Classrooms as Social Networks - Digital Literacy Dover

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Classrooms as Social Networks

Interthinking, Interaction & the Internet


Possibly one of the most exciting applications of digital technology in education are the kinds of activities that encourage the unique ‘peer to peer’ interactions between students, and/or the teacher, within a shared online space, a forum, or a ‘wiki’ to use the term in it’s most fundamental sense:

a website that allows collaborative editing of its content and structure by its users.
“[A wiki] differs from a blog or most other such systems in that the content is created without any defined owner or leader, and wikis have little implicit structure, allowing structure to emerge according to the needs of the users.” 

The tendency when this kind of conversation starts, is for people to leap to the assumption that we're going to have to use 'Facebook? FACEBOOK? Are you serious?' or perhaps Twitter. Yes, those could work too, but there are many platforms that are more ... appropriate for a classroom that you can use for this, any blog format, and wiki, but for us as a GAPPS school, Google Sites provide a 'wiki' environment that works magnificently. It is one of those applications of tech that goes deep with educators—if you want to see a teacher embrace and RUN with a tech tool, this is the one; it takes (literally) a few minutes to post a provocation (maybe longer to actually think of a good provocation) then sit back and watch the students take it and transform it.

All you need is a good question... 

As Erickson describes in her chapter on "Different Types of Questions to Support Conceptual Thinking",  the right blend of questions help students construct their own understandings. She recommends designing three types of conceptual question (factual, conceptual and provocative) to guide students thinking,

"students seek resolutions to queries or issues, search patterns and relationships, and bridge specific examples to conceptualise ideas, questions provide the necessary support or nudge. As a result, learning is more memorable and better retained because rather than being told what is important, students construct understandings themselves."
(Erickson et al, 2014, p. 56)

Now the teacher sits back and absorbs the feedback, watching the conversations unfolding, expanding and developing, but their role, is still critical. You see the kind of interactions afforded in a wiki space are very similar, and yet very different to those in a typical face to face classroom discussion. And just like their face to face variety, they have their potentials and pitfalls, which need to be monitored as feedback so they can use the evidence to feed forward, at class, group, or individual student level.

A recent study shows that students who regularly participated in these kinds of activities improved their maths and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching, even though the activities were not designed to improve literacy or numeracy. More than 3,000 students in 48 schools across England participated in weekly discussions about concepts such as truth, justice, friendship, and knowledge, with time carved out for silent reflection, question making, question airing, and building on one another’s thoughts and ideas.

This post focuses on the actual pedagogical practice of using this medium for learning. I have written another post that focuses on the big picture, focusing on the WHY—why this medium is not only unique but actually essential, critical, pivotal, and in my experience, one of the most genuinely transformative applications of ICT that I have ever encountered.

What is interthinking?

Karen Littleton and Neil Mercer wrote the book that describes the kind of internet based interaction—interthinking.

“Mainly by using spoken language, people are able to think creatively and productively together. We call this process 'interthinking' to emphasise that people do not use talk only to interact, they interthink.” (my emphasis)

In Interthinking Littleton and Mercer describe three types of talk:

Disputational talk, cumulative talk, and exploratory talk. 

The first is one to avoid, the second is safe ... but ineffective, the last is what we want, that’s where the transformative activity, the interthinking, happens.

Here are some great examples of Interthinking I've grabbed from some of our class sites, trust me there is a lot more where these came from. Now they didn’t get this good on their own, skilled teachers guided and developed these discussions. Online discussions generally tend to start out as very pleasant but bland ‘cumulative’ talk (more on that in a minute), then, once they become more comfortable with the medium, it can unfortunately easily denigrate into ‘disputational’ argumentative talk. The role of the teacher is to ‘mentor’ these students to interact or ‘talk’ in ways that find a powerful balance between these extremes, talk that is ‘exploratory’.

Online discussions*

Click to see a collection of examples of online interthinking

Now, looking at the conversations here, you could mistakenly assume that all of it happened in the sole confines of an individual screen, students hunting and pecking away in isolation, but that is only half the story—all of these conversations are grounded in good old fashioned classroom ‘face to face’ which iteratively shifts online, and then back to face to face over time. Now that timeframe could be as short as a back and forth in one lesson, to an ongoing back and forth, iterative feedback loop over an entire unit, whatever the teacher feels is needed.

I strongly recommend that you read the book yourself, but in the interest of action, I’ve summarised the points that relate to the context of internet interactivity below. The following is quoted directly from the book, anything inside [square brackets] is mine.

*You can any wiki space that supports a reply option for this, eg Blogger, Google Classroom, Edmodo etc. 

Interthinking elements

Interthinking has been necessary for the development and dissemination of all human knowledge and understanding. However, as we will all know from personal experience, collective thinking is not always productive or successful. Two heads are not always better than one, and we need to understand how and why that is the case. (p 2)

Three kinds of talk in groups (as first reported in Dawes, Fisher and Mercer 1992). They can be summarised as follows.

Disputational talk in which

 • There is a lot of disagreement and everyone just makes their own decisions;
 • There are few attempts to pool resources or to offer constructive criticism;
 • They are often a lot of interactions of the open 'yes it is! – No it's not!' kind;
 • The atmosphere is competitive rather than cooperative.

Cumulative talk, in which

 • Everyone simply accepts and agrees with what other people say;
 • Children use talk to share knowledge, but they do so in an uncritical way;
 • Children repeat and elaborate each others ideas, but they don't evaluate them carefully.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Exploratory talk, in which

 • Everyone engages critically but constructively with each other's ideas;
 • Everyone offers the relevant information they have;
 • Everyone's ideas are treated as worthy of consideration;
 • Partners ask each other questions and answer them, ask for reasons and give them;
 • Members of the group try to reach agreement at each stage before progressing;
 • To an observer of the group, reasoning is 'visible' in the talk.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge


Digital technology and interthinking

Much as been written about the ways that electronic, digital technology can 'transform' or 'revolutionise' interpersonal communications. This is not mere hyperbole. People can now communicate quite easily with other individuals far away, send each other various kinds of multimodal information and organise group events and collective creations without being ever in the same room as other participants.
However, there is a danger that the wealth of communicative facilities offered by digital technology distracts us from concerns about the quality of communication. A clear line on the telephone has never ensured that two speakers would have a conversation in which they understood each other well, and the added visual dimension offered by Skype will not do so either. Computers in their various forms, and their software, are cultural tools that we employ well or badly. They can certainly make interthinking possible between people who would otherwise have been separated, and they can provide practical and very useful support for groups of people who are working and learning together.
[For some reason these researchers seem to focus exclusively on the IWB as if it is the most ubiquitous form of technology, and the most relevant? I would argue that the context that is considered here would be far more effective if each student had their own screen [situated]and were still able to talk together in the same physical space [located] while interacting in the same virtual space in real time (ie, synchronous not asynchronous), such as perhaps annotating a shared image within Google Drive?]


Improvable objects and interthinking [Mutability]

As we saw earlier, the IWB [and surely any situated shared screen environment] is very useful for generating and recording synoptic, written conclusions; it is easy for the whole group to see and comment on what each member writes, and for the final text to be very quickly modified in light of feedback and evaluation of the emerging ideas (see Littleton, Twiner and Gillen 2010). One of our former doctoral students, Alison Twiner, has called the kind of text the children are creating on the IWB a 'digital improvable object' (Twiner 2011; Twiner, Littleton, Coffin and Whitelock in press). Teachers often encourage children to record what has been said in their group discussions. It was the classroom researcher Gordon Wells (1999) who first suggested that if they are treated as 'improvable objects' rather than finished pieces of work, such records can, if used appropriately, provide a cumulative basis of common knowledge upon which future discussions and other activities can draw and progressively build. Of course, such records do not have to be digital—they can also be created on paper—but computer–based technology offers a way of doing so easily, so that modifications can be made, several versions kept and copies distributed. Such digital records can also include other things such as diagrams and drawings that capture ideas created in discussions. They can offer a kind of half-way stage between the ephemerality [temporality] of talk and the permanence of written texts, and represents one way that technology can help people think collectively.

P78 [paraphrased]
Once saved, these collective creations are then available as a tangible results for discussion by groups of students. For example, a teacher easily project it onto a whiteboard screen for students to refer to, both as a powerful 'aide memoir' for initial reactions and ideas, and as a subsequent focus for collective thinking.

Other kinds of electronic text can also support the collective revision, development and evaluation of ideas. [...]  ...comment boxes enable groups of students to capture, during the data collection phase of their enquiries, important contextual information that would assist them in the interpretation of the data during analysis. Observations of the software in use revealed that as the students moved toward the reporting of the investigation, they also reworked, refined and continually edited and saved the text within the boxes [A process which would have become increasingly and inevitably extremely messy and convoluted if it had been carried out on paper]. In doing so the text became an ongoing work in progress, capturing emerging ideas and (inter)thinking, over time, in respect of the interpretation of data and the key findings. Their initial comments recorded in the boxes provided a base from which to develop and build shared knowledge and understanding. This process of reworking the comments in the boxes also helped students make connections across different phases of the enquiry and so help them maintain the 'thread' of their joint activity (see Littleton and Kerawaller 2010 for more information).

[Interesting to note that the researchers themselves could not consider how this activity could be practised in any other any other software environment, and seem to be fixated on only extremely sophisticated futuristic models], "as a tool for enabling into thinking by a group of, 'tabletop' interactive computers that are sensitive to touch may prove to be more useful.… Another researcher, Stahl (2011), has suggested that tabletops could serve as a 'multimedia tribal fire for the classroom, workplace, or social gathering', though they are currently so costly that it is unlikely that they will soon become as common in classrooms as the IWB]


Collaborative learning at a distance 

[Interesting to note here again that the researchers have a very narrow/fixed view of how the technologies can be used, for example the situated nature of these technologies means that they don't have to be used at a distance the same tool could be used very effectively within the same physical location, just because you can use them to span thousands of miles, doesn't mean that you have to]

There have been many studies of the use of electronic communications in distance education, but few have been studies of how spoken or written communication between students in distant locations might enable their learning or problem-solving.

One of the ways that communicating through text [why just text? What about image? Video] online is rather different from talking face-to-face is that it can either take place in real time, so that speakers respond immediately to each other, or people may take some time to respond. An online 'conversation' can be spread out over a period of days, weeks or even months. Ingram and Hathorn, two researchers into the uses of online communication in education, describe the differences between these two modes of computer-mediated communication (CMC) as follows:

"CMC can be divided into synchronous and asynchronous modes. In synchronous communications all disciplines are online at the same time, while asynchronous communications occurs without time constraints. Synchronous discussion involves the use of programs, such as chat rooms, instant messengers or audio and video programs, in which all participants exchange messages in real-time. Messages appear on the screen almost immediately after they are typed, and many threads can occur simultaneously. Those who have experienced these rapid exchanges of information, ideas, and opinions know that even extraordinary typing skill and quick response times do not guarantee that one can keep up with the constantly changing discussion. Hence, synchronous discussion may be best suited for brainstorming and quickly sharing ideas. In asynchronous discussions students can participate at any time and from any location, without regard to what other discussants are doing. Asynchronous CMC allows participants to contribute to the discussion more equally because none of the customary limitations imposed by an instructor or class schedule apply. Full and free expression of ideas is possible. Although these communications are text-based, they have little in common with traditional printed information. Experienced users use a style that is characterised by a abbreviated writing and emoticons (eg smileys). asynchronous discussions, which can occur over email or threaded web discussion, allow more time for considered opinions… And are more effective for deeper discussion of ideas." (Ingram and Hathorn 2004: 220)

[limitations, or why it is good to combine on-screen interactions with face-to-face interactions in real time in the same space, face-to-face]

Distance educators need to make the best use of the affordances of Digital technology to compensate for the loss of some of the most attractive and useful features of more traditional ways of teaching and learning [face-to-face].
And the open University, Rebecca Ferguson (Ferguson 2009; Ferguson, Whitelock and Littleton 2010). She was interested in how students working online managed the task of building knowledge and understanding together, as they pursued assignment in groups. [...] Ferguson also usefully identified some important ways that asynchronous online interactions among a group are different from those among people working face-to-face, in terms of the resources group members have to support their interthinking. For example, they often have digital improvable objects of the kind that we mentioned earlier. As she comments:

They do not need to employ devices that will help them to remember what they have said or done, because they have access to the complete text of their past dialogue in a transcript automatically generated by the software. What they need to replace is the range of tones, expressions and gestures are available to support sense making in a face-to-face setting. They must find a synchronous methods of agreeing on what they have achieved together, and on how they can shape past dialogue to build shared knowledge. At the same time, they need to avoid disagreements and find a way of moving dialogue forward safely when only a subset of the group is online and able to participate. (Ferguson up. cit.: 168)

The temporally extended, and even disjointed nature of online talk creates different kinds of obstacles to interthinking from face-to-face settings. Requests for explanations and checks of understanding are more labourious to make, as are the responses they require; and so any disagreements that arise are harder, to resolve.

Various kinds of digital tools [...] can provide some valuable support for productive discussion. They can resource what Wegerif (2007, 2010) has called a 'dialogic space' in which different ideas, perspectives and understanding can be collectively explored, and material can be modified to record the development of a discussion and capture emerging ideas. Digital communication offers opportunities for students to interthink online, and to do so without the constraints of time and location that arise in more conventional educational settings.
more than one way of talking can be productive but discussion is likely to be most productive for learning if participants agree to follow the kinds of ground rules for discussion that will generate an online version of exploratory talk. Therefore, they should be expected to encourage universal participation among group members, seek ideas and clarification of them, challenge ideas and proposals in respectful ways if they have good reason to do so and support their own ideas and proposals with reasons and explanations.


Cooperation versus collaboration

[I believe that for formative assessment to be effective, when students are asked to work in groups, it is better to pursue a cooperative approach rather than a collaborative approach. This way students are accountable for their individual contributions as opposed to all of the contributions being mixed into a melange where it becomes difficult if not impossible to ascertain the accountability or input of specific individuals]

"Cooperation is defined as the style of working, sometimes called "divide-and-conquer," in which students split an assignment into roughly equal pieces to be completed by the individuals, and then stitched together to finish the assignment.
 In contrast, we define collaboration as a more complex working together. Students discuss all parts of the assignment, adding and changing things in conjunction with one another as they come to understand more about the topic.
 At the end, the final product is truly a group product in which it is difficult or impossible to identify individual contributions. There appears to be differences between corporation and collaboration in both the complexity of the interactions and the effectiveness for instruction and education."

(Ingram and Hathorn 2004:216)


When people asking what learning ‘transformed’ by technology looks like, this is the kind of thing I think of, and the SAMMS framework helps here—this kind of activity, and its inherent,


- these kids can continue the conversation anywhere, any place (even international), face to face or any space, or time that works for them. I would argue the context of a wiki (as opposed to a shared IWB in the book) has the advantage of adding the situated affordance of technology, making interthinking much more effective, by augmenting it with a greater focus on the kinds of intrathinking and reflection that can be afforded by reworking or contributing to a group discussion in asynchronous isolation subsequent to a synchronous face to face session.


No need to debate minutiae and semantics when clarifying points of fact or fiction are only a click away, got a reference to back that up? Great, link to it. The wealth of online resources offers great potential for learners; but the context of interthinking places greater demands on all parties to evaluate and filter the information they offer.


Now for the most part, Interthinking assumes a text only mode, but adding the contact of face to face automatically makes it multimodal, but it actually it isn’t difficult to multiply the modes in a screen context, the examples above  include a video, or image prompt used by the teacher as a provocation, as well as students relating their ‘interthinking’ to multimodal content they have posted, from image to video, to mind maps and presentations.


The ease with which students can modify their content facilitates learning, but needs to be managed carefully to avoid ‘revisionism’ this is the teachers call, some like to encourage kids to go back and revise their posts in light of their changing position, others see this as potentially dishonest—Did I say that? No I didn’t [quick edit] .. see?

Social Network

This activity literally creates a ‘micro social network’ like a Facebook the size of your class, with all of it’s phenomenal benefits, minus the suspicious disingenuous marketing.


Erickson HL, Lanning LA, & French R (2017). Concept-based curriculum and instruction for the thinking classroom.

Ferguson R, Whitelock D, & Littleton K (2010). Improvable objects and attached dialogue: new literacy practices employed by learners to build knowledge together in asynchronous settings. Digital Culture and Education, 2 (1): 103-123

Ferguson R (2009). The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue, Unpublished PhD Thesis, The Open University. [Downloadable from:]. Accessed January 22 2013.

Ingram A & Hathorn L (2004) 'Methods for Analysing Collaboration and Online Communications', in T Roberts (ed), Online Collaborative Learning: theory and practice, London: Information Science Publishing.

Littleton K, & Mercer N (2013). Interthinking: putting talk to work. Routledge.

Littleton K, & Kerawalla L (2012). Trajectories of inquiry learning, in K Littleton, E Scanlon and M Sharples (eds), Orchestrating Inquiry Learning, Abingdon: Routledge.

Wegerif R (2007). 'Dialogic, Education and Technology: expanding the space of learning, London: Springer Verlag.

Wegerif R (2010). 'Dialogic and teaching thinking with technology: opening, deepening and expanding the interface', in C Howe and K Littleton (eds), Educational Dialogues: understanding and promoting productive interaction, London: Routledge.

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