LearnIT -future directions for learning with technology at the University of Adelaide
The impacts of technology on communication -mapping the limits of online discussion forums
Presenter's biographical details
Matthew Thomas is currently completing his PhD in the Department of Geographical and Environmental Studies, and the ACUE. His doctoral research has examined in detail the use of new Information and Communication technologies in Higher Education, and has focussed on the impacts of technology-mediated communication on collaborative learning.
It is often assumed that Information and Communication Technologies can offer new and improved means of inter-personal communication. Currently, there is also great enthusiasm for the possible application of these new technologies in Higher Education. However, the possible impacts of technology on students' interaction must be addressed. This paper reports on critical evaluations of on-line discussion forums, and provides a detailed analysis of students' on-line communication. It is demonstrated that there are limits to the efficacy of current technologies in supporting collaborative and communicative models of learning. Recommendations are given as to the role of on-line discussion forums in our teaching and learning, and it is suggested that we must be aware of the limitations of technology-mediated discussions.
There has been a great deal of research in the area of computer-mediated communication over the last decade. The majority of published research focuses on the ways in which such communication can enhance learning and provide new and improved forms of communication. A number of potential benefits of computer-mediated communication have been explored, and these include increased interaction, the provision of non-hierarchical communication environments, the negation of gender and racial imbalance, a focus on the content and not context of communication, and the breakdown of power and allied knowledge structures (Boshier, 1990; Edmonds, 1998; Hiltz, 1986; Kayne, 1987; McCreary, 1990). Furthermore, it has been suggested that web-based courses can offer co-operative and collaborative modes of learning and facilitate the social construction of knowledge through on-line peer group discussion (Yazdani and Bligh, 1997). Similarly, advantages in relation to greater flexibility and educational efficiency have been identified (Johnston, et al., 1996).
The paper briefly reports on research that was undertaken in order to assess the potential benefits, and possible problems with the use of computer-mediated communication in undergraduate and postgraduate courses. This paper serves to present some initial findings, and to highlight a number of problems which arose in these case studies.
Dialogue and learning
Collier (1985, p.3) has described a change taking place in higher education, and highlights the trend towards small group work as an alternative to didactic modes. One proponent of such a paradigm shift is Diana Laurillard (1988; 1993) who has developed a communication or conversational model of learning as an alternative to the traditional didactic forms of higher education. Laurillard explains how teaching and learning in higher education must be realigned with our emergent understanding of naturalistic learning, and must embrace the process of internal and interactive dialogue in the construction of meaning. She states, building upon the theory of social constructivism:
Essentially, a learning process complex enough to achieve the aims of academic learning must involve at least two participants, operating iteratively and interactively on two levels - practice and discussion - and connecting those two levels by the activities of adaptation and reflection (Laurillard, 1999, p.114).
In her model of conversational learning, Laurillard conveys a practical development of social constructivism, and suggests interactive modes of learning are essential to the development of understanding. The reformation of higher education pedagogy to include increased interpersonal communication in formal learning tasks has been embraced by many educators. Indeed, these forms of pedagogy are by no means novel, and have even formed the implicit foundation of Socratic learning. However, it is only in the recent history of modern education that these forms of learning have become the focus of concerted educational research, and have shaped our understanding of the complex phenomena of learning.
Technology impacting on Communication
New Information and Communication Technologies have been seen to offer a means by which the paradigm shift towards conversational models of learning can be realised. The typical "threaded discussion list" is assumed to offer students a flexible and accessible forum for peer interaction, and is taken to be an effective means by which the traditional tutorial can be transferred into the digital realm. In order to test these assumptions, detailed analysis of approximately 70 students' use of an on-line discussion forum was undertaken.
On examining each thread of discussion, rather than merely the individual messages as isolated elements, it became apparent that there was a lack of coherent structure in the discussion threads. Whilst there was evidence of some interactive knowledge construction through elaboration and negotiation, many messages were still isolated and there was no co-operative development of ideas towards a tangible outcome. As Levin, Kim and Riel (1990) have suggested through their analysis of inter-message relationships, discussion threads form a conceptually fluid structure, where there is a non-linear development of ideas. However, unlike their conclusion that this promotes effective interactive learning, the lack of coherent structure in this on-line discussion forum inhibited the development of a community of interacting learners. This conceptual incoherence of the discussion threads can be illustrated by mapping the development of a typical discussion thread.
Figure One Structure of a Discussion Thread within the On-line Discussion Forum
The figure above shows the typical tree-like structure of a thread in the on-line discussion forum. In this thread, which was one of nine in the third theme, there were 31 messages. Only one message, the first for the theme, was coded as independent, and only two were coded as quasi-interactive. Ten messages were not coded, as they contained only a single comment or short note. This means that over 85% of the coded messages showed evidence of interaction in the form of elaboration or negotiation. However, the level of interaction within the forum is misleading as an indicator of the efficacy of the on-line discussion forum in developing a community of learners. The message structure shows that from the first message, six responses lead to a further five branches, most of which in turn branched again. There was no conceptual cohesion across the messages, and there were thirteen messages which terminated branches. In effect there were thirteen isolated conclusions to the thread. If we compare this mode of interaction with a face-to-face discussion, it becomes obvious that the on-line discussion forum failed to support an effective community of learners.
In face-to-face group discussions there is a constant common focus, and students work together towards a common goal. Thus, the discourse of the community of learners forms a Gestalt, which is the socially negotiated knowledge of the group. Even though individuals contribute to this knowledge, and construct it in their own minds, social constructivism holds that individual knowledge is a product of the group interaction rather than purely an individuals thought. This systems' view takes knowledge to be ecological, and a product of interaction rather than autonomous rational thought (e.g. Bateson, 1972). Describing the ecological formation of such knowledge is difficult using the lexicon of modern thought. However, Bakhtin (1986, p.126-127) comes some way to describing this socially constructed knowledge by referring to a "responsive understanding of an invisibly present third party who stands above all participants in the dialogue". According to Bakhtin, this other being is a constitutive element of the dialogue, and is used to capture the essence of the socially negotiated knowledge of the community of learners.
However, as the representation of the on-line discussion illustrates above, there was no possibility of knowledge formation which included a Bakhtinian third party. Participants in the discussion contributed their autonomous ideas, and were not interactive in a dynamic manner but rather only interactive in response to another persons autonomous ideas. The on-line discussion forum could not support students' building a coherent conceptual structure, and developing the discussion towards some form of tangible conclusion. Accordingly, the possibility of praxis was categorically excluded from the virtual learning environment.
The asynchronicity of students' participation also inhibited the development of a community of learners. There were often days or even weeks between one student's contribution, and an other's response. Even though the asynchronous nature of such discussion forums has been suggested to be a benefit, in this case it was an obvious disadvantage in relation to interactive discussion. Students commented on how they would wait for someone to respond to their message, yet often their message would disappointingly be left unanswered. In this way they felt isolated from the rest of the group, even though their own messages may have been highly interactive.
Again, students were aware of the problems associated with the technology-mediated communication, and in their evaluation of the on-line discussion forum more than half the students commented on the lack of interaction throughout the themes. Many students pointed to the lack of immediate feedback or response, whilst others commented on the lack of developing debate or discussion. Similarly, a number of the more frequent contributors commented on how frustrating it was for the themes to never become resolved. Unlike other active learning tasks, there was no required outcome, specific answers, or problems to solve. This lack of resolution is largely a product of the abstracted discussion themes, although with the lack of cohesive conceptual structure in the discussion themes, it seems unlikely that such an interface would adequately support effective problem-based interaction.
These findings reinforce the theoretical perspective that these forms of technology use contribute to the promotion of an individualism, rather than facilitate the development of communities of learning. The virtual space of the on-line discussion forum promoted the isolation of students and their contributions, rather than facilitating their integration into a cohesive and interactive structure. Each message was quite separate form any other, and could only be viewed by itself. Further, the messages were not taken as elements of a collaborative interchange, but only as a series of reactions. As the figure above illustrates, the thread developed as a series of responses to messages. Most students, especially in the first forum, failed to return to a thread, and engage in dialogue. Rather, an apparently interactive thread could simply consist of a series of students commenting offering their opinions on individual messages. Indeed, analysis of the access logs showed that students often navigated by Author, found a friend's contribution, and contributed an "interactive" message referring only to that one other contribution. In this way the on-line discussion forum promoted an individualism rather than a community of learners.
The analysis of students' participation within the on-line discussion forum has suggested that the term interaction is a least a partial misnomer. Whilst there was little evidence of interaction during the first theme, the number of messages coded as interactive did increase significantly in the third theme. This provides evidence that students did engage in some elaboration and negotiation within the on-line discussion forum, and that these communication skills were learnt over the course of the semester. However, further analysis of the discussion threads showed that there was little conceptual cohesion within the on-line discussion forum, and the individual messages did not form an element of a broader knowledge structure. This is quite divergent from what would be expected from typical group interaction and the social negotiation of knowledge, and suggests that the on-line discussion forum could not support an effective community of learners.
Student evaluations of the on-line discussion forum provided a number of interesting perspectives on the efficacy of such a learning tool. The majority of students found the on-line discussion forum a worthwhile element of their studies, but only 51% of students stated that they enjoyed using the facility. Similarly, only 52% of students stated that they would like to participate in an on-line discussion forum again. Most importantly, when asked whether they found the on-line discussion forum better than a face-to-face tutorial discussion, only 14% agreed. The comments of students provided a very real insight into how they perceived the on-line discussion forum, and highlighted a number of major issues.
Students identified a number of positive elements of the on-line discussion forum. In particular, most students found being exposed to the ideas of other students a major benefit. However, students demonstrated a particularly instrumental approach to the on-line discussion forum. Students predominantly saw the activity in terms of what other students could provide them. Information was seen as a commodity within the on-line discussion forum, and for many students', being able to gather a wide variety of ideas was its sole benefit. Few students suggested any benefits relating to increasing interaction or learning from each other. Similarly, no students were altruistic, and suggested that the forum allowed for them to help other students in their understanding of the subject matter. Other benefits of the on-line discussion forum identified by students included improving written communication skills, the benefits of being able to reflect before contributing, and the flexibility provided by asynchronicity.
When asked to evaluate the relative merits of the on-line discussion forum compared to face-to-face discussions, most students suggested that face-to-face discussions allowed for more interaction, more feedback, and more personal modes of learning than could be offered by an on-line discussion forum. Furthermore, face-to-face discussions were seen to be more fun, have a better atmosphere, and result in better learning outcomes. Indeed, many students questioned whether the on-line discussion forum actually allowed for discussion. Students found the on-line discussion forum to be far less immediate and interactive, more time consuming, and more difficult and for many it was just "dull".
Students found the on-line discussion forum to be isolating and dehumanising. The immediacy and personal nature of face-to-face discussions was seen to be an essential element of effective communicative learning, yet noticeably absent from the on-line modes of interaction. The on-line discussion forum was criticised for being disjointed, stilted and less spontaneous. Interestingly, while there was some mention of technical problems, these were not usually perceived as the major negative elements of the on-line discussion forum. Students were more concerned with the quality of learning, and the inability for the forum to provide the personal and truly interactive modes of learning they desired. As one student said, capturing the essence of the case-study:
In tutorials the discussion is much more alive and direct. My ideas can be changed, influenced and appreciated in a more integrated environment. The on-line discussion forum felt too much like monologue v's monologue. It needs to be a discussion.
This research has lead to a number of conclusions regarding the appropriate use of on-line discussion forums:
- On-line discussion forums can be effective in developing students' knowledge, and cognitive capabilities, yet they do not allow for the social construction of knowledge between students.
- On-line discussion forums do not automatically promote student interaction, and do not form an adequate alternative to face-to-face interaction of students.
- Students need to learn how to learn in these new learning environments. Communicative and interactive models of learning may look good in theory, but in practice many students have come to except a more didactic approach.
- We must avoid a deterministic approach to the use of technology in education, and place the emphasis on quality teaching and learning, rather than technological innovation.
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