"I have been happily surprised to find a list, that actually works, and where I had a strong feeling, that I was part of an international debate on the history of childhood" Ning de Connick Smith, 14 July ‘98 - list message.
In this paper, I am interested in examining the potential of the web based academic discussion list for learning, networking and research. In particular I will be focusing on the Mailbase List History-Child-Family which has operated since November last year whose initiation and ‘ownership’ I am responsible for. This has been an experimental list in that I have regarded my involvement in it from the perspective of action research and so have continually been seeking out strategies to encourage the list to live and flourish and to develop the list membership as a learning community. This has been a learning journey for me as part of my studies in Networked Learning within the M.Ed. programme organised by the Centre for Networked Learning at Sheffield University, England.
My own interest in and commitment to the principle and practise of cooperative and collaborative communication within the context of networked learning has to a large extent influenced the way in which I have operated as list ‘owner’(For a discussion of computer supported co-operative learning, see McConnell, D.1994) For this reason, for instance, I have chosen to operate a non- moderated forum whilst encouraging self moderation and the development of a sense of communal responsibility. This has not always appeared to directly benefit the list and could be questioned - in fact the issue of moderation is an important area of discussion and one which I have encouraged the list to address. At the time of writing a new moderated H-Net list, H-childhood has just been launched and whilst the moderation is likely to be minimal, it is a factor which impinges on participation. The ‘open’ nature of history-child-family has, I would argue, encouraged participation; as one list member - a well established and respected academic herself - has put it,"I have been very happy with your list - and in contrast to the H-list have "dared" to raise questions and respond, when there was something I thought that I had a knowledge about".(resp. June ‘98)
A high degree of discussion has occurred in the list History-Child-Family. This aspect of the list has been noted by list membership over the months, sometimes privately in mail to myself, sometimes publicly as in the posting, "Hello! I have recently joined the list and have been pleasantly surprised by the high level of discussion being carried on - other lists I belong to tend to be more information-oriented". Again, this may be due to the context in which I am operating as list owner or it may be due to the particular group of individuals gathered together on the list. But what seems to be unquestionable is firstly the way in which this medium facilitates discussion of complex issues and secondly how such discussion is what list members recognise as of greatest value.
What follows is an evaluation of History-Child-Family as a discussion list using analysis of the message archives over the past nine months, responses to a brief questionnaire sent to the entire list membership during December 1997 regarding the value of the list and their participation in it, and responses received from a core group of most active participants who were consulted over the proposal made by H-Net in May 1998 for a list merger. Most of this research has been carried out by email; in addition, I shall quote from one interview I have carried out with a list member.
There are around eighty-four thousand lists of this category and new ones are being formulated every day (Kovacs Directory). The discussion list is becoming a popular means by which academics and professionals on -line, in the field of education keep in touch with each other and keep abreast of the development of knew fields of knowledge and study. There are several List servers in operation - some American based such as H-Net and List Soft. For the purpose of this paper I have explored the main U.K.List server called Mailbase and have set up a List primarily for teachers and researchers in the field of childhood and family history. This List, which has been in operation since November 4th 1997 can be found at http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/lists/history-child-family/
History-child-family is a Mailbase list. Mailbase is based at Newcastle University and list owners are all U.K. academics. A valuable feature of Mailbase lists is that the list owner can store files on the list web page. This allows for the management of relevant but large text, images or audio material. It allows the list membership to have their own material placed on the web - something which enhances collective involvement and ‘ownership’ as one key list member has said, "I like the format of mailbase which allows list owners to post files, and researchers to retrieve information from them to take a personal example, namely the infanticide bibliography I initiated, not only has this given me a bit of space on the WWW, I can also, via e-mail, link correspondents to that bit of work, and have done so". The bibliography is one of a number of files placed on the list web page. All mailbase lists have their own individual search facility and the possibility of searching through all mailbase lists is becoming established.
A discussion list is more than email; it has the potential for becoming a learning community. Essentially, it allows for reflective and considered debate. Responses can be prepared off-line and sent to either all members of the list simultaneously or to a select number or to only one. Only when the first option is taken is the message entirely open to the whole list. An untold number of exchanges take place between individuals ‘behind the scenes’ and these form part of the list activity but have an ambiguous relationship in relation to the concept of the list’s learning community. One list member has commented,
"when you come into it new, you don't know what to expect...so you send in your own little blurb and you have to wait what comes back and a lot of it comes back off- line (means off list!) so I think that after the first introduction, immediately a lot of things will be going on behind the scenes - people thinking oh that’s interesting, I’m working on that too and they don't always respond on the list because they are afraid of cluttering up the list... there are quite a lot of off shoots from lists like this one.... and you’ll never be able to quite find out what the benefits are."(interview 18.06.98)
But what is the nature of this community? A community is essentially about a transcendence of individuality and a taking up of responsibility; on behalf of a body of people with common interests, territory or space. Joining an academic discussion list is as individual an act as is leaving one. Steven Jones(1995) poses the question,
"When community membership is in no small way a simple matter of subscribing or un subscribing to a bulletin board or electronic news group, is the nature of interaction different simply because one may disengage with little or no consequence.?" (Jones in Jones, pg.11.)
I have pondered over this question in relation to the discussion list I have set up. I have tried to measure the potential and reality of social responsibility among a group of individuals who have never met but who have common academic concern. And I am interested in locating the mechanisms by which that communal sense of involvement and responsibility can be engendered.
Communities such as these have been termed "virtual communities" or "passage points for collections of common beliefs and practices that unite people who (are) physically separated" (Stone .’91 in Jones pg.19) Or they have been defined as "social networks" created by interactions.(Bender’78 in Jones pg 24) The sense of belonging to such a community can be realised through a sharing of understanding, a certain territory, or space made up of concepts and readings. Sometimes, this essential common understanding can become exclusive and off-putting.In suggesting a number of factors which together might lead to a lists’ failure, one of the members of history-child family pointed out how "professional jargon (is sometimes) used as a secret language so that when one contributes who does not use that particular language, no matter how interesting the posting, he is ignored." But this learning community will not come about without some measure of breaking down the individual nature of initial participation and engendering a sense of collaboration and group building - and this among a large number of people who have never met! How does one know when this has occurred and that a community has become established?
One key area is that of discussion - when two or more people consider an issue or point over a period of time. What is interesting to consider here are the conventions which are becoming acquired by those practised or practising in this medium.
An interesting example of discussion occurred in the history-child-family list at an early stage - indeed it was the first discussion proper to occur on the list. This was around a topical issue and involved three people, two of whom had written extensively in the field and one who took part acknowledging that it was not his specialist areas of expertise. There seemed to be an awareness that taking up a contentious issue was limited to a certain amount of time or space - perhaps due to an acknowledgement of the public arena of the list, and at a certain point the issue was dropped. The whole exchange occurred over two days, 8th and 9th November and involved seven exchanges. The short time scale gave a synchronous character to the exchanges, almost as if these three are meeting face to face.
This discussion ‘thread’ happened between three people - no others joined in. This could be because of the expertise factor - that people are reluctant to make a point if the people discussing are experts in their field. Or, this could be to do with a kind of nettiquete which is becoming established. But what is interesting is that following the dropping of the subject in public, two of the participants continued their discussion in private, by email and a considerable exchange occurred. During these exchanges, some detailed examination of theory was discussed and it is clear that the two felt more free to go into detail over points of interest or dispute away from the public gaze of the list.
A discussion involving eight individuals occurred around the theme of collaboration in constructing a resource file. Again, the bulk of these exchanges, twelve in all, as well as some behind the scenes exchanges with the list owner, occurred in a short period of time, between 11th and 15th of December. This gave the impression of urgency of involvement and a certain pace and excitement about the venture. It seems that a practical project is involving and engaging and as one member of the list observed;
"It was amusing that as you and others were setting up the bureaucratic process of putting forth bibliographies, the first person just jumped in with a great one on infanticide, and the second person shot in a terrific addendum" Indeed, it did feel as if there was a physical presence of people interested at that point and, interestingly, taking the initiative, not waiting to be asked.
During the first weeks of operation, the history-child-family discussions occurred either spontaneously as a result of responses to initial introductions posted by list members(36 introductions were posted during the first two months producing 10 short threads; a further spurt of introductions occurred during May and June after an influx of new membership) or as responses to my ( ie the owner) overtures around process issues.
In January, I initiated an experiment with the list which was to introduce a ‘guest speaker’ that is a member of the group who I invited to ‘speak’ in the form of producing a text to stimulate debate. This text was ‘filed’ on the web page and is still open to the membership. The ‘speech’ produced a considered response which was characterised by its degree of recognition of the value and worth of the text. However, the text did not produce a wider involvement or a more continuous thread of discussion than had occurred previously or since. "it fell flat, which was a real shame...that was quite an interesting one and I thought of following it up but it requires time and that is the problem ...although I didn’t respond I have certainly used that material in my teaching" (interview 18.06.98)
Some exchange occurred privately between the author and list members. The experiment seemed to point to the limitations of a list with a wide interest area for individuals to present their ideas as formal texts. A lengthy speech or text takes time to digest and respond to and essentially, a limited number will at any one time be able to do this. But, as the respondent makes clear above, this is no real indication of the impact of that contribution which may be widespread but not publicly acknowledged. Another issue which this ‘speech’ raised, certainly in my mind, was that of sharing within an electronic community as yet unpublished research. In this instance, the author chose to take the risk but it may be an inhibiting factor for others.
In comparison, after an invitation to all list members to post proposals for discussion, an interesting and lengthy discussion thread was produced by a shorter, provocative text relating to the history of swaddling of infants. This text produced a wider response - in all twenty-one individuals ( representing something approximating one fifth of the total list membership at that time).....contributed and the quality of debate at times was noticeably high. The discussion lasted over two weeks. However, the particular theoretical perspective proposed by one section of the membership created an impasse as criticism was met with a pronounced response which took the form of a full length article. The effect of this was not to promote scholarly and considered debate but a withdrawal and a lack of faith in the list as a space where difference of interpretation can be explored. This discussion seriously called into question the value of non-moderated lists and a short discussion followed which tried to address the issues of collective responsibility in such a space. Some might argue that this should not have occurred and that a strong, moderator role would have prevented this ‘upset’. Others might take the line that through this difficult process a more collective awareness and responsibility can arise.
Arguably the most successful thread to occur so far, measured in terms of length,size of participation base,focus of discussion and quality of debate has been that centred around the question of child labour within the domestic economy of various regions in Europe around the last quarter of the 19th and early twentieth centuries. This discussion lasted over three -four weeks involving nine people making frequent and several postings each. The discussion was carried out entirely (as far as I know) on the list and it seemed that those participating were conscious of the value of this medium for European comparative study. I, as list owner, suggested such fruitful collaboration might lead to a joint publication on the subject. There was some, if not unanimous enthusiasm for this idea. For the time being, a file which collects together the various strands within the discussion has been filed on the history-child-family web page.
It is possible to suggest some key factors which might be relevant in any effort to evaluate lists. The most obvious factors are: size of membership; type and scope of membership; number and frequency of postings; clarity of purpose as presented and maintained by list owner; netiquette - ie, the form in which discussion takes place;quality of discussions; and the particular style and approach adopted by the list owner.
Less obvious factors might be;social interaction among list membership via private email; how the list is listened to by non-participating members; learning by means of contributing; and the responsibility/care/commitment taken by list owner and members together.
The first group of factors are observable in the list itself via the message archives; the second group of factors can only be assessed through questioning the membership individually and to a limited extent, this is what I have done in an attempt to evaluate the initial stages of history-child-family.
Initially, as the list owner, I decided to try to gain as large and as broad a membership as possible in a short time. The subject area (childhood and family history) is poorly understood, seldom taught as a freestanding course or module in H.E. and is of low priority within the discipline of History in general. In view of this I felt I needed to cast the net widely. Existing Web sites and Lists were used to publicise the existence of the site. For a while previously, the owner of History of Education Web site had stated clearly that there was a gap to be filled in this area. His site, advertising the existence of history-child-family continues, I believe, to provide a steady flow of new members. I made contact with the owners of history lists in general and women’s history lists in particular partly to try to achieve a good gender balance within history-child-family but also acknowledging the fact that women’s history has an affinity with childhood history in that it has long been marginalised and ignored. This seemed to have the required effect and many new members joined from these previously existing lists. At present, history-child-family stands at around 160 members. Frequency of postings varies but averages at between one and two per day. Clearly, a large membership in a new list does not necessarily and always lead to high quality discussion and activity or a sense of community. At the time of writing, a new list has just been launched by the large American based organisation, H-Net. Its terrain is roughly similar to history-child-family but it is stressing the International and all periods scope and presumably is seeking to create a considerably larger list in line with other H-Net lists whose members often amount to thousands. For such lists to operate well, much seems to rely on the nature of moderation or in the case of H-Net, the role of the editor.
It is clear that the owner’s role is central to the health of a list. Apart from technological trouble shooting, the owner has a pivotal role in determining either unilaterally or by means of negotiation with group members, the purpose of the list. Having done this, the owner needs to check that the list members conform to this set purpose. This is done through a mixture of public and private interventions. Some Lists are Moderated which means that the owner weeds out inappropriate membership and messages based on some form of agreed criterion. History-child-family remains un moderated at this stage in the interests of encouraging participation and freedom of debate. Interestingly, the idea of inviting a ‘guest speaker’ to contribute to the list has been interpreted by that person as "a search for some more gentle , less strict kind of moderation" (Setten 27.11.97) It does feel, from the owners point of view, a little like taking control and steering proceedings, for a limited time.
Having asked the list members of history-child-family to comment on what they thought the role of owner to be, some were not aware of the role at all "I have no idea what a list owner should be doing, and I can’t say that I care" (resp.14.12.97). Some seemed to think that the List was in fact being moderated and that I, as list owner, have been busily actively weeding out ‘bad’ messages, "I expect the List owner to weed out inappropriate contributions so that my nerves are not unnecessarily jarred. So far, so good." (Resp. MTB 15.12.97) Others show an awareness of the role of list owner, in determining the tone, quality of discussion and general ‘health’ of the list; "to a degree some list owners do not realise, the owner sets the tone for the list. He/she enforces the rules of the list. They do that in a number of ways, and how they do it often does more for the list than what they filter out."(resp fmorgret 14.12.97) and "your own presence on the list is exactly what it should be to show the subscribers that the lists’s owner is not just feeling responsible for its success, but also actively caring for it."(resp. Setten, 27.11.97)
Maybe a list owner has to pay special attention to the fact that lists can become problematic in terms of the scope of subject covered. As one of the list members of history-child-family put it, "a main problem with lists is that the queries are either too specific or too broad. An example of the first is questions like where does this quote come from...’ or ‘what does Cicero say about...’ an example of the second is lists where you only get messages about coming events, and there is no real discussion. Good lists manage not to be too much of either."(resp Unbar 15.12.97)
Another respondent, Phil Brown of Deliberations seems to have the view that Lists have somewhat had their day, "I’m starting to think that discussion lists went through a mushroom phase a year or two ago, when everyone found them quite new and interesting, but that now there are so many of them they are regarded as junk mail...the practice of advertising(be it events, products or whatever)has downgraded the importance of these lists"( Brown resp 15.12.97)
Bill Downey, another member of the Deliberations - Effective Interaction Team - (http://www.lgu.ac.uk/deliberations/eff-interact/index.cgi)) comments, "How to create fear-free, dynamic interaction was something we spent most lunchtimes discussing for about two years. And I think if you look in Deliberations you’ll find some pointers - but not panaceas."(resp.BDowney 15.12.97)
It is clear that many lists fall by the wayside possibly because of either or both of these inherent tendencies. What is interesting though is that there seems to exist a genuine urge towards membership and participation in a list which involves discussion, debate and learning, here defined as a ‘good’ list.
Keeping the list healthy and active in a way which attracts and maintains membership is a key role for the list owner. A useful pointer in this direction was provided by one of my respondents from history-child-family who felt that successful lists, "remain stimulating by the introduction of new topics about every 7-10 days, aren't rigid about sticking to the list theme, although not swinging to the other extreme either (and show) optimism and a desire for connection in at least five of the group members" (resp. Jhantman 20.11.97)
Obviously much also depends on the type of membership brought together on one list. Respondents to my questionnaire have pointed out that the quality of exchange is high on history-child-family but it is unclear why this is. For example, one member commented "I have been enjoying this lists lively postings, their multinational dimensions, and particularly those with issues less familiar to me...I do notice that this list has a particularly vibrant tone to the postings. Not sure if its because you yourself have set this tone, or the list members are independently vibrant. Whichever, its nice to read."(resp.MTB 15.12.97). And in response to the question regarding expectations of the list, another commented"Actually, the quality of the conversation and the collegial congeniality that is evident are two things I had not anticipated" (resp. Seamouse 14.12.97). And I myself have been impressed by the degree of personableness if not intimacy expressed in this list in my short time as owner. Anonymity can be powerfully broken down in an environment which is charged by common interest and excitement.
A List is characterised by the voluntary nature of individual presence be it participative or passive. People who join but who do not contribute are sometimes described, in current cyber-jargon as ‘Lurkers’. They may even "lurk’ as non-members of many lists - I certainly encourage my undergraduate students to take a look at the discussions on History-child-family. The term itself conjures up a rather threatening and perhaps male image; it certainly does not imply active learning. Whilst History-child-family has been very active in its first year, it is still true to say that around half of the membership has not contributed in the public space. One way in which Lurking is discussed is illustrated by a posting taken from the Independent Learning List (Mailbase) by Peter Fowler, of Liverpool John Moores University. Comparing Mail Lists to email, he suggests, "Mail Lists are different even though the mechanics are the same. Here there is an awareness that all sorts of people will read the message; and what’s more, we don’t know who most of them are, what they do and what they believe...the easiest thing to do on a list is to lurk because what is sent might be ideologically unacceptable, or just plain naff, and might expose the sender to ridicule from these unknown faces out there, each of whom might be ‘cleverer’ than the sender." Realising the potential for Lists to inhibit communication, he argues, "what we have to do is create an environment easy enough for those lurking in the cybershadows to feel comfortable enough to contribute; and not feel intimidated by the idea that they are somehow ‘breaking the rules’".(P.Fowler isl 15.2.97)
I certainly feel, in my capacity as list owner, an obligation to encourage people already on the List to participate and I think that is partly down to habit and the result of years of working cooperatively within education. However, a valuable comment from a member of History-child-family, who has not yet to participate publicly suggests that there is more to lurking than commonly thought. Indeed, the so called ‘lurker’ could be motivated by a conscious desire to listen and learn; "I thought listening to other people discuss their research might help me formulate or clarify my own questions and interests...I joined to gather useful information and resources...with less to contribute than most people...I haven’t really participated, only observed." And while she recognised that"the calibre of scholars involved is a bit intimidating...(that) wouldn’t stop my participation" (resp.Riling/Anderson 14.12.97) A further interesting point was made by another respondent,in relation to active listening and learning when he commented that "even students who are too shy to participate in discussions have a chance to see how historians think, and how they interact" (resp.Unbar 15.12.97)
Perhaps what distinguishes a List as a Learning Community from one which is primarily set up around communication, is this commitment to opening up debate and discussion between as wide a body of members as possible over time. I have in mind here a kind of format whereby several separate strands might take off at different times, sometimes overlapping in time and in membership but involving different groupings of individuals drawn from the lists’ membership as a whole. Perhaps then, what is necessary is a form of moderation which has been called "weaving" (Freenberg, in Harasim,93, pg.193)) "Instead of trying to control conversation negatively, the teacher-moderator must periodically offer what are called ‘weaving comments’ to identify the common threads holding the discussion together and giving it unity...enabl(ing) participants to move beyond monologic personal viewpoints towards true dialogue and synthesis" And perhaps the key point here, in relation to generating a common sense of purpose is that so called ‘weaving comments’ "help the group to achieve a sense of accomplishment and direction and supply it with a code for framing its history by establishing a shared boundary between past, present and future." (Freenberg, 93)As List owner, I am aware that this is what I am trying to achieve; a form of communication and engagement which is rich in texture, collaborative, attractive, and engaging and a space through which the Lists’ members experience a sense of common ownership, determination and design.
The commitment and sense of responsibility within a list needs to be a shared one, just as it needs to be in a traditional face to face learning environment, if it is to work. But to bring about this commitment within the membership, the list owner does need initially to provide appropriate stimulus which points out the potential benefits, value, and excitement of the space we occupy.
I have found myself communicating on equal terms with scholars around the world whom I would never have communicated with in the normal course of events. Even at academic conferences, I am often a silent participant at tea breaks, the traditional time for networking and making contacts. I have personally felt that my academic life as been enriched and to some extent resurrected through establishing this list. Others, I think, feel the same level of excitement to be working and communicating on the same level as scholars they have admired through their publications. Most respondents agreed that Lists hold the potential for breaking down barriers, "A positive point for learning is that any student (even undergraduate) can have a discussion (usually ask a question and get answers ...) with some of the best historians in the field, and from other countries too."(Resp Unbar ) However, perhaps egalitarianism is closely related to netiquett in that polite discussion between what appears to be equals can on occasions break down. History-Child-Family has experienced this break down due to the domination of the list discussion by one or two individuals. As list owner I did have to step in to suggest to the individuals concerned that they temper the length and frequency of contribution but this role was shared by other key members of the list whose contributions publicly enabled the sense of collective care to continue.
Email discussion lists certainly have a place within the wider context
of computer supported cooperative learning. The various List servers
which are available via the Internet provide the necessary structure and
technology to support tailor made interactive discussion around any
given topic. The question remains ; when, as is usually the case,
membership and participation is activated by a wide range of motives and
the personal intentions, priorities and expectations of individual
members are initially unknown to others, how can a learning environment
be galvanised and ignited? I hope to haveUse of uninitialized value in concatenation (.) or string at E:\listplex\SYSTEM\SCRIPTS\filearea.cgi line 451,
Web Sites mentioned
Lists referred to
Respondents to questionnaire sent to List members history-child-family in December 1997