edmonton Journal. While we may speculate about why this exchange closed when it did, we can be fairly certain that, when a contributor is effectively talking to himself, the discussion is less than inviting to another party. In spite o f this and any other reservations we might have about the pace o f the discussion, the views shared or the impact o f this exchange on decision-makers, it is extremely valuable i n one significant respect: by contributing several readings on one topic, contributors revealed an active interest i n developing their understanding o f an area about which little reliable, local research had been published. These contributors have gone further than simply musing aloud  115  or asking others a question based on their experience, thereby revealing their priority concerns amidst the many which arise on the P K P F .  Figure 3. Sharing readings  Figure 3 shows a busy thread i n which there was a strong sense o f cohesion. Derek, Bruce and I were discussing the pedagogy o f online classrooms. Derek commented that "studies such as the Stanford one are valuable," showing that he had either read the document, skimmed over it or at the very least, appreciated its general research questions and concerns. Unsurprisingly, the same day (28 Feb), Bruce responded with the supportive observation, "Derek, we are talking the same language here." Although Mathew's next intervention was supportive, much o f his message was autobiographical. He described his own school experience as follows: W e were taught that helping others was considered cheating and not fair to others. There was no such thing as cooperative learning! The teacher had all the important information and we had to listen so we would know what was on the exam. Our ideas were irrelevant. Lower level thinking (memorization) was the only learning style. W e were sitting i n a classroom but I wouldn't call it socialization. It was robot training. This message closed the discussion off, delivering a narrative without inviting commentary or additional insight. Having responded to both the first and the last messages i n this thread, the discussion was closed off from two directions. Judging by the agreement between Bruce and Derek, their correspondence may well have continued away from the forum, v i a email. This is an example o f a conversation being interrupted by the arrival o f a latecomer who is not on the same page either conversationally or literally. Mathew had not read the same materials as Bruce and Derek, leaving him on the fringes o f the conversational circle. In this thread, I responded to Bruce by directing him towards the U R L for Derek's message in the same forum, but which was i n a conversation between only Derek and me. In this way, I could refer a contributor to a conversation which I had with someone else, which was previously private; I could also do so after the conversation has been frozen in time. In this fashion, I was effectively in three places at once, i n three conversations at the same time.  116  In this case, it may be that the Stanford name helped to o i l the wheels as well. A t any rate, the reference prompted thoughtful, sustained conversation both about its progress and the principles underlying it. O n 4 February, I posted a message i n response to the thread about the I B M school funding issue. Learning from Mathew, I included some extracts from the I B M site text to draw the readership in, as well as a hypertext link to I B M ' s own comments page: If you want to read what I B M plans for schools, why not drop by the site? ( Here are some extracts... Nothing is more important to the future of the United States than the 51 million children now attending some 100,000 schools. However, the plain evidence is that student performance continues to be disappointing. SCHOOLS A S E-BUSINESS.. When it comes to transforming your school, college or university into an e-business, your greatest assets are your own vision and ingenuity. Next, you need the right technology partner. IBM offers proven, end-to-end solutions for bringing your vision to life and securing a lasting competitive advantage. IBM e-business solutions can fundamentally change the way students learn, educators instruct and administrators manage. Here, the forum was being used as the place for contributors to work out their own political positions on public and corporate domains. Mathew seemed fairly certain o f his ethical position on this material, but this was not the case for all contributors. Others - including Adam, Keith and James - all qualified their opinions. Since the main thrust o f opinion seemed to be against the industry giant, I thought that a message i n the spirit o f "know thine enemy" would add some flavour to the discussion. Nobody responded directly to this. Only Mathew replied, posting his message about corporate control and the threat to democracy. Without explicitly rejecting m y attempt to present the other side o f an argument, he did so implicitly with a return volley o f contradictory findings. Behind the protective shield o f other people's writing, this contributor did not invite others into direct discussion with h i m and the communication was largely oneway. One might engage with the points raised i n the material he had circulated, but still, his readers were not given any direct insight into his own perspective on this material. Where readers were not put off replying altogether, they were encouraged to continue the discussion  117  in abstract terms, aside from the matter o f one's personal stand on any o f the issues represented. Speaking with Authority O n occasion, participants sought to strengthen their arguments with extraneous personal information. Rather than offering supporting evidence v i a research literature or professional anecdotes, they added authority to their messages simply by drawing attention to their own credentials. These postings were often delivered with strong feeling and direct language, abandoning references to the literature or Ministry documents altogether. K e v i n ( E T & S , 18 Dec) told us that he had been teaching for 37 years, supporting his claim to professional wisdom. H e told us the location o f his school, its demographics and the fact that he was their Technology Committee Chairperson. He added that he was currently "[dealing] with the very issues that this Ministry is addressing." A l i c e told us that she had been teaching since 1963 and referenced comments made to her by a school superintendent. D o n included the detail that he had been teaching for 25 years. Gregg included the detail that he held an E d . D . Deidre let us know indirectly that she sat on the T L E T A C committee and Bruce used his degrees i n psychology and administration as added ammunition. A s a reader, one might be taken aback by these contributions. One might read them as evidence that authors were using their own person to add credibility to their statements. It might be understood as the equivalent o f demanding, rather haughtily, "do you know who I am?" Online, and in the absence o f any non-textual cues such as a person's physique, mode o f dress, vocal intonation and volume or facial expression, this question clearly begs the answer, No, I haven't a clue. M y interpretation o f such details is that, far from being aggressive, attention-seeking devices, they are bids to let one's reader know something about oneself, an attempt to declare one's bodily presence when such information is not implicit simply by occupying a chair. In real life, in conversation, one encounters these contextual details i n passing, simply collecting one's coffee i n a conference break. One is used to conveying authority through one's presence, but online, there is no hiatus i n which such gentle details can be added. In the context o f reasoned political debate, they become ungentle, almost prickly and - somewhat absurdly - delivered at the same volume as a stinging commentary on the politics o f funding a provincial education system.  118  Political content One feature o f forum usage lies at the heart o f this analysis: namely, that the P K P F participants rarely mentioned the Ministry documents directly. A t the time o f the Forum this was a surprise, and one which altered the direction o f the research project altogether. I had expected a large body o f discussions on which to base m y analysis. I had expected to follow up with interviews about the content o f the final policy and the contributions each author had made to it. In the end, however, the policy was attended to only peripherally, shifting the focus o f m y inquiry towards the nature o f the environment and how this was received by those who visited. A s the following chapter shows, the climate o f such a forum can have a direct influence on which topics are raised, which are not and the circumstances i n which an individual visitor seizes the day and decides to post at all. A m o n g the postings which did refer directly to the documents is that posted by Gregg and a colleague, who contributed their response to the Ministry i n My Advice. Nobody replied. Conditions for Success or the Plan for 2000+ may well have been read by many contributors but their content was far from attracting any sustained debate. B y "sustained debate," I refer to the kind o f discussion i n which it is evident that contributors engage each other i n three or more exchanges i n which positions are articulated, shared and supported, examined, challenged, developed or refuted. W e did not see prolonged, joint interrogations o f the Ministry publications, where an author took issue with a set o f recommendations or list o f priorities, debating them with his or her peers. Far more, we saw new concerns and positions being articulated time and again, with each author situated on a podium o f their making. There was, however, one two-message exchange i n which policy matters were attended to, on the basis o f a factual inquiry. During the Ministry interview, I confirmed that this was the only basis on which they were prepared to participate. O n December 14, A d a m asked the assembled company about their views on funding technology: funding technology i n isolation runs the risk o f "unwittingly [harming] other existing programs," he says. This message got a response the same day from Catherine, a Ministry officer; this was the only Ministry message posted to the site:  ~  [Adam's] point regarding funding the entire set o f educational priorities is an important one, and it is something that the Teaching, Learning and Education Technology Advisory Committee ( T L E T A C ) took into account from the earliest meetings.  119  One o f the five key themes i n the committee's report ("Conditions for Success") is a Curriculum-Driven Agenda, meaning that teaching and learning w i l l be supported through the integration o f I C T with the curriculum. In short — a cross-curricular perspective o f education with I C T used to support all educational goals. In the "Information Technology i n Education Plan for 2000 and B e y o n d " this is reflected in the introductory statement o f intention to enhance learning across the curriculum by applying I C T skills. The message restates A d a m ' s case and explains that the Ministry committee has shared his concern. The message then explains that his theme has been central i n the recent publications. What does this mean, though? It is a difficult message to follow because it equates the contents o f a document with human action, as i f advocating an action is equal to performing it. This is a thorny point here, because the actions advocated by the document authors would largely be performed by people just like A d a m . W e also read that an "introductory statement o f [intent]" in a later document argues for the cross-curricular integration o f technology. A t this point, it may be helpful to recall that public deliberations about policy are not "rational, objective and systematic" (Cherryholmes, 1988, p. 92). They are not described by a set o f linear processes. In this case, any linear processes are interrupted because arguing for something is not the same as doing it, especially where those who publish and those who do are not the same population. The site did include an example o f detailed policy critique, but it did not pertain to Conditions for Success or Plan for 2000+. Instead, it tackled the B C T F ' s own response to these publications. This is not a document to which all P K P F contributors would have access. Entitled, "Technology report recommendations," it was posted by M a r k i n early February, about two weeks after the B C T F policy seminar on technology: In the working draft report and recommendations from the Technology Policy Seminar, I see a lack o f congruence between Recommendation 22, which advocates for the positive impact o f Electronic Delivery/Distributed Learning, and Recommendation 23, which advocates against public funds being used to supply hardware and software for those learners in E D / D L . Recommendation 23, with which I do not and did not agree, seems to militate against those learners from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds being able to participate i n E D / D L , which could have the tendency to make this an elitist model o f education. This seems not to be i n line with the notion o f equal opportunities for quality education.  120  The message was not addressed to anyone in particular and does not receive any replies. This kind o f detailed analysis simply did not draw a crowd. Furthermore, since the B C T F response to Conditions for Success was not posted to the site, other visitors would probably not have seen it and thus be excluded from a discussion about it. The message clearly situates the author as a person within a particular circle o f policy debate and development, to which others had no access. W i t h this message, a border is drawn between its author and those with less information on which to base their contributions. Messages in which policy-related matters were discussed i n the context o f another purpose were, however, relatively common. For example, Joe mentioned "Conditions for Success" i n Visions & Principles (3 Dec), but he only did so i n passing, to clarify what he meant by "technology." While he addressed the theoretical underpinnings o f the document, it was i n response to a question from a graduate student about Constructivism. Bruce also commented on current policies i n Electronic Delivery, but again, his commentary did not pertain to the agenda set specifically by Conditions for Success. Its main purpose was to engage with the previous point made by Derek and to advance another about parental choice and public debate i n order to "[stem] the flow o f social isolation" among distance education students. "Current policies allow a parent to determine that other options are not available... Public discussion o f what is acceptable in societal terms is i n order to establish funding policy" (Electronic Delivery, 28 Feb). Here, policy became the context o f the conversation rather than the goal. Contributors also found ways to think about policy-related matters without (metaphorically) pinning the policy documents to a board and highlighting sections o f them. In My Advice (Educator Training & Support) a discussion took place which looked at the priorities on which policy might be made. O n 2 December, Christopher described his top priority "for teachers trying to integrate computer technology into their instructional repertoire: T I M E • time to learn • time to practice • time to improve" Valerie joined Christopher on the same day (2 Dec), agreeing that, "Time is a big issue" but qualified, "It's not the answer, though. W e have time for Professional Development. People need to have a commitment to use what they have learned." For Valerie, the psychological  121  attitudes o f teachers towards the task in hand were more important than time, which is scarce. Valerie also recommended a reading to Christopher, " H o w Teachers Learn Technology Best" with an accompanying web page ( Fred (3 Dec) followed this thread about teacher attitudes with the observation that, "Research has shown that teachers with computers at home are w i l l i n g and ready to incorporate technology into the classroom at school" (The introductory three words conveyed suggest that this point is more valid by having been expressed by others. These others are published researchers which, his reader might suppose, lent his argument greater credibility. W i t h this message, the author positions himself politically: as a legitimate and authoritative contributor to this debate.). In other words, home use is the key to getting teachers up to speed. H e went on to list his step-by-step recipe for "fast and efficient incorporation o f technology in schools," based on the principle o f increased home use, removing the issue from the politics o f professional time use and placing it squarely within personal responsibility. This agreed with what Leah told me i n interview about how teachers learn to use technology; Mathew also said elsewhere on the site - to A n n a - that he learned at home, from his own children. Brace's prescriptive 1-2-3 solution is the only message o f its kind on the forum. Steps two and three were, consecutively, "give them the inservice on how to use 2  [technology]" and "give access to the students." H i s emphasis was on introducing technology to schools when the teachers, as private individuals, are ready for this. Only at this stage should computers be brought into schools, and only then should the students gain access to them. Christopher's message undoubtedly struck a chord. I took up his terminology to show that I had been listening, using "canned content" in m y own message header. Patrick ultimately used it on which to hang his own ideas. Finally, Dale posted the last message to this rich thread on 6 December. The whole thread has lasted only five days, but it included a reference to new literature, a set o f argued priorities, topic change (from "Teachers' T i m e " to "Teacher's Attitude") and finally a sudden change o f topic by Dale, who wanted to discuss teacher training programs and funding. Dale referred us to his own investigations, mirroring the referencing i n Brace's message: " M y research leads me to believe that teachers have to  Valerie and a colleague shared policy priorities in My Advice/Educator Training and Support between December 2 and 6, but these were not in strategically ordered lists. See Appendix 1, Figures 8 and 9. 2  122  change how they teach i f they're to incorporate I C T successfully." H e closed with an element o f advocacy for structural change: "The College o f Teachers needs to incorporate a technology component into the certification process and districts need to make proficiency with I C T a requirement in new postings." N o responses were posted to this message, which pointedly offered solutions as well as problems, nor was it remarked upon i n m y meeting at the Ministry. While the Ministry may have sought this kind o f post as a clear indication o f professional sentiment, it seems to have done nothing for the flow o f discussion. In sum, this thread did discuss material which might have been relevant to future policy, but it did not reveal an awareness o f the current events within which it sat. To clarify, it came after the Ministry had already broadcast its principles and general directions for educational technology. B y the time the P K P F went live, the priorities and principles, had, as far as the policy process was concerned, been established and circulated, and were available on the website, i f not exactly within the view o f the participants i n the forums. Christopher's initial point about time was pursued by two other authors, Deirdre and Patrick (Meanwhile, K e v i n and I exchanged views about the possibility o f roving technology mentors). They did not do so by joining the bottom o f the thread; instead, they sidestepped the digressions and add two more posts, dangling at the bottom o f a long thread with seven other messages i n the middle:  —RE: Teachers' home access new - H Canned content? new '— RE: Canned content? new — RE: Teacher training and support new — RE: Teacher training and support new Long Term Committment new I— RE: Long Term Committment new • NEWCOMER'S GUIDE: The basics new Foium List I Go to Too I New Recommendation I J 1  Figure 4. Side-stepping digressions  In this way, Deirdre and Patrick determined that they wished to stay "on-topic," or at least on the topic established by Christopher. The conversation between myself and K e v i n was certainly a meeting o f minds - K e v i n responded to m y question with "Great idea!" - but, like Dale's comment, it did not advance the general direction o f the overall discussion. (In accordance the instructions I had been given, I followed the lead established by participants and allowed the debate to proceed, away from the policy documents we had assumed would  123  lie at the heart o f the debate). Such comments come under the heading o f "me too" postings which were dismissed by two interviewees as redundant. In effect, we were talking separately while the main buzz o f conversation continued i n the same room. This suggests that m y comments on "canned content" belonged i n a new thread altogether. Although it may look like a response to Christopher's original concern, it is i n fact a digression, which - i f it had taken place i n person - might be considered a non-sequitur, i f not rude. It is interesting to note that Deirdre's message referred to Conditions for Success by i  name. L i k e Joe, who brought it into the discussion i n the forum, she was involved i n its authorship: I had met her while working for the Ministry's advisory committee on technology. These messages show their author's sense o f connection to both the document and the policy development process. However, while Joe referred to the document as a text, explaining its theoretical principles, Deirdre's message revealed the process o f its development and her own contribution to it (this message is also examined i n context i n the following chapter): Time was very much a part o f the discussions i n Conditions For Success. The aim o f the committee was to ensure that teachers were provided with time, hardware, and incentive to upgrade their skills. W e realize that teachers are expected to do it all and i f we want them to become familiar and proficient with technology we need to provide them more than just time but incentive as well (7 Dec). In restating the goals o f T L E T A C , Deirdre's voice comes across as that o f the policy maker; here, teachers are "them" and policy makers are "[us]." Her closing comment - "It's difficult to teach technology when most teachers do not even have it readily available for their own daily use" - shows empathy for the work o f teachers, but her professional positioning remains i n limbo. This recalls the messages quoted above from the exchange between A d a m and Catherine (Dec 14). In this exchange, too, there was a twitch in the curtains which still shielded policy discussion and development. W e now understand a fraction more about what was considered, what was discussed and what was written down i n this process. For the moment, we have yet to see what it is that teachers w i l l do. Another example o f a thread i n which policy priorities were debated was initiated by James i n Funding (11 Feb). H e felt that "too much time and money [are] put towards Hardware and Software for [our] IT programs i n school. The school board should spend more time looking for qualified teachers." Note that, while James did not actually use the  124  word "priorities" or "recommendations," he was in fact talking about his own funding priorities. The lack o f material directly addressing Conditions for Success is not an indication that the forum participants ignored it entirely. Having interviewed several o f them, I knew that several had spent many hours poring over the publications. For example, I know that A d a m read the documents from beginning to end, but still, his comments on the site do not refer to them by the letter. H e also told me that his postings were largely replies to other people. In other words, and like me, he was pursuing an agenda set by other contributors to the forum, not by the documents or resources w e ' d published. B y joining the discussion i n this way, talking on-topic (as the research team understood it) would - by the sheer force o f postings about other things - have become o^-topic. W e have already seen, the sustained analysis o f policy documents does not appeal to the masses. The agenda, having been set by the P K P F , the Ministry and its publications, was altered by the speakers who had chosen to come forward. In response, A d a m talked about his own experiences and concerns; he responded amicably to his colleagues; he raised new questions, developed arguments and requested feedback from his audience. Leah, who also read the documents, declined to post her own opinions, for reasons which become clear in the following chapter. The immediate concerns of the participants, as w e l l as the making o f brief professional connections largely seemed to prevail over other motivations. Having established a site as a learning opportunity, the people who did contribute spent their time responding to each other - in the absence o f an articulated, Ministry presence with which to engage - and i n debating abstract, philosophical points. This discussion was quite removed from the practicalities o f policy debate, where common terms are agreed upon through discussion that sometimes takes place over several days. A n overall mission for the document could be established before sections are devoted to stakeholder groups and writing tasks assigned to individuals or groups. The result is a linear text which presents a unified front in terms o f its preoccupations with whatever has been determined to "count" (whether or not this is an accurate reflection o f the dynamics and concerns o f the various stakeholders). B y contrast, the discussion on the P K P F came to a halt - for reasons both intrinsic (such as the participants' wavering commitment to the various threads) and extrinsic (such as the project's life-span) - before any o f these last agreements could be reached.  125  A m o n g the messages which were explicitly political i n either content or intention was that o f Aaron, who was hoping the balance o f discussion about O S C A R courses (Online, Distance Education Courses offered by the Open Learning Agency). H e had taken exception to what he perceived to be m y bias as moderator. This was extremely unfortunate because I did not moderate in the ordinary sense: I did not impose order on the speakers; I did not determine closure for any discussions, nor did I declare the moment at w h i c h a consensus had to be inscribed i n official documentation. Nonetheless, this contributor felt that I was encouraging a discussion which presented O S C A R (online, distance education for high school) courses in a bad light and had posted a press release counteracting this direction. This theme was continued i n the various messages offering moral support to the coordinator o f Network Nuggets, who had recently taken sick leave from his job. While Mathew and A l i c e offered gracious good wishes for his health, Blake came straight to the point telling us that he was "somewhat cynical o f this sudden offer to provide staffing after allowing [said employee] to twist i n the wind for so long." He added, " M y faith i n Ministry o f Education altruism just hit rock bottom!" (2 Feb) Again, i n My Advice/Decision  Making we heard from  a contributor who hoped to comment on the policy process itself: I am delighted to have this opportunity to provide you with input on the implementation o f technology in our schools. Too often decisions appear to be made by "gatekeepers" who are not really up to the task and without real consultation with those affected by the decisions. (My AdvicelDecision Making, 18 Jan) These messages are examples o f political positioning, i n which contributors took up the problem o f responding to the event o f the discussion, rather than to its content. Bruce also used the P K P F to position himself politically i n Social Impact. Apart from a powerfully articulated allegiance to his profession, he conveyed a sense o f gracious optimism i n the changing educational landscape. O n the topic o f establishing an online schooling infrastructure for B C , he said, "I don't seriously believe that anyone can control online education. I believe that 'meddling governments' have a role i n determining into who or what they'll invest their trust, authority and certification." He took some time to explain the reasons for his good faith: "The path taken by this government is unique across Canada, i n asking the end users what they think should be the way." Showing less timidity and a good deal less suspicion than other P K P F contributors, Bruce chose a middle ground between the  126  extremes o f opinion, owing, perhaps to his belief in the historical meaning o f democracy: he describes his community, the community at large, as " W e , the government." A l a n , on the other hand, declined to see himself as part o f "we, the government" (Funding, 8 Dec). H e argued that " M a n y o f the older schools in B C are hurting for the basics" and that " I C T are denying m y students those basics." Funding, he believed, was scarce and funds are being reallocated, preventing schools from having their fundamental capital needs met. H e explained why "old" technologies are being neglected: "new desks and telephones don't give the politicians exciting press releases!" A l a n ' s indignation is hard to miss. It is also not surprising that a thread on funding would attract such outspoken political commentary. Funding is a common sore point: what we choose to spend public money on shows where our values lie. If a teacher believes that his or her own ideology is i n conflict with decision-makers' thinking, he or she w i l l be faced very material evidence - the absence of desks and telephones, for example - o f this difference. Given the high price o f computers it is unsurprising that paying for them became an immediate political issue i n the P K P F . While A l a n ' s commentary was ostensibly directed at the Ministry, there was also a sense o f media collusion here. "Exciting press releases" are only exciting i f they match the demands o f an information-hungry newspaper and a media-hungry public. A l a n ' s message, then, described the ideological choices o f the public, the media and finally the government who tread a fine line between the organs o f the press and public schooling. This message echoed the exact concerns articulated by A d a m on December 14, but this time they were articulated with gusto and irritation. This time, no Ministry personnel stepped into the debate. The nefarious influence o f the market economy on the public schooling system was a theme which Mathew also pursued on the day o f the forum's closure, 1 March. In Funding, he argued that: Helping the likes o f I B M and Microsoft colonise education using IT has been an essential task o f the Chretien government. The result w i l l be the gradual disappearance o f shared public information and community values, hallmarks o f Canadian education since the 1841 School Act. Another biting comment was posted as "Letter o f the day: The real responsibility o f public officials i n B . C . " It came from Mathew as another paste from the Vancouver Sun site (Funding, 2 Feb). Whereas i n My Advice the "how-to" flavour was posted sincerely, this  127  message is actually a satirical commentary on the way i n which public officials manage their public relations: First and foremost there must be no bad news. Absolutely no conflict with unions. E n d your fiscal year precisely on budget. That proves the politicians and bureaucrats gave you exactly the right amount o f money. I f money is left over, spend it. I f not, make do. Stage a big public event to celebrate, for example, Valentine's D a y or, better yet, a new fire alarm. That shows a commitment to child safety. Hand out awards. Serve lots o f free food. Shortly after the big event, organize focus groups for teachers and staff. Emphasize that everyone should feel free to express feelings without fear o f penalty. After two days o f this, send everyone home early. Next morning, hand out teacher-staff happiness questionnaires. I f the results are good, leak this information to C B C T V . " It is hard to miss the author's ironic intentions here. Mathew implicitly endorses the article by posting it. H i s political leanings had already become clear through his numerous other postings, for example his belief in the importance o f funding equity: " M y main concern is that corporate grants do not lead to an equitable funding system for technology i n schools." He also posted an article entitled "Corporate controlled Internet threatens democracy" on 1 March 2000. The resource was rich and entertaining, but the only response to it was an F A Q style inquiry from John asking about the cost o f maintaining Macs and P C s . Certainly, Mathew was not afraid to post material that might be construed as "contentious," but note that he has not posted these words i n as himself. In this case, he has used the literature as the means to express his views indirectly, a gesture which places h i m behind metaphorical sandbags. Almost as soon as the forum opened, one central, political concern announced itself about the population we were actually reaching, or who were reaching us. Their early messages, between November and December 1999, pondered on the low numbers o f postings and furthermore, asked i f we were even hearing from the "right" people. It was clear from the beginning that many readers were troubled rather than encouraged by the medium we had chosen. They did so i n both the Public Forum (Visions and Principles; Electronic Delivery ) and in M y A d v i c e (Decision Making) as well as i n interview following the forum's closure. A short debate followed, scattered across these two arenas on the technical, professional and  3  Where William advocates engagement of students with the PKPF.  128  psychological reasons w h y teachers (and students, and other members o f the public) had abstained from the debate. A t first, contributors asked whether or not the technology really did mean adding more chairs to the forum or whether it actually prevented many educators from taking part. Bruce introduced the idea o f equity on day three (25 N o v ) , questioning whether or it might, genuinely, improve the quality o f public consultation: W o u l d that the suggestions and comments contained within this forum truly represent the views o f the majority. W e may still, even with best intentions, be catering to those in the know. Kirsten added fuel to this debate about elitism i n My Advice the following day. She pointed to the irony o f our decision to host a forum on technology i n a virtual environment when many teachers are unable to reach it. She worried that, even as the Ministry solicited feedback, it excluded the teachers with strong opinions and a great deal o f experience, but no access to technology: I am concerned that the B C T F and the Ministry are relying on O N - L I N E sources to talk about technology i n schools. W e need to hear the opinions o f all participants i n the education field and not just those who are already technologically "comfortable." .... Is the Ministry taking steps to involve teachers who are not "on-line"? Nobody from the Ministry replied to Kirsten's question, but her commentary was later corroborated by others, including the Ministry officer I interviewed about his own methodology i n dealing with public consultation material. "I think that there are gross differences i n access i n terms o f hardware and software, and i n terms o f awareness and techno-literacy. These differences can potentially affect people's ability to be involved i n the process, which is a big concern for me" (Andrew, email correspondence, 15 M a y 2001). I encountered a real instance o f this problem when I attended the B C T F ' s policy seminar i n January 2000. Here, I heard from a teacher who worked (and works) i n the Interior o f B C . She had not even had email - let alone web access - for six months, since the district server had gone down. There was no chance that she could have contributed to the forum, even with its extended life. Valerie, however, countered with the argument that participation i n policy development is a matter o f personal choice, and does not depend on technical skill alone: There are many educators out there who have the equipment and the connectivity and who choose not to use it. Therefore, it is like any other democratic decision making process. Those who choose to have a voice exercise it. (4 Dec)  129  She also commented that teachers simply "do not have the information regarding funding for various educational initiatives." Pateman (1970) corroborates this view, observing that i f employees are to participate properly, they require "considerably more information than is usually the case at present" (p. 69). They also need to be furnished with relevant information in a timely manner. In other words, the question o f access has less to do with technology (or even education) and much more to do with the willingness o f various parties to share their information. If the government is unwilling to share information about funding structures, teachers cannot take part actively in the decision making process because they lack the information necessary to take a convincing position on it. Joe, who is employed i n a leadership position at the B C T F , stepped i n at that point with a mediating message. H e took steps to restore the group's faith i n the medium we had chosen (5 Dec): Y o u are certainly correct i n pointing out a dilemma—inevitably, when you use the technology as the means o f participation that many w i l l be excluded. Some because of lack o f access; others by choice. However, I don't think that invalidates this kind of online discussion— as long as we find ways to bring the views o f others to the table. In addition to this discussion process, another process w i l l be taking place in the new year. A policy seminar i n January w i l l be used to develop some proposed policies to take to the 2000 B C T F Annual General Meeting. These w i l l be i n the reports and resolutions booklet, and w i l l get discussed in many locals as part o f the process for preparing delegates for the A G M . Joe was instrumental i n seeing that the P K P F ran at all, so his generosity toward the endeavour was to be expected. A l s o , and like the messages posted by M a r k , Catherine and Deirdre, it reveals Joe's sense of belonging to the policy debate. The discussion (whether real or virtual) is a place to which the author has access and i n which he has a measure o f influence. This message also resulted i n Kirsten's invitation to attend that very seminar, a positive outcome for this contributor. Back i n the Public Forums (Visions & Principles), the conversation also took a turn. Perhaps technology skills were not the only obstacle to greater participation? A n d maybe we do need to think about why teachers are not "choosing a voice," to use Valerie's phrase. In this conversation, the P K P F was being used to generate an inquiry into the nature o f the forum and its limitations. Brent offered more psychological reasons as to w h y the population was smaller than we had hoped:  130  We tried to use an online forum medium to generate questions and stimulate discussion around the IT curriculum prior to the face to face IT 11/12 forum we held last A p r i l i n Bumaby. Although participation was encouraged and as a moderator I made every effort to raise topics that I thought would stimulate erudite and meaningful discourse, the results were disappointing. Few people participated and I think [Bruce] was one o f them! Is it that the idea should work in theory but we don't take into account that people do not feel empowered to speak and to comment. The discourse has been taken out o f our lives by "experts," rhetorical artists and the passivity required o f watching T V . (13 Dec) For him, the decision to participate came from a personal sense o f efficacy, the conviction that each individual's contribution is essential to the growth and development o f the group. The technology alone cannot be empowering. A d a m supported Brent's observations three days later: We do tend to let experts speak for us. Maybe we do not feel empowered ourselves. Maybe we are too passive.... I think we as teachers do need to especially now around issues o f ICT, but knowing the reasons w h y many not speaking up is very important i f we are going to find a way to change  to speak for speak up teachers are it. (15 Dec)  These authors both echoed a concern articulated by Barber (1984), who positively demanded that public debate be just that: "Left to the media, the bureaucrats, the professors and the managers, language quickly degenerates into one more weapon in the armoury o f elite rule. The professoriate and the literary establishment are all too w i l l i n g to capture the public with catchphrases and portentous titles" (p. 197). This sense o f "catching the public" certainly grabbed the attention o f the P K P F ' s more outspoken contributors. There was more sustained debate, and a greater sense o f collective concern on this topic, than on the contents o f the Ministry publications themselves. I w i l l return to this point i n the following chapter. With Bruce's permission, I cross-posted his message from Visions & Principles to Educator Training & Support (4 Dec), i n the hope that I might further the discussion. Underneath the title " A r e we merely catering to elites?" I received two responses within the month, but neither o f them actually dealt with the matter Bruce had raised. Both talked instead about the value o f "just-in-time" learning and the responsiveness o f teacher inservice to genuine technology needs. This commentary on just-in-time learning was supported by Dan, who joined Educator Training & Support on February 4. H e also argued - based on his Masters research - that "teachers w i l l learn and implement when they are ready, not just  131  when a workshop is offered." Neither A n n a nor A l a n (who had made these points back i n December) were still present to support h i m or take the conversation any further. Student Needs & Expectations included the only completely anonymous message on the site. The author did not even use a pseudonym like " C M E S S g i r l " announcing h i m or herself only as "  " The anonymous author argued with vigour, telling the  initial author i n this thread i n no uncertain terms that students are the ones being shortchanged by the system's shortcomings, not teachers. S/he argued that "school computers should be used as learning tools and not as toys (as hard as that is for me to say)." His/her self-awareness was touching, but it gave way to oratory on the subject o f educational assessment and equity: If the computer courses i n schools are not taught well it is leaving the students i n the dark, and this is unfair to us. Slamming a door in our faces before even giving us a chance because the teachers or the ministry o f education doesn't think that we are smart enough. The author went on to say that, " O n top o f all that we have the whiny government breathing down our backs and blaming us for not being educated enough," and painted a picture o f 4  bureaucratic buck-passing which leaves students stranded without a well-organised (or welltaught) curriculum. S/he finished with an abrupt demand: "In closing to the government, teach us what you want us to learn." This is, without question, one o f the most impassioned political contributions on the site. The only direct response to this message was a laconic "I agree with y o u " from Helen, another instance o f what two interviewees later regarded as "me too" statements. It is not surprising that the anonymous author got this response. S/he has argued a point clearly and Helen wanted to express her support. While later readers might dismiss Helen's brief text as superfluous to the discussion or lacking i n educational, political or rhetorical substance, her social motivation is clear: solidarity. Such solidarity among dispersed but like-minded individuals may be construed as a key benefit o f sites like the P K P F , so it is interesting that its expression - evidence o f a courtesy we would normally extend with a nod or smile in daily conversation - is understood to be redundant in this context by some participants. I w i l l continue this line o f thinking later i n this chapter and i n Chapter V I .  4  This author's comments have been edited for typographical errors.  132  CHAPTER V DISCUSSION OF PARTICIPANT INTERVIEWS Teachers... might feel, "it's going to happen no matter what. I don't have any voice...." (Emma, 25 March) A s I left the school o f a Burnaby teacher one day, he asked me, " W i l l your work make a difference?" I answered that I intended to present m y findings to the officers o f the Ministry and that, having completed m y thesis, I also hoped to publish some o f this material. Having 1  spent several months reflecting on the ways in which information was produced, circulated, used and acted upon within the B C education system, I sincerely hoped that m y answer was adequate. While I spent a good deal o f time in the forum and have maintained contact with the Ministry about our research findings, the participants themselves are, most likely, i n a better position than a researcher to answer this teacher's question. After all, it w i l l be the teachers 2  themselves who receive invitations for feedback i n the future, and they who w i l l make the decision based on current priorities as to whether or not they w i l l contribute. The P K P F w i l l have been one instance i n which they have been able to offer feedback, but it w i l l likely be one o f many i n the course o f any teacher's entire career. In other words, the real "difference" made by the P K P F w i l l be at a personal level, to the extent that it has persuaded or dissuaded individual teachers that being heard on their professional concerns is a very real possibility. A s a result, what follows is largely a report on what participants said about the forum after it had closed. In draft form, this chapter has been called "Impact o f Forum." A s I write I realise that I have not, in fact, been writing about the extent o f the P K P F ' s impact. In reading and rereading the interview transcripts, I have instead been making m y way towards an understanding o f what I actually mean by this vague word, "impact." Catherine (Ministry o f Education) was candid i n her description o f the gap between her expectations and the reality of the P K P F discussions. She described them as "disappointing." It brings to mind K l i n g ' s (1996) analysis o f social change i n the context o f technological development: that a new  "Educational researchers should attempt to report their findings to all relevant stakeholders, and should refrain from keeping secret or selectively communicating their findings." Ethical Standards of the American Educational Research Association. AERA, 1992, p.l. Since completing my research, I have also sought feedback from these same individuals on my own ICT policy contributions at UBC. 1  2  135  technology's entrance into the human world is not like a meteor hitting planet earth. It is instead an organic process i n which, i f you like, the very germination o f new technologies and new ideas causes a stir, raises questions and eyebrows and may create a feeling o f minor consternation. There are no meteor craters, then, but there has, perhaps, been a ripple on a small pond. M y purpose i n writing this chapter has been to show what those ripples look like and what we can realistically expect o f the pebble (not meteor) which caused them. While m y main preoccupation with the P K P F had been the forum discussions themselves, the interviews I conducted after the event afforded me some additional insights into the participants' experience o f it. A s mentioned before, there was a division i n the literature between research methods which focused exclusively on the texts produced by users o f the online medium (Herring, 1996; Wilhelm, 2000), and those which also considered the broader psychological, emotional and cultural implications for these individuals. (Markham, 1998; B a y m , 1996) There is a growing trend towards ethnographic research methods i n online environments, even though discussions have persisted about whether or not the groups o f individuals who gather online merit the descriptor o f "community" or "culture" (Kling, 1996; Jones, 1996). A similar tension also persists within this work. A t all times I have felt myself stretched between an examination o f the text as a detached artifact, away from the political context o f its inception, and an investigation o f the political context itself. Ultimately, I have tried to tread a path between these two extremes, i n which I have described the dimensions o f user engagement on the P K P F while also paying attention to the experiences and political orientations o f users. In the case o f the P K P F , it has been extremely helpful to hear how the participants themselves felt about the forum both as a potential agent o f political change, and as a virtual space for educational deliberations. These interviews have revealed some limitations o f conducting research i n the online medium alone by enabling me to explore "the experience o f those who are at the receiving end o f the technology" (Franklin, 1990, p. 40). H a d these interviews not been conducted, the story which unravelled here would have been based entirely on the impressions o f a researcher. However valuable one's own analysis o f online discourse may be, it can only offer an incomplete story when the narratives o f the users themselves are omitted. In other words, it offers a narrative which excludes and ignores "the  136  institutions and events o f our daily lives" to which this technology has been added. (Apple, 1999, p. 10) The interviews were also an opportunity to develop in more detail some o f the conversations about educational policy consultation begun on the site, as w e l l as to consider the effectiveness o f m y methodology i n meeting the goals o f an academic program, the interests o f the B C T F i n experimenting with new media for political action and the Ministry's expectations o f a way to access "lots o f useful information [about the new policy]." Between November 1999 and M a r c h 2000 I had been immersed i n the forum's daily activities as the moderator, not as a participant contributing m y own, private time. O n March 1, m y role changed when I began the research work i n earnest. The interview transcripts were a much easier data set to interpret and summarise than the forum contributions. This was largely owing to the fact that - unlike the forum - 1 retained the conversational initiative (Stubbs, 1983) and could determine what the agenda was and how it would be approached. The question o f "what counts?" was up to me. Our interactions, many o f which were indeed joint compositions i n real time, were shaped and guided by questions I had established during the course o f study. The transcripts offered some surprises i n terms o f the answers I got and the directions i n which the conversation flowed, but the dialogue itself followed an easily comprehensible format largely based around the I R F - initiation, response, feedback - model o f interaction. The population involved was constant and the roles filled by the (two or three) speakers also did not change: I was there to find answers to m y questions, derived from the project goals and our recent experience with the P K P F , and the interviewees were there to respond. I interviewed P K P F participants i n a variety o f ways about both their experience with the Forum and their experience o f policy-making i n the past. W e talked face-to-face, over the telephone and v i a email. Interviewing over the telephone presented various unexpected challenges. I found that one participant who spoke to me over the phone from work lowered his voice to the point where he was almost inaudible on the tape. I had a Sony phone microphone taped to the receiver, and although its pickup was generally quite good, there is a loud buzzing on the recording because I had to turn the volume up so high. This lead me to think that face-to-face interviews are just as well when discussing topics which could be  137  sensitive or even uncomfortable. I f the interviewer is able to see what and to w h o m the respondent is reacting, it could make the conversation much easier. Additionally, the interview could take place at work but i n a cafeteria, away from eavesdroppers and interruptions. I transcribed the telephone and face-to-face interviews as soon as the last o f them had been conducted i n June 2000. Interviewing a participant over the telephone or in person allows a researcher to share a period o f time with the respondents: time to reflect on answers, repeat questions and return to earlier topics for clarification when needed. In addition to the questions asked, cues such as tone o f voice, accent, mode o f address and facial expression can allow for more detailed answers as w e l l as help to create a more comfortable research setting. I did not have the chance to speak to some o f the respondents in person; several simply emailed back m y research questions with answers dotted throughout i n a different colour. This method gave me instant feedback, and was not subject to the usual intrusions o f home and office telephones ringing, meetings being called, guests arriving, babies crying or pets throwing up, all o f which occurred on at least one occasion. However, I had no opportunity to settle into a conversation or to respond to local colour i n my questioning. Furthermore, these respondents had both a chance to edit their comments and to ignore the questions which they did not feel like answering. Once a set o f responses have been mailed back to you and you have taken several weeks to read and reflect upon them, it is difficult to rekindle the interviewees' interest i n the topic. A debriefing interview carries a sense o f closure to it, so unless one has prepared the ground (even i n one's own schedule) for two or three conversations with these people, there is a great deal o f pressure on the one-time interview. There are other reasons for preferring face-to-face interviews. One is the potential for interviewees to dodge questions they don't like. In person it is much more difficult, although some respondents can be remarkably adept at this. The dodges are, o f course, data in themselves, since they are evidence o f the boundaries between comfortable and uncomfortable topics, the borders between the various information territories. These boundaries are hard to challenge when communicating asynchronously, by email. M y sample o f interviewees is small, but m y aim here is not to paint a full landscape o f B C teachers' feelings towards the facility o f online forums for participation i n policy development. Rather, I intend to illustrate how much o f this experience - entering the forum  138  with good faith and optimism, taking part i n an experimental environment and subsequently mulling over the discussions they had - is fragmented, convoluted and complex. The dimensions o f user engagement explored i n interview revealed a range o f perceptions and preoccupations about the site's educational and political content. In understanding the experiences o f the users who did visit and were subsequently interviewed, we might anticipate future kinds o f site usage by a growing population o f technology- and policyliterate education professionals. The dimensions o f user engagement explored i n this chapter are therefore those which were expressed after the event. They reveal a range o f common perceptions and preoccupations o f the participants around their confidence i n the medium and their sense o f its value, both i n educational and political terms. A s discussed earlier, these dimensions also include commentaries on both the human stuff o f "being there" (in the P K P F ) , the topics o f the discussions themselves and the manner i n which "what counts" was expressed. Perceptions o f the Forum So had the P K P F helped to alter how teachers perceived their contributions to policy processes? H a d we allowed "existing lines o f power and information" (Hodas, 1996) to remain intact, or had we challenged and diverted them? I began reviewing the interview data with A d a m ' s words uppermost i n m y mind: Teachers are very busy and they often don't want to have a long philosophical chat, especially within the school situation during the day. They're busy. T h e y ' d rather be planning and doing something specifically for a k i d today, as opposed to thinking philosophically to make some change that might help kids down the road. T h e y ' l l always take the five minutes and do something for a k i d that's right i n front o f [them]. (9 March) M y expectation was that the forum's impact had been greatly limited by the working context of our target population. In interviewing the P K P F participants, however, I began to see that its outcomes could not be reduced to a set o f binary opposites: "took part and therefore gained from the experience" or, just as baldly, "did not take part and gained nothing." Most importantly, I found that we needed to think about the site as a facility which could (should) be reshaped or redesigned i n the future, based on the feedback we received as members o f a site development team. I asked A n n a whether the forum had made a difference to the process o f policy development i n B C :  139  M y immediate response is no, but I think i n more subtle ways yes. U s i n g new tech is an excellent way to inform and discuss, but it has limitations... I think that maybe forums could become less formal i f they lasted long enough for regular participants to get to know one another better. (26 March) It is clear from Anna's comment that, over time, the character o f a forum would not be constant. It would change and grow beyond its short-term limitations, allowing participants to develop a comfortable interaction style. This changing interaction style might itself facilitate more candid, in-depth dialogue. Robert (Ministry o f Education) had watched the progress o f another online consultation exercise and agreed that this would be the case. "The experience level, the access level, the comfort level o f contributors has changed enormously over the last twelve months" (14 March). This element o f access is o f vital importance to site developers, given the number and gender imbalance o f P K P F participants. In reflecting on this change over time, though, Robert went on to say that "what it's shown to me is that the potential is there, to use... online fora as a more formal part of policy development." In the context o f a conversation which dealt largely with the P K P F ' s shortcomings, his train o f thought was encouraging. It showed that, while our first efforts to adapt our communication structures and technologies may have been faltering, these efforts certainly bear repetition. "I guess it's early stages," said Catherine. "We are gradually learning as we go along" (14 March). Leah agreed that the long view was the appropriate one. She argued that technological change needs to be accompanied by growth and learning i n human beings: While I don't feel that this forum w i l l necessarily make any big differences i n how the Ministry develops its draft plan, I think it is the start to forums which W I L L make a difference. When more people start accessing this kind o f site, and more people feel confident about sharing their views about technology, then we w i l l have more influence with the governmental plans. (26 March) In other words, systemic change begins with the learning o f each individual. According to Leah, familiarity with the technology w i l l determine the individual's comfort with the consultation process, which, i n greater numbers, w i l l change how policy is determined on a grand scale. I asked Leah to describe her own experiences o f visiting the forum on several occasions. She described her first steps as being tentative, but added that "Each time I become a little more experienced i n technology, I become a little braver [at voicing] m y views." W i t h this account o f her own learning, Leah reminded me that newcomers to policy consultation might also be novices with the technology we had required them to use. The  140  combination created a procedure which, according to one participant would have seemed "time consuming" and "intimidating" for many potential contributors (Emma, 25 March). Leah's commentary on the learning o f individuals was instrumental i n showing me that the invisible elements o f an online forum can be the most profoundly affecting. In other words, the actions o f people who do not actually type, but simply sit and read: Dialogue v i a the Internet gives everyone the chance to "hear" other viewpoints. Even i f you are not ready to contribute your own views, you are able to see how others respond to various topics and broaden your horizons.... M a n y o f us are not confident enough to participate yet. But how do we really know that a teacher's silent participation is personally or professionally significant? Because Leah "spent several days (weeks?) working on Section C (Curriculum) for a university course project i n which [she] interviewed five teachers regarding the eleven recommendations and then wrote a report on their interpretations." In addition, she spent "several hours" reading Conditions for Success and the Plan for 2000+, and was still working her way through the materials i n the P K P database - "a wonderful set o f resources" at the time o f our interview. A d a m also spent many hours reading the resources, "every word" o f the Ministry documents and other people's messages. H e told me that his "understanding o f the situation has increased... probably ten to hundred-fold i n where we are as a society and as a society o f teachers" (9 March). For both o f them, the investment o f time paid off, as is evident through the length, energy and sincerity o f their responses. In contrast, Anna, who told me that she had "never consulted" the Ministry documents or the resource section, also told me that she "didn't really learn anything [she] didn't already know. [She] didn't hear anything new" and "didn't learn from others" (26 March). Another key feature o f Leah's experience with the P K P F was i n forging professional connections. She came away with new contacts for her research project and, given that she was, as she put it, working among "techno-shy" teachers, she enjoyed an opportunity to see her own concerns being aired by others. Despite the shortcomings o f the site, and despite her use o f quotation marks (suggesting that meeting, listening, speaking, hearing and talking were not meant literally but virtually), Leah genuinely felt herself to be "part o f a community." M y conversation with Matthew was also something o f a turning point. When asked about the value o f the forum, he responded with an optimistic "I would always hope that the  141  B C T F . . . would have a forum like this" (20 March). Given that the P K P F had been developed at a specific juncture i n policy development, I then asked h i m i f he thought that the forum should remain open continuously. To this he replied that temporary forums could be used to resolve time-specific issues, but that some online discussion facility needed to be available year-round. Matthew's hopeful reply echoed the words o f Burbules and Rice (1991), who argue that "there must be some forums i n which such dialogue across difference is valued, and in which it is pursued by participants i n good faith, even i n the face o f difficulty and initial misunderstanding" (p. 407). A t this point I began to see how questions about the efficacy o f the forum were leading towards comments on the overall, long-term shape o f virtual policy consultation i n B C . I found that participants were not simply telling me about "how w e l l " the P K P F had worked but were actually adding colour to Barber's nine stages o f strong democracy. For the purposes o f this discussion, the most pertinent o f these stages are: • Articulation o f interests, bargaining and exchange • Persuasion • Agenda setting • Exploring mutuality • Witness and self-expression • Community building (Barber, 1984) In other words, the participants were drawing m y attention away from the specifics o f our own project and, more significantly, towards the challenge o f when to open a PKPF-style forum for business, at what point i n the policy process to do so and how the agenda should be set and by whom. When I asked E m m a about the limitations o f the P K P F , she told me that: It suffers from the same problem that any kind o f public consultation suffers from.... If you are reacting to a document, or a policy statement... then you are always reacting after the fact. Whereas that kind o f a forum also has use i n generating the document. Maybe teachers would be more engaged i f they were actually generating the document... they might feel oh yeah, it's going to happen no matter what. I don't have any voice. (25 March) Let's return to Anna's commentary for a moment. Apart from drawing m y attention to the difference between its short and long term effects, it described for me the conversational character o f the forum. Furthermore, she helped me to see how different actors within the same system attach entirely different meanings to the same events. A n n a found the P K P F dialogue to be rather formal and judged this to be a "bad" thing. Her judgment was  142  contradicted by one o f the Ministry interviewees who told me, somewhat ambiguously, that "the Public Knowledge Forum provided an opportunity for individuals to make contributions.... It has affected some o f the things we've done but it wasn't intended to be a formal submission o f feedback to the plan" (14 March). She went on, "there were some postings that... supported stuff we already knew, we were getting input from other sources, you know - more formal responses and so on." These "formal" types o f feedback would have included the regular email or letter correspondence solicited for the January 14, 2000 deadline. There is therefore a difference o f opinion between the meanings attached to the term "formal" as used by the Ministry and by other forum participants. Apart from the meaning o f the terms, "formal" and "informal," it has also become clear that the value judgment placed on these terms differs across the various parties. Whereas informality is construed by the teacher as a "good" thing, as something which would oil the conversational wheels and promote collegiality, it carries a different meaning for the Ministry, whose needs as readers are extremely specific, and possibly, contradictory. Audience The theme o f audience arose through repeated readings o f the interviews. The theme was discerned through their comments about the social quality o f the forum, their awareness o f their professional standing i n relations to peers and the Ministry, and i n the time taken to compose messages. Interviewees were divided in their expectations o f their audience. While A d a m spoke positively about the discussions he had had: To me it can be used to help me with m y teaching, but right now I've used it more .. .to keep m y philosophical thinking grounded and I toss m y ideas around, see what other people think, which keeps me more motivated to continue... using the web site was a way to ask i f there's anyone else who is thinking this way, is this reasonable? A m I missing some easy point? (9 March) For A d a m , the site's advantage was as a place to read, learn and find affirmation that his own challenges and concerns were shared by more experienced teachers. H e spoke warmly about the possibilities for mentoring, saying that "where I got most out o f it was i n listening to people talk... it seemed to be a very positive thing... there were some really good points." L i k e Emma, another relatively new teacher, A d a m found himself reading far more than writing. Although E m m a didn't feel that she had used the site "to its full potential," her visits brought her i n touch with ideas "[she'd] never really thought of... it expanded m y thinking" (25 March).  143  Not all o f the participants shared A d a m ' s experience, however. While A d a m told me that all o f his contributions were replies to other posters, another occasionally felt that he'd spent "too much time reading others' postings" (Gregg, 26 March). Instead o f making contacts among other teachers, Gregg was instead "looking forward to an open dialogue with the Ministry, not necessarily [his] professional colleagues elsewhere i n the province." When asked i f his perspective on his contribution to policy had changed as a result o f the forum, he replied "Not really, because I have not seen any reaction or comments from policy makers as a response to our postings." For this participant, the site was an overall disappointment because the conversations had not, to his mind, taken place among the right people. The professional roles o f site participants had determined its communications structure. In conversation, the Ministry staff I interviewed confirmed that their role on the site had been as "interested observers. It wouldn't be something that we would be . . . . necessarily having any direct involvement i n " (9 March). When the forum opened i n November 1999,1 expected that Ministry personnel would contribute regularly to the discussions. Once it opened, I learned by email that their participation would largely be through reading, since they did not want to affect the discussions which took place. I should add, though, that the above participant was one o f only two who was i n direct contact with Education Technology Branch staff. In interview at the Ministry, I learned that he had been invited to the Ministry's Provincial Technology Forum at Silver Star on the strength o f his contributions to the P K P F . While this invitation was certainly welcome (I met Gregg at the event), it is important to recognise that it took place "off-stage," away from the public performance o f online dialogue. I do not mean to diminish the significance o f this teacher's presence at Silver Star, only to point out that our intention had been to develop a stimulating online environment which was educationally and politically relevant as well as being public. Clearly, the correspondence between the teacher and the Ministry prior to this heavily over-subscribed event was not public. Whatever meaning we ascribe to the quality o f this correspondence, it reveals where a border has still been drawn around information (and specifically deliberation) which, while being politically and personally significant, remain i n the private sphere. Leah agreed that the P K P F had some missing links. She argued that, "first o f all, the Ministry has to have someone R E A D the forum entries. Next, that person needs to someone  144  with P O W E R to make changes." For her, it was not enough that Ministry staff might listen to or read her comments: they had to be the right staff member, namely the person who could make visible changes based on what they had learned. A t this point, the discussions would be wrenched out o f the realm o f abstraction and into the real world o f political action. Anna's concerns echo Leah's. While she knew that her words would be read, she was skeptical about their potential to set significant changes in motion: I don't think the Ministry would take any notice o f what was said on the forum. Individual people i n the ministry would take note o f what was said, but government policy and funding issues would not translate that interest into action. (26 March) In conversation with Education Technology Branch officers, I learned that, while messages from the forum had indeed been circulated within that office, they had gone no further. "It just never came up" (14 March). Their circulation and therefore their impact - in terms o f reaching decision-makers outside that particular office - was limited at this stage. L i k e Anna's point o f 26 M a r c h (above), this points to a challenge for public deliberation quite apart from the technological context i n which the P K P F had been established. A s a medium for publishing, circulating and even discussing new information, it can be highly effective, but the connections between information gathering and publication, discussion, and action (whether among policy makers or the teachers themselves) are extremely tenuous at present. One participant was unusually outspoken i n his criticism o f policy consultations procedures, but for him, it was not merely a matter o f finding the right people for the job. He agreed that "the opinions ventured should certainly be considered," but went on to say that "all curriculum is politically determined... I don't think that educational considerations or educators' opinions are the foremost determining factors i n Ministry policy" (Alan, 26 March). F r o m this perspective, the impact o f a forum such as the P K P F was limited before it started because there was little hope o f influencing those with the power to make changes. Nonetheless, this teacher took the trouble to visit the forum and contribute to the discussion. I can only suppose that such an action was more symbolic than practical: even i f his advice or comments were not heeded, there were other reasons for taking the time. Following A l a n ' s train o f thought, teachers and other concerned members o f the public are having the "wrong" conversation even i f they are having it with the "right" people. Discussing the contents o f a new policy isn't the thing. Discussing the limitations o f the development process is. I f this is  145  indeed the case, the P K P F was running into trouble at Barber's third stage o f participatory dialogue: setting the agenda. According to the teacher quoted above, there was little agreement between teachers and the government on what the agenda was. The P K P F had set the agenda, as we thought, i n line with Conditions for Success, and therefore in line with teachers' key concerns (since the document had been written with the help o f many practising teachers). A s we have seen, though, the content o f the document received little attention during the discussions on the P K P F . Instead, the debate circled around the value conflicts and ideological choices which dog our efforts to teach effectively, engagingly and ethically with ICT. It was an instance o f what Cherryholmes (1988) describes as follows: "When discursive practices and speech communities bump into each other, as it were, meanings and rules for proceeding must be negotiated and established" (p. 87). The agenda, rather than being a ministry publication, had imperceptibly become the values which are knowingly and unknowingly enacted through policy decision making. This preoccupation with the symbolic importance o f policy documents (rather than their literal content) was, perhaps, a step toward the conversation A l a n might have wished for, but it fell short o f the mark with the (virtual) absence o f the Ministry staff. Even though they were mostly silent, the Ministry o f Education were indeed participating. The Education Technology Branch was ultimately the destination for the feedback and advice offered by speaking contributors so they were interested i n seeing how the discussions progressed. During an interview with Ministry personnel, I was lucky to gain access to the impressions o f non-posting visitors, a population who are typically impossible to locate or build research relationships with. I had access to teachers who had chosen to post via the email addresses they had submitted. I also heard from teachers who had declined to post, but had read the contributions o f others. These latter comments were mostly off the record but were nonetheless extremely valuable i n shaping m y understanding o f the site's audience. While teachers may have a good idea why other teachers might have been reticent about speaking up, nobody could speak for the Ministry o f Education except for its own staff. I was glad o f the chance to review the P K P F with them and saw our conversation as an opportunity to learn what had been gained by the experience, through their eyes.  146  Robert and Catherine described the attention they had given to the P K P F individually. Robert made "four extended visits" from home. H e told me that, "Every so often [he'd] sit down for half an hour," adding apologetically that he had been too busy to give it more o f his attention (14 March). L i k e the contributors themselves (Adam, 9 March; Emma, 25 March; Cole, 11 March; K e v i n , 2 April), his many other commitments had crowded i n on the time he might have spent with the P K P F . A s K e v i n put it, "you're dealing with exams, social issues in classrooms, the usual stuff, absenteeism, filling i n this form, filling i n that f o r m . . . " (2 April). The factor o f time - and whether or not teachers had enough o f it to contribute to the P K P F - is not a complex one, nor does it relate to the policy or technology interests at the heart o f the project. However, it clearly played a role i n determining the number and type o f messages it received. This role was i n something o f a balancing act against that nagging question, " W i l l it make a difference?" Catherine's position at the Education Technology branch includes an element o f research. She told me that the P K P F "was kind o f on my to-do list every day" (14 March). She would sometimes visit twice daily, "particularly i f there had been a posting i n the morning, then I thought, Hm, I wonder if anybody has followed up on that. I might have checked several times a day." The Ministry's call for feedback to its publications closed on January 14 . W e th  had originally intended to close the P K P F at the end o f January, since its efficacy might be limited after that point. O n the contrary, however, Catherine told me that "after [January 14] [she] still kept tapping i n to see what people were saying." This curiosity was encouraging, even i f the Ministry staffs lack o f overt participation was a disappointment to some participants. Our conversation was largely concerned with how the participants had used (or rather, not used) the site. In trying to understand what the impact o f the forum had been, I found that the number o f participants - rather than, for example, the number o f new recommendations was understood by ministry staff and teachers alike to signify "degree o f success." Catherine told me that she was "fairly disappointed" i n the site discussions, adding that they "didn't get a lot o f informative s t u f f (14 March). She was surprised because she "thought that this was a pretty high profile kind o f topic within the province" (Leah's earlier comments shed some light on the actual profile o f the forum and, perhaps, the policy). The conversation continued in this vein as they wondered about the reasons for these low participation rates. W e stayed  147  for a while with the question o f how more participants could be secured in future, to increase the "success" o f the facility. For example, Robert suggested that warm-up activities might engage readers' interest i n the debate. Feedback mechanisms such as polls or short questionnaires might work as an incentive, or hook, to j o i n the conversation. Polls can deliver visual results such as pie charts or graphs within seconds, so participants would be able to see almost immediately how their own views sat with those o f the majority. The commitment o f time and thought demanded by such mechanisms would be much less than that required by a complex, long-term dialogue with numerous other contributors. O f course, this avenue presents a significant problem: it would alter the site's purpose altogether, offering no possibility o f discussion or deliberation. The agenda would be heavily mediated by extremely specific questions, a shortcoming Andrew had struggled with as he analysed other policy consultation data. These specific questions would leave no room for participants to negotiate "what counts" by imposing an even narrower agenda than the one established through Conditions for Success. This suggestion points, again, to the different needs o f the various participants - both authors and readers - o f a policy forum attended by members o f the public, practising teachers and the Ministry staff themselves. Put simply, they had quite different reasons for being there. Some visitors were on fact-finding missions. Others were hoping to forge professional connections. Others still were hoping to provide the impetus for political change. A s I mentioned above, the Education Technology Branch found that forum postings took something o f a supporting role i n the process o f policy consultation. The leading role was taken by other, "formal" feedback mechanisms. For them, the forum dialogue offered only limited data, but they were not the site's sole audience. Thus, "something that wouldn't be news to us and didn't seem valuable might very well have been really useful to some o f the other people who were out there reading" (14 March). This was acknowledgement o f the diverse needs and expectations o f the site's different user groups. Apart from the low number o f participants, it is clear from the interview transcripts that the forum's progress with ministry staff was seen to be hindered by its unstructured, fluid and public nature. The Ministry officers thus spent much o f the interview addressing the question of how a more structured dialogue might have affected the conversation, or whether holding  148  it among a group o f invited individuals would have offered more i n the way o f constructive feedback. They also discussed the effects o f time on forum participation, suggesting, It might be interesting for you to take a look at people who began posting later on i n the process... What happened for them? D i d they hear about it through word o f mouth, did they finally get an opportunity - like they had your message right from the beginning but they just hadn't had a chance, or nothing had happened that they wanted to respond to. I think their motivation might be interesting. Or maybe did their comfort level go up? This issue o f comfort was significant, since, as I shall show later, participants were mostly uncertain about who they were talking to. Trust between participants and site hosts is essential i f sincere, fruitful discussions are to be had. In the case o f the P K P F , the site's short-term use appears to have prevented this trust (described i n terms o f "formality" by Anna, M a r c h 26) from developing. Overall, Robert and Catherine found the postings to be "varied" in quality. A s stated above, much o f the information they read was familiar to them, and therefore o f limited value. Catherine found the dialogue about O S C A R (online, distance education) courses to be "quite interesting" because "we saw more than one side o f that picture," but her enthusiasm was certainly guarded. Apart from Ministry staff, only two o f the forum participants reported sharing the material we had published with their colleagues. "There are a few teachers that I showed the site to... I really believe that they didn't like the anonymity o f it" (Adam, 9 March). For these teachers, "anonymity" clearly described a situation more complex than one i n which a companion's name is unknown. O n the P K P F , only one participant gave no name at all, so in this instance, I take "anonymity" to refer to the fact that the forum was held online at all, thus preventing eye contact. Despite the lukewarm i f not faintly hostile reaction o f his colleagues, he persisted, bringing the policy literature from the P K P F "to a staff meeting and we discussed... we actually spent quite a bit o f time [on it] and developed a policy i n our school. To me the site helped a lot because I was able to articulate the plan a lot better, as well as the importance o f having a plan." Nonetheless, all o f the participants I interviewed shared the opinion that the forum was, in principle, a "good" thing. They also agreed that the more participants we could attract, the better. A variety o f reasons were given for this. Apart from the principle that it was simply necessary to understand the sentiments o f the majority, participants added that greater  149  numbers implied a more diverse population; the more diverse the population, the more exhaustive our research findings would be. From the Ministry's perspective, a larger participant group meant a greater representation o f the different groups who are concerned with educational technology i n B C . The impact on participants' practice, according to their testimonials, led i n two directions. These directions were, firstly, toward their own learning and as a consequence, their own teaching methods. Second, there were repercussions on their public life within the school system, i n realms where they held leadership positions among their peers. These positions allowed them to contribute to district and school technology plans, as well as to the professional development o f colleagues and to attend provincial and Federation meetings on the development o f the new policy. The richest account o f a teacher's engagement with the site came from a B C educator who had read every single contribution and research document; had posted as well as read messages (although all o f his messages were, he said, replies to others); had raised issues which he had learned about on the site with his colleagues; and finally, had introduced some o f these ideas into his o w n planning. Another contributor had encouraged his students to take part i n the discussions and, having contacted me privately, shared the readings we had discussed with the technology planning committee in his district. I sent a list o f readings to a group o f about ten o f his colleagues; he subsequently wrote to thank me saying that this material had had a significant impact on the way i n which they were now thinking and working. When asked about the value o f the various messages they had read, at least two participants (including those at the Ministry) told me that reiterations o f the same perspective were not helpful, hence the need for a larger, more diverse participant population. These reiterations interrupted the flow o f discussion, they said, diminishing its value rather than providing "new" information. A s I have mentioned before, the motive o f such reiterations may also be understood as social (offering support, validation) as w e l l as political. There was therefore a divergence i n understanding o f these gestures between the original author, through the validating respondent to the third reader, who finds it redundant instead o f courteous. Other participants, however, took the opposing view, explaining that reiterations o f the same position were o f great political importance. These interviewees held the belief that  150  many voices saying the same thing i n unison would have more persuasive power than a large number o f isolated individuals offering single points o f view. While the data would make for more varied reading for decision-makers, the political impetus, as they saw it, would be weak. In other words, a document that is a boring read could yet be a powerful political instrument. Securing the ear o f a decision-maker, they felt, required a crowd who were prepared to speak at a certain volume and with some determination. This last perspective was actually corroborated by the Ministry officer responsible for conducting other, public consultations: The patterns o f themes that develop are affected to some degree by frequency o f occurrence. Unfortunately, a theme that might occur once i n a short note can occur (or be countered) hundreds o f times i n a thesis. In effect, the more resources that you or your organisation have to produce a response, the more that input can influence the themes or patterns that develop. A s with other media, a well-organised lobby can be heard well above and beyond individuals. (Andrew, email correspondence, 15 M a y 2001) When asked about their reading and writing practices online, participants were divided, falling on both sides o f Burbules and R i c e ' (1991) observation that, "there are benefits to be derived from conversations with those like us, but there are benefits also to be gained from persisting i n discussions with those who are not like us" (p. 412). Some authors sought kinship and enjoyed reading the perspectives o f others who held the same values and beliefs, regardless o f whether or not they added their comments. Others told me that the greatest value o f the site was the opportunity to encounter opinions different from their own. In other words, the social element was less important to them than the challenge o f reconfiguring their understanding o f their profession around this new information. While some participants described themselves either as keen readers and listeners who paid close attention to what others had written, other authors described the experience o f posting as "[letting] it fall wherever it would" (Kevin, 2 April). The first group may be construed as authors who stayed close to their texts after publication, keeping an eye open for their intellectual descendants. The latter group had hoped to contribute to the debate, but were content with the flying visit. They felt no need to pursue a continued engagement. These occasional contributors told me that they had not learned much from their visits, i n contrast with the regular readers who had described, i n more detail, the intellectual and professional advances they had made as a result o f their visits.  151  1  Participants' expectations o f the assembly were also divided. A s expected, I heard from teachers who had been delighted with the opportunity to interact with their peers across the province. A s I heard at Silver Star and in interview, occasions on which they may discuss the principles behind their applications o f school technology were rare ("There are few routes to the M i n i s t r y . . . " Cole, 11 March). They appreciated the efforts the P K P F had made to bring them into closer contact with other professional educators, but this did not describe everyone I interviewed. Other respondents were, on the contrary, disgruntled because they had hoped with good reason - for a conversation with their employers. They had wanted to engage the Ministry staff in sustained dialogue about the issues presented in Conditions for Success and the Plan for 2000 and Beyond. Among them were teachers who had written detailed responses to these documents and had also taken the trouble to post them on the P K P F . The minimal contact with the Ministry on our site was a disappointment to them. When discussing the forum with participants, I repeatedly heard the rueful phrase "the usual suspects" used to describe our regular contributors. This phrased reflected the belief that "most o f the debates about the... curriculum.. .are really arguments within groups who already have considerable power." (Apple, 1999, p. 11) Or, in Gruber's (1995) terms, these online were discussions between the students who are also the most vocal in class. In the P K P F , these "students" would have been the people who mostly had experience in contributing to policy development and who would have arrived on time, expecting a seat to be waiting for them. These would not be authors who feared being misunderstood, who worried about being seen as "too contentious" or the process o f posting as "intimidating." For contributors who expressed their reticence as anxiety, the stakes were high. There was a risk associated with posting a public message testifying to one's convictions. Other authors expressed the opposite perspective to me, namely that there was little point in posting because the stakes were actually too low. Who was listening, anyway? I f one knew that one's words might have some effect and spur a government to action, one would offer frank advice with the expectation that it would be heeded, or at least acknowledged. F o r these contributors, public contributions to policy development were o f little value. Reaching the "Public" I had originally thought o f the "data" as the discussions which arose online, but found that there were many other data sets, texts and contexts on the periphery. These were sometimes  152  convoluted, political and human. They described a situation i n which, while technology had both opened up avenues for "making public decisions, negotiating differences and arriving at hard-fought compromises" (Wilhelm, 2000, p. 86) and exposed its limitations, i n which participants' attitudes towards political engagement sometimes dwarfed the discussions about technology, education or the policy itself. In recognising this, I was reminded that one cannot conduct truly political research i f one fails to recognise the human context i n which debates have been generated. In other words, the non-use o f technology can sometimes be a most powerful commentary. It also became clear that existing channels o f communication were not sufficient for attracting committed participants to the site, which has encouraged me to review the project goals and the needs o f our various audiences. I f teachers were not coming, perhaps our site had missed the mark? I f it were not understood to be an essential feature i n the teachers' calendar, what was missing? Over time, I realised that these questions painted too simple a picture o f teachers' needs, intentions and actions. For example, we know that every school in B C received a fax about the Forum, but we do not know what happened after that fax had rolled off the machine. Was it handed to a person who was interested and had time to act upon it? D i d they pass it on? Even i f members o f a school staff believed wholeheartedly i n the Forum's intentions, they might never have learned about it. Assuming that the staff had the requisite computer skills to take part but had no time to do so, they would likely have needed access to a computer at home. Simply having a computer i n one's home does not, o f course, guarantee access. There might be report cards to write, taxes to file, a business to run and homework to print off. I f a teacher was interested but needed new skills to reach the site, he or she would have to sit down with a colleague, friend or family member who might offer assistance. That, o f course, accounts for only one visit on one occasion. It discounts all o f the time which might be swallowed up reading Conditions for Success, the other contributors' messages, material from the resource section, or even working out how the bulletin board functioned. M y concerns for reaching the teaching population were confirmed by Leah: O f the 49 schools I visited only T W O people indicated that they were aware of, or interested in, the P K P forum. To say that this is a new method o f communication  153  among teachers doesn't even begin to emphasize how far organizers o f forums like this w i l l have to go before they reach "the common teacher." She went on: We still do not have enough time to cope with the expectations o f our regular work, so announcements regarding forums have to be V E R Y V E R Y R E L E V A N T i f a teacher is going to steal the time to try to figure out "how" to access it! (26 March) Comments on the Debate The interview data described a number o f common concerns about the Internet as a communicative space. These commonly included observations about its character as a virtual space in which to think, learn and debate. Is the Internet really a virtual brain? D o we really think o f it as the place for many minds to make light o f policy work? Participants were keen to talk about its communicative qualities, a feature closely allied to the number o f participants who came. A variety o f metaphors were used to describe the forum based on physical, spatial terms ("a wilderness"; "a big plain"), social terms ("lonely voices") or musical ("staccato") and culinary ("it was like stirring the pot") terms. In interview, they also talked at length about the value o f the forum as a feedback mechanism; their preoccupation with the challenge o f equitable access was consistent with the comments made on the site and their answers were often delivered before a backdrop o f the professional and political concerns. One participant told me, via email that: Teachers w i l l only take the time to speak up on issues when they feel there is a willingness to be heard. It is incumbent on the B C T F and the Ministry to both create climates that are responsive. If a teacher's voice is not acknowledged, they w i l l stop speaking out. (Alice, correspondence, 13 January 2000) Another told me in interview that: If you have the outlet there, I'd like to believe that people w i l l use it. But there are two things. If it's hard to access, i f they don't understand it, that will end it. A n d i f they ever get the feeling that they're not being listened to, that w i l l end it. (Adam, 9 March) Having derived the set o f themes, in the participants' own words, I returned to the forum itself, in search o f corroboration for their political and educational concerns. The Forum was a temporary assembly, and being virtual, the limitations to social engagement were many. M i n e was the only photograph on the site and, as it showed nothing more than my face and shoulders, gave no indication o f my location other than "Photo Booth,  154  Anywhere." The Phorum software did not permit the attachment o f graphics, so until I met some o f the participants by happenstance, I had no idea what they looked like. According to Mathew, the site was ultimately inhabited by a few "dedicated, sincere" authors (20 March). The space we provided was a vast, i f not infinite, public arena i n which all were permitted access, whether to lurk unseen or post and thus conjure themselves into existence. A m o n g those who did choose to take part, two described their experience with spatial metaphors o f emptiness. A s Luke put it, the gathering felt like "a lot o f lonely people on a big plain." These were also K e v i n ' s "voices i n the wilderness," whose engagement A d a m described as "staccato." It was tempting, Luke said, to criticise another's comments purely to fill the vacuum, all the while realising that this was far from being the most generous or constructive form o f contribution. T w o contributors responded ruefully to m y question about moderators with the observation that at least they knew someone had read their messages. E m m a laughed as she told me that "It was a nice touch.. .when you acknowledged that someone had joined... especially i f it's someone who wonders i f there's anyone out there" (25 March). A s a text, the discussion boards are certainly fragmented and frequently confusing to read. During the process o f analysis, I have variously read the messages sent to me by the Phorum software and stored in m y email InBox. I have read the messages as they appear i n the bulletin board itself and have scanned the many screens o f threads. Reading on these several levels has been essential to garner a sense o f the individual content o f messages, the shape o f emergent discussions and the ways in which contributors chose to arrange their virtual chairs. A s is commonly the case with online bulletin boards, contributors entered the debate i n the spirit o f a face-to-face conversation. They asked each other questions as you would across a conference table. The pace was, however, slow and responses few and far between. It was not uncommon for posts to go unanswered for several days, which is hardly surprising given the tight teaching schedules into which this activity was added. A s a conversation, then, it was far from lively, but our disappointment at this conversational torpor may simply demonstrate how flawed our expectations were o f both the medium and its political context. A s I mentioned i n m y previous chapter, the visual cues offered by the forum's "family tree" structure was frequently contradicted by the content o f individual messages. Simply  155  counting the branches which emerged i n each thread was an inadequate method o f judging the extent or nature o f interaction on the forum. O n seeing an initial posting with six responses strung down the left side o f the page, one might imagine that these were semantic descendants o f the original message, that all o f the comments were developing the initial point i n more breadth and depth. This was not the case, however. Unless flagged specifically, the main points o f the news were often missed and responses posted with only tangential reference to the message they purported to answer: they did not provide answers, clarification or further information on the original question or problem, nor did they build on any observations made. W i t h many individuals effectively starting their own discussions with each posting, protocols o f listening were not observed, lending the overall, online document a feeling o f absurd discontinuity. I struggle with this element o f discontinuity, however. While disturbed by it, I begin to wonder what we really expected from the text. Is it not foolish to expect an online text to behave like a forum (because that's the metaphor o f choice, as w e l l as the product name) and yet, at the same time, to behave like coherent essays, or contributions to a discussion i n which protocols o f turn-taking are observed? Were we to transcribe a face to face conversation between stakeholders at a policy meeting, would we expect the text to be a comprehensible, linear narrative? Surely not, but at least the turn-taking feature would remain. L i k e the interviews I conducted, there would be alternating speakers who would observe some basic rules o f etiquette, such as (mostly) speaking to the topic set by the previous speaker. Online, though, numerous speakers queued up to make their own points, often with little reference to the comments which preceded them. It is hardly likely that the conversation would be easy to follow and even more, straightforward to comprehend once it is printed out long after the event. Nonetheless, there was some confusion surrounding our expectations o f the text i n terms o f its content, population and genre. Before we create an environment for people to gather in, we might do well to ask ourselves, what kind of things would we hope people will say? Soap-box orations (or speaking through layers o f glass, or calling out into the wilderness) clearly do not promote a sense o f mutual interest or community. One doesn't even know who is out there, i f anyone. O n the other hand, group efforts like drafting a letter to the Deputy Minister, writing a technology plan for the district with one's colleagues, or an article for publication i n a provincial paper just might.  156  Private Knowledge: Participants' Impressions o f Each Other In this section m y reader w i l l meet some o f the individuals who contributed to the discussions. It follows the line o f thinking begun i n Chapter Three, where I considered the challenge o f "knowing the participants" i n virtual settings. In essence, I offer textual cameos of the contributors with whom I managed to form real connections. I have actually met eight of the respondents i n person, thanks i n part to a provincial forum on policy, which took place in A p r i l 2000. M a n y o f them I have not met, so, while my accounts may be textually accurate, my mental images (as well as yours) o f these people are pure fiction. When I began to analyse this material, I started with the intention o f privileging discourse, examining the kind o f environment "it" created, as i f it - and not the authors themselves - were driving the debate. I wanted to understand the text that arose from the forums as pure expressions o f educators' political, pedagogical, philosophical and curricular orientations. However, I found this to be impossible, owing to an enduring preoccupation with speaker identity. Reading K e v i n just wasn't the same as meeting h i m - as I quickly realised after m y visit to his school. Being able to picture the participant, and building trust and confidence through email correspondence and telephone calls all add weight and credibility to his comments in the researcher's mind. The subtle additions and nuances i n what he told me after he had met me i n person were still considerable enough to dent m y understanding o f his attitudes and beliefs about school use o f ICT. This experience reminded me o f M i l l ' s observation that airy person's public expression, on any controversial subject, w i l l only ever be an incomplete representation o f all that they believe. Let's return to our most regular contributor. According to him, "only the most.. .political or keenest people" attended our online gathering. H e also commented, "I've found people online are generally very dedicated, educated people that are serious about their concerns" (20 March). But how does he see himself? "Just a regular guy.. just an average teacher" who asks his children for help when he really has to know what he's doing. W e must look beyond his modesty, though, because his actions do not describe h i m as the "average teacher" referred to constantly (and rather abstractly) by other participants. This average guy was the site's most frequent, visible guest. H i s posts often challenged other people's messages, but he also started numerous threads himself, with U R L s relating to research articles and newspaper stories. H e did not engage as rigorously with the contents o f the ministry documents, but his  157  talent as a "cybrarian" and online personality as a conversation starter showed leadership in establishing a new agenda. Since the site's closure, I have found h i m to be a regular contributor to the B C T F ' s listservs, particularly on matters o f social justice and the relationship between the media and education. H e commonly highlights ironies and selfcontradictions i n public documents, revealing a desire to understand fully their text, subtext and intention. Next, let me introduce Leah. Leah is an elementary teacher i n British Columbia who was working on her Masters i n Educational Technology at the time o f the P K P F . W e corresponded regularly, to the extent that the forum's home page still features a link to her library o f BC-specific education sites. The home page also advertises her research study involving Grade 4 and 5 teachers. While Leah contributed none o f her own opinions to the site, her research page offered an avenue for B C teachers to add to the collective knowledge base about teaching and learning with technology. She had ample experience with computers in schools, but freely admitted that she was sometimes baffled by them. Her experience with computers included searching the web for lesson ideas and as a way to share information about classroom animals and pets. She also used a web site as a school resource and newsletter, and communicated with her peers i n the Masters program v i a the internet. She had participated in newsgroups, used email extensively and worked in various online forums and teachers' workshops. Leah described a clear division between "early adopters" and the "techno-shy" teachers. This division can be seen as a barrier o f faith rather than teaching practices or professional experience. According to Anna, technology use is a matter o f principle or belief, not one that can be rationalised or reduced to logical: From m y limited participation, I thought some o f the comments were rah-rah technology types who have no time for people who question technology. I doubt whether the forum included any non-tech types because they either wouldn't have the equipment or would not be " i n the loop" to find out about the forum. (Anna) Another respondent, however, disagreed: M a n y other respondents seemed to be technology-wise "early adopters" and may not have been representative o f the population. Other respondents seemed to have opposite opinions to the proponents o f educational technology so viewpoints often seemed to be polarized. (Derek, 13 April).  158  M y main concern, o f course, was that we succeed i n answering Cole's concern that "There are few routes to the Ministry for individual teachers and hopefully this is one" (11 March). Although it is clear from these quotes that opinion was divided on who the conference participants actually were, m y intention is not to prove one perspective right and the other, wrong. M y real intention is to demonstrate that nobody really knew. Or as Robert's more detailed observation reveals, contributors "didn't know the breadth o f the audience and the professional experience... they may have thought they were talking to people who had a lot more experience [than they did]" (Ministry Interview, 14 March). The contributors' sense o f awkwardness is entirely understandable i f one considers the forum discussion i n light o f W e l l s ' argument that "talk is, after all, a social action concerned with the negotiation o f meaning and the reciprocal influence o f language and context, and this cannot be ignored when studying the means by which communication is achieved" (Sauntson, 1995, p. 41). Anna's expression o f her discomfort i n the forum reveals the challenge o f negotiating meaning where the element o f reciprocity is limited. Without the additional information necessary to make a full interpretation o f the texts themselves (Wells, 1991) and without sufficient feedback on her own comments, she remained disconnected, fearing how her words would be interpreted. H a d the forum lasted longer, she said, the interaction style might have evolved because contributors could "get to know one another better." It was, perhaps, a setting ripe for guardedness and misunderstanding. A n n a did not believe that she had contributed to the learning o f others and spoke ruefully about her own experiences o f contributing to policy: I enjoyed [contributing] immensely, but i n the end, I thought it produced little in terms o f change and results for classrooms. I was naive, I thought something might come o f it. A s I see it, our recommendations for money and support were answered by the government with the intention to build more partnerships with business.... I would think carefully about spending the better part o f a school year working on something that produces negligible results. O n a personal note, however, the committee was superbly informative... (26 March) Anna's experience is acknowledged by Burbules and Rice (1991) who found that "prior experiences may have created feelings o f intimidation, resentment or hurt; an imposition o f silence, or the self-imposed habit o f silence, may be ingrained" (p. 410). Such a commentary, offered by the participant herself, is a solid reminder that, whatever the positive inclinations o f the site developers may be, external political forces may challenge participants to the  159  extent that the perceived cost o f speaking up is more than the cost o f remaining silent. The commentary is also poignant for having been delivered by a person who marshalled her resources and actually did take part. Several o f the participants I interviewed expressed genuine discomfort at communicating in public, online. These began with Leah, who gave an explanation o f the possible opportunity cost o f taking part: I did not feel confident enough to put m y ideas i n print. I might have been a little 'braver' were I not conducting m y own masters thesis research at the time. I did not want to jeopardise participation i n m y study because o f something I might say. (26 March) She knew precisely what kinds o f consequences she hoped to avoid and chose to remain silent. Neither Leah nor the other women who expressed similar views could be described as novices. Their concern over speaking out was not owing to a lack o f confidence with technology, then, nor was it a generalised fear o f public speaking. They used computers extensively for their curriculum development, teaching and research activities on a daily basis. When asked about her use and enjoyment o f the computer, A n n a replied, "I love working with computers... I think I know a fair bit about their use and consider myself more [technologically] literate than the average teacher." She also claimed that "In m y daily life as a student, researcher and social being, the computer is indispensable" (26 March). This brings me to wonder whether the concerns described were owing to a lack o f confidence i n their own opinions. What did each contributor believe they were bringing to the debate? A s Luke told me (email, November 21, 1999), "I almost put [a message] in just for fun, to break the monotony o f the list, but got scared cause it would be so visible to everyone. L i k e what I had to say was not important." A s mentioned before, Robert (Ministry) acknowledged that some visitors "weren't prepared to risk going public with some o f their opinions" (14 March). Leah confirmed this speculation, too, describing herself as "somewhat leery about putting [my] views down for the world to see!" (26 March) Joe told me more precisely that the medium we had chosen - specifically a bulletin board, not email - had caused h i m some discomfort. He did not feel that he could "participate on the web. [He] used email for that." Another participant agreed, " I ' m still not comfortable with that kind o f online forum... it's kind o f funny . . . I don't know w h y " (Emma, 25 March). A n n a described her fear o f judgment and criticism i n much the same way that Gruber's  160  (1995) study revealed participants' suspicion o f the medium and fears about the consequences o f their postings: I was hesitant to put m y ideas on the web. I thought people might rip m y ideas to shreds or important people would read m y comments and think I was a bit o f a simpleton. I felt it was not a forum where I could be completely open and express m y opinions openly and freely. I chose my words carefully, edited m y remarks for spelling and content. She went on: I wonder i f other people, like me, are completely open about their comments. Is there a tendency to try to impress people with submissions? I felt m y remarks would be read, and maybe misconstrued. Another contributor told me in private that she feared her comments would be "too contentious" to post. In other words, the more heartfelt, the more profoundly affecting and personal the material was, the less likely it would be to reach the public sphere. Anna's expressions o f doubt showed the value o f having conducted participant interviews as well as analysing what they had said online. The dimensions o f user engagement with a discussion site or forum cannot be established from the forum postings alone. Clearly, a significant portion o f Anna's engagement took place offstage, i n her mind and at a level which did not find expression i n text, i n a public place. Sometimes the rules can only be excavated from that which is not said. She is described by Burbules and Rice (1991) as a contributor "who may feel unable to speak without explicit or implicit retribution" (p. 397). For Anna, then, her technical facility and her confidence i n her opinions were completely unrelated. Although a confident user o f computers i n her daily work and creative life - in interview she told me that she "loved" using them - she felt uncomfortably self-conscious when she felt herself surrounded by (imagined) superiors, imagining that they would judge her contributions to be facile or ill-informed. So here we are again, back to Barber and Apple, and back to square one considering "what counts." The work that lies ahead for future contributors, then, is two-fold: there is the work o f developing technological skills. Teachers may have no experience i n submitting messages to an online forum, nor be familiar with the facilities offered by a site like the P K P F . These include reading and submitting additional resources to the collective database. Second, there is the work o f establishing, with teachers, what does count as an important contribution to the debate.  161  While Jackie closes her single contribution with "Thanks for listening," A n n a is more skeptical, reminding us that listening still belongs i n quotation marks, a comment, perhaps, on our status as beginners i n this realm o f virtual opinion gathering. Dialogue v i a the Internet gives everyone the chance to "hear" other viewpoints, but whether or not we take that chance is a matter o f personal preference. So, while it is difficult to prompt discussion at all, it is doubly doubtful whether contributors w i l l offer sincere opinions, rather than mere posturing or "performance," as A n n a described it. Anna's observation is corroborated by that o f Herring (1996), who comments that "[online] discourse has a flavour which is .. .exhibitionistic at times - it is apparent that many individuals post with an audience i n mind, aiming to persuade and impress others with their eloquence and reason" (p. 159). L i k e M a r k and Bruce - who both described to me their experiences o f online discussions dominated by a single contributor ("it's the nature o f the beast" according to Mark)- A n n a was also conscious that power and status differentials were preserved online. Those who had "tons o f initials after their names" (26 March) were irritating to her because " a l l [she] would be able to put is —name— teacher" (ibid.). This participant clearly wasn't convinced that her ideas were competing i n an equal marketplace, depending on their (rationally determined, measurable) value. Her conviction is evidence o f Fiske's (1989) observation that: Knowledge is never neutral, it never exists in an empiricist, objective relationship to the real. Knowledge is power, and the circulation o f knowledge is the social distribution o f power. The discursive power to construct a commonsense reality that can be inserted into cultural and political life is central to the social relationship o f power... .Discursive power involves a struggle both to construct (a sense of) reality and to circulate that reality as widely and smoothly as possible, (p. 149-150) Whatever one's best intentions as a host may be, then, not all contributors' texts are equal, subject as they may are to different qualities o f listening. In other words, "presumptions about hierarchical knowledge continually threaten open and critical discourse" (Cherryholmes, 1988, p. 90). The qualities o f listening, the degree to which this critical discourse can proceed depends on the status or perceived status o f the speaker, as evidenced by the invitation one participant received to a provincial forum. H i s first posting had been followed by the initials " E d . D . " and the Education Technology Branch officers confirmed that they had been "impressed by his background" (14 March). Ministry Perceptions  162  Apart from the conversations on the site about access to technology, another question o f access arose as the site became more established. This was the degree to which the Ministry and the P K P had access to the full expression o f teachers' and other contributors' beliefs. A s M i l l (1972) cautions, "the principles which men profess, on any controverted subject, are usually a very incomplete exponent o f the opinions they really hold" (p. 176). Furthermore, it is impossible to know whether those views which did find expression were actually sincere. D i d Ministry staff feel that they were getting a clear, honest sense o f the opinion o f the majority? They were certainly conscious o f the potential for communication anxiety, acknowledging " I ' m sure there was some concern about speaking frankly" (14 March). H e did not say whether or not this anxiety was well-founded. Towards the end o f m y meeting at the Ministry I asked Robert and Catherine a question designed to learn about their understanding o f public communication with the Ministry: " D o you have the impression that people would really like to pick up the phone and say.. .to the ministry, 'this is what's going o n ? ' " to which Catherine replied, "I think.. .they don't have an understanding that they actually could do that" (14 March). This comment was, however, followed by, "It's unlikely that anyone thinks they could [simply lift the phone] . . . unless they happen to be Robert's friend." In other words, educators could pick the phone up, but, as Valerie observed i n the forum itself, "Those who choose to have a voice w i l l exercise it" in any event (see Appendix 1, Figure 6). This describes Anna, who told me "I would not hesitate to email someone 'higher-up' i f I wanted to tell them something or send some info to them. So accessibility for me is easier and more comfortable with technology" (26 March). It also describes A d a m , who emailed Catherine directly after she had posted a message to the P K P F . H e knew who she was because I had told h i m i n private conversation. Even though Catherine went on to acknowledge that most people would not actually bother unless they had a personal contact at the ministry, she was more optimistic about online contributions i n general, giving an example o f an "informal," online response to teacher talk as, "Gee, we loved your idea o n . . . . " Her perception o f accessing public opinion through the internet is that it's "something easy" (14 March), and that you are simply "[typing] i n a few words... and maybe there's somebody out there that w i l l listen" (Ibid.). The problem, as we found, is that the medium o f the Internet may be fast, but it's far from "easy," and the investment o f teachers w i l l i n g to contribute to policy discussions is  163  considerable. It also brings with it an element o f risk. A s A d a m observed, their time is pinched: "When faced with the choice o f commenting on issues i n education which may help all students down the road or doing something more concrete to help some students today, most teachers w i l l help a student today" (15 Dec, Public Forum/Visions & Principles). A thorough examination o f the P K P F and its supporting data has offered a salutary caution against underestimating the amount o f intellectual energy, commitment and professional wisdom required o f educators who hope to further current debates and build effective policies. One may wonder abstractly about the "opportunity for [an online forum] to provide us with lots o f useful information," but what is usefull A n d is there any agreement between those who speak and those who listen on what is actually "useful"? Not yet, it would seem, among participants who are still engaged with the question o f "what counts?" Assuming that there was agreement on the answer to this question, to what uses would these nuggets o f information put? If they undergo the metamorphosis described by A n n a (in which her contributions to policy were personally affecting while their impact on the political and educational landscapes were negligible) we might reasonably expect to invest a good deal more time i n future on the educational task o f developing a sense o f public conviction in the potential o f online environments to enable fruitful, long-term discussions. These discussions must also offer realistic political outcomes, by having visibly altered the direction o f educational policy debate i n British Columbia. My Advice " M y A d v i c e " refers to the section o f the P K P F created specifically for participants to offer advice to the Ministry. In contrast, the "Public Forum" area was created to foster group discussion. " M y A d v i c e " was potentially the most valuable area o f the site but it was barely used. Instead, the participants congregated i n sections which had already been visited and where the debate had begun. The following section revisits " M y A d v i c e " as a way o f corroborating the participants' comments with the site data themselves. It corroborates their impressions o f what life was like i n the debate and sheds light on the task o f interpreting the text that remains,.now that the doors are closed. A s described i n Chapter Three, " M y A d v i c e " was organized along the same headings as the Forum area. Rather than inviting ongoing debate, it suggested that contributors simply post direct advice to the Ministry i n response to the recent policy documents. Its contents  164  exemplify the kinds o f exchanges recalled by the contributors i n interview. Reading over it after the event, one finds a fragmented, confusing discussion which takes off i n numerous different directions and i n which no consensus or closure is reached. Only 36 messages were posted i n total, the majority o f which appeared i n three topics: Educator Training and Support (12), Visions and Principles (7) and Decision M a k i n g (7). Visions and Principles contains a motley group o f comments. Apart from the moderator, five people contributed six messages. These include a message about the author's response to the Ministry's January 14 deadline. Next came an impassioned offering which began: I am delighted to have this opportunity to provide you with input on the implementation o f technology in our schools. Too often decisions appear to be made by "gatekeepers" who are not really up to the task and without real consultation with those affected by the decisions. ( M y Advice/Decision Making, 18 Jan) The first response to this message was a request for more information about teaching with online labs i n schools. Side by side, one can hardly believe they belong i n the same conversation. One takes the form o f outspoken, urgent and passionate advocacy, characterised by words such as "wastage," "insufficient," ill-advised" and "outdated." The author signs off "sincerely." The response, by contrast, is written as a polite but tepid request in much the same language one would use i n a letter regarding one's furniture order: "I am interested i n implementation models such as smaller labs and having more online computers in class rooms. I f you have any info or resorses (sic) on this, I would be more than happy i f you passed it along." Our first author, Gordon, responded to the furniture orderer with a restatement o f their common position on using computers within classrooms; I had taken M i c h a e l ' s question about "implementation" to refer to teaching; I don't regard teaching as putting a set o f implements to use, but clearly neither did Gordon. He therefore offered some technical advice on using L i n u x servers, but nothing about teaching. He helpfully offered more but i f Michael took him up on this, he must have done it by email because no response showed in Phorum. A t this point, G i l l i a n entered the fray. She responded to Gordon's initial comment with a similarly heartfelt download: "This is the first E-mail that I have ever sent i n m y life! M y parents have been on Welfare since I was five years old therefore our home never had, and still does not have, a computer." She wanted to know how students without computers at  165  home w i l l fare when their peers are emailing assignments back and forth, receiving grades, feedback and reports i n this fashion. Gordon did not reply to her, however. I have not been able to validate G i l l i a n ' s identity; she claimed to be a fourth year geography student at U B C , but the 1999-2000 year has finished and her ID may have been erased from the server. Sarah contributed some reinforcement i n the next message, agreeing that the divide between "haves" and "have-nots" is a major concern. It as a social message, which did not add ammunition o f its own to the debate. Its role was as a supporting, validating message, o f the kind which were occasionally dismissed as redundant by participants who talked to me after the event. Educator Training and Support was populated by seven visitors other than the moderator. Based on an original posting by Christopher, there appears to be one main discussion with two breakaway threads, then one separate discussion populated by two new authors. Christopher's initial post - based on his own impressions, not on research or news articles argued that time is the most important element i n educator training and support. Secondarily, he observed that teachers have two choices: to adopt what he calls "canned content" or to produce their own software products. This, he said, is the real time-guzzler. Valerie, arriving half an hour later, disagreed that this is the only thing at issue and directed Christopher towards a book called How Teachers Learn Technology Best. Bruce joined the discussion, arguing that teachers with home computers are more able to incorporate I C T into their daily practice; he claimed that his perspective is supported by research but doesn't tell us where we can find it. A t that point I stepped i n to welcome Bruce to the forum and directed h i m (rather tangentially, it seems now) towards Kirsten's initial post to Decision M a k i n g . Fortunately, Dale arrived, ignored m y post altogether and stayed on track with a response to Christopher. Dale added to the discussion by wondering aloud whether the College o f Teachers could do something to lessen the problem o f educator training. O n December 6 , he observed that "The College o f Teachers needs to incorporate a th  technology component into the certification process and districts need to make proficiency with I C T a requirement i n new postings." The second thread to emerge concerned Christopher's subsidiary point about canned content. U s i n g the terminology he had initiated to show that I was listening carefully, I asked him a question about personnel: whether roving technology consultants could help with in-  166  services. K e v i n responded enthusiastically, "Great idea I am trying to do this on pro-d days in my school o f 200 staff -some organised T O C funded time is what we need. There are teachers i n every district capable o f supplying training needs i f time is given for them and the trainees." The conversation came to an end here as Patrick and Deirdre arrived to take up Christopher's initial points once again. Patrick thought that canned content was essential i n the early days. Deirdre replied, with a message revealing something o f her part i n the creation o f Conditions for Success (this message was quoted i n a different context in Chapter Four): Time was very much a part o f the discussions i n Conditions For Success. The aim o f the committee was to ensure that teachers were provided with time, hardware, and incentive to upgrade their skills. W e realize that teachers are expected to do it all and i f we want them to become familiar and proficient with technology we need to provide them more than just time but incentive as well. In restating the goals o f T L E T A C , it is clear that Deirdre was more than an interested professional; she did not tell us here what her exact role with the committee was - only that she was privy to inside information. The report authors are now "we" rather than "they" but Deirdre's allegiance to practising teachers is evident i n "it's difficult to teach technology when most teachers do not even have it readily available for their own daily use." This element o f incentive is a valuable one, but regrettably not followed through i n the rest o f the forum. The Social Impact forum within " M y A d v i c e " is populated by a single message about gender equity. The author clearly feels strongly about her topic, arguing that "Most industry software that I have seen i n the stores does not appeal to women. I have seen 'Personal Makeover' software that is just insulting." Apart from all the unanswered messages I posted, this was one o f the loudest "voices i n the wilderness." In the last two chapters, I have shown that the participants' impressions o f a fragmented discussion was supported by close readings after the event. The interviews helpfully corroborated the impressions I had had, that the environment was tense and sparsely populated and that the conversation i n it was fragmented, stilted by its asynchronicity and always straining, stretched thinly across new agendas, established with almost every message. I did not moderate the debate i n traditional terms by imposing closure or consensus on the discussants, by determining the order o f speaking or by outspokenly declaring the topic o f the day. A s a result, I have been challenged to tell a story which was not a story, a  167  narrative with no beginning, middle or end and which was non-linear and abstracted from time. Writing these discussion chapters has not been a process o f mopping up an analysis which was done i n some other, abstract, intellectual space. It has been a process o f bringing together a number o f dispersed voices: voices i n the wilderness, voices speaking on a great plain, speaking through layers o f glass.  168  CHAPTER VI CONCLUSION  Success is a partial and provisional human achievement; it is neither guaranteed by the existence of good intentions, nor precluded by the existence of serious differences. (Burbules & Rice, 1991, p. 406) Educational researchers' reports to the public should be written straightforwardly to communicate the practical significance for policy, including limits in effectiveness and in generalisability to situations, problems and contexts. (Ethical Standards, AERA, 1992) Having examined the Public Knowledge Policy Forum experience for some months now, I agree with Barber's (1984) assertion that " i n designing our political institutions we are sculpting our knowledge. In founding a constitution, we are determining the shape and character o f our own political epistemology" (p. 170). While it is premature to contemplate a web site such as the one we created an "institution," such a scenario may yet be approaching. Since the Public Knowledge forum closed, the B C Parents' Advisory Council ( B C C P A C ) has established a similar forum so that distant members can maintain contact on key issues. Teachers i n a remote community on Vancouver Island have been working toward creating a similar environment as part o f their professional development program. Finally, the B C Teachers' Federation recently developed an online discussion i n response to the W o r l d Education Market, being held i n Vancouver in M a y , 2001. This work has first explored the bare content o f what participants said when they did choose to speak up. What concerned them and which agenda did they choose to follow? Next, we have explored the types o f information they considered pertinent to the policy feedback mechanism, whether - for example - this was professional autobiography, F A Q s or curriculum analysis. Taking a step further and considering the forum as a medium o f debate and persuasion, we find a diverse set o f rhetorical practices used by authors to articulate their positions and convince others o f their validity. In all o f this, contributors' messages also had a social character i n which their emotional states were conveyed and connections with others were forged. M o v i n g on to the vein o f policy debate running through the forum, I considered how the content o f the new policy was scarcely being addressed i n any direct fashion. From the interviews, it was clear that different users differed enormously i n their expectations o f what the site offered, what their contribution might be and how such a site contributed to the  169  realm o f policy discussion at large. A s I have shown, this feature was overwhelmed by concern with the ideological and philosophical assumptions o f the policy and by the procedures v i a which it was established. Finally, through conversations with participants and other educators, I came to see that the act o f contributing to policy was also understood as a symbolic gesture, much more than a simple b i d to have one's paragraphs cut and pasted into widely circulated documents. W e have now seen the different approaches to reading and writing expressed by the participant group o f the P K P F . Close readings o f the messages, i n the context o f the participants' reflections on their experience, have provided insights into the social, rhetorical nature o f the forum, and into its significance as an educational, political medium. In other words, we have examined the dimensions o f user engagement with the site. These different approaches reveal a diverse set o f approaches to the group effort o f debate. F o r some participants, this was a collegial effort, but it was understood by others to be a lonely endeavour, o f "letting [my text] fall wherever it would." In future, sites such as the P K P F might be altered to allow for an element agenda setting talk Within the medium o f discussion itself, i n the way that a face-to-face committee would establish its concerns collectively, at the outset. This research has also allowed us to picture a virtual stage set with human actors in education and to envisage what their talents are i n this particular respect: sharing professional anecdotes, challenging each other's perspectives or exploring the theory underlying current policy. Taking part as individuals, these contributors used much o f their text to compose persuasive arguments. This meant that people contributed largely as individuals and were not deliberating as a group. M a k i n g speeches and offering advice are, however, activities we commonly do as individuals. The language, the interface, the process o f feedback and its political context need to be altered i f the discussion is to proceed effectively and collectively. In future, the participants might be charged with the responsibility o f drafting a new document themselves, rather than discussing the contents o f one which has already been published. Having a conversation after publication is a little like the proverbial bolting horse and stable door scenario. Site designers need to ask themselves about the extent to which user agency has been enhanced or diminished by the degree to which "what counts" has been determined, whether explicitly or implicitly, through the choice o f topic headings and  170  discussion threads. This increased responsibility i n the context o f a job which positively requires collaboration might alter these dimensions o f user engagement. The comments about the medium have served as helpful feedback for moderators and designers i n future. They tell us, through reference to social vacuums and stilted interactions, that a human presence can be more powerful, more engaging and provocative than a humourless, characterless database which is also empty, waiting to be filled by the site's guests. A sense o f floating i n space does not lead to productive conversation. Lack o f feedback i n classrooms is considered deviant and the online environment is no exception. Policy Contributions The Public Knowledge Policy Forum has been an opportunity to ask, "What is good?" i n a setting devoted to encouraging greater deliberation among professionals over policy initiatives related to their line o f work. What is "useful" information? When do we know that our moderation (or teaching, or facilitating) practices are "good"? A n d what are the different needs o f the various authors and readers i n such an environment? M o r e than an exercise in gathering opinions or research data, the P K P F has also been a chance to discover what kinds o f contributions a site like the P K P F might make to the existing process o f policy deliberation. From the forum postings, it is clear that, rather than joining the policy process by examining Ministry o f Education publications i n detail, contributors chose to conduct a much broader discussion about the ideological foundations o f the policies, the forum itself and teaching and learning with I C T in British Columbia. While this may be an initial cause for dismay for the developers o f such a forum, it is a helpful lesson in how new technology is interpreted and applied by its users, especially where those interpretations differ from those we anticipated. It shows that the users themselves play a key role i n determining what the technology is, not the other way around. Staying for a moment to the actual, not desired, use o f the forum, it is worth asking some questions about the significance o f the postings, taken en masse. W i t h the forum being organised around the Ministry publications, our explicit intention was to draw members o f the public into close contact with the processes o f policy development. A n invitation was thus issued to examine the "curriculum" o f Conditions for Success; the implicit invitation was to follow the lead o f this document both i n terms o f its content and (what its participants  171  perceived to be) its unarticulated ideological foundations. A s George (1995) cautions, it is "the construction and maintenance o f particular value positions i n silent and unproblematic ways" which creates a cool climate for populations who do not express themselves in ways which are deemed appropriate, whose concerns are not those o f the majority or whose ideological positions must be stated and defended before a convincing debate can be held. In the case o f the P K P F , we saw a group o f contributors trying to dissect - i n order to understand - the ideological foundations o f the policy, using whatever readings, personal experience, qualifications and professional wisdom they could to make sense o f it. In so doing, they were responding to precisely the challenge laid out by George (1995), who calls for "[making] value positions visible and problematic so that students see the potential for reconstruction on the basis o f other value positions" (p. 33). This is difficult work. For those of us concerned with an informal and virtual learning environment, where contribution itself was effectively the assignment, the "students" independently shaped the assignment to be one o f ideological reconstruction, an opportunity to examine the value positions on which the policy - which would effect all o f their working lives - had been established. In so doing, they offered validation for Fiske's (1989) claim that "knowledge is never neutral." They were aware o f their own professional standing as contributors within the environment and took a variety o f rhetorical measures to lend weight to their arguments and to connect socially with colleagues while compensating for the absence o f physical presence, eye contact and more, pertinent information about the other participants. The participants also responded along what I have termed "educational" and "political" lines, by describing the work o f students and teachers with technology, or attending to the institutional impediments and other political features that frame their educational work. While the P K P F was meant to give professionals and members o f the public a chance to unite these educational and political concerns, its actual value was i n teaching us what it is that teachers really do want to discuss when they are talking about policy. Such efforts demand that they step outside the daily domain o f their work and into a virtual, political environment which brought a sense o f professional risk and personal responsibility to some participants. Although the P K P F was a valuable experiment i n the field o f online debating, we have not yet explored sufficiently the privilege given by the medium to "natural inequalities in individuals' abilities to speak with clarity, eloquence, logic and rhetoric" (Barber, 1984,  172  p. 175). Being textual and printed, bulletin boards undoubtedly elevate the efforts o f those people who are skilled at communicating i n this medium. Those who are unused to contributing written responses to policy decisions risk being marginalised, i f not excluded entirely. The online debate may be a text, but it also lives within another professional, educational and cultural tradition: that o f policy consultation and development. Being such an event, it demands that we pay attention to the ways i n which individual speakers find themselves either seated comfortably within the assembly, or perched precariously on the margins. A s George observes (1995), "a participant must learn to operate within the discourses at work i n the (spoken or written) texts o f the field" (p.31). This might be describing the majority o f teachers, for whom there is also the inhibiting factor o f limited computer access. Taken together, the factor o f access to both the appropriate tools o f discourse and technology remain a concern for those who would make the most o f online policy consultation and development tools. Barber's (1984) argument centres around his claim that "strong democracy is the only viable form that modern democratic politics can take (Preface, x i v ) . " I appreciate his urgency, but found that many teachers i n British Columbia did not feel it. The need to address philosophical issues is less important to them than the need to resolve a problem facing a student now. "They'll always take the five minutes and do something for this k i d that's right i n front o f [them]" (Adam, 9 March). The challenge which Barber fails to acknowledge (and with which Smith (1999) is greatly preoccupied), is to create a situation i n which people cannot afford to stop talking. The truth is, they can afford to remain silent or they simply would not. It all depends on the opportunity cost. U K miners felt that the opportunity cost o f speaking up i n the early 1980s (pit closure, the loss o f thousands o f jobs, a massive drop in the standard o f living for hundreds o f North Eastern U K families) was less than remaining silent. I f the cost is only disappointment, frustration and a feeling o f being ignored, many people w i l l weigh the pros against the cons and remain silent. Barber does not acknowledge how great this cost might be, how great is the responsibility o f the public life. The real challenge for proponents o f this strong democracy is to create environments which are safe and yet still permit the contributions o f those most affected by the policies under discussion. I f we advocate strong democracy and fail to use the communication channels we have developed, we are merely  173  acquiescing before the processes we had hoped to change. The contributors to such a site must have faith i n the medium, its hosts and the process to which it contributes before the discussion can advance uninhibited. Having witnessed the degree o f participation on the P K P F , I would now concur with Pateman's observation (1970) that: H i g h levels o f participation and interest are required from a minority o f citizens only and, moreover, the apathy and disinterest o f the majority play a valuable role i n maintaining the stability o f the system as a whole. Thus we arrive at the argument that the amount o f participation that actually obtains is just about the amount that is required for a stable system o f democracy, (p. 7) Had I read this before moderating the P K P F , I might have considered her pessimistic or cynical. I now see, however, that we simply cannot expect every visitor to contribute to the same extent; a measure o f apathy among some o f the populace is to be expected, as are the efforts o f proven leaders i n the profession. M a r k ' s online commentary on the P K P F supported Pateman's argument. H e ' d taken part in "several listservs" and found that "most members hardly ever contribute" (p. 1). This makes me think o f the social dynamic common to classrooms. Typically there are a few keen speakers, many who w i l l contribute with modest frequency and one or two who w i l l rarely speak. I f the medium does indeed favour those with a passion and ability for rhetoric, how are we to make it less alienating, more populous and more conducive to productive policy talk? If we favour direct connections, rapid-fire dialogue and courteous, listening, tolerant and patient replies, we might be inclined to question the nature o f the conversational "beast" observed by Mark. W e might even be inclined to ask how it might be changed i n favour o f including non-dominating conversational partners i n ways which acknowledge and respect those who participate silently. It has been challenging to retain m y conviction i n the possibility o f a genuine, free and public forum. In doing work o f this kind, one only has to approach two or three colleagues to see one shaking his or her head, wondering aloud i f there is a point, wondering i f anyone is "really listening." A s Florio (1981) has observed, " i n a social world that is unequal, you don't get a democratic or open conversation simply by saying that everyone's free to talk" (p. 8). In having m y own conviction challenged, I came to realise that communications hierarchies may unwittingly be supported by our early attempts to use communications technologies i n new ways, to alter the existing lines o f power and information (Hodas, 1996)  174  described by a provincial education system. I came to see that i f the population at large is to use the technology effectively, they must embrace the opportunity to speak up. However, the fact o f doing so is dependent on participants' willingness and ability to invest their efforts in a virtual medium. The very development o f an online forum was received as a hostile gesture by some teachers with inadequate access to the internet. The medium o f choice may therefore be alienating to those people with the greatest wisdom and experience, and the most to contribute to the planning process. Further questions N e w questions have arisen i n the course o f the research, among which are, " H o w long might an online forum o f this kind last and w h y ? " This question has many implications, all o f which shape the status afforded to the type o f communication. A bulletin board that lasts for several months may allow the contributors to develop a sense o f comfort i n their communications. They can get to know each other, both publicly and privately, through independent email discussions i f they wish. The board might serve as a place where people meet, and where those who enjoy public oratory can indulge their passion. A s a continuous, informal gathering (rather than one assembled to write a specific response to a specific set o f recommendations), its main outcome i n the long term would surely be a growing sense o f social cohesion. This may not contribute to a high status or formal documentary record o f public opinion, but it may certainly allow time for social (textual) mores to develop independently o f the organised efforts o f unions and ministries. A bulletin board which lasts for only a few weeks or months must surely have a different purpose. I f its purpose is to act as a place to gather public opinion on a recent policy publication, for example, we cannot hope for or demand a high degree o f social interaction because the interactions would likely be much more focused. Pateman (1970) is clear about the educational role o f participation, arguing that it is "educative i n the widest sense, including both the psychological aspect and the gaining o f practice i n democratic skills and procedures... Participation develops and fosters the very qualities necessary for it" (p. 42-3). The result o f participation i n democratic policy making is not simply the policy itself, according to Pateman, but also "the development o f the social and political capacities o f each individual" (p. 43). However, as Himmelfarb (1963) reminds, us, sporadic engagement i n political activity is rarely practised and therefore easily forgotten.  175  The educational opportunity is wasted, leaving "his intellect and moral dispositions very much as it found them" (p. 229). Thus, i f a forum like the P K P F is only available i n short bursts, its capacity for furthering the civic education o f the public is necessarily limited. This capacity is further limited by the time needed for non-fluent users o f technology to become comfortable, firstly with the hardware, secondly with the content o f policy contributions and thirdly with the social-textual mores o f participating i n writing. More abstractly, this has been an opportunity to ask some searching questions about the extent to which a truly public domain has been created on servers, and the extent to which B C educators have invested their good faith and their time, i n it. Through the P K P F contributions, we begin to see the educational task which lies ahead, i n terms o f assisting potential contributors with technological skills and addressing the imbalance o f access to the forum. It w i l l also be important to examine further the psychological dispositions necessary to make this access a valuable experience to more contributors such that the discussion is fruitful, engaging and productive i n terms o f its contribution to the realm o f policy debate. This last point can be tackled from both a human and technical perspective. In other words, we could choose to alter the content o f a professional education program, or we could simply tinker with the interface design and navigational elements o f the P K P F . M y next question emerged from m y thoughts about the policy timeline within which the P K P F sat, namely, " A t what point should an online forum be established?" However, I soon realised that there were other, key considerations such as the structure o f the school year. In m y case, the forum went live at the end o f November, i n the middle o f report cards and immediately before Christmas. It was therefore being publicised at a time when teachers' (and probably parents') spare time was scarce and they would likely be unable to spend it on the P K P F . Furthermore, the forum was developed after the technology committee had adjourned and at least one policy document published. The nine headings o f Conditions for Success informed the design o f the P K P site, but they may not have been the themes chosen by the teaching population at large. The dialogue I read on the P K P F bulletin boards took the shape o f agenda setting discussions, or perhaps as the conversation i n which teachers took ownership o f the topics i n hand. When writing the opening questions for each section o f the discussion board, I initially saw myself as setting the agenda for the debate. The agenda had, however, been set already by Conditions for Success. The nine forum headings were  176  established long before I logged on. More precisely, it happened when the special interest groups were established i n T L E T A C . These groups' titles later became the nine headings o f Conditions for Success. I don't know how these sections were established as I was not working for the Committee at the time. Emma, a participant with several years' experience i n advocacy, offered a circumspect response: I think [the P K P F ] suffers from the same problem that any kind o f public consultation suffers from, though. A n d that is that - i f you are reacting to a document, or a policy statement or whatever, then you are always reacting, even i f it's a traditional public hearing. You're reacting after the fact. Whereas that kind o f forum has a use also i n generating the document. (25 March) A t this stage,