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  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
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  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  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
CMC develops its own sense of community  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 :
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  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  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  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
Hiltz and Turoff  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  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  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 
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 . The goal is
one that can be reached individually or as a group. Vygotsky's  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.
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.
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.
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' . Content analysis can also
be described as an approach which takes 'a verbal, non-quantitative document
and transforms it into quantitative data' , 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.
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 , 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 ) and processed using a simple MS Excel spreadsheet.
|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.|
|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%)|
|administrative||49 (6.19% of total interactions)|
|personal experience||1110 (13.91%)|
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.
|interactive multimedia students||8|
3.3 Data analysis
Standard t-tests for difference of means  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)
|posts||off-task||total urls||off task urls||admin||disc||quest||persEx||social|
|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
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
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".
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 , 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.
 Berelson B., Content Analysis in Communication
Research, New York, NY: Hafner Publishing (1971-facsimile of 1952 edition).
 Birchall, D. and Smith, M. (1996). Applying
groupware in management education including distance learning. Active Learning,
 Cohen L. and Manion L., Research Methods in
Education, London: Routledge (1994).
 Feenberg, A. (1989). The written world: on the
theory and practice of computer conferencing. In Mindweave: communication,
computers and distance education (edited by R.D. Mason and A.R. Kaye), pp.
22-39. Oxford: Pergammon.
 Greenhalgh, T. (1996). Knowledge industry gets
down to business. Times Higher Education Supplement, 8/11/96.
 Hiltz, S.R. and Turoff, M. (1993). The Network
Nation: Human Communication Via Computer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
 Hoel, P.G., (1976). Elementary Statistics. John
Wiley and Sons
 Jary D. and Jary J., Collins Dictionary of Sociology,
Glasgow: HarperCollins (1995).
 Klemm, W.R., (1997) Eight Ways to Get Students
More Engaged in Online Conferences, THE Journal [Electronic Version]
 Lapham A., Reflections on the groupware experience:
a content analysis of student module evaluations, Active Learning 10/99 pp.14-20
 Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University
Teaching. London: Routledge.
 Malone, T.W. & Lepper, M.R. (1987). Making
learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In R.E. Snow
& M.J. Farr (Eds.) Aptitude, learning, and instruction: III. Conative
and affective process analysis (pp. 223-253). Hillsdael, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
 Malone, T.W. (1981) Towards a theory of intrinsically
motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 5, 333-369.
 Mason, R. (1994). Introduction: written interactions.
In Computer Conferencing: the Last Word (edited by R. Mason), pp. 3-20. Victoria,
BC: Beach Holme.
 Moore, P. G., Shirley, E. A. C., & Edwards,
D. E. (1972). Standard Statistical Calculations (2nd ed.). London: Pitman.
 Price, M., Lapham, A., (in press) The Virtual
Seminar in Virtual Learning and Higher Education, Interdisciplinary Press.
 Slavin, R., (1996). Research on cooperative
learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary
Educational Psychology, 21, 43-69.
 Valacich, J.S., Paranka, D., George, J.F. and
Nunamaker, J.F. (1993). Communication concurrency and the new media: A new
dimension for media richness. Communication Research, 20, 249-276.
 Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The
development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
 Walther, J.B. (1993). Impression development
in computer-mediated interaction. Western Journal of Communication, 57, 381-398.