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Conversational systems for adult education and training

Alexander Romiszowski, Professor
Instructional Design, Development & Evaluation
Syracuse University, USA

The changing face of adult education and training

New forms of educational and training needs

There are many pressures, both organisational and philosophical, that are increasing the amount of autonomy, self directedness and responsibility that adults have in respect of their own education and development. From the philosophical side, there is the viewpoint that people should have more control over what they learn and how they learn it. These viewpoints are embodied in the principles of modern adult education, or andragogy. They also reflect earlier humanist traditions. They are further strengthened by the modern concepts of continuing or "permanent education", which spring from the realisation that change in society, and particularly in the workplace, is now so fast that everyone is of necessity involved in a process of lifelong updating in relation to the workplace, this need for updating may in some respects be very specific and personal for each individual. Hence the growing popularity of the "Open Learning" concept as a modular approach to education that can take anyone from wherever they are at present in a given domain, to wherever they need/want to be, relatively independently of the needs/wants of other people (Paine, 1988).

From the organisational side, there is the growing realisation that the needs of individuals for job related education and development are so varied and personal that it is totally impractical to satisfy them by means of a program of standard course offerings. Furthermore, there is such a proliferation of technical information published, that may (or may not) be of importance to certain employees, that the conventional approaches to the handling of information resources by some form of library and information/abstracting service, are breaking down. It has become necessary for all key employees (technical, executive, etc) to take on more responsibility for keeping themselves up to date on new developments that might affect their field of work.

New forms of educational and training methods

Given the increasingly competitive nature of business in the international marketplace and the critical importance that access to and use of up to date information and methods plays in a company's competitiveness, it is not surprising that the concept of human resources development as "self development" is taking root. This concept sees keeping up to date and employable as the responsibility of every employee. The employer's responsibility is to make this possible, by helping to identify the needs of the individual and by facilitating access to the resources necessary to satisfy those needs . This will ever less frequently call for lengthy courses organised either within the company or by outside providers, but will instead make much more use of networking, access to external databases and electronic libraries, small specialist group teletraining and self instruction in all its forms (Kearsley, 1985; Romiszowski, 1988; Eurich, 1990).

As the trends outlined above expand through the business community, similar trends will be seen in relation to adult education, especially in the growing use of distance education in formal educational institutions. To some extent, similar economic factors may lead to a greater use of distance education and electronic networking as the prime delivery media for certain courses. More ubiquitous, however, will be the use of electronic communication media as support to conventional courses. This will be brought about partly by organisational and pedagogic benefits that such systems can offer conventional courses and partly because it will be seen to be the duty of education to use such systems in order to prepare its graduates for the realities of a workplace where they will be obliged to use them.

Learner directed conversation in distance education

This last point really brings home the importance of examining now, how to get high quality educational experiences and effective learning from electronically networked communication.

The particular focus of this paper is on the effective implementation of computer based group discussion, or "conversational", methodologies on electronic telecommunications networks. This focus is particularly important, as we know much less about how to converse effectively on electronic networks, than we do about electronic self instruction. There is a long history and fairly developed technology of the design, development and delivery at a distance of self study materials in several different (including electronic) media. There is much less known about the running of effective group discussion sessions at a distance. Such teaching methods as seminars (where a group critiques and comments a prepared paper or presentation) or case studies (where groups exchange ideas on how to explain or deal with a problem situation) are traditionally implemented in small or medium sized groups, led by skilled and experienced "facilitators". Much of the success of these teaching methods is ascribed to the facilitators and the skill with which they focus discussion, guide the approaches adopted by the participants, use the natural group dynamics to stimulate interest, participation and deep involvement, pull together what has been learned in the final debriefing discussion, and so on. Can such participatory discussion methods be effectively orchestrated at a distance? How might this be done?

The answers to such questions are vital if we are to learn just how we can utilise the new electronic communication media for education and training. If we cannot use these media for effective participatory group discussions, then there is a serious limit to the extent to which we can use distance education methods effectively. On the other hand, if the economic and other pressures outlined above force our hand into using distance education on a massive scale, then there is a serious limit on the effectiveness of courses in subject areas that are particularly reliant on small group discussion for effective learning.

Although the above mentioned scenario refers particularly strongly to the context of human resources development in the corporate world, the questions are also of importance to the educator, particularly the adult educator. The work which is reported in this paper has been performed to date with groups of students on graduate courses. It will still be necessary to extend this work to the corporate world. However, the basic questions remain the same and the main thrust will continue to be to seek more effective methods for using the new communication media and in the process reduce what might be termed the "loneliness of the long distance student."

Why hypertext for electronic seminars and cases?

Two paradigms compared

In order to answer this question, let us review a little theory and also some of the research that is already available on this topic. To start with the theory, it may help to compare and contrast two alternative paradigms, or maybe philosophies, which are current in education - the "instructional" and the "conversational" paradigms. These are summarised in tabular form in Table 1.

'Instruction' 'Conversation'

one to many
many to many
criterion ref
one layer thick
contents/ structure
interwoven layers
Video conferencing

Computer mediated
communication (CMC)

Table 1: Instruction versus conversation

The instructional paradigm is the one that has driven much (though by no means all) of the research and development of the past 30 years that has been performed under the label of educational (or instructional) technology. The conversational paradigm may be seen as the basis of much of the work done on small group work, group dynamics, so called experiential learning and so on. Very often, those working in these areas see little connection between their approaches and methods and those of the instructional technologists. There are of course some very important areas of overlap, for example, the prolific and excellent work on simulations, role play and case study methodology that has been done by educational technologists, but by and large the enthusiasts for one or other of these paradigms have kept apart, professionally speaking.

There is no reason why this should be so. Firstly, there is no intention implied of considering these two approaches as mutually exclusive, or that one is "right" and the other "wrong." They are complementary approaches and each has its role to play in educational and in training systems. Secondly, many real life teaching methods may be in part instructional and in part conversational. Thirdly, there are useful theoretical models of the conversational process as a teaching methodology that have originated on the "instructional" side of the artificial "divide" that seems to separate researchers in our field. one such model, or rather theory, is Gordon Pask's "Conversation Theory" (Pask, 1976, 1984). The work described here is based to some extent on this theory. one hoped for outcome of this work may, therefore, be a closer integration of research and development on teaching.

In relation to distance teaching specifically, one may notice at the bottom of Table 1 that the more conventional "study module" or typical correspondence course model may serve as a good example of the instructional paradigm. Teleconferencing, both audio and video based, is on the other hand a good example of the conversational paradigm in action, as also is Computer Conferencing, as it is most commonly practiced. Computer Mediated Communication has, however, a number of guises. When a computer network is used directly between one student and a distant tutor in order to reinforce a set learning task in algebra and to troubleshoot the student's difficulties on the prescribed problem set, the interchange of messages, although constituting a conversation, may well follow the instructional paradigm in most aspects. A student accessing a computer based instruction package on algebra is having a sort of conversation with the package, but most people would not consider this a good example of conversational education.

Hypertext: Instructional and/or conversational

To turn to hypertext environments, we can see this versatility of CMC in being able to support both conversational and instructional procedures. The joint cooperation on the analysis and development of a hypertext document satisfies all the basic requirements of a conversation between the participants. The study of a hypertext version of a maintenance manual for an aeroplane in order to learn a particular set of troubleshooting procedures satisfied the requirements of instruction. It is possible that different nodes of a single network could perform instructional and conversational functions respectively. Indeed, one of the implementations described in this paper does just that. This versatility of CMC in general and hypertext systems specifically makes them particularly interesting systems to study with a view to their rational adoption in training (Horn, 1990; Romiszowski, 1990).

This "versatility" of hypertext is a potential advantage which is an addition to others mentioned in the literature, such as: asynchronous communication, ability to attract more and richer comments and contributions from students, a permanent record of study, including student comments and annotations, non linear study, random access and so on. It is one potential advantage that is little mentioned, as most authors stress either the non-linearity and student directedness of the user process, or the influence of structure inherent in the content on the authoring process. The work reported here is seeking to use the physical characteristics of a hypertext environment to shape the teacher/learner interactions in particular ways.

Problems of structure and control in CMC

In order to give some background to the present work, it is necessary to mention, very briefly, some earlier work which attempted to use a simple, unstructured, electronic communication system for seminars at a distance. Several computer seminars (this word is preferable to the more common term "conferences" in this context) were organised during 1988 and 1989. The first of these linked two graduate student groups, one at Syracuse University in the USA and the other at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, to jointly discuss a position paper on the impact of the use of new emerging technologies in education on the role and the process of instructional design. Some 40 students debated this issue for some 6 weeks on a standard electronic mail network (Bitnet). In many respects the experience was a huge success, but two specific problems were observed. These were labelled the problems of STRUCTURE and CONTROL (Romiszowski and Jost, 1989; Romiszowski and De Haas, 1989).

The problem of structure is that participants who take part over a long time period by occasionally logging onto an ongoing discussion on electronic mail have difficulty in maintaining an overall view of the content and structure of the previous discussion. The messages are received in chronological order and seldom is it clear to which previous messages they relate, until they have been read. They are then stored in one (also chronologically organised) "notebook," unless the participant decides to do something special like storing different messages in different "topic" files or notebooks.

Existing mainframe based systems do not have very convenient or versatile methods of storing the structure of the incoming stream of messages. Our students, in general, did not develop any personal structure for storing the messages. As a result, they lost the "big picture" of what had been discussed. Several of the students were asked, after the experience, to draw a structured outline of the content of the whole seminar. Each student's memory of the content and structure of what was discussed was different on important points.

The problem of control refers to the ease or difficulty with which the seminar organiser can keep the participants on task. What tends to happen in this form of discussion over time is that most participants respond to messages as they read them, thus extending the discussion on some hot issue that someone else has just mentioned. If this issue happens to deviate from the originally intended discussion topic, the chances are that discussion will, from that point onwards, ignore the formally assigned task and wander ever further into other topics. This phenomenon can of course also be observed in face to face group discussions. Also, it is not always an undesirable thing to let participants have their head in a discussion just to see where it leads. However, if for some reason there is a specific issue that is to be addressed, excessive digression should be controlled by the group leader, facilitator, or by some other means. our observation in the electronic seminar was that it became more difficult to bring discussion back on track than would normally be the case in a conventional meeting. Requests and reminder messages from the distant leader were largely ignored. In the case of the seminar theme of this first experience, the premises of the issue (whether certain new technologies will in fact be used in education) were challenged and this led the discussion from technical to economic questions, to equity in relation of the "haves" to the "have nots" and so on.

Software for maintaining structure and control

Several similar electronic seminars were run, confirming that the problems of structure and control were inherent to the methodology. A review of the literature concerning educational computer conferencing revealed that others had experienced similar problems and the only way to diminish them that had been tried was to develop special software for computer conferencing. This would usually embody some form of learning institution metaphor, with a structure that replicated large group conference rooms for mainline discussions, small seminar rooms for interesting, but peripheral issues raised by participants, meeting rooms for personal interchanges with just one or two colleagues, etc.

CoSy and PARTICIPATE (PARTI for short) are examples of such systems that are now commercially available. We reviewed experience with both these systems and also gained some practical experience of our own. It seems that the participants still do not place their messages very accurately in the most appropriate "space" in the conferencing structure prepared for them. It is necessary to have a moderator, who reads all incoming messages and decides on the most useful place to store them. The resulting structure imposed on the discussion is thus the moderator's. Also the moderating task is very time consuming and must be performed in a regular, disciplined manner if it is not to bring the whole conference or seminar to a halt. It was for these reasons that we turned to Hypercard, to experiment with other ways of storing an electronic seminar discussion in a structured manner.

Seminars and case studies in a hypertext environment

The Hypercard based seminar network

Exhibit #1 shows the structure and the functioning of our first version of a hypercard based "shell" for small group seminars. The basic structure consists of an individual stack of note cards for each of the participants. Each card also has a button for each of the other participants. Clicking on a participant's personal icon takes you out of the stack you are currently reading into that other participant's stack. You have also to indicate the card number in that stack that you wish to access. Any participant who has a comment that links to a given card in another participant's stack indicates this by registering that card's number in his personal icon "mailbox". Any other participant then knows that a link has been formed and can follow that link, if desired, by clicking on the mailbox icon and typing the required card number. Learning time to master the use of this system is some two minutes.

[ Separate files, pages 510-513 in the original ]

The sample cards in Exhibit #1 are from a seminar based course that ran through one semester. Each participant (there were 7) prepared a position paper on some specific topic of their choice within a wider predefined topic (in fact the same one that was used in the first email conference described above.) Each participant stack therefore contained their own position paper, that would be spread over some six to ten cards, care being taken to separate each important point on a separate card. This ensures that although one card may give birth to links to a bunch of other cards written by other participants, all these cards will be related thematically. In this way, it was possible to automatically build one group developed structure of the whole of the discourse.

A structured case study discussion environment

Another training methodology that depends heavily on relatively open ended and rather "deep" conversation between participants and course leaders is the case study. The object of the case study methodology is to engage the participants in analysis and evaluation of a given case, in order to develop their skills in handling a range of similar real life situations later on, or alternatively, to create a better and deeper understanding of the general principles that are illustrated by the facts of the case presented. Learning must go beyond the specific case itself in order to be useful. When the cases are drawn from the learner's real life experience, the learners are effectively engaged in a process of "reflection in action, as described and advocated by Schon (1983). When they are imaginary, or drawn from other people's experience (e.g. Harvard Business Cases), they engage the learners in a similar reflective process, that has the aim of preparing the participants for future challenges of a nature that is modelled by the case material.

At a recent conference, Barnes (1990) argued very convincingly that the key to the effectiveness of a case study exercise is the quality of the case discussion, and this depends in turn on the quality of the case discussion leader. One unfortunate result of this is that effective learning from case study exercises is not always achieved. Also it is always instructor intensive and, therefore, relatively expensive. This factor unduly limits the use of the case study method. At the same conference, I presented a viable approach to overcoming the frequent unavailability of a competent case discussion leader, as well as increasing the efficiency of the available leaders, by means of a networked case study discussion environment (Romiszowski, 1990). This is a "hybrid" system that combines some of the best aspects of computer based learning for presentation and initial discussion of the case materials, with some of the best aspects of computer conferencing, to provide opportunities for reflective discussion of the deeper implications of the case, between various participants and a discussion leader who may be separated by both distance and time.

The computer based learning element is constructed according to the principles of the "Structural Communication" methodology of "conversational self instruction" (Hodgson, 1974; Egan, 1972; Romiszowski, 1986; Pusch & Slee, 1990). The computer mediated case discussion elements can be implemented on any existing electronic network capable of ASCII file transfer, and may be set up to operate as a one on one discussion between a participant and the discussion leader, or as an open discussion between the leader and a group of participants.

An example of the case discussion in action is shown in Exhibit #2. The case is concerned with the analysis of the causes of a human performance problem (card 2.1) and the recommendation of appropriate solutions. The participant studies the basic "facts" of the case in a structured environment (cards 2.2 and 2.3). On completing the case study section of the exercise, the student progresses to the Structural Communication section (card 2.4). After reviewing, if necessary, the key features and description of the methodology (card 2.5), the student progresses to a "response matrix" (card 2.6) and is now invited to construct a solution to the problems encountered. This solution is constructed by selecting all the items considered relevant from an extensive (20 or more item) "menu" of plausible courses of action. This allows the participant a great amount of freedom as there are thousands, possibly millions, of different combinations of response components. The computer analyses the response, using a small expert system that replicates the technical expertise of the discussion leader, identifying significant patterns in the response that may be worthy of comment. In this way, the participant is directed to a series of "feedback comment" screens where certain aspects of the case are further discussed and alternative viewpoints and solutions are compared (cards 2.7 and 2.8).

[ Separate files, pages 514-521 in the original ]

It is at this point that the participant may "interject" in the discussion, with an original comment or a specific question.

This student generated comment is transmitted to a distant discussion leader, and to other participants if so desired. Discussion then continues on the electronic network.

Ongoing research with this system has shown great potential. We have concentrated, to date, on investigating the educational effectiveness of such an approach. Some of our findings are summarised here. Further details have been published elsewhere (Romiszowski, Jost & Chang, 1990; Romiszowski & Corso, 1990).

Future directions

Current and future research

The research summarised above has concentrated on establishing the practicality and educational effectiveness of using integrated "computer based learning/computer mediated communication" systems (CAL/CMC) for "conversational" but clearly "focused" learning activities over distance. Current work is following two routes. The ultimate aim of this research program is to construct cost effective working models of future systems of adult education and retraining, that would be accessible to participants from their workplace or home, on a flexible "open learning" basis, and would be capable of operating under either the "instructional" or the "conversational" approaches.

Future directions in training and development

The trends outlined at the beginning of this paper suggest that as computers and networks become increasingly used both for work and for communication, the pressure will mount to use them increasingly for education and training. We are already quite skilled at developing computer based instructional packages that effectively teach all manner of content. We also have the technology to efficiently distribute such packages to end users by means of electronic networks. At the moment, IMM packages utilising optical disk storage and full motion video are not easily networked over long distances. The CAL/CMC integrated environments described here are within current technological capability, being today's step towards the future of globally installed wide band ISDN networks.

The trends also suggest that as business success increasingly depends on so called "knowledge work", the workforce will increasingly depend upon the abilities of locating existing knowledge, evaluating its relevance to the work in progress, and using relevant knowledge creatively to solve the problems or further the goals of the enterprise. This implies that the importance of learning specific content as part of initial training will diminish, as the "shelf life" of the content diminishes, but the importance of developing creative thinking and problem solving skills will increase. Therefore, a further implication is that teaching techniques that are based on the "conversational" paradigm, such as small group seminars or case studies, should be increasingly important in future adult education and training. Increasingly, these educational conversations may take place between small groups of geographically scattered individuals.

Taking these two trends and all their implications, together, we may expect to see increasing use of computers and networks for the delivery of "conversational" as well as "instructional" courses. The totally electronic vocational training system may only be a year or two away from reality. At this time, we are not so skilled at designing effective "conversational" courses for delivery at a distance. Nor have we given much thought to the design of the student-system interface for efficient delivery of such courses. Current progress spurred on by the "IMM revolution" should consider these aspects of interfaces and networking.

The importance of the research and development program outlined in this paper is to discover NOW how to best implement "conversational" learning exercises on the networked delivery systems that we may well be using for much of our training and development effort in the FUTURE.


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Please cite as: Romiszowski, A. (1992). Conversational systems for adult education and training. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 495-521. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/romiszowski2.html

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