ASIS Midyear '98 Proceedings

Collaboration Across Boundaries:
Theories, Strategies, and Technology

Burglar's Tools:
The Use of Collaborative Technology
in Professional Socialization

Judith Weedman
San Jose State University, San Jose, California


Professional socialization is a complex and variable form of learning, highly collaborative in nature. It exemplifies the kind of knowledge which John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have said must be "stolen," appropriated by the student rather than stimulated by the teacher. This paper reviews the theory of professional socialization and pulls together empirical research done in a variety of disciplines to form a comprehensive picture of the process. It then examines the use of an electronic conference by students in a professional school to assess the medium's adaptability to complex social learning, and to explore the ways in which students shape and extend their own socialization.


Collaborative technologies generate acclaim when they are used as supplements to face-to-face teaching, and anxiety when they are used to replace it. The Chronicle of Higher Education often captures this faculty anxiety. A 1996 Point of View column asserts that "virtual universities could produce only virtual learning;" the author fears concentration on competence and performance, and the loss of the interactions that create "learning to see events in context and perspective, the ability to formulate and consider options for further action, and comfort in dealing with new challenges" (Ashworth, p.A88). DeLoughry (1995) cites a report from Educom that supports the use of technologies for conveying codified knowledge but not for teaching meaning and value or culture and philosophy. Toya (1996), a supporter of distance education, compares the virtual Western Governors' University to Abraham Lincoln reading law books at home in front of the fireplace, but then can't suppress an opinion that "a classroom would have been a much better setting for him." One faculty member proposes "Vidiot U" as the name for Maine's new distance learning initiative (Cameron, 1996).

Yet despite the concern, we lack research that would confirm or allay it. Most studies of distance education emphasize comparative grades in face-to-face and learning environments and student perceptions. None of the studies addresses in any deep fashion the relationship between distributed environments and intellectual community.

This paper, part of a larger study (Weedman, 1991), explores professional socialization as a particular instance of intellectual community. It examines content of a student-initiated and -maintained electronic conference to determine the extent to which it supports the tasks of professional socialization. The work draws on John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid's concept of stolen knowledge (1993) and their belief that the most important knowledge is that which cannot be taught; students must find a way to steal it from their educational environment. The knowledge which can only be stolen is what Bourdieu calls habitus -- conditioning, a feel for the game, a disposition, the durable systems of schemata of perception, apprehension, and action that result from the institution of the social in the individual (Bourdieu, 1992). Professional socialization is the transmission of the values, norms, habitual ways of seeing which belong to particular occupations and shape the ways in which they conduct their work and establish themselves in the larger social world. It includes the formation of an individual professional identity, the student's coming to view herself as a member of a profession with the knowledge and responsibilities which attend membership. It is thus an inherently social process, precisely the kind of process which educators fear distance technologies cannot support.

The research reported here certainly will not answer the questions about the impact of distance-independent technologies on higher education, but perhaps it will contribute to framing them. After a review of research on distance education, it will draw together sociological theory concerning professional socialization and the empirical research on socialization, which is scattered through the literatures of a variety of professions. It will then examine the evidence of professional socialization occurring in a group of students using a distance- and time-independent collaborative technology, to determine whether students can use an electronic conference as, in effect, a burglar's tool -- a means for appropriating the knowledge they desire.


Distance Education

Eli Noam (1996) places the issues of teaching geographically distributed students in intellectual and historical context. The pattern of higher education has, for the last 2500 years, been that recorded information is stored centrally, with scholars coming "to the information storage institution and produc[ing] collaboratively still more information there, and students [then coming] to the scholars" (p. 7). However, the generation, storage, and transmission of knowledge has become progressively less tied to physical location. As knowledge has grown, specialization has grown, with the result that fewer scholars at any one university share the same specialty. Storage of information is also decentralizing, as libraries convert from owning tangible information products to providing access through electronic media. Increasingly, instead of people coming to the information, the information can come to the people. The current environment is reversing the historical direction of information flow.

It is in this reversal that the danger of loss of community inheres.

Besser (1996) asserts that virtual environments provide a learning experience as diverse as that of a traditional education, but elsewhere (Besser and Bonn, 1996) states that distance makes it difficult to build collaborative relationships among students and that students are likely to suffer when taught primarily through distance independent media and will experience difficulty building and participating in an intellectual community.

Concerns about the inability of telecommunications media to support social processes go back to Daft and Lengle (1986), who in their work on organizational communication asserted that these "information lean" media are appropriate for straightforward communication, but that richer media which provide for facial expression and spontaneity are needed for complex communication. Early research on e-mail and other forms of CMC found constricting or distorting effects (Kiesler and Sproull, 1986; Siegel et al., 1986), though as both users and researchers developed sophistication in the use of these media, the effects were shown to be artefacts of the experimental process and of user unfamiliarity with the tool, rather than inherent in the medium (Walther, 1994; Walther, Anderson, and Park, 1994; Weedman, 1991).

The fear that distance education will result in a focus on facts and skills at the expense of broader (and less measurable) learning is exacerbated by the fact that much of the impetus for change comes from economic factors. College and university systems are suddenly taking distance education more seriously than most of them have before in response to three sources of pressure: decreasing enrollments (leading them to seek new markets), increasing enrollments (when physical facility and faculty size can't be expanded commensurately), and competition from the private sector. Rapid job change is leading many corporations to seek ways to retrain their own employees rather than send them into formal educational programs, while corporations in the communications industry are exploring opportunities to provide education based on infrastructures -- textbooks, videos, audiocassettes -- they have already in place. The Education Network of Maine and the Western Governors University are responses to economic pressure regarding "accountability ... value vs. cost ... faculty workloads" (Toya 1996) and competition from industry for consumers' educational investments (Noam 1996).

The criticisms of distance learning as deficient in intellectual community are often quite vague; the director of Maine's distance education, for instance, is quoted as saying that he would advise his own children that "the campus experience is wonderful... It offers more -- especially culturally and socially" (quoted by Segal, 1996). Little additional insight into the value of the campus experience is provided by the research on distance learning. This body of work has focused on acquisition of course content and learner satisfaction.

Studies which have compared learning outcomes of distance students to those in face-to-face classrooms have found comparable scores on exams and papers (Barron 1987; Holmberg & Bakshi, 1992 ). Hiltz (1993) found no consistent significant difference between virtual and traditional classrooms in student mastery of material as measured by grades. Newman, Johnson, Webb, and Cochrane (1997) found similar amounts of critical thinking in both face-to-face seminars and computer-mediated discussions.

The majority of studies have gathered student perceptions of the distance education experience. Kember (1992), for instance, found that students desired more face-to-face interaction; Northcott and Holt (1985) found that educational effectiveness and quality of presentation were judged to be reasonably good. Stanford (1997) reports student perceptions that interactive video created an environment that was "a close second" in individual affective reactions, perceived learning, sense of community, and differences between local (instructor present) and distance (instructor remote) sites. Holland (1996) reports that students considered the experience of collaborating on group projects across distances "about the same" as any group project. Students studied by Jones believed they had learned "at least as much" as in a face-to-face class. Collis (1993) studied a group of senior engineers and managers and found that they had no interest in a virtual community; they preferred the occasional face-to-face contacts at conferences. She also found that even with advanced learners such as these, it was necessary to follow principles of instructional design in order to create materials which could be used successfully for learning.

Several criticisms of the existing research on distance-independent education have been voiced; Holmberg (1987) criticized reports for emphasizing course development, Collis (1993) for emphasizing learner outcomes rather than process variables such as degree of distance-independence and flexibility of communication technologies, and Zuga (1994) sounds a warning note that the research does not reveal any change in practice or in design of instructional materials in response to changes in technology.

Professional Socialization

Five sets of concerns have dominated the literature on socialization to the professions. The first grows out of the traditional sociological definition of professions and their unique characteristics. The second focuses on the professional life which students will be entering -- the nature of the work itself, the professions as social entities, the environments in which the work is carried out, and the community of practitioners. The third major area of focus within the literature is the nature of education for the professions -- the transmission of the knowledge base. Some writers have focused on the impact of specific educational practices, dimensions of the professional school experience which affect the socialization process. Finally, the fifth area of concern in the literature has been professional identity formation, the ways in which students come to define themselves as members of the profession. This section of the literature review is organized around these five areas of attention.

The work of Parsons (1939), Greenwood (1962), and Good (1969) represents sociological theory about professions as a unique class of occupations. Five characteristics have been recognized as hallmarks of a profession -- norms of service, a specialized body of knowledge, autonomy in setting educational requirements and standards for service, practitioner autonomy in exercising professional judgment, and the existence of a code of ethics.

The second area addressed in the literature is the professional life for which students are preparing -- the work environment, the reference group, and the role of the profession in society (Gallegos, 1972). Professions are presented as social constructs, with their own languages, belief systems, and symbolic lives. Schon (1983) addresses work practice and the ways that professionals build repertoires of action and understanding.

The third dimension is education, the transmission of a specialized body of knowledge (Katz, 1976; Mayhew, 1974). Education addresses both the traditional professional domain and spheres of creative and scientific thought which can enlarge the professional knowledge base.

The socialization process itself, as it occurs within a specific educational setting, comprises the fourth area of attention. Boys in White (Becker et al., 1961) dramatically changed the common assumptions about the process. Rather than a process of cultural reproduction in which norms and values were absorbed by students along with facts and skills, Becker's study of medical school revealed a process in which students adapted to pressure by forming a sub-culture in which they socialized themselves to the role of student rather than to the role of physician, and acquired values and practices which were not those intended by the faculty. These values and practices were seen to be adaptive to the role of student but maladaptive for the subsequent role of physician. Olesen and Whittaker (1968) also documented student nurses' creation of their own guidelines and standards in response to the educational demands which they found to be both overwhelming and unrelated to their preconceptions about the nursing profession and preparation for it. Fitzpatrick, While, and Roberts (1996) similarly found that students most highly valued those educational experiences which related directly to practice as they envisioned it.

Several studies have examined attitude change as a dependent variable related to the independent variable of the professional school experience. Of the ten studies reviewed, six found evidence of attitude change, three of them in the direction valued by the professional school and three of them in a negative direction. Four studies found no evidence of attitude change. Gibson (1972) found that student teachers' concept of role became more open and encompassed a wider range of behaviors than the role conceptions they had originally held. Shuval (1975) found students in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and nursing to be converging on a normative view of professionals which emphasized people-centered values, followed in order by scientific and status values. Ondrack (1975) found an increase in open-mindedness and patient-centered sociotherapeutic philosophy among nursing students. Two of the studies of medical school found attitude change which reflected adjustment to the professional school experience but which were judged to be maladaptive for practice; Hafferty (1988) reports students' high need for emotional control when encountering death, dismemberment and decay, and Stein (1986) also found students to emphasize the need for control and the need to portray competence and certainty in all situations. Four of the studies found no evidence of attitude change over the course of professional school. Cryns (1977) found no change among social work students in the direction of faculty values regarding philosophy of human nature or individualistic vs. structural explanations of poverty and economic success. Judah (1979) likewise found no change among social work students in their attitudes toward equal rights, service, psychodynamic-mindedness, or universalism. Enoch (1989), also studying social work students, found no change in their orientations toward helping others or improving the situation of their country (Israel). Most recently, Hayden (1995) studied students preparing for the field of community health education, and found no change over time in the view of the professional organization as a reference group, belief in service to the public, sense of calling to the field, or norms of autonomy.

The fifth area is drawn from studies of students' formation of a professional identity. The consistent finding has been that the performance of the professional role is the variable most highly correlated with self-identification as a professional. Kadushin (1969) found that students who did not engage in clinical activities (in the case of music students, concert and other performances) did not acquire a strong concept of themselves as professionals. Adams and Kowalski (1980), studying art students, found that factors such as opportunities to display one's own work, having a show, or holding a job utilizing artistic abilities correlated with students' self-identification as professionals.

In summary, then, research on distance-independent technologies has consistently shown that they can support learning in areas amenable to measurement and grading, and that students find them acceptable for classroom communication. Studies of professional socialization in face-to-face environments demonstrate that students actively participate in their own socialization, responding differentially to environmental cues. They simultaneously enter and construct the social world of their chosen profession during the course of the school experience.


Professions maintain themselves as intellectual communities through continuing, evolving discourse. An important subset of this discourse takes place within the schools which provide new entrants to the community and create the role expectations which they will take with them into their first jobs. The central goal driving this research was to explore this subset of professional discourse.

The existence of a student-managed electronic conference within a graduate professional school provided a unique opportunity to capture student conversations. Students had complete control over this part of their educational experience; the conference was initiated and maintained by the students themselves. Use of the conference was voluntary, and the timing, extent, and nature of participation was completely under each student's control. Participants could "lurk" on the conference, reading others' postings but entering none of their own. Or, they could respond to postings and initiate discussions on new (or old) topics as they wished. The conference had no stated agenda or mission (other than increasing communication within the school), so it captured the topics which were salient in the students' thinking and which students found appropriate for discussion with their peers. Faculty and professionals from the field also subscribed to the conference, but rarely initiated topics. Thus the conference provides a record of daily conversations through which students simultaneously reflect upon and create meaning for the experience of preparation for a profession.

Research questions

The central concern of this study is the ways in which students join the discourse that constitutes the growth of knowledge within a profession. The guiding research question was: What subjects do students take up into their own agendas for reflection and discussion, outside of the planned activities of the educational process?

The electronic conference permitted an examination of a portion of students' conversations with one another. Content analysis of the conference transcripts operationalizes the first research question as: what topics were introduced into the conference?

Two additional questions from the larger study are reported here in order to provide insight into the place of the conference in the students' professional education: Did the electronic conference provide unique interactions in the students' information and social environment? -- and -- What were the motivations for conference use? A questionnaire completed by conference participants contained questions to determine whether the conference brought together students who had little or no face-to-face contact, whether the interactions within the conference were different from those occurring in other venues, and the extent to which use of the conference overlapped with other activities provided by the school. It also addressed the students' reasons for participating in the conference discussions.

The Conference

The conference consisted of simultaneous strands of conversations, each strand referred to as an item or thread. A new item could be initiated at any time by a participant, and participants could respond or not to any of the items when they signed on to the conference. The conference at the time of the first transcript contained 172 items with 1,734 entries, spanning the time from July 1986 to April 1987. When the transcript was obtained the second time, there were 74 items with 2,865 entries, running from August 1988 through April 1989.

The Instrument

A coding dictionary was created which reflected the key concerns of theoretical and empirical works on professional socialization. Fifty seven works were reviewed, and a list was composed of each topic addressed within those works. Duplicates were collapsed into single items. This process resulted in a list of 114 distinct items. The items were then classified into 20 broader categories. The categories in turn were classified into five major dimensions or areas of focus. The dictionary thus is an aggregation and synthesis of claims about professional socialization from the literature.

One item was added, for a total of 115, which arose within the conference but was not directly discussed in the literature; this was contemporary news events which had implications for the profession.

Each of the 4,599 entries in the conference was coded by a research assistant for the single category which best described it, and then for additional categories into which it fell. An intercoder reliability check with the investigator as second reader showed a 95% agreement in assigning the entries to the elements.

User Population

The students in the population under study were enrolled in a school which was one of seventeen professional schools within a research university. They were masters degree students, preparing for careers in the profession, plus three interested PhD students. Their average age was 29.

Three hundred eleven people had registered in the conference during the two data gathering periods; 158 individuals actually entered material into the conference during that time period. In 1987, 40.5% of the master's degree students had registered (100 of 247), and 24.7% (61) entered material. In 1989, 55.3% of the students were registered (145 of 262) and 27.4% (72) submitted entries.

Students formed the largest proportion of active users (129, 81.6%). Practitioners in the field constituted 12.0% of the user population (19 individuals), faculty 5.1% (8), and support staff at the school 1.3% (2).


Question 1: What subjects do students take up into their own discourse for reflection and discussion, outside of the planned activities of the educational process?

Seventy-five percent of the conference content concerned the professions and professional preparation. The remaining 25% included sports events, news, humor, and other items of current interest.

The most striking -- and significant -- finding of this study is the breadth of professional discourse in which the students were engaged. All 20 of the primary categories of socialization identified from the literature were represented in student conversations, and 95 of the 115 specific elements. Three-fourths of the conference content related to the profession and the students' preparation of professional practice; 24.6 percent of the entries were unrelated to professional issues. The following discussion is organized around the five dimensions of professional socialization identified in the literature review.

Area 1: The sociological characteristics of professions. Student entries to the conference included debate about the distinction between professions and other occupations, norms for relationships with clients, attempts at distinguishing the knowledge base which uniquely identified this profession, ways of balancing needs when the client group is large and varied, and the appropriate delegation of functions to technology, and ethics.

Area 2: The work of the profession. This area revealed student awareness of the profession as a social entity; insider jokes were repeated, a discussion of technologies no longer in use reflected some nostalgia for earlier eras, potential conflicts between professional values and the values of employing organizations were anticipated, the need for boundary maintenance between this profession and competitors was debated, and conferences and other professional activities were reviewed by those who attended.

Area 3: Professional education. This area encompassed discussions of the education appropriate for entry to the profession, but not those discussing the particular school (those were coded into area 4). Students were most frequently concerned with the body of knowledge which should be addressed, the scope of the field's domain, the distinction between entry-level education and that appropriate later in one's career, and the need for knowledge extending beyond that taught in a professional program.

Area 4: The immediate educational setting. Discussions of the immediate school experience included computer resources, laboratory and library facilities, financial aid, program requirements, the experience of stress and overwork, faculty's response to end-of-semester course evaluations, and role models the students had encountered in the program.

Area 5: Professional identity. Many of the conversational threads concerned the mechanics of the change to professional status: job interviews, relocation to other parts of the state and country, and statistics on entry-level salaries. But students also discussed their transition from a consumer's view of the profession to the provider's view, their motivations for entering the profession, and the relationship of individual personality to careers.

The entries to the conference show students considering the challenges of the profession they intend to enter, rehearsing responses to them, engaging their own and each other's expectations of the future. The students were aggressively collaborating in their own socialization. The span of their concerns was extensive, including all of the identified dimensions of the developmental process and the kind of non-task-related social exchange that Kraut, Gallegher, and Egido stress is "the glue that holds together the pieces of a collaborative ... effort ... at least as important as the content of the work itself (1987-1988, p. 53).

Question 2: Did the electronic conference provide unique interactions in the students' information environment?

Sixty-five (44.2%) of the student participants indicated that the conference had led to interactions with people they would not have known otherwise, and an additional 61 (41.5%) individuals indicated that the conference led to both interactions with different people and different interactions with people they already knew. Fifteen (10.2%) saw new interactions with people they already knew, but did not feel the conference led to interactions with new people. Only six (4.0%) of the respondents felt that the conference neither led to interactions with people they would not have known otherwise nor to different interactions with people they had known previously.

Respondents were asked how many of the people whose names were familiar to them from the conference they would recognize by sight; half replied 25% or fewer. When asked how many they talked with (face-to-face) occasionally, 68.6% replied 25% or fewer. When asked how many they talked with frequently, 91.8% replied 25% or fewer. Thirty-three of the respondents (18.8%) said they had made arrangements at least once to meet someone in person because of getting to know him or her through the conference.

The conference was only one of several communication channels available to the students. Convocations brought speakers of national reputation to the school, and three national professional associations maintained student chapters on campus. There were Friday afternoon Happy Hours organized by students at a local restaurant, and occasional potlucks and parties. The formal gatherings provided opportunities for students to become acquainted with leaders in the field and to become involved in some of the profession's social processes. Recreational gatherings also further the socialization process, as they enlarge the role that the socializing agency plays in students' lives.

Only six of the respondents who entered material into the conference participated in none of the other activities. However, none participated in all; 37.8% did not go to convocations, 71.4% did not go to happy hours, 53.1% did not go to parties, and 7.1% did not belong to any of the students chapters of professional organizations.

Question 3: What were the reasons for conference use?

Feeling in touch with the school was given as a reason for using the conference by 88.5% of the students. Notification of events was the second most frequently chosen reason (78.6%). Intellectual stimulation (69.5%) and discussing professional concerns (65.2%) were the next most frequent reasons, followed by social exchange (57.3%). Reasons rated as important by fewer than half the respondents were: to request information, to provide a study break, to BS, to work for change within the school, and to express frustrations about the school.


Concerns about the use of collaborative technologies in distributed environments to replace face-to-face teaching technologies center around the potential loss of community and the anticipated impact on the socialization function of education. Various delivery systems have been shown to function well for teaching and learning but their ability to support social learning has been less frequently addressed, with the result that one respected researcher concluded that "...[media] do not influence learning any more than the truck that delivers groceries influences the nutrition of the community" (Clark, 1985, p. 3).

Research on professional socialization shows that the effects of educational programs in face-to-face mode are unpredictable; students may fail to take on a professional identity, and value change may fail to take place or may occur in unwanted directions. Learning and socialization will be equally unpredictable as the educational environment becomes increasingly distributed. We can't foresee what all of the social outcomes will be. What is clear is that a substantial amount of higher education is likely to disconnect itself from the face-to-face environment, and that the more we can learn about collaborative work in distributed contexts the better we will be able to manage its constraints and opportunities.

Brown and Duguid assert that the most important knowledge is often that which students steal; that which they appropriate without the instructor's knowledge or intention and make their own. The question is -- what bandwidth do we need to provide in collaborative technologies to allow that theft to occur?

The study reported here was not an instance of distance education, because the students were taking classes which used face-to-face technologies. However, the conference did link students who had no other contact, and provided interactions which were not reproduced within the face-to-face environment. Two facts emerge clearly. The first is that supposedly information lean media such as electronic mail and conferencing systems can in fact support students' collaboration in -- or construction of -- their own professional socialization. The other is that when actual student discourse is observed, rather than isolated variables, students can be seen to be addressing the full range of professional socialization. This group of students, at least, did not appear to be narrowly focused on the student role or skills with immediate job utility.

Donald Schon's description of the reflective practitioner is of an individual accumulating a flexible repertoire of problem-solving knowledge, frequently rehearsing in a virtual environment, in preparation for employing the knowledge and skills in actual practice. This is a rich description of the student behaviors captured in this study. Students were taking on the voice of their profession, addressing its significant concerns, passing on its folklore, transmitting its values and priorities, embodying its dilemmas and contradictions.

Concerns about the media used in distance-independent education replicate those of the 1980s concerning computer mediation of communication. The early studies in both CMC and distance education took particular technologies as imposed independent variables and looked for results in specific dependent variables. As Walther argued in 1992, accurate understanding depends upon research which includes social processes, environments, and purposes; research which, rather than introducing a technology experimentally, examines the ways in which individuals and groups naturally incorporate the technologies into their discourse and activities. Cognition is always situated (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989); knowledge is in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used.

The preparation for and practice of a profession are information intensive processes, and socially intensive as well. Professionals maintain a network of personal communication channels which they use to stimulate their thinking about their work and to test new ideas (Weedman, 1992). Research in medicine shows that informal channels are used to exchange information and also judgments of how the information should be applied in professional practice (Menzel, 1966). Coser (1965) describes the ways in which such exchanges lead to the evolution of norms for conduct, and common standards of method and excellence. Professional education begins the process by which new members develop and maintain such communication networks, and sets in motion the process of socializing them to the unwritten norms and expectations which characterize the field. Professional knowledge grows as new techniques are created, new theories developed, and new individuals brought into professional discourse. The discourse captured by the student conference initiates the intricate communication which gives intellectual coherence and the means of knowledge growth to a professional community.


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Appendix A: Coding Dictionary for Professional Socialization

Paper presented at the 1998 midyear meeting of the Association for Information Science, May 17-20, 1998, Orlando, Florida.

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