Student interaction patterns in electronic conference systems
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This study examines focused interaction in two conference systems to determine if a conference system, as media, influences the structure of discourse interaction. The investigative perspective applied has foundations in Erving Goffman’s explanation of focused interaction, which reasons that in sustained conversation, or talk, a frame emerges for how messages should be interpreted and which messages are considered relevant (see discussion by Kendon in Duranti & Goodwin,1991). Descriptions of focused interaction expand to include spatial and orientational relations as regulators for what is attended to or treated as irrelevant. When applied to electronic discourse, the spatial arrangement of messages may influence which messages are attended to and which messages should be treated as irrelevant. To investigate possible influence of conference system structure on discourse interaction, references to previous messages were considered indicators of attentional focus; and thereby reveal interaction patterns. During a four-week period messages generated by students in two sections of freshman honors English Literature taught by the same faculty member were collected. Both course sections were taught at Xavier University of Louisiana. The messages were analyzed by volunteer coders using a checklist code format for message content. Each course section was assigned one of two treatment conditions. The treatment conditions were the conference systems used as either structured (WebBoard Conference©) or unstructured (electronic mail distribution list). All student tasks were similar assignments. At the end of message collection, vi students completed a questionnaire for demographic information and self-report of technical skills. Self-report data was used to establish that the students in the two courses were from the same population. This study found evidence that a conference system environment may influence the structure of discourse interaction. A statistical difference was found for the use of reference behaviors and the type of message posted between structured and unstructured conference systems. Research of this type has implications for instructional technology and appropriate use of conference systems.