Use of computer conferencing to teach a course on people and computers

A course with the name "Humans, society and computers" was given using a non-simultaneous computer conferencing system (BBS system). The course had a rather novel approach to teaching this subject. This paper reports on the experience from giving this course.

By Jacob Palme and Sirkku Männikö
Department of Computer and Systems Sciences, Stockholm University and KTH, Sweden and

This paper was presented at the ACM Conference on Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education, Uppsala, June 1997.


This is a report on a course with the name "Humans, society and computers". The goal of this course is to teach the students better understanding of social, psychological and ethical issues of computer usage in society. A more complete report is available in Swedish [6].

The course is run part time during a 10 week period, and the students are given credit for three weeks study after passing the course.

Educational tools

The educational tools used in this course are a non-simultaneous computer conferencing (bulletin board system) plus reading of written material. The only face-to-face activity in the course is an introductory meeting at the start of the course combined with a short introduction on how to use the software. The software used for the course has been the First Class computer conferencing system. Students can take part in the course either through home computers or through computers in the computer rooms at the university. The only other educational tools is reading of books and papers.

Course activities

The students have to perform the following activities:

  • Reading, reporting and discussing one common book for all students, which gives an introduction to the area.
  • Reading five papers or chapters within the scope of the course. Papers and chapters are selected from a large collection of papers and chapters, so that each student can read a different set of papers. Each of these papers may not be read by more than one or two students.
  • The student who has read a particular paper makes a report on the paper in the computer conferencing system, and answers questions from other students on the paper. If two students have read the same paper, one of them makes a report of the paper and the other makes a critical analysis of the paper.
  • Read all the discussions during the course and participate with at least 12 well-thought-through own contributions to the discussions. These contributions must be made spread out during the course, not concentrated in only one stage of the course..
  • Participate in an on-line final stage to summary what has been learnt during the course.

There is no normal exam at the end of the course. Students which fulfill the tasks specified above with acceptable contributions are passed. This means that the main tasks for the students will not be to learn information by heart, but to learn to discuss and evaluate issues in the area of humans, computers and society. A subsidiary goal for the course was for the students to gain experience in the use of different-time group discussions, and to gain practical experience in an alternative teaching method, student- and process-oriented and based on active and interactive student participation. The teaching method also gave the students the possibility to influence the content and outcome of the course. At the beginning, the course is just an empty skeleton, which the students fill with life and information by their own activities during the course.

The main subject area of humans, computers and society was split into five main categories during the course:

  • Distance education aided by computers
  • Computers in the working environment
  • Ethics and security issues of computer usage
  • Cooperation between humans influenced by and aided by computer tools
  • Roles of the sexes in the usage of computers

In addition to these five main computer conferences, there was also conferences for discussion about the course in general, about technical issues of the software used, and for general social communication between the students.

Student experience

The number of students was 64. Of these, 72 % were men and 28 % women. Non-Nordic immigrants constituted 27 % of the course participants, the rest were Swedes or came from the neighboring countries (the language in Denmark and Norway is so close to Swedes that people from these countries have no problem to understand Swedish, and Finnish students in Sweden usually have a good knowledge of Swedish. People move much and freely between these countries, and are generally seen as part of the same cultural and ethnic group, not as real immigrants).

After the course, the students said that the most important tasks of teachers was to follow the results of the students, give feed-back, clearly describe the course requirements, manage the discussions and give aid when needed. The students were not entirely satisfied with the performance of the teachers in these areas. One cause of this was that the teacher responsible for the course got ill at the beginning of the course and had to be rapidly replaced by another teacher who could not devote as much time on this course as planned. It is important that a teacher in this kind of course read what the students write every day and provide immediate feedback when needed. There is a risk that a teacher with a high work load will more easily forget a course like this than a normal lecture which must be given in a predetermined hour.

Some students wanted normal lectures during the course, and a longer course on how to use First Class at the beginning, so that usage of this software tool could start rapidly. Other researchers have found similar results [7, 1], and that technical support during the course is important.

On the course material, some students wanted more recent readings, more readings based on Swedish experience and a more technical orientation of the material provided.

Students had difficulties in understanding what was exactly required of them. At the beginning of the course, the students were told that they had to write 12 high-quality contributions, this should perhaps from the beginning have been stated as 12 well-thought-through contributions, since high-quality is not very well defined.

Students found the software acceptable, but a problem was that many students did not understand to indicate, when they reply to a previous message, which message they were replying to, so that a thread is created in the data base.

Students liked the independence of time and place, but felt that too much was written and that they did not have time to read all. Probably, 64 students is too much in a course of this kind, next year, we reduced the number of students to 50, but the ideal group size in a course of this kind is probably 30-40. Possibly, larger number of students could be accepted if each student does not have to participate in all the task groups. The students also said that they appreciated the training in writing which was an indirect value with the course.

Students noted that a course of this kind requires planning and activity for the students. They cannot just passively listen and learn, as in normal lectures. Most students said that they learnt more by discussions with other students than through the written material.

The general view of the students on this very different education method was very positive. The freedom and the personal responsibility was liked, as well as the use of modern software technology as a teaching method. The students wanted more courses of this kind.

Teacher experience

In normal courses, students who fail in the first exam have the chance to study more carefully and succeed in a second or third exam. This possibility cannot be provided in a course of this kind since there are no exams. Because of this, it is important that the teacher can monitor the students, so that weak students can be warned well in advance of the end of the course, when they still have a change to gain acceptance by working harder on the course. This work for the teacher was found to be quite cumbersome. Software support for making this work easier for the teacher would be very useful [3].

In the end, the teacher accepted that students who would otherwise not have passed the course could submit certain additional material after the end of the course. These completions were allowed when the document reports written by the students were not acceptable, but students who had not participated actively in the discussions were not allowed to pass through activities after the end of the course.

Students at Stockholm University can be given three marks: "Not passed", "passed", and "passed with distinction". In this course, 28 % were not passed, 50 % were passed and 22 % were passed with distinction. This is not much higher and lower than normal at outer courses at the university. Female students got slightly more often good marks, and non-Nordic immigrants also got slightly more often good marks. On other courses at the university, non-Nordic immigrants more often do no pass courses. The reason for the success of non-Nordic immigrants might be that the non-simultaneous medium allowed them to allocate more time to reading and writing, while in normal lectures, students who do not know the language may have difficulty understanding what the teacher says. Other researchers [2] have found similar results for immigrants in courses given in New Jersey. Our result did not very strongly support this hypothesis, but neither did the results show that immigrants had special problems with this kind of teaching.

Need of special software functions to support this kind of courses

Because of the need to monitor the students, the lack of face-to-face communication, and because students were passed based on their activities during the course, it is important for the teacher to carefully monitor the progress of the students. This is quite cumbersome for the teacher. The work of the teacher would be much aided if the software used provided the teacher with simple tools to mark each activity (in this case: contribution in the conferencing system), and to summarize these marks student by student. Such software would also be an aid to students, letting them see their position and learn if they have work to do.

It would also be useful if the software provided structuring tools to organize the course so that the students more clearly could see what was requested of them, which tasks they had to perform, etc. Other researchers have found similar results [2, 3].


A link to an overview of papers in this area.


Armitage, S. Developing Good Practice in CMC Teaching & Learning Environments. In CMC in HE Newsletter Issue 4 Nov 1995:1-4.


Hiltz, R. 1995 The virtual classroom: Learning Without Limits via Computer Networks", by Starr Roxanne Hiltz. Ablex Publishing 1995 ISBN: 0-89391-928-4.


Jansson, K. Special functions in computer conferencing systems to support distance education, in Swedish on URL, in English on URL: /~jpalme /reports/kent-special-funcs.html.


Lintunen, T. Special functions in CMC systems to support distance education" (in Swedish, "Speciella funktioner i CMC-system för att stödja distansundervisning"), on URL: Not available in English.


Männikkö, S. Multics in the computer world (In Swedish, "Multisar i datorvärlden"). Master's thesis in social anthropology, by Sirkku Männikkö.


Männikö, S. An experiment with interactive education using a non-simultaneous computer conferencing system (in Swedish, "Ett försök med interaktiv undervisning med hjälp av ett icke-samtidigt datorkonferenssystem"), April 1996. URL


Naidu, S., Barett, J., Olsen, P. Improving instructional effectiveness with computer-mediated communication. Association for Learning Technology Journal 3 (2): 63-75, 1995.


Palme, J. Use of computer conferencing to support distance education" (in Swedish, "Användning av datorstödda konferenssystem för distansundervisning"), 1994, on URL: