The academic seminar can be seen as the core of university culture. In a seminar, claims to knowledge – presented in an essay and/or orally – are critically scrutinised and subjected to further articulation. The point of this chapter is to report on attempts to develop critical features of seminar culture in the online context. The basic premise is that participation in seminar activities has to be learned through experience. For the participant with little prior experience of online textual discussions, the online seminar introduces an unfamiliar learning situation in which organisational as well as cognitive and communicative issues must be attended to explicitly. In order to illustrate the attempts to socialise students into this kind of discourse communities, we use a Masters course for mature students as a case. It is pointed out that students must be involved in the activities of establishing a community with rapport between members and with an understanding of how to conduct the interaction. By giving the students responsibility for solving a range of practical problems and letting them help each other, we induce them into the status of legitimate online participants. Several issues are important to attend to in the building of such collaboration such as balancing increasing independence of students with a clear leadership and focus of the activities. It is argued that the face-to-face seminar and the online seminar may fulfil complementary roles, but in both cases learning how to contribute is essential.
Modern information technology allows for running distance courses fully online (Bates, 2005). This implies that all activities take place in a virtual space. Accordingly, it is possible to interact with participants without being limited by physical distance. It also makes possible interaction among participants in a way which differs from past technologies, such as regular mail and, later on, email. Even if email can be considered a modern and valuable IT facility, the habit of sending a message to a particular recipient is not the same as posting an entry in a forum where it can be read and responded to by many fellow students.