Computer mediated communication as used in open and distant learning provides a unique form of text based communication in both synchronous and synchronous modes. While the literature indicates that CMC supports learning, analysis of interactions occurring in authentic environments provide the strongest evidence for the educational potential of CMC. Using the metaphor of a learning conversation, this paper explores the social, cognitive and interactive dimensions of CMC environments. Data from synchronous computer conferences is analysed using the analytic approach of content analysis. The informal and social elements of the conference are found to be valid components of the learning conversation, and not peripheral fragments. This supports the view that social and psychological interactions support and enable cognitive experiences in CMC environments.
Computer conferencing and electronic mail have broadened opportunities for the exchange of ideas, facts, and opinions (Wagonner, 1992) by enabling one to many and many to one exchanges. The capacity of CMC to support collaborative work and interaction, 'communities of learners and thinkers' (Brown and Campione 1990) has led to an appreciation of CMC as a powerful learning environment (O'Malley, 1995). Computer networks are not merely tools that enable us to network. they are social worlds in cyberspace that enable us to communicate, learn and collaborate (Harasim 1994). The computer screen is the point of entry and the written word is the medium of communication. The focus of this paper is to investigate transactions on these networlds and to ask
The metaphor is derived from the theory of learning known as cognitive apprenticeship (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989) where learning conceived if a ongoing membership in communities of practice. Through membership and participation in different communities learning experiences are generated and sustained. Conversations are a major part of learning and permeate all formal and informal educational settings. For instance, in university contexts. the ability to engage in, sustain, interpret and reflect in the reciprocal processes of dialogue is critical to higher order learning (Laurillard, 1993). Conversations are the means by which people create social sharedness, with talk in interaction as the means for establishing common ground, mutual understanding understandings and the expression and resolution of differences. As CMC provides a text based, retrievable record of all exchanges during a conference, this can become an additional learning resource, an opportunity for participants to 'revisit' the conversation to determine how points of view differed or were understood, leading to reflection and cognitive change. CMC is therefore a conversational medium. Apart from the advantages of the text as a record of the computer conference there are several facets of the talk-in-interaction which have relevance for the interface between interaction and cognition. Because CMC supports both individual and social processes of communication, it has the potential to support learning. Harasim (1994, p. 55) endorses this view in citing the following extract:
Good learning situations... are successful not because they enable a learner to ingest preformed knowledge in some optimal way, but, rather, because they provide initially undetermined, threadbare concepts to which, through conversation, negotiation and authentic activity, a learner adds texture. Learning is much more of an evolutionary, sense making, experiential process of development than of simple acquisition.Participants in a computer conference discuss issues, resolve differences and maintain a social and intellectual world, a shared universe of meaning, or common ground (Kraus and Fussell, 1991) which enables them to engage in collaborative construction of knowledge. The capacity of CMC to support conversational exchanges in both synchronous and asynchronous modes allows interactants to construct a shared communicative environment from one exchange to another, so that understanding is a joint product arrived at collaboratively by the participants. The elements of a learning conversation are depicted in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Dimensions of computer mediated learning environments
The following extract from a synchronous "virtual classroom" computer conference shows the moment by moment construction of meaning. The participants (5) are communicating with a colleague in Iceland in real time chat mode.
P 1: Arny are your pavements really heated?This extract show some of the unique features of CMC conversation. Firstly, there are many threads of conversation, the extracts above indicate two simultaneous topics. There is no obvious turn taking mechanism, except where speakers indicate to whom they are speaking. The tone is informal and interactive. Through there is no obvious cognitive task being undertaken in this extract, the participants are engaging in conversation and creating a climate for participation prior to commencing discussion of an academic task. The extract serves to show that CMC can support conversations and shared exploration. Nevertheless, it must also facilitate other educational processes such as idea generation, active engagement and opportunities for negotiation of meaning. The next section will link the social and interactive dimensions of CMC environments with their educational potential.
P2: Arny what is the weather like there at the moment?
P2: by hot springs?
P3: Some pavements are heated, like down-town It's sunny.and nice
P4: Marg, has Libby heard about job at NLA yet?
P1: What temperature is sunny and nice?
P5: What sort of temperatures Arny?
P2: No- after Easter I think-she rang tonight
P3: Hot spring water is used, it's supposed to B about 8 degrees
P2: aaaargh turn on the heat please
P3: Its warming up, summer is coming
There are also essential social skills involved in participation in CMC, such as the ability to reciprocate, to contribute to a group discussion and to coordinate their responses in a relevant manner. Expanding on the nature of learning in CMC environments, there is theoretical support for the interactive dimension of learning (Brown, Collins and Duguid 1989). In the Vygotskyan approach (Wertsch 1985) learning takes place via participation and induction in communities of learning, where language mediates understanding. Lave and Wenger (1991) construe leaning as form of apprenticeship in the everyday life of the community by participating in tasks, events and conversations which enable participants to learn in a dynamic, yet informal way. The unifying theme is theories of situated learning is a focus on socialisation into a wider community of practice, where interaction, participation and collaboration are the essential ingredients of learning. These interrelated elements are represented in Figure 1.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the positive features of CMC which emerge from the literature - such as, reflection and self direction, are not inherent in the medium itself (Eastmond 1994). Instead, the potential of computer conferencing for increased collaboration and intellectual amplification are to large extent dependent of the individuals who meet in the electronic classroom. Human communication and instructional dynamics are still fundamental to successful learning. When conversing online greater attention and conscious effort is needed to communicate in writing. Skill in communicating via text based messages demands more reflection than the spontaneity of a verbal response.
Other researchers (Gunawardena, 1992; Mason and Kaye, 1990) have called for new paradigms of instruction for two way interactive technologies. These calls are motivated by the potential educational value of CMC which could be described as 'gloves for the mind'. (Draper 1992) a twofold metaphor indicating that communications technologies not only complement cognitive processes by also enable students to handle the learning experience in a different way, or indeed pick up new experiences. Features of CMC which are discussed in the literature are:
|Survey questionnaire (Hiltz 1988)||pre and post course questionnaires||to obtain student views on CMC effectiveness|
|User interview (Burge 1993)||interviews by telephone and face to face||to explore participants' views of online learning|
|Case studies (Waggoner, 1992)||qualitative and quantitative techniques of participant analysis||to gain insight into processes and outcomes of collaborative learning|
|Discourse analysis (Graddol 1989)||examination of discourse structure, turn taking and development||to examine the properties of talk that contribute to learning|
|Participant structure analysis (Levin, King, Riel, 1990)||use of participants structures, eg, ease of access||to compare interactions in different networks|
|Intermessage reference analysis (Levin et al. 1990)||coding of messages to determine reference to previous message||to trace multiple threads or topics|
|Message act analysis (Levin et al. 1990)||to plot the density of messages per unit time||to show general level of peaks and troughs|
|Content analysis (Henri 1992)||in depth analysis of message content||to understand the learning process and its social and cognitive dimensions|
This table indicates that there is no lack of analytical tools for studying communication patterns. In view of the educational promise and potential of CMC it is important for research purposes to focus on the nature of the learning experience and to investigate authentic interactions in context to see how they contribute to learning. Henri (1992, p. 119) poses the question: Wherein lies the value unique to CMC and how can it assist the learning process? In order to provide educators with a tool for understanding how the content of conferences contribute to learning, a particular method of analysis is needed. In response, Henri proposes a framework of content analysis as means of determining how CMC supports the learning process by examining the strategies and interactions of learners. For this reason, the remaining discussion will focus on content analysis as an approach to understanding the processes that participants engage in as they input messages. Transcripts of all CMC conferences are available to conference participants , thus providing a readily available and easily accessible resource for investigation.
Each of the above categories, except the social dimension is further elaborated and extended to cover skills and communicative exchanges linked to learning. In the cognitive category, for instance the emphasis is on activities which support the learning process, such as clarification, inference, judgement, conflict resolution and critical thinking. The metacognitive categories are evaluation, planning, regulation and self awareness (see Henri, 1992).
|participative||number of messages transmitted by an individual or group|
|social||contribution not related to formal subject matter|
|interactive||chain of connected messages|
|cognitive||relating to knowledge, skills and problem solving processes|
|metacognitive||contributions show self regulation and awareness of learning|
The distribution of turns indicates that all participants engaged in discussion and contributed, and the tutor, while providing substantial input into the conference did not dominate. The characteristics of the conference indicate that it was a learning conversation insofar as students regarded it as a serious learning tool. The evidence of this an be observed in the nature of the interactions, which can be seen to be a genuine collaborative effort as the following extract demonstrates, The tutor (T) asks students to generate examination questions. Each student takes turns at posing questions and the others respond. Student 1 (S1) commences.
Here all participants contributed to the learning conversation , by sharing ideas as they brainstormed the topic. Later, the tutor summarises the input for students and they reflect on the value of the discussion. Indicators of social psychological maintenance throughout the conference were diverse as some exchanges that occurred were:
S1 Define records management S2 Speed of info retrieval S3 duplication T Your question is next Fi! got it ready!! S4 paper overload S5 lost files S2 list procedures S6 identify, suggest S7 computer down time S6 suggest problems and solutions S7 poor filing system S8 technology used or not S6 summary S1 ways of managing records S2 manual system S7 solutions - re-evaluate filing systems S9 Sorry been away S8 methods of documenting records S9 imaging S7 re-evaluate system computer S6 brief definition of records management S1 inaccurate? S8 staff attitude T keeping others informed S7 life cycle of friends S8 motivation
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|Author: Catherine McLoughlin|
TAFE Media Network Perth, WA
Please cite as: McLoughlin, C. (1996). A learning conversation: Dynamics, collaboration and learning in computer mediated communication. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 267-273. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/lp/mcloughlin.html