1 , Discussion Boards, and Synchronous Chat: Comparing Three Modes of Online Collaboration William Warrick Graduate School of Education George Mason University Fairfax, VA USA Stacy Connors Graduate School of Education George Mason University Fairfax, VA USA Priscilla Norton Graduate School of Education George Mason University Fairfax, VA USA Abstract: As online learning becomes more prevalent in the higher education, educators must evaluate the effectiveness of the various modes of communication that are available. In the Fall of 2003, 50 students enrolled in a graduate level course focusing on learning and technology. A course was designed that provided the students with the opportunity to participate in online discussions using , discussion boards, and synchronous chat. These tools provided the means by which students formed collaborative groups online. Students ratings concerning their learning experiences, quality of interactions with peers, and content understanding for each of the three modes of online communication are presented and compared. Introduction In recent years, higher education has embraced online learning to an astounding degree. The U. S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that 89% of public, 4-year institutions offered distance education programs in school year (Waits & Lewis, 2003). A growing number of schools and teacher education programs are recognizing that , the Internet, and discussion groups can be used to provide opportunities for flexible, student-centered learning among students at different levels and in different locations (Stallworth, 1998). However, the adoption of computer-mediated communication in higher education has outpaced our understanding of how this medium should best be used to promote higher-order learning (Garrison & Anderson et al., 2001). One possible application of telecommunication tools is for students to share information and ideas with peers outside the classroom setting. It is well reported in the literature that collaboration with peers in a learning community fosters greater understanding of material and issues. Collaborative activity is one of the best ways to tap into a variety of learning styles (Palloff & Pratt, 2003). Using the Internet is one way to provide an environment for interaction and collaboration with peers beyond the classroom. Using communication tools, students are able to participate in discussions that can occur outside of the regular classroom setting. Students are thus able to create a collaborative community of inquiry. Collaboration provides a way for students to form a virtual community of learners in which members can engage in individual thinking, share opinions and beliefs, and provide one another with feedback for growth and change (Ohlund & Yu et al., 2000). A variety of tools exist for communicating online. , discussion boards, and synchronous chat are widely used tools for interpersonal communication on the Internet. Each of these tools has benefits and drawbacks. Just as face-to-face interaction is not necessarily best for all types of communication, high bandwidth synchronous environments may not be suited for all communications. The choice of the communication tool depends on the task
2 (Preece and Maloney-Krichmar, 2003). Collaboration is not a context-free concept: its implementation is tied to specific types of communication provided by the medium and the specific application within the medium (Ohlund, Yu et al. 2000). The advent of widespread Internet use has provided instructors with a number of tools that can be employed to address the needs of today s learners. In particular, online communication tools can provide students with the opportunity to interact with peers in order to better understand readings and other activities of the course. Online discussions can address a number of goals. There are three goals for these online discussions: 1) to prepare students for in-class activities; 2) to provide students with the opportunity for exchanging ideas with peers (negotiated meaning), and, 3) to provide students with the opportunity to learn about and use online discussion tools ( , discussion boards, and synchronous chat). Preparing students for class Time limitations are perhaps the educator s greatest challenge (Norton, 2000). The members of the ITS cohort meet once a week for five hours. The time spent in class is generally used for debriefing on the readings, instruction on new technologies, activities, and other demands. This leaves precious little time for in-depth discussion of the assigned readings. In order for students to be successful and able to fully participate in class activities, it is critical that outside preparation be done. In class activities and projects are done in small groups, and the student who has not grasped the concepts of the readings will be unable to participate and thus unable to assist their small group in their tasks. Clearly, since the concepts taught in the class are built upon one another, students who have not understood the readings will find themselves at a disadvantage throughout the semester. Typically, students time preparing for class is spent reading and understanding assigned texts. While it is sometimes the case that small groups of students will meet to support one another, this time spent reading for class is nearly always done individually and independently. The student, then, is left to interpret the concepts and meanings of the readings alone and, thus, comes to class with only his or her individual understanding. Using online communication tools, however, the readings can be augmented by asynchronous or synchronous discussions with other students and/or the instructor. Students are able to meet in small groups online and discuss the main ideas or points of the readings. Through these discussions, students can validate their own views on the ideas presented in the readings, gain insight into others points of view and, thus, be better able to participate in class activities based on the readings. Collaboration/Negotiated Meaning Meaningful learning occurs in a social context (Vygotsky, 1978). Swan (2000) found that students who rated their level of interaction with peers as high also reported significantly higher levels of learning. Using online communication tools, students are able to develop a community of learning. Communities develop when students work together toward a common goal and begin to care about each other's interests and goals (Yoder, 2003). Online discussion affords students the opportunity to reflect on the views of others while creating their own and to write their own before posting it. This creates certain mindfulness among students and a culture of reflection in the course (Swan, Shea et al., 2000). Hung (2001) writes that an online learning environment provides for inter-subjectivity. Learners can build on each other's ideas, comment, organize, annotate, and connect notes. It exposes learners to differing perspectives and leads to the construction of better ideas and concepts. In a study of educators using both synchronous and asynchronous tools, it was found that the use of Internet-based communication increased the likelihood of completing course activities (Ohlund, Yu et al. 2000). Collaboration provides a way to form a community of learners in which members engage in individual thinking, share opinions and beliefs and provide one another with feedback for personal growth and change (Ohlund, Yu et al. 2000). Experience with tools Not coincidentally, students in the first semester of the ITS program are enrolled in a Technology Tools course concurrently with the course for which the readings are required. Thus, students not only learn about the facets and applications of the tools, but they have the opportunity to use them in a real, academic setting to learn how the tools promote their own learning as well as how to use them to support their students learning. The instructors of the course can model the appropriate use of the tools, and students have the experience of using the tools in a real setting with goals for understanding. Students can experience, first hand, the application of the tools for learning.
3 Online discussion can take a variety of forms, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Generally, online communication environments include , discussion boards, and synchronous chat. and discussion boards are asynchronous communication tools. Asynchronous communications allow learners some control while increasing wait-time and general opportunities for reflective learning and processing of information (Hara, Bonk et al., 2000). Interactions using or discussion boards create opportunities for authentic development of students cognitive, linguistic, social, and cultural skills and knowledge (Bonk, 1998 #43). Instant messaging is a synchronous communication tool that allows users to communicate in real-time. Commonly referred to as 'chat', this mode of communication has the advantage of providing a closer approximation of a face-to-face chat. The participants are able to read and respond instantly to comments and questions from peers. Many instructors in higher education utilize course management software such as Blackboard and WebCT. This type of course management software facilitates discussion boards, chat rooms, and communication (Comunale, Sexton et al., ). Inasmuch as we possess the tools to facilitate the development of online learning communities, we need to develop a greater understanding of the dynamics of online interactions in order to provide the optimum learning environment for our students. Each of the three online discussion tools described above has its own unique affordances to foster and enhance collaboration among students. However, it is often unwieldy or impractical to use all three or a combination in conjunction with face-to-face instruction. Therefore, the problem of this study was to examine students responses to three communication tools as they impacted student learning. Assessing student responses to the three communication tools impact on their learning allowed the researchers to determine how well these tools provide online environments for collaboration, interaction with peers, and learning. The Study In the Fall of 2003, forty-nine practicing educators enrolled in a graduate level course focusing on learning and technology as part of a Master s degree program in Instructional Technology. The students were from a number of geographically distributed school divisions. Twenty-three of the educators were elementary teachers. Thirteen of the educators were middle school teachers. The remaining thirteen students were high school teachers. Thirty-seven students were female, and twelve were male. In the first semester of study, the students were enrolled in two, three credit courses: Teaching with Telecommunications and Education and the Culture of Schools. Because of the nature of the cohort, all of the students took both classes simultaneously which allowed for the integration of subject matter between courses. As part of course requirements, the students read seven books related to the culture of schools and technology tools. The courses focused student attention on learning and technology, placing attention on constructivist learning theory, the role of symbolic competence in learning, and the connection between theories of learning and the selection and use of a range of technologies to support teaching and learning. As part of the requirements for the course, the readings activities were divided into three five-week book club discussions. During the first five weeks, the students discussed the corresponding book using . In the second five weeks, the students discussed the corresponding book through the use of Blackboard, and in the third five weeks, the students discussed the assigned book using synchronous chat. During these sessions students discussed readings and made comments regarding the main ideas and how those ideas might influence teaching, learning, and technology. During three, five-week periods, the class, randomly divided into discussion groups of 4 or 5 students each, discussed the readings using each of the communication tools. The discussion topics were framed by the readings for the week. The goal of the discussions was to facilitate understandings of the readings, gain insight into other student s impressions of the text, and prepare for in-class activities at the next face-to-face meeting. All of the activities were student led. There was not a facilitator or teacher present. The assignment for the portion of the class was to create a chain letter. Prior to the book club discussions, the students exchanged addresses and were given a list showing the order in which they were to send their chain letter. Each student then crafted an containing what they considered to be the main idea from the reading and any other additional information that supported their views. This was sent to the next person on the list. Upon receiving s, each student would read the previous posting(s) and add their comments. After writing additional comments, the letter would then be forwarded on to the next person. Theoretically, if there were 5 people in a group, each person would start their own chain letter and add their comments to the remaining four letters in circulation. At the end, each student would receive their own back with all the comments from the four other group members. The final was also sent to the instructor.
4 The assignment for the blackboard portion of the class was to post and reply to other group member s comments regarding the perceived main ideas of the book. Initially, the instructor generated a forum but did not generate a specific topic. It was expected that each student would post their own comments early in the week so as to allow sufficient time for other students to read and reflect. The latter half of the week was spent reading and remarking on other s comments regarding the different thoughts on the book. In the synchronous chat portion of the course, the students used DigiChat software to engage synchronously in an online discussion. The instructor created private rooms where the groups could meet to discuss the books. One student served as a moderator as the group engaged in the chat. As with the other modes, the assignment was to discuss the main ideas of the book and offer opinions and insights. When the chat was over, the moderator summarized the chat and sent a synopsis to the instructor. Understanding that the benefits of Internet-based communication and collaboration are not reflected only in test performance, rather that they are seen in an attitudinal change (Ohlund, Yu et al., 2000), a research methodology was designed to assess students' perceptions of the three communication modes. At the culmination of each fiveweek period, students were ed the link to an electronic survey. The researchers used the Zoomerang (http://www.zoomerang.com) survey service. Students were asked to respond to eight questions using the following scale: 1- Strongly Agree (SA), 2 - Agree (A), and 3 Disagree (D), and 4 Strongly Disagree (SD). Questions 1, 2, and 3 related to their learning experience, questions 4, 5, and 6 related to the quality of their interaction and questions 7 and 8 related to the easy of use of the technology. The ninth question was an overall rating from 1 5, 1 being the most positive and helpful, asking how the student would rate the communication medium. The same survey was given at the end of each five-week period using the three different communication tools. Survey results were tabulated anonymously and summarized by Zoomerang. At the conclusion of the course, a final Zoomerang survey was ed to students asking them to rank order the three learning mediums according to their learning experience, quality of interaction, and ease of use. In addition, students were asked to rank order the three learning mediums according to their overall feelings about the medium as a whole. Using the Zoomerang survey software facilitated the collection of data. It also ensured students' anonymity. The surveys were recorded using the last four digits of the student s social security number, ensuring accuracy in following their responses across the four surveys. This paper presents the results of that research. Results are presented around the analysis and reporting of results related to four questions: 1. How do students rate their learning experiences using each of the three modes of communication , discussion board, and chat? 2. How do students rate their interactions with peers using each of the three modes of communication , discussion board, and chat? 3. How do students rate the ease of use of each the three modes of communication , discussion board, and chat? 4. Which mode of online communication will students rank as the highest and lowest in regard to overall quality? Findings The first question of the study was: How do students rate their learning experiences using each of the three modes of communication , discussion board, and chat. In order to answer this question, student responses to each of the three surveys were tallied, and means were computed. Results of the analysis are shown in Table 1. Examination of the data indicates that while there is some variation among the means, students rated each of the online communication tools highly in terms of learning experiences. Q1 Q2 Q3 Q1 Q2 Q3 Q1 Q2 Q3 Mean N
5 Table 1: Descriptive statistics rating student s learning experiences. The second question of the study was: How do students rate their interactions with peers using each of the three modes of communication , discussion board, or chat. In order to answer this question, student responses to each of the three surveys were tallied, and means were computed. Results of the analysis are shown in Table 2. Examination of the data indicates that while there is some variation among the means, students rated each of the online communication tools highly in terms of interaction of peers. It is interesting to note that synchronous chat was rated slightly lower than the other two modes of online communications on these questions. Q4 Q5 Q6 Q4 Q5 Q6 Q4 Q5 Q6 Mean N Table 2: Descriptive statistics rating student s interaction with peers. The third question of the study was: How do students rate the ease of use of each the three modes of communication , discussion board, or chat. In order to answer this question, student responses to each of the three surveys were tallied and means were computed. Results of the analysis are shown in Table 3. Examination of the data indicates that while there is some variation among the means, students rated each of the online communication tools highly in terms of ease of use. Q7 Q8 Q7 Q8 Q7 Q8 Mean N Table 3: Descriptive statistics rating student s ease of use. The fourth question of the study was: Which mode of online communication will students report as the highest and lowest in regard to overall quality? In order to answer this question, students were asked to rank the communication modes in terms of overall quality, 1 being the highest quality and 3 being the lowest quality. Results of the questions are reported in Table 4. Examination of the data shows that the number one, and to some extent number two rankings, are evenly divided between , blackboard, and synchronous chat. Note that synchronous chat was ranked number 3 by a higher percentage of students indicating that while the students were divided on which they preferred, they were more united on which mode of communication they liked the least % 35.4% 33.3% % 35.4% 25.0% % 29.2% 41.7% Table 4: Overall ranking of the three modes of online communication.
6 Conclusions The most striking result is that all students appear to agree that they benefited from the learning experiences and peer interaction in all three modes of communication. Regardless of their preferred mode of communication, the participants rated the quality of learning experiences and interaction highly. While all modes of communication were generally rated as useful in terms of learning experiences and interactions, it is interesting to note that the synchronous chat activities were consistently rated lowest. This appears to indicate that students preferred communication and asynchronous discussions to synchronous chat. The fact that this mode of communication is synchronous while the others were asynchronous deserves closer scrutiny. Meeting in chat groups necessitated the coordination of schedules and agreement on times to meet. This was, at times, a significant barrier to effective group work, particularly in light of the relatively short (weekly) cycle for discussion and the lack of common time available to meet. This does not necessarily indicate that synchronous chat is not a viable or useful medium for collaboration. It might simply indicate that, of the three, this mode required a greater degree of flexibility and compromise among the students. Overall, students appear to have preferred the chain letters to any of the other modes. It is possible to assume that the flexibility of time and the ability to reflect on their responses would have had an effect on the results. Additionally, while the researchers did not collect data, it would be likely that most of the students were familiar with prior to the beginning of the course. There were those who had had experiences with discussion boards and chat rooms but, in the main, the researchers suspect that these were generally not used for educational purposes. It seems likely that those who were familiar with one of the tools before beginning the course would be much more likely to use it effectively in their work. Those tools which were unfamiliar to the students would require more learning before the tool could be used efficiently. Several flaws in this study became evident as the study was being conducted. In particular, there was not a control group. Having pre data on student s thoughts and opinions regarding online communication within the modes being studied would have provided a baseline in which to compare the final scores. Another flaw was found in the design itself. In the original design, all the students participated in the chain letter, then blackboard, and finally synchronous chat. The groups might have been placed in the different modes of communication randomly. This would have provided a more accurate rating across the group. There are a number of implications for practice that can be derived from the results. In particular, the fact that all of the tools used by the students apparently promote negotiated learning and quality learning experiences. The participants viewed all of the tools virtually the same in all areas and highly, in terms of learning experience and quality of interactions. Thus, one might conclude that all three are viable modes of communication for online collaboration. Instructors, then, who wish to augment face-to-face instruction with online discussion outside the classroom, can plan for using any of these tools. Moreover, students who use the tools of online communication are able to learn how to use them while they are participating in discussions. Each of the tools has affordances that give the instructor freedom to address diverse needs of their students. This study raises questions for future research. In particular, the treatment here was the same for all subjects. An illuminating follow-up might seek to correlate different learning styles to the various communication tools. Additionally, as the task was the same for each discussion cycle, it would be interesting to use a variety of different activities with the tools to see whether the tools might be better suited to differing tasks. Finally, inasmuch as the instructor had a very minimal role in the discussions, studies might be done in the future with varying degrees of instructor involvement to see how that might affect the results. References Comunale, C., T. Sexton, et al. ( ). The effectiveness of course web sites in higher education: An exploratory study. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 30(2): Garrison, D. R., T. Anderson, et al. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education 15(1), Hung, D. (2001). Design principles for web-based learning: Implications from Vygotskian thought. Educational Technology,
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