In this chapter, we describe a non-commercial, web-based communication platform which we have called an Interactive Dictionary of Concepts. The platform was designed in order to facilitate and support a negotiation process between various interest groups and, as a result, between the concepts in which the interests of these groups are embedded. We find support for the development of such a platform in the concern expressed by Calhoun (2002) that increased communication between individuals and groups requires practical experiments based on models of interaction that seek to “improve[s] the quality of opinions, educate[s] the participants and form[s] a collective understanding of issues that advance[s] beyond pre-existing definitions of interests or identities”. Calhoun claims further that without such models, our use of IT might be reduced to “websites giv[ing] the impression of consisting simply of the spontaneous postings of the public” (Calhoun, op. cit., The idea of the public sphere section, para. 6).
The Interactive Dictionary of Concepts is a management structure written in the LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP) protocol consisting of a set of forms used to enter information into a database and another set of forms for retrieving it. Retrieval is also supported through the use of search engines such as Google in combination with special identification headers. The Dictionary is still in a developmental stage. It responds to the challenge issued by Calhoun by offering a set of conceptual and software tools designed to overcome the interactional limitations of conventional course design (often implemented in management systems such as WebCT despite the wider potential offered by their innate structural flexibility). Typically, these courses limit communication possibilities by being structured around objectives which pre-determine the relevance of the interactions which they generate.
On the other hand, in the Interactive Dictionary of Concepts, the objectives which motivate its design do not exert such a limiting function. On the contrary, the relevance of the interactions which they generate is a function of the impact that the entries in the Dictionary have on subsequent interactions which they inform. In other words, their relevance is in the communication which they help to establish between their own terms and those which inform other contexts. The structure of the Dictionary has no other purpose but to facilitate the flow between different terms or concepts. It does so with tools designed to prevent compartmentalisation of interests, thus enabling and facilitating a dialogue across different groups and beliefs. In turn, this allows individuals and groups to expand and, as a result, to reformulate the terms which form and inform their criteria of judgment.
Unlike standard dictionaries, the Interactive Dictionary of Concepts does not come with ready-made entries. Instead, it enables individuals who are investigating various concepts and issues to create their own entries, which are then situated and organised within the constraints of the management structure of the Dictionary. These creative constraints themselves function as tools for stimulating and generating the critical reflection of authors upon the concepts which they are investigating. This is achieved by offering conditions which challenge, enrich and help to systematise the associations which inform the ideas of authors and their beliefs. Thus the structure of the Dictionary generates conditions which enable communication or dialogue to flow where it would otherwise have stopped when concepts reflect opinions, rather than being the product of a methodology which requires systematised reflection.
The Dictionary can be thought of as a framework supporting and generating production (and investigation) of critically-informed entries on all kinds of issues of interest, each sourced in different perspectives and none exhausting them. Entries are organised according to a specific framework which is common to all entries. This shared framework then forms a structure which links the independently produced entries and relevant information together, thus effectively creating from these entries a single, large (potentially infinite) text produced by many, for many, and on issues whose relevance to others can emerge in serendipitous and unpredictable ways through use of the search facilities of the Dictionary. Thus the Dictionary has the potential to store a conceptual history of the ideas of individuals (or groups) from all over the world, systematised and made available in the form of searchable entries.
In this perspective, the structure of the Dictionary was not conceptualised as a way of improving the affective and emotional aspects of human-computer interaction as such. Instead, we made it our priority to utilise the exploratory potential of its tools to enhance the quality of the interactions of humans, thus enhancing the process by which individuals and groups feel and become integrated with one another. In turn, this form of integration develops individuals' and groups' emotive links with each other by facilitating the process of conceptual and emotional advancement raised by Calhoun. Moreover, the framework of the Dictionary enables and supports varied forms of engagement which help to develop, in individuals, a heightened sense of the value of their own contributions to the community.
Thus the potential of the Interactive Dictionary of Concepts is multiple. It functions as a platform which generates dialogue and, therefore, as a system which can assist individuals or groups in their task of investigating issues of concern. Further, the interactions which it generates and accumulates can support different projects, unpredictable in form, which share a concern for a dialogic mode of inquiry. The Interactive Dictionary of Concepts is also a management structure which provides an extremely flexible system for storing and retrieving its concepts and relevant information. Moreover, the search categories of the Dictionary function as tools in support of a critical analysis of texts, and is particularly useful in the process of reading and writing. Overall, the structure of the Interactive Dictionary of Concepts helps us to create an environment which is thoroughly organic, i.e. where different concepts and projects have the possibility of impacting upon, informing or triggering unpredictable dialogic contexts. In this chapter, we will discuss the intellectual framework behind the structure of the Dictionary, its potential educational applications and discuss the analytical and systematising capacity of its tools against practical examples of the entry-like texts created by students of Thai and English, and by the author, while experimenting with the tools and the concept of critical inquiry which informs them.