Michael K. Barbour


   In an article which appeared in Atlantic Monthly approximately two years ago, it was stated that

In 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that "the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system andÖ in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks." Twenty-three years later, in 1945, William Levenson, the director of the Cleveland public schoolsí radio station, claimed that "the time may come when a portable radio receiver will be as common in the classroom as is the blackboard." Forty years after that the noted psychologist B.F. Skinner, referring to the first days of his "teaching machines," in the late 1950s and early 1960s, wrote, "I was soon saying that, with the help of teaching machines and programmed instruction, students could learn twice as much in the same time and with the same effort as in a standard classroom." (Oppenheimer, 1997: 45)     While the motion picture, radio or teaching machine has not revolutionised the classroom as was originally anticipated, computers may very well accomplish this task. However, this will not be achieved through computers alone, and computers will not replace teachers altogether. Nonetheless, teachers have begun to employ computers as tools to assist in their teaching and this might well revolutionise the classroom.

    In recent years, teachers have begun to use the Internet as a teaching tool. Language and culture teachers, for example, have been using e-mail pen-friends to help their students in their studies in these areas. Other teachers have been exploiting the World-Wide Web to enhance and enrich the curriculum in all subject areas. There are, of course, three components to the Internet: e-mail, Usenet newsgroups, and the World-Wide Web. While e-mail and the World-Wide Web have found a number of educational applications and there is much literature reporting on these, there has been less use of and less written about Usenet newsgroups. One educational institution that has capitalised fairly extensively on Usenet newsgroups is the Canadian university.

Definition and Comparison

    Before proceeding to consider how and to what extent Canadian universities have used Usenet newsgroups, it would be helpful to consider exactly what Usenet newsgroups are. American political consultant and political Internet guru Phil Noble describes Usenet newsgroups as "[discussion groups] with topics ranging from sexÖ to contemporary European literature." (Noble, 1996: 9) These discussion groups are based in a DOS (lynx) or non-icon based environment. Best estimates state that there are approximately 13,000 different Usenet newsgroups. They can be created by system administrators at any Internet Service Provider. While Usenet newsgroups used by universities are generally within the domain of that particular university, other Usenet newsgroups generally fall into one of the nine following domains:

alt - an unregulated hierarchy of controversial or unusual topics (not carried by all sites)
comp - computers and related subjects
humanities - literature and the humanities
misc - discussions that do not fit anywhere else
news - news about Usenet itself
rec - hobbies, games, and recreation
sci - science
soc - social groups (often ethnically related)
talk - politics and related topics. (Bull, Bull and Sigmon, 1997: 12)
    In addition to these general domains, most countries, states, provinces, and even cities also have domains to cover issues within their areas of interest.

    One of the advantages of Usenet newsgroups over other forms of Internet discussion groups is the ease with which they can be created. Unlike web-based methods, all a system administrator needs to do is enter a simple command into the Internet Service Providerís server and the newsgroup is created. In recognising this advantage, however, one is reminded of the fact that there are other methods of Internet discussion available.

    The two other common methods of Internet discussion are e-mail listservers and world-wide web-based discussion groups. E-mail listservers are a device which forwards a copy of every e-mail sent to the listserver to all the individuals who have subscribed to that list.There are some short-comings of e-mail listservers when compared to Usenet newsgroups:

Newsgroups differ from mailing lists in several important respects, ... A subscription to an Internet mailing list brings postings that are placed directly in a subscriberís electronic mailbox. Active mailing lists can generate dozens or even hundreds of messages per day. Although filters and other methods of organising this volume of mail are available, the recipient still must organise the incoming messages. Itís no wonder that subscribers to mailing lists are frequently overwhelmed by the volume of their mail.

In contrast, newsgroups reside on a central news server, and their messages are viewed with a separate "newsreader." The messages are organised by topic, which allows the viewer to designate an entire conversational strand (known as a "thread") as already read if it is not relevant. (Bull, Bull and Sigmon, 1997: 13)

    In these respects, Usenet newsgroups address many of the problems that can be associated with e-mail listservers.

    World-wide web-based discussion groups constitute the other most common method of Internet discussion. Web-based discussion groups work in almost the same manner as Usenet newsgroups, except that the messages are kept on a single world-wide web site and the messages appear in an icon-driven environment. Again, there are also a number of differences between Usenet newsgroups and web-based discussion groups. "Web-based browsers lack many [Usenet newsgroup] features. For example, most Web-based discussion groups do not provide an easy way to mark, hide, or delete previously read postings or to mark an entire topic thread as "read" with a single keystroke" (Bull, Bull and Sigmon, 1997: 15). The other major advantage that Usenet newsgroups have over web-based discussion groups is that there are still computers and Internet connections that operate in a non-icon driven environment. On these computers Usenet newsgroups can be read quite easily, but the web-based discussion groups are not as user friendly towards this sort of environment.

Canadian Universities

    In May of this year, an e-mail was sent to the webmasters of thirty-five Canadian universities. This e-mail identified the author as a researcher inquiring about the use of Usenet newsgroups as a companion to traditional teaching and learning at the post-secondary level. It also asked a series of simple questions regarding their universityís use of Usenet newsgroups as a companion to courses offered at their university. The response to the initial inquiry was not great, so three weeks later the same e-mail was sent a second time with an explanation as to why it was being sent again and a list of universities which had responded to the original inquiry. The questions were as follows:

1. Has your University established Usenet newsgroups for any of the courses offered in your University calendar? a) Yes
b) No

2. If yes, to what extent does your University provide these newsgroups?

a) a select few courses
b) some courses, but not all
c) all courses in some departments and none in others
d) all courses in some departments and some in others
e) all courses offered in your University's calendar

3. If no to question 1 or anything other than e) to question 2, what are your University's plans in this area in the future (if any)?

    Of the thirty-five universities contacted, twenty-two responded. There were five universities which stated that they did not use Usenet newsgroups at all; nine that stated that there were some Usenet newsgroups for a selected few courses; seven that saw themselves as offering Usenet newsgroups for some, but not all courses, and one university that had established a Usenet newsgroup for each and every course listed in its university calendar.1

    The responses to the third question varied greatly. For the most part, universities felt that if professors requested that a Usenet newsgroup be created for their particular course the university would have one created for them. One of the problems that many of these webmasters voiced with this method was that once the newsgroup was created it was never removed and after a year or two could end up totally unused. However, the most common theme that emerged in these answers was the belief that Usenet newsgroups were "a good tool for the 80s!" but that for the next millennium universities need to move towards world-wide web discussion forums (such as Web-CT, AltaVista Web Forum or Caucus web-conferencing software). Another "new" strategy that was mentioned was the use of shared folders on a departmental or faculty server.

    There was one university, however, which used a full integration of its curriculum and Usenet newsgroups. Approximately five years ago, Carleton University used the above mentioned system of instructor request for the creation of course-related Usenet newsgroups (such as carleton.courses.47100d). Approximately three years ago, it allowed for a system which created two newsgroups for each course, one for course materials and one for course discussion (such as carleton.courses.47230b-d and carleton.courses.47230b-m). In the summer of 1997, Carleton decided it would be a lot less work to simply create course newsgroups for every single course regardless of whether or not the course instructor wanted a newsgroup. In other words it was a time saving measure rather than a thoughtful strategy.2 The main reason that they created a course newsgroups for every course was that it became difficult and time consuming to create course newsgroups on request. In actual terms, this means that there are 2972 carleton.course.#####X Usenet newsgroups.

    According to the Carleton University webmaster, Rick Mallett, the use of Usenet newsgroups was more a convenient choice than a decision based upon educational pedagogy:

We felt that an electronic forum for course discussion was useful and straightforward to implement. We didn't care exactly how the newsgroups would be used but assumed that faculty would use the newsgroup to distribute assignments and course notes and that students would use the newsgroup to ask each other (and TA's) questions. In many cases the faculty were oblivious to the existence of the newsgroup (despite our efforts to inform them) and the newsgroup was used exclusively by the students for course related discussion. In other cases the course instructor actively participated in the discussion and attempted to answer as many questions as possible. We've been meaning to look at web forums but haven't had time. Usenet newsgroups are well supported and easy to maintain and there are numerous available newsreaders etc. etc. etc.3     The Carleton University example is the most comprehensive use of this technology of any Canadian university.

Usenet Newsgroups and Learning

    In general, though, the mere creation of Usenet newsgroups does not necessarily mean they are being used for sound educational purposes or that they are being used at all. One of the comments made by a number of the webmasters was that for a Usenet newsgroup to be effective it has to be monitored by the instructor. However, my experience in this area would indicate that it has to be a much greater commitment to the technology than is implicit in this simple task. For online discussion groups to be of use to students, instructors must know beforehand exactly how they intend to use this technology to either supplement or enrich studentsí learning.

    There are a number of ways in which effective use of the technology can be accomplished. One of the easiest is to have the professor post questions to generate student discussion around particular themes, remembering that the Usenet newsgroups are organised in threads which consist of an initial post and then all the responses to that original post. In this scenario, the professor would grade studentsí responses to the questions and the studentsí interaction around one anotherís responses. Another simple way to use the Usenet newsgroups is as a means to post administrative messages regarding the course. Another administrative use is for students to post questions regarding components of the course to the instructor, such as clarification of lecture points or questions about course assignments.

    According to Gina Bull, one of the authors of the "Internet Discussion Groups" article, there are two basic ways to use Usenet newsgroups in education:

One is to view the articles as primary sources in a discussion of a topic, much like interviews or letters. In this model, the students would read the newsgroup much like a daily paper, perhaps without interacting at all. The other way is as a support mechanism for the class itself -- a local newsgroup is created for the class (assuming the school has a local Usenet server) -- and is available at all hours for extra class discussions, clarification of assignments, "office hours", etc..4     These methods of using the Usenet newsgroups are not particularly creative, nor do they challenge students much beyond basic knowledge and lower-order reasoning. However, there are other methods which can be used, methods which serve to provide more challenge for students. For example, as a student I witnessed one professor in a course in Canadian constitutional politics conduct an online First Ministers meeting. For this activity, the professor created groups during class for each of the ten provinces, two territories, federal government and aboriginal groups. These groups formulated their positions offline, then posted them to the courseís Usenet newsgroup. Once all the positions were available on the newsgroups, individual students and groups were encouraged to generate discussion and debate around their areas of common ground and their areas of vast difference. As the participation increased, there was posturing by groups, deal-making, individuals standing firm, everything that would have occurred had this activity been conducted during class-time. However, by moving the activity to a Usenet newsgroup the professor was able to extend the amount of time devoted to the activity and increase the number of students participating in the activity. Conducted offline, this activity would have taken three to six classes. By conducting it online, the professor was able to use one class to explain the activity and get the ball rolling, and then allow the students weeks to participate in this activity.

    This approach is similar to one of the four components of the Acadia Advantage. In the example used by the Acadia Advantage, a piece of software called MS-Netmeeting is used by the Institute for Teaching and Technology to assist groups of students in constructing a model of learning. This project would see students orient themselves during class-time towards how they will approach the project and then use their laptops and the MS-Netmeeting software to complete their construction of a model of learning (Hemming and MacKinnon, 1998: 7). Another component of the Acadia Advantage is the use of coded discussion groups to promote substantive discussion. This component worked much the same way as the above mentioned scenario where the professor posed questions for the students to respond to. The coding of the responses was based on a system created by Acadia and every two weeks the responses were compiled by topic and e-mailed to each of the students.

    While these may not be uses of Usenet newsgroup, they do illustrate projects that could also be brought into a Usenet newsgroup environment. In addition to the advantages of Internet discussion groups and Usenet newsgroup for enhancing learning, there are some inherent values that come from using these types of technologies. The first value, which was evident in the description of the online First Ministers meeting, is the fact that Usenet newsgroups can allow for a dynamic, on-going discussion. In a classroom situation, an instructor can allow a discussion to be conducted in a particular lesson. However, if that instructor wanted that discussion to continue into the next lesson the instructor would have to bring it up again, or the discussion would die. However, as has been illustrated earlier, there is no time limit for an online discussion. Also, an online discussion which continues over a longer period of time allows students think time before participating in the discussion (something that is not always practical during an in-class discussion).

    Another value of Usenet newsgroups is that they can create a sense of community. In many cases, especially at a post-secondary level, students do not have time to associate with one another outside of class-time and have even less opportunity during class-time. Even with the opportunity for interaction during class-time, students tend to gravitate towards others who shared common characteristics as themselves. Online discussion forums can give students who would not otherwise interact with one another a greater chance to get to know their colleagues, creating in effect a cyberfamily.

    Another value that Usenet newsgroups help to foster is the teacherís role as a facilitator. In most of the activities outlined above, once the instructor has begun the activity he/she can move aside and allow the students to interact with one another. It is through this interaction that students learn. In this model, the instructor is no longer a teacher but acts only as a facilitator to make sure that students are heading in the right direction and remain on-task or on-topic. In the activities that have been outlined, the pedagogy matches the technology that is being used. Not only is the instructor able to act as a facilitator, but he/she is able to provide a more substantial individual feedback, both in quality and quantity. During an in-class situation, it is not feasible for an instructor to wait for each and every student to make interjections into the discussion and to provide each student with individual feedback.

    To end this consideration of Usenet newsgroups at this point would be premature. Up to this point we have examined how Usenet newsgroups can be used, how they are being used, and to what extent they are being used. However, there are some problems with using Usenet newsgroups that can also be detrimental to studentsí learning. To complete any consideration of the educational value of Usenet newsgroups, this point must be taken into account.

Pitfalls of Usenet Newsgroups

    The reasons for using online discussions and specifically Usenet newsgroups are compelling. Yet there are a number of problems associated with using Usenet newsgroups for educational purposes. The first that can arise and prehaps the easiest to remedy is the issue of off-topic posts. By this I mean online entries from students that are irrelevant to the discussion, the topic or the course in general. While there can be a time and place for these sorts of relaxed discussions, there is always the chance that
an instructorís well-thought out, online discussion could turn into a petty flamewar5 between students. This can easily occur and it is not easy to remove or delete messages that have been posted to the Usenet newsgroup.6 This problem can be monitored, with serious problem being minimised if the instructor regulates the online discussion and is able to catch such deviations before they turn into something that the instructor is unable to stop.

    Another problem that can arise with Usenet newsgroups is the studentsí individual access to this technology. While it is assumed that, since these newsgroups are available online, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all students have equal access, this is not the case. To be able to access Usenet newsgroups, a student would need a computer with some means of connecting to the Internet (either via modem or through an Ethernet connection). This basic requirement means that students who have access to their own computers at home have a greater opportunity to have access to these newsgroups. Students who do not own a home computer have to gain access to these newsgroups using computers provided by the school. However, computer labs are not always open, students are not always on campus to use the labs, and sometimes there are just not enough computers in the lab for every student who wants to use one. The issue of access, or rather equal access, is one that will exist in most situations where technology is involved and one that is not easily addressed.

    There is also the problem of inequality in terms of studentsí ability to use the technology. This is one of the few problems that can be overcome relatively easily and in an effective teaching environment should not be a hurdle. When instructors assign a task, it is necessary first to ensure that the students have the skills to complete the task, a principle which is as relevant to the use of technology as it is to other aspects of learning.

    Another problem typically associated with online discussion groups is the loss of direct discussion with other live persons. This problem was exacerbated with the invention of television. With the advent of computers and especially the Internet we, as a society, are spending even less time with each other. We are quickly becoming a faceless society. This phenomenon has a number of problems associated with it. For example, some students are oral learners and remember things that they hear more than anything else. Other students may enjoy interacting with others, while they feel that interacting through a computer screen is cold and unemotional. Finally, the phenomenon of the faceless society is troubling in that children do not have as much opportunity to develop social skills needed to interact with others.


    Where does this leave the use of Usenet newsgroups as an educational tool? As has been shown, online discussions (and specifically Usenet newsgroups) can play a beneficial role in studentsí learning. We have also seen that there are a number of activities that can be enhanced through the use of online discussions. However, we have also noted that there can be problems associated with the use of online discussion, including problems for which there are no easy or adequate solutions. Yet, to dismiss the use of this technology on this basis would be premature.

    Several conclusion might be drawn from this paper. The first is that before deciding to use an online discussion as a part of a curriculum, the instructor must make sure that this technology meets the goals and objectives of that curriculum. In other words, there must be sound pedagogical reasons for its use. The second conclusion is that instructors need to choose the appropriate venue for this online discussion. While this paper has dealt primarily with Usenet newsgroups, there has also be consideration given web-based discussion forums, to e-mail listservers, and to shared folders on a central server. All of these alternatives have particular advantages and disadvantages that instructors should consider when choosing what it is they want to achieve with the online discussion.

    Thirdly the instructor should have a well thought-out, well planned activity before beginning an online discussion. As with most teaching activities, both online and offline, a lack of planning will usually result in a lack of learning. Finally, for an online discussion to work well and for students to learn effectively from the exercise, an instructor needs to closely monitor the online activity. Specifically, the instructor needs to make sure that the discussion in moving in a constructive way, that students are not engaging in off-topic posts, and that students are participating in a constructive manner. If an instructor can anticipate problems before they occur, there is a good chance of finding a way to prevent them (or at least stop them before they become too unmanageable).

    No one is quite sure what teaching will be like in the next millennium. Will we become an even more faceless society? Will computers become just another teaching aid, no more useful than the overhead projector and VCR? No one really knows. However, while we are waiting to find out, we can try to incorporate new, different and exciting approaches into our teaching. Maybe Usenet newsgroups, or at least online discussions, can be one of those approaches.


Bull, Glen, Gina Bull & Tim Sigmon. 1997. "Internet Discussion Groups." Learning & Leading With Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Hemming, Heather & Greg MacKinnon. (1998). "The Acadia Advantage: Using Computer Technology in Teacher Education." A presentation to the 1998 Society for Information Technology inTeacher Education in Washington, DC.

Oppenheimer, Todd. (1997). "The Computer Delusion." The Atlantic Monthly. July, 1997.

Noble, Phil. Guide to the Internet and Politics: An Introduction to Using the Internet in Political

Campaigns. Washington, DC: Campaigns and Elections, 1996.


1. Has your University established Usenet newsgroups for any of the courses offered in your University calendar?

2. If yes, to what extent does your University provide these newsgroups? 3. If no to question 1 or anything other than e) to question 2, what are your University's plans in this area in the future (if any)?

Those who did not respond:

  1. Full results are provided in Appendix A.
  2. The author began attending Carleton University approximately five years ago and was a student during these advances.
  3. Taken from an e-mail received by the author on 05 Aug 1998.
  4. Taken from an e-mail received by the author on 27 Jul 1998.
  5. An off-topic discussion which usually involved students verbally attacking, or "flaming", other students.
  6. Note that messages can be removed (or cancelled) from Usenet newsgroups, although most Internet users do not know how this is done. In addition, there are individuals who monitor Usenet for cancelled posts. Once they find users who have cancelled posts, they sometimes harass that individual both through e-mail and publicly in the particular newsgroup.