Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Who's Talking, Listening, and Learning Now? Discourse Insights from Computer Mediated Communication in an On-Line Virtual Course

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Who's Talking, Listening, and Learning Now? Discourse Insights from Computer Mediated Communication in an On-Line Virtual Course

Article excerpt


Classroom discourse has been recognized as important to the educational experience of students. "Speech makes available to reflection the processes by which they [students] relate new knowledge to old. But this possibility depends on the social relationships, the communication system, which the teacher sets up" (Cazden, 1986, p. 432). Vygotskian concepts concerning the mediation of higher mental functioning by tools and signs (including speech and language) have been used by cognitive scientists and educational researchers (Brunet, 1990; Wertsch, in Moll, 1990) to study the intimate relationships between discourse and learning. A major theme in Vygotsky's developmental theory is that children begin to use language for communication and as a tool to guide, plan, and monitor their activity. Vygotsky was concerned with how the "forms of discourse encountered in the social institution of formal schooling provide the underlying framework within which concept development occurs" (Wertsch, 1990, p. 116). Language scaffolds learning and can help set up social contexts or a "Zone of Proximal Development" within which a learner can do more, learn more with the collaboration of more able peers.

New concepts of classrooms and formal schooling have come of age with the advent of the use of the Internet and virtual conference forums and seminars. New forms of discourse are taking place within these virtual classrooms. Computer mediated communication involves electronic discourse through the use of e-mail, distance learning chats or discussion forums that operate like sophisticated bulletin boards. This is a written form of communication that reads like speech acts of conversation. Davis and Brewer (1997) have referred to this quality as "writing talking" (p.2). Computer mediated communication is different from face-to-face conversations in important ways. Participation is asynchronous, and often there is a time lag between the initial posting of a message and the responses it generates. Interactivity can be delayed by minutes, hours, days. Every participant has equal access to the conversational floor, and turn taking is never an issue. Software formats delineate each participants' contribution as a separate entity, and it is listed in the order received. Speakers within these conversations are not able to talk over or interrupt another. Participants are able to refer back to previous speech acts within a discussion thread in ways that face-to-face experiences never afford. Conversations are scripts that are archived and saved as transcripts.

Claims have been made "that the electronic medium exercises a democratizing influence on communication" (Herring, 1992, p.250). This claim is the focus of this study. Is it tree that this new educational context affords equal opportunities for participation and status as reflected by audience response for all, regardless of gender or other attributes that participants bring with them to the discussions? Is it really true that there is more equality of participation in discussions? Does the lack of nonverbal status cues mean that electronic classrooms are places where power and control do not mirror society's status quo? Is there evidence of Herring's (1996) concept of particular discourse styles that can be generalized to a specific gender, termed sex class linked? If opportunities to engage in reflection and conversations are opportunities for learning, it is vitally important to be aware of the patterns of discourse being used in this new medium of communication.

The Study

Electronic discourse within computer mediated courses supports conversations of practice and learning. There are performance features within these conversations that can be studied using the same focal lenses used to examine face-to-face conversations. Conversations have negotiated meanings and values in either context. Is there a dominant speaker, one who contributes the most text, introduces the highest number of topics, receives the most number of directed speech acts? …

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