A Review of Research Methods for Assessing Content of Computer-Mediated Discussion Forums

Article excerpt

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) technologies are becoming increasingly important components of online educational environments (Romiszowski & Mason, 2004). The online discussion forum that is a significant component of many web-based courses is one type of CMC. Instructors and students rely on these asynchronous forums to engage one another in ways that replace face-to-face communication. The goal of such interactions is to promote critical thinking, meaningful problem solving, and knowledge construction (Kirschner, Strijbos, Kreijns, & Beers, 2004). In spite of the importance of these forums, the most common methods for assessing the content and outcomes of these forums have often been limited to frequency counts and other quantitative measures (Mason, 1992; Romiszowski & Mason, 2004). In order to assess any meaning that results from these discussions, it is necessary to perform some kind of semantic analysis of them. This article provides an overview of current methods of quantitative and qualitative research paradigms for analyzing the content of asynchronous computer-mediated discussion forums. For each analysis method we describe the research method, provide an example of a research study that used that method, describe the types of questions that this method can address, and compare the methods in terms of validity and reliability. Researchers and instructors will be able to use this analysis to become familiar with the choices available and make decisions about appropriate methods for analyzing CMC forums.


In discussing online learning, Harasim (1989) describes interactivity as the most striking characteristic of CMC and the factor with the greatest potential to impact learning. Carswell, Thomas, Petre, Price and Richards' (2000) study comparing undergraduate students in Internet and face-to-face sections of computer science course provides support for this claim. Learning results were similar for both groups, but the CMC group experienced increased interactions with fellow students and tutors. Similarly, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001) describe the importance in online learning of creating a virtual community of inquiry which allows learners to construct experiences and knowledge through analysis of the subject matter, questioning, and challenging assumptions. In a face-to-face environment, this kind of reflection is often accomplished via synchronous, interactive discussions and problem-solving sessions. Web-based learning courses must rely on online discussion forums to create these interactions.

Traditionally, educational communications have been grounded in an oral, face-to-face (F2F) tradition. Garrison et al. (2001) describe such communications as being fast-paced, spontaneous, and often less structured than written communications. When working in groups, participants perceive F2F communication as more effective and satisfying than computer-mediated group work (Olaniran, Savate, & Sorenson, 1996) mainly because F2F groups can more easily spend time on such tasks as clarifying and defining responsibilities (Warkentin, Sayeed, & Hightower, 1997). Further, when implemented in properly moderated discussions, oral communication has been shown to support the development of critical thinking skills (Garrison et al., 2001).

One significant way F2F and asynchronous communications differ is in terms of the strategies used to manage the conversation. For instance Condon and Cech (1996) found that in CMC, participants who were trying to increase communication efficiency and decrease typing requirements also decreased the use of unneeded elaborative statements and repetitions. Compared to F2F problem solving sessions, Jonassen and Kwon (2001) found that computer mediated discussion contained significantly fewer off-task postings. This finding confirms Garrison et al.'s (2001) description of written communications (as used in online discussions) as being leaner because many of the non-verbal signals present in face-to-face oral communication are missing (e. …