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Thoughtful interaction : students’ text communication in online distance education Alexander, Leslie R. 2002

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-/  THOUGHTFUL INTERACTION: STUDENTS' T E X T C O M M U N I C A T I O N IN ONLINE DISTANCE E D U C A T I O N  by  Leslie R. Alexander B.Sc.R., The University of British Columbia, 1974  A THESIS S U B M I T T E D IN P A R T I A L F U L L F I L M E N T OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR T H E D E G R E E OF M A S T E R OF A R T S in T H E F A C U L T Y OF G R A D U A T E STUDIES Department o f Educational Studies  We accept this thesis as conforming to the required standard  T H E U N I V E R S I T Y OF BRITISH C O L U M B I A August 2002  © Leslie R. Alexander, 2002  In  presenting  degree freely  at  the  available  copying  of  department publication  this  of  in  partial  fulfilment  University  of  British  Columbia,  for  this or  thesis  reference  thesis by  this  for  his  and  for  her  financial  gain  of  £^LJ-(Acadn  cvhojL  The University of British Columbia Vancouver, Canada  DE-6  (2/88)  ^hnJjCex  the  requirements  agree  that  agree  may  representatives.  permission.  Department  I  I further  scholarly purposes  or  thesis  study.  of  be  It  shall not  is be  that  the  for  Library  an shall  permission for  granted  by  understood allowed  the  advanced make  extensive  head  that  without  it  of  copying my  my or  written  Thoughtful Interaction  ABSTRACT  Interpretive and hermeneutic interview methodology was employed to report students' descriptions o f the peer interactions during one online distance education course. Claims in the literature that online learning can be designed using social-constructivist pedagogies provided the context for this study. The course is a graduate level study o f e-learning which is offered on W e b C T and accessed through the Internet. Eight students, seven from North America and one from Oceania volunteered to participate i n two phone interviews during the second half o f the semester. The analysis o f the interviews presents the descriptions and perspectives o f students on the interactions among peers in the course. They described using asynchronous text computer-mediated communication to participate in online class discussions. Reading text messages led students to further study and research and to develop an understanding o f course topics. Writing messages to contribute to the online discussions enabled students to communicate and clarify their ideas and to integrate new information related to the course. However, the time used in the work o f active and reflective reading and writing limited the students' participation i n the discussions. The students also described using online text interaction to work with a small group on an assigned task. The students valued the structured time frame and common goal o f the task, and the personal connection with group members. They also felt more responsibility to participate, to contribute their expertise and to solve problems that arose. This study supports claims that students can participate in thoughtful interactions in an online learning environment in which the communication occurs by asynchronous text C M C . However, the students' interests and the course design and content affect these interactions. Time for the literacy practices o f online interactions and an appreciation o f the complexity o f students' social, linguistic and cultural interests are needed.  Thoughtful Interaction  T A B L E OF CONTENTS  ABSTRACT  ii  T A B L E OF CONTENTS  iii  ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS  v  C H A P T E R 1 Introduction  1  1.1 Introduction  1  1.2 Development o f M y Curiosity and Questions  4  1.3 Developing the Context o f this Study  7  1.4 The Purpose o f this Study  9  1.5 Overview o f Thesis  10  C H A P T E R 2 Literature Review 2.1 A Critical Look at E-learning in Distance Education  11 11  2.2 Advocating C M C i n Distance Education from Social-Constructivist Perspectives on Learning  14  2.3 Interaction and Interactivity - Definitions in the Literature and this Study  17  2.4 Reports o f Interaction i n the Learning Environment Using Asynchronous Text C M C  19  2.5 The Text-based Nature o f the Interaction in E-learning  22  2.6 Active and Collaborative Interactions i n E-Learning  26  2.7 The Social Characteristics o f Interactions i n E-learning  29  2.8 Influences on Students' Participation in E-learning  33  2.9 Summary  36  C H A P T E R 3 Research Methods  39  3.1 Decisions Made in the Research Process  39  3.2 Implementing an Interview Study i n a Qualitative Tradition  44  3.3 Analysis o f the Data from the Interview Conversations  51  Thoughtful Interaction  C H A P T E R 4 The Context o f the Study  57  4.1 Description o f the Course  57  4.2 A n Online Distance Education Course on W e b C T  60  4.3 Summary  66  C H A P T E R 5 Analysis  68  5.1 Participants i n the Interview Study  68  5.2 Introduction to the Students  70  5.3 Interactions by Asynchronous Text C M C on the Forum o f an Online Course  79  5.4 Exploring Content and Extending Understanding i n the Text Discussions  85  5.5 Students' Perspectives on the Tone o f the Text Discussions  88  5.6 Students' Perspectives on the Challenges o f the Text Interactions  90  5.7 The Group Task: Meeting the Challenges i n an Online Distance Learning Environment  96  5.8 The Extent o f the Communication in an Online Distance Education Course 5.9 Summary C H A P T E R 6 Discussion  104 114 115  6.1 Summary o f Findings  116  6.2 Discussion o f the Findings  125  6.3 Implications  129  6.4 Curiosity Continues  134  References  136  Appendix A Tutor Interview Protocol  148  Appendix B Participant Questionnaire  149  Appendix C Student First Interview Protocol  151  Appendix D Schedule o f Course Assignments, Activities and Interviews  153  Appendix E Summary o f Participants'Characteristics  154  Thoughtful Interaction  v  ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS  I wish to thank my husband, Shep, and my sons, John, Mark and Jeremy, who have provided encouragement, understanding and support throughout my graduate studies. The academic community o f our household is one I cherish. Discussions with Shep throughout the research process have been invaluable. I am very grateful for the excellent example o f adult learning provided by my parents, Marjorie and A l l a n Williams. They have pursued interests and areas o f knowledge that have enriched our family and the community. During these years o f study, from first questions to final days, Dr. R o n and Helen Dampier Wilson have been true friends. Thank you. I also appreciate the encouragement o f my advisor, Kjell Rubenson, who encouraged me to take on the endeavor o f doing research and writing a thesis. Kjell, and my committee members, Shauna Butterwick and Mark Bullen, have provided thoughtful and practical guidance along these steps o f my academic journey.  Thoughtful Interaction  1  Chapter 1 Introduction  Visualize learners in the multiple and changing roles o f career, community and personal interests. A s they work and study at the same time, using communication technologies to connect with ideas and people, these learners match the description o f the twenty-first century students o f higher education (Frand, 2000). They have opportunities to participate in classrooms beyond the campus and options to consider i f they study by distance education. Through the Internet and the use o f information and computer technology, one o f the options is online learning, or electronic learning (e-learning). This learning environment provides the means for students to access and engage with a variety o f resources, including the resources o f their peers and teachers, without meeting in a shared physical space. Students who want to participate at flexible times and from various places can connect with sources o f information in the course and interact with others using the Internet and computer-mediated communication ( C M C ) . These advantages are motivating the development o f e-learning in distance higher education (Bates, 2000; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison & Archer, 2001). However, the communicative competencies and conventions o f online interactions and the forms and processes o f reading and writing used to participate in an online class are not necessarily familiar or understood. This can be a challenge that is either an opportunity or a limitation and it is, therefore, a relevant and practical area o f inquiry for adult educators. Investigating the ways i n which students are experiencing this challenge is a means o f learning about and understanding the literacies o f e-learning. E-learning is one term o f many used to describe information and computer technology designed to deliver resources and connect learners. Online learning or virtual  learning  environments are also commonly used (Mauger, 2002; Barajas & Owen, 2001). While early e-  Thoughtful Interaction  2  learning limited itself to the delivery o f content by electronic means such as video or computer networks, current use o f e-learning emphasizes the opportunities for people in the learning environment to communicate with each other as they explore the online resources. Learners interact and engage with one another and they have increased access to the teachers and experts in the field o f study (McLester, 2001; Mauger, 2002). Online interaction in distance education uses C M C which has been defined in a general way as "the process o f exchanging thoughts, ideas, and information v i a a computer keyboard and screen connected to other computers" (Lewis, Whitaker & Julian, 1995, p. 16). W i t h current technology the connection between people using C M C is most often occurring through the Internet and the use o f the W o r l d Wide Web ( W W W ) . The use o f e-learning in higher distance education is promoted for a variety o f reasons: making education more cost-effective for the institution; improving access and reducing costs for the learner; enhancing the quality o f the learning environment; and providing a global context for education and the workplace. The stakeholders' role - as teacher, administrator, student, etc. may give some o f these factors more weight (Bates, 1997; Feenberg, 1999; Mason, 1998). However, educators who are interested i n improving teaching and learning insist that the needs of the learner must have priority over economic and institutional goals. Based on the research o f effective learning i n higher education, they advocate for the use o f pedagogies in e-learning that incorporate interaction among learners and between learners and experts (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1997). These practices reflect social-constructivist perspectives on learning in which students are active and engaged learners using language as a tool o f thoughtful and thoughtprovoking discussion and negotiation in the construction o f knowledge (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001; Hiltz, Coppola, Rotter, Turoff, & Benbaum-Fich, 2000; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999).  Thoughtful Interaction  3  Advocates o f e-learning i n higher distance education are enthusiastic about using C M C to increase the amount o f time learners spend in the learning environment because C M C can extend the time and place o f the classroom. Learners can have more time and flexibility to engage with the content o f a course through dialogue and reflection. They can interact at the same time synchronously - or at different times - asynchronously  (Warschauer, 1999; Hiltz, et al., 2000).  They can also meet in the online environment from various locations, and the learning community can include the resources o f learners from different educational, linguistic, social and cultural contexts. A s a result o f the interaction another advantage arises: diverse and alternative perspectives can be shared i n an active and collaborative process o f building knowledge and understanding (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles & Turoff, 1995; Warschauer, 1999; Hiltz, et al., 2000; Jonassen, 1999). Improvements in the technology available for e-learning make audio, and visual interactions increasingly possible but text-based communication is most common in higher education. It can be quickly transmitted to others and easily stored and retrieved for use at a later time (Feenberg, 1999; Warschauer, 1999). These interactions take place as written dialogue and share many features o f conversation, breaking down the dichotomy between the strategies, spontaneity and control o f oral and written language (Voiskounsky, 1997; Noblia, 1998). The opportunity to link the interaction o f speech with the reflection o f reading and writing through C M C is described as a new literacy, called electronic or e-literacy (Warschauer, 1999; Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997). The word interaction and its related forms, interactive and interactivity,  have  different meanings in different contexts and they can be used to refer to the capacities o f the technology. However, in this study, interaction refers to communication between and among people as they reflect on and respond to one another in the learning environment. "Interaction covers those activities where the student is in two-way contact with another person (or persons)  Thoughtful Interaction  4  in such a way as to elicit from them reactions and responses which are specific to the students' own requests or contributions" (Kibby, 1999, Online Interaction: Interaction and independence, section 4). Interaction by asynchronous text C M C involves the participants in the use o f language as text to convey information but also to express and reflect on what is known and to negotiate and explore new understandings.  Development of My Curiosity and Questions  In one course early i n my graduate studies, I had my initiation into e-learning. W e used online communication to continue our weekly campus seminar and the opportunity to extend the engaging and substantive conversations o f the classroom was intriguing. This led me to study the field in published texts and journal articles - many o f which are available on the W W W . I saw in C M C "an impressive array o f new ways to link learners" and an emphasis on the value o f using C M C in "creating cross-cultural communities o f practice and critical inquiry" (Warschauer, 1997). I read about asynchronous text C M C dialogues and discussions as opportunities for students to communicate with their teachers, work with their peers and convert their ideas into text conversations. It was possible to use online interactions to reach across languages and cultures as well as academic disciplines (Johns, 1997; Duszak, 1997; Bass, 2000). I was particularly interested i n these characteristics o f e-learning because I am an English language teacher on a college campus that reflects the multicultural and multilingual diversity o f the surrounding city. The students I meet who use English as a second language are actively acquiring the language skills and academic strategies they need to continue in higher education. The students could use e-learning to observe and participate in the practices o f the academic community, and to use interactive texts as ways o f thinking and learning. A s I saw my  Thoughtful Interaction  5  immediate interests reflected i n the literature I became optimistic about the value o f e-learning and my need to learn more about this interactive place o f learning. In a year o f graduate studies my repertoire o f experiences with e-learning environments grew as did my questions and doubts. I continued to take courses that combined online text discussions with the campus seminar and I enrolled in my first online distance education course. In this course, the primary mode o f delivery was asynchronous text C M C v i a the W W W i n which the participating students were located i n various countries. From the experiences o f this year, I began to reflect on my optimism and analyze the literature on e-learning. For instance, I read articles reporting the problems teachers and students were experiencing as they used C M C , such as difficulties accessing and using the technology, uncertainty about the workload and how to manage their time, and challenges from the asynchronous and text form o f the interactions. I also recognized that there were differing points o f view on the extent o f the online environment and whether or not it included social, cultural and linguistic diversity or i f it empowered or diminished participants. This review enhanced my appreciation o f e-learning and the use o f CMC. Interest in the potential and problems o f e-learning i n distance higher education is evident in the rapidly growing body o f literature on the field i n academic journals and texts, some published traditionally and others on library databases or online journals. A s I learned to critique the writing and research, I observed two troubling relationships - between participants and participation and between practice and research. I first noticed that although online distance education and asynchronous text C M C make possible a highly participatory and communicative role for learners, not all o f my peers were involved in the discussions. It seemed logical that the tools o f online interaction would lead to the expression, reflection, inquiry and collaboration o f social constructivist learning but this correlation needed students to send messages. I began to  Thoughtful Interaction  6  wonder what motivated some students to communicate by text in the discussion forums o f my courses, and why others were silent and, seemingly, invisible. A l s o , while classrooms have developed social rituals and methods to encourage cooperative and communicative processes, was I entitled to assume that students would want, or know how, to transfer face-to-face oral interactions to text on their computer screens? Secondly, I sense that the pace o f using C M C and online course delivery has been noticeably greater than its research base in adult and higher education. E-learning has been led by technological developments and the excitement o f innovators and early adopters, while educators and learners are still in the midst o f understanding its nature and complexity. The advantages I initially experienced had been most prominent in the field's literature, yet research that evaluated these claims was lacking (Bork, 2001; Freeman & Capper, 1999; Martin, 1998; M c M a h o n , 1997; Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Further research was also needed to clarify experiences and pursue questions that add understanding to parallel the development o f the online technologies o f e-learning. For instance, changes have occurred i n the degree o f interaction and participation possible and i n the numbers o f teachers and students who have experience with C M C (Hiltz et al., 2000; Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997). M y experiences and questions have fed my curiosity about e-learning and my interest i n listening to students' discourse on the claims o f C M C as a learning environment. What could be learned from the views o f students who are using asynchronous text C M C in an online distance education course? H o w could their perspective as participants in the interactions influence our understanding o f this means o f distance learning i n higher education? Rather than unquestioned acceptance o f the optimistic position on e-learning or rejecting it altogether, I prefer to add more voices to the practice and the research through interviews with students who are experiencing e-learning.  Thoughtful Interaction  7  Developing the Context of this Study  The focus on learners and learning in this study arises from the research and theory development i n social-constructivist pedagogies, e-learning and distance education. Freeman and Capper (1999) examine educational innovations and look at our expectations o f improving learning through technology. They emphasize that good research means generating the best possible data from a range o f educational experiences while keeping the focus on the central purpose o f "helping students learn". They also emphasize that, even with a good research strategy, it is important to reflect on and critically evaluate all aspects o f the issue so that "elements o f truth" are not generalized or developed out o f context thus becoming "hype." There are a growing number o f texts, articles and conferences that examine online distance education as well as numerous courses and programs directly involved in the practice. Some o f the literature i n the field is based on people's experiences. " W e began by 'just doing it' - engaging students in loosely structured activities" (Sherry and Wilson, 1997, p. 70). Similarly, a first-year Geography course "was developed on the basis o f intuitive beliefs about teaching and the capacities o f the latest technologies, rather than being grounded i n research on cognition and students' learning" (Pitman, Gosper & Rich, 1999, p. 180). Other articles build on the premises of the early studies, without doing further research, and make suggestions and predictions for teachers, students and learning activities. For examples see the work o f Chickering and Ehrmann (1997) or Curtis and Lawson (2001). Some educators have a long history in the field and their names are frequently used to support arguments and claims i n others' publications (Harasim, et al., 1995; Hiltz et al, 2000). A l s o , there are ideas about using e-learning in higher education (Bass, 1999; Bork, 2001; Frand, 2000). These may be descriptions o f particular experiences by  Thoughtful Interaction  8  individuals or groups or the application o f theory to activities o f learning as seen in articles by Hartley and Collins-Brown (1999), Curtis and Lawson (1999), or Romiszowski (1997). One body o f literature in the field reviews studies from experimental settings that use control groups and variables and studies o f controlled research i n the field (Joy & Garcia, 2000; Lookatch, 1997). A review o f several decades o f research found serious flaws present in the studies. Problems include the wide range o f variables involved in the complex environment o f education and the "limited generalizability beyond the laboratory" (Joy & Garcia, 2000, p.2). Uncontrolled aspects in the learning environment make isolation and measurement o f causes and effects difficult. "It is impossible to determine whether the changes in student attitudes were caused by the use o f the same pre- and post-tests, by the instructional methods presented in the software, or by any other factor, such as familiarity with the software program" (Joy & Garcia, 2000, p.5). There were also problems with whether the learning analyzed is specific to the media or whether the media was just a neutral tool (Ahern, 2000). Research, therefore, is needed and is being done in specific and naturalistic settings on students' responses to using technologies and on understanding students' experiences (Bates, 1997; Barker, Abrams, Tiyaamornwong, Seibold, Duggan, Park, et al., 2000; Bullen, 1998; Hara & K l i n g , 2000). Published studies include longitudinal reports o f programs (Goodwin, Graham & Scarborough, 2001) and case studies o f an individual course (Blum, 1999; Kanuka & Anderson, 1998; Nunan, 1999). Participants' perspectives and attitudes have been collected through large-scale course evaluations or questionnaires (Fredericksen, Pickett & Shea, 2000; Light, Nesbitt & Burns, 2000) and by interviews with students in particular contexts (Bullen, 1998; Hartley & Collins-Brown, 1999). The transcripts o f online text discussions are used in numerous ways and for a variety o f research questions, such as analyzing online debates (Gunawardena & Anderson, 1997) or evaluating the effectiveness o f online discussion groups  Thoughtful Interaction  9  (McKenzie & Murphy, 2000). A l s o , text analysis is used to investigate the effect o f interactive computer technologies on academic learning and higher-order thinking (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, & Hagg, 1995; Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001). Recently, there has been an interest in qualitative studies on students' experiences and perspectives on e-learning environments, yet the field is still at an early stage in understanding students' attitudes, perceptions and receptivity to this mode o f education (Daley, Watkins, Williams, Courtenay, Davis & Dymock, 2001; Hara & K l i n g , 2000; Haythornwaite, Kazmer & Robins, 2000; Christensen, Anakwe & Kessler, 2001). A n interpretive and hermeneutic interview study, in which I explore my curiosity and questions, takes place within this investigative continuum.  The Purpose of this Study  The purpose o f this research is to study how students enrolled in one graduate-level online distance education course experience e-learning, and particularly their experiences with asynchronous text C M C . I w i l l report students' descriptions o f the interactions among their peers and their perspectives on their experiences in this learning environment. In view of the claims that e-learning is an opportunity to implement social-constructivist pedagogy, I w i l l investigate what students say about this method o f communication as an active and collaborative process i n which multiple perspectives are shared. These questions guided the design o f interview protocols I developed. •  H o w do the students' describe the interactions among peers i n this online course?  •  H o w do the students describe themselves as participants i n these interactions?  •  What are the students' perspectives on the online interactions as a learning environment?  Thoughtful Interaction  10  A s a qualitative inquiry with an exploratory, descriptive focus, the goal o f this study is to add the depth o f students' voices to the research o f e-learning i n distance education and interaction by asynchronous text C M C . The context and the method o f the study w i l l limit the generalizations that could be made to other individuals, places, and levels o f education; however, these descriptions may be recognized and useful in similar contexts (Cresswell, 1998; Merriam, 1991). A more informed and sophisticated understanding o f the experience of online interactions as a means o f developing a social-constructivist learning community can be developed within these limits and aims (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). The study findings w i l l be useful to students, instructors, course designers and researchers i n the field o f distance education, e-learning and higher education.  Overview of Thesis  In this chapter I have introduced the topic o f this thesis and the interests that have led to the study questions. I have also developed this study's purpose and described the need to study e-learning. In Chapter 2,1 w i l l review the literature that forms the background to this study. The methodology o f the study and the rationale for my approach is described in Chapter 3. Then, i n Chapter 4,1 describe the course in which the students have participated. Chapter 5 describes the participants in the study and the analysis o f the interviews. The findings are discussed and the implications o f this study for practice and research conclude the thesis i n Chapter 6.  Thoughtful Interaction  11  Chapter 2 Literature Review  Investigating students' experiences with e-learning i n distance education begins with a review o f the literature. Normative explanations and empirical studies report on the characteristics and use o f online communication and C M C , particularly at the graduate student level. A s an introduction to the different points o f view on e-learning, I summarize the positions discussed in the literature on the assumptions and interests behind the use o f technology in education. Next, a description o f the social-constructivist perspective on learning is presented and then related to online distance education and the claims o f effective higher education. Then, studies that describe and analyze the characteristics and use o f text C M C in certain learning contexts are reported. Included are studies that examine influences on participation i n the online interactions from the students' perspectives.  A Critical Look at E-learning in Distance Education  The interests that motivate the growth in e-learning are numerous. There are different and sometimes competing priorities: the costs o f higher education, the demands o f the workplace, and a plain fascination with the latest and newest technologies. Chapter One introduced the advantages claimed for learners in online distance education when they are able to participate in courses that use social-constructivist pedagogies, but there are still differing viewpoints i n this interest among educators. O n the one hand, there are claims that online learning provides the kind o f educational environment needed for lifelong learning in a global  Thoughtful Interaction  12  society. Learners w i l l earn their living as knowledge workers, using knowledge to create new knowledge. They w i l l need the ability to meet the fast-moving and open nature o f information in society. These claims are connected to the optimistic view o f e-learning as a more democratic and learner-centered distance learning context. O n the other hand, there is a concern that elearning w i l l be adopted in distance education without examining all o f the motivating forces. There is a danger that technology w i l l be the determining factor, that students' interests w i l l be overlooked or that the knowledge and experience developed in traditional distance education delivery w i l l be discarded (Boshier & Chia, 1999). In 1983, Sullivan predicted the need to approach the role o f computers i n education with a critical mind. He states that it is common for educational theory and research to follow "fads triggered by economic growth or decline" (p. 17). Therefore, he emphasizes maintaining a distance from enthusiastic, unfettered adoption o f practices. Ahead o f the current interest i n elearning, Sullivan stresses the importance o f human intentions and agency with technological developments; as moral agents, it is people who have the responsibility for the effect o f technology. He disagrees with either an "advocacy" position, which sees the advantages o f technology in a value-neutral way, or a "reactionary" position, which is suspicious and negative towards technology (p. 21). Instead Sullivan takes a "critical-dialectical" position that, within the current socio-historical context, examines both the positive and negative effects o f technology on cultural change (p. 23). In this position, as people are tool-users, it is people who have agency and responsibility to assess the intentions and consequences o f technological choices. Sullivan's descriptions o f three positions on technology have been further developed i n the literature about the Internet, C M C , society and learning. Boshier and C h i a (1999) distinguish four discourses that take different positions on the relationship o f power and interests i n the use  Thoughtful Interaction  13  of e-learning or "Web learning and education. One o f the most common positions is called techno-zealotry.  This point o f view is described as ideologically neutral and without a critique o f  one's own or others' interests and uses (Boshier & Chia, 1999). The people speaking from this point o f view tend to focus on technological issues and ignore social and cultural issues. Another common position is labelled techno-utopianism.  A dominant position o f early optimists  of C M C , technology is seen to revolutionize and democratize society (Gayol & Schied, 1997). In this position, technology can be a solution to social problems. For example, the Internet w i l l open means o f communication among people that increase the possibility for democratic participation (Fisher & Wright, 2001). In education, this position claims a "paradigm shift," especially for distance education as C M C allows greater access and equity for people across boundaries o f age, gender, ability and culture (Boshier & Chia, 1999). In contrast to the neutral or optimistic positions is one called techno-cynicism.  The predominant issues here are strong  concerns about the negative effects o f technology - computers and the Internet - on society, communication and education. For instance, e-learning w i l l result i n decreased democracy, a fragmented society in which people are isolated and less connected, and a weakened society and environment (Boshier & Chia, 1999; Fisher & Wright, 2001). The fourth position, techno-structuralism,  is not as common in the literature. It is a more  cautious and modest position in which people critically examine the impact o f technology i n relationship to its use. This position questions the assumptions o f stakeholders and the accessibility o f technology, and the impact o f the assumptions and accessibility on individuals, cultures and languages (Gayol & Schied, 1997; Boshier & Chia, 1999). Thus, the tecfinostructuralist position challenges the learning community to consider the implications o f the growth o f e-learning i n distance higher education on all participants (Gayol & Schied, 1997; Hara & K l i n g , 2000; Bates, 1997). Similarly Freeman & Capper (1999) warn o f the problem o f  Thoughtful Interaction  14  accepting innovations without reflection. These authors encourage further research in order to examine the assumptions and the practice o f online distance learning.  Advocating CMC in Distance Education from Social-Constructivist Perspectives on Learning  The advocates o f e-learning describe the advantages o f an interactive distance education environment based on constructivist and sociocultural perspectives o f learning. The student in distance education has traditionally been independent and self-directed, interacting with the course content, but only occasionally with other students or a teacher. However, educators have been looking for ways to increase interaction among the participants due to the assumption that the amount, type and quality o f the interaction are related to the quality o f learning (Jonassen, et al., 1995; Wagner, 1997). Thus, the opportunity to use C M C and the W W W to build a learning environment in which students and teachers can learn together is a significant development described in the literature. The assumptions about acquiring knowledge in constructivist and sociocultural learning theory underlie the active and interactive pedagogy that can be designed and delivered using elearning. W i t h e-learning, distance higher education can include the kinds o f discussions, cooperative and collaborative learning scenarios and problem-based learning that are important for higher order thinking (Bullen, 1998; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999). Online communication can facilitate activities i n the learning environment that encourage students to use brainstorming learn through case studies, express their thoughts in arguments and debates, and work on solving problems (Freeman & Capper, 1999; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999). Kanuka and Anderson (1999) review the literature on educational technology and constructivism to bring some clarity to the various definitions and practices ascribed to the  Thoughtful Interaction  15  constructivist position. They use the understanding o f reality - from objective to subjective and the construction o f knowledge - from individual to social - as their organizing criteria. They state that "the most prevalent form o f constructivism epistemology is co-constructivism sometimes labeled symbolic social interaction or social constructivism. This view emphasizes the influence o f cultural and social contexts i n learning" (Kanuka & Anderson, C o constructivism,  1). In a social-constructivist perspective people use language and social  interaction to actively construct meaning i n the context o f shared cultural practices. Therefore, the relationship between language, context and culture are essential aspects o f knowledge construction. In contrast to a cognitive constructivist perspective in which the individual and the individual's mind is at the centre o f the process o f knowledge construction, the sociocultural perspective on constructivism focuses on the social and cultural context o f people's experiences, interpretations, perceptions and values. The individual constructs knowledge as she or he participates with others i n the interactions o f the community and culture (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Nuthall, 1997). The social-constructivist perspective highlights the role o f language and communication in learning. Language is not an abstract and objective system to be studied but a verbal and textual dialogue i n which meanings are negotiated and knowledge and understanding are mutually developed. Therefore, learning is not acquiring a fixed and defined set o f concepts; it is an understanding that people develop as they interact with others in their community (Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999). Negotiation in academic cultures occurs among learners in oral dialogues and discussions and it is mediated through reading and writing texts. Literacy practices are developed as students research texts and their roles, and explore strategies to use in specific contexts (Johns, 1997). This perspective on communication as part o f thinking and learning has implications for the design o f the learning environment and  Thoughtful Interaction  16  the role o f students. Students need to be actively engaged with one another in cooperative and collaborative ways. They need to articulate and reflect on their understandings, test out their ideas and make connections between prior knowledge and new ideas. In the interactions that take place, the students need to be involved in meaningful tasks and solving real problems. The teacher's role is facilitative, not solely transmissive, guiding a supportive and explorative environment (Warschauer, 1999; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999). The literature o f online distance education claims that students can use the text medium o f C M C to participate in practices reflective o f a social constructivist pedagogy. Jonassen et al. (1995) agree that C M C has the potential to bring the interactive role o f language and communication into the distance learning community. They state the principles needed for this learning environment as: context, construction, collaboration, and conversation. Constructivist environments engage learners in knowledge construction through collaborative activities that embed learning i n a meaningful context and through reflection on what has been learned through conversation with other learners (p. 13). In order to create this environment, however, the role o f teachers and course designers must change from a prescriptive one to that o f developing meaningful environments for learners. Then, the computer technologies, including C M C , must be used to connect people who are separated by space, or time, i n conversation and collaboration. For instance, students using asynchronous or synchronous text C M C w i l l have the opportunity to participate in the discussions, negotiations, and problem-solving characteristic o f social-constructivist pedagogy (Jonassen, et al.). "Students and instructors can then build meaning, understanding, and relevant practice together to go far beyond the mere movement o f information from instructors' minds to students' notebooks" (p. 8). The claim that e-learning is effective i n the educational environment is consistent with reports on good practices in higher education. Chickering and Ehrmann (1997) describe  Thoughtful Interaction  17  instructional strategies with technology i n relation to the "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." These Seven Principles emerge from Chickering and Gamson's (1991) review o f research i n post-secondary undergraduate education i n the United States. They have summarized their findings as guidelines for improving teaching and learning in colleges and universities. These principles encourage active and interactive practices among students and teachers that are reflective o f social-constructivism: "contact between students and faculty...reciprocity and cooperation among students," and "active learning." Subsequently, they have applied these principles to e-learning and described effective practices with computers, video and telecommunication. For instance, asynchronous text C M C by email, computer conferencing and online discussions is an opportunity for increased talk, reflection, cooperation and collaboration among students and between students and faculty.  Interaction and Interactivity - Definitions in the Literature and this Study  Interaction is a key component o f the learning perspective and the learning activities advocated for e-learning. Students can access resources in the learning environment, but they can also learn by sharing resources through the interactions o f online learning. The words interaction and its related forms, interactive and interactivity, have been defined as different concepts in sociology, communication and media studies, and informatics (Sims, 1999; Jensen, 1999). Although interactivity is sometimes used to describe the nature o f the communication pattern among people, in this study, interactivity w i l l refer to the technology system, and media and mediated communication. "Interactivity refers to the facilities provided by a computerbased application to provide the user with both control o f the process and communication with content. This communication involves both the user initiating an action and the computer  Thoughtful Interaction  18  responding to that action" (Sims, 1999, Introduction, | 2 ) . A s well, interaction is used to refer to communication between and among people as they reflect on and respond to one another in the learning environment. Interaction by asynchronous text C M C involves the participants in the use o f language as text to convey information and also to express and reflect on what is known and to explore and negotiate new understandings with others. Moore as reported i n Wagner (1997) described three types o f interaction as student to teacher, student to student, and student to content. Bates (2000) describes another form o f interaction as student to machine i n which the machine is a medium to interact through i n order to meet other learners separated by time and space. In Wagner's (1997) discussion o f the different kinds o f interaction in the learning environment, she emphasizes that the goal is not interaction for its own sake, but as a means for the student to reach their objectives or goals. Therefore, the pedagogy and the course design are important aspects to consider as C M C is used in distance education to support interaction among learners. Bates' discussion o f multimedia technologies says there are "no super technologies that can meet all teaching and learning requirements, so technologies need to be mixed and matched to the educational purpose" (2000). The same software can be used to facilitate discussion and collaboration or didactic teaching methods so pedagogy needs to be the primary consideration o f educators as they use C M C (Bates, 1997; Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Gilbert and Moore (1998) describe a model o f interaction for online distance courses. O n one end o f the pedagogical spectrum, the teacher controls the course and the content presented. However, as the course design becomes more collaborative and social, the directive role o f the teacher decreases, and the student group exercises more influence and participates more actively i n the learning activities. Bass (2000, Distributive Learning, ^} 7) also states that interactions in online learning "can facilitate the distribution o f responsibility  Thoughtful Interaction  19  for making knowledge among the students in a particular class, shifting a teacher-centered environment to a more learner-centered one." The understanding o f interaction as it occurs among participants using asynchronous text C M C is explored in the literature. Gunawardena & Anderson (1997) say that both the presence and the nature o f the interactions are essential for the construction o f knowledge in socialconstructivist learning environments. In an asynchronous text computer-mediated discussion it is not sufficient that individual messages are linked to one another; a holistic picture o f the accumulating and merging messages from the participants' communication is needed. They define interaction: as the totality o f interconnected and mutually responsive messages, which make up the conference, and perhaps more: 'interaction' is the entire gestalt formed by the online communications among the participants. The participants are not speaking in the same virtual space by chance and regardless o f each other's presence; they are acting i n relation to each other and in a manner which reflects each other's presence and influence. They are not merely acting, nor reacting, but interacting, even i f the links among individual messages may not be readily apparent, (p. 407)  These interactions occur, for the most part, in written language that is also conversation. In text C M C the virtual space does not convey gestures, expressions, intonations and accents that can be shared when communicating in the same physical space. A n d with asynchronous interaction, the written speech is "static as far as it is produced in the time provided for by the writer and that it may be consumed and read in the time set by the reader." A s a result, the opportunity for the writer to know the presence and influence o f a reader is not like oral interaction (Noblia, 1998).  Reports of Interaction in the Learning Environment  Using Asynchronous  Text CMC  Reports on specific courses describe students participating i n e-learning and using C M C to meet and communicate with each other, the instructor and the course content. A distance  Thoughtful Interaction  20  learning environment i n which students are active and interactive is specifically described for asynchronous text C M C and the interactions have characteristics o f social-constructivist pedagogy. Warschauer (1997, 1999) sees the significance o f text C M C as a tool o f expressive, interactive and reflective language use. People can be connected with one other or many others, from similar or different places and perspectives. The activities i n the distance environment can be experiential, goal-oriented or collaborative. He gives examples o f students o f different linguistic backgrounds using C M C and states that text-based interactions on the W W W are linking learners across cultural and linguistic communities in valuable and authentic literacy practices. For instance, students in Finland and England became involved in "real-purpose writing with genuine audiences around the world" and "reading also became more public and collaborative with students actively assisting each other in studying incoming messages" (1997, Many-to-Many Distant Exchanges v i a C M C , ]|8). One anecdotal report describes the advantages o f an online distance graduate course offered on WebCT. The students have the opportunity to interact by asynchronous text C M C to form a text seminar. Because they can post messages independent o f the time restrictions o f a campus seminar, they have both flexibility and autonomy. They can work at their own pace to ask questions, critique the discussion; however it is also interactive as they can get feedback on their own work and interests. A s the students are participating from international contexts, they form a learning community that includes differences in perspective (Carey, 1999). In a study o f e-learning, Harasim, Calvert and Groeneboer (1997) report the effects o f using a computer conferencing tool in higher education. Virtual-U is a computer-mediated learning environment based on the five key attributes o f networked learning that have been described as "an asynchronous, place-independent, many-to-many, text-based computer-  Thoughtful Interaction  21  mediated system" (1997, p. 150). They report numerous positive effects of learning in asynchronous text computer-mediated courses, such as the students participate actively in the learning environment, interact with their peers, share multiple perspectives, and encounter divergent thinking. However, negative effects are also reported as the students have problems managing their time and the quantity of information, and getting the educational support they need (Harasim, Calvert & Groeneboer, 1997). Other reports publish the findings of studies in which the students have used online discussions and collaboration in combination with some face-to-face meetings, either in a class or in smaller, task-oriented groups. Stacey's (1999) ethnographic study investigated students' experiences with asynchronous text CMC interactions in a distance learning environment. In the group processes and tasks they clarified ideas, received feedback from their peers, shared diverse perspectives and resources and worked together to solve problems. The study took place in a post-graduate MBA program that included 31 students in their first year. They used email and online conferences for small and large group discussions and for collaborative tasks. However, this course combined distance communication with in person activities and only one group out of the three completed the collaborative group task solely by distance communication. A second group only met in face-to-face meetings and the third used a combination of distance and faceto-face communication. Data was collected from interviews with the students and from computer conference transcripts. However, because of the mixed modes of communication, this report is not limited to findings that arise from using asynchronous text CMC in distance education. In fact, one weakness of the report is that the analysis does not distinguish findings according to the different groups and the different means of communication used (Stacey). A content analysis of a discussion transcript within an academic context also shows interactions taking place among participants using text CMC (McKenzie & Murphy, 2000). The  Thoughtful Interaction  22  course in this study included four days o f face-to-face workshops and then a campus network for computer-mediated discussions related to the course topic. The discussions occurred over one semester (approximately 12 weeks) among academic staff taking a graduate certificate course at an Australian multi-campus university. The transcript analysis showed there was a " l i v e l y " interaction between participants because the direct responses were greater than the independent statements. A l s o the forum was used to explore the course content and to discuss problems and strategies from the participants' teaching practices. Participation was not assessed in the course and this may have affected the participation levels - less than one-third o f the students posted about 80% o f the messages. The authors say this study confirms that the students were satisfied with the nature o f the interactions in the learning environment some or most o f the time. However, the students must perceive the discussion to be helpful to their learning i n order to be motivated to visit the course site and participate by C M C (McKenzie & Murphy, 2000). This literature reports the use o f C M C in courses designed to encourage interaction among the participants. Several o f these studies also included face-to-face meetings so the findings are not exclusive to e-learning. Interviewing students who are only using text C M C to communicate w i l l be useful to understand the interactions among peers i n online distance education.  The Text-based Nature of the Interaction in E-learning  Some o f the advantages described in the literature o f e-learning in higher education are ascribed to the characteristics o f asynchronous text C M C . According to Feenberg (1999), even with increasingly elaborate multimedia technology, text-based interaction between people is still the best online pedagogical activity. He argues that text provides the means for people to  Thoughtful Interaction  23  interact with one another and to present themselves in the thoughtful use o f writing and written interaction; however, his position needs to be examined i n the practice o f online courses. The literature includes descriptions o f text C M C and studies that report the impact o f using text C M C in undergraduate and graduate-level courses, although some o f these studies are not in distance education. The use o f text to communicate in the learning environment, the relationship o f text communication to social-constructivist perspectives on learning, and the impact o f communicating by text on the participants are reviewed i n this section. The interactions o f a social-constructivist pedagogy i n e-learning are described as students conversing with one another by reading and writing texts. One o f the optimistic claims reported is that the "talk" by text interactions combine features o f oral and written speech. "The historical divide between speech and writing has been overcome with the interactional and reflective aspects o f language merged in a single medium" (Warschauer, 1999, p.6). Particularly when the messages are sent on the W W W , the messages transmit with the speed o f speech, yet the participants have time to reflect on what they read and write. "The process does not feel like letter-writing. It feels like message-sending o f a very rapid back-and-forth kind. The speed has engendered a feeling o f immediacy, and thus o f real interaction" (Pincas, 2000, Online Discourse Management, f9). Warschauer's (1999) ethnographic study o f English as a Second Language ( E S L ) students using a campus computer lab for writing classes reports the advantages claimed for text interactions. These students, studying at a multicultural college, used asynchronous text C M C to write about "their own experiences, questions, thoughts, and concerns" i n a way "that other students and the teacher could reflect on and respond to" (p.79). Students had opportunities to express ideas in their voice i n text and reflect on their peers' writing to create and participate i n a sustained dialogue. Students were reported to be engaged, motivated and attentive  Thoughtful Interaction  24  (Warschauer). However, in this study these students also had the opportunity to meet in campus classrooms with one another and their teacher. In another study o f the use o f writing i n online distance education (Mulligan & Geary, 1999) the faculty reported that students wrote more than in the comparable on-campus course and that this assisted students' thinking and learning. T w o online undergraduate English courses with ten students in one and twenty i n the other were designed to use an intensive amount o f writing in discussions and formal assignments. Teachers were interviewed, students' online writing was analyzed and students' summative course evaluations were reviewed. The students discovered writing to be communication that is purposeful and dynamic, even though it was time-consuming and hard work. They also used writing to discuss their problems in the course with the teachers. The teachers recommended using text C M C with practices that require students to read and write i n cooperative and collaborative tasks. They found they were able to get to know their students well and give critical feedback on their writing. Another study (Lea, 2001) related students' literacy practices in asynchronous text C M C with essay writing in the students' academic courses. Seven volunteers i n two Open University distance courses volunteered to participate in an ethnographic study with the researcher acting as participant-observer o f the online discussions. Data was collected from the records o f the discussions, regular email contact between the participants and the researcher, the students' assignments and from in-depth telephone interviews with students conducted after the course. The reported benefits o f literacy practices o f asynchronous text C M C included reflexivity and time to read and write. A l s o , they found that writing contributed to the students' academic accomplishments as their analysis o f the online discussions and essays showed that the students included evidence and arguments from the online collaborative writing activities.  Thoughtful Interaction  25  While these studies report that reading and writing interactions using asynchronous text C M C are engaging students i n active, reflective and collaborative practices there are still uncertainties and difficulties in this communication. Pincas (1999, 2000) discusses the studies she has done using text analysis o f online courses as well as her observations made as a teacher in courses using asynchronous text C M C . She states that, as yet, there is not very much research on this interactive reading and writing. Most o f this research is in small trials, not field observations, and with synchronous chat rather than asynchronous discussions. She says that the concept o f writing becoming talk is new and perplexing because it lacks the characteristics o f face-to-face interaction. For instance, students have difficulties because they can't see each other and don't have certainty about who w i l l read or answer their messages or when they w i l l do so. A l s o , the discussions become diffuse and lose the dominant topic due to the volume and lack o f chronological order o f the messages. She is optimistic about people's ability to adapt to the new communication context. "It is a normal part o f conversational ability to [adapt]. A l l o f us, from childhood on, are adjusting to new contexts with such ease, that they are not consciously perceived as a problem" (Pincas, 2000, Online Discourse Management, ][2). For instance, email has become commonplace and the interaction patterns are understood; however, unlike a class, this is most often an interaction between two people. E-learning and the use o f asynchronous text C M C is taking place in higher education and students are involved in new literacy practices. These studies report teachers' observations and students' descriptions o f interactions and effective learning using reading and writing to dialogue reflect and collaborate. There are also some difficulties with the distant and asynchronous communication. In order to make effective use o f asynchronous text C M C and understand the limitations o f online text interactions more information is needed about the practices o f elearning and e-literacies from students' experiences.  Thoughtful Interaction  26  Active and Collaborative Interactions in E-learning  E-learning is advocated in the literature o f distance education because it is a means for students to participate actively and collaboratively i n the construction o f knowledge. The online learning environment is described as a social and cultural context i n which students articulate and reflect on what they know. They also use the responses and reactions o f others to add to or modify what they know. A s the students engage with ideas, encounter a diversity o f points o f view, and dialogue on difficult issues, the interactions reflect the expertise and the interests o f those who participate (Jonassen, 1995; Hiltz et al, 1999). There are reports o f using e-learning to encourage the complex thinking required in higher education through brainstorming, cooperative and collaborative learning activities, and case studies (Bass, 2000; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999; Freeman & Capper, 1999). Freeman and Capper (1999) review their research findings on undergraduates in online learning environments with TopClass. They found that using asynchronous text C M C for debates resulted in better research o f the arguments as students had more time to prepare and worked collaboratively. A l s o , some students with cultural and language differences felt less stress from presentations i n the online environment. The students were satisfied with the course activities; however, they had some practical problems with the computer technology and access to the Internet. Campos, Laferriere and Harasim (2001) studied courses that used a combination o f online and on-campus meetings and report that collaborative activities and pedagogies are being used in higher education. One hundred classes that combined regular instructional strategies with interactive activities using asynchronous text C M C were studied through interviews o f teachers and analyses o f transcripts o f the text-based interactions. The research found that teachers with more experience with e-learning used more collaborative processes i n their  Thoughtful Interaction  27  courses. Different levels o f collaboration, based on the course design, were observed and they distinguished between cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation is a level o f interaction i n which people are participating in the same activity but not working or building knowledge together. One example o f cooperative interaction is a voluntary online discussion about topics related to a course, without a search for solutions to problems. Collaboration is described as a level o f interaction between people who are engaged in learning, through simulations and activities, to solve problems. These interactions can include discussions, complex argumentation, and contending with others' points o f view. The pedagogical activities used in the courses that demonstrated active and collaborative learning were group projects, simulations, case studies and seminars. Most o f the activities were carried out either in or through asynchronous text C M C (Campos, Laferriere, & Harasim). In another study the students used cooperation and collaboration but the interactions did not encompass the behaviours described i n the literature in classroom interactions. Curtis and Lawson's (2001) qualitative analysis o f 19 adult students in an online distance education course used the behaviours listed by Johnson and Johnson (1996) to analyze the characteristics o f the students' interactions. In two tasks during the semester long higher education course, the students worked in small groups. The students used asynchronous C M C , especially email, and some phone and fax communication to plan, seek help and give feedback during these tasks. Although there was significant evidence o f cooperation and collaboration, the students did not challenge one another's input or explanations nor did they elaborate on their own contributions, which are features o f interactions in face-to-face groups. A n undergraduate course o f 34 students was studied using a model o f collaborative learning to examine the communicative practices that help and hinder students' asynchronous text interactions and to understand their processes o f knowledge construction (Treleaven &  Thoughtful Interaction  28  Cezez-Kecmanovic, 2001). This course was designed for team projects and asynchronous text discussions on a course bulletin board as well as face-to-face meetings. They used the model to do a linguistic analysis o f the online interactions to discover the students' dominant goals (e.g. gaining understanding or getting a good grade) and the kinds o f information i n their messages (e.g. course content or social comments). Their findings show this model is useful for investigating the processes o f online collaborative learning by analyzing the linguistic factors o f the discussion transcripts. A l s o , this study indicates that collaborative learning w i l l not take place because o f the technology but because o f the design o f the learning environment and attention to the orientation and needs o f the learners as they communicate by text with one another. A series o f studies by Hiltz et al (2000) compares the effectiveness o f e-learning and campus classes. They studied 26 undergraduate courses over 3 years in which the students used asynchronous text C M C and compared the processes and outcomes with campus classes. A l s o , a field experiment was used to evaluate groups working online, groups working i n the classroom, and individuals in either an online or a campus class. They also conducted semi-structured interviews with faculty on the use o f pedagogical activities and their perceptions o f student learning. Triangulating the results o f these studies was done to assess the effects o f asynchronous text C M C on collaboration and student learning. Their summary states that, when students are actively involved in collaborative (group) learning online, the outcomes can be as good as or better than those for traditional classes. When individuals are simply receiving posted material and sending back individual work, the results are poorer than in traditional classrooms" (Hiltz et al, 1999, p. 16).  Therefore, they conclude that the pedagogy, and not the medium, is the critical factor i n effective practices o f e-learning.  Thoughtful Interaction  29  These studies that examine students participating i n the complex activities o f higher education are building understanding o f the practice o f cooperation and collaboration in elearning. Descriptions o f activities, transcript analysis and teacher's perspectives can be augmented by the descriptions and perspectives o f students. A l s o , students who are using asynchronous text C M C and not meeting in-person or using oral communication can explain the characteristics they have experienced when relying on online distance learning.  The Social Characteristics of Interactions in E-learning  The nature o f online communication, particularly text-based communication, has also been studied for its social characteristics. There are suggestions that cooperative and collaborative tasks in e-learning may be limited by the lack o f social communication and the students' orientation to planning and completing the task (Curtis & Lawson, 2001; Baskin, 2001; Treleaven & Cezez-Kecmanovic, 2001). Various communication theories have been used in explanations and the literature includes different perspectives o f the qualities o f personal interaction by text. However, the understanding o f the social-affective characteristics o f online text is inconclusive. While earlier studies tended to be optimistic about the democratic nature o f C M C , they also reported negative consequences o f depersonalized interactions. This research was done in experimental conditions with participants interacting for short periods o f time; also, the technologies have changed and people's experiences with C M C is evolving, making the findings o f these studies and their applicability to other contexts limited. More recent studies emphasize that people are learning to use the medium and work with the characteristics o f the technology. Participants with experience in the interactions are adapting to and overcoming the text characteristics o f C M C and the effect o f text on the social  Thoughtful Interaction  30  aspects o f communication (Walther, 1996; Postmes, Spears, & Lea, 1998; K i m , 2000; Rourke, 2001). Other literature reports online interactions and interviews with students from a range o f contexts about their experiences o f social-affective qualities o f communicating by asynchronous text C M C . The purpose o f the studies, the nature o f the course, the role o f the tutor and the students' prior knowledge o f one another are seen as important factors and the findings are diverse. One undergraduate communication course studied met on campus for two semesters and used an online discussion for the course seminar i n the second semester (Light, Nesbitt, Light & Burns, 2000). Twenty-nine students participated in discussions o f an article related to the topic of the course. The participants were assigned to one o f four groups but they were free to j o i n in all o f the discussions. The tutor was observing but not moderating or facilitating the interactions. The study found that there was a large amount o f off-task communication among the students and significant negative interpersonal interactions, including sarcasm and criticism. Some students also disrupted other group's processes. The tutor reported that the course used online interaction to give the students an opportunity to experience C M C and to let them learn from successes and mistakes. In this way, the tutor did not intervene in the conversations or re-direct the students from off-task or harassing interactions. In another study, Nunan (1999), as researcher and professor, conducted a case study o f a graduate-level course to explore learning in an online distance course for teachers o f English to second language users. A cohort o f five students participated over 8 weeks. They never met face to face and they used synchronous and asynchronous text C M C to cover the course content and communicate with each other and the professor. A s the course progressed the students took more control o f the course and a group culture developed with its own rules & norms for interaction. A l s o , over the course the students posted more interactions o f a social nature,  Thoughtful Interaction  31  including their personalities, interests and concerns, and more interactions that linked the course content to their areas o f work. Students' perceptions o f social interaction and community i n the learning process is reported by Brown (2001). A theoretical process o f community development was used to analyze the telephone interview conversations and follow-up email questions o f twenty-one students in a graduate-level online distance education course. The students were selected from three different semester long courses in a one-year period. The students were asked to define community and describe the process o f forming the online community and their experiences i n it. First, the students defined a "learning community" as students actively participating in online interactions with a commitment to contribute to their own and other's learning. Three stages o f community building that developed from comfort, to acceptance and, then, to camaraderie were identified and the students in successive stages participated in more dialogue and collaborative work. Throughout the course students were at different stages o f community development and some said they felt no sense o f community. The researchers say that participants choose to build and participate in the community or they choose not to. Some o f the influences that affected students' participation were the time students had for the course, their understanding o f the course content and their experience and abilities with the technology. In online distance education the social-affective characteristics o f communication are relevant because o f the potential for people to interact from many places and points o f view. The advocates o f this learning environment say that learners w i l l develop respect for others, sensitivity to differences and alternative ways o f solving problems (Harasim, et al., 1995; Reeves & Reeves, 1997; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999). Bass (2000) reports on practices o f faculty using information technologies to teach culture and history. He says that e-learning is providing opportunities for students to converse with each other about difficult cultural issues on their own  Thoughtful Interaction  32  campus and with students at a distance. Other authors report the difficulties o f establishing this communication across distances and cultures. Pincas (2000) has observed her students and says that their differing views o f what is relevant in a particular discussion have been common causes o f misunderstanding. N o b l i a ' s linguistic approach to the analysis o f C M C reviews the concept of communicative competence and the assumptions made about understanding in online global interactions (1998). This medium o f communication, she says, is testing our ideas o f conversation and o f oral and written language as people interact without necessarily sharing contexts for building understanding. She suggests that asynchronous text C M C is altering the conventions o f conversation. International contexts o f e-learning add further diversity and are discussed in the literature. Gayol and Schied (1997) critique the role distance educators are playing in the pedagogical design o f online courses. They state that course materials and design, the predominance o f English and the definition o f what is academic may be working against crosscultural communication. Their paper examines problems and suggests practices and research directions to open access and include people outside o f the North American higher education community. Barajas and Owen (2000) report a summary and discussion o f preliminary case studies by nine European universities implementing a joint e-learning program. The goal o f the studies is to investigate the institutional, cultural and linguistic issues that are faced by students who are encountering new technology and new learning and teaching concepts. The potential for international collaboration, which i n the European context involves multilingual and multicultural interaction, was anticipated. While this did not occur as expected across borders, collaboration was present within universities and at a national level. In an online discussion o f these studies, the authors say that for a negotiation o f meaning to occur issues o f language and culture need to be integrated into the entire learning process and not considered a separate part o f  Thoughtful Interaction  33  a course. A l s o , with text discussions it is necessary to account for and make explicit differing discourses. The opportunities and the challenges presented by these authors and the advice they offer need to be examined i n studies o f students' in online courses.  Influences on Students' Participation in E-Learning  Studies o f e-learning also include investigations o f students' perceptions and attitudes toward using this learning environment These studies are at the undergraduate and graduate level and use C M C in distance and campus courses. They investigate students' interests in distance education and technology, their perceptions o f the influences on their participation, and the role of participation in learning. Some educators in higher education say that learning environments that incorporate interactive technologies may encourage students' interest in distance education. Frand (2000) describes the new generation o f students in higher education as highly interactive; that is, students are comfortable with and expecting to use interactive technologies in all aspects o f their lives, including the classroom. Several large-scale studies have been conducted with students to determine what influences their interest and participation i n the online distance learning environments. In one study (Christensen, Anakwe, & Kessler, 2001), approximately 400 undergraduate and graduate students completed a questionnaire on their interest in distance education. These students were mostly full time students, in their 20s, and enrolled in a regular campus business program. Their responses showed they would be receptive to distance education in which interaction was possible by computer conferencing. A n Open University Business School study, conducted from 1996-1998, reports on the development o f courses using asynchronous text C M C , although 1998 was the first time this course was online (Salmon, 2000). They report formal and anecdotal feedback from questionnaires o f 100 out o f 4900 students after  Thoughtful Interaction  34  their first experience with asynchronous text C M C . The students liked the opportunity to use this medium and more than half reported in open-ended comments that they liked the benefits o f interaction and would take a similar course. However, this is a very small sample and no details of the students' characteristics are reported. Other influences on students in e-learning are related to the students' perceptions o f interaction in the learning environment as continued and purposeful. In Muirhead's (2000) review o f online distance education he summarizes his quantitative study o f communication, participation and feedback in online discussions with 93 graduate students. Almost half o f the students felt that students who didn't participate as much, particularly those who participated too late i n the discussions, reduced the quality o f the discussion. Ninety percent o f the students said that maintaining participation was needed to keep the course interactive. In another study that used a qualitative methodology, Vrasidas and Mclsaac (1999) were interested i n discovering the factors that influence students' participation in online interactions. Six students and a teacher in a semester length graduate-level course met online and on campus, alternating between several weeks o f classes in a computer lab with face-to-face interactions and then a week or several weeks using C M C . The students conducted four moderated discussions in each environment and used asynchronous as well as synchronous text C M C for the online interactions. Towards the end o f the course the researchers, who were participant-observers i n the course, conducted semistructured interviews with all the participants and collected the students work and their messages to the teacher. From this data they discovered a number o f factors influencing participation i n the computer-mediated aspects o f the course. If the workload was too high and there was no purpose to the discussion, the students' participation by asynchronous text C M C was low. For example, students said these discussions were not needed because they would be meeting regularly on campus. Another influence on their participation was the l o w number o f students (1  Thoughtful Interaction  35  as moderator and 5 as participants) and the lack o f feedback from their teacher and each other on the postings in the online discussions. Students' participation is also reported as an influence on their attitudes and perceptions of learning in an online environment. In several large-scale quantitative studies students' attitudes and perceptions about learning i n this online environment were explored. One study (Hacker & Wignall, 1997) surveyed 71 students participating in an online conference and investigated what factors o f C M C are useful alternatives to face-to-face discussions. These mixed C M C and face-to-face courses were on several campuses. Online discussions o f the content o f the campus lectures were carried out over a two-month period. Pre-and postconference questionnaires with the same questions were delivered using a 5-point Likert Scale survey. The students were required to participate in the discussion o f posted case studies and i n topics o f general interest but they could do this at their own frequency. Students who didn't use the asynchronous text computer mediated discussions said the discussions were not useful as a form o f interaction or for learning. Those who did use these C M C discussions reported that they were comfortable using this medium o f interaction and that these made the course interesting. Similarly, a large-scale quantitative survey o f students i n online distance education at S U N Y investigated satisfaction and perceived learning in various courses. Students who participated more and who interacted more with their classmates had a greater perception o f learning while students who had more difficulty with the technology felt they learned less (Fredericksen, et al., 2000). However, these studies do not tell us more about the factors influencing participation. Bullen's (1998) study o f students using e-learning found that their lack o f experience with learning activities affected participation. Quantitative and qualitative data was collected on 15 undergraduate students in a semester long e-learning course to examine some o f the influences on participation and levels o f critical thinking in this learning environment. The results indicate  Thoughtful Interaction  36  that the students' inexperience with the pedagogy and the technology of the online course, and the teacher's lack of facilitation in the online discussions limited the students' participation and the higher order thinking that had been anticipated. These reports of some of the factors influencing students' participation in e-learning includes courses that were either using C M C and e-learning or were undergraduate courses. Also, some of the reports are from large-scale quantitative studies that have analyzed the results of questionnaires. This literature shows students' experiences help to form their attitudes about e-learning and their receptivity to participating in this kind of learning environment.  Summary  This review of the literature in the field of e-learning and distance education begins the work of exploring and examining claims for online learning relevant to this study. Various positions about the use of technology, from optimism to pessimism, are held among educators. Advocates of online learning state that using asynchronous text C M C is an opportunity for students to engage with one another in active and interactive distance learning. To facilitate this learning environment, courses can be designed to include activities reflective of social-constructivist perspectives on learning. The literature presented shows the wide range of investigations that have already taken place and the need for further study to build a stronger research base. •  Literature is presented that explains educators' interests in effective higher education through the application of social-constructivist pedagogies.  The relationship between social-constructivist pedagogy and online distance education is prominent in the literature. C M C is advocated when courses are designed for  Thoughtful Interaction  37  active and collaborative interaction among students in tasks and discussions that involve negotiation of meaning and construction of knowledge. Included in the literature are reports on specific courses and contexts in which students are using e-learning to communicate by text with each other and the instructor. The links between learning perspectives, pedagogical design, and the use of C M C is predominantly from educators and advocates while this study focuses on students' experiences. •  The literature reviewed in this chapter includes descriptions of the characteristics of asynchronous text C M C and studies on how these characteristics are influencing students in the learning environment. Researchers are observing and analyzing online interactions to understand the  characteristics and qualities of text communication and whether they indicate socialconstructivist processes of learning. There are reports of transcript analysis of online interactions, teacher's perspectives on activities in the online classroom, and investigations of models to analyze learning and interactions. Studies are also seeking to understand the nature of the social communication by asynchronous text C M C and the implications of these interactions on the learning community. The understanding that research has provided to date can be augmented by the details of students' descriptions from naturalistic contexts of e-learning in distance education. •  Literature in the field presents findings of students' attitudes and perceptions influencing their perspective on and participation in e-learning. Researchers are exploring students' interests in e-learning through large-scale surveys  and some in-depth studies in order to understand the students' perspectives more fully. There are influences on students' participation from their attitudes to technology, experiences with the pedagogical activities and orientations to learning. These studies indicate that exploring  Thoughtful Interaction  students' experiences and perspectives is a useful research direction to pursue. Interviewing students to listen to their voices is needed to understand online distance education. Literature in the field describes and reports investigations of the use of e-learning environments of higher education. There are also studies of mixed learning environments in which face-to-face meetings and online interactions are used. Sometimes the students meet in the same computer lab; at other times they only meet on campus for part of the semester. In this study students meet across distances and without the influence of face-to-face meetings. Other studies are testing models and analyzing text transcripts to understand the interactions. There are also reports from the perspective of the educators and researchers about courses they have observed or taught. However, if all participants are going to be heard, students' voices and claims need to be added to the research on asynchronous text C M C and the interactions of online learning environments. To continue investigating elearning through the students' interests and participation this study asks: •  How do the students' describe the interactions among peers in this online course?  •  How do the students describe themselves as participants in these interactions?  •  What are the students' perspectives on the online interactions as a learning environment?  Thoughtful Interaction  39  Chapter 3 Research Methods  The qualitative methodology o f this interview study is an interpretive and hermeneutical approach to gathering and analyzing evidence on the study questions. In the interviews I asked students to attend to their perceptions as they described particular experiences o f the online learning environment. During the conversations the students and I interpreted and tried to make sense o f these experiences. The students' perspectives were shared but also tested; meanings were discovered but also negotiated (Schwandt, 2000; Kvale, 1996; Usher & Bryant, 1997). Thus, this qualitative inquiry occurs in the context o f the people and the place o f the study described in this chapter. I begin a presentation o f the methodology by reflecting on the decisions that I made and the influences that shaped these decisions. Then I report my understanding o f the qualitative research interview and the steps I have taken to conduct and analyze the interviews. Lastly, I discuss the limits o f this methodology to pursue the study goals.  Decisions Made in the Research Process  The decision to use interviews within a qualitative framework to elicit responses regarding the study questions was the result o f an active and reflective process during the design of the research proposal. I took my experiences and curiosity to the field's literature, to people working i n and leading the field, and to researchers with expertise in the academic process. A s the proposal was developed decisions were made and the study became a reality. The following section describes this process and my rationale for the direction I have taken.  Thoughtful Interaction  40  Selecting the Site of the Study In order to pursue my research I needed a context, a course offered online, where students were using asynchronous text CMC in the learning environment. The site influenced the kind of study that could be undertaken and the people available as participants. I looked at several educational places - undergraduate and graduate - that were using e-learning to deliver courses and considered several priorities connected to my research interests. First, the site had to be naturalistic and include online text interactions among the students as an integral aspect of the course design. Second, the course had to be distance education. There are many studies of courses that combine some form of face-to-face interaction with asynchronous text CMC and I wanted to explore the study questions without the influence of in-person meetings. Third, the course design had to reflect characteristics of social-constructivism and not transmissive and didactic learning perspectives. This means the course activities needed to involve students in peer-to-peer interactions in order for my questions to be relevant to the students' experiences. Fourth, the course needed to include people from different geographical, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Finally, for practical reasons, I needed a course available for study during my research timeframeand when access to student volunteers would be likely. Out of several possibilities I selected one semester-length course in a university program that offered several advantages. The program is offered only by online distance education and it is offered worldwide via the Internet. It is also a graduate-level program on the study of elearning and, thus, it had the potential to include people with interests and relevant experience important to this study. In particular, as graduate level students they would likely have the experience needed to form and articulate perceptions on my research questions. Although some of the students may be pursuing academic studies full-time, the program is designed to suit people working in their careers while they study. The students are often using e-learning in their  Thoughtful Interaction  41  current workplace, or they are looking for opportunities to do so, and they come from various educational and career backgrounds. Finally, I chose a course that I had studied a year earlier. I wanted to have a good understanding of the design, language and culture of the course. This commonality with the study participants could assist our conversations about the online learning environment.  Kinds of Data to be Generated and Collected as Evidence I selected the research interview as the methodology of this study because it allowed me to look in some depth at a specific aspect of a broad subject. During the interviews the student could describe their experiences and share their perspectives on the learning environment. Each interview became an active and reflexive process of generating data on asynchronous text C M C as a means of interaction in online distance learning. The relationship between the interview methodology and the setting of the study also had an impact on the data I could collect. It was likely that some, i f not most, of these interviews could not take place face-to-face. Although students might be from my local area, it was also my hope and my intention to include people from the range of geographical locations represented in the course. Thus, I needed to make decisions about interviewing people without the typical faceto-face venue. I decided to use telephone interviews - and not text communication such as email or synchronous computer-mediated communication - so that we could have the immediacy and interaction of conversation, add the personal dimension of our voices, but eliminate the influence of using text or C M C on the students' responses. I considered how to develop a fuller understanding of an online study site. Even though the design of the course had not changed in the year since I had participated as a student, I didn't want to rely on my experiences. I felt it was important to approach the setting with fresh eyes for  Thoughtful Interaction  42  detail, to ask questions about this particular offering of the course, and to see the course from a researcher's point of view. Furthermore, I had decided not to observe or participate in the course through the online interactions. While researchers use observation and participation to add information about the course interactions, there are other issues to be considered. For example, ethical problems arise if consent is not obtained from all of the participants in the course. Within the distant and computer-mediated environment this might be difficult to achieve. Then, because I was seeking participants' descriptions and perspectives, I didn't want my presence and observations to unduly influence their interactions in the course. Therefore, after making these decisions I wrestled with how to understand the context of the online course, one without a classroom and with participants from many places around the world. I decided on three steps. The first step involved going to the program's homepage on the Internet and investigating the webpages available to the public. These pages provide an introduction to the program, the faculty and the courses offered. The online course is presented on Web Course Tools (WebCT), a course management system linked via a web browser to the W W W (Information on WebCT is available at The next step was to meet the course tutor and view the course webpages that are only available by password. We discussed and read through the online course without looking at any of the communication among the students or between the students and the tutor. I wanted to hear the instructor's description of the course and the schedule of activities in order to cross-reference this information with the program's website and with my experiences as a student in the course. In the third step, I interviewed the course tutor for his perspective on the course design, the students' interactions, and his role as tutor of the course (see Appendix A for the interview protocol). These steps added valuable information about the course activities that assisted my  Thoughtful Interaction  43  understanding o f the students' experiences and confirmed the relevance o f this course as a place to ask my study questions.  Selecting the Research Group The next decisions involved the methods o f contacting and selecting the people who would participate in the study. I decided on a strategy o f theoretical or purposive sampling o f participants from one section o f the course (Mason, 1996). I wanted to include people from the range o f experience with e-learning present i n the class and the range o f backgrounds students bring from their location, education and career. They would also be able to report their experiences and be available for the in-depth interviews necessary to gather data. I decided on a goal o f ten participants. Although there is no defined number o f participants needed for a study I wanted to balance the opportunity to hear from a number o f people while being able to collect the depth o f evidence needed. The interviews needed to take place within the time frame o f the course when the students were in the midst o f the online experiences. However, ten was a target, not a necessity, as the students would be volunteers and the number enrolled in one section o f the course might limit the sample. In order to contact the students yet maintain the confidentiality o f those who didn't choose to participate, I decided to ask the course tutor to email my request to the class. I also considered the kind o f background information I would need to know about each person. For instance, I wanted to know the students' access to computer technology and experience i n the program as possible factors influencing their participation in the course. Thus, I designed a questionnaire for each volunteering student to complete prior to our first interview (see Appendix B ) .  Thoughtful Interaction  44  Implementing an Interview Study in a Qualitative Tradition  Qualitative research is described as a method o f inquiry that has traditions but is without defined rules or procedures. Kvale calls it a "craft" that requires the development o f the "interviewer's skills, knowledge and intuition" (1996, p. 84). It is also an iterative process involving options, decisions and directions that need to be considered and reconsidered (Cresswell, 1998). In my role as researcher and interviewer, I am challenged to enter the research practice and the field o f the phenomenon reflexively, knowledgeably and ethically. The issues I have taken into account include understanding the nature o f the research interview as conversation and preparing for and conducting the interviews according to the purpose o f this study.  Understanding the Interview as Conversation Kvale (1996) describes the qualitative interview as a specialized dialogue, a conversation in which language is a social act o f sharing knowledge within a situation and culture. It is an interactive process o f people defining and negotiating the meaning o f the phenomenon from their experience and perspective. First, the dialogue produces text then the text is clarified and interpreted in the conversation. The end result is not a harmonizing o f perspectives, however, as the interview conversation is not complete or well articulated and the inconsistencies, contradictions, and incoherence in the text are expected. The word "conversation" is often applied to qualitative interviews to distinguish them from quantitative, often large-scale, interviews. However, this word may be misleading i f not defined more clearly. The interview conversation is an interpersonal situation but it lacks the give and take o f everyday talk; it is, instead, a directed and focused pursuit o f the meaning o f a  Thoughtful Interaction  45  phenomenon. While the interviewer is open to the interviewee's route in the narrative she is also focused on pursuing the themes relevant to the research question. Because there are roles to play in the conversations the interviewer also needs to be cognizant o f her position o f influence, o f the emotional and cognitive aspects o f the interactions and o f her presuppositions about the phenomenon. The potential o f this conversation is a construction that is an interrelation o f the interviewer's knowledge o f the topic and her sensitivity to the interviewees experiences and understandings (Kvale, 1996). The narratives o f the interview conversations in this study have emerged from the process of listening to students' voices on e-learning. The questions that shaped and influenced the narrative investigated the students' experiences with the interactions o f an online distance learning environment. A s they described how they interact with their peers, how they viewed their own participation, and what their perspectives are on the online learning environment i n the course, the students' stories, experiences and ideas were shared in the language o f conversation, (see Appendix C for the first student interview protocol). Questions that prompted reflective descriptions o f each student's experience o f the phenomenon were asked, such as "What is it like?" and " H o w are you experiencing this?" Explanations as to " W h y is this so?" were only listened to i f they arose in the dialogue (Mason, 1996). I listened for and encouraged a conversation full o f details and specific events rather than generalizations or opinions about the topic. A t times there were discrepancies in the narrative and confusion about meanings and words, but these were a normal part o f the dialogue. They were useful places to explore the students' experiences and their developing understanding (Kvale, 1996). The technique o f listening in the conversation is a further special aspect o f the qualitative research interview. While the interviewer designs questions to pursue the theme o f the study and to promote interaction, she is also attending to her skill as a listener. Listening has a role i n the  Thoughtful Interaction  46  moment o f the interview interaction and it guides the continuing dialogue. The interviewer chooses whether or not to direct a question, pursue a story, clarify an event or word, or confirm the significance o f a comment. In a hermeneutical approach, listening for meaning goes beneath the literal and explicit to meanings that are implicit and influenced by presuppositions. The interviewer listens to what is said and how it is said through, for example, emotional tones i n the interviewee's voice, or hesitancy or silence. Listening effectively is also part o f establishing the relationship between interviewer and interviewee as a genuine interest i n the conversation can build rapport. The interviewer directs attention to the themes o f the research question yet is willing to let the interviewee's story unfold. This requires the interviewer to attend to her voice in the dialogue and to the kinds o f questions she asks and the comments she makes. Thus, the interviewer is both an active and a reflexive listener (Mason, 1996; Kvale, 1996).  Preparing for the Interview Conversations Once I had decided to use a semi-structured approach to interviewing I was faced with the decisions involved in designing the interview protocol. M y approach kept one o f Kvale's "1000-page questions" in mind: " H o w can the interviews assist me in extending my knowledge o f the phenomenon I am investigating?" (1996, p. 182). The research questions needed to facilitate participants' reflections on and descriptions o f their experiences o f asynchronous text computer-mediated discussions in one graduate-level online distance education course. In particular, the questions would seek the students' perceptions on three aspects o f social-constructivist pedagogy claimed as advantages i n computer-mediated learning environments: that learners are active and engaged, that learning is a collaborative process and that knowledge is built through a multi-voiced discourse.  Thoughtful Interaction  Difficulties arose i n planning these questions and presenting them on a page. The two-dimensional, black-and-white, linear text does not respond to the nature o f the research interview. Questions printed in a list on a page do not easily convey the "interdependence o f human interaction and knowledge construction" that is the research interview (Kvale, 1996, p. 14). Another difficult aspect o f designing the questions was the influence o f words and phrases. For example, the word interaction has a different tone, nuance than conversation; and the question 'how does this help y o u . . . ? ' hints at the kind o f answer expected. Thus, I wanted questions that didn't lead or limit the students' responses. In practice, then, the interview protocol I designed was informal and organized around themes arising from the study purpose. It was a map o f the questions I would follow according to the exchange o f ideas in each conversation (Kvale). I considered my need to develop interview skills based on knowledge, preparation and practice. A s the interviewer, I must be responsible for the quality o f the interview; it is not dependent on the characteristics o f the interviewee. I must know: what to ask - or not and know how to ask it; when to follow up a question or comment or make an interpretation - or not to do so; and how to understand and interpret language. I began this learning process with three practice interviews that also tested the interview questions. Students from another course in the online distance education program who would not be participants in the study volunteered. The first two interviews were conducted i n person and the third by telephone. This phone interview proved to be a useful medium for a detailed and reflective conversation and I realized that I could conduct all o f the study interviews in this way. I felt that conducting the interviews by distance was congruent with the site o f the study, because the students i n the course would be interacting with one another at a distance. After these interviews I analyzed my interview method and skills, identifying the areas I needed to  Thoughtful Interaction  48  improve. I also reviewed my interview protocol, made some adjustments and confirmed directions I should take. The next step o f preparation was to contact the students enrolled in the section o f the course that I was studying. There were twenty-two students i n total, eight women and fourteen men. The tutor, as my email intermediary, sent the students a letter to inform them o f my study and invite them to participate. Although the tutor encouraged students to participate, he also stated that this study and their participation were not related to the program, the course or their assessment in the course. He explained that he would not see any o f the data and that I would not share information from the interviews with him. In total, eight students volunteered. I received emails from six interested students within a few days and, after a second email announcement from the course tutor, two more responses came two weeks later. A further two students inquired about the study but decided not to participate. I also mailed a formal consent letter to the student volunteers to sign, which followed the ethical guidelines o f this study. I emailed the Participant Questionnaire (Appendix B ) to each volunteer, which they completed and returned to me by email.  The Interviews as Conversation and Text M y next concern was to arrange the interviews and the logistics o f this seemed a challenge. The interviewees and I needed to schedule interview times i n their busy schedules, across our different time zones, and at the right stage i n the course. Using both email and phone calls, I confirmed a first interview time with all o f the students during the eighth to the tenth week o f the course (see Appendix C for the course schedule). I relied on the initial letter I had sent to the students to present myself so my first substantial communication with each student was at the initial interview.  Thoughtful Interaction  49  I conducted each of the interviews by telephone (using a speakerphone) and I taperecorded each conversation. These interviews were approximately one hour; some a little more, but none less than that time. The initial interviews took place between weeks 8 and 10 of the course. After the first student interview, I critically assessed the interview protocol I had developed (Mason, 1996). Although this is a necessary practice in qualitative interviewing, I was encouraged to do so because the first interviewee had several comments and questions about my research approach. He stated his interest was motivated by his concurrent roles as research participant and student of research methodology in the course. As a result, I looked carefully at the open-ended nature of my interview and confirmed my understanding of the questions I was asking. I also became more aware of the difficulty facing the students in the interview conversation and their need to reflect on and synthesize experiences and perceptions within the time and context of a telephone interview. At this time I also realized that more connection with the participants would assist the qualitative interview process. Therefore, before embarking on the other interviews I sent an email to each student that confirmed the time of our appointment and, more importantly, included some information about my experiences in the field and my interest in the research project. Then, at the beginning of the phone interviews I took time to establish a conversational tone before beginning the interview questions. Within the time the students had available for our interview, I had to balance the need for conversation that would build rapport and conversation that would generate evidence on the research questions.  Continuing the Conversation Following each interview I transcribed the recorded conversation and saved the data on disk. The transcription process, however, is a representation of the interview conversation and  Thoughtful Interaction  50  not a copy as typing oral speech into text transforms and constructs a new medium. Thus, as I was beginning the interpretive and analytical process, decisions needed to be made (Mason, 1996). In the transcription process the interviewer is again a tool o f the research process because she is actively structuring into text the "personal interaction o f the interview situation" (Kvale, 1996, p. 167). A s I transcribed the conversations, I strove to capture all o f the dialogue i n the words, phrases, and sentences that the interviewee actually used. The other ingredients o f a conversation - pauses, silences, and emotional tones - were added when I felt these influenced the direction o f the dialogue. Therefore, not all o f the signs o f affect, pace or tone are included (nor could they be included) in the text. I also wanted to be consistent with a person's manner o f speech using their vocabulary and grammatical choices. If an interviewee did make several attempts at phrasing an idea, or backtrack on their ideas, or use a particular idiomatic expression, I included these to show the character o f the conversation. If I needed to clarify the use o f a term I tried to note this. For example, one student called messages posted on the discussion forum emails so I asked h i m to define this term and noted that he was referring to the Discussion Forums i n the course, not private email messages. In the initial contact letter I had asked for the option o f a second interview. I realized from the first interviews, however, that a follow-up interview was going to be very important and, fortunately, all o f the students were willing. Later, in weeks 11 and 12 o f the course, the second interviews took place. To prepare for this interview protocol I used some ideas from my literature study in the field and considered the course activities that had taken place in the intervening weeks. However, the most important source o f questions came from listening to and reading the transcripts o f the initial interview. I had read through the transcripts o f each student as distinct conversations and made some notes i n the transcript margins. Then I made a summary o f the main ideas from each  Thoughtful Interaction  51  interview. I organized the variety o f details under common main ideas, such as participation patterns, writing messages on the forum or descriptions o f the small group process. Before I conducted the second interview I re-read the interviewee's transcript and selected areas that I wanted to pursue. These included words or phrases that needed clarification, stories that had started but hadn't ended or themes that had been noticeably absent but could prove worthwhile to probe. Although each student had also introduced some individual interests into our interview conversations, I decided to keep my focus on generating useful and meaningful conversations on my study questions. Thus, I developed a second interview protocol that had some common questions for all the students but also particular questions related to each student. The second interviews were approximately 45 minutes long. These interviews were recorded and transcribed in the same manner as the first interviews.  Analysis of the Data from the Interview Conversations  Purpose of the Analysis The purpose o f the analysis o f qualitative research interviews is to continue the knowledge production o f the interview conversations. Analysis o f qualitative research data has been pictured as a spiral that moves through and connects each part o f the study (Cresswell, 1998). Therefore, analysis is a part o f each interview as it is occurring, as it is being transcribed, and each time the text transcription is read or considered. After the interviews are complete, however, there is an analysis stage in which the conversations are searched for evidence relevant to the study questions. "The analysis o f an interview is interspersed between the initial story told by the interviewee to the researcher and the final story told by the researcher to an audience" (Kvale, 1996, p. 184).  Thoughtful Interaction  52  The link between the research question and method continued during the analysis stage o f this study. The choice o f data sources had influenced the evidence generated. A s well there were decisions to be made in the analysis beginning with the choice o f the different ways o f reading the transcribed conversations. Mason (1996) describes three ways o f reading the data. A literal reading looks at the form, sequence and substance o f the dialogue. A n interpretive reading looks for the meaning in the dialogue and the experiences and a reflexive one looks for the interviewer's role i n the data generation and interpretation. In the analysis I have undertaken there are both descriptive levels o f the students' understanding o f the interactions and interpretive levels in which categories and themes arise from across the interviewees' experiences. I have selected and organized the descriptive and interpretive data to build the analysis and develop an understanding o f the phenomena o f this study.  Steps Taken in the Study From the time I met the students by email and telephone conversations through to the time I wrote the analysis, I have been interpreting, condensing and categorizing the data. During and between each interview and as I listened to and transcribed the recordings I was reviewing, reflecting, deciding, questioning and clarifying. I used a consistent process with each transcript and followed these steps in the analysis: •  Read the transcripts o f the first interview - 1 used some general coding categories related to the study questions. These were: descriptions o f using C M C i n the course, participating i n the course activities; interacting with peers; observing peers' interactions; and value ascribed to the learning environment in the course.  •  Prepare for the second interview - 1 wrote a summary o f each interview with common main ideas to provide an intermediate story o f each student. I also re-read the  Thoughtful Interaction  53  transcripts to discover questions and topics that needed to be pursued with one person and with all. Then, I prepared a second interview protocol that was unique to each student. Conduct the second interviews -1 asked questions about the students' most recent experiences in the course and I followed the second interview protocol to clarify, extend and fill gaps in the conversations from the first interviews. Prepare information for the students' data check -1 added to the summary written following the first interview with new, clarified, and extended information from the second interview. I sent each student a copy of her/his summary and asked for comments, clarifications and contradictions. Each person's confidentiality was maintained and each one also had the opportunity to change or confirm understandings and interpretations I had made. Read across interviews by selected themes -1 looked for descriptions and perspectives related to the study questions through coding categories that had arisen from the participants' conversations. I read through the transcripts considering one theme at a time and I collected conversations from the transcripts that were evidence of the theme. Organize the condensed and categorized data by themes -1 looked for relationships between the descriptions and perspectives that are in common among the students and those that are unique. I considered the degree to which certain information was present or absent and the contexts of the conversations in which the information was located. Then I began to write a report using summaries and direct quotations to support and illustrate each theme.  Thoughtful Interaction  •  54  Re-read each transcript holistically -1 read each transcript again to re-visit the whole of the conversation. I not only checked the understanding and interpretation o f the parts o f the conversation that I had already selected, summarized and interpreted but I also looked for fresh perspectives.  •  Write the analysis i n relation to the study question -1 reviewed and questioned the relationships between the interview conversations, the interpretations I was making and the study question. I continued to write a report that would communicate the meaning o f the interview conversations to my audience.  Interpretive Validity and Limitations in the Context of this Study The account o f the methodology assists readers who are evaluating this study and assessing the usefulness o f the findings for other contexts. In the description o f my reflective approach to the design, method and analysis o f the study I explain the rationale for the decisions I have made. M y research questions have been at the forefront in my use o f research interviews in a qualitative tradition. I interviewed eight student volunteers from the graduate level online distance education course. The interviews followed a semi-structured protocol and used openended questions to generate data. A s an important aspect o f the methodology, I have used consistent steps to record and transcribe the data. Each student has had the opportunity to review my summary o f her or his conversations and to correct the information I heard and the interpretations I was making before I began the formal analysis stage. Four students replied but only one asked for a few words to be changed and the others were satisfied with my understanding as reported in the summary. I have also been careful with my use o f the descriptions and perspectives shared by the students. Only after listening to and then reading each transcript several times did I begin to  Thoughtful Interaction  55  organize particular dialogues. I continued to use a reflective approach as I incorporated the analysis into a report. I questioned the dialogues I had selected to illustrate themes and I returned to the individual transcripts to keep the excerpts in the context of the conversation. In these ways, I checked the evidence I was using to support my interpretations. I have also considered the challenges of this study and the limits of the knowledge produced. It is essential to recognize that the use of one course and one section of a course limited the number of students and the diversity of students' experiences in this study. The subject matter of the course, the course design, and the schedule of the activities and assignments will also have affected the students' descriptions of their experiences and their perspectives on this learning environment. The number of participants I interviewed and the sampling method also limits this study. I relied on volunteers and, with only eight coming forward out of 22 students in the class, I was not able to use purposeful sampling. While I have interviewed more than one-third of the students in the course section, this number can only reflect a limited range of experiences in this course. The tutor facilitated access to the participants and encouraged their participation; however, distance and the use of text and telephone to communicate, ensure confidentiality and establish rapport may have deterred some students. Also, I relied solely on volunteers and I did not request or solicit participation from students representing different interests and locations. Another limit to the study has been the single means of generating data through research interviews. The interview conversations are useful for the study purpose but there could only be a limited number of interviews within the weeks of the course. Other means of reflection and description by email or questionnaire could have given students more time respond to the questions, especially as I was asking students for detailed accounts of their experiences. However, this would also add another medium to be interpreted in the analysis. My experience  Thoughtful Interaction  56  i n qualitative i n t e r v i e w i n g a n d m y interests i n the study also l i m i t the analysis. W i t h o u t a s e c o n d researcher i n v o l v e d i n the data c o l l e c t i o n or analysis, the study is r e l y i n g o n m y interpretations f r o m l i s t e n i n g to the conversations a n d r e a d i n g the i n t e r v i e w transcripts. T h i s d e s c r i p t i o n o f the m e t h o d o l o g y a n d the l i m i t a t i o n s encountered is useful for readers to assess the trustworthiness a n d authenticity o f this qualitative i n t e r v i e w study. K e e p i n g i n m i n d the m e t h o d o l o g y I have used and the l i m i t a t i o n s I have just d e s c r i b e d , the analysis a n d f i n d i n g s presented i n this study c a n a d d to the d e v e l o p i n g k n o w l e d g e i n the f i e l d o f e-learning.  Thoughtful Interaction  57  Chapter 4 The Context o f the Study  A detailed description o f the course provides the context for the interview conversations and for my interpretations and analysis. A t the same time, I need to respect and protect the confidentiality o f the people involved. A s a result, I have made some generalizations about the study site and locations o f students, and I have changed the names o f the tutor and students who participated.  Description of the Course  The students I interviewed were enrolled in a course in the field o f e-learning offered by online distance education at the University o f British Columbia. This course is one o f five in a post-graduate certificate program, and the students can take this course during any point in their studies toward the certificate. The course objectives state that current research in the field o f elearning w i l l be examined and discussed. Students w i l l analyze the quality o f the research in order to develop an understanding o f issues in research methodology and become critical consumers o f research. To take this course the students had to meet the requirements for graduate studies at the University o f British Columbia or have educational and work experience equivalent to the requirements. They could audit the course, use it as credit toward the certificate, or take it as elective toward a graduate degree in other departments and faculties o f the university. This course was offered on W e b C T and instruction was online v i a the W W W . Information available on the program's publicly accessible website includes an outline o f the  Thoughtful Interaction  58  course and a description o f the pedagogical approach. The students were expected to study independently and interactively i n scheduled discussions and collaborative small group activities using C M C , particularly asynchronous text C M C . "The course w i l l make extensive use o f asynchronous online discussions and small-group collaborative work to explore and develop the research and evaluation issues (course website, 2002, source confidential)." Students could also select synchronous text C M C and use email for smaller group interactions. In my interview with the tutor he explained that the course did not have a campus component so there was no expectation that the students would meet, or be able to meet, in person.  These students are all over the world. There are some students on campus, but there are also students from countries in Europe, South America and some from Australia, for example. So it's true distance education. These people are not coming to campus and there's no residency model where there's some face-to-face component (Ted).  There were two sections o f this course offered at the time o f my study. One took place i n Spanish and the other - the section that formed the sample for my study participants - was offered in English. In this English section there were twenty-two students in total, eight women and fourteen men. A l l o f the students had completed a bachelor's degree, ten o f these students also have a master's degree and six have degrees at the doctoral level. These undergraduate and graduate level studies are in health sciences, arts and science, applied sciences, social sciences and education. Several students also have diplomas in fields o f library science, journalism, film and television, and photography. While all o f the students meet the English requirement for graduate studies at the University o f British Columbia, sixteen students are native users o f English and four use English as a second language. The information on first language was unavailable for two students. H a l f o f the students are participating from locations i n Canada (12), and there are four in the United States, three i n Oceania, one in South America and two in Europe. The students' locations do not describe their geographical and cultural backgrounds,  Thoughtful Interaction  59  however. For instance, two people i n the class are in Canada as international students, and one o f the students in the United States is from Canada. The course was designed by a team o f educators and technical advisors at the university. The current tutor, Ted, was not one o f the designers and this was the first time he had tutored this particular course. However, he has extensive experience in the field o f educational technology and instructional design and development. Ted has also designed and taught other e-learning courses at other higher education institutions. A l l o f the students interviewed were from one section o f the course, which was delivered in English. A second section was offered in Spanish. Registered students accessed the course by logging on to the course homepage with a password and then selecting from the course activity links that were listed there. A series o f webpages contained the course outline, content materials, self-study activities, and instructions about assignments. Students also bought printed course materials and textbooks and there were links to references on the Internet in the resources page o f the course website. The course was organized into five blocks o f content, activities and assignments that the students participated in and progressed through according to the course schedule. Block 1 was an introduction, Block 2 was the initial content unit for the course and B l o c k 3 had the most extensive amount o f course content and assignments. There were five assignments; four o f these were completed individually and one was a small group task. The first three assignments were individual papers o f 500 words each. The fourth assignment was a small group task and involved a group paper o f 2000 words and an online discussion. The final assignment was an individual paper o f 2000-3000 words and each student could select a topic o f interest related to the course and their field o f work, (see Appendix D for the course schedule).  Thoughtful Interaction  60  An Online Distance Education Course on WebCT  A description o f the tools o f W e b C T used by the students is needed to make sense o f the students' reports and examples presented i n the analysis o f the interview conversations. W e b C T course content was presented on a structured series o f web pages and the students could interact with each other and their instructor i n online discussions and chats and through email within the course site. W e b C T can also be used for cloze or multiple-choice questions, although these were not used in the course in this study. Detailed technical knowledge o f the software or the computer was not required for teachers or students. Navigating and using the tools o f the course website is similar to using email and accessing information on the Internet. However, students needed regular access to the Internet and to computer hardware and software that met the course technical requirements.  WebCT Tools Usedfor Interaction in the Course This course used a number o f the W e b C T tools to provide course content to the students and to provide opportunities for interaction with their peers and the tutor. These were accessible from the course homepage. The following tools are referred to in the description o f the course and in the interview conversations: •  Course Content - text-based web pages for self-directed study  •  Assignments - detailed text-based descriptions o f the assignments and their due dates  •  Resources - guidelines to the course and hypertext links to online academic journals and articles relevant to the course topic  •  B i o Pages - a space for each student's autobiographical introduction  •  Forums - asynchronous text-based C M C discussion space  Thoughtful Interaction  •  Chat - synchronous text-based C M C conversation space  •  W e b C T mail - personal email account within the course web site for private  61  communication with other course participants (The term email w i l l be used to refer to email communication through servers outside o f the W e b C T course system.) The following details on the communication tools used in this course w i l l provide the context for understanding the students' conversations and the analysis in Chapter 4. Students used the Communication Tools to participate i n the class discussions and the small group task.  Bio Page The students introduced themselves on an individual web page i n which they could post a 300- word text message and add hyperlinks or a picture. The information i n the " B i o " focused on the individual's career, experiences i n the program, goals for the course, and some personal information. This introduction provided some background information to begin the class relationships.  Forum The Forum is the name o f the asynchronous text C M C discussion space in this course. It was the main meeting place for students i n the course. The students could interact with each other and the tutor by composing text messages and reading, and replying to each other's messages. "The on-line discussion groups are an essential part o f the course. A s this is a graduate-level course, we expect you to participate regularly by reading the discussions and contributing to them" (course website, 2002, online discussion guidelines). Using asynchronous text C M C , the students and the tutor could participate at different times and from different places. "I like that opportunity for the students to have the time to read and think and then for us to participate online, but to do it at our own time. It's more flexible" (Ted).  Thoughtful Interaction  62  The messages posted to the Forum became a permanent text record o f the course discussions. Each time a person logged on to the Forum all o f the messages posted i n the course were available. Some Forums were public - open to all course members to participate - while others were private - available only to an assigned group o f students. A discussion space i n a Forum is called a Topic. When students clicked on a Topic, a list o f the messages posted to this discussion space appeared on the computer screen. Students could select just one message i n this list to read, or the whole discussion or thread. The selected text message or messages then appeared on their computer screen. Usually a thread focused on a particular aspect or question i n the Topic. In a Topic, students composed messages, which started a new thread. They also replied to messages they had read. N e w messages or postings were then added to the thread and became a part o f the text record o f the discussion. L i k e email, students could also attach a document from their local computer files to accompany a posted message.  Chat W e b C T has a synchronous communication tool for students to use for a text conversation. The students arranged a meeting time i n a Chat R o o m . When they met, they signed in to the Chat Room and their name was posted in the conversation space. Then they typed messages to talk with each other and these messages were displayed immediately, with the sender's name, on the participating students' computer screens. Unlike the asynchronous Forum, a permanent text record o f the chat was not available on the course site; however, it could be obtained from the webmaster o f the course.  Interaction in the Course The most common place for student interaction i n this course was on the asynchronous text Forums, which are organized for particular activities and purposes. There was a Student  Thoughtful Interaction  63  Cafe (for informal and social student interaction), a Discussion Forum (a public forum for class discussions on the course content and assignments) and a Private Forum (for each small group to work on the collaborative assignment). Discussion Forums were scheduled for each content block o f the course. The students posted and read messages from one another and the tutor on the issues arising from their studies. In Block 3 the students' papers for the third assignment were also posted as attachments to the Forum for others to read and discuss. In order for the class to discuss the small group papers written for Assignment 4, three one-week long discussions were scheduled for Block 4. These are referred to as Small Group Forums in this study. During the last block o f the course a Guest Forum took place. Students from the English and Spanish sections participated - although in English - with an expert i n the field. This guest expert facilitated this class discussion and engaged the students i n applying and extending their knowledge o f the course issues. The students also worked in groups o f four or five students on the task o f Assignment 4, which I refer to as the Group Task. Each group examined and wrote a critique o f a published study in the field o f e-learning. "Students w i l l be expected to research a position on the issue under discussion and to present an argument to the rest o f the class.... Opportunities for small group collaboration w i l l be provided for this activity" (course website, 2002, assessment). In this section o f the course there were six groups and two groups were assigned to critique each article. Some o f the groups formed because the students selected the same article to critique. Others students didn't make a selection and they were assigned to a group randomly." After each group paper was completed, it was posted to a scheduled Small Group Forum for their peers to read and discuss. The small group members also introduced and facilitated this discussion. The tutor commented,  Thoughtful Interaction  64  we're discussing the group papers and I want to step back from that I made it clear that I'm going to step back but that I am reading the messages. I read all the messages and I w i l l comment i f I need to clarify something, or someone has a question. Otherwise, I ' m going to give them a few days to discuss and then I ' m going to summarize it (Ted).  Although free to use other means o f communication, the students I interviewed primarily used asynchronous text C M C to work together on the Group Task. They used either a Private Forum assigned to their group, W e b C T mail or email. One student said that her group also used some Chat (synchronous text C M C ) and a few telephone conversations, which were needed to clarify the assignment. None o f them had met face-to-face with members o f the class or the tutor. The course tutor was able to monitor the Private Forums but he did not have access to W e b C T mail, email or Chat communications between group members. H e stated, "Clearly there's been collaboration, strong collaboration, with Assignment 4, which was the group paper. But then it was required o f them to do it" (Ted). The students were expected to participate in all o f the discussions on the Forums and the discussions in the Small Group Forum were 10% o f the course grade. Guidelines on participation in discussions were provided for students on the course web site. These guidelines reiterated the purpose o f the Forums and gave suggestions about the kinds o f messages expected. " . . ..these discussion groups provide you with an opportunity to share your knowledge, to seek feedback from fellow students as well as tutors on your ideas, and to ask for help when you need it. The discussion topics are closely related to the assignments" (course website, 2002, online discussion guidelines). Students were expected to be actively and meaningfully involved in the course discussions as readers and writers. From the tutor's perspective writing may not be as efficient but, perhaps it encourages more reflection. It gives people time to go back and read something. A n d maybe to go look something up. It encourages more deep processing o f  Thoughtful Interaction  65  thought... .1 think reading, i n a way, is better than processing someone orally. In a class you can lose attention. Or you don't even hear the words. But i f it's written there, and you're having trouble focusing, you can come back to it. I think i n terms o f 'listening' to someone, it's much more careful (Ted).  The guidelines also stated that the course content should be incorporated into messages - but not as lengthy quotes - and messages should add to and encourage further discussion on the topic. The students were responsible for continuing the discussions by responding to messages posted by other students, answering questions that were directed to them, and contributing their reflections on the course issues (course website, 2002, online discussion guidelines). Another expectation stated in the course guidelines, and by the tutor, is that students should respect, but not judge, differences in understanding and points-of-view. Although the course involved the students in discussions to evaluate and critique published reports o f research and evaluation studies, and although the students presented their own papers, the students' messages were expected to be reasoned and well-supported arguments. In the tutor's opinion, the students have been able to disagree with one another but "it's been pretty professional" (Ted). The students have shared ideas and acknowledged differences indirectly.  Nobody has come out and been direct or negative about it A n d the one's who have been strong, in my view, have also been posting quality postings. They really are thinking about the issues, they've come up with some unique perspectives and good individual ideas (Ted).  The tutor described his role i n the course as an organizer, encourager, and facilitator. A s an organizer he assisted students with technical questions and with adjustments to assignments, as needed. He encouraged students - by email and on the Forums - who were having difficulties with the online course environment or who were lacking confidence in the course content. H i s role in the interactions was facilitative.  Thoughtful Interaction  66  I see my role as not pontificating or stating my opinions - except for where I think it's necessary to clarify issues - and I've done some o f that. But much more it's been posing further questions, being a bit o f a devil's advocate trying to encourage discussion, trying to get the students discussing and thinking about the issues.... Although you can certainly get into these Discussion Forums and be 'professor in the centre' I've tried not to do that (Ted).  The tutor pointed out problems with the time scheduled for the course activities. H e felt the first two blocks, particularly the introduction, were given too much time and, then, the students didn't have enough time for Block 3. The tutor noted the heavy load o f work and the limited time scheduled i n Block 3 so he re-organized and reduced the discussion requirements. For instance, instead o f reading all o f their peers' papers, he suggested the students read a minimum o f two student papers and post a message with their comments two times. He also felt the students participated less i n the Forums because they had three individual assignments to complete in the first half o f the course . "I think there have been some things about the design that have curtailed discussion and interaction" (Ted). A s a result, some o f the topics the students raised were not developed in the discussions. "I didn't pursue [the topic]. It was an interesting discussion but I don't think we were ready for it. There were a lot o f other pressures at the time with assignments" (Ted).  Summary  The description o f the course and W e b C T in this chapter presents the online distance learning environment in which the students i n this study have participated. The websites for this post-graduate certificate program and the course, as well as the interview with the tutor, have provided information about the course pedagogy and the roles o f the participants. The course activities are designed for active, cooperative and collaborative learning. The tutor described his  Thoughtful Interaction  67  role as a facilitator and the students' role as reflective and engaged learners in the reading and writing discussions o f the Forum. Asynchronous text C M C was the primary means used for the discussions on the Forums and the work o f the Group Task. Interactions among the students were a strong component o f the learning activities; however, only the participation i n the Group Task and the Small Group Forums was graded. The tutor emphasized, however, that the course was designed for interaction but the course schedule and workload limited the opportunities for this to take place. With this background to the students' experiences, an introduction to the students and the analysis o f the interviews is presented in Chapter 5.  Thoughtful Interaction  68  Chapter 5 Analysis  The analysis presented i n this chapter continues the search for knowledge o f this study. Led by my curiosity about students' experiences i n online distance education, I have interpreted and analyzed the evidence o f the research interviews on students' descriptions o f the interactions and their perspectives on interacting with peers by asynchronous text C M C . M y interpretations were at play as I listened for and pursued themes that arose from the dialogues and that disclosed the students' reflections on the study questions. I have selected and organized the text o f the analysis to present the students' voices on interacting in the online learning environment o f this course. I begin this chapter by introducing the students who shared their experiences i n the interview conversations. Next, I focus on the students' reports o f the class discussions on the Forum and the opportunities and challenges they encountered. Then, the students' roles i n the Group Task and their perspectives on the value o f this online activity are presented. I conclude with the students' reflections on the extent o f the learning environment that has developed through the interactions with their peers.  The Participants in the Interview Study  Information about the students in this study has been gathered from the Initial Questionnaire the students completed at the beginning o f this study and from information they shared in the interviews. Out o f the eight women and fourteen men registered i n this section o f the course, eight students - three females and five males - volunteered to participate. The  Thoughtful Interaction 69  students are between age thirty and sixty; one is over age 30, three are over age 40, and four are over age 50. A l l o f the students are fluent in English and seven are native users o f English. T w o of the eight are bilingual and they use English and their other language in their workplaces. The students are geographically dispersed and they did not meet face-to-face with their peers in this course. There are four students in Canada and three in the United States o f America and each is from a different province or state. Only one student is located i n another continent. These locations are not as diverse as the range o f their classmates as out o f the group o f twenty-two i n this section o f the course, six are i n non-North American countries, (see Appendix E for a summary o f the participant's characteristics, Table E l , Table E 2 , Table E3). The students have been participants i n higher education prior to this course. A l l o f the students have completed at least one university degree at the bachelor's level, and several have two bachelor's degrees. One student has completed a Master's degree and two have completed a Ph.D. Seven o f the students were taking the course for credit; one applied this credit to his Master's degree while five were working toward the post-graduate certificate i n this distance education program. One student audited this course, yet participated in the discussions and completed the assignments as he would have i f taking the course for credit. This was the first course in the program for one student, the third course for three o f the students and the fourth for three others. For one student, this was the fifth and final course toward the post-graduate certificate. Seven o f the students said that they enrolled in this course because it was useful for their current workplace. Five o f these students are directly involved online higher education. Three students said they also took this course because o f personal interest and two said this course w i l l also be useful for career opportunities i n the future. The students were working full time as they took this course. They are faculty, administrators, program designers, and computer technologists. They work in a variety o f areas  Thoughtful Interaction  70  o f higher education, adult education, and government. A l l o f the students had regular access to a computer and the Internet for their coursework at home and, in most cases, at work. They reported the cost o f the Internet connection to be affordable (3 students), very affordable (2 students) or cheap (3 students). A l l o f the students could log onto the course web site to participate in the course quickly - from seconds to within one minute. Although access to and the cost o f technology was not limiting their participation in the course, the students reported that responsibilities outside o f the course were a limitation. Above the usual challenges o f combining work and family responsibilities with coursework, several students reported particular situations that affected their participation in at least one period o f the course. These included time without access to a computer, a unique workplace project that added to their responsibilities or assignments from a concurrent course.  Introduction to the Students  I have written an introduction to the students who have shared their experiences o f online distance learning in this course. I obtained this information from the initial questionnaires and the interviews. The names used are pseudonyms.  Debra Debra works in project management. This was her third course i n the program. To communicate with others she used the Forum and sent a few emails to her small group and the instructor, but she did not use Chat or phone calls. Debra kept up with the course readings and new postings by reading frequently, usually for 1-2 hours per night, but she didn't post messages often. In the last week o f scheduled discussions, she was away from her computer and unable to participate. Debra feels the Forum, in comparison to a face-to-face class, is not a learning  Thoughtful Interaction  71  environment that encourages her to participate. However, this online distance education course gave her the opportunity to study while she met her professional and personal responsibilities. A l s o , the interactions with other students on the Forum were a valuable source o f information and a learning experience and the tone o f the interactions was positive and respectful. She found the Group Task had advantages and she participated more often in this context. However, the group experience needed more time and, also, more interactions i n a small group throughout the course would have been helpful. Debra said her peers in the course are very diverse, coming from different places and backgrounds. She said that participating in this course requires students to take a very active role and to be responsible for their learning.  Eleanor Eleanor administers and designs the content aspects o f training programs in one field that are delivered by e-learning. This was Eleanor's third course in the certificate program. She participated in this course on the Forum and she also used Chat and a few phone calls in her small group. She logged on to the course at least every other day and spent an hour or more online. She posted about once a-week. Towards the end o f the scheduled discussions her participation decreased quite substantially due to the demands o f work and another course. Because she was working and taking other courses, Eleanor said this online distance education course is convenient and the best option available to her. She used the Forum to connect with the class but reading the text interactions challenged her learning style. There was a good level o f participation and the information was dense and rich. Eleanor was very positive about the Group Task. The task took quite a bit o f negotiation to complete but the experience was very interesting and very supportive. Eleanor said the people i n the course come from a range o f backgrounds from students to people working in the field. Eleanor thinks that students in an online course like this need to be independent and self-motivated.  Thoughtful Interaction  72  Gary Gary is a faculty member i n a higher education institution. This was his third course i n this program. He used the Forum to read regularly but he only made a few postings, about one per week. He feels there were fewer interactions in this course than an earlier one he had taken because o f the class size, course design and assignments. Gary described the Forum as a valuable learning experience when accompanying the course materials. Reading was essential and motivating because o f the high quality postings that he described as thoughtful, reflective and collegial. He thinks collaboration may be more difficult i n online distance education, although he said that his perspective was affected by the problems his small group experienced. Gary said his peers come from diverse backgrounds in careers, education and experience i n research, yet, overall, the class was fairly homogeneous. In an online learning environment designed for interaction and collaboration, Gary thinks students are more obviously responsible for their learning.  Howard Howard is a teacher and administrator. This was his first course i n this program. A t first he participated in the course everyday but later he logged on every few days but for a longer time of an hour or more. A t times during the course he had to be away for three to four days due to work responsibilities. Howard used the Forum, W e b C T mail and email to interact with others, but he did not use Chat. He talked with the tutor by phone about some initial technical problems. Howard liked exchanging ideas in this medium even though it was a new mode o f course participation for him. To suit his learning style, there could have been more organization o f the course materials, the course objectives and the discussions. Howard thinks the Group Task process went well and that people worked together successfully. He said the diversity o f students' workplaces is fairly broad and that their experiences or education brought different  Thoughtful Interaction  73  points o f view i n interactions that were rich and respectful. Howard thinks that students in an online distance education course should be active in the discussions but that they w i l l need to balance the course with their personal and workplace responsibilities.  Ken K e n is an educational designer in distance education. This was his third course in the program. He participated regularly by reading for an hour or more per day and he usually spent a half-hour writing messages. In this course he used the Forum and some email. K e n said that the interactions on the Forum helped h i m to understand a topic or issue more clearly and, possibly, more quickly. The interactions were agreeable and people listened to each other. He feels the student-to-student interaction is important for constructivist learning, but that this course was a challenge because o f the workload. The Group Task encouraged more interactions. Their group had difficulties because one student wasn't able to contribute very much; however, K e n feels it is important to encourage and include each person. He said there is geographic diversity among the students but that the class was not as diverse as others he had taken in this program. He feels experience in the program has helped h i m with the challenge o f online learning. Compared with other forms o f distance education, he thinks students are faced with issues o f time management, as they have to participate with others i n the scheduled course activities.  Mark Mark has experience in public and higher education as a faculty member and an administrator. This was his fifth o f the five courses in the program. H e participated in the course by reading every day or two. Usually, he posted a message once a week but he participated more often i n the Small Group Forums. He used the Forums and email i n this course. Mark said the Forum was central to the course. The interactions were challenging and  Thoughtful Interaction 74  insightful and they encouraged h i m to think and study more. He said it is important that statements are substantiated, credible and written in a tone that is thoughtful and careful. He feels the Forum is an advantage because he can read different perspectives on a topic, and a few verbal people in the class can't dominate the discussion. The Group Task was the most valuable activity and the students had more responsibility i n this context. M a r k ' s small group was focused on the task and they only had one difficulty during one part o f the editing stage. He said there was some diversity o f location and backgrounds among the students but the class was not as diverse as his university campus. Meaningful participation in a course like this one is hard work and he thinks students need to be independent and engaged learners.  Nicole Nicole administers and plans online distance education courses in higher education. This was her fourth course i n the program. She usually logged onto the course every 3-4 days but sometimes she would participate a few days in a row. She posted about two times a week. Towards the end o f the scheduled discussions Nicole's work demands increased and she participated much less. She used the Forum and a little W e b C T mail to communicate with classmates. She said the Forums were rewarding and dynamic and made the course an appealing learning environment. Some interactions were back-and-forth and included some wrestling with questions in a friendly and conversational tone. Nicole liked connecting with others in the small group task because the interactions were more intense and open. Although there were difficulties in their group, they were able to find ways to overcome most o f the problems. Nicole said the diversity in the course came from people's location and backgrounds but this diversity was within the academic context, not the North American one. She thinks students in an online course need to be involved and actively building on one another's understandings and perspectives.  Thoughtful Interaction  75  Ryan Ryan works as an instructional and technical administrator i n online higher education. This was his fourth course i n the program. He logged on daily and read most o f the messages. He posted every two or three days. However, in the latter part o f the course Ryan didn't post as often as he felt that there were fewer messages related to his interests i n the course. In this course he used the Forum, although he used a few emails to discuss technical interests with the course webmaster. Ryan said the Forum was a key aspect o f this learning environment. The text discussions were not as important as the course content; however, other student's ideas spurred his thoughts on the course issues. Most o f the messages were good, long but not dominating, and well thought out. He thinks students can dominate in this environment but that this wasn't occurring in this course. He interacted regularly with his small group and the collaborative task was a positive experience. However, he said they needed more time to edit their paper. Ryan feels the Forum didn't reveal much diversity because o f the subject o f the course. He said the level o f discourse was very similar among the students except i n the Forum that included the English and Spanish sections. While he found the Forums a novelty in the first courses he took, he said he is used to this experience now. The course is useful to h i m because it is related to his work and because it is self-directed and self-paced.  The Students' Experiences of the Course Design The students' conversations on the course design and their participation in the course activities add their perspectives to the description o f the course presented in Chapter 4. During the interviews the students described the course web site and how they used the communication tools o f W e b C T to participate in the learning environment. They also reported their understanding o f the interactions that took place i n the course activities and that fulfilled the  Thoughtful Interaction 76  course requirements. Individual study patterns, experiences o f cooperative and collaborative interactions, and assessments o f their responsibility as participants were evident in our conversations. First o f all, the students confirmed that C M C , especially asynchronous text C M C , was the primary means used to meet as a class and participate in dialogues and discussions with their peers. Class discussions took place on the Forum o f W e b C T , the "preeminent peer-peer communication vehicle," (Ryan) i n which the back-and-forth exchanges o f ideas were called "the heart" (Nicole) or "the central core" (Mark) o f the course. The students also participated i n a task with a small group o f peers that, for the majority, took place by asynchronous text either on W e b C T or by email. Only one student said a synchronous text Chat was used for a conversation in their small group. The students said the level o f interaction required in the course, either explicitly (assigned tasks) or implicitly (course design and tutor facilitation), varied throughout the weeks. In certain blocks, participation was expected though not graded, and the students posted messages to the Forum to discuss the course content. Most o f the students said the tutor got involved, by email reminders or in the discussion threads, to encourage more participation. For instance, he would respond to students' comments and when "the discussion's not going along he might say 'hey everybody what do you think about this comment?'" (Gary). In the Small Group Forums the students' were responsible for posting one meaningful comment in each o f the three discussions. One student described this as, "we were required to participate and to say something substantial, that we understood the article, the papers that were written about it, and had some intelligent comment to make" (Ryan). Several students liked this minimum requirement to post i n the discussions. It was a good strategy to get people involved in reading the journal articles and the small group papers and then in posting their own messages. However, i f people were only  Thoughtful Interaction  77  commenting for a grade and not to contribute to or build on the interactions taking place, the discussions became repetitive. In this course, the activities had been designed to include student-student and student-tutor interaction. The students recognized that they needed to participate actively in the online dialogues and discussions. The following statements illustrate the student role described by most o f the study participants:  A student is more obviously responsible for their own learning. I chose the word 'obviously' very carefully there. In this kind o f environment, i f I don't read the online discussions, read the papers, do the readings, I won't get very much out o f it. A n d it's very obvious - you can't miss that in this environment (Gary). I feel as a student that I have to be self-motivated and that I can create my own structure and monitor my own structure... .that the pacing, the motivation to get on and do it every day all lies i n me as a student (Eleanor).  According to the students' comments, the purpose o f the interactions with their peers was related to exploring and understanding the course content. Participation was described as logging onto the Forums to read the text discussions, posting messages that contributed to these discussions, and learning from the synthesis o f information from course materials and peers. Even though the students said that this communication allowed them to get to know others "a little," it was not in a social or personal way. They felt that they were sharing with others i n the class but they were mainly reading for the ideas communicated i n the messages and then responding to a message because o f its topic. Ryan said reading the text discussion on the Forum is like reading a research article. " I ' l l read it [a Forum message] based on the words in the report and not really try to associate them with an individual, I don't think" (Ryan). A l l o f the students indicated that they needed to participate more, or that they would like to be able to participate more, in order to do their part and take advantage o f the learning environment. However, it was also difficult for them to participate and  Thoughtful Interaction 78  contribute meaningfully to the interactions o f this course. First, as part-time students who were working full-time, they had commitments outside o f the course. One student said she felt disconnected from the course when she didn't participate regularly, yet meaningful participation required a considerable amount o f time. A s a result, when she faced added responsibilities at work, she contributed less to the online discussions. She felt she could read the course materials and keep up with some o f the discussions but not with the depth that she needed to write and post a message to the Forum. Second, and more particular to the setting o f this course, all o f the students reported the challenges they faced because o f the course design. The volume o f reading and assignments was not balanced in the course schedule with the time needed to prepare for and participate in the Forums. Ryan said at times there was too much to do so "those discussions [Block 3] weren't very successful. There wasn't a lot o f participation mainly because there was just so much reading to do and we had to do that group assignment so it was just way too heavy" (Ryan). Howard said it was difficult to know what to do because there were too many questions in the self-study assignments i n these blocks. "Then it's all too overwhelming at once, and you don't know where to focus y o u r s e l f (Howard). There was a particular concern with the schedule for the Small Group Forums because the students had to read the applicable journal article, papers from two different groups, and then prepare a posting within the time allotted. One student called it a "logistical challenge" (Ken). The Guest Forum - a discussion with the visiting expert - was scheduled at the same time as the third Small Group Forum. Students felt the scheduling problems in this course limited the amount o f interaction on the Forum, and, at times, the depth o f ideas shared. Nicole said that although they needed time for reflection and deeper learning:  Thoughtful Interaction  79  having to dash off to the next topic, paper, assignment, is mitigating against that deeper level from happening.... N o w the other side o f that is that maybe the Discussion Forums w i l l begin to pall, and fade, and lose momentum during that reflective period. Maybe we need to be hurried along to the next one to maintain the energy (Nicole).  Although the students described using asynchronous text C M C in all o f the course activities, their conversations about the interactions on the Forum and in the small group for the Group Task were distinctly different. Therefore, throughout this analysis I w i l l distinguish between the students' comments about the interactions i n the Group Task and the class discussions on the Forum. In the rest o f this chapter, particular themes are explored that arise from the interview conversations and that relate to the study questions and the pedagogical claims o f online distance education as an opportunity for social-constructivist learning. The next part o f the analysis relates to the class interactions on the Forum - the Discussion Forums, Small Group Forums and the Guest Forum. Then, the analysis focuses on the Group Task and the interactions and activities in the students' small groups. In the final part o f the analysis, the students' descriptions and perspectives relate to both the class discussions and the small group interactions i n this online course.  Interactions by Asynchronous Text CMC on the Forum of an Online Course  Active and Engaged Readers and Writers in the Text Discussions In this online course the students participated in literacy activities that created text discussions on the Forum o f W e b C T . They described themselves as active and reflective readers and writers engaged in a valuable, yet time-consuming, exploration o f the course issues. A s a result, the "talk" by text has facilitated the kinds o f thinking and learning expected i n higher education.  Thoughtful Interaction  80  When I asked students to tell me about participating on the Discussion Forums, posting messages was the predominant topic in their conversation. Although they spent much more time reading the Forum discussions, they associated writing and posting messages with participating and making a contribution. Reading and reflecting on their peers' messages was a significant aspect o f the students' participation, too. A l l o f the students said reading took a lot o f time and they felt it held a high priority in the course activities.  Even i f I haven't got enough time to post, I definitely want to read what everyone's said because I feel enough valuable stuff is being said.. .1 want to make sure I read those discussions, contribute i f possible, because they w i l l augment what's being offered i n the course (Gary).  A s the students read and interacted with the text messages posted on the Forum, they made choices that directed their reading patterns. In one pattern the students began by reading and taking notes on the course materials and then they read the posted messages. They read through every message on a thread, or all o f the new ones, as well as any student papers attached to the forum. Other students were more selective in their pattern. They skimmed many o f the messages and only read certain ones in depth. Eleanor said, "I see the names o f the particular ones [students messages] I've found to be particularly reflective, those might be the ones I read first." Although she read other messages, too, she first chose from the students and the topics that related most directly to her work. Mark says he doesn't have time to read all the messages so he looked for a "really good posting on an interesting topic...if it's particularly thoughtful or thought-provoking." Mark and several other students said they printed and saved worthwhile messages so that they could read them i n more depth when they had more time. A few students also discussed the effect o f their learning style on their pattern o f reading on the Forum. For instance, Nicole is an avid reader and finds text an easy medium, so she said she just seems to  Thoughtful Interaction  81  absorb the text. Meanwhile, Eleanor said that reading is a challenge for her and, as a result, she needed to read and re-read to get the intent o f the information in the message threads. The students described reading as an active and reflective process o f understanding the text discussion. They looked for topics in a series o f messages - a thread - that formed as the students posted their contributions. A s they read they also developed their own ideas on the topic which they then compared with the messages from their peers. Debra says she read to get a feel for the topic o f the new messages and as she read she stopped to reflect on the information.  I guess as I read through those [messages] I ' l l try to just read them thoroughly to try to gain a feeling o f the discussion. L i k e yesterday I read 50 o f the comments. I read them through and I stop and try to reflect on them and think 'what does that mean for me?' and try to reflect on that (Debra).  Eleanor said she often read the thread, and then went back to read the course content materials to integrate the ideas from these sources.  I enjoy reading the comments, going back to the original study and reconsidering what I'm reading on the basis o f people's feedback. It's interesting to see the different perspectives and how people read and interpret the information differently, at least sometimes. A n d then contrasting that with the theoretical foundation that's been laid i n the class. So I appreciate seeing how other people are making connections and having that reinforce my own thinking, or expanding on the way I ' m thinking about it and giving me a new way to apply the theories or giving me different perspectives on a study (Eleanor).  The students described writing and posting messages on the Forum as a contribution to the learning environment. They wrote to communicate with others, to fulfill the course requirements, and to do their part. They also wrote because writing, itself, is a way o f learning. The students described the process o f writing a message and the styles and patterns o f their messages and participation. These descriptions illustrate a range in the typical number, frequency and length o f each student's postings. They also described the different ways they used the  Thoughtful Interaction 82  computer as a tool. Most wrote directly to the W e b C T Forum while a few others used a wordprocessing program to write and edit first. Although a few students mentioned they wrote with a conversational style, the messages were academic in content. Ryan said the postings were like academic literature. "It is a graduate level course and most people are competent writers. Most people are able to express themselves clearly" (Ryan). In one aspect o f writing messages, the students shared a common perspective: they wrote, revised and considered the content o f their messages i n light o f the reading audience - their peers and the tutor. K e n said he considered the amount o f information he needed to include, and whether or not he should write a detailed account, a summary, or just a question.  Y o u sort o f wonder how much colour you want to keep in to get the message across.... H o w much detail you need to provide, to help people understand what you're saying. A s against what the other strategy is. One strategy is to provide detail, the other is simply to challenge, to sort o f think o f a question but not provide the detail. If you want to make a point I suppose you can say, ' w e l l have I thought about this, and do I want to make a detailed, reasonable argument?' Or 'have I thought about this, and I think it's an important issue but I don't want to write for half-an-hour, so I ' l l put a short question up and see how people respond' (Ken).  Although a few students said they wouldn't revise a short comment or response, most o f the students re-read a message to ensure it made sense. This involved checking the mechanics, such as spelling and punctuation, and reviewing the content for substance, unity and coherence. For example, Nicole sometimes changed the order o f her points and added ideas that further developed and extended her thoughts. Several students specifically stated their intention to write clearly for their audience. Howard said he reviews a longer reply o f about 300 words because he doesn't want others to wonder, "What did he say? I think he meant to say this..." (Howard). Another common aspect in the students' descriptions o f their writing processes is the substantial amount o f time they took to prepare and write a message. Some replies were posted spontaneously, however, most o f the students said they chose to be more reflective, particularly  Thoughtful Interaction 83  when they wanted to respond to a complex or detailed discussion thread. Prior to writing their own message, the students said they read the course materials and reviewed the available literature (offline and online) to investigate the topic in more detail. They would also explore their own resources, such as notes in a course diary or materials from their workplace. After this period of investigation, the students would organize their thoughts, summarize the comments of the relevant postings, and then write their message. "You have to take more ownership, synthesize from your point of view as well as synthesize from others. I think it's almost more complicated than trying to be spontaneous. I think you're very reflective and this allows you to do an analysis or an inquiry" (Debra). The students found the Forum to be a useful medium because they could take the time they needed to write these kinds of messages. Mark reported that, in comparison to a classroom conversation, the Forum gave him time to think through all aspects of an issue and the consequences of what he was going to say before he wrote a message. As a result, the topics are discussed in a more thoughtful and insightful manner and the questions asked are more penetrating. For instance, in response to a challenge to one of his ideas, Mark went back to the literature to make sure his thoughts were credible and academically defensible.  Like this question on our assignment, which was a question based on a section that I had done and a very direct question. I took the time because I wanted to make sure that I hadn't said something that was off the wall, either. So I researched it carefully, spent probably an hour just researching it, making sure that I knew the answer and that I had enough sources to back up what I said (Mark).  Gary said that although he prefers face-to-face learning environments, the Forums provide him with the opportunity to write reflectively. "Sometimes committing things to - 1 was going to say paper - but committing things to writing helps you formulate your ideas more clearly than if you're just sitting around talking, and that can be valuable"  Thoughtful Interaction 84  (Gary). Several students noted that having the time to formulate a response is especially important in a text discussion because it is a permanent record within the course and because you don't see people you are talking with. To some, this meant that using asynchronous text C M C could also make participation in an online discussion more equitable.  Folks who do a better job of thinking on their feet don't have an advantage over those who need more time.. .once it's posted, we don't know what went in before it. Did someone just do this off the cuff, or did they plan this, draft it, edit it a bit and then post? We just don't know (Eleanor).  Reading and writing in the online text discussions are interactive rather than distinct literacy practices. In most cases, the students said they wrote their messages in the context of the text discussions underway in a particular thread. The back-and-forth interaction started with one text message posted to the Forum "Topic" and other students replied and reacted with comments, questions and clarifications. Although the students said it was a challenge to be an active participant, once they were involved they found they were motivated to keep involved. For instance, they would go back to the Forum to look for further postings on a discussion thread they had been reading, or to check for replies to one of their own messages. "Not that I really think that's going to happen [every time] but there's that sense of T wonder who's going to say what to my post?'" (Nicole). A l l of the students said that personal and/or academic interests in a course issue were incentives to contributing to a discussion. For instance, Ryan posted a question about the process of collaboration in a distance learning environment. He was interested in discussing online collaboration while they were in the midst of the experience. The core content of the course was the focus of many of the threads. Students responded to and asked questions about the articles they were reading and the criteria they were developing to evaluate the research in  Thoughtful Interaction  85  the field o f e-learning. Howard described his experience during one discussion. He had been puzzling over one article when he noticed others discussing the same problem on the Forum:  A n d I threw in my comment that I was puzzled. I was looking throughout the article for anything that substantiated any o f the claims that [the author's o f the article] said they were going to investigate. A n d one o f the things in their initial paragraph that was interesting to me, wasn't dealt with in their conclusions and i n their results. A n d my comment was, 'so I was most interested about this claim, and then i n the end it hadn't been there at all.' A n d that was my part. I responded to the discussion that was already going, and I added to the m i x , and then someone responded to me (Howard).  Exploring Content and Extending Understanding in the Text Discussions  Throughout the interview conversations the students reiterated that the primary purpose of interacting with others on the Forum was to communicate about the course content. A l l o f the students connected their active and engaged roles as readers and writers to exploring topics and gaining understanding i n the knowledge area o f the course. The students said that the interactions allowed them to exchange information, ask and consider questions, and reflect on the ideas and issues o f research methodology. They read the assignments o f their peers which were posted to the Forum and encountered a range o f understandings and points o f view. The students said these interactions developed their ability to evaluate the research i n the field o f elearning. The students also found these interactions were relevant and applicable to their current workplace practice. The students said that the interactions on the Forum led them to explore their understanding o f the course topics and issues. The discussion threads acted like a "sounding board" because the students could compare their ideas with their peers.  Thoughtful Interaction  86  It's nice to have this asynchronous discussion cause you go, you read, you digest, and then it's almost like a sounding board. You can put your ideas down on [the Forum], you can get a reaction and you think, 'someone else thinks like me' or T was on the right track'....In other instances, you read someone else's message and you haven't looked at it in that perspective and you go 'oh yeah, that makes sense' (Howard).  Having the same understanding as others was valuable, especially for those who were wrestling with new language and concepts. "Sometimes I feel validated when I think I have the same ideas and I see someone else posting that [idea] and I think, 'wow, I have captured some of those same views'" (Debra). Some students described interactions that reinforced their curiosity and prompted them to consider more ideas and other perspectives. As a result, they did more study and research than they would have on their own. Nicole said that an interesting question in one discussion prompted her to look for information and articles on the use of Likert Scales in research studies. After reviewing the information she had found, she returned to the discussion forum and posted her findings for others to consider.  Someone had asked a question and I was responding to that. So if someone hadn't raised those questions I probably wouldn't have [done the further research]. Even though in the back of my mind I was saying, T don't like this,' I probably would have let it slide. But the fact that somebody else was also feeling this, and I was curious, it reinforced my own curiosity (Nicole).  Eleanor said that she did some further study of an article that was being reviewed on the Forum because she disagreed with another student's critique. She decided to go back to the article to find information to support her point of view. Then, using paraphrases of the article as evidence, she posted a reply that stated her point of view. The students said that this process took a lot of time, but it contributed to the quality of the discussions. Although people did disagree or contradict one another, the students said the different perspectives were often expressed as suggestions of things to consider, or as different opinions  Thoughtful Interaction 87  on what was good or interesting or not. Ryan's example is from the discussion his group facilitated in the Small Group Forum. He said that one student had asked some questions on issues that,  were really appropriate and things that we didn't even think about when we wrote our paper and I thought that was very cool and I thought, 'yeah, we should have dealt with that.' I felt that it was a really positive thing, having somebody else look at the paper and offer their own look at it in a way that we didn't think of. That was good (Ryan).  In another discussion thread, K e n said he made a statement that questioned another group's critique o f a research article. He then got a reply that was long and interesting. "It went back to the texts and quoted material from the text.. .and obviously they [the student who wrote the message] had sat down and put some time into putting a response together." A s a result o f this clarification, K e n said he started to think about aspects o f qualitative case studies in new ways. Some students described the Forum discussions as an opportunity to learn from different ways o f analyzing and synthesizing ideas. They were challenged to reflect on the ways they were thinking through issues and to evaluate their understanding and need for knowledge. For instance, Gary said that some students' messages were "sophisticated." These were written by  people who are able to see beneath the surface, who are able to understand the implications o f certain things that are being said better than others. People who are able to draw connections between at first, seemingly disparate data, that actually makes sense. Some o f it is the way that some people's minds work and it also is a m i x o f experience, background, training, that sort o f thing (Gary).  Mark said that these discussions were enlightening and they encouraged h i m to study and think further or in a different way.  Some people are very insightful with their thoughts about the particular research study and some o f the things that could have been done or should have been done or weren't explained fully. So it's always been enlightening to read the people that are asking  Thoughtful Interaction 88  questions. A n d everybody comes from a different angle, a different way o f looking at a topic. A n d that's a valuable thing, just like a class (Mark).  Most o f the students said they were also relating the information in the Forum discussions to their work environments. Some o f the students were reading the threads for comments and references to the literature that are applicable to their day-to-day work. Eleanor said that she posted a comment and asked some questions in the Guest Forum related to budgets and administration - a concern in her university. Exploring this topic with the guest tutor and several students expanded her perspective on her question. In another reference to the discussion thread on the use o f Likert Scales mentioned earlier, Debra said she felt she could incorporate this information into her work.  W e l l , like last night, there was a woman talking about using the Likert scale and she had done some independent research looking at that. A n d I had just spent some time designing an evaluation tool in one o f my work groups and I found that it was really interesting to see what she had done and how she had gone a little bit further i n looking at that. A n d so, for example, that would be one thing that I would like to do, go back and look at some o f the hypertext links that she gave us.... A n d so what she was saying I thought it would be something beneficial to look at (Debra).  Students' Perspectives on the Tone of the Text Discussions  Throughout the interview conversations the students remarked on the respectful tone o f the interactions and the openness to different points o f view or levels o f experience they found among their peers. The students said they could present their point o f view on issues o f the course and agree or disagree with one another, which was necessary in a learning environment. Challenges and questions are part o f a "good lively academic debate" (Howard) "part o f a good academic atmosphere" (Mark). Several students have experienced online interactions in which aggressive or dominating messages have occurred but they said this was not a characteristic o f  Thoughtful Interaction  89  this course context. O n the other hand, Gary suggested that they were sticking to the topics and "we're all being so polite that some o f the differences are probably being obscured" (Gary). A l l o f the students described the posted messages with these kinds o f adjectives: "respectful," " c i v i l , " "diplomatic," "collegial" and "professional." Gary explained his use o f " c i v i l " with one example. The tutor had posted several samples o f course evaluations for the students to compare and then evaluate as to which one they would use and why. Even though students posted messages that disagreed with one another's point o f view, the differing opinions were stated without negative emotional language, compliments were included with the critiques, and reasons were given to defend positions. "People understand either instinctively or their education has taught them, that critiquing is not just saying what was wrong with the thing, but critiquing also involves saying what was positive about a piece o f work" (Gary). The students said the nature o f the discussion was not different, nor should it be different, than the respectful and courteous behaviours o f the workplace or the classroom. They cited particular language that encouraged their participation and willingness to express their point o f view. For instance, people acknowledged and thanked others for the contributions and made positive statements like, " T agree with your comment' and ' y o u have an interesting point'...." When people disagreed with one another's analysis in the small group papers, "people would say, T don't agree with you, but you had an interesting perspective,' like you would interact i n class. Y o u ' r e not going to put someone down for that but you can disagree respectfully" (Debra). This manner and tone communicated in the messages was similar to face to face communication but some students felt that extra attention was needed with asynchronous text C M C . Howard said that people wrote with  common courtesy... patterns o f behaviour that we have just i n general society that come out naturally in this environment. I haven't seen anything that seems particularly unique  Thoughtful Interaction 90  in this environment except for the emotions, to make a smiley face, etc.... It seems just like what we do everyday in face-to-face just gets carried over into here (Howard).  A t the same time, Mark said that the nature o f text makes the tone o f the message especially important.  Some people like to type something up really fast and then hit enter and they set a tone i n 5 minutes that may take hours to undo in terms o f hurting people's feelings or making a statement that's indefensible and cannot be substantiated. Y o u have to be thoughtful and careful with what you say because your words can come back to haunt you (Mark).  K e n said that when he asked a question or made a challenging statement he checked that his argument was clear but also tentative, and open for discussion, so that people wouldn't be upset.  In a sense, what you're trying to do is to not only to make your point, but to make sure your point gets through.... Communication is a fairly ambiguous process and I ' m trying to make sure I ' m treating it that way (Ken).  Students' Perspectives on the Challenges of the Text Interactions  The interview conversations also revealed obstacles that limited or hindered interactions in the discussions on the Forum. The students described this learning environment as interactive but one that required purposeful and meaningful communication at the academic level o f the course content. A l s o asynchronous text C M C alters the flow o f the communication and the connection with others in the discussions that take place. A s a result, there was some uncertainty and unpredictability i n the online learning environment. A l l o f the students talked about the importance and the value o f participating in the interactions on the Forum but they also felt that they were less connected to their peers in the online class discussions. Even though a person's name is posted with her/his message, it was  Thoughtful Interaction 91  difficult to remember the association between the names and the messages. A s a result, the students tended to follow the ideas rather than the individual i n the discussion. Several students said they recognized the names o f a few people, especially those who participated regularly; however, from the number enrolled in the class they knew there were others who weren't posting. Debra recognized that it was difficult for others to know her because she hasn't been a very active participant. "I don't know i f they've really gotten to know me very well because I haven't been an active participant.... I've kind o f focused on my assignments and the reading ;  and so I haven't really participated in the Forum like I should have" (Debra). The students also said that they were presenting themselves through their postings, replies and questions to their peers and the tutor. They were influenced by grades and the tutor's evaluation on their participation, as well as their own expectations.  If you want to appear intelligent or academic in an academic course, you want to make sure you have your facts straight. Y o u make sure you have somebody who's going to back up what you're saying in an academic sense....the word intelligent might not be the right word, but you have to be academically credible so that you're just not spouting as some people do.... Unless you have some substance to what you're saying they're going to lose respect for you and your credibility is shot (Mark).  Some students were limited by their experience with the course content and the level o f the discourse. They said that it was not easy to admit what they didn't know or to make mistakes i n front o f others in the text discussions. A l s o , they could only respond i f they understood what others were saying or i f they had sufficient experience o f or knowledge o f the topic.  Maybe i f I don't understand something.. ..Some o f the people have been at this longer than I have. Maybe it's their last course and this is my first.... Sometimes I get a little lost in the conversations. Sometimes there might be so many messages to read that I skim through and the one's I understood better, and I am interested in are the ones that I hone in on (Howard).  Thoughtful Interaction 92  The students commented on the high quality of the postings in this course, but for some students these lengthy, elaborate and well thought out messages made them hesitant to post their own messages. Debra found it difficult to add to ideas already presented because these postings were very complete and concise. "With a greater knowledge base and ease with the content, I think I would feel more comfortable with commenting" (Debra). Ryan, however, was able to post more messages as his understanding of the course topic developed and as he noticed a wider variety in the quality of the messages.  Within each course, as you read more and more of the postings and you read your postings in the context of the other postings, that you either get more comfortable with your level of posting or not. And if you get less comfortable you probably post fewer and fewer messages.... As you get into the course you read more and more posts and you realize that they're not all brilliant. That's why I say I've gotten more comfortable in postings (Ryan).  In contrast to this challenge, some students said the discussions were less relevant when they understood the issues too well. If the messages on the Forums didn't help them to explore their interests and extend their understanding, then their participation waned. In this course, almost all of the students participated much less toward the end of the scheduled discussions of the small group papers [during Small Group Forum 3]. According to several students, the comments and themes in the analyses of the journal articles had become more repetitive and there was less discussion as students moved away from the Forum to their final, individual assignments. "What emerged as themes were similar to what had emerged in the earlier papers. We had all said pretty much what had to be said" (Eleanor). One of the leaders of this third discussion made a similar comment.  I tried to respond to one or two things other people said, and so did other members. And it was fine, but people weren't posting as much. They're working on their final papers and people had used up all their energy on the previous papers (Gary).  Thoughtful Interaction 93  Other challenges were related to certain characteristics o f asynchronous text C M C and the impact o f these characteristics on the interactions on the Forum. Contributing at different times and by text led to some unpredictability and uncertainty i n the interactions. Although the students liked selecting the times they could participate i n the asynchronous online discussions, the flow o f the communication among their peers was interrupted. A s a result, at times there were responses to their messages or answers to their questions - and at times there were not.  D o you find that people respond? Not as often as I like but you've got to expect that. People have to have time to put their own ideas up. It's like fishing. Part o f the experience is going around and throwing the bait i n the water and that sometimes you don't get a response. It's like the tide's not right (Ken).  A s a result, some conversations didn't continue and the feedback necessary for understanding was limited. Most o f the students said replies to their messages on the Forum were a measure o f whether or not they were understood by their peers. Some students said they "think" they were understood, or "as far as they knew" they were understood, but sometimes there was not enough o f a reply for certainty. " Y o u don't always get direct feedback. Other people w i l l say, 'yeah that was a good point, b y e ' " (Gary). Eleanor said that the features o f text communication limited the feedback, too.  Because I don't know these people and I don't see their faces and I don't get their feedback, I don't have that back-channeling that is so important i n face-to-face communication. It helps to guide you as to whether you're being appropriate socially, or whether what you're saying is useful or not useful (Eleanor).  For several students who feel real-time interactions are more suited to their nature and to feeling a part o f the dialogue, these characteristics limited their participation in the online discussions.  Thoughtful Interaction 94  While some of the students wondered about the clarity or relevance of their message when there was no response, they also expected this characteristic in the online course. They understood that students could be offline for several days so conversations were delayed or discontinued. Questions that had been posted wouldn't be answered directly and conversations waited for a response from another speaker. At times, the students knew they had posted their message too late in the discussion period to get a reply.  Sometimes questions just get left hung. They're posted but they don't get followed up on. That's happened for me a few times. I've offered an observation and asked if this sounds reasonable. Sometimes this gets responded to, sometimes not. But that's not just me. I see that happening with the students all the time. It seems to be a matter of if you're posting early in the thread of a discussion or if you post later because if we're making a transition then I do think that things do get left.... I don't think that's happening in some appropriate level, however.... And then if no one responds, that's when the tutor will step in and offer some insights (Eleanor).  This also did not mean a message wasn't read or considered worthwhile.  It depends on the group; what might be really interesting or intriguing to me might not be to them [other students]. Or they might just read it and just because you don't get a response doesn't mean it didn't impact them (Howard).  On the other hand, the lack of responses in the Forum may not be that different from those in a face-to-face classroom. One student, Nicole, said that it is just easier to see an unanswered question or an incomplete discussion in the text discussion.  I'd say that in a face-to-face situation, because the discussion is so ephemeral, you're not as consciously aware sometimes of questions that have not been completed, haven't reached closure on. And it's a fact that they're there on the discussion board.... I think that the difference is, in a face-to-face environment you're not consciously aware of it and it happens. It probably happens a whole lot more because we're constantly moving on to the next thing, and because discussions are more 'all over the place' and disorganized in a classroom setting (Nicole).  Thoughtful Interaction 95  A further challenge to the interactions was the number o f people participating on the Forum. The students said that the interactions were affected by the size o f the group during the online discussions. First o f all, there were just too many messages. "There are just more than I have time for.. .and that many o f the contributions are too verbose" (Eleanor). Then, sometimes there was a lack o f coherence i n the Topic i f the thread became loosely structured with the many different interests and points o f view stated at different times. If the message thread got too long, then integrating the new messages into the conversation also became difficult.  Y o u ' v e got a whole lot o f people putting up different points o f view. It's not always structured around a topic to be able to come to grips with the different points o f view i n one sitting. It's challenging i f you've got ten or twelve people contributing. But i f you hop on everyday, you might only have three or four new contributions and you can conceptually come to terms with that (Ken).  A l l o f the students said that the Group Task with a group o f their peers was an opportunity to overcome some o f the challenges o f the Forums. The smaller group provided some o f the certainty and connection to help them deal with communicating by asynchronous text C M C in distance education. Mark says that small groups are valuable, even in a face-to-face class but that they are particularly valuable i n the online courses.  I think there's really more community building [in a small group] and it's necessary i n an online class because you don't know what the person looks like, you don't have the body language, you don't know their facial expressions. There are a lot o f things y o u can't judge. A n d so to remove one part o f that barrier there has to be some attempt at a small group, connecting with a small group within the big course itself (Mark).  Thoughtful Interaction 96  The Group Task: Meeting the Challenges in an Online Distance Learning Environment  The Group Task had a different size and purpose than the Forum discussions. Each group was only four or five people, not 22. The students worked online with a particular goal - a group paper that would be shared with the rest of the class. They participated regularly with the same people and they kept within the time scheduled for the assignment. The students described using the Forum, WebCT mail or email to plan and carry out the project. Then they facilitated a discussion on their paper in the Small Group Forum. In most cases, the students described their experiences and attitudes very favourably. When interacting by asynchronous text C M C , they preferred working with a smaller group of people and for a particular purpose: "I love these"; they are one of "my more favourite activities" (Debra); I "thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative assignments" (Eleanor); and "the most valuable exercises that I've done are the collaborative exercises" (Mark). One person I interviewed had a different perspective but he attributed some of this to the difficulties with his group. "I can appreciate the theory of doing collaborative work online and it is valuable, but it is the toughest part.... And again that's because of the group I was in, that it was not as collaborative (Gary). The interviews were also conversations about the processes the students experienced in the Group Task. They related details about the decisions made in each group, the ways the groups proceeded, and the means they used to edit and complete the group paper. They also discussed the problems that arose in their groups and how the groups coped and resolved these problems. I did not ask the students for details about the members of the groups nor did I get this information from the tutor. I wanted to respect the students' confidentiality in the study and it was not my purpose to compare or clarify the different stories. Thus, in the following descriptions, I treat all of the information I have gathered about the small groups as separate  Thoughtful Interaction  97  cases, except for the group of Nicole and Ken. Nicole and Ken were the only students to mention each other with details that confirmed they were in the same group. The remaining six students were in at least four, and at most 5 different groups.  Interactions during the group process The Group Task was structured by the course designers but each group could follow their own process to reach their goal. Knowing what to do in the group, however, was not a certainty and each group evolved under the influence of an individual's contributions. In several cases the students just assumed that the group would know what to do. Nicole said she really enjoys these group tasks so she didn't think about "how" except to "just go for it." Others have learned from prior experiences in online groups. Ken says,  In one of the first groups I was in, our first response was to do nothing and then the time line got really difficult.... The next course I did I had a better idea of what was going on and it wasn't really important to structure your ideas, but it was important to get something started, to do something. And then the structure develops along with the ideas.... So this is my third course and things seem to flow a little more smoothly (Ken).  The groups were also responsible for facilitating the discussion on their paper in the Small Group Forum. Although one person's task was to post the paper to the Forum, the students said they did not plan or decide on roles, such as how they would lead or respond to the discussion that would take place. For instance, Mark said he answered questions that were directed to his part of the paper and he just assumed that the rest of his group would do the same for their parts. "It was just an expectation" (Mark). Most of the students said that each person needed to do their share or "pull their weight" but that the meaning of this would vary throughout the project. There could be a mix of abilities and backgrounds as long as there is some degree of expertise among the members. Mark said  Thoughtful Interaction 98  that, in different parts of his group's process, different people took leadership. This was not a plan; "it evolved. Leaders became leaders that one time and dropped back the next, whatever you had time for. In the end it worked out. If everyone had been reticent we might have had some problems." The connection that formed in the small group helped the students to deal with understanding one another during the project work. Ken says,  There's the issue of everybody contributing equitably to the group but part of the equation is not just the time you put in, but the capacity you've got within the circumstances you're in. So if you understand some of the social issues and the backgrounds, then you say, "oh yeah, that's why this is happening this way. That makes me feel fairly comfortable with people making different contributions (Ken).  The groups organized the task in different ways but they followed one of two basic approaches. In one approach a group member made an initial suggestion, the rest of the students agreed, and they very quickly established a division of labour for the assignment.  It just happened very quickly where people just divided up different areas that they wanted to do. One of our group members suggested we use one of the frameworks from one of our books and I had just finished that so I agreed with that. That would definitely be a way to frame our analysis. So we all moved to a quick decision on that and we just divided it up.... It was very to the point, delegating tasks, how do we get started, how do we do this (Debra).  Another group that used this same approach encountered difficulties, however, because the tasks were not clear. In particular, the student who became the final editor of the paper did not realize, until later in the project, the extent of the task he was signing up to do. In a second approach to the process, there was also an initial suggestion from one student, but the others added to or subtracted from the steps according to their preferences. The discussions in these groups involved more negotiation but this was accomplished fairly easily. None of the groups discussed ideas to develop sections of the paper prior to contributing some form of a written first draft.  Thoughtful Interaction  99  The groups were successful when the members listened to one another and had negotiable positions. Mark says his group worked well because everybody has to "give and take a little bit and you have to listen to the group. That's my point of view." For example, Howard had suggested one process to his group but he was willing to consider the advantages of another group member's idea,  There's more than one way to skin a cat. And this [the other suggestion] got us to go where we needed to anyways and we got there quicker this way. The other way there would have been a lot more ping-ponging of messages back and forth and building up a document and adding to it and so on before we could go on and elaborate it. This broke it down into tasks so it did the same sort of thing (Howard).  During the writing and editing stage of the assignment, the groups were more varied in the ways they reached their final goal. One group worked very independently and the group members had difficulty completing the project as a group. In the other groups, the students worked independently on sections of the task but then they worked together at the editing stage. When the various group members were online regularly - even though asynchronously - during the task process, the groups were able to work together on the project and the students reports of the group experience were positive. However, students from several groups reported the effect of members being offline. For example,  One of the people in the group ended up with some commitments during our peak work periods that meant he never tended to be online to contribute to the final refining of the process and edit of the paper... .He expected to be away for a day and it ended up being two days. I think we had enough content and general agreement that we had something to work with, that it wasn't going to be a problem... .But if we didn't have the actual structure then it would have been a problem if he couldn't participate (Ken).  At particular points in each group process assistance and negotiation among group members took place. The students described the particular roles that were needed and subsequently filled to complete the task. I have summarized the descriptions from four groups  Thoughtful Interaction 100  because they illustrate one of the processes described in the interview conversations. I have not synthesized information from the narratives of different students, except for the information from Nicole and Ken who shared the same group. The following descriptions are presented from the most independent process to the most collaborative.  Independence Gary's group used email and each person wrote one section of the paper and submitted it as a first draft to Gary to compile. Gary said his group had one person with health problems and another who was away for almost a week. Another person did part of a first draft and then didn't send the second draft promised. For a time they had little or no communication within the group and he wondered if he should have used email to maintain more contact while waiting for the drafts. In the end, Gary finished the partial first draft and edited the paper on his own. Therefore, he said they did not really have a group process, especially as he wrote the final draft without any feedback from the rest of the group.  Cooperation It took Mark's group a few days to confirm the group members so they needed to get started quickly to finish by the due date. They each wrote a first draft of the section of the paper they had chosen to write and then exchanged these drafts with each other to edit. Mark said that the 'track changes' feature of Word was useful for this. People made suggestions to one another but Mark worked on his section the most to ensure he was doing his part. He said that one student had contributed a first draft that was weaker than expected. One of the other group members had pointed this out, bluntly but without "nastiness." The writer of the section agreed with this critique, and then the group worked together on the revision. Mark said, "I don't think  Thoughtful Interaction 101  the person was offended by that. It was just a recognized fact that you have to do it." One person compiled the different sections, they each had a chance to contribute some final suggestions, and then the paper was posted to the Small Group Forum on time.  Cooperation and collaboration The people in Howard's group each wrote one component of the framework they had selected and then they sent this to a central editor to put together. The editor sent the compiled draft back to each person and the group members critiqued each other's sections. They asked, "what did you mean by this?" or made suggestions, "you could write this like this." One person was busy so Howard helped with this section of the paper, too. It was a section that included content he had studied so he was able to add something further. This group also used 'track changes' in Word. They could see their peers' suggestions and changes and then make comments and ask questions right in the document. Also, because they were using a central editor, Howard said they were always working on the one current draft that was circulating. The editor then implemented the changes from the group in thefinaldraft of the paper.  Collaboration The group that Ken and Nicole participated in used a different process than the others for thefirstdraft. They each worked on writing a shorter version of the whole paper, rather than one section. Then one person merged these drafts into one paper for the group to work with. At this point, each person began to focus on certain sections and they wrote and edited in the context of the whole paper. Nicole says, "this was done very much on a collective basis by writing parts and moving things around and highlighting things and putting new things in and putting revisions in one colour and underlining things in another colour so that you could see the work in  Thoughtful Interaction 102  progress" ( N i c o l e ) . T h e n , w h e n they h a d the order a n d the ideas they w a n t e d , N i c o l e r e d u c e d the length to a n appropriate l e v e l . K e n d i d the f i n a l edit a n d he s a i d m a k i n g c o n c e s s i o n s a n d i n c l u d i n g e a c h p e r s o n ' s v o i c e is important at this stage.  " F o r group o w n e r s h i p o f the paper i t ' s important to have the w o r d s a n d v o i c e s o f the different m e m b e r s . T h e p e r s o n w h o is e d i t i n g doesn't take the p e o p l e ' s s u m m a r i e s a n d w r i t e it i n their o w n w o r d s . . . e s p e c i a l l y w h e n this m i g h t be their first course, or E n g l i s h is a second language, o r t h e y ' v e got different b a c k g r o u n d s that n e e d to be v a l u e d " ( K e n ) .  A l t h o u g h their final paper c o n t a i n e d different points o f v i e w at this stage, he s a i d this w a s u s e f u l for s t i m u l a t i n g d i s c u s s i o n o n the S m a l l G r o u p F o r u m . These c o m m e n t s are p a r t i c u l a r l y relevant f o r K e n a n d N i c o l e because one p e r s o n i n their g r o u p h a d d i f f i c u l t y c o n n e c t i n g w i t h the others a n d c o n t r i b u t i n g to the paper. K e n a n d N i c o l e w e r e b o t h uncertain about w h a t to d o at this p o i n t but they t r i e d to s o l v e the p r o b l e m . N i c o l e thought that their group process m i g h t be unclear, so she posted a message that stated her understanding o f the steps a n d their g o a l ; h o w e v e r this d i d n ' t have m u c h effect. K e n used e m a i l to contact the student d i r e c t l y a n d encourage h i m to contribute a draft related to the assignment (an analysis o f a research article). A l t h o u g h this student d i d send a draft h i s c o n t r i b u t i o n related a n experience i n h i s s c h o o l to the t o p i c a n d it d i d n o t address the research m e t h o d o l o g y . N i c o l e s a i d the t w o other m e m b e r s o f her group r e s p o n d e d w i t h some e n c o u r a g i n g c o m m e n t s a n d , also, f o u n d w a y s to incorporate s o m e k e y points into their group paper. " T h e [other t w o m e m b e r s i n the group] responded that it w a s a n important issue, that their experiences w e r e c o m p a r a b l e . . . . S o what they d i d w a s s u m m a r i z e t w o k e y points out o f h i s w o r d s " ( N i c o l e ) . I n the i n t e r v i e w , N i c o l e c o m p l i m e n t e d K e n a n d the t h i r d group m e m b e r f o r getting this p e r s o n i n v o l v e d . I n K e n ' s c o n v e r s a t i o n , h o w e v e r , he s a i d he felt uncertain d u r i n g these negotiations. H e w a s w a r y o f u s i n g the text m e d i u m w i t h o u t faceto-face or v o i c e c o m m u n i c a t i o n to solve this k i n d o f group p r o b l e m .  Thoughtful Interaction 103  Opportunities in the Small Group Interactions by Asynchronous Text CMC The small group provided opportunities for students to connect with a smaller number o f people during one block o f this course. Students saw the benefits o f interacting with others in a purposeful way as they worked on a task toward a shared goal.  Each o f us contributed aspects that would not have been there without the participation o f the other people i n the group. A n d that's what it's all about. Y o u get a more rounded, fully reflective and more thoughtful reaction, assessment, reflection - whatever you want to call it. I think that's the real strength o f the group work (Nicole).  The students said they felt a greater responsibility to participate in this small group task. Compared to distance education in which students work independently, or compared to the Discussion Forum where a larger cohort is available, this task required participation with others within a particular time frame. They also knew they were responsible to themselves and their group members for the quality o f the completed project. The group paper would be graded but it would also published on the Forum for the rest o f the class to read and discuss. A s a result, some students were more committed to participating in the small group than on the Forum.  "There's kind o f a back-off attitude - at least that's my personality - when you're posting to 30 people and you say, 'well, I ' m just one o f 30.' But when you're one o f four and you have a section to do then it's incumbent among you [sic] to do a lot more and to contribute a lot more. A n d the expectation that you don't want to let the group down, and that you want to appear intelligent. A n d that's important" (Mark).  They were also able to interact with people in their group in more personal ways even though the goal was to make the project successful.  We have a very broad common goal with students in the larger discussion group - but in the small group you have a common goal that ends up being product-oriented and so it requires people to reveal their strengths and weaknesses more quickly i n order to allow the group to be more successful.... A n d so right away you get people revealing things about themselves that you might never find out about them. A n d it allows you to connect - like, ' I ' m not very good at that either,' or T am' (Eleanor).  Thoughtful Interaction 104  Even after the small group task, however, the students said they only got to know their peers "to a degree" and " i n a sense" through the course activities. Some o f the students wanted more opportunities to work in the small group. They said they needed more time i n the Group Task to discuss and edit their paper i n a collaborative way. Then, they would also have liked more small group discussions throughout the course. Debra said that more dialogue in the small group would have facilitated her participation.  For example, I think once you get to know that group, you could even do some exploration or evaluation with those same people. I felt like we could have used more time exploring our own issues. We spent a lot o f time completing our task and making sure our assignment was handed in on our deadline. But I had some issues I wanted to talk about with our group before we had other people commenting. I wondered i f we shorted the process somewhat (Debra).  K e n said that in groups o f six to eight the dialogue can get going and there's "more o f a perception that everyone's going to get their turn" (Ken).  The Extent of the Communication in an Online Distance Education Course  The students I interviewed participated in this online course without using face-to-face communication with their peers. The relationships and understandings that developed among the students occurred through the text messages o f C M C and not from sharing a common physical space such as a campus classroom. Through the autobiographical messages (Bios) posted at the beginning o f the course and asynchronous text C M C on the Forum and i n the Group Task, the students communicated some o f their interests, backgrounds, and perspectives to the class.  Thoughtful Interaction 105  Knowing their Peers in Text Interactions Students found the text messages included information about their peers' workplaces, educational experiences, and geographic locations. " W e l l , there's quite a geographic distribution. I would say there has been an extensive geographic distribution i n all o f the courses [in this program]" (Nicole). "It seems to be very diverse. They come from many parts all over our world and they come from different positions" (Debra). "People from Canada, some people from the U.S., some people from Australia. Some people from business, some people from university backgrounds" (Mark). There was language diversity as well, even within the English language, as messages contained particular social or linguistic nuances from different parts o f the world. A l s o , some students in the course use English as a second language. Only two students mentioned gender: "I don't know the gender issues, but my feeling is there are more males than females but I haven't really noted that.. .1 just wonder i f there are more males than females" (Debra). A n d two others noted the age range as "mid-30s to 50s or even 60s" (Nicole) and as "older people who are probably working" (Ryan). Several students said that they could make some inferences about diversity from comments in the Forums. For example, " i n terms o f diversity, people also post i n ways that people may assume access to computers.... So others w i l l say 'well, you're assuming that.' I guess this might reflect socioeconomic diversity" (Gary). Other inferences were made from the text messages, too. The students got impressions o f their peers from a pattern or style o f writing, such as the use o f personal expressions, features o f polite speech, or humour. Nicole said,  the most frequent participators you really begin to develop a sense o f personality about them.... Some people w i l l be more personal, more self-revelatory about their experience and the basis for their making a decision. Others w i l l be more likely to refer to the literature as opposed to their experience (Nicole).  Thoughtful Interaction 106  Ryan, however, said the text messages, even though they contained different points o f view on different issues, didn't reveal "distinct characters."  Maybe I've fabricated an idea o f who they are by reading what they've written, which is probably nothing like what they are.. . A n d so just as when I read a research article, you sort o f get some idea o f the person that's writing it, but not really. Y o u ' d never to be able to make a judgement on what they're really like. Similarly in a [Forum] message, even a number o f them from the same person, you really don't get a sense o f who they are (Ryan).  The interactions also revealed the variety o f expertise i n the class i n various areas, such as in graduate studies, in the use o f technology in education, and in the practice o f qualitative research. From the quality as well as the content o f the messages, some students recognized those with experience in the content o f the course.  I've really been impressed with the level o f ability in our courses. It seems like pretty high quality.... People who have commented are really advanced with the research and evaluation field and they do have a great way o f making their comments and statements (Debra).  Others students have expertise in a particular area. "This is a course in qualitative research, some people have done qualitative studies before. Some people have not done anything with qualitative studies before.... Some people understand the nuances o f doing qualitative research, some don't" (Mark). Several students noted messages that related a career background to an orientation to research. For instance, people from the health science fields communicated perspectives that were more positivist and quantitative. Gary said he has noticed people's backgrounds and their philosophical orientations.  Y o u get to associate certain names with certain insights and comments and you know that as somebody posts something it's going to have a certain bent to it. N o t as much as I would in a face-to-face environment.... If I read one person I know he's going to have a more philosophical bent than somebody else when he makes a comment.. .and some  Thoughtful Interaction 107  people are more positivist in their epistemologies or perspectives and some are more subjectivist (Gary).  Although the students said it wasn't important to know one another in a personal sense during this course, there were some advantages to sharing personal or social information. Several o f the students liked to pay attention to people who share interests or work experiences, for instance, as it motivates them to participate. Others feel that knowing people's orientations and approaches to thinking helped the communication on the course content. Nicole says,  We get to know each other and it contributes to these multiple levels o f richness that go beyond a mere exchange o f academic perspectives. [The focus remains on the ideas] but there is a sense o f relationship so that I could say to someone, ' W e l l I know that you only believe in quantitative but let's just look at it from this perspective.' So there's some o f that personalizing in a positive sense o f the content and the posting and the relationship (Nicole).  Communicating with their Peers across Distances While the students recognized that they were communicating with their peers i n a distance learning environment, their perspectives on this distance was varied. For instance, Ryan said that, compared to his first course in the program, there was less "power" on the Forum from meeting others and talking about experiences and issues from all over the world.  The more online courses I take, the less power I see in the [Forum] and the online discussions. In my first course I thought it was fantastic and this is my fourth course and it always now seems the same to me. L i k e the excitement and novelty you have i n the first course, meeting people from all over, and talking about experiences and issues, and that doesn't happen for me anymore. I guess I just expect it, that that w i l l happen. So there's less o f a sense o f wonder or amazement at talking to these people from all over the world (Ryan).  Others considered the opportunity to meet with others at a distance to be one o f the advantages and at times countering the disadvantages they have experienced - o f learning iri this medium.  Thoughtful Interaction 108  Debra said that she has valued connecting with people i n different fields and from around the world.  Sometimes it's just kind o f like an 'ah' that here we are here tonight and we're all in different parts o f the world and somehow we can speak about some o f these same issues. That i n a way it doesn't seem like it's been a barrier, that we all have some similar issues, although we're all i n different parts o f the world (Debra).  Gary said this was one o f the advantages o f this distance education course.  I'm looking at it as an opportunity to learn from people that I would ordinarily never be in contact w i t h . . . . I ' m getting to hear what people have to say from various countries, and walks o f life on the same issues that I ' m thinking about. That's great. That's valuable (Gary).  Although geographic locations o f the students were evident, most o f the students didn't notice much social or cultural diversity in the interactions on the Forum. In comparison to their university campus or their country, the diversity i n the discussions was not very evident. M a r k said it "doesn't come through real plain.. .1 don't notice too much diversity.... I can't pick it out. It's more like we're interested in ideas, more than cultural diversity." Nicole wondered, i f people didn't present information about their cultural backgrounds, because this aspect o f learning together was being overlooked in the course.  If you have the academic requirement and access to the technology it's [this course] theoretically as inclusive as any course can be. There certainly has been a diverse range of people but i f I think o f diversity within the Canadian context, o f people from different visible minorities, I don't get the sense o f it.... But then I don't go around asking, ' w e l l tell me, are you a black person, are you o f Asian ethnic origin?' Maybe it's because I ' m white I say it doesn't matter but that's too easy and to glib for me to say that (Nicole).  She wondered i f this matters to some students and i f they participated less or posted shorter messages as a result. Earlier i n the program K e n had been uncertain about what to expect i n the interactions and he had anticipated some influence from different locations and cultures.  Thoughtful Interaction 109  I was coming to terms with the cultural issues, the internationalization, and also, do people in Canada think differently from people in Australia. Y o u ' r e not too sure about those sorts o f things but once I started, in the end, it didn't matter where people were. The technologies getting to be equally transparent and the international flavour is interesting.. .you get challenged but it's not a challenge that's threatening, it's a challenge you learn from (Ken).  However, he also noted that although this was his experience he wondered about those who use English as a second language and i f they would have a different perspective on the nature o f this challenge. Linguistic and cultural issues in the interactions with their peers were not a regular part o f the Forum discussion. However, some o f the students commented on reading messages from and interacting with students who use English as a second language. About one-fifth o f the students in the English section o f the course use English as a second language and, in the Guest Forum, the students from the Spanish section o f the course participated. A t certain points on the Forum or in the Group Task, language use affected the degree to which students understood one another's messages. Several students said that when language interrupted the fluency o f the message they would read it several times to check for understanding. For instance, there might be some confusion from the language structure used or the meaning o f cultural and conversational expressions. In this course these messages are present but infrequent on the Forum. "In terms o f English as a second language, there was one yesterday that I re-read three times to try to capture what they were saying. But that has been more rare" (Camille). Sometimes language use was relevant in the Group Task where clarification and negotiation o f the process and the written contributions were needed.  One o f our members was not fluent i n English.. .and it resulted in our group having to do some significant rewrites.... A n d this particular student was very open and I was also impressed with the other roles that he contributed to the team process... [group moderator, for example]. A n d it was actually this one student who was not a native  Thoughtful Interaction 110  English user who requested the interaction by phone.. .we clarified the assignment, and possible resources, and sources o f references (Eleanor).  In contrast to the fluency o f English as second language users, most o f the students I interviewed emphasized their inability to use their peers' languages in an academic context. None had communicative competence in Spanish, for instance, which limited their interactions with the students in the Spanish section o f the course. In the Guest Forum, they interacted with the Spanish-speaking students who used English. Eleanor said that online learning is theoretically "very democratic - it gives everyone a chance to participate.. .but then it comes down to practically. A n d you know when I look in the Spanish speaking forums, I look because I don't understand most o f what they are saying." Ryan said that the level o f the discussion on the Guest Forum was affected because o f the interactions across the language groups.  I think I understood what they were saying but it was on a different level.... I have no idea what the level o f the postings are i n Spanish, but I ' m sure they're all very academic, too. But the conversion to working in a second language has an effect on the level o f the postings. A n d I wouldn't have a clue how to do it i n Spanish (Ryan).  Language barriers affected some students' interests in pursuing cultural issues, too. Eleanor's background is in linguistics and she works i n a bilingual context. She said she is interested in the inclusiveness o f the text medium o f the Forum on participants using a second language so she pays attention to issues o f language and meaning that arise. She noticed one pattern o f interactions on the Guest Forum that she wondered about.  A n d I see that they [Spanish-speaking students] have a different approach that's less interactive. L i k e they'll pose a question, and h e ' l l [the Guest Tutor] give a response, and in that response he'll encourage them to comment further. A n d their comments are usually, 'Thanks very much, Professor.' A n d so I think that may be a different perspective on the role o f the teacher and I suspect that may be cultural but I don't know that. A n d that's why I would love, personally, to have a facilitator to do some cultural mediation or explanation (Eleanor).  Thoughtful Interaction 111  K e n observed this pattern in the interactions, too. "I thought the [Spanish students] were saying 'hello' and making a few comments but there wasn't a lot o f interaction.... It might be a cultural thing. Coming to say 'hello' is important before you start into meaningful stuff." Negotiations were needed in several small groups that involved students across languages and cultures. The interactions took place and the task was completed, yet the participating students were uncertain about the affect o f some o f their questions, criticisms and assistance in this context. Eleanor said that her group had quite a bit o f interaction and negotiation with one of their group members who was having some language difficulty with the aspects o f the written assignment.  I asked h i m i f it would be alright i f I paraphrased what he had said... .so he said 'yes, he would really appreciate that'.... I tried to do it i n what I hoped was a culturally appropriate way to say, T wonder i f this would w o r k ' . . . . So I didn't just do it, I negotiated (Eleanor).  Apart from the group task, however, the students' descriptions and examples didn't include much o f this type o f discussion or clarification.  Communication among peers in the academic context of the online course The students' said that the extent o f this course context was circumscribed by graduate studies, the English language, the field o f e-learning, and access to computer and Internet technology. R y a n thinks that the people who would be taking this course - graduate students with a particular interest in understanding and evaluating academic research, would narrow the kinds o f discussions and the level o f discussion taking place.  Generally the level o f discourse is pretty equal, all the people that are posting. In that sense there's not much diversity at all. They're pretty standard graduate students, English-speaking graduate students. I suspect some o f them aren't native first language English speakers, but they're certainly very good English speakers. So to me there's a  Thoughtful Interaction 112  real homogeneity in the class i n that all I can judge them [my peers] on is their postings (Ryan).  Gary agrees: "So we have our cultural differences but at the same time.. .we aren't super-diverse. We're all doing this course. There's this common interest" (Gary). Within this description, however, the students said they appreciated and were excited about the opportunity to work with the range and expertise o f their peers in this course and they felt it was important to share an interest in adult education or training. Most students said they felt appreciated from their perspective or position and that there was a broad enough range o f interests and experiences so that a particular one didn't dominate. Eleanor says,  The class has some very dynamic learners in it. I ' m very excited about the kinds o f learners in the class. I do think that the range of, variation in our backgrounds, and that the class is not only open to graduate students but to really anyone who is working in the area does create quite a breadth o f responses (Eleanor).  Several students said that the course was inclusive from their perspective. K e n said, "I think everybody is interested in everybody else's practice as a practitioner and that where you come from isn't an issue." The students also reported the value and challenge o f the range o f expertise. Mark stated that the different levels o f expertise, with some more knowledgeable in qualitative research and others in quantitative methodology, raised the level o f the course interactions. "I always think it challenges everybody in the class i f somebody knows more about the topic. It always challenges everyone to understand what that person is talking about.. .they bring it to a higher level." Several students who described themselves as novices agreed. They could see that some o f their peers were writing thought provoking and reflective messages and they challenged themselves to do the same. While some felt cautious about getting involved, they also discovered this was a valuable forum to test out their understandings. A s Howard reports,  Thoughtful Interaction 113  they can bring a point o f view that's different than mine and maybe better formulated because I ' m only starting out in this master's thing. So it gets interesting to see how people frame ideas, and then you frame your o w n . . . . It makes for a rich experience in terms o f bringing knowledge out (Howard).  However, the nature o f the course content and the academic and analytical approach to research methodology may be affecting the diversity o f ideas expressed and encountered on the forum. K e n says the subject o f the course, 'Research and Evaluation' makes the content o f the discussions less diverse than he noticed in another course in the program - 'Social Issues.' Rather than ideas, "we're looking at things at two levels, one is the quality o f the research, not the content.. .not so much about the ideas, but about the process o f getting there." He also suggested that the pace o f the course limited students' abilities to raise topics relevant to their particular experiences. For instance, he said one discussion relating research and social issues didn't continue and he felt that the concern, instead, was to keep to the course schedule. Nicole also wondered i f the way that they were approaching this topic might be limiting diversity. For instance, evaluating and analyzing research methodologies can be considered from a number o f ways o f gathering evidence and constructing knowledge.  What is knowledge? H o w do we know? What is research? Just because there's the Western paradigm o f research doesn't mean it's the only way o f doing research. So yes, there could be very exciting possibilities. A n d so from that form o f diversity there's room for a lot more potential (Nicole).  O n the other hand, she adds that, "by some strict constructions o f the academic world it's not an academic course because it's not face-to-face and perhaps uses more relaxed standards o f presentation o f knowledge and it's more collaborative." The students have many diverse things to say about the communication with their peers in the text messages o f the Forum and the interactions o f their small groups. They have  Thoughtful Interaction 114  developed some understanding o f their peers through this communication, especially about one another's workplaces, educational experiences, and geographic locations. The variety o f expertise was valued and the students were challenged to learn through these interactions. O n the other hand, aspects o f communication i n the learning environment o f this course seem to have limited the articulation o f social, cultural or linguistic knowledge in the dialogues and discussions.  Summary  The students' conversations included descriptions and perspectives that reflect their experiences in this online distance education course. Their responses were often detailed and contained specific examples o f interactions from their participation as readers and writers i n the asynchronous text C M C discussions o f the Forum. They have also provided a narrative o f the varied and complex ways each group met the goal o f the small group assignment. Throughout the interviews, the students shared their understanding o f the learning environment and the extent of the communication among their peers in one online text-based environment. Listening to the students in the interviews has provided insights about the ways students participate in and experience the online environment o f this course. In the selections and summaries that I have presented in this analysis, there is evidence o f thoughtful and respectful interaction among students, a responsibility for learning, and real attempts to reflect on and incorporate the information o f the online discussions into conceptual understanding and practice. In the following chapter, the findings o f this study that result from this analysis are discussed and the implications for research and practice are presented.  Thoughtful Interaction  115  Chapter 6 Discussion  The students' descriptions and perspectives that were shared in the research interviews were presented in the analysis o f Chapter 5. N o w , these conversations, based on the students' experiences o f online learning in this course, are discussed in relation to the study questions and the literature o f e-learning. These questions have been asked in light o f the claims i n the literature that online learning environments can be designed using social-constructivist pedagogies. Eight graduate level students were interviewed in two telephone interviews during the second-half o f the 13-week course. I asked the students to reflect on their experiences o f using asynchronous text C M C to interact with their peers. The students described the interactions, their participation in the interactions, and their views on the interactions as a learning environment. The interviews developed from the questions o f this study: •  H o w do the students' describe the interactions among peers i n this online course?  •  H o w do the students describe themselves as participants i n these interactions?  •  What are the students' perspectives on the online interactions as a learning environment?  I recorded, transcribed and then analyzed the interviews. A s I listened to the students' voices, I allowed their claims to inform and extend my understanding o f online distance learning. O n the one hand, the students have been valuable resources i n this study. They enrolled in this course because o f their interest in the field, and they have a range o f experience in e-learning as practitioners and students. In this course, they used asynchronous text C M C to interact with one another throughout the 13-week semester. The course activities included self-study and  *  Thoughtful Interaction  116  individual assignments as well as class discussions by asynchronous text C M C and an online collaborative task. They also did not have the influences o f face-to-face meetings on their communication with peers or the tutor. O n the other hand, there are limitations that need to be considered. This study includes eight student volunteers o f the twenty-two class members. While I had intended to use a purposive sampling strategy to select students for the study, this was not possible with this number o f volunteers. I encouraged more students to participate but I did not specifically seek out students from the course to extend the range o f descriptions and perspectives possible on the study questions. Using long-distance phone calls also could have been a discouraging factor for some students, and this might have limited the number o f study participants who use English as a second language. Keeping these limitations in mind, the following section highlights the findings from the students' conversations on interactions in the online learning environment o f this course.  Summary of Findings  Description of the Online Interactions Among Peers The exchange o f texts by asynchronous C M C formed the interaction space o f the online class environment. Text messages on the W e b C T Forum and the use o f some email connected the members throughout the course. Students read the messages on the Forum to look for and explore the course topics and issues. Sometimes, they posted a message to add their understanding, comment or question to the online discussion. In these interactions the course tutor played a facilitative, not a directive, role. Asynchronous text C M C on the Forums and by email was used i n each small group to carry out the thinking and writing processes o f the group assignment. In order to make  Thoughtful Interaction  117  decisions, especially when they were editing the collaborative paper, the students worked together to question, clarify and negotiate the structure and meaning o f the text. However, this could only take place i f the students in the group were available and online during the days the group was carrying out this process. When this occurred, the opportunity to interact with their peers in text dialogues and discussions decreased the students' isolation in distance learning. Linking the interaction o f speech with the reflection o f reading and writing through C M C is described as e-literacy (Warschauer, 1999; Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997). These descriptions from students I interviewed reflect the perspective o f educators who are encouraging learners to be active and engaged in the academic community (Jonassen et al, 1995; Johns, 1997; Warschauer, 1999; Chickering & Ehrmann, 1999). The students described their practices o f reading, reflecting, and writing within the context o f the course and an audience o f their peers. A s such, reading and writing were integrated communication processes. Students wrote texts that added to the published course materials and became readers o f their peers' texts. Feenberg (1999) and Warschauer (1999) describe the significance o f text-based C M C as an authentic use o f reading and writing to connect learners. Several studies (Warschauer, 1999; Stacey, 1999) report these practices among students in courses that include face-to-face interaction. The students I interviewed didn't have this opportunity; as a result, they had to rely on the online text conversations to express their ideas, and reflect on and respond to their peers' messages. Warschauer (1999) and Pincas (2000) describe the back-and-forth immediacy o f a conversation by asynchronous text C M C that combines features o f speech and writing. The students in this study have described the asynchronous text interactions in online distance education in ways that are like a conversation, but not an oral or face-to-face one. The C M C messages are transmitted quickly v i a the W W W , but the replies are unpredictable. Unlike an  Thoughtful Interaction  118  oral interaction, with asynchronous text C M C an audience was not always present and ready to respond, answer questions and negotiate. There was always an opportunity to speak yet, students' questions remained unanswered and discussions were not completed. The students understood the uncertainty o f text and asynchronous online discussions; they also wanted the flexibility to post messages at different times i n the discussion - during their workday, or in the evening - and from different places. O n the other hand, i f there was little or no feedback, students didn't know i f messages had been read, understood or considered relevant to the discussion or dialogue. Some students say that this challenge is not a good match with their learning style and personality. Although Pincas reports that people w i l l adapt with time to this medium as they have to others in the past, others state that new communicative competency in technology and learning are needed (Barajas & Owen, 2000; Noblia, 1998). The Forum messages were described as respectful and collegial, but not personal. Students found the messages communicated some information about a person's background or experience and they made assumptions about individuals from the text messages. However, the focus was predominantly on the ideas related to the course content and the core o f the messages was a substantive and well-supported position on a topic, similar to academic discourse. In the small groups personal and social information was more noticeable as it was relevant to completing the task. The students said that messages i n a conversational tone and with features o f polite speech encouraged understandings and opinions, differences and contradictions to be expressed. They found that individuals did not dominate the message threads or criticize the person as they conducted the analysis and critique o f the course topics and issues. Instead, they brought practices o f a collegial workplace to the text interactions. The literature does not clarify the critical ingredients needed for a supportive and respectful learning environment and there is a  Thoughtful Interaction 119 wide range o f findings from diverse studies (Walther, 1996; Postmes, Spears and Lea, 1998; Light et al., 2000). However, the students I interviewed were able to describe the features o f tone and messages that helped them to participate. Similar to Curtis and Lawson's (2001) study of cooperative and collaborative online interaction, the students' messages to their peers were supportive and cohesive rather than challenging. The students' descriptions o f the online interactions i n this course reveal that significant amounts o f time are needed for the work o f active and reflective reading and writing i n the text discussions and the group task. Asynchronous text C M C provided students with the opportunity to be thoughtful and insightful i n their comments and questions, and students needed and wanted the time to prepare and participate i n these ways. This report is similar to the participants in Lea's (2001) study o f students interacting in an online writing course. Because the messages have permanence in the text discussion and lack the oral and visual features o f speech, the students I interviewed also felt it was important to take the time to write and revise before posting to the class. The students wanted to communicate clearly and thoughtfully to establish their own credibility but also to ensure that their words were respectful o f others. Having the time for this reflective practice is an advantage claimed for asynchronous text C M C (Harasim et al., 1997; Warschauer, 1999; Lea, 2001). M u l l i g a n and Geary (1999) have found written discussions to be dynamic and purposeful but the volume o f writing involved was a problem for students in their study. The number o f interactions in the discussion stage and, the time it takes to read and respond add to the time that the students need to participate.  Participating in the Online Interactions with Peers The students described the goals that motivated their involvement in the online interactions. They participated to engage with the course content and to relate their developing  Thoughtful Interaction  120  knowledge to their interests, especially their careers. It was also an advantage to be able to access the expertise o f the tutor, the course, and their peers from different locations and at a distance to the campus. Reading the online discussions was a priority and contributing messages to the online discussions and fulfilling their roles in the small group was a responsibility. The literature in distance education reports that students are motivated to participate when the interactions are related to their interests and helpful to their learning goals (McKenzie & Murphy, 2000; Fredericksen et al, 2000). In the learning environment, interaction needs to be a purposeful aspect o f course design related to the students' goals (Wagner, 1997). They liked this course because o f the flexibility it provided as they worked full time and juggled their student role with personal and career needs. While these goals fit with the independence o f the selfdirected distant learner, i n this course the students also needed to participate with each other within the schedule o f the course design. The students were more likely to participate as writers when they felt they had something worthwhile to communicate. It was important to make sense to others and post clear and credible messages that extended the conversation or asked a relevant question on the topic. Thus, reading, evaluating and analyzing numerous texts was necessary before they could post a new message or respond to one i n the discussions. A s a result, there was more participation later i n a scheduled discussion period, but not more interaction. These postings might be read, and they might contribute to the development o f the topic, but they were too late to generate a response and further the interaction o f the text conversations. Writing messages to contribute to the interactions was limited due to the volume o f reading the students faced, and the time allowed i n the course schedule. The course requirements and the assignments provided guidelines for the students' participation and at times they were only able to meet the minimum level o f postings expected. A l s o , due to the number o f  Thoughtful Interaction  121  students in the course, there were a lot o f peer messages to read before they could write. Both Lea (2001) and Mulligan and Geary (1999) report the benefits o f participating in the reflective writing practices o f online discussions for students' learning. A s a result, they recommend providing the time for these experiences into the design o f a course. Goodwin, Graham and Scarborough (2001) report that students focused on individual assignments and reading messages, but not posting, when participation was not evaluated in the course. Vrasidas and Mclsaac (1999), also found that the students i n their study participated less when there was a high volume o f course work to complete and these students waited until one o f the regular oncampus meetings to enter into discussions. The students I interviewed, however, did not have the opportunity to rely on face-to-face meetings. Participating in an online group assignment was valuable for the students. They said that working with others resulted i n more ideas and a fuller understanding than they could reach on their own. This concurs with H i l t z et al (2000) that students have a more effective learning environment when they collaborate online than when they work online as individuals. U s i n g online communication as effective practices in distance higher education is reported in the literature through interactive group practices such as problem-solving and cooperative and collaborative learning strategies (Freeman & Capper, 1999; Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001). The students described the ways each person contributed to the group process according to their perspectives and experiences. They worked together through online text to share information, synthesize from a variety o f resources (including the resources o f their peers) and negotiate interests and understandings in order to reach the group's goal. Collaborative work took place, although the students' described a range o f experiences and communication strategies involved in getting the task done. This range can be compared with the descriptions o f cooperation and collaboration reported by Campos et al (2001) who examined a wide variety o f  Thoughtful Interaction  122  courses from the perspective o f the teachers. In this study, however, the students' descriptions and perspectives are reported and these are useful to understanding online group tasks. The students reported that the small group task involved dealing with differences in ideas and understanding but individuals supported one another and worked on solving the problems o f time, distance, and language as they arose. In the interviews, the students described their group as a success i f the members were able to listen to one another in the negotiations and i f individuals contributed from their capabilities in the process. However, the students weren't always confident about communicating by text when they couldn't contact their peers online or when their peers' written contributions were off-task. Harasim et al (1995) and Kanuka and Anderson (1999) discuss the advantages o f developing respect and sensitivity to others through participating in online distance education. From his experience in interdisciplinary courses i n culture and history, Bass (2000) suggests e-learning is an opportunity to discuss difficult issues and use text conversation to cross cultural contexts. In this study, however, the students wondered about the effect o f language and culture on the interactions when sorting out difficulties, but these questions were usually not explored i n the group discussions. The small group helped the students to overcome some o f the challenges o f participating by asynchronous text C M C . There is a set time period, a known group to work with, and a defined goal. The students were committed to participating i n the Group Task and, in most cases, they enjoyed working together in this aspect o f the online course. The students were also oriented to completing this task. Studies o f online learning environments have shown that students are more focused on participating when the assignments and projects are required elements o f the course and goal-oriented (Vrasidas & Mclsaac, 1999; Baskin, 2001; Goodwin, Graham & Scarborough, 2001).  Thoughtful Interaction  123  The small group was also a place where the students had more connection with each other. They knew the names o f their peers, a little about their backgrounds, and what experiences and abilities would contribute to the overall goal. There was more responsibility to participate and communicate but the students also had a more reasonable expectation that they would get a response to a message or a question. Nunan (1999) reports that as the small group o f students he studied took more control o f the interactions, they became more engaged with one another and the course content and applied the subject matter to their everyday lives. Gilbert and Moore's (1998) model o f interaction in the learning environment also shows an increase i n student involvement and group influence when the tasks are collaborative and the teacher's control o f the course decreases.  Perspectives on the Online Interactions as a Learning Environment The online interactions facilitated thinking and learning as students participated in an active role i n the text discussions and explored the course content. The students report the online text discussions as valuable, thoughtful, credible, substantive and sophisticated sources o f information. A s well, reading and writing messages developed their knowledge o f the course subject and helped them to build connections to their current and developing career experiences. Reading the messages led students into further study and research and they found this confirmed, corrected or challenged their understanding. They questioned their perspectives on the course topics and issues and considered the positions that others presented. Writing in the discussions was a means o f communicating and clarifying their own ideas as well as integrating new sources of information into their current knowledge. The students' descriptions are similar to the claims that in the use o f active and reflective literacy practices, language does not just convey  Thoughtful Interaction  124  information; it also is a tool o f thinking and learning in the construction o f knowledge (Lea, 2001; Warschauer, 1999; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999). The students became a resource for their peers in the learning environment through the online interactions that conveyed their experience i n work, education, and the field o f the course. They recognized a range o f expertise and appreciated the opportunity to connect with people they would not meet or study with i n their geographical locations. They encountered more ideas and more ways o f thinking as their peers brought their backgrounds and interests to the discussions. A t times, a student was a novice in one area but an expert in another as the discussions covered interests in distance education, technology or research methodology. The ability to analyze and critique the literature in the field o f e-learning also varied and this challenged the class to participate and learn from one another. A s Jonassen et al (1995) report, the opportunity to engage with more experiences leads to more perspectives and complexity. Students can see the ways others approach a field and solve problems. These alternative perspectives increase the multiplicity o f views in the learning environment that are a relevant goal o f higher education and international distance education (Bass, 2000; Warschauer, 1999). In this course, some o f the students were experienced users o f online distance education and asynchronous text C M C ; others were in the midst o f developing new strategies as readers and writers in this medium. They brought strategies from the workplace and the classroom and from prior online courses. A s well, they learned from the trial-and-error o f their experience i n the course and from observing others. However, students sometimes felt there was not an opportunity - or they felt reluctant to take the opportunity - to inquire about the strategies their peers were finding successful in the online learning environment. Several studies report that students participated less when they were inexperienced with the technology o f online  Thoughtful Interaction  125  communication or the pedagogy o f the course, such as participating in social-constructivist practices (Bullen, 1998; Brown, 2001; Barajas & Owen, 2000). The students recognized that their peers came from different backgrounds, languages and locations; however, some students felt that the steady series o f readings and assignments limited the opportunity for questions and discussions on cultural diversity or social issues. Instead, students participated within the shared context o f graduate level distance education in the English language that, for the most part, had a North American perspective. In this online environment the students were negotiating meaning and developing understanding without the communicative practices that develop when people share the same physical space over an extended period o f time. Although guidelines for discussion were presented on the course website, the students in this class did not discuss their understanding or acceptance o f these as norms for the course. N o b l i a (1998) reviews the meaning o f linguistic competence i n online communication i n which social and cultural practices may not be common to all participants. Beyond understanding the words o f the language used, participants also need to know the conventions o f text communication v i a the Internet, such as greetings, ways to ask questions or how to resolve conflicts. Both N o b l i a and Pincas (2000) question the assumptions that text C M C carries less cultural context and equalizes participation. They suggest that sociocultural conventions, such as norms o f conversation, should be directly discussed by the online participants.  Discussion of the Findings  The students' conversations illustrated the claims o f the literature that an interactive learning environment is possible in distance education. The context o f the academic field o f the  Thoughtful Interaction  126  course, the students' participation, and the literacy practices o f asynchronous text C M C created a particular social, cultural and linguistic milieu for the interaction. First, the course was an analytical and critical approach to research and evaluation studies, which defined an area o f expertise. A s a result there was a range o f comfort and understanding among the students depending on their prior knowledge o f the field. However, the online course was a place for students to share resources and they recognized their peers who had expertise in distance education, e-learning or research methodology. Second, the students came to this course with goals and needs that helped to create the learning environment. They were balancing - in fact, juggling - numerous roles such as teacher, administrator and graduate student. They approached their studies seriously and they were interested in relating the subject matter to their careers. They also communicated high expectations o f themselves as participants in the learning environment. The third important contributor to the context was the online course delivery. Asynchronous text C M C on the Forums o f W e b C T and some email connected the students and formed the classroom o f this course. The characteristics o f the literacy practices o f this medium influenced the characteristics o f the students' communication. The descriptions shared by the students give us their understanding o f the nature and quality o f the online interactions, which they said were both thoughtful and thought provoking. Their perspectives were conveyed in several ways and they illustrate several meanings. The students read their peers' texts thoughtfully, reflecting on the ideas and issues that were relevant to the course and to their interests. Through these posted messages, views were clarified and new ideas emerged as students developed an understanding o f the course content and found additional ways to explore knowledge. A l s o , students took time to form their own thoughts into text and then revise their writing in light o f the audience o f their peers. In order to contribute to the developing conversation, they considered both the substance and the credibility o f their  Thoughtful Interaction  127  messages. However, they also thought about how others were receiving and evaluating their ideas in text, especially in this challenging academic context. In the interactions among the small group o f peers, their combined efforts were thought provoking as well, stimulating a fuller investigation o f their question. The result o f working together was a more thoughtful text than they would have realized as individuals. The negotiations i n this group context and the communication in the class discussions were done thoughtfully as well. The students felt they had been included and respected and they were also careful to offer encouragement and be sensitive when challenging or critiquing others. The students said the online interactions with their peers were valuable and they valued the opportunity to participate; however, they also felt they could not participate as much as was needed or they desired. The time to be reflective, let their curiosity take hold, and explore the field in the interactions with others was limited, not just by the time they had available for the course, but also by the intensity and volume o f the coursework. The active and reflective processes o f reading and writing took time. Although their messages could be sent with speed across distances, this did not mean they could write or read more quickly, too, and do so with the thoughtful analysis they intended. The students were also developing an understanding o f the course content, so they needed time to observe others and learn from the online interactions. When there wasn't time, the students found it was difficult to converse with their peers and they became listeners rather than speakers. Interactive pedagogies can become didactic and transmissive without the time for participants to engage with the ideas and one another. If the thoughtful and valuable communication is going to take place i n this context it is important to account for these challenges and limits. Asynchronous text C M C is only a mediator, not the facilitator, i n online distance education that incorporates interaction among peers. This interaction modifies the traditional  Thoughtful Interaction  128  expectation o f the distance education student. The flexible, self-directed and independent student working alone and at their own time needs to become an active participant with their peers and responsible to others i n the learning environment. While the tool for the interaction is available it is the students who must engage with one another to create the online learning environment. Students still have the freedom to participate when their particular interests are addressed but, in the course in this study, the students also needed to pursue knowledge in the company o f their peers! A s a result o f the students' conversations, we know why some students are participating and why others are not. In particular, educators and designers cannot assume that a course with interactive activities w i l l lead students to negotiate meaning, develop understanding and construct knowledge in the learning environment. While the students I interviewed were committed to taking advantage o f the opportunities present for interaction, challenges and limits were still present that reduced their participation in the course dialogues and discussions. In the text interactions, the students use language to share experiences, negotiate meaning, and build understanding in order "to make sense o f what is said with respect to what we know" (Noblia, 1998, The Community Notion, 1J5). A l s o , i n higher education and international contexts, interacting in the presence o f differences and conversing across shared and alternative perspectives is expected (Bass, 2000; Barajas, & Owen, 2000). However, i f it is difficult for students to participate i n the interactions o f asynchronous text C M C , then it is difficult for them to be resources for one another in the learning environment. The students are participating across various distances, from linguistic to academic but these distances become apparent only when the time is taken to write their identity into the online conversation. Without the characteristics o f face-to-face interactions, the words o f the text are the only means available to convey social and cultural contexts. Studies report that this communication can take place  Thoughtful Interaction  129  without meeting in person (Brown, 2001; Nunan, 1999) although, among the students I interviewed, complexities o f social, cultural and linguistic issues were unexplored that could have extended the boundaries o f the academic discourse. One reason reported for the omission was the analytical and technical nature o f the course content, which did not easily facilitate these kinds o f discussion. Another reason was the lack o f time available to the students to explore intersecting issues and questions that arose from the course topics. A s a result the possibility that there were more and different discourses among the participants is not known. In a socialconstructivist perspective, the relationship between language, context and culture are essential aspects o f knowledge construction. Students' experiences, interpretations, perceptions and values are shared i n the interactions o f the community and culture (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Nuthall, 1997). Barajas and Owen (2000) suggest that individual contexts and identities need to be accounted for and made explicit, not as a separate part o f a course design but as an integral aspect o f the learning activities.  Implications Implications for Practice In a learning environment there is interaction between individual and community and culture. The characteristics and qualities o f this interaction among the participants construct knowledge (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Nuthall, 1997; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999). Therefore, the context o f the course, the people who participate, and the media used for interaction need to be considered. The literature reports the influence o f pedagogy and course design on the learning environment (Gilbert & Moore, 1998; Bates, 1997; Campos et al, 2001). However, the social, cultural and linguistic context that forms the learning environment also has considerable influence. The claims made for interaction by asynchronous text C M C in an effective learning  Thoughtful Interaction  130  environment o f online distance education cannot be generalized. They must be understood and interpreted in the field o f the course, the identities o f the students, and the characteristics o f text communication. The nature o f communication has not changed even i f a new medium o f communication is used. People talk with one another when there is a purpose and when there is a reasonable expectation o f interaction - that their message is going to be understood and receive a response. In this course, the analytical and critical nature o f the content and the extensive amount of reading had implications for the learning environment and the interaction among the students. In order for a student to participate i n the writing process o f the text discussion, they first need the understanding that develops through study and reflection. Recognizing that participation includes reading and reflecting on the course content means that the course schedule must include time for silence; that is, time is scheduled for study and research when no online discussion is taking place. Then, the students can have the time they need to read, reflect, and prepare without the pressure o f being online to keep up with a discussion or to post their own messages. Students who want to contribute effectively could benefit from a course that is designed and facilitated with the time needed for the literacy practices o f online text dialogues and discussions. First, a student's role as reader o f peers' texts must be appreciated and encouraged. A s the students read, they are interacting with the online messages to understand the information, meaning and social and cultural influences communicated. O n the asynchronous text C M C Forum, reading the text messages posted by the students' peers is a contribution to the interaction. This makes the term lurker - the person 'listening,' or reading online, but not writing - irrelevant in this context. Second, a student also needs to be recognized as an author in the online interaction. The students are involved i n a writing process i n which they communicate  Thoughtful Interaction  131  understandings and identities to an audience o f peers and the tutor through the published and permanent (within the course website) texts o f the Forum. Students w i l l need strategies to engage in the active and reflective reading and writing o f the online texts, encouragement to take the author's role and its risks, and time for depth o f thought rather than superficial interaction. In the design o f the course, interaction as an activity needs attention to meet the communicative needs o f the learners. The course design and the students' goals should fit the purpose o f the interaction. For instance, i f as adult learners the students are busy people in multiple roles, then the course design must take this into account. Interaction can be open-ended discussions but it should also occur as small group tasks that are purposeful and that encourage students to relate the course to their interests. One consideration must be the time for asynchronous communication - requests and responses, challenges and clarifications - to occur. The course schedule needs to be arranged so that the students can commit to individual and group assignments and have time for the peer interactions needed to complete them. A l s o , i f there are conflicts between scheduled discussions and graded assignments, the latter may take precedence in a task-oriented credit course. Another aspect o f course design that facilitates purposeful interaction is to reduce the extent o f either the course objectives or the course activities so that topics can be explored, not just covered, and issues and questions that arise can be thoughtfully considered. Creating opportunities for communication i n the online course gives students access to a range o f expertise among their peers and with their tutor. Facilitating this access to the academic community, especially for novices, and people experiencing a new academic and linguistic culture can be perplexing. The assumption that students w i l l adapt with time, or adopt learning practices through trial-and-error is not enough. Time is needed for students to ask their questions about the practices o f e-literacy and to share the strategies they have found useful for the  Thoughtful Interaction  132  interactions o f asynchronous text C M C . While the students are researching their roles i n this learning environment, the tutor is facilitating as a guide, but also as a leader and mediator. For instance, as a leader, the tutor can be explicit about the kinds o f reading and writing practices needed in the online interactions. A s a mediator, the tutor can raise topics that encourage a dialogue on the beliefs and values that exist i n the learning environment - including texts and content and the roles o f participants and participation. The tutor, therefore, needs to be flexible, and have the freedom within the course program to be flexible, as the course design is implemented. There is another challenge o f the online text communication - being aware o f others and being able to share one's self i n this environment. Each student has prior knowledge and experience that they can build on but also contribute to the shared resources o f the learning environment. This has implications for the extent o f the field o f academic study and the diversity o f perspectives that can be known. In the definition o f interaction used in this study, the students don't just relate to each other they also reflect each other's presence (Gunawardena et al, 1997). Conversations are needed in which the students share their identities and in which they listen to and seek to understand their peers. In online distance education, structure and schedule - as it is published on the website, for example - w i l l need to be interpreted by instructors to attend to interests and goals that are present among the students o f each course and to encourage the students to shape the course activities.  Implications for Research The students' conversations in this study have led to further questions that need to be pursued in the field o f e-learning. First, speaking to students across the diversity o f languages and cultures that are participating in an international course and asking the same questions o f this  Thoughtful Interaction  133  study would be useful. Other areas o f investigation have come forward as a result o f the interviews o f this study and the analysis o f the students' descriptions and perspectives. The prominence o f e-literacy practices in the online interactions raises questions about students' backgrounds and identities as readers and writers. What are the influences o f students' prior literacy experiences on participation the reading and writing interactions o f asynchronous text C M C ? What are students doing to overcome or take advantage o f the text medium? H o w do instructors understand their students' backgrounds as readers and writers in the online environment? What aspects o f the course design attend to the development o f e-literacy practices? In e-learning, learners are connected to one another and to resources. In a course that reflects a social-constructivist perspective on learning, the learners, themselves, are important resources to their peers. H o w can the range o f backgrounds and experiences o f peers contribute to the multiple perspectives o f the learning environment i f the opportunity to share these resources is limited? What is the effect on the interaction when students only have a 'sense' o f one another in the course? H o w is meaning negotiated in written texts when the students' are relatively anonymous or seemingly homogeneous? One aspect o f the online interaction that is affecting interaction among students is the asynchronous timing o f communication. H o w can students maintain participation and interact with others in light o f the uncertainty and unpredictability o f asynchronous text C M C ? What impact is the uncertainty and unpredictability having on students' exploration i n the learning environment? For instance, how does it prevent students from asking questions or sharing problems or challenging points o f views? A l s o , without a shared time and place, how are students developing and negotiating social and cultural conventions o f communication?  Thoughtful Interaction  134  Considering the nature o f interactions by asynchronous text C M C leads to consideration o f the kinds o f interaction that occur in face-to-face learning in academic environments. Is the online interaction incomplete, uncertain and unpredictable compared to face-to-face interaction, or is it just more noticeable? What does a 'completed discussion' or an 'answered question' mean within different social, academic, linguistic and cultural groups? What are our assumptions about face-to-face learning environments in higher education and how are they helping or hindering the online conversations? The small group task was a particularly positive aspect o f the course for the students I interviewed. What are the ingredients that make the small group positive? H o w do the students know what to do in the small group? Is there a way to design more small group interaction into a course, yet maintain participation? What would happen with the students whose small groups weren't working, for instance?  Curiosity continues  M y curiosity about students' experiences o f e-learning has been explored in this study through research interviews. The experiences o f eight willing and reflective students have provided descriptions o f online interactions with peers and perspectives on these interactions as a learning environment. The details o f the students' reading and writing processes by asynchronous text C M C present their voices on e-literacy from one context. They have also added their understanding to the complex questions o f who participates and why they do so. The students' narratives include descriptions o f thoughtful and thought-provoking interactions, and the ways they have faced the uncertainties and difficulties that can arise i n online learning. The commentary on the course design is a challenge to teachers and designers to examine the  Thoughtful Interaction  135  meaning and practice o f interaction and to be cognizant o f the relationships between participants, texts, and academic content in the e-learning environment. Pursuing my study questions has been a useful way to examine the claims i n the literature o f e-learning as a social and cultural context for interactions among learners. The students' conversations contribute to the practice and research o f online distance education and lead to further areas for the curious to explore.  Thoughtful Interaction 136  References Ahern, T . C . , & E l - H i n d i , A . E . (2000). Improving the instructional congruency o f a computermediated small-group discussion: a case study i n design and delivery. Journal of research on computing in education, 32 (3), 385-401. Barajas, M . , & Owen, M . (2000). Implementing virtual learning environments: Looking for Holistic Approach. 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J : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.  Thoughtful Interaction  Appendix A  Tutor Interview Protocol  What is your experience with teaching online? W h y did you decide to teach online? What adaptations are you making / have you made/ in your teaching? from past online courses? from face-to-face courses?  H o w would you describe your role i n this course? H o w have you organized the interaction in this online course?  What is your view o f the role o f the Forum i n this course? H o w are you involved in the interactions?  What do you have to say this online course and learning? From different aspects o f the course? From the nature o f the interaction? Other?  What other comments or perspectives do you have on the Forums? The course interaction? Your teaching processes?  Thoughtful Interaction  149  Appendix B  Participant Questionnaire For the study Thoughtful interaction: students' text communication in online distance education Note that personal information is only for my records & to contact you; strict confidentiality guidelines will be followed in the study procedures and publication as noted on the participant consent form. Name: Address: Phone: (please list only the phone number(s) that you wish me to use to contact you) Home Work Cell Email:  Age:  Sex:  Current occupation:  Current student status:  Native language:  Languages used for study and/or work:  A . Educational experience: 1. What level of post-secondary education have you completed? (please check one level) 2-year degree or certificate  4-year bachelor degree  post-bachelor/graduate certificate or program  Master's degree  PhD  Other:  2. How many courses have you completed in the program, [source confidential]? 3. Aside from [course name], are you taking another [program] course this semester? Yes (please list)  No  Do you plan to take another [program] course in a future semester? Yes (please list)  No  4. Reasons for taking [course name] (please check as many as apply to you) Credit for [program, source confidential] Credit for graduate studies at the University of British Columbia Credit toward another certificate or degree Related to current work in the field Preparing for future work in the field Personal interest Other (please describe: 5. What other experiences have you had in Distance Education? Type of Course (credit, professional development, personal interest, etc)  Mode of Delivery (print, video, computer-based, etc.)  Thoughtful Interaction  B. Computer Experience 1.  Please list the most common tasks you do with a computer:  2.  Before you began taking this course, [course name]...  How often did you use a computer?  At home  At work  At school  Other Sites  At work  At school  Other Sites  Several times/day Once every day At least several times a week Once a week A few times a month Other  3.  Now that you are taking this course, [course name]...  Where do you use the computer to access this course?(list other sites)  At home  Most of the time Often Sometimes Just a few times Never What is your personal access to a computer like? Have my own Share with a few Share with 5-10 others Share with 10-20 others Share with many 4.  For the next two questions, answer only for the sites from which you access this course (as noted in Q. 3)  Do you consider the cost of accessing computer technology for this course to be...? Cheap Very affordable Affordable Not very affordable Expensive How long does it usually take to get connected to the discussion forums on the course website? Seconds About a minute About 2 to 5 minutes About 5 to 10 minutes More than 10 minutes  150  Thoughtful Interaction  Appendix C  Student First Interview Protocol Introductory questions:  1. Tell me about your experience i n this field o f using computers & online work, to learn, other. 2. What is your purpose in taking this course using the distributed or online media for course content and communication? 3. What means / media did you use to interact with students for the purposes of this  course?  Questions on the active role of the learner:  1. What role does the Forum (bulletin board) play in this course? 2. What would you say about your participation in the Forum? 3. Tell me about a typical time when you log onto the Forum.. .what do you usually do? What changes or influences this pattern? 4. The Forum involves reading and writing to participate. What is it like to read as a way of participating i n the Forum? What is it like to write as a way o f participating i n the forum?  Questions on the collaborative learning environment:  1. When the focus is on exchanging information on the course topics & content, what is the interaction with other students like? 2. Can you tell me about a time when you participated in one o f these interactions with other students to share information.. .added new ideas.. .gave an explanation? 3. What role do questions play in the interactions? What happens when you / others asked a question? 4. What it's like to understand other students by reading/writing i n the interactions o f the Discussion Forums? D i d you feel other students understood you?  Thoughtful Interaction  Questions on diverse and alternative perspectives: 1. H o w would you describe the diversity o f students i n the your section o f the course? 2. What do you say about the Forum reflecting the diversity? In what ways? 3. H o w did the level o f diversity among the students affect your participation i n the Forum / i n other online communication i n the course? 4. What do you have to say about the Forum i n the course as a place to discuss your perspectives / your classmates' perspectives on the topics o f the course?  Concluding questions: 1. H o w do you feel about the Discussion Forums / the online communication as a learning experience for you i n this course? 2. What other comments or perspectives do you have on the Discussion Forums / interactions with students i n the course at this time?  152  Thoughtful Interaction  Appendix D  Schedule of Course Assignments, Activities and Interviews Week  Block  Assignments Due  Forums  Group Task  Interviews  1  Introduction to people in class  ONE 2  3  TWO  #1  Discussion of Block 2  #2  Preparation o f Group Paper  4  5  THREE  #3  Discussion of Block 3 & Assignment 3  < >  6  7  FOUR  i  >  #4 8  Small Group Forums Week 1  Facilitate Small Group Forum 1 week/group  First  i  i  >  9 Week 2 10 <  11  Week 3 & Guest Forum  FIVE  i  \  Second  >  12 Final #5 13  <  Thoughtful Interaction  Appendix E  Summary of Participants' Characteristics Table E l  Location, Language, Gender and Age  Name  Location (Time zone from Vancouver & country)  First languages  Languages used for study and/or work  Gender  Age group  Debra  + 2h USA  English  English  F  30+  Eleanor  +1 h USA  American Sign Language English  American Sign Language English  F  50+  Gary  +1 h CAN  English  English  M  40+  Howard  +3h CAN  French  French English  M  40+  Ken  +16 h AUS  English  English  M  50+  Mark  +3h USA  English  English  M  50+  Nicole  +4h CAN  English  English  F  50+  Ryan  +2h CAN  English  English  M  40+  154  Thoughtful Interaction  Table E2  Career and Educational Experience Name  Career area  Current workplace  Educational experience  Distance learning & technology Special education  government  Master's degree  Eleanor  Linguistics Special education  university  Bachelor's degree Postgraduate certificate  Gary  Religious studies Adult education  college  Ph.D.  Public school teacher Adult Literacy  non-profit organization  Bachelor's degree  Ken  Distance education Educational design  university  Bachelor's degree X 2  Mark  Public & higher education Technology and education  university  Ph.D.  Education Distance education  university  Bachelor's degree  Instructional technology  university  Bachelor's degree  Debra  Howard  Nicole  Ryan  Thoughtful Interaction  Table E3  Online Education Experience and Individual Goals  Name  Prior courses in program  Debra  2  Eleanor  Gary  Experience with online education A s a university student and project manager o f online training  Current work in field  Credit, graduate studies Current & future work in field  2  Administrates, plans & designs pedagogy o f online distance education training programs A s graduate student in online distance education  0  1 time i n an online distance education course  Current & future work Credit, Master's degree Personal interest  2  Designs online distance education university courses  Credit, graduate certificate Current work i n field Credit, graduate certificate  4  Teaches university courses using C M C in distance education and campus courses  3  Administrates, plans, & designs pedagogy o f online university programs & courses  Credit, graduate certificate Current work in field Personal interest  3  Technical design, support faculty, training others is use o f W e b C T in university courses  Credit, graduate certificate Current work in field  3  st  Howard  Ken  Mark  Nicole  Ryan  Student's goal in program  Future work in field Personal interest  


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