IIMS 96 contents
[ IIMS 96 contents ]

A learning conversation: Dynamics, collaboration and learning in computer mediated communication

Catherine McLoughlin
TAFE Media Network, WA
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 mediated communication (CMC) refers to the use of networks to facilitate communication between learners across time and distance (Jonassen et al. 1995). Communications technologies used for this purpose include electronic mail, computer conferencing and online databases. Computer conferencing and electronic mail are the major applications of CMC and they support both synchronous(real time) and asynchronous (delayed) group communication.

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 concept of a learning conversation

In comparing CMC with face to face communication Davies (1995) writes that these technologies have no developed social grammar of use, no established rules for interaction. Certainly, learners are dispersed across many locations, so contextualisation and coordination is a major constraint. The lack of social context cues is one constraint that participants in computer conferences have to deal with. The other constraints are text based communication, time and place independence and one to many patterns of communication. These constraints are balanced to some extent by the flexibility of communication, the capacity to negotiate and the ease of collaboration. Because of these unique features of CMC, the metaphor of a learning conversation (Pea 1992) will be adopted to show how the interactive structures that occur in computer conferences effectively support learning.

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

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?
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
P5: Brrr!!!
P3: Its warming up, summer is coming
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.

Instructional characteristics of CMC

Online education, both synchronous and asynchronous, is characterised by the social nature of the environment and by the reciprocity and freedom from the constraints of face-face communication. While face to face learning has always had the capacity to support collaboration and peer interaction, online educational environments afford interactivity which support learning in unique way. For example, in traditional classrooms, teacher-student interactions have suffered from a marked asymmetry in power relations between students and teachers. This creates a barrier to spontaneous interaction, questioning and student initiated inquiry (Wood, 1992). In contrast, in the online classroom there is a far greater volume of student generated questioning, informing and discussion indicating a higher level of agency and self regulated learning (Winklemans 1988). These patterns suggest that there are unique properties of learning through CMC which motivate learning and communication. The argument put forward earlier is that formal learning is a social, communicative activity, whether or not it is mediated by instructional technologies. Underlying this perception is the assumption that learners learn not only from teachers, but also peers and collaborators and that working in groups promotes critical thinking, problem solving ability and the ability to defend one's one view while recognising the value of others'.

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:

In addition there are a multitude of advantages to text based communication. Some of these are

Analysis of interactions

Beyond generalised descriptions of social and interactive features of CMC there are features of the written exchanges which support learning and collaboration. As CMC has expanded in use there has been a parallel growth in the number of approaches to evaluation this new medium. Purposes for evaluation differ, ranging from a simple record or pattern of logons, to the number and length of contributions by each participant. Any claims that CMC might have to being an effective medium for collaborative learning have to be supported by empirical evidence of protocols from actual conferences using an appropriate methodology. The purpose of this section is to review a range of evaluation techniques and purposes. Table 1 presents an overview of the main approaches to analysis of CMC messages that have been undertaken.

Table 1: Summary of approaches to analysis of CMC interactions

Evaluation techniqueMethodPurpose
Survey questionnaire (Hiltz 1988)pre and post course questionnairesto obtain student views on CMC effectiveness
User interview (Burge 1993)interviews by telephone and face to faceto explore participants' views of online learning
Case studies (Waggoner, 1992)qualitative and quantitative techniques of participant analysisto gain insight into processes and outcomes of collaborative learning
Discourse analysis (Graddol 1989)examination of discourse structure, turn taking and developmentto examine the properties of talk that contribute to learning
Participant structure analysis (Levin, King, Riel, 1990)use of participants structures, eg, ease of accessto compare interactions in different networks
Intermessage reference analysis (Levin et al. 1990)coding of messages to determine reference to previous messageto trace multiple threads or topics
Message act analysis (Levin et al. 1990)to plot the density of messages per unit timeto show general level of peaks and troughs
Content analysis (Henri 1992)in depth analysis of message contentto 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.

Content analysis

As described by Henri (1992) content analysis has two main characteristics Content analysis seeks to reveal the processes that learner use to work out and transmit their ideas. The approach can analyse the social, psychological and cognitive features of messages and trace the processes that learners engage in rather than the outcome of the communication. The following table illustrates the dimensions of the framework used for analysis, together with an operational definition of each category of message. Henri proposes five dimensions (categories) as follows:
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).
Table 2: Categories of interactions in content analysis of computer conferences

DimensionOperative definition
participativenumber of messages transmitted by an individual or group
socialcontribution not related to formal subject matter
interactivechain of connected messages
cognitiverelating to knowledge, skills and problem solving processes
metacognitivecontributions show self regulation and awareness of learning

Social interactive and cognitive links

In order to asses the value of content analysis as analytic tool, the remainder of this article will focus on the social and interactive features of a synchronous on line tutorial using a content analysis approach and attempt to show how these features support learning. In particular, the concept of interactive is considered important as the technology supports interchange and communication of views. There is no lack of theoretical support for the importance of interaction (Armstrong 1990; and Zhang 1993). Interaction has been shown to benefit and motivate learners and to facilitate higher order learning and critical thinking as it provides the learner with scope to respond, explain and formulate arguments in their own words (Chi et al 1994; King 1994). The interactive dimension in CMC is important as it indicates social cohesion in the group, participation and levels of collaboration. Henri defines the social and interactive categories separately and defines social broadly as not related to the formal content. The view taken here gives greater emphasis to an in depth analysis of the social dynamics of conference exchanges, as these take place in a synchronous (real time) mode. The communicative dynamics are not unlike those that operate in face to face conversation, except that interruptions are tolerated more frequently and more than one topic is discussed at a time. (See extract 1 above).

Analysis of a synchronous conference

Using data gathered from an online conference, the relationships between the social, cognitive and interactive dimensions will be expired using content analysis. The context of the conference is a real time university seminar conducted by a tutor, with nine student participants. The conference lasted for forty five minutes. A total of 638 messages were exchanged during this time. The following table shows the distribution of messages per participant.

Table 3: No. of messages per participant in a synchronous computer conference

ParticipantNumber of
of total
Student 1
Student 2
Student 3
Student 4
Student 5
Student 6
Student 7
Student 8
Student 9

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.

S1  Define records management
S2Speed of info retrieval
TYour question is next Fi! got it ready!!
S4paper overload
S5lost files
S2list procedures
S6identify, suggest
S7computer down time
S6suggest problems and solutions
S7poor filing system
S8technology used or not
S1ways of managing records
S2manual system
S7solutions - re-evaluate filing systems
S9Sorry been away
S8methods of documenting records
S7re-evaluate system computer
S6brief definition of records management
S8staff attitude
Tkeeping others informed
S7life cycle of friends
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: The interactive categories found when examining student contributions are indicators of the collaborative, rather than cognitive dimension. That is, no student engaged in an individual display of cognitive construction, as each message was tied to a previous one. The most salient socio-cognitive contributions were: Unlike Henri's research, it was found impractical to separate the interactive from the cognitive dimensions, and these were intertwined, as in everyday conversation. Therefore, categories of clarification, inference judgement and proposing solutions were invariably tied to the collective process of meaning making. Not all contributions were related to the task. Fifteen percent (15%) were irrelevant, but nevertheless served important communicative functions in the ongoing discourse and maintenance of social cohesion within the group. Henri's (1992) typology is therefore a useful starting point for analysis, but the use of a prior categories inhibits deeper level analysis and the search for categories actually occurring in the data.


Another issue that emerges from the present research is the level of informality of the exchanges and the use of personal examples. These are not always directly relevant to the task, but this does not negate their validity as components of the learning conversation. Computer mediated communication is not devoid of character. Many students manage to project their personalities into the text, thereby creating a series of rapid exchanges, akin to conversation. Given the complexity of language, it would be unwise to apply preconceived categories to the data, as Henri's approach tends to do. While content analysis provides a useful tool to educators seeking to understand the learning processes at work in CMC environments, it must be used more flexibly so as to permit the creation of categories that arise in the data. Analytic tools must be revised, extended and amplified in order to cope with the social, collaborative constructive and cognitive dimensions of learning conversations.


Armstrong, B. (1990). STARNET: Interactive training by satellite. Educational and Training Technology International, 27(3), 249-53.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Browne, A. L. & Campione, J. C. (1990). Communities of learning and thinking or a context by any other name. Contributions to Human Development, 21, 10-126.

Burge, E. L. & Roberts, J. M. (1993). Classrooms with a difference: A practical guide to the use of conferencing technologies. Ontario: University of Toronto Press.

Chi, M. T. H., Leeuw, N. D., Chiu, M.-H. & Lavancher, C. (1994). Eliciting self-explanations improves understanding. Cognitive Science, 18, 439-477.

Draper, S. W. (1992). Gloves for the Mind. In P. A. M. Kommerws, D. Jonassen & J. T. Mayes (Eds), Cognitive Tools for Learning (pp. 187-202). Berlin: Springer Verlag.

Fulford, C. & Zhang, S. (1993). Perception of interaction: The critical predictor in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 7(3), 8-21.

Graddol, D. (1989). Some CMC discourse properties and their educational significance. In R. Mason & A. Kaye (Eds), Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education (pp. 236-24 1). Oxford & New York: Pergamon Press.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (Eds), Syntax and Semantics: Vol 3. Speech Acts (pp. 42-55). New York: Seminar Press.

Harasim, L. (Ed). (1990). Online Education: Perspectives on a New Environment. New York: Praeger.

Harasim, L. (Ed). (1994). Global Networks: Computers and International Communication. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Henri, F. (1992). Computer conferencing and content analysis. In Collaborative Learning Through Computer Conferencing (pp. 117-136). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Hiltz, R. S. (1988). Learning in a Virtual Classroom: Final report. Newark, NJ: Computerised Conferencing and Communications Center, New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J. & Haag, B. B. (1995). Constructivism and computer mediated learning. The American Journal of Distance Education, 9(2), 7-26.

King, A. (1994). Guiding knowledge construction in the classroom: Effects of teaching children how to question and explain. American Educational Research Journal, 31(2), 338-368.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching. London: Routledge.

Lave, L. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mason, R. (1994). Using Communications Media in Open and Flexible Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Mason, R. & Kaye, A. (Eds). (1989). Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Education. Oxford: Pergamon Press. http://icdl.open.ac.uk/literaturestore/mindweave/mindweave.html

O'Malley, C. (Ed). (1995). Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Pea, R. D. (1992). Augmenting the discourse of learning with computer-based learning environments. In E. D. Corte, M. C. Linn, H. Mandl & L. Verschaffel (Eds), Computer-based Learning Environments and Problem Solving (pp. 313-344). Berlin: Springer Verlag.

Riel, M. (1990). Computer-mediated communication: A tool for connecting kids with society. Interactive Learning Environments, 1(4), 255-263.

Riel, M. (1994). Global education through learning circles. In L. Harasim (Ed.), Global Networks (pp. 221-236). Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Waggoner, M. D. (Ed). (1993). Empowering Networks. New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Wertsch, J. V. (Ed). (1985). Culture, communication and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Winklemans, T. (1988). Educational Computer Conferencing: An Application of Analysis Methodologies to a Structured Small Group Activity. University of Toronto. MA Thesis.

Wood, D. (1992). Teaching talk. In K. Norman (Ed), Thinking Voices: The Work of the National Oracy Project (pp. 196-202). London: Hodder and Stoughton.

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

[ IIMS 96 contents ] [ IIMS Main ] [ ASET home ]
This URL: http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/lp/mcloughlin.html
© 1996 Promaco Conventions. Reproduced by permission. Last revision: 15 Jan 2004. Editor: Roger Atkinson
Previous URL 6 Jan 2001 to 30 Sep 2002: http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/gen/aset/confs/iims/96/lp/mcloughlin.html