Just as we were interested in examining studentsí peer collaboration in our online courses, we also wanted to determine how well students were mastering another significant course outcome: argumentation. As early as 1990, Marilyn Cooper and Cynthia Selfe began advocating the use of computers in writing courses because they seemed to predispose students to disagree in productive and interesting ways. A number of pedagogical theories evolved in and for face-to-face writing classrooms have encouraged conflict as a way to advance studentsí socio-cognitive development. As John Trimbur (1989) argues:
Consensus can be a powerful instrument for students to generate differences, to identify systems of authority that organize these differences, and to transform the relations of power that determine who may speak and what counts as a meaningful statement. . . The consensus that we ask students to reach in the collaborative classroom will be based not so much on collective agreements as on collective explanations of how people differ, where their differences come from, and whether they can live and work together with these differences (440).Because argumentation was a focus of our English 102 courses, we examined our students' online discussion threads with this question in mind. To what extent was the productive dissensus described by Trimbur occurring in student discourse, if at all?