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An analysis of conference interactions on TeleNex —A computer network for ESL teachers

“TeleNex” is a computer network set up to enhance the professional development of inservice English teachers in Hong Kong by allowing them to access and share curriculum materials and to communicate with teacher educators at The University of Hong
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    Springer  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Educational Technology Research and Development. http://www.jstor.org An Analysis of Conference Interactions on "TeleNex": A Computer Network for ESL Teachers Author(s): Amy B. M. Tsui and Wing Wah Ki Source: Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 44, No. 4 (1996), pp. 23-44Published by: SpringerStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30220156Accessed: 07-08-2015 23:57 UTC Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/  info/about/policies/terms.jspJSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. This content downloaded from on Fri, 07 Aug 2015 23:57:11 UTCAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions   n nalysis o Conference Interactions on TeleNex A Computer Network for SL Teachers Amy BM. Tsui Wing Wah Ki "TeleNex" s a computer etwork et up to enhance he professional evelopment f in- service English eachers n Hong Kong by allowing hem o access and share curricu- lum materials nd to communicate ith teacher ducators t The University f Hong Kong and fellow teachers n other chools. This paper reports study on the characteris- tics of the interactions n the public onferen- ces on "TeleNex" during ts first 16 months of full operation nd the possible actors on- tributing o these characteristics. n order o analyze he various aspects of conference interactions, ncluding eacher articipation, initiation nd response, esponse atterns and message ypes, a framework f message analysis was developed, rawing on concepts in conversational nd discourse nalysis. To investigate he possible ontributing actors, a questionnaire as designed nd adminis- tered o all users at the end of the 16-month period. The nteraction analysis results and the questionnaire esults confirmed he find- ings in previous tudies carried ut by the authors hat social and psychological actors were very important n shaping he network interactions. O The introduction of computer conferencing has converted computer networks from a tech- nical system aimed at sharing resources into a social system. Feenberg and Bellman (1990, p. 68) point out that, "The technologies of com- puter conferencing and computer supported collaborative work belong to a new class of CMC (computer-mediated communication) tools that convert the network into a social environment," and describe the computer network as a "sociotechnical system combining social and technical elements in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts." In the past decade, there have been attempts to develop collaborative learning communities using these CMC tools. A num- ber of studies point out that electronic commu- nities do not automatically come into being once computers are connected by modems, and that the building of an electronic commu- nity needs to take into consideration social ele- ments as well. Riel (1989) points out that social elements such as group organization, group dynamics, and leadership are crucial in shap- ing the development of electronic communi- ties. Simon (1992) studied the use of computer conferencing as a component of a teacher- training program or collaborative learning and found that the low participation rate of teach- ers in computer conferencing was because of teachers' dislike for the medium as being "very cold" (p. 35) and teachers' finding it difficult to imagine to whom they were addressing their messages. Similarly, S. Levin (1995) points out that factors such as teacher perceptions of the use of technology and telecommunications n education and teachers' communication habits affect their participation n the network. (See ETR&D, ol. 44, No. 4, 1996, pp. 23-44 ISSN 1042-1629 23 This content downloaded from on Fri, 07 Aug 2015 23:57:11 UTCAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  24 ETR&D, ol 44, No. 4 also Kamper 1991; Rice 1987; Riel & Levin 1990; Sunal & Sunal 1992.) Research Questions The present study was part of a longitudinal study on the development of TeleNex, an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher net- work in Hong Kong, focusing on its early phase of development when a critical mass of user activities was just beginning to emerge. The aim of the present study was to address the following research questions: 1. What were the characteristics f the confer- ence interactions in the first 16 months of operation of the network? 2. What were the social factors that may have contributed to the characteristics dentified? Background bout TeleNex To put the discussion in the rest of this paper in context, we provide here a brief summary of the design and implementation of TeleNex. The 'TeleNex' Network TeleNex s the first computer network that was specifically set up to enhance the professional development of in-service ESL teachers in Hong Kong secondary schools (Tsui, Coniam, Sengupta & Wu 1994; Tsui & Ki 1994). The net- work is hosted in TELEC Teachers of English Language Education Center) in the Depart- ment of Curriculum Studies of The University of Hong Kong. TeleNex consists of two components, the database component and the messaging com- ponent. The messaging component uses Lotus Notes as the communications software and allows users to send both public and private messages. A number of public conferences have been set up on this platform to facilitate discussions. These conferences include the Grammar Corner, the Teaching Ideas Corner, the Fun Corner, and the Social Corner. The database components include a test-item bank, a newspaper feature-article database, and two hypertext references: one on English language, and one on teaching English. In the period of this study, the network was supported by three ESL eacher educators (hereafter referred to as center staff) who provided professional input into network discussion and database development. Characteristics f Users on TeleNex Nearly all users were ESL teachers in Hong Kong secondary schools. The network linked the center with 15 secondary schools in its first 8 months of full operation (hereafter referred to as stage 1), with 144 teacher-users who were all school-users; and 30 secondary schools in its second 8 months of full operation (hereafter referred to as stage 2), with 320 school-users and 13 individual home-users, adding up to a total of 333 teacher-users. The following statis- tics provide a general picture of the teacher users. * Experience n teaching: One third of the teachers had fewer than 5 years of teaching experience, another third had 5 to 10 years, and the remaining third had more than 10 years; 24% of them were principals or vice- principals, and 35% were subject heads or deputy heads. * Academic nd professional ualifications: 8% were non-native English speakers; 28% had taken a degree major in English; 46% were degree holders in other subjects; 26% were non-degree holders; 40% of the degree holders had received a postgraduate teacher certificate. * Computer nowledge: 1% categorized them- selves as computer novices, and 47% were apprehensive about using computers. * Perceived needs: About 20% of users expressed that their English grammar knowledge was not good and had difficul- ties in teaching grammar, while about 70% of users felt that they were confident about their own teaching of grammar. However, 90% agreed that it was important for them to improve their knowledge of grammar; 95% agreed that they needed a wider vari- ety of activities/materials han those pro- This content downloaded from on Fri, 07 Aug 2015 23:57:11 UTCAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  CONFERENCE NTERACTIONS 25 vided in the textbooks; and 87% would like to see more detailed explanations of the rationale behind the activities in the text- books. They often used supplementary resource materials (91%), but had difficulty in finding those materials at the right level for their students (71%). Collaboration among colleagues n their chools: 88% of users often shared teaching materi- als with colleagues and 90% reported that they felt comfortable asking colleagues to help. But it seems that not all of them had much opportunity to actually talk and work together: 60% reported that they collabo- rated with colleagues in their school to pro- duce and adapt materials for teaching, whereas 40% reported that they did not. Further, 69% often had meetings to discuss matters related to teaching but 30% did not. Measures Used to Increase User Participation It is important to note that the network activity was not related to the award of any profes- sional qualification. All users participated mainly on a voluntary basis. In the period of study, no guideline was set on the expected amount of participation of each user. Hence, user participation was promoted mainly through encouragement and improved sup- port. Because the majority of the teacher-users were computer novices, the software Lotus Notes was customized to be as user-friendly as possible. Hands-on training workshops were provided. In stage 2, participating schools were requested to nominate a person in the school familiar with computers to give teachers on-site assistance when needed. Based on reports that most of the teacher- users were not used to CMC, and often felt hesitant in posting messages to an unfamiliar audience, workshops and meetings were organized so that teachers could meet and know each other as well as the center staff. Print announcements were also disseminated to encourage teacher-users to log in. Given that all users taught English, some reported being worried about making mistakes in their messages, and that their questions might look foolish. Lotus Notes was modified to give them the option of sending in anonymous messages using "An English Teacher" as the author's name if they felt the need. A small number of active teachers, most of whom were panel chairs, were invited to work with the center in promoting collaborative learning on the network. They were encour- aged to take the lead in initiating discussions, sharing materials and responding to fellow teachers' messages. (For details of collabora- tion with panel chairs, see Tsui, 1995; Tsui & Ki, 1994.) Method of Study Data Collection To address the first research question, that is, the characteristics of the conference interac- tions in the first 16 months of operation, we selected two public conferences, the Teaching Ideas Corner and the Grammar Corner, and analyzed all messages in these two corners in this period. These two corners were selected because: (a) they had the largest number of messages among all of the conference corners, and (b) the discussions that took place in these two corners pertained to two different con- cerns of English-language eachers. The Teach- ing Ideas Corner related mostly to the actual classroom practice of teaching in general and teaching English language in particular, and the Grammar Corner related mostly to knowl- edge about the English language. We com- pared the interactions n the first eight months (stage 1) and the second eight months (stage 2) to see if there were any changes between these two stages. To address the second research question, that is, the social factors that may have contrib- uted to the characteristics, we designed a questionnaire based on the findings of previ- ous studies conducted on TeleNex Tsui & Ki, 1994; Tsui, 1995; Tsui, 1996), and administered it to all users at the end of Stage 2. This content downloaded from on Fri, 07 Aug 2015 23:57:11 UTCAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  26 ETR&D, ol 44, No. 4 Framework or Message Analysis In order to develop a method for analyzing he electronic messages, a number of concepts were borrowed from conversational nalysis and dis- course analysis. We describe hese below. Message urns. We adopted the notion of turn in conversational analysis in defining our unit of analysis. According to Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson (1974), a conversation is made up of conversational turns in which one speaker speaks at any one time. A conversational urn begins when a speaker starts talking and ends when he/she stops talking and the next speaker starts talking. Although in CMC the discussion can be multiple-threaded, in any one thread a user can only respond to a mes- sage when the writer of that message has fin- ished composing the message and posted it to the conference corner. Therefore, he notion of turn can also be adopted as a unit of analysis for conference messages. Each message was considered as a turn. Hence, we counted the number of message turns taken by teachers as an indication of the amount of teacher partici- pation in the communication. Message equences. In a conversation, speakers may move from one topic to another. Studies on conversation have identified a number of features that mark boundaries of topic change, such as the use of expressions like "Not to change the subject," "Oh I'd better bring this up while I still remember," and markers ike "Now then," "Okay." Coulthard and Mont- gomery (1981) proposed the unit of sequence, which was defined as conversational inter- changes that are on the same topic. In CMC, after a topic has been initiated, there will be a number of responding messages on the same topic, and a number of responses to these responses. We identified all message turns on the same topic as members of the same mes- sage sequence. On Lotus Notes, the boundary of a message sequence is easily identifiable because the software automatically keeps a record of the links among these messages. Analysis using sequence as the unit can provide useful information about the nature of discussion. If a sequence is short, consisting of only two or three messages, and involves only two persons, the sequence is likely to be one of simple information nterchange. On the other hand, if it consists of a long series of messages from a large number of persons, then it is likely to be one of in-depth discussion. In conversational studies, the speaker who frequently nitiates new topics for discussion is considered to be interactionally more domi- nant. Drawing an analogy with conversational interaction, the party who frequently initiates message sequences can be considered to be taking a more active role in defining the topics in the network discussion. Message nteractions. Levin, Kim, and Riel (1990) developed an approach to analyze mes- sage interactions which they referred to as intermessage eference nalysis. They examined whether reference was made to a previous message, which messages were referenced fre- quently, who referenced whose message, and whether message referencing depended on who the sender of the message was. In this study, we only focused on to whom teachers responded; that is, whether teachers respon- ded more to fellow teachers or to center staff. These data provide useful information about the social organization of the conference inter- actions. Message Types. Previous research on electronic messages has relied on the analysis of the topic content of discussion (see Black, Levin, Mehan, & Quinn, 1983; Quinn, Mehan, Levin & Black, 1983); others looked at both the inter- active dimension and the cognitive and metacognitive dimensions of the message con- tent (Henri, 1992). In this study, we adopted a speech act approach n message type analysis. According to speech act theory, a speaker performs an action when he/she speaks (Aus- tin, 1961; Searle, 1969). In a conversational turn, a speaker can perform different speech acts, such as asking a question, answering a question, making a request, and so forth. Sim- ilarly, in each message, a sender can perform such speech acts as asking a question, answer- ing a question, or acknowledging a piece of information provided. In the study, each act This content downloaded from on Fri, 07 Aug 2015 23:57:11 UTCAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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