Adding Structure to Online Communication

by March 22, 2004

Networked collaborative interfaces have proven to be effective at facilitating casual dialogue between individuals and groups. When applied to an academic setting, however, the lack of structure within such tools often limits their potential for guided instruction, organized learning activities, and post-discussion utility.

Most conferencing tools, online forums, and chat rooms are designed with conversation in mind: a form of dialogue without boundaries. Individuals or groups are free to construct a discussion in any manner they choose. This loose dialogue style is preferred in casual and business conversations; no boundaries are set and no structure is imposed on the participants. Conversation, though, is only one form of dialogical engagement.

Nick Burbules has defined a variety of others: inquiry, conversation, instruction, and debate. As an example, “Instruction involves an intentional process in which a teacher ‘leads’ a student, through questioning and guidance, to formulating certain answers or understandings.” This type of structured dialogue needs to guide participants and establish rules in order to achieve pre-determined educational goals.

A structured communication interface has the potential to support multiple dialogue formats by using the unique characteristics that distinguish each type of dialogue and guiding participants into the “best fitting” form of dialogue.