Article excerpt

This study investigated students' use of an asynchronous communication tool as part of a "hybrid" class that included face-to-face meetings and Web-enhanced instructional activities. The researchers analyzed communication patterns used during asynchronous discussions about class projects and case studies. Also, they examined type of interactions that occurred among and between students. Through review of online discussion transcripts, the researchers identified patterns of communication and types of interaction including how the e-board supported student learning. Findings and implications to teaching and learning were discussed.


The availability of new technologies such as email, listservs, and computer conferencing has begun facilitating new ways of communicating in instructional settings. Several communication tools now exist to support asynchronous discussions that can be incorporated into existing classes. These tools support messaging between individuals and facilitate the ability of participants to read and respond to messages or to add their own new messages to which others can respond. Discussions can take place among individuals in widely dispersed geographic locations or among persons unable to participate in a discussion at a specific time.

In these new instructional environments, technology can be used for content transmission or as a communication support tool, or these two roles can be combined, as they often are in online learning, to support educational activities (Benbunan-Fich & Hiltz, 1999). E-learning tools can create systems that allow students to exchange messages and participate in discussions in an organized way (Hiltz & Wellman, 1997). The challenge is to design pedagogically effective learning environments in the online world in order to enhance the quality of education (Althaus, 1997).

Some researchers have identified advantages and disadvantages in implementing computer-mediated discussions as an instructional tool (Hiltz, Johnson, & Turoff, 1986; Straus & McGrath, 1994; Walther, 1996). While computer-mediated group interactions may be more focused on tasks and less on personal interactions, they also may result in greater processing time and create difficulty in consensus building. Studies have found more equal participation and more idea generation in computer-mediated environments as participants have more equal "speaking" time. Lack of structure in the online context and a reduced likelihood of leadership emerging are other disadvantages pointed to in the literature. Hiltz, et al. (1986) indicated that a leadership void may inhibit consensus building and organization of a group in approaching a problem. Farnham, Chesley, McGhee, Kawal, & Landau (2000) found that enhancing structure in an online environment contributed to higher levels of consensus and better decision-making in group activities. Some contend that asynchronous interaction improves in-depth reflection and topic development (Harasim, 1990).

Hammond (1997) looked at the use of online learning for professional development, focusing particularly on the usefulness of the medium for discussion-oriented activities. While concluding that the medium can be used effectively, Hammond also pointed to a number of issues to consider in developing online discussions. Issues such as acquiring sufficient technical skills, constraints on writing skills, reticence, and access to technology were noted; however, the author discussed in more detail the difficulty of maintaining the debate and structuring the discussion so as to provide openness and at the same time control over learning. While the instructor can initiate a discussion, there may be little control over who responds and there may be a sense of being removed from the interactions. The online tools provide convenience for participation when and where the individual likes, and thus increases opportunities for contributions. …