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Running Head: ONLINE DISCUSSION Content Analysis of Online Discussion In an Applied Educational Psychology Course Noriko Hara, Doctoral Candidate Department of Instructional Systems Technology School of Education, Indiana University Bloomington, Indiana 47405-1006 (812) 857-8392 Curtis Jay Bonk, A..


    Content Analysis of Online Discussion

In an Applied Educational Psychology Course

    Noriko Hara, Doctoral Candidate Department of Instructional Systems Technology

    School of Education, Indiana University

    Bloomington, Indiana 47405-1006

    (812) 857-8392

    Curtis Jay Bonk, Associate Professor

    Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology

    School of Education, Indiana University

    Bloomington, Indiana 47405-1006

    (812) 856-8353

    (812) 856-8333 (fax)

    Charoula Angeli, Doctoral Candidate Department of Instructional Systems Technology

    School of Education, Indiana University

    Bloomington, Indiana 47405-1006

    (812) 335-0806

    To appear in Instructional Science.


    This study analyzed discussion in an online conference that supplemented class discussion using an instructional method called the starter-wrapper technique within a traditional graduate level educational psychology course. Various quantitative measures were recorded to compare instructor and student participation rates. In addition, Henri’s (1992) model for content analysis of computer-mediated communication was employed to qualitatively analyze the electronic discourse. Using this model, five key variables were examined: (1) student participation rates; (2) electronic interaction patterns; (3) social cues within student messages; (4) cognitive and metacognitive components of student messages; and (5) depth of processing--surface or deep--within message posting. Transcript content analyses showed that, while students tended to post just the one required comment per week in the conference, their messages were lengthy, cognitively deep, embedded with peer references, and indicative of a student oriented environment. Moreover, students were using high level cognitive skills such as inferencing and judgment as well as metacognitive strategies related to reflecting on experience and self-awareness. Weekly conference activity graphs revealed that student electronic comments became more interactive over time, but were highly dependent on the directions of discussion starter. To better understand the impact of electronic conferencing discourse, modifications to Henri’s model as well as qualitative

    research suggestions were offered.

    Key words: computer conferencing, online learning, technology, cognitive skills, metacognition, social interaction, educational psychology, content analysis.

    Online Discussion: 3

    Content Analysis of Online Discussion

    In an Applied Educational Psychology Course

     There has been extensive discussion about the advantages of using technology to create a shared space among learning participants (Schrage, 1990). As such, it is important to consider the dynamics of the online discussion and how it may facilitate student's cognitive and metacognitive development. In addition, there is a pressing need to understand how instructors might use computer conferences to design an electronic learning community for their students. The purpose of this study on computer-mediated communication (CMC), therefore, was to explore how students interact online in a student-centered environment. The investigation was not focused on individual student learning and achievement outcomes, but was intended to document how electronic environments encourage higher-order cognitive and metacognitive processing. Since this research explored how online discussion might foster student social interaction and dialogue, various content analyses methods were incorporated to better understand the dynamics of this computer conference.

    CMC Advantages and Disadvantages

     For the past ten years, computer-mediated communication (CMC) has been seen as a revolutionary tool to support instruction (Kang, 1998; Rice, 1989). Among the consistently cited advantages of CMC is the removal of time and space restrictions (Barnes & Greller, 1994; Harasim, 1993; Henri, 1992; Kuehn, 1994; Rice & Love, 1987). The asynchronous or delayed capabilities of these conferencing tools, for instance, allows learners some control, while increasing "wait-time” and general opportunities for

    reflective learning and processing of information. Although the benefits of increasing wait-time have been established in traditional classrooms (Berliner, 1987), such findings need to be extended to CMC environments.

     In addition to wait-time, researchers such as Newman (1992) advocate giving

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    students ample time to think in order to cultivate classroom thoughtfulness. The combined interactivity and asynchronous nature of CMC should encourage students to reflect on their own perspectives (Harasim, 1993), express their ideas, and learn from the content of the interaction itself (Henri, 1992). Additionally, such technology provides a permanent record of one’s thoughts for later student reflection and debate. When participant comments are logged, they can be reused later as an instructional tool to model expected answers and discourse patterns as well as provide a lasting class or group legacy. At the same time, computer logging devices and dialogue transcript records provide researchers with useful tools for tracking student development both over extended periods of time as well as within a single online session. Finally, they can also help determine the factors assisting in the development of learning communities.

     Despite these clear advantages, there are also a myriad of disadvantages with CMC. For example, the removal of time constraints can require overload both instructors and students with ceaseless opportunities to learn and work. In addition, the lack of visual communication cues is another significant disadvantage of CMC (Kuehn, 1994). When nonverbal cues--gestures, smiles, or tone of voice--are absent, users are forced to make certain assumptions about their audience. The other key disadvantage that CMC users often fail to recognize is that "active listeners" or "lurkers" might read but not respond to the conferencing messages (Shapard, 1990). In most computer conferencing systems, users are often not aware of or privy to who is out there lurking in the virtual environment. And when they do know, fictional usernames often grant little insight on their needs or purposes. While such individuals may actually be learning out on the community periphery, other participants do not know if these lurkers agree with the discussion or to what degree they are even reading the messages.

     Additional problems depend on the system being used. Most electronic

    communication tools still limit the channels of input to text only submissions, though

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    some now contain computer graphics and sound options. When the channels of communication are reduced to textual exchanges, however, students with lower verbal skills may be placed at a distinct disadvantage.

     Although the benefits and disadvantages of CMC have been widely debated (Kang, 1998), there remains a need for more research on CMC to further inform these debates. The research that does exist, tends to too narrowly focus on accessibility of CMC, the impact of CMC on students' attitudes, and the effects of CMC on society, teaching, and student learning (Romiszowski & Mason, 1996), not on the cognitive processes and products of student electronic interchanges.

    Research on CMC

     Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) is an emerging research area in the education, communication, psychology, and technology fields. Research using content analysis during the 1990s has uncovered various virtues and drawbacks in computer conferencing activities (Ahern, Peck, & Laycock, 1992; Henri, 1992; Kuehn, 1994). For instance, past research studies reveal that a moderator's role in CMC is significant for electronic interaction success (Ahern et al., 1992; Feenberg, 1987; Howell-Richardson & Mellar, 1996; Zhu, 1998). In one study, Ahern et al. designed three divergent mediator roles each representing different types of teacher discourse in a computer-mediated discussion: questions-only, statements-only, and conversational. Of the three, they found that the conversational condition produced greater participation and more complex student interaction. However, little mention was made here regarding the quality of student electronic commenting and depth of cognitive processing.

     The study cited above by Howell-Richardson and Mellar (1996) also failed to address student cognitive and metacognitive skill taking place during student participation in their CMC conferences. In addition, their differentiation between task focus and group focus was difficult to distinguish because such categories are

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    interrelated and highly subjective. In contrast, Zhu (1998) explicitly analyzed the forms of electronic interaction and discourse (e.g., discussion, information sharing, reflection, high or low level questioning, etc.), the forms of student participation (i.e., wanderer, seeker, mentor, or contributor), and the direction of participant interactions (i.e., vertical or horizontal). In addition, she also created a model for the patterns of knowledge construction in student electronic discussion. In this model, Zhu begins to illustrate how new insights, knowledge, perspectives, and understandings result from instructional scaffolding within students’ zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978).

     During the past two decades, the most popular methodologies used in research on CMC have been survey research (e.g., Grabowski, Suciati, & Pusch, 1990; Hiltz, 1990; Phillips & Pease, 1987) and evaluative case studies (e.g., Mason, 1990; Phillips, Santoro, & Kuehn, 1988). A fairly popular research methodology today is content analysis of the quantitative data recorded in computer systems (Harasim, 1987; Levin, Kim & Riel, 1990; Mowrer, 1996). For example, Henri (1992), a pioneer in the development of criteria for content analysis, developed a useful tool for online discussion analysis. She identified five key dimensions for analysis of online discussion, namely, (1) participation rate (e.g., raw number and timing of messages); (2) interaction type (e.g., direct response: “in response to Sussie’s suggestion to...” or indirect commentary: “the problem being discussed in the last few posts requires us to...”); (3) social cues (“This is my birthday, what a great day”); (4) cognitive skills (e.g., Judgment: “I disagree with direction of this discussion so far...”) and depth of processing which differentiates surface level processing (e.g., repeating of what was already stated) from deep level processing (e.g., providing of the advantages and disadvantages of a situation); and (5) metacognitive skills and knowledge (“I think the readings beg us to consider the following three key questions first before we plan a solution”). Henri suggests that these five dimension can be used to effectively classify electronic messages. Although her

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    model provides an initial framework for coding CMC discussions, it lacks detailed criteria for systematic and robust classification of electronic discourse (Howell-Richardson & Mellar, 1996). As a result, a key focus of our study was to analyze twelve weeks of electronic collaboration for the purpose of constructing better guidelines on how computer conferencing can be analyzed while building upon Henri’s existing framework.

     Among our research questions were:

    1. How extensive would the social, cognitive, and metacognitive

    commenting be in structured electronic conversations of weekly course


    2. Would students engage in extended social interaction and dialogue when

    required to participate just once per week? And what level of cognitive

    processing would be exhibited in their posts, surface or in-depth


    3. What are the electronic interaction patterns when students take on the

    roles of starter and wrapper within weekly discussions?

    4. Do interaction patterns change over time? For instance, is there

    increasing peer interaction and feedback?

    5. What is the role of the instructor or facilitator in these weekly interactions? MethodologyStudy Rationale and Importance

     Whereas many research studies use quantitative methodology for online content analyses (e.g., Mowrer, 1996; Walther & Tidwell, 1995), there is a growing emphasis on qualitative tools such as interviews and observations (Iseke-Barnes, 1996; Riel, 1990; Romiszowski & Mason, 1996). To utilize the benefits of both methods, the present study applied both quantitative and qualitative criteria to analyze the content of computer conferencing and the forms of electronic interaction. While we were ultimately interested

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    in how a community of learning can be built using online discussion, this study was more specifically focused on the social and cognitive processes exhibited in the electronic transcripts as well as the interactivity patterns among the students.

     Although content analysis in CMC is arguably "one of the most promising areas for research" (Kuehn, 1994), minimal research exists in this area (Rice, 1989; Romiszowski & Mason, 1996). One reason for this dearth of content analysis research is the time required to perform such analyses. Secondly, researchers still lack a reliable instrument for content analysis of online discussion. In addition, many studies using content analysis have typically used CMC for portions of a case or for research purposes, not for a substantive portion of course requirements (e.g., Ahern et al., 1992; Howell-Richardson & Mellar, 1996; Mowrer, 1996) (see below for an explanation of content analysis and a distinction between content and discourse analysis). In contrast, the study reported here examined the dynamics of an online discussion as a part of the required activities of an actual course. This study, therefore, aims to establish criteria to analyze the content of a computer conference that perhaps will provide an entry point for other work in this area.


     Our research study took place within an applied cognitive psychology graduate level course at a major Midwestern university in the United States during the Spring of 1997. The class was held for 15 weeks in a traditional college classroom setting. However, this educational psychology class was chosen because, like many current college classrooms, it took advantage of the power of an asynchronous or delayed computer conferencing software system (i.e., FirstClass) as a partial replacement for

    traditional classroom discussion. As pointed out later, an asynchronous conference was selected since our previous research on electronic conferencing revealed that the time and place independence of this type of conferencing would foster more depth and peer

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    responsiveness than synchronous discussions (Bonk, Hansen, Grabner-Hagen, Lazar, & Mirabelli, 1998).

     Initially there were twenty-two students in the class, but two students dropped after the second week. The remaining twenty students, 12 males and 8 females, had backgrounds in special education, literature, educational psychology, counseling, and instructional systems technology (note: one of these of these twenty students was an advanced undergraduate; the rest were master’s and doctoral students). Each week

    corresponded to a distinct topic in applied cognitive psychology such as Week 5 on Study Skills or Week 9 on Science Education.

     Unlike many other CMC studies, computer conferencing was an integral

    component of course activities and accounted for slightly over 10% of student final grades. FirstClass, mentioned above, was available for students to access from any computer terminal within the university computer network. The computer conference was organized with the same weekly thematic focus as covered during class. Student contributions to the weekly FirstClass discussions were based on their required readings

    which ranged from three to five articles and/or chapters per week and were to be submitted prior to the regular weekly class meeting.

     As a part of the basic course requirements, each student signed up at least once for the role of “starter” who initiated weekly discussion by asking questions related to the readings and at least once for the role of "wrapper" who summarized the discussion on the readings for the week. In effect, a starter read the material for the week before the other class members and, then, in the FirstClass conference, attempted to summarize

    what he or she considered to be the key points, issues, and questions for that particular week. A wrapper, on the other hand, waited to contribute to the online discussion until after class lecture, thereby assuring that most students would have posted to conference. A wrapper read all the FirstClass postings for a week and attempted to summarize key

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    contributions and point out overlapping ideas, problematic issues, apparent student debates, and future directions for the field.

    Data and Instruments

     As used in Henri’s mode, content analysis was chosen as the main methodology

    to analyze the online discussion. Content analysis is a generic name for a variety of textual analyses that typically involves comparing, contrasting, and categorizing a set of data (Schwandt, 1997); in this case, online discussions. According to Schwandt, content analysis can involve both numeric and interpretive data analyses. However, because computer conferencing involves conversations among participants, some researchers have linked their research to the discourse analysis literature (e.g., Yagelski & Grabill, 1998). Since this particular study is more concerned with analysis and categorization of text than with the process of communication or specific speech acts, as in discourse analysis, it primarily relies on content analysis methodology.

     By using both quantitative and qualitative measures, we hoped to provide a more comprehensive picture of online discussion in a university-level course than is typically found in the research literature on CMC. Although electronic content analysis schemes are still under development (Henri, 1992; Howell-Richardson & Mellar, 1996), they appear to capture the richness of the student interactions. As indicated, Henri (1992) proposes an analytical framework to categorize five dimensions of the learning process evident in electronic messages: student participation, interaction patterns, social cues, cognitive skills and depth of processing, and metacognitive skills and knowledge. While her taxonomy of skills and processes is interesting and insightful, Howell-Richardson and Mellar (1996) criticized its scoring reliability due to the lack of precise criteria to judge each category. As will become clear, while Henri’s work provides a way to discuss interesting cognitive and metacognitive variables in computer conferences, aspects of the model are fairly ambiguous and inadequate for capturing the richness of electronic

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