Peter Theodore and Wayne Nelson studied five distinctive features of asynchronous discussions. The results are of value for stimulating discussion and for planning bulletin board discussions
Distinctive Features of Computer-Mediated
Human Growth and Development
With regard to the quotations from the transcripts that are used below to illustrate the findings, the entire text of some posts does not appear, though the quoted portion itself is intact unless specifically noted. Pseudonymous initials have been substituted for student names and blank lines have been substituted for names of non-students or places referred to by students in their posts. Otherwise the words appear just as they were posted to the discussion board.
The first theme to emerge while coding the posts was the inclusion by students of references to their own personal experience. Of the total of 307 student posts, 134 (44 percent) were found that included some sort of reference to personal experience, as in this example:
My dad was never really around when I was growing up and it left me a bit unstable and extremely resentful. I think it is important for both parents to be at home as much as possible. But, I also think that if the parents cannot be there then someone else can take their place in a sense. I am a nanny and I have been working with the same family for a year now. I have been with _____ since he was born. I am not a parent but I do have many of the same responsibilities as parents do. _____ feels very secure with me and his face lights up as soon as he sees me everyday. Both of his parents have wonderful relationships with him as well. They spend as much time as they can with all their children. I happen to think that _____ is lucky to have so many people that love him. I just happen to be a third attachment of his. (SN, 2/2/2000)
Some of the references to personal experience were quite brief, and therefore were not especially revealing or emotionally charged, such as the following:
My thoughts exactly! I think that's what happened to me. I got quite caught up in my grades--especially in high school--so much that I never really enjoyed what I was doing! As a teacher, I hope I can prevent that. The Internet seems to be a great way to get connected with what interests you. (EF, 1/27/2000)
On the other hand, the references to personal experience could be very revealing and emotionally powerful, as here:
I think telling your family members you love them and making sure all of them know how much they mean to you is so important. When my grandmother died it was always never really clear if she was going to be fine or if she was going to die. We all knew she was sick but didn't really know how much time she had left. No one talked about dying because we were all so optimistic. By the time we knew how long she had left she was comatose and we only had two days with her. It made that separation so hard on all of us. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards because I never got to say goodbye or tell her how much she meant to me. Because of that I always tell my friends and family how important they are. I don't care if death is a morbid topic. You never know how long you have on earth and it's more important that someone knows how you feel that skirting a touchy subject. AB (AB, 5/3/2000)
References to personal experience appear to have depended, at least in part, upon course content. In the Instructional Technology class, 27 out of 110, or 25 percent, of the posts referred to personal experience. In the Human Growth and Development class, 107 out of 197, or 54 percent, of the posts referred to personal experience. The Human Growth and Development course may have included more topics that elicited references to personal experience. In comparison, the smaller number of references to personal experience in the Instructional Technology class indicates that the nature of the bulletin board discussion may be influenced by its content, and that the sort of influence it has on collaborative learning will depend, at least in part, on the topics being discussed.
Course content alone, however, does not seem sufficient to account for the prevalence of references to personal experience on the bulletin board. Even in Instructional Technology, fully one fourth of student posts made such references. For example, the following excerpt is from the Instructional Technology class:
I have a six year old sister and my parents both work and at very different times. They have computer programs for her and at times they do just sit her in front while they do housework. I can see how special it is when I sit down with her and we read together, or when I see my mom or dad read to her. She becomes so alive and excited. When she comes from behind the computer screen she seems lonely.
Despite the relatively less personal content of Instructional Technology, the bulletin board still seems to have elicited quite personal references from students. Indeed, given the deeply personal nature of some of the experiences related on the bulletin board, and that 44 percent of total student posts made reference to personal experience, it seems reasonable to conclude that the bulletin board discussion can encourage this sort of sharing, and will facilitate the inclusion of personal experiences in collaborative learning processes.
The next category of student posts that was noted was the indication of interaction in the posts. Posts were coded as having an element of interaction when the student made some sort of direct reference to the others in the class, explicitly interacting with the others in the group in the way the post was worded. This type of post, as well as the “personal experience” type of post discussed above, might belong to the “monolog” or lower-level discussion types posited in the literature (Jarvela & Hakkinen, 2000; Jenlink & Carr, 1996). A total of 154, or 50 percent, of the 307 student posts were coded in this way. The examples below will help to clarify the sorts of posts that were considered interaction.
Hey everyone! I just wanted to try to continue the discussion we were having on nature vs. nurture and other factors that influence development. Although I do not take a strong stand on either position, I am curious to understand how people who claim that nature controls development support this view. When I examine myself, I tend to see many more environmental factors that have shaped my life. Even influences that may be considered genetic, such as the color of my skin, are still largely affected by cultural experiences and how society places value upon them. What do you think? Do you find that your life has been shaped more by heredity or environment? (CM, 1/18/2000)
I was wondering if anybody had the same results on the nametag activity as I did. I basically had the same responses for three of the four questions on both the nametags. The only question that I had different was "Where I would like to go?" The other activity was pretty interesting too. I thought Tuesday's class was one of the best classes of the semester. See you guys in class tomorrow. (PV, 3/29/2000)
Unlike references to personal experience, the element of interaction in student posts does not seem to have been dependent upon course content. Approximately half the posts in each class, 46 percent in Instructional Technology and 52 percent in Human Growth and Development, contained an element of interaction. Phrases such as "Hey everyone!," "What do you think?," and "See you guys in class tomorrow." indicate that students felt themselves to be interacting with their classmates when they posted a message to the bulletin board. This promotion of interaction is another important way that the bulletin board discussion facilitates collaborative learning.
Many instances of students taking a position and supporting it with a reasoned argument, or of using logic to discuss different sides of an issue, were noted in the transcripts. These interactions may be of the type described in the literature as “dialog” (Jenlink & Carr, 1996) because of the exchange of points of view supported by logical arguments. Out of the total of 307 student posts, 101 posts, or 33 percent, were identified that involved expressing one's point of view and supporting it in a logical manner. As with the element of interaction, the percentage of posts involving logic was not very different between the two classes. In the Instructional Technology class, 31 out of 110 posts, or 28 percent, were coded for logical argument, and in the Human Growth and Development class, 70 out of 197 posts, or 36 percent, were so coded. Following are some examples of what was seen as occurrences of logical reasoning in student posts.
I also agree that people learn best when they are interested in the subject matter and when they are working not only to get a grade or complete a project but to fulfill their own interests. It is not only the end result that is important in education but also the process. A student learns much more while doing research on a topic such as extra information and methods of researching than what is included in a final report. When a person finds their work interesting, often it ceases to be work and becomes fun and intrinsically rewarding. (WH, 1/18/2000)
The classroom creates an environment in which children are forced to function against their nature. A child is constantly learning and exploring, and the classroom forces them to sit and try to be passive. If I found a child who liked to sit still for seven hours a day and never move, I would be extremely worried. Ritalin is destroying childhood, because being a kid is all about being excited and tactile and using the imagination. By using Ritalin, we are taking away a vital part of the experience of growing up. Our society expects children to act like adults, and if children don't comply, we drug them so they do. Does this sound incredibly dangerous to anyone else besides me? (VB, 3/2/2000)
Instances of logical argument were typically brief, as in the examples above. On occasion, however, a student would present and defend a position by contributing a rather lengthy argument to the bulletin board discussion. An example of the sort of extended logical argument that could appear on the bulletin board is shown below. The article referred to in this post was a magazine article that reported on the practice of young women selling their eggs at high prices to infertile couples.
This article disturbed me for several reasons, and if you will all bear with me, I will attempt to articulate how I feel.
First of all, I have nothing against using technology to aid those people who otherwise could not have children. I agree with what AB said, in that God would not argue with people using their God-given intelligence in order to assist them with their reproductive problems. However, this article made me sick to my stomach.
The attitude of Ms. _____ really paints a dark and disturbing picture of the reproductive "industry" (for lack of a better term). She just does not care that a part of her is being put on the open market and sold to the highest bidder. She feels no need or obligation to have any moral connection with this child. Organ trafficking is illegal in every civilized nation on this planet. I do not see how this is allowed to continue.
My next qualm is the utter disregard that Ms. _____ has for her own biological well-being. What if ten years down the road, she wants to have children of her own, and her ovaries are too scarred, drugged, and damaged for this to be possible? What if twenty years down the road, medical science shows that women who donated eggs have an extremely high incidence of ovarian cancer, one of the fastest acting cancers that exists, with almost the lowest survival rate? What if, at the end of her life, she is filled with deep regret about the fact that maybe she donated for the wrong reasons? Or is she so concerned with MONEY that these things never occurred to her?
There was one sentence in this article that simply made my jaw drop to the floor. "He (_____) said that he saw nothing wrong with a client's paying premium rates for hard to come by goods." Goods????!!!! We're not talking about a rare work of art or an expensive old car; this is a HUMAN LIFE, an entity which supersedes any material object. I cannot say how I really feel about this in a public forum, because my tone would be way too angry, so I'll move on. Let me just say this: this article was written from a very obviously pro-choice standpoint. I would be interested to see how the other half, pro-life advocates (which I am one of) think of this issue.
Finally, I would like to address the subject of the "investment" idea. This also ties together with the concepts of pre-natal care which we discussed in class. What would happen if a couple paid all this money to obtain a donor egg, then found that when the child was born, they were unhappy with the results? What if the athletic parents had a child who was interested in things other than sports? What if a couple wanted a child to continue their family line, and their child turned out to be homosexual? What if a couple had an amniocentesis during the pregnancy and found out that their child had a developmental defect? I'm sure all of these things have probably happened. Does this change the parents' attitude? If a person is willing to cheapen life down to the level of a material "product," what is to prevent such a person from abusing a child who does not live up to the genetic expectations that the parents paid for?
For life to be lowered to such a low state disturbs every moral fiber in my soul. I have had personal experience with close family members who had problems having children. Knowing the pain and anguish they went through for years--having three miscarriages, waiting long years for adoptions to go through, wading through miles of red tape, and finally being blessed with a child--I cannot believe that there are people out there who would take advantage of this deep emotional anguish so they could make a buck. Thank you for reading this. I know it was rather long, but I had to say what I felt about this or I was going to explode. –VB (VB, 2/3/2000)
The prevalence of this sort of logical argument on the bulletin board is evidence that the bulletin board exhibits in combination some of the qualities of both oral and written communication. The tendency to argue for a particular point of view is a characteristic of oral conversation, and the development of such an argument in a linear, logical manner is a characteristic of writing (Ong, 1982). This combination on the bulletin board discussion brings discourse that is both disputatious and linearly structured into the service of collaborative learning.
Another distinctive feature of electronic bulletin board communication is the “threaded” nature of the medium that seems to encourage and support multiple perspectives on various topics of discussion. In this study, several students, each with a different point of view on a subject, presented their positions in posts to the bulletin board. As a result, the bulletin board contained a multi-faceted presentation of this subject, making multiple perspectives available to all who read the bulletin board. Students made 143 posts, or 47 percent of the total of 307 student posts, that could be coded as presenting multiple perspectives on some issue. As with the elements of interaction and logic, the percentage of posts presenting multiple perspectives was not markedly different in the two classes. In the Instructional Technology class, 45, or 41 percent, of the total of 110 posts were coded for multiple perspectives, and in the Human Growth and Development class, 98, or 50 percent, of the total of 197 posts were so coded. As was the case with interaction and logical argument, the difference between the two classes seems to indicate that the content of the courses was not an important factor. The following excerpts from a discussion about the use of Ritalin provide an example of the sort of posts that were seen as presenting multiple perspectives.
I am writing on the idea of Ritalin in young children. My personal opinion is that in the past I have seen children who are on Ritalin and to me they seem to be a totally different person. For example, a child on Ritalin (in the case that I have seen) was very quiet and withdrawn, when normally they were more outgoing and talkative. I realize it is different for each child, but I do not understand why we have a need to control one's behavior with medication. It almost shows that as a society we are lazy and do not want to deal with our children when they may cause us to put in extra time. (EL, 2/29/2000)
One of my education professors brought up the fact once that what did we do before there was Ritalin? And, is it really that we now have greater knowledge that we can diagnose things such as ADHD or is it something our society has created? With all of the television and video games, have we created a generation of children who cannot sit still? And then when they don't sit still we label them with a learning disorder and put them on medication to stop their excitable behavior. I think that one of the most charming aspects of little children is their energy and enthusiasm. I think people are entirely too quick to use Ritalin instead of looking into other options such as one on one interaction or classroom adjustments like Mr. Theodore was suggesting. Ritalin has become an easy way out for many parents and teachers so they don't have to put additional time or effort into certain students. AB (AB, 3/1/2000)
I will admit that drugs may be overused in some cases, but to generalize to all of them seems a little harsh. It seems to me that some children do need drugs to help them. It would not be fair to stop giving children Ritalin if it would help them learn. It hurts a child's self esteem when they are not learning things with the rest of the class. How can they learn unless they can use the drugs to focus and not be jumping around the room and causing distractions? If children are allowed to use them when needed, they are more likely to stay up with the class and what they are learning. I know that when I was in grade school, kids who were having problems such as ADHD often went to the public school so that they could get more help learning because the private school did not have spec. ed. One of my friends was one of those children. She was made fun of because she could not hack it. (TE, 3/2/2000)
Two features of the bulletin board as a medium, that the conversation remains in place and that it is organized by topic, seem likely to have facilitated the presentation of multiple perspectives on topics. Students could easily read what had already been posted on a given topic, viewing whatever perspectives were presented. It seems likely that this reading would help a student clarify his or her own point of view, and encourage the student to add it to the ones already posted. Thus, regardless of course content, the bulletin board seems to bring multiple perspectives to the collaborative learning process.
The final aspect of student posts that was noted in the analysis was the statement of an opinion on some topic. Of the 307 student posts, 186 posts, or 61 percent, were identified as containing the expression of an opinion. As with all of the other codes except for personal experience, there was not a large difference in the percentage of posts between the two classes. In the Instructional Technology class, 61 out of 110 posts, or 55 percent, were coded for opinion, and in the Human Growth and Development class, 125 out of 197 posts, or 63 percent, were so coded. These posts were distinguished from logical arguments because students simply stated their opinions without supporting it with arguments. Some examples of the sorts of posts coded for opinion follow:
I think that computers and the Internet are an essential element of every classroom. I want to teach 1st or 2nd grade and I feel that it is important to introduce children to computers and other technology at an early age. In my classroom I would encourage the children to explore the computer by letting them play computer games, typing programs, art/design programs, etc. I would also use the computer to type the students' stories that they write so that they could see how a word processor works. This would allow the children to become familiar with and understand the many uses of a computer. Once the children felt comfortable on the computer I would introduce the Internet and let them see how it is used (this would be supervised). 1st grade might be a little too young to understand how to use the Internet, so I would only bring this into the classroom if I felt it was appropriate. Overall I would encourage all teachers to find ways to utilize computers and other technology in the classroom. Teachers and students can benefit from this. (OC, 2/7/2000)
CM, I agree wholly with you. Using medication to unnecessarily govern young children's behavior is terrible. I mean if we are going to sedate our children, why not use something that will really work? How about some heroin? That should keep them silent. Forgive the sarcasm, but I think this is something to stop. MW (MW, 2/24/2000)
I don't think that I will fully become an adult until I have children of my own to take care of. I know that I do not want to be an adult until then. I have adult responsibilities and they are definitely not my most favorite things to do. We also have to remember that adulthood is a process with many stages--all are not reached at the same time. TE (TE, 4/13/2000)
The expression of opinion was the most common characteristic found in student posts, occurring in over half the posts in both classes. Students seemed to situate themselves as distinct individuals within the bulletin board discussion, making clear where they stood on the topics under discussion. It seems likely that being alone in front of the computer is less intimidating than being face-to-face with another person, and that this greater degree of comfort facilitated the expression of personal opinion. Also, the fact that one has the opportunity and time to read and understand another's point of view may improve the clarity of one's own position. Getting students involved with one another in this manner is one more way the bulletin board discussion facilitates learning.
The bulletin board discussion appears to combine some of the key characteristics of oral and written communication (Ong, 1982). Participants get personal in the context of the bulletin board discussion in the same way that they would get personal in a face-to-face conversation. They show emotion, interact with each other, and share personal stories. At the same time, the fact that the bulletin board conversation remains in place to be read imbues it with some of the qualities of writing. Participants are able to read and contribute at any time, regardless of when others have been involved, and contributions often have the coherent, logical development of a written work.
Both of these dimensions of the bulletin board discussion, the "oral," interactive dimension and the "written," logical dimension, are important aspects of learning. In addition to providing evidence that interaction among students is a regular feature of their participation in the bulletin board discussion, the present study reveals something of the quality of those interactions. The data indicate, for example, that the sharing of personal experience tends to be a substantial part of discussion on the bulletin board, and that course content seems to influence the frequency of this sharing. This suggests that courses in which the relation of students' personal experiences to course content would be particularly valuable would benefit from the incorporation of bulletin board discussions, and that students should be encouraged to include these experiences into their posts.
Instructors could encourage the sharing of personal experience by posing questions on the bulletin board that are aimed at eliciting references to that experience, such as: "What have you experienced in your own life that relates to x?" The sharing of personal experiences on the bulletin board can also be encouraged by what the instructor says during face-to-face class meetings, such as: "You may want to discuss your thoughts about y further on the bulletin board. One good way to approach this would be to discuss any experiences you have had that relate to y."
Interaction on the bulletin board can also be encouraged by explicit recommendations from the instructor, such as reminders that the bulletin board is there as an opportunity for students to talk to each other, rather than a place to respond to the instructor. Group discussions can be begun in the classroom, and then ended while there is still some energy in them; the instructor can suggest that the discussion be continued on the bulletin board.
The present study also found that the bulletin board discussion facilitated the presentation of multiple perspectives on issues. Courses involving complex content that requires the consideration on many perspectives in order to be adequately understood would seem to benefit from the incorporation of bulletin board discussions as part of an effort to support learning among students.
Finally, the incorporation of logical argument in student posts seems to be a particularly valuable contribution made to the learning process by the bulletin board discussion, as students are likely to develop their own thinking as they construct logical arguments and to learn from reading the logical arguments of their peers. The combination of disputative interaction, similar to what could take place orally, with extended linear argument, which tends to require written text both to be constructed and to be understood, seems to be a unique feature of the bulletin board discussion. Courses where the construction and exchange of logical arguments would be relevant would seem to be especially well suited for the incorporation of bulletin board discussions.
To take full advantage of this convergence of oral disputation and linear argument on the bulletin board, it is recommended that controversial topics be deliberately introduced into the discussion. If students are presented with issues about which they genuinely disagree, they are more likely both to construct arguments for their own point of view and to enter into disputation with others. It will be very important, of course, to give students guidance about how to disagree with each other in a productive and respectful manner, emphasizing that the goal is a mutual search for enlarged understanding, and that no one person is likely to have the whole truth. Discussion of genuinely controversial issues will also facilitate the presentation of multiple perspectives and the expression of opinion.
In general, it seems that the incorporation of bulletin board discussions ought to be considered in courses where collaborative learning is desired, where the goal is for students to learn from each other as well as from the instructor and course materials. Furthermore, it is apparent that particular aspects of interaction on the bulletin board discussion, such as the inclusion of personal experience, the presentation of multiple perspectives, and the development of logical arguments, might be suggested to students. Further research, both quantitative and qualitative, focusing on the five categories discussed in the present study, is indicated, both to provide further support for the validity of the categories as constructs and to provide a more thorough picture of just how these qualities of student discourse contribute to collaborative learning.
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Peter A. Theodore, Ph.D.
Peter A. Theodore, Ph. D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. His primary interests are computer- mediated communication and philosophy of education. He has been doing research on the educational implications of computer-mediated bulletin board discussions for the past 6 years.
Phone: (618) 650-3291
Wayne A. Nelson Ph.D.
Dr. Wayne A. Nelson is professor of Instructional Technology and Chairman of the Department of Educational Leadership at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He has been involved in the design of computer-based instruction and learning technologies for the past 15 years as a university professor and consultant to schools and businesses.
Phone: (618) 650-3291