In this study students participated in synchronous discussions without floor control. In a first session, students were introduced to Digalo and conducted two “warm-up” discussions during which they learned about technicalities and became accustomed with the ontology we chose. In the first warm-up activity students were arranged in three groups of 3–4 and were asked to resolve a moral dilemma. The presentation of the ontology was accompanied by a suggestion to follow a series of ground rules of conversation developed to instill dialogic and dialectical talk (“You should present a view point”, “you should provide reasons to support your viewpoint”, “You should challenge any idea”, “you should refer to the arguments of your peers with respect”, “you should answer to challenges or questions”, etc.). On the followingweek, the studentswere arranged again in three groups. This time theywere asked to discuss an educational dilemma.
At the end of the first session, the students were given two articles to be read before the next lesson. Both articles related to the issue of guidance in discussions. The article by Howe showed the importance of giving instructions in advance such as reaching consensus in scientific discussions and that without such instructions students may go astray. The article by Asterhan and Schwarz showed that to be productive, unguided argumentation should realize a balance between harmonious social relations and intransigence towards reasoning criteria and that this balance is extremely difficult to realize. Both articles suggest that the total absence of guidance during discussions is rarely productive but that moderation, a kind of guidance which is caring but not intrusive, may be one way to help students in their discussions. The discussion groups were chosen in advance. One moderator was designated for each group, and was asked to insure that discussants follow the ground rules we presented during the discussion. Themoderators were chosen to reflect the sectors to which the students belonged: one Arabman, one Jewish woman and one Jewish man.
One week after, the lesson on which we focus in this paper took place in the computers room. All students sat by their own computer at distance from each other and were explicitly asked not to communicate verbally.1 The issue to be discussed was “Is it indispensable for research on classroom learning to account for the teacher’s activity?” The discussants were asked to capitalize on the resources they already read and to follow the ground rules presented the week before. Two experimenters helped in technicalities. The discussions lasted around 30 min.
Two weeks after the discussions, we set a meeting with each of the discussants. This meeting consisted of two parts. The first part of the meeting was a preliminary semi-structured interview in which the third author asked the students on the role of discussions in learning and on the role of the teacher in discussions: “After the Digalo discussion, what do you think of it and what did you learn about discussion with Digalo tool?”, “What did you learn about the role of discussions in learning and about the role of the teacher\moderator in the discussions?”, were the main questions asked during the interview. In the second part of the meeting, each student underwent a cued retrospective reporting in which he was presented the progressive reconstitution of his argumentative map by using the replay option of the Digalo software: whenever the interviewer clicked, the map grew by one argumentative move. This technique has been particularly fruitful to reconstitute what participants think during e-discussions. 2 Interviewed discussants were asked to explain their moves, thereby give their interpretation of each argumentative move, such as peers’ or moderator’s interventions, own reactions to these interventions, and to figure out the goals and expectations, and their or others’ concrete decisions. Each of the meetings lasted around two hours. They were all recorded and fully transcribed. We will use interchangeably the term cued retrospective reporting and auto-confrontation in the paper to stress that the methodological aspect of the meeting has also educational implications.