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Connecting through conversations
by Nicola Avery

These thoughts have fallen out of a 72 minute Oovoo video conversation that I had with a friend who has now left the university, so we now have our lunchtime chats on Oovoo instead of sitting on a bench by the university lake. The view isn't quite as peaceful. I'm definitely going to have to find a photo or video background with ducks and other birds swimming in the distance! We are still trying to figure out the conversation. I am so very happy to have an opportunity to try and present this in some form and would welcome your thoughts too.

I am interested in how we make the most of conversations we have online. It seems obvious now that we will be able to talk with a range of people and share ideas in a way that was not possible prior to the web. Some of us may have been using the web to create and take part in discussions on forum pages, add comments to blog and wiki pages. With the use of multimedia, we are now also starting to use voice and video on the web too with tools such as Voicethread, Chinswing, Snapvine, Utterli, Oovoo, GoogleTalk, Skype. Over the last couple of years, lots of marketers have also talked about the importance of companies having conversations with their customers and how the real business can take place during conversations that customers have with others. Conversations are becoming of interest in both commercial and academic spaces with boundaries disappearing and people redefining how they would like to receive and participate in communicative activities.

We have many different ways to communicate with each other - how easy do we find it to use these tools to have meaningful conversations that can excite, inspire, (maybe occasionally slightly enrage) and encourage us ? How many people have said: "I had a proper conversation today. Maybe it didn't tick the boxes that I am required to tick for an assessed learning activity, but as a result of that conversation, I feel better. I listened and learnt something that I didn't know before, experienced the joy of sharing and connected with someone in an amazing way."

What are you doing to us?

We have been running a wiki project at the university for about eighty politics students. They had not used a wiki before but they had all visited wikipedia and one person had temporarily edited an article. They had around an hour's familiarisation in a face to face session then were left to get on with it. They were familiar with an online discussion forum through using the university virtual learning environment. During the session we discussed how it would feel to delete or edit others' comments and it was suggested that they could either use the option "Add Comments" at the bottom of each wiki page or use their own communication tools (Facebook / MSN seem to be their preferred options) to discuss wiki edits etc. As they first started using the wiki, over fifty comments immediately appeared on the wiki front page:

..."I have no idea what is going on"... "is this all we have to do"..."I'm confused"..."it's a bit different to Facebook isn't it"..."can we not just do an essay instead?"... "this thread is now about the Large Hadron Collider"... ..."This is fantastic"..."What about a page devoted to the contributions of all the brave souls taking part in this experiment"..."I think this can be good for us if we can get used to editing it on a frequent basis"...

As they started to create and edit topic-specific pages, they used the option "Add Comments" and wrote ideas within the pages about how they would organise the writing. Someone also added a chat plugin as an attempt to try and keep the 'group organisation' out of the wiki text. In the end they elected wiki champions and met as groups in face to face meetings from time to time because they felt that the discussion on the pages was not actually proving useful in terms of organisation. They appeared to be comfortable with adding comments - with very open remarks - but there was no evidence that they either liked or wanted to continue talking about the ideas mentioned by previous contributors as a conversation thread.

Education is not an 'it'

The idea of preferring an essay was also interesting. Based on similar comments from other students, it appears that the notion of seeing themselves as possible experts - rather than the lecturer, or the more enthusiastic and seemingly knowledgeable students - is absent. There is still the expectation of wanting to receive a 'package' of learning as a part of their university experience where they listen to a few, adding their own views. This would be mostly through formally assessed means as a representation of their understanding, and they would then take this 'package' with them into the workplace. I personally don't believe that this will prepare them for the technological and social realities of 21st century life, especially politics and diplomacy. We can spend time thinking about what we want to say, how we want to express ourselves and how it may be perceived because we can't always see the people on the other end. This may result in a less natural experience where we can simply just 'be with' each other. Its ok to suddenly disappear mid conversation, or press the wrong button - probably most people have done this at some point. We can have conversations in real life where we can be confused, dealing with ambiguity and we can use humour to make it more comfortable. Using technology can produce different confusion or ambiguity but we can deal with it in a similar way - maybe share a joke or comment or use emoticons. These can help build trust and encourage more conversation.

Everyone has their own communication and technological preferences, some will prefer mobile phone tools and technologies, others will prefer anonymity with an avatar or online alter-ego. We can provide a range of options to everyone to help them navigate through online communication spaces and collaborate through conversations with others, opening up possibilities. Alongside the guidance on using the tools, maybe there is more we can do to get conversations going - starting conversations from where people are at and finding ways of helping people talk.

Getting going

I experienced this recently. I wanted to find a conversation partner to practice German (some of which I thought I had remembered), so used Mixxer where you can find someone to talk with on Skype. Our initial conversation was awful - I couldn't think of a single thing to say and quickly realised that I had forgotten almost everything. When we want to speak a language in order to start an interesting conversation, we need at least present, past and future tenses in order to talk, even in the early chats, so that both conversation partners will feel comfortable. It's now getting easier. I keep various tools open including Skype and a German / English dictionary or translation tool, so we can now start to chat about 'real things' rather than just finding our way to and from the airport. It's the informal conversation that really brings the language to life through the context of the discussion as we talk about what we have been up to during the week, music headphones and teenager behaviour on trains, or doing the washing-up!

We can help to find ways for people to enter an online space, get comfortable enough to search and find another person to talk with - through use of informal language and tone. My friend mentioned the School of Everything, where teachers and learners can meet and start conversations about anything at all. Maybe we can do more to put out welcome mats where people can fling off their online shoes, settle down on an online beanbag and start chatting. What do you think?

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