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There is increasing interest in online collaborative learning tools in health education, to reduce costs, and to offer alternative communication opportunities. Patients and students often have extensive experience of using the Internet for health information and support, and many health organisations are increasingly trying out online tools, while many healthcare professionals are unused to, and have reservations about, online interaction.
We ran three week-long collaborative learning courses, in which 19 mental health professionals (MHPs) and 12 mental health service users (MHSUs) participated. Data were analysed using a discursive approach to consider the ways in which participants interacted, and how this contributed to the goal of online learning about using Internet technologies for mental health practice.
MHSUs and MHPs were able to discuss issues together, listening to the views of the other stakeholders. Discussions on synchronous format encouraged participation by service users while the MHPs showed a preference for an asynchronous format with longer, reasoned postings. Although participants regularly drew on their MHP or MHSU status in discussions, and participants typically drew on either a medical expert discourse or a "lived experience" discourse, there was a blurred boundary as participants shifted between these positions.
The anonymous format was successful in that it produced a "co-constructed asymmetry" which permitted the MHPs and MHSUs to discuss issues online, listening to the views of other stakeholders. Although anonymity was essential for this course to 'work' at all, the recourse to expert or lay discourses demonstrates that it did not eliminate the hierarchies between teacher and learner, or MHP and MHSU. The mix of synchronous and asynchronous formats helped MHSUs to contribute. Moderators might best facilitate service user experience by responding within an experiential discourse rather than an academic one.