1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Framework
  5. Method
  6. Findings
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Which communication mode(s) do experienced distance learners choose as they collaborate on tasks, and what do they talk about in each mode? How do the participants choose modes for various aspects of a task, and which phases of knowledge construction are present? In this study, case study and computer-mediated discourse analysis procedures are used to investigate transcripts and individual reflections of 10 small groups of distance learners. The findings reveal that the discussion forum was used significantly more often for conceptual moves and for later phases of the knowledge construction process. Email was used more for social moves, and chat was used more for later phases of knowledge construction. Implications for providing groups with various CMC modes to complete tasks and for advising novice online learners about the affordances of each mode are addressed.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Framework
  5. Method
  6. Findings
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Fully distance environments continue to present challenges for learners attempting to work together efficiently and effectively on tasks. One line of research in this area has compared which communication tools are selected by learners engaged in high quality discussions, often exploring the element of synchronicity. Although bandwidth and hardware for two-way audio and video is now widely available, text-based computer-mediated communication (CMC) remains most common in higher education environments, most of which utilize commercial learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard™). The use of asynchronous tools such as email and discussion forums in educational environments has been researched more thoroughly than synchronous tools such as text-based chat, although recent studies have begun to examine both more closely (Davidson-Shivers, Muilenberg, & Tanner, 2001; Levin, He, & Robbins, 2004, 2006; Rourke & Anderson, 2002; Schweitzer, Paechter, & Weidenmann, 2003).

Asynchronous tools have been viewed as affording greater opportunity for reflection on one’s own ideas, as well as on comments made by others (Hough, Smithey, & Evertson, 2004; Meyer, 2003), although findings in this area are inconclusive (DeWert, Babinski, & Jones, 2003; Hough et al., 2004; Stephens & Hartmann, 2004). Several studies have examined the use of email (Curtis & Lawson, 2001; Poole, 2000; Whipp, 2003). Participants in the Curtis and Lawson study preferred to use email rather than other CMC tools. Poole’s participants chose to use asynchronous rather than synchronous tools, but she did not report on the difference between email and discussion forum use. Whipp found that her participants used email to engage in reflective discourse.

Asynchronous forums have some drawbacks, however. Posts may be lengthy and time-consuming to read. Conversations are slower than in real time and may involve hours or days of lag time, making it difficult for participants to remain engaged (Levin et al., 2004; Rourke & Anderson, 2002).

Synchronous text-based chat tools provide an alternative to asynchronous discussion forums and email. Synchronous communication provides place-independent opportunities for conversation, although it is not time-independent because participants must be logged in at the same time. Text-based chat conversations can be more incoherent than those in asynchronous forums; there is no overt threading, and exchanges are often interleaved (Cox, Carr, & Hall, 2004; Herring, 1999; Pena-Shaef, Martin, & Gray, 2001). Chat tools are often used to engage in less formal, more interactive conversations and thus have been viewed as more appropriate for the social aspects of distance courses, whereas asynchronous tools have been considered more useful for serious discussion (Davidson-Shivers et al., 2001; Im & Lee, 2003-2004; Ingram, Hathorn, & Evans, 2000; Motteram, 2001; Pena-Shaef et al., 2001).

Others, however, have identified the important role that synchronous chat tools play for small group collaboration due to the limitations of asynchronous tools. Chat tools can, for example, allow more equal participation (Cox et al., 2004). In Kitchen and McDougall’s (1998) study, graduate students specifically requested synchronous tools to help them complete their collaborative learning tasks more quickly. Curtis and Lawson (2001) discovered that students in their study had indeed been communicating synchronously, although these transcripts were not analyzed because the researchers did not expect students to communicate in this medium. Davidson-Shivers et al. (2001) and Chou (2001) found that both synchronous chat and asynchronous discussions were viable for learning conversations; they found more responding, reacting, and supportive talk in chat. Fisher and Coleman (2001-2002) reported on the use of synchronous discussions in their cohort-based Master’s program, finding that they afforded community building among their distance learners. Armitt, Slack, Green, and Beer (2002) concluded that synchronous chat, in contrast to asynchronous discussions, affords “immediate clarification and development of thoughts” (p. 9). Levin et al. (2006) found that participants reached higher levels of critical reflection in conversations conducted synchronously.

Theoretical Framework

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Framework
  5. Method
  6. Findings
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

The purpose of this study is to examine how different CMC modes are used by experienced distance learners to complete tasks in a graduate course. Inquiry into how learners talk together to complete tasks is grounded in social constructivist theories of learning. Social constructivism emphasizes the negotiation of meaning and construction of shared understanding through dialogue (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998; Bonk & Kim, 1998; Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, & Haag, 1995). From this stance, dialogue becomes the focal point for understanding learning. Vygotsky (1978) views learning as a social process that occurs within the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which positions dialogue as crucial to the development of thought and behavior. Fernandez, Wegerif, Mercer, and Rojas-Drummond (2001) argue that ZPD can be extended from interactions with a more able peer or instructor to symmetrical learning situations by “moving from a concept based on the idea of a teacher’s conscious intentions outside of a dialogue, to concepts based on a characterization of dynamic processes maintained by the reciprocal and responsive way in which participants use language within dialogues” (p. 53). Such increased peer interaction in distance courses is encouraged through small group projects fostering collaborative dialogue. Researchers in computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) have advocated that we should “focus more on the processes involved in successful peer interaction, rather than just on learning outcomes” (O’Malley, 1991, p. v.). Social constructivism defines learning as a process of knowledge construction and negotiation, rather than viewing meaning negotiation as means to an end.

Thus, encouraging learners to engage in collaborative dialogue and examining the dialogic artifacts for evidence of new knowledge creation is one way to define learning in online environments. Reconciling conflicting views has been emphasized as key to the dialogic meaning-making process. Students should go beyond mere agreement to constructively criticize initial opinions in order to achieve higher quality of learning. Gunawardena, Lowe, and Anderson (1997) created an interaction analysis framework to examine the “social construction of knowledge in collaborative learning environments facilitated by computer conferencing” (p. 397). Based in part on social constructivism and in part on themes that emerged from the analysis of transcripts of a large group asynchronous listserv debate, Gunawardena et al. outline five phases in the knowledge construction process: 1) sharing and comparing of information; 2) discovery and exploration of cognitive dissonance; 3) negotiation of meaning/co-construction of knowledge; 4) testing and modification of proposed co-construction; and 5) agreement/applications of newly constructed meaning (p. 414).

However, Gunawardena et al. (1997) found, as have others who have applied their coding scheme in different contexts (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001; Kanuka & Anderson, 1998), that participants remain almost exclusively in Phase 1, sharing and comparing information. As a result, a sense of disappointment permeates the literature, which often concludes that online discussions rarely lead to meaningful learning. Kanuka and Anderson (1998), Gunawardena et al. (1997), and Garrison et al. (2001) attributed their disappointing findings at least in part to the limitations of the asynchronous text-only environment, wondering whether “we may ever be able to construct knowledge in the same ways that we do in face-to-face conversational language” (Kanuka & Anderson, 1998, p. 24). However, each of these studies analyzed large group asynchronous discussions that were not goal-oriented toward the latter phases of negotiation or resolution. Creating smaller groups that have an incentive to work together toward a common goal (Hathorn & Ingram, 2002a; Henri & Rigault, 1996) and a choice of CMC mode may produce different outcomes.

Deciding which CMC mode to use for which phase of the task is a major decision for groups and is part of establishing a “common ground” to function effectively (Baker, Hansen, Joiner, & Traum, 1999; Clark & Schaefer, 1989). Participants’ past experiences and goals may also impact how they communicate with CMC tools. Understanding of these factors can be guided by theories of the social construction of communication technologies (Fulk, 1993). As Fulk points out, “Technologies provide unusual problems in sense making because their processes are often poorly understood and because they are continuously redesigned and reinterpreted in the process of implementation and accommodation to specific social and organizational contexts” (p. 922). The use of technologies evolves as groups “selectively appropriate features of both a technology and the broader social structure in which the group is embedded” (p. 922). However, little research has been done in educational environments comparing how students appropriate CMC modes.

Certain CMC modes afford and constrain particular ways of communicating, as suggested by Moreno (2006). Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Robins, and Shoemaker (2000) recommend providing a choice of CMC modes to distance learners. Course management systems such as WebCT and Blackboard provide multiple text-based CMC modes: email, synchronous chat, discussion forums, and even weblogs (blogs). Daft and Lengel’s (1984) information (media) richness theory suggests that the more ill-structured the task, the more information-rich the selected mode will be, and that people will communicate more effectively in environments that are “richer” in cues. Yet Dennis and Kinney (1998) found no support for the media richness theory in their laboratory study of two-person teams making decisions using computer-mediated and video communication. Similarly, Baltes, Dickson, Sherman, Bauer, and LaGanke (2002) concluded from their meta-analysis of studies looking at group decision-making that CMC led to decreased effectiveness, an increase in the amount of time required to complete tasks, and a decrease in member satisfaction when compared to face-to-face groups. They caution against adoption of CMC tools for group tasks. Again, however, their meta-analysis looked at experimental designs rather than real-life contexts. A naturalistic study examining what actual teams do when completing tasks at a distance can provide insight into the complexity faced in real-world learning environments.

Kirschner, Strijbos, Kreijns, and Beers (2004) advise researchers to investigate what learners actually do when collaborating in CMC environments. A focus on the communicative practices, rather than solely on the technology, is important (O’Sullivan, Hunt, & Lippert, 2004). More research is needed that examines authentic learning environments where various modes of CMC tools are available for students, rather than artificially constraining their use. This study examined a fully online course where experienced distance students completed tasks in small groups. The students were provided three types of CMC modes to use as they saw fit: email, asynchronous discussion forums (referred to as forum), and synchronous chat tools (referred to as chat). The research questions are as follows:

RQ1: Which communication mode(s) do experienced distance learners choose as they collaborate on project-based tasks?

RQ2: What do they talk about in each mode?

RQ3: Which phases of knowledge construction are present in each mode?

RQ4: How do the participants choose which modes to use for various aspects of the task?


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Framework
  5. Method
  6. Findings
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

This article reports findings from a larger study of small group interactions in an online graduate level educational psychology course at a large midwestern university (Paulus, 2005, 2006). This fully distance course lasted twelve weeks and covered theories of teaching and learning. During two week units the instructor assigned the twenty-one students to small groups to synthesize and apply the concepts being learned. New groups were formed after every two week unit so that students could work with different people. The tasks were designed to promote collaboration, as suggested by Hathorn and Ingram (2002b). Figure 1 is an example of one of the tasks. All tasks required the group to submit one final document to the instructor. Individual reflection papers on the experience were submitted after each task.


Figure 1. Example of an assigned task

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Sixteen of the 21 students enrolled in the course consented to participate in the study; thus a total of 10 groups were analyzed (see Table 1). Groups with members who did not consent to participate in the study were not analyzed. All but two of the students (Alissa and Lola) had prior experience with online group work; all but three (Alissa, Lola, and Jaclyn) were members of the same cohort. A professor from the educational psychology department and a graduate assistant taught the course. Neither instructor was involved in the data analysis for this study.

Table 1.  Participants by group1
OrangeTrevor, Gregory, Sariah, Michael
TangerineLola, Libby, Arthur, Ron
AppleGregory, Larry, Alissa, Jaclyn, Sariah
LimeLibby, Kyle, Ron, Trish, Michael
PlumTrevor, Tonya, Trish, Michael
KiwiTrevor, Carla, Milt, Tonya, Arthur
FigLibby, Gregory, Kyle, Larry, Alissa, Jaclyn, Ron, Trish, Sariah, Lola, Michael
MelonKyle, Larry, Jaclyn, Trish
GrapeGregory, Alissa, Ron
BerryLibby, Sariah, Arthur

Each of the 10 groups had email, chat, and forums available to them through the course management system. Figure 2 outlines the guidelines provided.


Figure 2. Guidelines given to groups

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This case study was designed according to principles outlined by Merriam (1998), with a computer-mediated discourse analysis (CMDA) approach used to investigate the research questions (Herring, 2004; Paulus, 2004). Data were selected using a motivated sample (Herring, 2004). After the course ended, transcripts of all communication that took place were analyzed,2 regardless of whether it occurred prior to or after the official two week period. Chat and forum transcripts were automatically archived by the course management system and downloaded for analysis. Email correspondence was saved by the instructor and students and sent to the researchers. Individual reflection papers were also downloaded from the course management system.

The analysis procedure was as follows: First, messages were unitized into functional moves. A functional move is defined as the purpose served by a particular part of a message, similar to speech acts or what Henri and Rigault (1996) describe as “the smallest unit of delivery, linked to a single theme, directed at the same interlocutor, identified by a single type, having a single function” (p. 62). Messages must be unitized because they often contain more than one function. The primary researcher unitized the messages as an initial step in the coding process.

To answer the first research question, the number of functional moves exchanged in each mode was calculated to give an overall picture of how groups utilized the tools. To answer the second research question, each move was coded as either conceptual or nonconceptual in nature. Conceptual moves addressed the understanding of the learning theory being studied during the unit. Nonconceptual moves were related to logistical issues, technical concerns or social exchanges (see Table 2). A Pearson chi-square (Pearson χ2) two-way contingency table analysis was conducted to evaluate whether communication mode (forum, chat, or email) was related to the type of move (conceptual or nonconceptual).

Table 2.  Categories of functional moves
CategoryDescriptionFunctional moves
ConceptualAddress the understanding of the content of the current taskPhase 1. Share information
Phase 2. Discover inconsistencies
Phase 3. Negotiate meaning
Phase 4. Propose compromise
Phase 5. Agree on compromise
NonconceptualLogistical (address the completion of the task)Manage/report/follow-up
Take action
Initiate or suggest
Elicit response
Engage others to act
Social (greetings, closings, small talk)Socialize
Technical (concerning the use of the communication tools)Manage technology

Two researchers coded the functional moves, starting by reviewing the task instructions and all transcripts in order to fully understand the context. Reproducibility, one of the three types of reliability outlined by Krippendorf (1980), was established through the use of two raters to analyze a portion of the data set to eliminate inconsistencies in the coding. Any modifications to the demarcation of the units of analysis (functional moves) were included as part of this process. To establish reproducibility, the coders analyzed a portion of the data set to eliminate inconsistencies in data categorization. Group Orange’s data (representing 20% of the entire data set) were used to establish inter-rater reliability. An inter-rater agreement rate of 83% was initially reached, after which the coders negotiated to consensus on all of the moves.

To answer the third research question, all of the conceptual moves were further coded as one of the five phases of knowledge construction (Gunawardena et al., 1997). A Pearson chi-square (Pearson χ2) two-way contingency table analysis was also conducted to evaluate whether choice of mode was related to the early or later phases of knowledge construction (Phase 1 or Phases 2–5).

Finally, the last question was answered by analysis of the transcripts and reflection papers. These were read to identify reasons given for using particular tools for various parts of the task. Two groups, Orange and Plum, used all three modes; thus, we look at their communications in detail.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Framework
  5. Method
  6. Findings
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

The findings are presented in order of research question. Percentages are included to account for variation in the size of the groups.

RQ1. Which Communication Mode(s) do Experienced Distance Learners Choose as They Collaborate on Project-based Tasks?

Table 3 presents all 10 groups and their use of the three modes. Most groups relied primarily, if not exclusively, on the forum. Seventy-nine percent of all moves were exchanged in the forum Only two groups, Orange and Plum, used chat. These chat messages accounted for 16% of moves exchanged by the 10 groups. All but two of the groups exchanged at least one email; however, email accounted for only 5% of the moves.

Table 3.  Total moves exchanged by mode

RQ2. What Do the Group Members Talk About in Each Mode?

Table 4 summarizes which mode was used for each type of move.

Table 4.  Logistical, social, technical, and conceptual moves by communication mode
ConceptualOn a slight tangent, with regard to the last point I think that Piaget would argue that the children involved need to be in their concrete operational period (over age 7) for this dialog to be meaningful (since before that time they are to egocentric to view from another’s perspective).8424211028372998939
LogisticalI, too, am free tonight. I’ll be out for part of tomorrow morning/early afternoon, but home all day after that. Sunday, I’m free any time Brazil is not playing Germany …79339163414737100339
SocialHave a safe and fun Fourth of July this week.326167419413244117
TechnicalThe server must be slow or something, I tried uploading the file, but nothing seemed to happen. I’m retyping this message.6535113321195
Total 20261003981001281002552100

A higher percentage of conceptual moves were exchanged in the forum (42%) than logistical (39%), social (16%), or technical (3%) moves. A higher percentage of logistical moves were exchanged in chat (41%) and email (37%). In chat, conceptual moves (28%) and in email, social moves (32%) were the most frequent after logistics. Logistical, social, and technical moves were then grouped together and labeled “nonconceptual” for comparison with moves labeled as “conceptual.” See Table 5.

Table 5.  Conceptual vs. nonconceptual moves by communication mode
Total moves20261003981001281002552100

More nonconceptual than conceptual moves were exchanged in all three modes. A two-way contingency table analysis was conducted to evaluate whether mode (forum, chat, or email) was related to the type of move (conceptual or nonconceptual). These were found to be significantly related, Pearson χ2 (2, N = 2552) = 32.668, p < .001, Cramer’s V = 0.11. The contingency table was then partitioned into independent sub-tables for follow-up pair-wise comparison. Email and forum were significantly related, Pearson χ2 (1, N = 2154) = 7.980, p = .005, with email having a greater than expected number of nonconceptual moves and forum a greater than expected number of conceptual moves. Forum and chat were also significantly related, Pearson χ2 (1, N = 2424) = 27.032, p < .001, with chat having a greater than expected number of nonconceptual moves and forum a greater than expected number of conceptual moves. Email and chat were not significantly related. The forum, then, was more likely overall than chat or email to be used for conceptual discussions by these 10 groups.

RQ3. Which Phases of Knowledge Construction are Present in Each Mode?

The results of coding the conceptual moves according to the phases of the Gunawardena et al. (1997) knowledge construction model are summarized in Table 6.

Table 6.  Conceptual moves: Phase of knowledge construction
Conceptual movesExampleForumChatEmailTotal
Phase 1. Share informationOn a slight tangent, with regard to the last point I think that Piaget would argue that the children involved need to be in their concrete operational period (over age 7) for this dialog to be meaningful (since before that time they are to egocentric to view from another’s perspective).545656357328664065
Phase 2. Discover inconsistenciesThe only issue I’ve got with this is that it seems to go against what Vygotsky advocates about when to use peer tutoring, doesn’t it?1241520180014479
Phase 3. Negotiate meaningWhat do y’all think? Am I on the right track?567131200697
Phase 4. Propose compromiseAs a side note I seem to remember reading some research at one time that said that peer tutoring was beneficial for the tutorer, but not really for the tutoree (the kid being tutored). The tutorer gets to restate their knowledge and all of that other higher order thinking skills stuff, but the tutoree might just end up being confused by a fellow student who does not know any teaching skills.1210000121
Phase 5. Agree on compromiseAfter taking Piaget’s point of view for the thought activity this week, I agree with many of you that he would not suggest using peer tutoring in this situation.2123300242
Drafts 70800514758
Resources 142111000253
Total 84210011010037100989100

In addition to the five phases of knowledge construction, the groups circulated drafts (“draft”) of their final paper and shared resources (“resources”), such as useful URLs, with each other. All conceptual moves exchanged in email were coded as Phase 1 (share information). Sixty-five percent of the forum moves and 57% of the chat moves were coded as Phase 1 (share information). Chat had a higher percentage of Phase 2 (discover inconsistencies), 3 (negotiate meaning), and 5 (agree on compromise) moves than did the forum. Frequency counts for Phases 2 to 5 were grouped together (and called “later phases of knowledge construction”) for further analysis. A two-way contingency table analysis was conducted to determine whether mode was related to early phase (Phase 1) or later phases (Phases 2–5). Mode and conceptual move phases were found to be significantly related at Pearson χ2 (2, N = 889) = 15.880, p < .001. The contingency table was then partitioned into independent subtables for follow-up pairwise comparison.

Email and forum were significantly related, Pearson χ2 (1, N=790) = 12.312, p = <.001, with email having a greater than expected number of earlier phase moves and forum a greater than expected number of moves in the later phases of knowledge construction. Email and chat were also significantly related, Pearson χ2 (1, N = 131) = 16.046, p < .001, with email again having a greater than expected number of early moves and chat having a greater than expected number of moves in the later phases of knowledge construction. Forum and chat were not significantly related; in other words, once the discussion was focused on conceptual learning, students progressed through the phases similarly in each mode.

In summary, the forum had more conceptual moves than either email or chat. Later phases of knowledge construction occurred more often in the forum and in chat. There were more logistical moves exchanged in email and in chat. Social moves overall were most common in email.

RQ4. How do the Participants Choose which Modes to use for Various Aspects of the Task?

The findings are now examined more closely to better understand how the various modes were used. Plum and Orange were the only groups to use all three modes. Their use of the modes is described first.

Group Plum

Table 7 summarizes the moves exchanged by Plum in each mode. In Plum, nearly half (49%) of the forum moves were related to logistics. In chat there was more of a balance between conceptual moves (35%) and logistical moves (39%) than in the forum, and a higher percentage of chat messages were conceptual moves (35%) than in the forum (25%). Email had more social moves (48%), followed by conceptual (31%) and logistical (21%). The high percentage of social moves included congratulatory emails sent by group members to each other after they received a high grade on their group paper.

Table 7.  Logistical, social, technical, and conceptual moves by communication mode: Plum
Group Orange

Table 8 reports the logistical, social, technical, and conceptual moves exchanged by Orange in each mode. In Orange, a higher percentage of conceptual moves were exchanged in the forum (39%) than in chat (10%); the forum was used for a nearly even focus on logistics (42%) and conceptual learning (39%). In the Orange chat, Michael was teaching Gregory how to create emoticons, which accounts for the high percentage of technology moves (24%).

Table 8.  Logistical, social, technical, and conceptual moves by communication mode: Orange

The overall use of the three modes by the 10 groups is explored in the following sections.


While email was not utilized extensively, it was used for specific purposes at the beginning and end of the group process. Group members made initial contact with each other by email, after which they would continue in the forum, as illustrated in this email from Kyle in Fig:

I hope this message is going to all the members of the correct group. Just wanted to let you all know that I have been out of town most of the week, but I am back now and ready to contribute to the discussion… almost. Due to my work schedule, it will probably be Sunday when I can post something in our discussion section. talk to you then kyle

The only participants who suggested using email were non-cohort members. In Tangerine’s discussion, non-cohort members Lola and Libby discussed how to exchange documents. In the forum Lola posted: “Hi, I sent my part by email—I would suggest to use email—it is easier to find attachment there than in discussion forum …” Libby replies, “… I worked on the question #2. Lola - did you get it alright? It is in the posting above the one called ‘attachment above’ about 8 above this one when all are expanded.” Tangerine continued to use the forum, rather than email, despite Lola’s suggestion. Lola commented in her reflection:

[F]or me personally it would be more convenient to exchange drafts by email, since it is difficult to find attachments in forum postings (it can be attached to reply to someone’s reply to the original reply, etc.). - I suggested using email, but the team preferred the forum.

Thus an active decision not to use email as the primary mode may have been a norm developed by the cohort.

Similarly, in Melon, Jaclyn, also a non-cohort member, initiated discussion via email, which Larry promptly migrated to the forum:

Jaclyn: Hi. Has anyone taken a look at our group activity for Unit 5 yet. Sounds as if it will take some close coordination on all our parts. I thought it might be a good idea to come up with a list of questions for each “theorist” that we could work on once we decide which issue to look at. I vote for #1 or #2. Any thoughts? Jaclyn

Larry: I’m sending this out to let you all know that I responded to Jaclyn’s email with some further ideas by posting in our Melon discussion area. Thanks for getting us started, Jaclyn. I look forward to hearing what Kyle and Trish have to say about it too.

Neither Tangerine nor Melon provided an explicit explanation for not using email, although it could be a norm developed earlier. As a portion of the grade was assigned for group process, groups may have felt it important to keep all communication in one place (the forum.)

Email was used by Orange and Melon to direct people to the forum, as illustrated by Jaclyn:

Hi Larry, Trish and Kyle: I’m going to put together my thoughts as Vygotsky based on the categories we discussed in our forum. I’m assuming Larry will do the same. With Piaget done in the same fashion, whoever acts as moderator should be able to easily pose questions and design a four way conversation based on that information…

Plum and Orange used email to congratulate each other on their grade, as Tonya does here, “Congratulations, Plum Group. We got an A!! GREAT WORK EVERYONE!”


Orange and Plum each held one chat during which they made decisions about how to approach the task. Both groups held their chats toward the end of the two week period—Orange two days and Plum three days prior to the deadline. In Plum, Trevor suggested a chat in the forum: “I do think we need to chat in order to select a topic and divide the work. I’m free anytime as long as I know ahead of time.” Trevor also initiated chat use in Orange: “I posted some initial rough thoughts, we could use that thread to start discussion. But I think it might be worthwhile to try to chat with one another soon so we can decide how the work will be divided.”

Sariah agreed with Trevor, but suggested using the forum for their initial brainstorming, which could then be migrated to the chat:

I do think though that we should use this forum over the next couple of days to jot down our ideas about all of the questions—kind of an online brainstorming session. Then whoever is responsible for the question can compile and expand on the ideas presented.

Michael commented in his reflections about the use of chat in Orange:

After a couple of days of posting, the team called for a chat. During the chat, the three questions were divided among the team members to write a rough draft. Since there was(were) four team members, one person was designated as the person to bring it all together. It was also during the chat that a timeline was created to guide and ensure the assignment was completed on time. After the chat, team members wrote on their particular section and posted or e-mailed them to the one team member who was merging them together.

Michael also commented on the use of chat in Plum:

It was decided during the asynchronous chat that a synchronous chat was needed to finalize topic. During the chat the team determined a lesson topic, individual responsibilities for the assignment, and a timeline to complete the assignment.

Melon, Grape, and Berry made the explicit decision not to chat, which suggests that chatting may indeed have been a cohort norm in the past. Ron mentioned in his reflection about Tangerine, “This was the first time a group I was involved with didn’t need the use of a chat. I think this is because we are given enough time to truly reflect on our individual parts.”

When people are in different time zones it is particularly challenging to chat. Michael posted a message in Orange’s forum suggesting a chat that same evening. Gregory and Trevor saw the message in time to participate, but Sariah did not, prompting her to post in the forum the next morning: “Shoot—I missed this message! Sorry guys!” The group did summarize their meeting for Sariah and post it in the forum. Trevor wrote: “Sariah, We had a chat without you. Sorry.:)…Here is the plan we came up with. We aren’t sure if Courseline archives chats, so I am posting this here…,” to which Sariah replied, “Thanks fine . . .again, sorry about missing the chat last night. I didn’t log on in time to see it.”

While Sariah did not overtly convey frustration with having been left out, at the end of the project Sariah gave Michael a lower peer evaluation score, partially justified with the comment: “[Michael] did initiate a chat, although at the last minute (and one group member, me, got left out).” However, Trevor’s interpretation of the situation was different: “We had a brief chat Friday night with Gregory, Michael, and I, to firm up how [sic] our plan for doing the work (Sariah lives on the west coast and did not get home in time to participate).” Perhaps Trevor wanted to provide a valid excuse for Sariah’s chat absence. Avoiding logistical hassles may be a reason why other groups chose not to chat.

Discussion Forum

All 10 groups chose to use the forum as their primary means of communication. In addition to using the forum for brainstorming, the groups used attachments to circulate drafts of their individual contributions. Seventy-five attachments were posted, ranging from one to 16 per group. This was surprising since the task purpose was to encourage collaboration rather than individual completion of portions of the task. In this example from Plum, Tonya has posted an initial draft, and Trish provides feedback:

I added the pages that I really wanted in the appendix…and increased the time from 1 hour to 3 hours, so the time still needs adjustment. My dad is back so gotta hand this back to you now. What needs to be done:

1) conclusion

2) incorporate SCANS table 1 into lesson…gov’t resource that tells what we students need to know how to do in the new workplace

3) incorporate Reading table 2 and table 3 into lesson. it shows how the skills listed in table 1 need to be incorporated into Reading…I have examples for ALL curriculum areas, but tho’t [sic] that we’d just do one curriculum strand.

4) cite how ML and Schema are being addressed thru [sic] out document

5) need to add citation to SCANS and where I got the info for the reading table…won’t take long for me to do

6) what else? I will check back later

Trish.doc has track changes still on. Trish2.doc has all changes accepted.

This example illustrates how the forum was used to manage the revision process and create a final draft. Sometimes the use of attachments caused problems, illustrated in this excerpt from Grape. Gregory had previously forgotten to track his changes and Alissa commented: “I forgot to track changes. Gregory, you’d think your experience would be enough of a reminder!” Tracking changes is useful to keep everyone informed about the document’s progress.

Other problems with the use of the forum and attachments included revising the wrong version of the draft, as illustrated in this excerpt from Orange:

Gregory: 6/30/2002 6:12:14 PM Okay, I didn’t notice Trevor’s new draft until I was ready to upload, so I merged the documents with my edits, and then went through them again.

Sariah: 6/30/2002 6:36:45 PM Shoot. I didn’t see this post. I’ll grab this file and redo what I just posted.

Sariah: 6/30/2002 6:35:42 PM Here is the final draft with everything in it. This is your LAST chance to review it.

Sariah: 6/30/2002 6:58:09 PM Here is the NEW final draft, which includes Gregory’s additions. Again, I’ll check back in a few hours for comments, changes, etc.

This situation occurred when group members were posting drafts simultaneously. Although by definition people do not have to be logged on at the same time in an asynchronous mode, at times the groups did use the asynchronous tools nearly synchronously. They were logged in at the same time, typically near the end of the unit as the feedback cycles grew more intense. Here in Plum, messages are exchanged rapidly:

Michael: 7/14/2002 9:12:44 PM I am going to work on the conclusion. I will copy and paste the additions. I will check back in about an hour.

Michael: 7/14/2002 9:54:00 PM I have to pick up on brother-in-law at the airport. I will check back when I get in.

Trevor: 7/14/2002 10:05:49 PM For whoever is going to look at this again, I’m about to post a final draft with Michael’s conclusion. I’ll talk last minute revisions.

Trish: 7/14/2002 10:20:35 PM I’m waiting for the final draft…I’ll check back in 1/2 hour.

Trevor: 7/14/2002 10:25:55 PM Here is the final draft as I have it so far. I’ll wait till 45 minuts [sic] or so to post. (that is 12:00 my time).

Trish: 7/14/2002 10:54:13 PM I’m checking your document now.

Trevor, Trish, and Michael’s document feedback cycle was nearly synchronous, as shown by the time stamps on their messages.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Framework
  5. Method
  6. Findings
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

All 10 groups used the forum most extensively, and only two groups utilized chat. While groups did use email for a few specific purposes, it was not the primary means of communication. These findings differ from those of Poole (2000), whose students chose to use email rather than chat or the forum for their projects. They differ as well from those of Curtis and Lawson (2001), who found that 85% of students chose email rather than uploading files or using the forum. McLoughlin (2002), in her study of undergraduate groups working online to complete tasks, found that successful teams actively used the forum to share ideas and discuss the specifics of the project.

Table 9 provides an overview of the findings. The forum was more likely to be used for conceptual moves than was chat or email. Surprisingly, email was used more for social moves than was chat. The forum was also more likely to be used for later phases of knowledge construction, although chat was more likely to be used for later phases of knowledge construction than was email. These findings support those of Levin et al. (2004) who found that students do engage in substantial chat conversations.

Table 9.  Use of communication mode
Logistical and socialLogistical and conceptualConceptual and logistical
Earlier phases of knowledge constructionLater phases of knowledge constructionLater phases of knowledge construction

Orange and Plum were the only groups to use chat, and they utilized it to talk about the substance and process of the task at hand, with more and later phases of conceptual moves exchanged in chat than in email. Groups utilized chat for immediate interaction regarding the process, particularly to make final decisions about how to approach the task. Typically the chat took place after discussions had been initiated in the forum and in email, as a time to have final discussions and make decisions, similar to what Armitt et al. (2002) described as synchronous interaction for “immediate clarification and developments of thought” (p. 9). Huysman et al. (2003) describe this shift to a different mode at the time of a deadline as punctuated equilibrium. Time may well be a factor in the selection of CMC mode. Groups may rely on the forum when time is plentiful, shifting to chat when time is running short.

Huysman et al. (2003) argue that the success of a team depends on its ability to flexibly work with more than one CMC mode. Table 10 outlines the steps of the process conducted in each mode.

Table 10.  Group process and selected communication mode
Step of processCommunication mode
1. Check in with groupEmail or forum
2. Brainstorm ideas, post individual responses, respond to othersForum
3. Break assignment down to divide and conquer individuallyChat or forum
4. Choose roles, make assignmentsChat or forum
5. Establish timeframe, set deadlinesChat or forum
6. Work individually on assignmentsWord processing
7. Combine contributionsForum with document attachment
8. Edit, refine, make coherent, formatWord processing
9. Post first combined draftForum
10. Provide feedback on draftForum or email
11. Integrate feedbackForum
12. Submit final draftForum or email

Orange and Plum made key decisions about their work together during the chat; however, one group member was left out due to scheduling problems, revealing one limitation to the use of synchronous tools in spite of their potential to add to the learning process. Synchronous and asynchronous tools are both needed to overcome the limitations of a single tool. Davidson-Shivers et al. (2001) also argue that both synchronous chat and asynchronous discussions are necessary for online learning, with conversations being more dynamic and immediate when held synchronously, and more convenient to participate in at leisure when held asynchronously. The findings are also consistent with Curtis and Lawson (2001), Haythornthwaite et al. (2000), Kitchen and McDougall (1998–1999), Zhao, Alvarez-Torres, Smith, and Tan (2004), who recommend providing both synchronous and asynchronous tools to online groups. Orange and Plum used chat as a place to continue and finalize work that had begun on email and in the forum. Chat included, but was not limited to, communication that contributed to the social maintenance of the group.

Likewise, establishing common ground involves appropriating tools to meet needs (Baker et al., 1999). For example, sometimes the forum was used in an almost synchronous manner, with members being logged in at the same time. In this way, they creatively adapted the tool for their own purposes, particularly during the final feedback cycle as the deadline approached. Asynchronous tools have the advantage of being truly “anytime/anywhere” and are thus more convenient in many ways for working at a distance. Perhaps for this reason the forum’s asynchronous nature was often better suited to meet the groups’ changing needs. The forum was the best place to keep a running record of the group process and the best place for posting drafts of the product and providing feedback on those drafts. In addition, groups began the brainstorming process in the forum, where individuals could reflect upon ideas posted by others and respond at their leisure.

These processes may well have been impacted by the group members’ prior experiences working on projects together as cohort members in a distance Master’s program. This is evident from the attempts of the non-cohort members to conduct business via email, which was quickly shifted to the forum by cohort members. Fulk (1993) suggests that “technology-related behaviors and attitudes can be produced in a work setting through processes of modeling, which increases the likelihood that attitudes and behavior will converge” (p. 923). Yet, cohort members who had previously engaged in chat did not do so during this class. Graham (2003) describes how small online groups establish norms for working together, one of which is how to use the CMC tools. Levin et al. (2004) also point out that learner preferences for technology use change over time and with experience.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Framework
  5. Method
  6. Findings
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Hathorn and Ingram (2002a) argue that asynchronous CMC is “less effective in reaching a good solution than synchronous CMC. Brainstorming is more appropriate for synchronous CMC” (p. 37). They identify technology as a constraining factor for effective online collaboration, arguing that “simple text-based communications technologies may not allow participants to effectively work together” (p. 37). However, this did not seem to be the case with the 10 groups in this study, who completed tasks using primarily asynchronous tools. Nearly all of these students were experienced in working together at a distance.

These findings seem to support technologies as equivocal: “[T]hey can be interpreted in multiple and perhaps conflicting ways” (Fulk, 1993, p. 922). Eight of the 10 groups found the forum sufficient for completing the task. The groups’ choice of the asynchronous mode does not support Daft and Lengel’s (1984) media richness theory. Asynchronous tools are popularly believed to be the least rich medium, in that feedback is not as immediate as chat or email. Yet the students in this study found it “rich” in other features that were effective for their purposes. Rather than being constrained by the medium, the students “recreated” each tool, lending support to the theory of electronic propinquity (Walther, 1999) and social construction of technology theories (Fulk, 1993; Weick, 1990). In contrast to Daft and Lengel’s (1984) information richness theory (that the more ill-structured the task, the more information rich the selected mode will be), people are not prevented from interacting in meaningful ways in “lean” media (such as text-only CMC). Rather, users “expand the otherwise limited range of the medium through greater effort, greater application of communication skills…and thus the potential of that medium increases” (Walther, 1999, p. 10). As Zhao et al. (2004) point out, “different features of CMC technologies may support different types of tasks and learners in different ways” (p. 46). Groups should be able to choose which CMC tools they prefer to use while completing tasks together. Advice can be given to novice online learners about how each tool may constrain or support particular parts of the learning process, keeping in mind that successful groups are those most able to be flexible in their use of CMC modes (Huysman et al., 2003).

In light of these technological developments, an interesting direction for further research is the groups’ draft-circulation process. Investigating how drafts evolve over time may be a fruitful area for future investigation, particularly in light of the collaborative tools now available. At the time this study was conducted, voice over IP tools such as Skype were not yet widely available, and fewer people had broadband Internet access at home. With the introduction of Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and other collaborative writing tools, web conferencing, and personal learning environments, students have even more options for how to work together. These tools can be customized for fuller functionality than those offered through threaded discussions, text chat, and email, although the latter remain the staples of the learning management systems subscribed to by universities. How students will choose to use these new tools as part of formal learning environments remains to be seen.

  • 1

    The names of participants and of the course management system have been changed.

  • 2

    Students were highly encouraged to communicate within the course system. Moreover, since a portion of their grade was based on team process, it is believed that all communication was captured for analysis.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Framework
  5. Method
  6. Findings
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
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About the Author
  1. Trena M. Paulus [] is an Assistant Professor of in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling at the University of Tennessee where she teaches courses in research methods and collaborative learning. She investigates meaning-making processes in online learning environments utilizing methods of discourse and narrative analysis.

    Address: Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling, University of Tennessee, 1122 Volunteer Boulevard, A515 Claxton Complex, Knoxville, TN, 37996 USA