Light, P., Light, V., Nesbitt, E. & Harnad, S. (2000) Up for Debate: CMC as a support for course related discussion in a campus university setting. In R. Joiner (Ed) Rethinking Collaborative Learning. London: Routledge (in press).
Up for Debate: Computer-Mediated Communication as a support for course related discussion in a campus university setting
CMC as a support for course related discussion in a campus university setting

Paul Light, Vivienne Light, Emma Nesbitt & Stevan Harnad


With institutions putting an ever-increasing emphasis on computer-assisted learning and computer-mediated communication (CMC), place and space for face to face is in danger of being ousted from the timetable. It is increasingly argued that, to survive, all universities will have to cross the e-line into internationally competitive, IT- based online learning (eg. Oblinger, 1999). Such a move implies change in the process of learning and in the roles played by both staff and students within universities and other HE institutions.

Rosenberg (1999) suggests that the interactive and virtual nature of online education is transforming the traditional role of the teacher into that of information and knowledge facilitator and technical integrator. Riel (1995) has likewise argued that the technology leads to a shift in role for the tutor, from being controller of information to intellectual leader. The tutors task becomes that of structuring challenging conversations among a community of learners rather than channelling expertise and knowledge to the student. These arguments seem almost to imply that there is something inherent in the medium which will bring about a transformation in the way in which learners learn and teachers teach.

However, against this it can be argued that the use of computers does not in itself assure a rich, interactive exchange of ideas. On the contrary, CMC can be passive, didactic, competitive...and other directed. (McCabe, 1998). Conversely, the lecture theatre does not have to be a passive environment. Although lectures have not traditionally been very interactive there is intrinsically little to stop them being so (Race & Brown, 1998). It may therefore be argued that successful learning outcomes have as much to do with the individual pedagogic style, approach and assumptions of tutors as the affordances of the teaching/learning medium (Light, Nesbitt, Light, & White, in press).

Many of the key social skills needed for nurturing online collaboration are not specific to the CMC environment. Rather they are the skills needed by any tutor, facilitator...involved in any peer learning situation (Kaye ) . Some tutors will be better than others in designing and implementing group learning experiences. Harasim Hiltz, Teles and Turoff (1995) suggests that those who find themselves comfortable with the basic premises of peer learning and small group work (in the face to face situation) will adapt well to the CMC environment.

Provision of CMC course support resources does not necessarily equate with uptake. Typically the tutor not only has to make the CMC resources available to students but also has to sell their usefulness and potential before learners will take advantage of them. Crook (1997) reports on students use of hypertext lecture notes, which were supported by a bulletin board and email facility designed to facilitate interaction and questioning in relation to the notes. He found that although the students read the notes and regarded them as a valuable resource, none used the bulletin board for discussion and few used the email launcher. Also, rather than navigating the hypertext notes, most students printed out a hard copy of lecture notes to take away for private study later.

These observations suggest that interactivity rarely occurs spontaneously, even in a well supported CMC environment. Rather, it usually requires a facilitator to engineer and maintain it. This facilitator is usually the tutor, whose task is to create a context within which there can be shared goals, interests and commitments (Kaye, ). Inevitably, the direct engagement of tutors is likely to influence the kind of discussion that takes place. Even where tutors are wholly absent from the CMC discussion, the way in which they have framed the activity may be a significant factor influencing the course of discussion. Light, Nesbitt, Light & Burns (2000) describe a case in which the tutor was absent from CMC-based discussions taking place in parallel groups of students. The style of contribution was relaxed and linguistically varied. However, there were also instances of flaming, when selected participants were personally targeted with offensive messages. Such instances can have a very disruptive effect on the whole group, and prejudice the likelihood of useful learning outcomes.

The relationship between the CMC resource and other available learning resources is important, as is the relation of all learning resources to the curriculum and assessment of the course. The CMC element has to be embedded in the whole course rather than being merely an add-on. A structure needs to be in place which, in Gilberts (1995) words, successfully initiates connections among people who want to learn, people who want to teach, and the world of information and ideas.


The study reported here shows how one tutor teaching psychology undergraduate students in a campus-based university set about such a task and reviews the outcomes from both the tutors and the students perspective. Earlier research (Light, Colbourn & Light, 1997; Light & Light, 1999) with the same cohort of students meant that the researchers had data from students who had been in their first year and were now presently in their third, thus providing a relatively rich context for the study.


The tutor in this study developed a form of CMC that he called skywriting (Harnad 1990, 1995, 1999). He used it as an adjunct to all of his courses, including the three courses described in this paper. The three courses in question, one in the first year and two in the third year, ran for one semester each and were taught by the same tutor. The first year course was a lecture- and tutorial-based course for the whole cohort of students. The two third year courses took place in successive semesters. The first semester course was a seminar- based optional course, while the second semester course was a lecture-based course for the whole cohort. Skywriting was an integral part of each course; contributions being required but not directly assessed.

Skywriting involved all messages going to a course email list that included all students and the tutor. As well as receiving all messages directly, participants could access them via the Internet, where the tutor archived them using Hypermail at regular intervals. Accessed in this way, the messages could be sorted by author, date or (most usefully) thread. Students were encouraged to use a quote/comment procedure. To do this the students would save the text into a text file in a word processor and then select the lines of text they were going to comment on, using > quote/indents. URLs contained in messages became active hypertext links.

In guiding the students as to the style and level of contributions expected, the tutor used the analogy of a bright kid-sibling. Thus kid-sib was that kind of communication that would be required to satisy: that super-intelligent younger sibling you [are] meant to have in mind ...brilliant, fervently interested in finding out what youve learnt, but COMPLETELY ignorant about it, and with no patience at all when what you are saying doesnt make sense. Apart from academic postings, skywriting was also used to deliver administrative notices, technical tips, advice for exams and so on.

A first year lecture course

The study was conducted at a UK campus-based university. Almost all students were full time, residential students. Explaining the Mind was a lecture course taken by some 80 first year Psychology Honours students (plus 50 other students) in 1996. A full account of the use made of skywriting on this course is available in Light & Light (1999); a briefer account will be given here to contextualise the account of the same students use of skywriting in two of their third year courses.

Skywriting was offered as a supplement to the traditional structure of the course, namely two lectures a week and a fortnightly tutorial in groups of about ten. Students were encouraged to use skywriting to ask questions and to enter into debate with the tutor and fellow students about issues arising in the lectures or tutorials.

Over three quarters of the students were straight from school, the remainder being mature students, mostly in their thirties. Three quarters were female. A questionnaire measure of attitudes to, and prior experience with, computers (based on Davis & Cole, 1993) was administered to all students on entry to the Psychology programme. There was an overall gender difference in self-reported experience (favouring males), but attitudes to computers were positive in both groups. A complete round of tutorials was observed and tape-recorded from which a measure of the frequency of unsolicited verbal contributions by students was obtained. Male students, though a minority, made on average more than twice as many such contributions as female students.

Turning to the frequency with which the students used the skywriting facility (measured at the halfway point in the twelve week course), only about 40% of the students made multiple contributions in this medium (range 2-12 messages). The female students made just as much use of skywriting as the males, and neither attitude to computers nor the self-reported experience with computers was predictive of extent of use of skywriting.

A measure of learning style, the Revised Approaches to Study Inventory (Tait & Entwhistle, 1996) was administered to a subset of twenty-four students, twelve of whom had contributed actively to the skywriting and twelve who had not. The active skywriters scored significantly higher on the index of deep approaches to study. Frequency of skywriting contributions also showed a modest but significant positive correlation with assessment outcomes on the course, whereas frequency of face to face tutorial contributions did not.

The skywriting contributions themselves tended to be short (c. 100 words) and usually took the form of a question addressed to the course tutor. Almost all were replied to, the result being that almost half the messages on the list were from the tutor. Few student contributions expressed opinions, and few drew any response from fellow students.

Interviews with 19 students (11 active contributors and 8 not) highlighted the advantages of skywriting for those students too slow off the mark or too reserved to make much input to the group tutorials. At the same time, the students were very conscious of their peers as audience when using skywriting. Whereas their messages were for the most part questions directed at the tutor, they were clearly concerned that any silly mistakes they might make, or any withering response from the tutor, might show them up in front of their peers. Moreover, they were using other students messages as a basis for social comparison, to gauge how well they themselves were doing relative to their peers.

Though the balance of student opinion at the end of the course was quite favourable to skywriting, the overwhelming majority preferred face-to-face tutorials. The immediacy of response and the continuity of discussion figured prominently amongst the perceived advantages of traditional tutorials.

Reflecting back on this first year lecture course the tutor said that he had introduced skywriting very much as an enthusiast. Use of online discussion was not common amongst other tutors in the department, and certainly not amongst the students (Light, Colbourn & Light 1997). The tutor recalled their initial resistance..about computers themselves. He almost had to blackmail them into posting at least one message...and then a second. was a bit like pulling teeth.

The breakthrough came when he put up a pre-seen exam of seventy-six questions for them to answer as practice on skywriting. This seemed to break the ice. However, it made him realise that if all of the students became very active it could rapidly become overwhelming for him as a tutor. During the course semester the tutor did indeed make a lot of postings, one hundred and sixty-six in total.

To make economic sense of his online time answering questions, he thought it a good idea to build a data resource. Thus he developed Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) files which could be archived through hypermail link to other skywriting files: so they loop through one anothers material. Thus students could be re-directed to a file which already contained the answer to their question. This meant that when answering a question for the first time it was worth while to grandstand a little bit....[otherwise] I wouldnt have taken the trouble to answer one student quite that extensively.

Certainly the students made good use of the tutors postings. Everyone read them, including those who made no contributions of their own. However the tutor regretted that he was perceived as the main interlocutor. He wanted skywriting to be more interactive, with student-to-student as well as student-to-tutor exchanges. He hoped this would happen in the later seminar options, where there were relatively few students and where discussion arising from weekly meetings could carry over into skywriting.

The students involved on this course were new to university study and new to skywriting. The tutor was also new to using skywriting in this way with students. The opportunity to return to this same group of students being taught by the same tutor two years later thus afforded a chance to look at how experience impacts on both students and tutors use of this type of CMC resource.

A third year seminar course

Fourteen students enrolled for a final year seminar course entitled Socio-biology and cognition. Students met weekly for seminars and took turns in presenting to the group a synopsis of a book or articles they had read in the preceding week. Following this, the same students then posted a summary version of their presentation, taking account of the in the class discussion, to the course email list. Online, everyone was invited to comment on it using the quote/comment procedure. The tutor also encouraged the students, as in the first year, to post him if something came up during the tutorial session and we dont get a chance to cover it to your satisfaction.

As with the first study the researchers used a multi-method approach to collect data. They attended three of the seminars. These were each one hour and forty minutes long. They were introduced to the students by the tutor and the students were apprised of the nature of the research project. The researchers names were added to the skywriting course list so they had instant access to all online contributions. The three seminars were audio taped and observation notes were taken..

At the end of the course the students completed a standard course evaluation questionnaire for the tutor. They were asked to evaluate course content, course organisation and tutor contribution on a scale of 15 (strongly agree to strongly disagree). The anonymous responses were made available to the researchers by the tutor. The researchers then invited students to individual interviews of between twenty to thirty minutes, twelve of the fourteen students accepted this invitation. They were asked to look back to their first year use of skywriting and to compare it with their most recent use. All interviews were transcribed and analysed qualitatively.

Initial analysis of the data from the three seminars attended, along with the accompanying skywriting contributions, showed that not all the students contributed to seminar discussions (five making no verbal contribution at all). However, all the students did contribute to skywriting, although only half of them had done so on the year one course. As one student reflected it didnt seem to be like a duty or a threat, something you must do. Instead it just comes out [that] I should do it.

The students not only felt a commitment to their peers to make contributions but they also felt their contributions should be good: I always make sure its a decent message, and that Ive thought about it and planned it out. The use of skywriting seemed to reinforce relationships: I know people better than in my other seminar class (where skywriting was not used). It created: a sense of community within which they could:get the idea of what everyone else is thinking. They also appreciated the practical efficiency gains of sharing the reading load, which they all felt was heavy.

The students contributions show an effective use of skywriting both as a tool for summarising tutorial discussions and as a tool for critique. A somewhat less formal tone is apparent between student and tutor, for example: Sorry, Ive had a delay getting back to you via e-mail but right now I have been immersed in lots of reading and very little analysing. Luckily, your points left me doing an awful lot of further thinking, which is a great help! In what follows the same student offers opinions, starts sentences with, for example: I agree, I admit Im still not sure Why should it matter?, and ends with: Let me get back to you on that one!.

Many of the skywriting ideas were picked up on in the face to face seminar sessions and vice versa. Skywriting, as one student put it, gets more of a debate going amongst people. This was contrasted with other seminar courses where students aimed to score lots of marks because you said what the lecturer wants you to say. However it had taken the whole course for people to work out how best to use skywriting.

The students saw the point of the kid-sib analogy: If you cant explain it in simple terms you probably dont understand it. When writing messages only three of the students said they primarily directed them to the tutor; seven others said they were intended for everyone, while two students relied equivocally. Altogether the 14 students contributed 74 messages and the tutor contributed 33. This contrasts with the first year, where tutor contributed as many messages as the students, but still represents a high level of participation by the tutor. The students were appreciation of his active role: [he] keeps us on the right lines because I think sometimes we do go off on a tangent'; [he] guides us towards the right frame of mind. However, this did not mean that the tutor was chairing the discussion: he gives input but he doesnt really structure the discussions. In contrast, in seminar sessions the tutor definitely took a structuring role in discussion.

All the students found the skywriting postings useful for exam revision and accessed them from the archive. One student would regularly download the messages onto a disk then take it home, sift through it and delete all the bits that are rubbish and keep all the good bits and then just print them out and revise from them adding my own comments. Of the twelve students interviewed, nine were owned their own computers, though only three of these were networked.

In contrast with the first year, peer contributions came to be regarded by the students as a valuable resource for learning. When youve read an article youve [only] got your own understanding of it. But if you go on the skywriting and read loads of other peoples commentaries it puts things together. The fact that its all grouped into different categories [lets] you see where the course is going and where you are going in your reasoning. However, there was still some irritation about contributions which took them down the wrong road, as this was a waste of time.

Compared to the first year, there was less concern about the public nature of the system: if you get things wrong you get things wrong. One student who was initially worried about everyone reading her comments said at the end: I think thats a good thing because instead of writing a paragraph of useless drivel you actually go away and research. All agreed that working within a small group: you feel more confident; In the first year [there were] so many more people, but with a seminar you do know the people in the group so if you cock it up or say something really stupid nobody really minds.

However the social comparison aspect of skywriting was still significant for the students. One commented that other peoples errors gave him: confidence that not everybody else is completely understanding everything. The students were reticent: to criticise somebody else when skywriting. This contrasts with the seminars: In class you can back down, you can say fair enough or whatever.

The third year students were also much less concerned than they had been two years earlier about being shown up by the tutors response to their messages. In part, they thought that this was because the tutor had changed his style of response. One student suggested that the tutor had: toned it down a lot in the first year he used to say no, thats completely wrong and youd think, oh my God! Now he says No, but or It was a very good try, but, so its useful . Another student referred to first year replies from the tutor as a bit of a hacksawbut [he] now appreciates your ideas and your questions. How far this is a matter of changing student perceptions or higher quality student contributions is hard to judge, but the tutor certainly felt that the change was more in the students than in his own behaviour.

The students perceived skywriting as complementary to face to face tutorials. The latter allowed for immediate reactions and immediate explanations while the former gave them a chance to have ideas continually ticking over throughout the week. It seems that working within a smaller group the students were able to evolve a way of working that drew the best from both learning environments. The course evaluation questionnaires gave high ratings for the course and particularly for the tutor. The tutor later described this group as a particularly good one, resulting from: self selection...these were the ones who were up to it... they were all top students. Seven of the students indeed obtained first class marks on the course.

The seminar topics chosen by the tutor were explicitly about controversial things. He observed that: because its socio-biology of cognition which is controversial as well [as] relatively produced several zealots people who ended up being more bullish about socio-biology and cognition than I was. Towards the end of the course, the tutor felt that they had succeeded in; [bringing] down a few intellectual barriers, with students becoming actively engaged in debate. He felt that skywriting had helped to get away from the school ethos to something much more level [as between tutor and students].

However, this was only a matter of degree. The students still tended to pit their arguments against the tutor rather than against their peers. Overall, the tutor was still regarded as the expert. The students remained more interested in his contributions, in his responses and his ideas on the ambiguities left over from the class than in those of their peers. Indeed, there would have been fewer readers if there had been no tutor contributions; the tutor was the catalyst. There remained a lurking suspicion that peer contributions were a bit suspect. However, overall, the students were confident users of skywriting and made good use of it for shared learning.

A third year lecture course

Current Debates was a compulsory lecture course taken by 80 students in the second semester of the third year, tackling a range of contentious issues in contemporary psychology. Skywriting was again a required, although not assessed, part of the course. The tutors aim in using it was: to increase student contribution rather than student querying and: to elicit more student-on-student comments.

To this end, the tutor decided to reformat the skywriting structure for this course. The course itself was based around target articles and peer commentaries from the journal Behavioral & Brain Sciences (BBS). Thus the basic reading material consisted of ten BBS target articles (plus peer commentaries and author-responses). This material was accessible via the web, although hard copies were available in the library. The students task was to quote/comment three times on a few assigned pages out of three of the ten BBS article/commentary/response sets.

For example, in the first assignment seven students were asked to quote/comment on particular parts of the target article and then seven more were asked to reply to these comments. Four other students were asked to quote/comment on specified BBS peer commentaries, with four more students replying. Lastly, two students were asked to quote/comment on the BBS author-response with two further students replying.

Thus, altogether this assignment called for 26 student contributions. There were ten assignments in all. The smooth running of the assignments depended on the first students getting their commentaries in on time, as without these the following students could not do theirs.

At the first lecture the researchers were once again introduced to the students and were added to the online course list. By now they were familiar faces to many of the students, having spent some time in the department. The researchers attended four of the ten lectures, which were very interactive in style and drew upon the skwriting contributions. At the last lecture attendance was relatively poor, perhaps due to impending examinations, but the forty-two students present completed a course evaluation questionnaire. This was completed anonymously and copies were made available to the researchers. Thirty-seven of the 42 students also returned a (non- anonymous) research questionnaire focusing on the use of skywriting on the course.

The students were asked to evaluate on a numerical scale of 15 (strongly agree to strongly disagree) how well skywriting had worked for them; for their understanding of course material, as support for face to face learning, for exam preparation, and so on. The questionnaire contained a tick box to indicate a willingness to participate in individual interviews. Twelve were selected, to include all those (5) who had taken the Socio-biology option plus seven drawn at random from those who had not, but who had attended the first year lecture course.

The semi-structured interviews lasted about twenty minutes each and the students were encouraged to reflect on how their attitude to skywriting had changed (if at all) since the first year, and the effects (if any) of having had more experience of using it. Further issues of learning were also explored. Again all interviews were transcribed and subjected to qualitative analysis. Finally the tutor gave an interview of an hour and a half in which he reflected on his use of skywriting with the students in their first and third years. This interview was audio taped and transcribed. The interview topics arose from observed events from the past year. Additional sources of material were the researchers observations and notes from course attendance and more informal discussions with the tutor.

In the first lecture when the tutor introduced and explained the procedure, he asked the experienced skywriters amongst them to lead small group revision sessions on how to use quote/comment for skywriting. This took place in the lecture theatre. However, the tutor received feedback from some students that they were still confused, so emailed a summary to the course list. He identified the first 26 students (alphabetically) and assigned each a specific task in relation to the first target article, and added tips for transferring the text from the web to the email so that it could be quote/commented on.

The next message from the tutor contained the next assignment plus messages/reminders for those who had not yet done their first assignments. Inevitably many were late, thus holding up the others. The tutor afterwards described the whole procedure as grotesquely convoluted. As the course progressed it became increasingly time consuming to keep track of who had done what. Towards the end of the semester, with exams nearing, the tutor had to give more reminders about missing assignments. At one point there were 28 overdue contributions. Tutor contributions were relatively few, though some were long where he felt additional input was needed (the longest reply to a student query was about two thousand words).

By monitoring the skywriting contributions closely, the tutor attempted to spot difficulties and to sort matters out earlier rather than later. For example, when some were having difficulty producing quote/comment contributions he gave them a model for doing so. He consistently emphasised that the task was not to memorise the text but to interact with it. Learning in any medium, he argued, starts with a structure. In a lecture he said: with books it is often underlining words, while with emails you can just sit and absorb and slot in new learning like a lego block. Not all of his students found reading off a screen easy, however. Many commented that prolonged reading off the screen hurt their eyes. This was certainly not a new complaint from the students and indeed is a problem for many computer users.

The students realised from the beginning that, although they would gain tutor approval from being actively involved in skywriting, there were no real marks at stake. Thus the tutor sold skywriting using different tactics. One example was when he replied to a student query in a lecture about how to gain good exam marks. His answer was that for a lower second they should bring in readings from the target article and commentaries; for an upper second they should use the target articles, commentaries and lectures and for a first they should use all of the former sources plus skywriting.

However, the tutor also felt the need to make it clear that they couldnt just depend on skywriting to get them through the course. Indeed, near exam time he put out a warning that it: would be VERY risky to try the exam having read only the skywriting as not only will it be incomplete, but some of it may well be wrong. So use it to test your knowledge (and to discuss if you like) but DONT use student summaries as your primary source.

Overall student evaluation of skywriting in Current Debates was positive. The research questionnaire showed that most students felt it had worked well in a number of ways. It had improved understanding of the course and worked well as a support for the face to face sessions. In contrast to the first year, the students reported that they found the contributions of their peers useful; 68% said that skywriting comments on target articles were useful and 55% said the same of student responses to student commentaries: I will be going to the commentaries andlook what people have said about it as wellit is good to have it as a resource.

Notably, the students reported less reliance on skywriting contributions from their tutor than on the (much more numerous) contributions from their peers. This may partly have been because the tutor: said at the beginning he was trying to avoid commentingtrying to find a happy medium. However, one student did comment that without the tutor..I think [participation] would have dropped about 40 or 50% of the class.

Not surprisingly, given the course structure, students reported a heavy reliance on the web and little reliance on books/print journals: I dont need to [rely on books] which is really good[its a] nightmare trying to find books. Compared to their first year, these students were feeling altogether more comfortable with CMC. As one student commented: [We] had to get over that phobia of technologynow[we] use it a lot.

The size of the group was seen as a problem, particularly by those who had used skywriting in the seminar option: Its so big you can't have that interactionpeople are commenting but they are not just sending questions to each other whereas last semester we were just sending questions to each other all the time; A small group of eight or ten seems like the ideal size because its enough people that you are not going to be intimidated by.

In spite of the positive feedback the tutor felt that he had not achieved his objective in using skywriting: because all they did was their little, microscopic module. His feeling was the students had not engaged thoroughly with the material, often sounding off with only 20% of the information. He very rarely saw someone that had mastered the material.

If he ran Current Debates again, rather than trying to force them to do a paraphrase, of some material he would try to get them to dig their teeth actively into the subject matter, to focus them and keep them involved in several more iterations. What was evident was that what the students got most out of was: being more actively involved with the subject matter, rather than: passively listening to my answering questions...or producing semi-authoritative summaries of which others were sometimes mistrustful.

In this way, he believes, skywriting, can change the way they think, not least by keeping the debate alive throughout the week: rather than just turning up on Tuesday. By using a discipline of writing for posterity the students might be bought to think of these things differently: once they get an insight they get a different vantage point on the same thing. They now listen, they can see their fellow students [as] naive in a way that they are no longer nave.


Most of the students we have observed in these case studies experienced skywriting only in one first year and one final year course. A minority experienced skywriting in three of their courses, but these taken together still made up a small part of their studies. Some of their other courses used email lists, but: just to say about room changes etcetera.

The mere fact of having to participate in skywriting had evidently helped many students overcome their fear of computers and technology. You are made to do it and then you finally get to do it and nowits so much better. This confidence building was helped by the tutors willingness to give his students time and to extend their computer skills and knowledge: He just sat me down and showed me how to use it and then I went away and it made everything so much quicker. By the end of the third year most were confident users: using the net quite a lot for their dissertation and project. One student: actually emailed authors because I couldnt find the articles.

One effect of using skywriting has been social. Weve started talking about it outside the lectures, getting people talking, thats whats been nice the whole atmosphere, its like a breaking of ice. I felt this year Ive just been talking to so many more people within the year because you read their skywriting comments you are more likely to just say Hi!; You can just speak with people as you wouldnt have done before because youve heard their name, all the sorts of contacts have become a little bit more diverse. The students were interested in what others have to say and felt encouraged to talk about their skywriting contributions. Much of this interaction took place in the computer room of the department. Everybody will sit in the computer room and either do it [skywriting] at the same time or theyll talk about what they are going to do or you have interactions with whos commenting on you.

Using skywriting they have come to appreciate the benefits of having: somebody arguing with you as it helps: to crystallise things. They have also become shrewd judges of whose contributions to look out for. One student described this as: the filtering effect; you pick up on the people who have got the grasp of this subject and you think Oh!, Ill read her, shes good at this. Thus they have learnt to take the best from their peers while at the same time feeling a commitment to make good contributions themselves. For most on the course learning has become a less solitary experience: Talking amongst ourselves is very important but is only done in relation to [this tutors] course.

Both in the first year and the third, the students were interested in each others contributions, even when some were sceptical of their validity and worth. In part this was because they provided a basis for social comparison, establishing where they stood in the intellectual hierarchy. A corollary of this was an anxiety about being shown up. Such fears seemed to be allayed by time and familiarity with each other. By the third year, as one student put it: they know where you are coming from, know that you are not stupid. If you say something thats nonsense, they wont think this person is dim. Such confidence was particularly apparent amongst those who had used skywriting in the third year seminar option.

The tutor felt that over the three years, skywriting helped to build a relationship between himself and his students. There was a kind of a shared intellectual mission sense that I got, and I think it was to a great extent because of skywriting. In the first year he was skywriting a few hours a day, typically late at night. When they were coming fast and furious they were getting answers within 24 hours, within 12 hours some of them and thats when it was the most enjoyable. It was stressful and taxing [but] I also think it was fruitful. In the third year course he was less intensively involved, but he felt that skywriting: brought down a few barriersyou can be with students for three years and never have one intellectual spark, exchange, and I got the feeling that a little bit more of that did happen. Using Skywriting didnt cut down on room visits by students; in fact the effect was opposite. They come to see me a little bit more than they did without it.

Over the three years the students who used Skywriting made that bit more investment in their learning. Frequency of use led to more positive evaluation of the medium. Its perceived merits, ranging from accessibility and immediacy to interactive and reflective potential, outweighed its negative features (which included the time it takes to read everything and having to read so much off a screen).

Nonetheless, when faced with a choice between having more face-to-face discussions (tutorials/seminars), more lectures or more skywriting, the students in both their first and their third year favoured more face-to-face discussion, followed by more lectures. Thus the students were very happy to have skywriting as an extra resource but were not keen to have it substitute for contact time with the tutor and fellow students.

For campus-based universities, this finding may come as a relief, since it is apparent that, at least for these students, face-to-face interaction is still strongly preferred as a learning resource. Our observations show, however, that CMC (here in the form of skywriting) can offers an adjunct to such interaction which is capable of adding significant value to the experience of campus-based study.


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