Looking closely at emotional expression in an online course : a case study of distributed emotion
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This study of the expression of emotion in the context of a semester-long online graduate-level course was based in the interpretivist paradigm and used distributed emotion—the proposed construct that the study was designed to explore—as its theoretical perspective. The course itself was part of a wholly online Master’s degree in educational technology in which the students were organized into cohorts that served as intact communities of practice during the thirteen month program. Over 2500 course-related electronic mail and newsgroup postings and interviews with 8 of the 19 class members following completion of the course were analyzed using a data-driven and inductive coding scheme. The data were then reorganized to focus first on the individuals and then the group. Close examination of these data yielded the finding that emotional expressions in the course were, in fact, distributed among class members, over communication structures, and across time. Based on these findings, it is apparent that the distribution of emotional expression likely occurs in online course contexts as class members respond to one another’s emotional expressions, play various roles within the group, and use a variety of communication technologies, offloading and loading their emotions onto the available structures in their learning environment. It is also believed that the distribution of emotional expression likely does not occur when class members respond according to group norms or expectations, when an individual decides to be emotionally uninvolved, or when an individual chooses not to interact fully within an environmental structure. It is possible, therefore, to use these findings to propose that, because emotional expressions are distributed, the emotions behind those expressions are also distributed. The resulting theory of distributed emotion, paralleling that of distributed cognition considers emotions from a broad perspective incorporating individuals, groups, contexts, and time. Specifically, distributed emotion posits that emotion is (a) distributed among people, (b) distributed over structures—both material and environmental, and (c) distributed across time. Future research focusing on various contexts and on instances similar to those in which distributed emotion was not seen in the current study should prove especially valuable in better understanding distributed emotion.