Asynchronous Dialogue in Education: towards an understanding of the nature of interactions

Melissa Lee Price

Staffordshire University,
PO Box 660 College Road, Stoke on Trent ST4 2XN
United Kingdom

Andy Lapham

London College of Music and Media, Thames Valley University
London W5 5DX
United Kingdom


This study examines student interactions on an asynchronous classroom bulletin board. The quantity of student postings was a part of the individual student's assessment process with no assessment as to the quality of the post. The interactions were viewed as either on task or off task with further descriptions as to the nature of the discussion. Results show that students were on task 83.72% of the time. There is further evidence that students contribute to the discussion by posting URLs for illustrative purposes. These postings were examined and found in 62% of the time not to spawn further discussion.


Asynchronous Communication, Computer Mediated Communication, Online Education, Post Graduate.

1 Introduction

Many universities around the world are using the World Wide Web to offer classes in an asynchronous as well as a synchronous mode. Many more are using the hypermedia features of the Web to support teaching and learning by offering websites as support environments to traditional face to face classes. Factors that inhibit adoption of actual online teaching can include a fear that students will be short-changed in the educational experience by feeling isolated from their fellow classmates. Previous research [16] shows that students who are returning to the educational environment after a number of years in the workforce are surprised by how quickly a sense of 'community' is formed with their fellow classmates in cyberspace.

The purpose of this study was to determine if there was any significant difference in the nature of interactions seen in the asynchronous discussions of a group of post-graduate students.

Students were taking Technological Innovations, their first module (US term: class) on a MA course of study. This was also the first distance education experience for all students, although four of the students were employed full-time designing online course material. The module required students to post to an asynchronous online bulletin board (BBS); attend several online synchronous chat sessions; write a twenty page annotated bibliography; write a personal essay about the different modes of communication/teaching during the semester; and to participate in a joint project with another student. The module was worth 30 credits out of the 180 needed for an MA.

In a traditional face-to-face classroom if a student attends the lecture and doesn't contribute to the discussion the tutor can still get feedback from non-verbal clues as to whether or not the student is understanding the material. In an online class there are no such clues. The only way a tutor can assess student comprehension is by the student's contribution to the discussion. Many students find it difficult to contribute in a face-to-face class and therefore are hesitant about contributing in an online one. To counter this hesitation, Klemm [9] suggests that the tutor require participation as a part of the assessment process. In the Technological Innovations module, participation is 30% of the overall grade. It is stressed to the students that the participation grade is a quantitative rather than a qualitative one. The more a student posts to the Bulletin Board the higher his/her participation grade will be.

1.1 Computer Mediated Communication

The asynchronous Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) environment gives participants time to reflect (one of Laurillard's [11] requirements of an educational medium to support her conversational framework for learning), and the opportunity to form a more cogent response or contribution to a discussion. Participants are also freed of the constraint to take turns to contribute. This in itself can democratise the group and improve many of the problems associated with face-to-face group activity.
CMC develops its own sense of community [2] and indeed enhances social interaction on courses not totally delivered via CMC. Sir John Daniel, then Vice-Chancellor of the Open University is reported as saying at the World Open Learning Conference, in October 1996 [5]:

We have 17,000 students networked from home, up from 5,000 last year. Completion rates seem to have increased and even the face-to-face sessions are better because students know each other through the computer conferences.
Interestingly, experimental results from one study [20] suggest that although patterns and rates of interpersonal impression development (ie getting to know co-members of the group) are different in face-to-face groups and CMC groups, over time impression development gradually increases in CMC groups to levels approaching that of face-to-face groups.

1.2 A Text Based Medium

Mason [14] refers to CMC discussions as "preserved conversation" (p.4) but she argues that rather than being seen as a poor relation to spoken dialogue its strength as a medium for delivering learning should be acknowledged in its own right. Feenberg [4] sees a growing ascendancy, fuelled by technology, of the written word over the spoken word. In his analysis of types of discourse, he differentiates between repeatable discourse and retrievable discourse. Repeatable discourse is based on speech, accounts, performance and storytelling, and is thus social by nature. Retrievable discourse is based on writing, on access to permanent, stored text and is thus by nature individual. Feenberg's hypothesis is that technology leads to the ascendancy of retrievable discourse that in turn leads to the individuation of society. For Feenberg, CMC is a manifestation of post-modernism.

Hiltz and Turoff [6] offer evidence that the narrowing of communication channels may actually promote contribution and rationality in certain forms of task. They also suggest that the absence of cues can help to mask an individual from a group. Anonymity, or the use of a pseudonym, takes this to the extreme. Hiltz and Turoff report research that suggests that this can lead to the promotion of effective group activity through the subordination of an individual's self to the task of the group.

Valacich et al [18] report research that demonstrates that CMC groups outperformed face-to-face groups in tasks of idea creation. This they attribute to the fact that the CMC medium can support a parallel concurrency of ideas and themes. Face-to-face communication, and other traditional media, on the other hand, can only support serial concurrency.

1.3 Sociability and Motivation

here are two distinct learning theories that influence the design of online courses, cognitive and constructivist. Malone's cognitive learning theory of motivation [13] includes the factor of curiosity, whereby the learner is challenged through information that conflicts with previous knowledge or experiences. This motivates the student to find information to support or refute that conflict and in doing so further develops higher learning skills. Malone and Lepper [12] also point out that motivators are either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivators occur when learners consider some aspect of the learning process to be fun. An important aspect of constructivist theory has learners involved in cooperative exercises to help them reach a common goal [17]. The goal is one that can be reached individually or as a group. Vygotsky's [19] social-cognition theory has the social interaction paramount in the cognition of the learners.

Education is a social process, with learners learning from each other as well as from texts and tutors. And whereas social interaction does promote learning, some forms can also hinder it. Keeping students on task is a worry of instructors in any teaching/learning environment. This is especially true in a cyber classroom where the instructor in not present to quell disruptive behavior with a well-placed frown. To develop a sense of 'community' in an online learning environment, students need to be given the chance to get to know each other prior to engaging in collaborative learning. Collaborative learning is student centered rather than teacher centered. The learning process takes place when students interact with each other exchanging ideas in debates or seminar discussion.

2 Participants

The module, Technological Innovations has been taught for four years in an online environment and focuses on social and economic impacts of new technology. Not only do students study many of these issues, they also experienced them as an everyday part of the class. Students in this study came from two different courses (majors): E-Business, a multi-disciplinary course where students take classes in the Schools of Business, Computing, Art and Design, and Law; and Interactive Multimedia offered through the School of Art and Design. Only two of the students were attempting an MA directly from an undergraduate degree, and only two were enrolled as full-time students.

2.1 Apparatus

The class was tightly structured so that students would know what they were supposed to do each week. Each weekly class session had its own web page that had links to a series of newspaper/magazine articles about the week's topic. The guest for the week was introduced and there was an initial question to start the discussion. As well as the initial discussion question, students were set an exercise (such as conducting a Bobby usability test on a favorite website the week Design Issues were discussed). They were encouraged to integrate the exercises into the discussions about the readings.

The class is designed to 'force' the students to participate by having an extrinsic motivational factor of a participation grade that is equal to 30% of their final mark. It is hoped that as the semester progresses students cease to focus on the extrinsic factor and move toward intrinsic ones. As learners become more internally motivated they become 'challenged' or 'excited' by the information they are originally given in the class readings. They wish to develop and add to the discussion by illustrating that they have located material that they wish to share with their tutor and classmates. One way that intrinsic factors can be examined is through an analysis of by student postings of URLs to illustrate or punctuate the discussion.

To ensure that students were familiar with the BBS environment, and to give the instructor time to add their photos to the class home page, the first week of the semester was an introduction exercise. Students were required to email the instructor a scanned image of themselves and to register to use the BBS. After registration they were to post a self introduction on the board and to engage in chit-chat with their fellow students.

The first week saw 214 posts from 14 participants. These have not been included in the analysis since the purpose of the week was social in nature. It should be noted, however, that eight threads of a non social nature were started during the week. These eight threads generated 59 messages, 27.6% of the weekly discussion.

The study examined five subsequent weeks (October 6 - November 9, 2002) and covered the discussion topics: History and Structure of the Internet; Design Issues; E-Commerce; Social Issues; and E-Government.

3 Results

In keeping with constructivist theory, the tutor in Technological Innovations became the 'Guide on the Side' by only needing to contribute to the discussion 17% of the time. Students were responsible for 78% of the postings with the weekly guests contributing 6%. To further the social nature of the educational process, students ventured off task into social discourse and personal experience at various times during the discussion.

3.1 Method of analysis

Quantitative data on the nature of interactions seen in the asynchronous discussions were obtained using a rudimentary form of content analysis.

Content analysis is 'a research technique for the objective, quantitative and systematic description of communication content' [8]. Content analysis can also be described as an approach which takes 'a verbal, non-quantitative document and transforms it into quantitative data' [3], through an analysis of the incidence of units of data (in this case the postings to the discussions) and their positioning in a set of categories. Appropriate statistical analysis was then performed on the data.

3.2 Data

Categories of interactions identified using the refinement protocol are described. (see Table 1)
Six main weekly threads of discussion formed the raw data for the study. In all, a total of 731 postings from 23 participants were categorised and analysed. Summarised posting data and participant characteristics are given (see Tables 2 and 3).

As Berelson [1], says 'content analysis stands or falls by its categories'. Here, the categories of interactions were determined using a protocol for iterative refinement (detailed in the report of a similar study by the one of the co-authors of this paper [10]) and processed using a simple MS Excel spreadsheet.

Table 1: Categories

On task Binary category. The posting addresses the discussion topic or thread theme. Off task postings are tangential to the topic and superfluous to the focus of the discussion.
number of URLs The number of URLs to websites included in the posting, for example, to illustrate a point or to further discussion.
number of URLs The number of URLs to websites included in the posting, for example, to illustrate a point or to further discussion.
discursive The posting extends the topic, or develops a new thread by presenting participants with questions or tasks.
questioning The number of URLs to websites included in the posting, for example, to illustrate a point or to further discussion.
personal experience The participant uses personal experience to illustrate, discuss or develop a topic or thread.
administrative The posting contains administrative information about the class. This may be, for example, organisation, technical, or operational.
social The posting is primarily off-task and social in nature.

Table 2: Posting data

Total postings: 731
on task 612 (83.72% of total postings)
off task 119 (16.28%)
URLs: postings containing 114 (15.6% of total postings)
total URLs posted 164 (0.22 urls per post)
off task 119 (16.28%)
Interactions: 791
administrative 49 (6.19% of total interactions)
discursive 522 (65.99%)
questioning 182 (10.37%)
personal experience 1110 (13.91%)
social 28 (3.54%)

Table 2 notes: 1. content of postings may fall into one or more of the interaction categories, therefore % categories are based on total interactions rather than total postings. 2. All social interactions are off-task, but not all off-task postings are social.

Table 3: Participants

Total: 23
Category: e-business students 6
interactive multimedia students 8
guests 8
tutors 1
Study mode full-time 2
part-time 12


3.3 Data analysis

Standard t-tests for difference of means [15] were used to explore the possibility of differences between participant categories, particular between the two student groups defined by their overall course of study. (see Table 4)

Table 4: Data by participant category

posts off-task total urls off task urls admin disc quest persEx social
EB students 168 11 41 1 4 134 30 18 1
6(26.1%) 23% 9.24% 25% 5.30% 8.20% 25.70% 27.30% 22% 3.60%
IM students 398 72 92 13 9 299 43 48 18
8(34.8%) 54.50% 60.50% 56.10% 68.40% 18.40% 57.30% 39.10% 58.50% 64.30%
Guests 40 5 25 4 1 30 13 4 0
8(34.8%) 5.50% 4.20% 15.20% 21% 2% 5.70% 11.80% 4.90% 0%
Tutor 125 31/td> 6 1 35 59 24 12 9
1(4.3%) 17.10% 26% 3.70% 5.30% 71.40% 11.30% 21.8% 14.6% 32.10%
Totals 731 119 164 19 49 522 110 82 28

Table 5: t-tests for difference of means
EBus v Int Media particpant categories

Total postings: t=1.88 significant at 10% level
Off-task postings t=2.30 significant at 5% level
Degrees of freedom (DF) = n1 + n2 - 2 = 12
Critical values: 2.179 @ 5% level & 1.782 @10% level

Thus, when considering the TOTAL POSTINGS from E-business and Interactive Media students, the t-tests reveal that H0 can be rejected and differences are significant at the 10% level. In other words, there is a 90% probability that differences in the mean number of postings per participant between students of the two courses are due to something other than sampling error. Similarly, H0 is rejected when OFF-TASK POSTINGS by the two groups are considered. Here the differences are seen to be significant at the 5% level (a 95% probability that differences are not due to sampling error).

All other comparative tests revealed no significant differences (H0 cannot be rejected). The data, however, are interesting enough to suggest that further study with larger samples may be worthwhile.

The use of URLs in student postings was further examined to determine if the posting of a URL spawned a further discussion, ie the number of follow-up postings which make reference to a URL cited in an earlier posting. (see Table 6.)

The most obvious observation is the large number of 'barren' URLs - 62% of all URLs posted by participants are not further discussed or even acknowledged in subsequent postings.

This is an interesting observation, and as the data emerged a follow up questionnaire survey was carried out in order to illuminate the URL posting issues further.

In this questionnaire student participants were asked to reflect on their experiences of the BBS and in particular to focus on how they followed up URL postings by their classmates.

Nine of the fourteen participants responded. None of the respondents said that they had posted URLs as a strategy to generate extra postings and therefore a better grade. All respondents commented that they posted URLs either to illustrate a point or to share an interesting and relevant site with classmates. Seven (78%) of the respondents claimed that they always or frequently visited a posted URL.

When asked whether they had then followed up a visit to a posted URL with a posting of their own, 72% replied that they had not. Reasons for not doing so included: "time had elapsed and the focus of conversation had moved on"; "there was nothing more to say"; and "it had mostly been said before by the poster of the link".

Table 6: Postings spawned by URLs

URL spawnings 0 1 2 3 4 5 Totals  
Design 33 11 2 0 0 0 46 28.05%
E-commerce 11 5 3 0 1 1 21 12.80%
E-govt 18 6 3 0 0 0 27 16.46%
Social issues 12 1 3 2 0 0 18 10.98%
Hist/structure 28 12 8 4 0 0 52 31.71%
Totals 102 35 19 6 1 1 164
  62.20% 21.34% 11.59% 3.66% 0.61% 0.61%   100%


4 Conclusions

There is a significant difference in the quantity of postings between participants from the two student groups, (MA E-Business and MA Interactive Multimedia). Further study is required on the demographics of the participants, but initial impressions, supported by previous work by the authors [16], suggests that participant age, and confidence and familiarity with using the World Wide Web as a medium for communication are important factors. This is also supported by the significant difference in off-task posts and the relative quantities of social posts.

Students in an asynchronous BBS will contribute to the discussion if they are properly motivated. This motivation can be externally driven, with the promise of a good 'participation' grade, or it can be internally driven with the desire to share some work or personal experience with their fellow students.

The type of posting can also be affected by the participant's motivation. There is some evidence, and certainly sufficient to warrant further study, to suggest that URL posting was not a strategy fuelled by extrinsic motivation, but by intrinsic motivation and a genuine interest to share sources with classmates.

A question remains regarding the 'barren' URLs (62%) that did not spawn further postings. Students stayed on task, discussing the readings assigned, but on the whole did not take the discussion further with other web sites illustrating a discussion point. Further study of the nature of the URLs and the context in which they were posted, may prove illuminating.

With the ability of information located on the World Wide Web to add to a discussion in an asynchronous classroom, perhaps a learning/teaching strategy of having students further the discussion by these means should be adopted as part of the 'participation' assessment.

5 References

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[13] Malone, T.W. (1981) Towards a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 5, 333-369.

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[17] Slavin, R., (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 43-69.

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