Story Thread Analysis:
Storied Lives in an Online Community of Practice
KeyWords: online community, community of practice, content analysis, transcription analysis, asynchronous discussion, online discussion forum, story thread analysis, qualitative analysis
Classroom experiences only account for a small portion of the ways students learn. Time in the library, interacting with professors and peers and reading textbooks are important and meaningful learning activities (H. Strauss, 2004, p.101). As technology becomes more prominent in our daily lives, and as knowledge consumers become knowledge producers, we need to look at learning beyond the classroom walls and extend the educational environment into the Internet where informal communities can provide energetic venues for learning. The importance of understanding online communities lies in its linking to our everyday lives, its situatedness in the domain-specific practice, and its potential to create shared knowledge and repertoires. A model called Community of Practice (CoP) (Wenger, 1998; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002) provides the first lens in the current study.
We are storytellers because stories are vital to human understanding of how we bring order and meaning to our lives (Bruner, 2002). Human beings live storied lives that socially are intertwined with others’ storied lives. Understanding storied lives is one way to understanding human social phenomena. Storytelling provides the second lens in the current study to uncover the lived experience people undergo as they become and participate as members in an online CoP.
The case under study is a multinational project called Opensource Opencourseware Prototype System (OOPS). OOPS is a cooperative project to translate and adapt MIT’s Opencourseware (OCW) courses into Chinese. Completely independent from MIT, OOPS employs a volunteer-based project model. Volunteers self-select course(s) they wish to translate and “adopt” the course(s) through an online application form. In addition to the project web site within which all of the courses reside, volunteers interact with each other through an asynchronous discussion forum. Because this online forum uniquely ties all volunteers together it is a “commonplace” where volunteers come to and interact, a place where volunteers build relationships.
This commonplace provides the social fabric in which volunteers intertwine their individual stories with others’ stories. This location is the Story Landscape, a place where individual stories intersect with others’ stories. The Story Landscape affords a stage where OOPS volunteers live their shared lives. It is therefore important to examine the kinds of storied lives that are displayed, told, and retold in this online CoP. This understanding, in turns, provides the background context that will assist later in broadening, burrowing, storying and restorying in the follow-up inquiry. The purpose of the current study is to understand the storied lives in OOPS’ Story Landscape.
Searching for a Method
In order to understand the lives in this landscape, it is first necessary to understand the context. Figure 1 displays a snapshot of the online forum, the Story Landscape. This forum is similar to any other web-based asynchronous discussion board. It has a title (1 in the picture) and a table-of-contents like navigation structure. Each row in the picture is a thread, defined as “an ongoing discussion of related messages that grows from one particular posting” (AOL).
A thread might receive no replies or multiple replies. All replies, as well as the initial message are considered to be individual postings that constitute the thread. There are five columns available in display for each thread: the title (3), the total number of replies to this particular thread (4), the person who initiated this thread (5), the total number of times this thread as a whole has been viewed (6), and the last person to respond to this thread, with a time stamp (7).
As newcomers and seasoned members come here and interact, they enter into the Story Landscape within the structure described. Each page displays fifty threads in the table-of-content-like fashion in the thread list. Users can navigate to the next page, which contains the next fifty threads. All threads are displayed in reverse chronological order with the newest ones on top. As people respond to threads, the order of the threads dynamically changes.
During OOPS’ first year operation, between project inception of February 2004 to January 2005, there were seven hundred and thirty four (734) threads posted, yielding a total of two thousand nine hundred and seventy seven (2977) responses. This large amount of archival data posits a challenge in adapting a methodological lens that could help make sense of them.
Figure 1. The OOPS Story Landscape
Reflecting back to the original question – understanding storied lives in the OOPS Story Landscape, what is needed is a broad, big-stroke approach to understanding story lines embedded within the computer-mediated asynchronous forum. The nature of the question and the kind of data available guided the content analysis approach.
Content Analysis, broadly defined, is a systematic way to identify the essence of the textual content and sort threads into categories (Berg, 2004). After a brief review of the literature, it was clear that a theory-based method was needed to analyze the abundant data produced in synchronous or asynchronous communications. However, challenges lie in the lack of a long-term research base (Marra, Moore, & Klimczak, 2004; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001), the inherent methodological issues such as subjectivity, complexity, and time (Harry, Sturges, & Klingner, 2005), and the lack of ways to include passive learners (Hew & Cheung, 2003). One reason why this line of research lacks a long-term tradition is the uniqueness of each research case and research question. Researchers created their own methods to provide the most appropriate lens for examining each individual research question (Rourke et al., 2001).
To resolve this potential shortcoming, a study was conducted of frequently referenced content analysis protocols and comparative studies that adopted more than one protocol. For example, Marra, Moore and Klimczak (2004) reviewed six frequently-cited content analysis protocols and selected two (Gunawardena et al., 1997 and Newman et al., 1996) to analyze identical sets of data. The authors provided detailed step-by-step processes for applying each protocol, including comprehensive descriptions of ways to calculate inter-rater reliabilities. Overall, two protocols produced the intended results. Regarding the first research question, if the two protocols produced similar results, the authors concluded that the two protocols are not comparable. As to the second research question, the relative advantages and disadvantages of each protocol, the researcher favored Gunawardena’s model because it was more holistic and easier to apply. In another article, Hew and Cheung (2003) compared seven different models for analyzing online learning communities on three broad issues: interactions among participants, cognitive learner skills, and the role of moderators. The authors reported the limitations of each model and suggestions for overcoming them.
Articles such as these confirm apparent challenges in evaluating online communities. In addition to the often vague definition of coding categories, which could cause difficulty in applying them, it was determined that the goal for this study was not to judge effectiveness or evaluate learning outcomes. The immediate goal was to simply understand the process. In this light, most available content analysis protocols did not address what was needed.
In addition to the basic philosophical difference between judging and understanding, there were three other challenges in finding an appropriate content analysis protocol: unit of measurement, issue of subjectivity, and question of reliability.
The literature showed a content analysis protocol could employ its unit of analysis across a wide range: from individual posting, a thematic unit, a unit of meaning, to words and sentences. The nature of the question needs a holistic, macro-level lens that calls for an aggregated approach instead of a finite examination. The heart of the question demands a way to paint a broad picture of the lives in the community in such way that the traditional sampling concept would not fit. Storied lives are continuous in nature and any attempt to segregate or take them out of context will simply jeopardize the meaning of the analysis (Marra et al., 2004). In order to answer the question, a different unit of analysis was needed than those for existing protocols.
The role of the researcher as a “complete-member researcher” (Angrosino & Perez, 2000, p.677), and engagement with OOPS since June 2004, led to an insider perspective on the different happenings at this forum. Some researchers agree that the sorting of latent contents, whose meanings are not obvious, is inherently subjective and interpretative (Rourke et al., 2001). This study required a method that would not only re-conceptualize the notion of subjectivity in terms of data saturation, but also value grounded insights with the cultural context (Harry et al., 2005).
Lastly, the traditional notion of reliability in content analysis argues for inter-coder reliability. Such reliability is generally calculated when separate coders independently categorize the same content and the percentage of their agreements is calculated. Because of the researcher’s grounded insights and active engagement with the culture, the author was the sole coder to achieve “coder stability” as the way to conceptualize reliability. If over time, the author was able to look at the same content and sort threads into the same category, then coder stability over time was achieved (Rourke et al., 2001).
In summary, It was necessary to choose a protocol that is designed to answer the research question (Marra et al., 2004). A methodological lens was sought to provide an aggregated, holistic view of the stories exhibited in the Story Landscape, honor the insider view, and value the inductive, ground-up approach. A method was chosen to facilitate understanding, rather than evaluation of the lived stories in this Community of Practice. After reviewing related literature, thinking about the kind of data available, and examining the nature of the research question, a grounded-theory, ethnological approach was adopted for the Story Thread Analysis.
Story Thread Analysis (STA)
A Story Thread Analysis (STA) is an ethnological approach to understand the asynchronous conversations in an online CoP. In STA, the unit of analysis is the thread. In other words, the thread title and the first posting within each thread are examined and sorted into different storylines as they relate to the culture and context within the Story Landscape. Story is the lens through which the different storylines are sorted. Storytellers tell and re-tell the Storied Activities within the Story Landscape. The researcher also assumes the role of a storyteller while undergoing STA. STA values grounded insights and allows for inductive approaches to sorting storylines. STA enables researchers to be storytellers to sort out Storied Activity in the Story Landscape.
STA takes on the lens of storytelling as a way of understanding complex social phenomena. It has three major components, the Storytellers, the Story Landscape, and the Storied Activities. It aggregates the unit of analysis into the unit of a thread, allowing for a holistic view of the storied lives in an online CoP. This aggregation produces a manageable set of cases under examination, with each case objectively identifiable as a thread (Rourke et al., 2001). Each thread is determined by the authors of the message in a naturalistic setting. Because STA reduces the cases into a manageable set, it affords exhaustive and complete study all of cases and therefore avoids the issue of sampling. Lastly, although borrowed from the concept of content analysis, STA, goes beyond frequency counts and employs researcher insights into social happenings.
All lenses of analysis involve considerable compromises between meaningfulness, productivity, efficiency, and trustworthiness (Rourke et al., 2001). Asynchronous computer-mediated communications are inherently incoherent. In addition, they suffer from what Herring (1999) called topic decay in that conversations tend to migrate away from the original topic. In this regard, what starts out as one storyline might develop into a different storyline. The aim of STA is to provide the background storylines in a Community of Practice that could ready up for in-depth interviews later. In other words, STA is only the first step in understanding the storied lives in a CoP and should be followed up by another qualitative method in order to obtain a more complete storyline. In addition, readers should be cautioned that even though STA does strive to go beyond frequency counts, the data captured from the forum is a snapshot of that information at a particular point in time. The online forum is a living and changing thing in that, for example, the number of times a thread is viewed changes everyday.
One of the advantages of STA is the grounded insights the researcher brings into the process. With the same token, however, this requirement poses a limitation as to who could undergo a STA. Until a researcher is been at the field long enough, until a researcher has almost reached the data saturation point, he or she would have limited capacity discerning different storylines, naming different happenings, and sorting them accordingly.
Steps in STA
Figure 1 lists all textual data available to OOPS members. In order to make sense of storied lives in OOPS using STA, data was manually transferred into an Excel spreadsheet. The Excel file kept the thread title, number of replies, initiator, and number of views in separate columns as the way they are displayed online. Last respondent and time stamp were separated into two different columns to capture their characters individually. Several additional columns were created for STA. The first column called “sequential number” contained the continuous thread number from Thread #1 posted on February 2004 to Thread #734 posted on January 2005. A column called “category” contained the sorting of the different storylines. A last column called “month” captured the month of each thread to which they last responded. Figure 2 shows a screen shot of a portion of the Excel file at its initial stage.
Figure 2. STA Excel File Example
Once the data is transferred into Excel and all additional columns are created, it followed Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) grounded-theory approach to uncover the storylines in this Story Landscape. It went through series of iterations where the researcher constantly asked “what is going on” when looking at each thread and continuously moved back and forth among threads. This approach is “grounded” in the data and moves inductively toward understanding and potential explanation of the emerged storylines. The process advanced from sorting storylines to theory development (Marra et al., 2004). The iterations are described in detail in the following sessions.
Step 1. Initial Open Coding and Axial Coding
The first step in Strauss and Corbin’s grounded theory approach is called “open coding”, through which “concepts are identified and their properties and dimensions are discovered” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p.101). Since STA assumes storytelling as the lens of analysis and researcher as ethnographer, “open coding” becomes the process in which the researcher’s “reflexivity works hand-in-hand with the iterative nature of the research” (Harry et al., 2005, p. 7). In STA, open coding is the first step in naming what is situated within the cultural context.
The initial sorting was conducted in February 2005 by which time the researcher had been involved with OOPS for eight months. Daily reading of the forum and frequent sharing of experiences with colleagues enabled the initial naming and sorting of storylines to be a fairly straightforward task. 150 threads were sorted out by reading their titles and the first message within each thread. In this process, the question was “what is going on” followed by an intuitive naming of the storylines. Each new thread was reviewed to determine if it told a similar story to any threads read so far. If so, it was sorted it into the same storyline. If the answer was no, or maybe, a new storyline was created and its name was based on what came to mind at the time.
The sorting and naming was stopped at 150 threads for a category frequency count using Excel’s built-in function. The initial sorting of 150 threads yielded 19 storylines. After further examination of the storylines, it was found that the same storyline occurred sometimes with a different name. For example, the storyline asking for translation help occurred in “trans-help” and “help-trans”. The two categories were consolidated into one called “trans-help”. Some storylines with very low frequency counts were grouped with other storylines. For example, a thread on how to enter the course number when applying to be a volunteer (thread #434), and a thread asking how to change an email address in the volunteer profile (thread #246) were added to the “administrator” storyline.
The concept of “axial coding” was used for “relating categories to their subcategories, termed axial because coding occurs around the axis of a category, linking categories at the level of properties and dimensions” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p.123). STA borrowed this concept but utilized it a little differently.
Using Excel’s built-in function, threads were sorted according to their storylines. Threads in each storyline were examined to determine if they really belonged together. At this point, it was possible to conceptualize meanings by sorting through an “interpretative” lens. For example, it was possible to quickly glance through all threads with the storyline of “volunteer” and determine if they formed a cohesive whole. On the other hand, the need was uncovered to further divide some storylines in specific categories. For instance, “admin-system” was a storyline that involved administrative issues relating to technical and system functionalities. It included threads that were apparently personal communication between the volunteers and system administrator regarding system malfunctions. When looking at all the threads belonging in the “admin-system” storyline, the need was identified to separate personal communications from the ones addressing the entire forum. “Personal-com” was created to capture those threads.
At the end of this process, the list of the current storylines was printed out to use as a template for sorting of the remaining threads. This initial list assisted in consistent naming of storylines and creation of new ones when a thread did not fit an existing category. Information was stored in Excel to facilitate sort, re-sort, examine and re-examine as needed.
Step 2. Record Keeping Adjustment
With the initial storylines displayed, sorting continued through five hundred threads. Coder stability was periodically checked and problems corrected. The most common problem was ambiguity of thread titles. For example, thread #668 and #340 had a thread title that read “I can use your help”. After reading the actual content of each thread, it was determined that thread #668 was asking for help to locate a course while thread #340 was asking for translation help. Both threads were related to help seeking, but in two very different contexts. Since STA assumes single coder stability, it was necessary to go back to all the already-sorted five hundred threads and record additional information to ensure coder stability. Threads with an ambiguous title required re-reading of the original posting and marking the reading and thread title in blue-colored text as shown in Figure 2. These blue-colored texts help to maintain consistency across time.
This unexpected iteration of sorting not only provided another round of going back and forth among the threads, it served as a test the coder stability.
Step 3. Complete the coding process
With the list of storylines re-visited and the five hundred threads re-examined, the remaining threads were sorted. There were frequent stops to reflect on the different stories in this Story Landscape and examine similarity and differences among and within storylines. STA as a value-laden process encourages a researcher’s grounded insights in sorting the storylines.
At this point it became clear that there was a distinct difference between a manifest content and a latent content (Berg, 2004; Bogdan & Biklen, 2003; Rourke et al., 2001; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). A manifest content is content whose meaning resides on the surface. For example, a storyline such as “admin-trans,” whose issues cover administrative problems about translation, could be hardly mistaken for something else. Similar examples are “I want to volunteer”, “I cannot locate the course”, and “I want to make a suggestion to the project”.
On the other hand, there are contents that are latent, meaning it requires interpretation in sorting them into storylines. For example, most subcategories under Social are latent. Four different subcategories under Social and their examples are listed in Figure 3. below. The attempt to make sense of any latent content is inherently subjective and interpretative. Since STA values researcher’s grounded insight, researcher’s knowledge about this particular culture and context empowers her to be the authority in making those sorting decisions.
Figure 3. Sub categories under Social are Latent and require Interpretation.
Appendix A lists the current list of storylines, with explanation, examples, and how they are conceptualized into the CoP characters. Grounded insight that might be transparent to the readers during the analysis is supported by prolonged engagement in the field. In addition, the emerged theory will be tested against participants’ perspective, a process sometimes referred to as “member check” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
In the next section, the preliminary results and interpretation of the current STA analysis is presented. The results of a STA are broken into three interrelated components: the Story Landscape, the Storytellers, and the Storied Activities.
WHERE - the Story Landscape - Overview
In addition to the “appearance” of this Story Landscape as depicted in Figure 1, several functional characters give features to OOPS’ Story Landscape. These characters, regarded as “medium variables” by Job-Sluder and Barab (2004), are descriptors of the affordance for communication by the online forum. Table 1 describes these medium features as they pertain to OOPS.
Medium features of OOPS’ Story Landscape
OOPS’ Story Landscape as a messaging medium is very similar to any other web-based bulletin boards. The combination of the “appearance” features and the medium features create OOPS’ Story Landscape. In this forum, Chinese, both traditional (primary used in Taiwan and Hong Kong) and simplified (primary used in China), is the main language with occasional postings in English. Forum administrators have additional abilities not available to the forum users.
Forum administrators have the option to create two special kinds of threads called “announcement” and “place-top”. “Announcement” threads appear on the top of the thread list on every single page. “Place-top” threads appear immediately after the “announcement” threads on the first page of the thread list, but do not appear on consequent pages. Figure 4 shows the screenshot of the first page of the forum. Only forum administrators have the ability to post or change a thread to either category. Administrators can also change a thread back to regular thread. A total of 22 threads are in the “announcement” and “place-top” combined, in which Luc initiated 16 of them
Figure 4. “announcement” and “place-top” threads created by the administrator
Table 2 shows the web traffic report for this Story Landscape. OOPS seems to draw a steadily increasing number of visitors to the site, with the sudden drop of volume in November 2004. The OOPS server suffered several breakdowns during that month, including a several-day black out by a severe typhoon.
In terms of the communication patterns in the Story Landscape, it seems there is no apparent pattern when looking at the number of threads and number of response from month-to-month. Figure 5 shows the month-to-month breakdown. However, in May 2004, there appeared to be a huge spike in both the number of threads and number of responses during that month. Was that a sign of the take-off of a community?
As mentioned earlier, OOPS’ Story Landscape – the online forum, has features similar to many other web-based bulletin boards. The combination of potential familiarity and the opportunity of anonymity might encourage participation. It is also possible that the large number of anonymous postings might inhibit group cohesiveness, lacking immediacy without personal information. However, it appears that even though people post anonymously, they often leave their personal email and IM id and encourage private communication. Because of the different Chinese character sets used between China and Taiwan, it was observed that people from China seem more open and willing to share such personal information.
Overall, this Story Landscape seemed adequate to function as a commonplace. People come and they participate in conversations. The researcher is coordinator of an OOPS spin-off project that transcribes audio from video lectures into subtitles. As the spin-off site administrator and project coordinator, the researcher is privileged to interact with volunteers beyond the Story Landscape. In addition, the site administrator can obtain emails, names, and at times more personal information (such as birthday and gender) and interact with them more frequently. For example, an email to encourage volunteers who have not turned in work recently may stimulate sincerity to continue and the openness in sharing personal reasons why they have not been able to keep up with the volunteer work.
The OOPS Story Landscape as is might be sufficient in holding a commonplace. However, the experience gained from socializing with volunteers suggests that if the opportunity is made available, volunteers might choose to socialize more. For OOPS to continue to draw volunteers and sustain its existing membership, the Story Landscape might need to be expanded to include more socializing features such as an email directory to look up fellow volunteers.
There is insufficient data to determine what caused the month of May to have the highest number of threads and responses. The researcher joined the project in June and was not part of that happening. (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000).
Overview of the Story Landscape
At the writing of this report, OOPS has 724 registered volunteers who are translating 815 courses. Thirty-five courses have been completely translated. In terms of geographical locations, OOPS volunteers are from fourteen countries and regions, with Taiwan (342) leading, followed by China (148) and the USA (33). Since OOPS is home-based in Taiwan, it is logical that most of its volunteers are the residents of Taiwan. However, with the help of the Internet, OOPS is able to cross these borders and reach into thirteen other countries/regions for its volunteer base.
291 persons with Master’s degrees accounted for the majority of the volunteers, followed by 224 people with Bachelor’s degrees. Table 3 displays the distribution of volunteers’ highest degrees earned. OOPS volunteers are highly educated.
Highest Degrees Earned
Table 4 lists the occupations of volunteers. Interestingly, most volunteers are either students or in the field of education. A note of caution: The number reported here is based on the short biographies volunteers submitted through the online application form. Since not everyone provides this information, this report is limited to what was collected. This explains why the numbers do not add up to the same total as in previous tables.
Management and finance
Publishing and translation
News, media, and entertainment
Information collected as part of the STA revealed that there were 360 unique storytellers who initiated at least one thread during this period. This list is called the “Initiator List.” The member known as Visitor has the highest number with 91 threads, followed by Luc at 86 and aRNoLD at 52. Two hundred and ninety two storytellers only initiated one thread, a possible indication of low repeating users. During the same one-year period, there were 120 unique storytellers who ended at least one thread during this period. This is named the Last-respondent List. Luc ended the most number of threads of 309, followed by visitor with138 end-postings, and aRNoLD with a total of 35. Ninety two users ended only one thread.
Of the 360 storytellers on the Initiator list, only 59 (16.4%) use a Chinese name as a nickname. Of the 120 storytellers on the Last-respondent list, only 20 people, 16.67%, use a Chinese handle. It is interesting that even though the primary language used on this Story Landscape is Chinese, people select an English nickname. This might have to do with the fact that, until most recently, all emails, URLs, computer programming languages have been in English.
Luc pioneered OOPS and is actively involved with the project. His diverse background in television production, magazine and publishing work “afford [him] to undergo a project of this scope.” (Interview 7-22-2004, p.6) As the Chinese translator of the Lord of the Rings and the founder of Fantasy Foundation, Luc has been an advocate since 2002 “to promote fantasy arts in the Great China area, to cultivate our own professors Talkie and J.K. Rowling, and to encourage the sharing of knowledge and thinking creatively.” (Interview 7-22-2 004, p.3) His life story shapes his motivation and inspiration of OOPS. Visitors coming to OOPS Story Landscape might figure out that Luc is an administrator and one of the major players in the Story Landscape.
Another person who draws attention has the nickname of aRNoLD. He is number three on both the initiator list and the last-respondent list. Since he is a registered user, the researcher can look at his profile and see that within the OOPS forum, he participated in over two hundred and seventy conversations. His profile also indicates that he joined this forum in May 2004. This information is consistent with what STA reveals. STA indicates that in his first two months after joining OOPS, that aRNoLD initiated 14 and 21 threads in May and June, respectively. The breakdown of the Last-Respondent list by month shows that aRNoLD, in May and June, was the last person to respond to 10 and 12 threads in these same months. He started a thread titled “Who are the volunteers from China and what are we translating” in July 6th, 2004. This thread has been kept alive in the sense that it has received steady replies from time to time that keep it active even to this day. This is the most long-lasting thread in this forum that was initiated by a member without administrator privilege.
Reading through postings such as this allowed the researcher to form an impression about him. aRNoLD is a male teacher from China, teaching business in a university in Shanghi. He has his own web site and blog and is promoting OOPS in China. He met with Luc when Luc visited China. aRNoLD is still an active member of OOPS. Literature has shown that the manner in which participants engage themselves in dialogue not only promotes certain impressions about who they are, their dialogues shapes the dynamics and learning environment of the community (Gustafson, Hodgson, & Tickner, 2004). Research has shown that people form impressions about each other in text-based virtual communities where the context of online interaction influences such formation (Jacobson, 1999). One such factor might be the choice of an alias and its influence on forming impressions (Chester & Gwynne, 1995).
The researcher formed an impression about aRNoLD based entirely on what he said online and what kinds of conversations he engages himself in. If the researcher were to meet aRNoLD in persons, would that perception change? Members are also forming their own impressions about other members. How does this contribute to the telling and retelling of stories in this Story Landscape?
Formation of a New Hierarchy
OOPS volunteers are well educated and this might have several implications. First, it probably reflects the value of education in the Chinese population in general. If people are generally well educated, OOPS is able to draw upon this already-existing pool of talent. However, this well-educated group might also exemplify the necessity for undertaking such an ambitious translation project. This could be a challenge to regions with lower education levels; regions that might benefit the most from access to such open knowledge resources. Third, OOPS stands for promoting open access of educational materials to everyone, the notion of breaking down the hierarchical barriers of access to materials. The project has an open-door policy in which all volunteers are qualified volunteers. We do not turn down anyone who wishes to be a volunteer. At this stage of the project, however, it appears the project attracts highly educated people. Research has shown that people with formal education tend to use computer-mediated communication in informal learning (Selwyn & Gorard, 2004). In trying to break down one hierarchy, is it possible that OOPS unintentionally creates a new form of hierarchy?
Relationship Between Off-line and On-line Community
As an online community, OOPS volunteers are not as geographically distributed as most people perceive. Since OOPS is home-based in Taiwan where Luc is recognized as a celebrity, it is easier for Luc to disseminate OOPS using his regional connections and influences. Luc goes on television and radio and is interviewed by newspaper reporters from time to time. News spreads quickly in a tiny island such as Taiwan. Luc organized face-to-face gatherings in Taiwan in August 2004 and another in October 2004. Research has shown that off-line communities might be the base of some online community, and the relationship between these might be closer than we think (Delanty, 2003). Proportionally speaking, OOPS should have a lot more volunteers from China. Moreover, the Internet is supposed to be borderless. Nonetheless, it appears that the face-to-face, tangible presence Luc has in Taiwan has helped aid volunteer recruitment.
Reconceptualizing Legitimate Peripheral Participation
Does the high anonymity in OOPS hinder its group coherence? Research has indicated its benefit to participation. For example, a group of female college students expressed mixed feelings about their online experience, yet cited anonymity as the most important positive aspect of the learning environment (Sullivan, 2002). Bell (2001) reported that anonymity provides inherent comfort to support online involvement in an asynchronous role-playing environment among academic staff members. Freeman and Bamford’s (2004) case study confirmed the belief that anonymity encouraged female students’ participation; nevertheless, their study also concluded that anonymity should be removed in all learning environments due to the negative effect of unknown learner identities and their disruptive effect in the learning environment.
One thing the Initiator List and Last-Respondent List tell me is the high fluidity of membership. People either post messages anonymously or they use a registered handle name only a few times. There is no best way to identify these people as the same few people or truly different people. Nevertheless, the impression about such fluidity of membership somehow gives a feeling of “being in a crowd”, a feeling of belonging. Lave and Wenger’s concept of a Legitimate Peripheral Participant (LLP) is to value all levels of member contributions and to prepare and encourage members for full involvement (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The concept of LLP should be extended to validate lurkers, spectators, and interested bystanders as having worth in an online CoP by suggesting that they are “being” instead of “becoming”. Their lurking and occasional participation create a high volume of fluidity of membership, resulting in the impression of a high-traffic, crowded virtual place. The feeling of “being in a crowd” might be vital to the sustainability of OOPS. Anonymity might help to encourage participation and create a sense of belonging.
Of all 734 threads, the top three storylines are: “social” (25.97%), “I want to volunteer” (21.25%), and “I need help with translation” (20.44%). The average viewing-rate, calculated as the average number of viewings per thread, is 333, indicating that during this one-year period, on average, each thread was viewed 333 times. The average response-rate, calculated as the average number of response each thread received, is 4, indicating that, on average, each thread received four replies. The average viewing-to-response rate, calculated as the average number of viewings to number of responses for each thread is 82, indicating that, on average, it takes 82 viewings to receive one reply. A summary of quantitative information is listed in Table 5.
Total number of postings
Highest number of threads posted per month
May 2004 (169)
Highest number of responses per month
May 2004 (606)
Highest number of responses per month
October 2004 (44,109)
Average viewing-to-response rate
360 distinct users
59 (16.4%) used a Chinese name
Anonymous postings are 12.53%
121 distinct users
20 (6.67%) used a Chinese name
Anonymous postings are 19.07%
Top three storylines
“Social” (184 threads, 25.07%)
“I want to volunteer” (156 threads, 21.25%)
“I need help with translation” (150 threads, 20.44%)
After further examining the distribution per month for each category, it appears the majority of the “I want to volunteer” threads occurred during the months of April, May and June 2004. The number was significantly reduced once OOPS introduced the online application function sometime during that period. Once that function became available, volunteers could apply online without entering this forum. This could be a good example of listening to what the community wants and reacting accordingly. On the other hand, “social” and “I need help” threads were evenly spread out across months, which might be an indication of the health of the community, continued commitment of the members, and consistent member participation.
The category, “I need help with translation” stands out. For every five postings, there is one of this nature. It appears in this highly social environment, volunteers do use this forum as a medium for knowledge sharing and construction. Luc describes OOPS as a utopian means of knowledge sharing, a utopia that is rectified through the participation of volunteers. Through discussions, it is possible that volunteers link their everyday experiences into educative experiences. This category received the second highest response-rate of 6.53, meaning on average, each request for help with translation received 6.53 replies. Interesting, the highest response-rate belongs to the category called “solicit”.
“Solicit” is the category with stories related to requests for opinions or help in relation to the project as a whole. For example, thread #190 asked if anyone knows Java programming language to help with a system function enhancement. Thread #194 asked if anyone knows an open source searching engine that OOPS could utilize. Thread #342 referred to the issues of creating video subtitles and if anyone knows any open source software that would further enable OOPS’ effort to transcribe all videos. Thread #352 solicited volunteers’ opinions on naming our project and thread #371 sought ideas on the logo design. There were 19 threads in this category and on average they received 11.79 responses.
One thing worth mentioning is that Luc initiated 15 of those 19 threads. There might be two things in play here. First, Luc as the prominent player in this Story Landscape does draw people’s attention when he “speaks”. When the nature of his post is related to the overall improvement and welfare of OOPS, such as the examples illustrated above, people tend to respond and offer suggestions. The second potential meaning of this relates to the notion of a community. People care about what we name our community and what our logo will look like. In this sense, we care about our community identity. People care about how we can make this community better by offering information on search engines, java programming for more functionalities and video subtitle software. It seems that volunteers care about the community and tend to respond to solicitations related to such needs and requests.
The complete breakdowns of the details are illustrated in Table 6 below.
One emerging story is called “cannot find”. This is the storyline about people coming to OOPS and becoming disappointed when they “cannot find” the courses they were looking for. There are two different issues emerging here. A rather small group of people have difficulty navigating the web site and locating information they need. With no searching capability and over 900 courses available, they experience frustration in locating information. However, the majority of the people who said they “cannot find” what they were looking are indicative of a much bigger problem than web site design and usability.
Viewing to Response Rate
The content depth of the online material varies from course to course. In the first place, the MIT OCW team can only offer to the public what their professors are willing and able to offer. On top of that, with the limitations of copyright law, only certain copyright-free materials can be openly distributed. In this regard, two problems have been raised continually by dissatisfied learners – the lack of depth in course content and the lack of access to referenced materials (Lin, 2005, in press). Therefore, when they come to the web site and find only a list of books, for instance, they are disappointed and ask “where can I find downloadable materials?” Looking at the distribution of this storyline across time reveals an increase in numbers that started in October 2004. Even though the current STA deals with data from the first year, my preliminary second-year data shows an increasing number of threads in this category.
On one hand, it seems that some of the self-learners still feel a need for the full-blown materials. An outline of the syllabus with readings and assignments does not seem enough for them to start the learning process. On the other hand, open materials are bounded by copyright law and learners in developing countries may not have access to those peripheral materials. In this regard, how far can open courseware and sharing go when access to adjunct materials ultimately is still restricted by copyright and financial factors?
This paper argues that existing content analysis protocols do not fit the need of the current study due to the nature of the question and the amount of data available to the researcher. It is therefore proposed that Story Thread Analysis (STA) as a more suitable lens for looking at contextual information through the framework of storytelling. The unit of analysis was further aggregated at the per thread level in the interest of understanding the storied lives in this community. STA aims to understand the storied lives in an online CoP through the lens of the researcher as the storyteller with grounded insight. This project demonstrates how steps in the value-laden process went back and forth through the data to try to make sense through the lens of STA.
STA uses frequency counts as one of the foundations of understanding the phenomena, but it goes beyond simply counting. Through STA, we can grasp the storied lives in OOPS by understanding about the Story Landscape, the Storytellers, and the Storied Activities. We get a glimpse of how people might hold, express, experience, and distribute knowledge in an online CoP. However, real experience needs to be expressed from real people in a more direct manner.
This investigation showed that OOPS provides an adequate Story Landscape that fosters social interaction and shared knowledge building. OOPS is foremost a place for socialization. However, OOPS is also highly task oriented in that translated-related threads receive high response rates. This seems to be consistent with prior research that socialization at times might be more important than learning in an online place (Hoadley & Pea, 2002)
Overall, Story Thread Analysis has provided a way to describe the background milieu of OOPS and offers abundant leads for further research. STA has prepared the way for further inquiry.
Other textual information is available in OOPS. It may be necessary to expand STA to include not only the asynchronous online forum, but also the project web site, its updates, and information such as individual volunteer’s autobiography. STA is a systematic way of understanding storied lives in an online CoP that should be followed by other qualitative inquiry.
Angrosino, M. V., & Perez, K. A. M. d. (2000). Rethinking observation: from method to context. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 673-702). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
AOL. (2005). Newsgroup glossary. Retrieved 3-8, 2005, from http://www.aol.com/netfind/newsgroup/glossary.html
Bell, M. (2001). Online role-play: anonymity, engagement and risk. Education Media International, 38(4), 251-260.
Berg, B. L. (2004). An introduction to content analysis. In Qualitative research methods (5th ed., pp. 265-297). NY: Pearson Publication.
Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. K. (2003). Data analysis and interpretation. In Qualitative research for education: an introduction to theories and methods (4th ed., pp. 147-184). NY: Pearson Publishing.
Chester, A., & Gwynne, G. (1995). Online teaching: encouraging collaboration through anonymity. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 4(2), online: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol4/issue2/chester.html.
Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: experience and story in qualitative research: Jossey-Bass.
Delanty, G. (2003). Virtual community: belonging as communication. In Community (pp. 167-185). New York, NY: Routledge.
Freeman, M., & Banmford, A. (2004). Student choice of anonymity for learner identify in online learning discussion forums. International journal on E-Learning, 3(3), 45-53.
Gustafson, J., Hodgson, V., & Tickner, S. (2004, April). Identity construction and dialogue genres - how notions of dialogue may influence social presence in networked learning environments. Paper presented at the Networked Learning Conference, England, UK.
Harry, B., Sturges, K. M., & Klingner, a. K. (2005). Mapping the Process: An Exemplar of Process and Challenge in Grounded Theory Analysis. Educational Researcher, 34(2), 3?3.
Herring, S. (1999). Interactional coherence in CMC. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 4(4).
Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. (2003). Models to evaluate online learning communities of asynchronous discussion forums. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(2), 241-259.
Hoadley, C., & Pea, R. D. (2002). Finding the ties that bind: tools in support of a knowledge-building community. In K. A. Renninger & W. Shumar (Eds.), Building virtual communities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Jacobson, D. (1999). Impression formation in cyberspace: online expectations and offline experiences in text-based virtual communities. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 5(1).
Job-Sluder, K., & Barab, S. A. (2004). Shared "we" and shared "they" indicators of group identity in online teacher professional development. In S. A. Barab, R. Kling & J. H. Gray (Eds.), Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning (Hardback ed., pp. 377-403): Cambridge University Press.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Boston, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
Marra, R. M., Moore, J. L., & Klimczak, A. K. (2004). Content analysis of online discussion forums: a comparative analysis of protocols. Education Technology Research & Development, 52(2), 23-40.
Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2001). Methodological Issues in the Content Analysis of Computer Conference Transcripts. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 12, 8-22.
Selwyn, N., & Gorard, S. (2004). Exploring the role of ICT in facilitating adult informal learning. Education, Communication & Information, 4(2/3), 293-310.
Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basic of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Strauss, H. (2004). A smart learning environment. Syllabus, 18(1), 57-28.
Sullivan, P. (2002). "It's easier to be yourself when you are invisible": female college students discuss their online classroom experiences. Innovative Higher Education, 27(2), 129144.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity: Cambridge University Press.
Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). A guide to managing knowledge: cultivating communities of practice. Boston, MA: Harvard business school press.
Community: mutual engagement
Domain: joined enterprise
Practice: a shared repertoire
System problems related to errors in the system functions
Administrative issues related to PowerPoint, PDF, and web format
Thread #557. Losing the formatting.
I copied the text from the PDF file and then pasted it into Word. But the problem is all the formatting was gone. I tried to use the Snapshot tool but then the content pasted into word is not editable.
Questions related to the status of their translated courses
Thread #504. When will my course be online?
As titled. Thank you.
Administrative issues related to technical and system functionalities
Thread #400. Why does this forum use only traditional Chinese character set?
As titled. Thank you.
Administrative issues related to translation
Thread #192. Let me ask this first.
If I adopt a course to translate, is there a time limit within which I have to complete it? I want to adopt a course but the final exams are approaching. I am afraid I might be able to finish my adopted course quickly.
Administrative issues that do not belong to other administrative storyline
Thread #246. I left a wrong email address.
Very sorry. When I applied to be a volunteer, I think I entered “_” instead of “.”.As a result, I have not received any email from you guys. Please change my email.
Announcements made from Luc to the volunteers
Thread #552. MIT Alumni Association News & Events reported OOPS.
Hardly got a chance to be reported in the English medium. Read it when you have spare time.
Discussions explicitly related to the forming of a learning community
Thread #43. The launch of the OOPS learning community.
Welcome everyone to visit the URL. You can login using the guest account or you can register an ID.
Personal communication between the volunteers and a targeted person
Thread # 198. Level-one translation.
I sent out the level-one translation the day before yesterday. Have you received it? Please confirm. Thanks.
Volunteers share with each other information or resources
Thread #289. Reference here for academic terminologies.
Here is the link to the National Institute for Compilation and Translation.
Other storyline related to social activities but do not belong to any subcategories of social
Thread #378. Logo voting.
Logo voting! We will use the logo for stationary and t-shirt. You can also campaign for your favorite ones! Let’s vote!
Members and lurkers express their appreciation to the volunteers
Thread #683. Say thanks to volunteers.
Thanks to all the participating partners. Because of you, we transform such a beautiful Chinese language to the propelling power of a more beautiful world. Keep going!
Problems related to users complaining about not finding course content
Thread #696. Why only assignments without the actual course content?
When I went to the translated courses, I thought there should have more course materials for download. Instead, there are only course assignments available. Where could I find the actual course content?
Discussions explicitly criticize parts of the project
Thread #373. Reader’s confusion.
Translation to traditional Chinese is a risky investment. Globalisation requires us to have increased international communication ability, not the other way around.
Translation related discussions.
Thread # 553. Several questions.
I ran into the following words during my translation. After consulting with the dictionary, I don’t think the meaning in the dictionary fits. Asking for your opinion.
Someone explicitly solicit help, suggestion or opinion
Thread #397. Wiki translation lookup table.
This is an idea I got from a meeting yesterday. Basically like wikipedia.org, all of you provide the Chinese simplified and traditional translation for each terminology listed and we will end up with a lookup table. What do you all think?
Someone explicitly makes a suggestion to some part of the project
Thread #223. Proposed Beta version of dissemination effort
After talking with Luc and several others, here I listed a couple of directions we can take to put forward our project.
Topic unrelated to the project
Thread #475. May I ask an unrelated question?
What kind of qualifications do I need if I want to study at MIT?
Discussions related to video lectures
Thread #673. About video lectures.
I took a look at several courses. All I can find is syllabus, assignment, etc. Where can I locate the video lectures for those courses?
Postings related to people expressing interests to be a volunteer
Thread #98. Count me in.
I am truly impressed by your motivation and passion. Currently I am a MBA student at Ecole hoteliere de Lausanne (洛桑旅館學院 www.ehl.ch), although living with an extremely intensive schedule, I do love to devote to this terrific project and hope to make some contribution. I am interested in translating "Management Communication for Undergraduates Fall 2002" under Slone since it is relatively smaller and suits my schedule.
Meng Fen Lin is a doctoral candidate in Instructional Technology at the University of Houston. Her research interests include online community, open education, and social learning theories.