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A case for article-based discussions
What are article-based discussions? Well, the "Discuss" sections of this article is an example of one type of article-based discussions. They are used in many sites these days as a means to generate opinions and different perspectives from readers to make the article richer. In this article I build a case for the use of article-based discussions in learning environments.
Why article-based discussions?
There is this notion that every human being has a unique Conceptual Model. A conceptual model is a framework through which a person sees and experiences his world. And this model is unique to a person as it is nurtured over time by the zillion experiences he has through life. And it is this framework that helps him in understanding future experiences as well.
For example, let's consider a reader and his text. Some time back, it was thought that the author of the text was the constructor of meaning of his text, and in writing the text he was passing on his knowledge to his readers. So here, the reader was a passive receiver of meaning. But now we know that this is not true. The actual constructor of meaning of a text is the reader and not the author. The reader, by reading the text, maps on the information of the text to his conceptual framework and creates -- or recreates -- meaning for himself.
- Daniel Chandler's Texts and the construction of meaning. More such articles on his website.
- Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in This Class? See this online article on the book.
But this creation, or recreation, of meaning is not an easy task. It usually takes a lot of inquiry and reflection on the part of the reader. He might want certain questions answered. And he might also want to negotiate the meaning of those very answers. In the real world, the reader could negotiate with his teacher or his peers. Or, he could negotiate with himself. In The Social Life of Documents, an article that appeared in First Monday, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid show that a reader's own comments on the text (scribbling on the margins, etc.) also show a means of negotiation:
Marginal notes, footnotes, and conventional commentaries are merely the clearest examples of the ways that writing continually provokes more writing and that texts provide context for each other. (Imitation, parody, pastiche, allegory, and plain plagiarism are, of course, others.) From turned down pages, to notes on a dust jacket, to academic essays, to fan zines, to direct quotations and indirect allusions, to stories lifted for future retelling without attribution, we are always commenting on texts, which continually intertwine in a process grandly known as "intertextuality." Documents are not, then, independent. Like biological organisms, every document is always related to some other.
Indeed, writing on writing is both literally and metaphorically an important part of the way meaning is negotiated. Annotation is a rich cultural practice which helps, if only by the density of comment attached, to signify the different cultural importance of texts and parts of texts. The thin trickle of original text overflowing a vast dam of commentary, the long introduction, and the separate subject entry in a library catalog offer clear indications that a particular text is socially and culturally valued.
What is true for paper-based text is also true for online articles. On the Net, in addition to negotiating meaning of the text with ourselves, we can also leverage on the capability to negotiate the meaning with others as well. We can put forth questions and doubts and get answers from our teachers and peers -- answers that can provide different perspectives and a better chance of matching our conceptual models.
Analyzing article-based discussions
Article-based discussions come in two varieties:
- Inline: These are included within the article itself (like our Discuss It ). Examples are the Sound Off section in Fast Company (at the end of the article), and the Talk About It section in Fortune. Now even in inline discussions, we see another sub-variety -- paragraph-based discussions. These are discussions that are available at the paragraph level. QuickTopic, a free discussion space provider, has a new feature called Document Review, which provides paragraph-level discussions.
- External: These discussions are a part of a larger forum discussing other issues as well. Some example are the Forum section of Technology Review, an MIT publication, and the Table Talk section of Salon, a prominent e-zine.
Now, just having the ability to post questions/comments does not mean that readers are going to take part and have enthusiastic discussions. There needs to be some strategies/processes to make these discussions successful. Some of these are listed below:
- Have discussions on open-ended articles: Some open-ended articles, by their nature, will foster discussions, while other close-ended articles will not. Appreciate this difference. For example, not all articles in Technology Review are open to discussion.
- Facilitate the discussions: Just like it's a bore talking to people to don't talk back, or who reply with a yes/no answer, students will find it a bore if they don't find any initiative from either the instructor or other students. It's a facilitator duty to avoid such scenarios by weaving interesting discussions
- Generate motivation : If the students are not self-motivated to discuss around articles, you have to provide some means for generating this motivation. Now there are several ways to generate this motivation, but one technology-driven method would be to include a rating system. This rating system enables a student to rate another students answers. This way, the rating system can provide the necessary "ego-boost" for students to contribute (see Wired's Revenge of the Know-It-Alls for an in-depth look at ego-boosting factors).
- Create a summary: Provide a daily/weekly summary of the discussions. This provides the necessary closure to discussions and also keeps them on track.
Now, these are just a small selection of strategies that can be deployed to have successful article-based discussions. We can learn more by studying the nature of JIME's (Journal of Interactive Media in Education) peer-review process. This article, which appeared in February 5th 2001 edition of First Monday, describes in detail how the Net can be leveraged to create article-based (or document-based) discourse. The abstract of the article is given below:
JIME's peer review process is designed to promote multidisciplinary dialogue through the use of a purpose-designed Web document-discussion interface, which tightly links the article to an area for review comments and discussion. This innovative peer review model and the resulting enriched digital documents illustrate some of the possibilities for promoting knowledge construction and preserving intellectual products in digital scholarly publications. In the remainder of this article, we present JIME is technical infrastructure, editorial policy, and peer review process, and discuss how these features are used to support the journal's goals. Finally, we conclude by considering what aspects of our approach might be suitable for e-journals in other disciplines.
This treatment provides one negotiation effort with the subject of article-based discussions -- you can share others here...