"Somewhere between repartee and discourse": students' experiences of a synchronous, computer-mediated discussion

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Beth, Alicia Dawn

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As online learning grows in popularity, learners meet each other more and more frequently in completely textual environments. They post responses to assignments online, interact to form study groups via e-mail, and discuss ideas about content on electronic bulletin boards, often without ever meeting face-to-face. In this study, I was interested both in the ways students construct textual representations of themselves as they read and write in a computer-mediated discussion (CMD) and how they rely on comments in the discussion to make sense of their classmates. I investigated two sets of questions. First, broadly, how do students experience a CMD, both as it happens and as they reflect on the discussion after it ends? That is, what do they think and do as they participate in a discussion, and how do they describe their experiences later? Second, how do they use language to represent themselves in their own comments? And are they able to get a sense of their peers from the comments in the discussion? To address these questions, I asked students in a graduate-level seminar to complete a think-aloud protocol as they read and wrote comments in one of the CMDs required for the class. I then interviewed them individually about their experiences in the CMD. I also collected their required written responses to both oral and electronic discussions. These three sources of data were analyzed using a grounded theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Through constant comparisons among and within the different data sources, a model of students’ experiences of the CMD emerged. Two processes, in particular, reading and speculating on others and writing and considering effects, were related to my original questions about how students represent themselves and understand others in a CMD. In addition to these processes, however, a host of other components contributed to their experiences. The students, for example, were acutely aware of the multiple contexts in which the discussion was situated. They described how their individual backgrounds and interests influenced the strategies they used to participate in the discussion, and they described the emotional and cognitive effects of their participation.