A number of new communications technologies have emerged in recent years that have been largely regarded and intended for personal and recreational use. However, these «conversational technologies» and «constructivist learning tools», coupled with the power and reach of the Internet, have made them viable choices for both educational learning and knowledge-oriented applications. A discussion of the technologies and uses, underlying educational and cognitive psychology theories, and also applications for education and the management of knowledge, are examined in detail.
Keywords: conversational technologies, education, knowledge, knowledge management, learning, innovation, Internet, instant messaging, podcast, Weblog, wiki, podcast
For many years, the mediums employed for education have remained fairly constant and traditional: tried and true methods such as the blackboard and chalk, whiteboards, flipcharts, and overhead projectors. The employment of computing technologies has resulted in the use of PowerPoint, e-mail, and Web-based course portals/enhancements such as Blackboard and Web CT. There have been numerous studies done, and papers written, about the use of technology in the classroom, together with work on the related areas of e-learning, Web-based learning, and online learning [1, p. 54].The usage of computing technologies in education has been examined in numerous studies, and there is a sizable body of work on Web and online learning. In particular, some of these technologies have been recognized as useful in the classroom, and have been engaged in innovative ways. The technologies of particular interest are those that are referred to as «conversational technologies», which allow for the creation and sharing of information. Another term often used to describe these technologies is the concept of «constructivist learning tools», which encourage, and are focused on, users creating, or constructing, their own content. The interest in employing these kinds of technologies stems not only from the unique pedagogical benefits gained, but also from the basic need to stay in tune with the focus and strengths of today’s students. Scientists suggest that the students being taught today are «no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach» and that while the students of today can be termed «digital natives», many educators could be better termed «digital immigrants». [1, p. 73]. Yet another way to look at this is to view earlier educational approaches as «print based», while those of the current environment can be called «digitally-based, secondly-oral». It is unlikely that there would be many college students who are unfamiliar with the use of IM. Allowing for interactive and real-time synchronous communications with instant response, instant messenger is truly conversational in that it allows for «chat» and communications between both individuals and groups. The major instant messaging systems in use include AOL (AIM), MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and ICQ. IM is a means for users to «chat» and communicate in real-time. While originally the domain of personal users, over time the unique benefits and effectiveness of this medium were realized, and IM started to become accepted as a form of communication in businesses (particularly high-tech firms), and now has been studied and tested as an educational tool. The important features of IM include both its synchronous nature and its ability to support both chat and phone-like interaction. While real-time interaction allows for rapid communications to occur, there is also no need to enter an interaction «space» as with chat rooms. Instead, the main usage of IM is in one-on-one communications, which can be more formally termed as a dyadic «call» model, which more closely resembles phone call interaction. It should be noted that even though much of the communication is done between two individuals, there are some systems that support multiparty instant messaging. Some of the salient features of IM include the ability for users to see user details as to current status (online, idle, away, out to lunch), and also on a user’s changes in status (active, logged out, etc.). Lists of users can be displayed on the screen, so that contact can be made when desired. If a «chat» is initiated, a special window comes up, and the interaction can commence, provided that both parties are online and willing to proceed. The real-time nature of IM has resulted in the technology being used for reasons aside from personal «chat». In business, IM has become in some industries an accepted form of communication. [2, p. 34]. A number of studies have concluded that instant messaging is ideal for informal interaction. In particular, the use of IM has been shown to be helpful in cases where collaborative coordination and problem solving is involved. Social bonding and interaction, which is a component contributing to the success of more complex collaboration situations, is also enhanced by using instant messenger technology. An important difference between IM and e-mail is the tendency for instant messenger interaction to be more casual and informal than e-mails, which helps to bring about a more «friendly» communication atmosphere. This may in part be due to a reduction in the formalities that are typically involved when using e-mail or the phone. In particular, IM has been considered more suitable for such tasks as scheduling meetings, asking or answering quick questions, and for other kinds of tasks that are brief, require a prompt response, or are less formal. It is perceived to be far simpler to IM someone to ask a quick question, for example, or to confirm a meeting or lunch, rather than to e-mail or call. It is also of interest that IM communications tend to be more flexible in terms of their uses (everything from task-related questions to a new joke), and can allow for greater expressiveness in terms of emotion, humor, and personality. Another interesting aspect is «outer action», which focuses on the processes associated with IM. These include conversational availability, communications zones, intermittent conversations, awareness, and conversational progress/media switching. IM is useful in certain communications situations, since it tends to be less disruptive and interrupting, while at the same time a user’s availability is more clearly known (scanning buddy list status, for example). It is also a convenient means for setting up more formal interactions, such as arranging a conference call (media switching). [2, p. 41]. Intermittent, dispersed communications can be conducted over a longer period of time, which includes interruptions. Another benefit includes the knowledge that others are «there» and available, even if not currently in chat mode; however there is always the opportunity to make contact, whether through IM or a different form of communications. While some educators may scoff at and even express criticism at the thought of instant messaging as a viable educational tool, others believe there is potential in the medium. In terms of educational uses for IM, they are being explored and tested. Clearly, IM not only allows students to collaborate more effectively on homework assignments and projects, but also helps to maintain a closer social network between students, which could have a positive impact on learning. In addition, if IM is carefully targeted and focused toward the material or lecture topic in hand, the use of IM may actually help and stimulate deeper and more active learning. On the other hand, it has been hypothesized that the distraction of working on various other tasks in parallel with IM, known as «distracted attention,» may have a negative impact on learning.
In summary, while instant messenger can be appropriate for various applications, in particular for information communications in a business setting, the results from educational studies appear to be mixed, with both positive and negative effects noted. While there seem to be advantages to real-time communications between students, between students and instructors, and also between groups working on a project, it appears that there are problems and limitations if the technology is used in a classroom setting.
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