A model of Learner-Centered Computer-Mediated Interaction for Collaborative Distance Learning.
Learner-centered computer-mediated interaction in this study is defined as reciprocal communication among participants of computer-mediated learning environments that emphasizes learner developments in cognition, motivation, and social advancement for the purpose of knowledge construction and community building. Two theoretical principles that are highly relevant to such interaction are constructivism and learner-centered principles (LCPs). A constructivist distance learning environment places emphases on knowledge construction through interaction with the physical environment and through the appropriation of culturally relevant activities. In other words, knowledge is coconstructed with peers or experts and through the immersion in a social context (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998). LCPs were developed by the American Psychological Association (APA, 1997) as a framework for the new educational approaches that stress the integration of the needs, skills, interests, and backgrounds of the students in the curriculum planning. The following section on literature review examines the connection between these principles and interaction.
Interaction is often emphasized in different contexts for different purposes, such as construction of knowledge (Gunawardena et al., 1997), and student satisfaction (Hackman & Walker, 1990). Moore (1989) contributed to the discussion of interaction by providing an important framework of three types of interaction: learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner interaction. Moore pointed out that learner-content interaction is a "defining characteristics of education." As a result of learner-content interaction, learners achieve intellectual growth or changes in perspectives. The second type, learner-instructor interaction, highlights the important role of instructors. In addition to defining the learning objectives, activities, and materials, distance instructors are also responsible for revising teaching methods and providing evaluation as their students progress in the process of learning. The third type, learner-learner interaction, takes place between learner and other learners in real-time or delayed time and is not restricted to the presence of the instructor. This "inter-learner interaction" can foster learning through student collaboration and knowledge sharing. Although the strategies used to increase learner-learner interaction vary according to the characteristics and backgrounds of the learners, learner-learner interaction can significantly encourage the development of student expertise in different subject areas and promote community building.
Hillman, Willis, & Gunawardena (1994) added a fourth component on learner-interface interaction to the literature discussion. They defined learner-interface interaction as "a process of manipulating tools to accomplish a task" (p. 34). They stressed the importance of learner-interface interaction because the "learner must interact with the technological medium in order to interact with the content, instructor, or other learners" (p. 33). The learner must be empowered to profess the necessary skills to use the communication tools and feel comfortable with the learning environment. Good interface design can enhance interactivity and minimize technological barriers to online learning.
These definitions also highlight the importance of the interrelationship among learners, content, and technology. In the design of a learner-centered distance learning course, it is important to include the four types of interaction in the design. Furthermore, LCPs also provide "an essential framework to be incorporated in new designs for curriculum and instruction, and assessment systems for evaluating educational goal attainments" (American Psychological Association, 1997, p. 1). LCPs consists of the following areas of learning: cognitive and metacognitive factors, motivational and affective factors, developmental and social factors, and individual differences.
As pointed out by Wagner and McCombs (1995), these principles emerged from the following considerations:
* Learners operate holistically as a function of intellectual, emotional, social, and physical characteristics.
* The learner's behavior is based on his or her perceptions and evaluations of situations and events from a self-orientation that interprets meaning and value relevant to personal goals and interests.
* The learner's development across all domains of functioning is never static and unchanging, but is a dynamic growth process that serves inherent needs for mastery, control, and belonging (p. 34).
In the context of distance education, the infusion of LCPs into the design of learning systems and instructional activities has provided enhanced opportunities for educators to improve teaching/learning activities. Traditionally, teachers decide what the learners need to know by devising the objectives, instruction, procedures, curriculum, materials, and evaluation. Recently, the increased discussions on learner-centered education have led more educators to recognize the values of empowering the students to take control of their learning. The design of the curriculum takes into consideration students' background and prior knowledge in the subject matter.
The LCPs provide a solid framework for the new educational approaches. However, the actual implementation is subject to individual interpretation and still requires much effort for educators to come up with feasible strategies. Fortunately, constructivism that originates from philosophical and educational theories has provided viable strategies for teaching and learning. Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, & Haag (1995), long-time advocates of constructivism for CMC systems in distance education, argued:
Constructivist principles provide a set of guiding principles to help designers and teachers create learner-centered, collaborative environments that support reflective and experiential processes. Students and instructors can then build meaning, understanding, and relevant practice together and go far beyond the mere movement of information from instructors' minds to students' notebooks. (p. 8)
According to Jonassen et al. (1995), the four constructivist attributes for building learning systems are context, construction, collaboration, and conversation. Context refers to the "real world" scenario in which learners can carry out learning tasks as close to the real world as possible. Learning tasks should have real-world implications so that learners can connect what they learn in the classroom with the real world. Construction concerns knowledge that is built on the "active process of articulation and reflection within a context" (Jonassen et al., p. 8). Learners acquire knowledge better when they can link their own experience with the learning materials and make sense of them. Learners master a subject better in the process of constructing knowledge. Collaboration helps learners to develop, test, and evaluate their ideas with peers. Learners are exposed to multiple perspectives in a problem solving case and then come to a self-selected conclusion on a particular issue. This is an important part of the learning process. Conversation is engaged by group members for purposes such as planning, collaboration, and meaning making. It is especially important for distance learning because most communication is done through online exchanges. A successful conversation will lead to good preparations for and completion of online tasks (Jonassen et al.).
Distance learning courses that are based on the LCPs and constructivism have demonstrated enhanced interaction and academic achievements. The next section reviews the process of implementing the theoretical principles into the instructional design of a distance learning course.
The course for this research is an upper level undergraduate course titled "Theories and Applications of Computer-Mediated Communication Systems" offered at the University of Hawaii. The main objective of the course is to enrich the understanding of CMC systems through discussions and effective use of various CMC systems. The course design is based on the following theoretical principles:
Principle 1: Learner-centered instructional design: The course design considers student development, especially in the following areas: cognitive, meta-cognitive, motivational, affective, social, and individual differences. Students learn to monitor their own progress, manage the course content, and develop expertise in a subdomain of CMC study. Specific examples of learner-centered instructional activities include the use of student reflection journals for the purpose of metacognition and student-centered discussion for motivating them to take control of the subject matter.
Principle 2: Constructivist activities: The emphasis is placed on student acquisition of knowledge through active involvement with the curriculum rather than through imitation or memorization of facts or course content. Specific instructional activities based on the constructivist principles include synchronous and asynchronous discussions for coconstruction of knowledge and project-based learning for real-world application.
Principle 3: Small group cooperative learning: Students collaborate on tasks in small groups to accomplish a set of predefined learning objectives and to advance their knowledge in a domain. Emphases are placed on community building and knowledge sharing. They equally share the responsibilities of the assigned tasks and semester projects. At the end of each term, they demonstrate the ability to accomplish the task on an individual base.
The course for this study was conducted through a number of text-based (WebCT chat and ICQ), audio-video conferencing (CU-Seeme & Netscape Cooltalk), and enhanced virtual systems (The Palace & Active World). Students took turns to moderate seminars in three-member small groups each week. They followed the guidelines of Student-Centered Discussions (SCD) (Chou, 1999; Shoop & Wright, 1997) to participate in the online seminars. In general, students participated in each online seminar by following the SCD principles such as respecting each other, generating ideas, listening tentatively, and referencing each other during conversation. Whereas, student moderators kept the discussion alive by observing rules such as greeting participants, devising warm-up activities, making an opening statement, using a step-by-step discussion process, asking questions, scripting the discussion, and preparing concluding remarks (Chou, 1999), detailed descriptions of instructional design, course syllabus, and the CMC systems employed are described in the research by Chou (2001a, 2001b)
RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS
This study examines interaction patterns at both interpersonal and system levels in a learner-centered distance collaborative learning environment. The research focuses on factors that affect interaction from three areas: learning activities, technology attributes, and learner characteristics. At the system level, student perceptions of both synchronous and asynchronous CMC systems and the relationship with interaction are investigated. At the interpersonal level, patterns of learner-learner interaction over both communication modes are compared and contrasted. Furthermore, the overall effects of various theoretical-based instructional activities on learner interaction are also scrutinized. The research methods include content analysis, formative and summative evaluation of the instructional activities, and technologies employed in a distance-learning course. The data for content analysis are based on conference transcripts from both synchronous and asynchronous communication. Formative data are based on student reflection journals, instructor's log, and observers' logs. Four observers were invited to observe the class on a weekly basis. They submitted a weekly log to the instructor to suggest improvement on the instructional design and activities for this class. The summative data are collected from the following student surveys: student background, course evaluation, CMC-skill assessment, student perceptions of communication characteristics of technology, group cohesiveness, and performance. Detailed descriptions of these surveys can be found in Chou's dissertation work (2001b).
Both synchronous and asynchronous seminars were conducted on a weekly basis. In the synchronous seminar, students were responsible to take turns in moderating small group discussions. In the asynchronous seminar, students collaborated in building a knowledge base by sharing and exchanging constructive views on a topic related to CMC systems. In addition to the weekly discussion, the semester-long projects also required the students to collaborate in small groups by way of various CMC systems.
Bale's (1950) Interaction Process Analysis (IPA) was adapted as the basis for content analysis to describe the patterns of student interaction in small groups through both synchronous and asynchronous networks. IPA was originally developed to study small group interaction in two main areas: (a) socioemotional (SE)-oriented and (b) task-oriented interaction.
Research questions are divided into the following three main categories:
A. Technology Attributes QA1: What are the technological factors that affect student interaction? B. Learning Activities Synchronous vs. Asynchronous discussions QB1: Is there a significant difference in the social-emotional contents and task-oriented contents between synchronous and asynchronous communication? Conference Moderation QB2: Moderator vs. Participants: How can a conference moderator help to facilitate online discussions? Small Group Collaboration QB3: What are the student perceptions of small group collaborative activities? C. Learner Characteristics Prior Computer experience QC1: Is learner's experience with computer correlated with total number of messages submitted? Gender QC2: Is there a significant difference in the SE-oriented vs. task-oriented contents between female and male participants?
ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION
Students rated each CMC system on the following communication characteristics: (a) social presence, (b) communication effectiveness, and (c) communication interface. Of all systems tested, WebCT chat received the highest rating and the Palace came in second place. This is an indication that students valued reliable and smooth connection for communication. WebCT chat turned out to be the most reliable and straight-forward CMC systems used. In addition, the add-on affective components (wearable-avatars, voice-activation, bubble messages, etc.) in the Palace actually made the conversation more realistic. Students demonstrated enjoyment in using the avatars to express themselves during the online conversations.
Based on the observation by the instructor and evaluators, student adaptation to technology can be summarized in four stages:
* The WOW stage: At the initial phase, students were fascinated with the potential of technology and amazed at what CMC systems could have accomplished.
* The FUN stage: At the second phase, students actually used the systems for simple tasks and derived a great deal of pleasure in the hands-on experience.
* The OH-OH stage: This was the frustrating stage when more complex tasks were given and their skills had not developed enough to handle these tasks.
* The "Back-to-Normal" stage: Students either became more competent in the use of technology or became comfortable with dealing with technical difficulties. They internalized their anxiety and accepted that technical glitches were inevitable in the learning process.
Positive technological attributes can enhance interaction and negative technological attributes can hinder interaction. Table 1 is a summary of various technological factors that affect interaction.
a. Synchronous versus asynchronous discussion
The two main categories in Bale's IPA are social-emotional oriented interaction and task-oriented interaction. The multiple regression analysis shows that both variables significantly predict the interaction patterns in both communication modes, F(2, 116) = 85.7, p< .0001 (Table 2). The mean sentence per person in synchronous mode is 26.31 sentences and 51 sentences in asynchronous mode. Because R = .77 and [R.sup.2] = 0.6, 60% of the variance is accounted for by these independent variables. The analysis shows that there is a significantly higher amount of SE-oriented interaction in synchronous discussions and a significantly higher volume of task-oriented interaction in asynchronous discussions.
In the synchronous communication mode, there was more spontaneous communication going back and forth. The communication processes between asking and answering questions are more equally distributed in synchronous communication, whereas in asynchronous communication, students tended to volunteer to give more information than to ask questions.
The synchronous communication mode also made it easier to provide immediate feedback to information seekers. Some students were actively engaged in discussions while other students waited until they were asked to say something. The researcher observed that there was more equal participation in the discussions in three-member small groups than in large groups. In addition, in synchronous mode, participants asked more personal questions and revealed more about their frustration or need for help with less hesitation. Personal questions such as one's occupation, schooling history, and background of technical training were included more often in synchronous discussions.
b. Conference moderation
Students took turns moderating small group discussions in the weekly synchronous seminars. Every group was responsible for hosting one online seminar in the semester. Because there were thee members in each group, the seminar was usually divided into three small groups so that each member of the host group could moderate one group in the online seminar. The moderator's action is highly correlated with the performance of the conference participants. According to Table 3, when a moderator sent out more task-oriented content, the participants also responded with more task-oriented messages, F(1, 163) = 36.58, p< .0001. Likewise, when a moderator sent out more SE-oriented content, the participants responded with messages of the same nature, F(1, 163) = 11.91, p< .001. In addition, the total number of messages sent by the moderators also contributed positively to the total number of messages sent by the participants, F(1, 163) = 28.85, p< .0001. Overall, the moderator's functions are vital to the information exchanges in a small group discussion. The comparison of the mean sentences between moderator and participant indicates that in order to encourage active discussion, the moderator usually sent out two or three times more sentences than the participant.
c. Small group collaboration
Two forms of collaboration took place in small groups: synchronous seminar and project preparations. In addition to working together to host a successful synchronous seminar, members of a small group also met several times in private throughout the semester to prepare for seminar moderation and case study. Students were asked to complete the questionnaires on group cohesiveness, individual commitment, and individual performance at the end of the term. The highest score one member of a group could get was 40 points. In Table 4, the mean score of each group is listed.
The correlation between the perceived quality of group performance and group cohesiveness is significantly high, r=.95, p=.01. Group members who rated their actions highly cohesive also deemed their performance high. However, the correlation between perceived quality of group performance and individual commitment is low, r= -.12, p= .29. Individuals who were committed to their work did not necessarily consider group performance quality high (Table 5). In some instances, members of a group might work harder when they foresaw that the quality of group performance would not be up to standards. Putting students in small groups and assigning collaborative tasks to each group does not always guarantee a successful learning experience. The summary section concludes a number of factors affecting online interaction.
Due to insufficient data and small sample selection, no significant correlation was found between total messages sent by each participant and their previous computer experience. In terms of gender differences, significant differences were found in synchronous mode in both SE-oriented and task-oriented interaction. In general, female participants sent out more sentences than the male participants in both synchronous and asynchronous communication modes; the female mean sentences are higher. Nevertheless, female participants sent out significantly higher number of messages in both SE-oriented and task-oriented areas. Overall, female participants consistently sent more SE-oriented messages in both communication modes.
The main conclusion drawn from this study is that the design of learner-centered online activities and the selections of appropriate technologies do contribute to different patterns of interaction. The research findings are summarized as follows:
A. Learning activities: Constructivist-based instructional activities such as student-moderated discussion and small group cooperative learning are conducive to interaction and learning. Specific findings are listed:
a. The appropriate use of synchronous online seminar can enhance interpersonal relationship. In general, students submit a higher percentage of task-oriented messages than SE-oriented messages in both asynchronous and synchronous communication modes. Nevertheless, there is a higher percentage of social-emotional interactions in synchronous mode than in asynchronous mode.
b. Asynchronous peer review provides the opportunity for collaboration on building knowledge bases and information sharing.
c. Interestingly, there was more one-way communication in the asynchronous mode. In the asynchronous mode, students seemed to be more interested in expressing opinions than challenging each others' views; where-as in the synchronous mode, there were more questions and answers. Students were more engaging in the synchronous discussions. There was a stronger sense of immediacy to respond to peers' questions in synchronous mode than in asynchronous mode.
d. Student-moderated conference based on the SCD Model allow learners to take initiatives in their learning and be efficient in communication through various CMC systems.
e. Forming small groups for online seminars or group projects helped to reduce the initial disorientation and confusion of online learners.
B. Technology attributes: Discussion on technology attributes focuses on the mode of communication systems and the communication characteristics such as social presence, communication effectiveness, and communication effectiveness.
a. Communication systems: the selections of synchronous or asynchronous technologies contributed to the different interaction patterns. Students tended to spend much more time in task-oriented discussions in the asynchronous mode. When online tasks were clearly defined and students passed the initial "get-to-know-each-other" stage, students were inclined to spend less time in SE-oriented interactions in both communication modes. Nevertheless, learners consistently spent more time in SE-oriented interaction in the synchronous mode than in the asynchronous mode.
b. Communication characteristics: Student ratings of a CMC system increased as the frequency of uses increased. Student perceptions of the communication characteristics of technologies might affect their initial interaction online. Time played an important role in student adoption of new technology. Usually after the first two or three weeks, students were able to ignore some of the "obstacles" of a system and concentrated on the task at hand.
c. Learner characteristics: Gender difference affects how students interact online. Female students contributed more to SE-oriented interaction than the male students in both communication modes. In addition, prior knowledge in a subject matter and computer experience contributed to the different interaction patterns in the individuals at the beginning stage. After the first two weeks, the difference was hardly noticeable.
As the result of the research, a model of Learner-Centered Computer-Mediated Interaction for Collaborative Distance Learning is proposed to explain factors that could affect interaction as shown in Figure 1.
Research in distance education covers a wide spectrum of issues. Although interaction is not the only key to successful distance education, this factor is vital to the progress of learners, teachers, and the school as a whole. As Gunawardena et al. (1997) has boldly put it: "No interaction, no education." This research emphasizes the importance of interaction research by providing supporting evidence in activity design, technology employed, and learner differences. This study advocates the integration of learner-centered instructional design and constructivism into the curriculum. The researcher hopes to break the myth that synchronous communication is impossible to manage. On the contrary, as shown in this study, the appropriate incorporation of synchronous activities can enhance learning interests and interpersonal relationship. Although there is no lack of research in distance education since the 1980s, there is a need for more research on emerging technology employed in distance education because the implications and applications also affect educational policy and management. This study is a small contribution to the understanding of the ever-changing technological ecology of distance education.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Table 1. Positive and Negative Technological Attributes Affecting the Degree of Interaction Positive Features Negative Features A. System performance Fast loading, low bandwidth Bandwidth intensive Transcript recording Non-recordable conversation Good audio/video quality Poor audio/video quality Cross-platform compatibility Platform-specific B. Interface design User-friendly navigation Confusing or no navigation tools tools Learner centered (e.g., Program controlled (e.g., fixed and customizable, flexible, un-customizable interface) and scalable interface) Wearable avatars with a Fixed-type avatars with stereotypical variety of selections selections Low levels of distraction High-levels of distraction (e.g., lack of (e.g., good visualization organization of icons) of icons) Status indication (e.g., Lack of status indication occupied, off-line, online, etc.) Accessible to users with Not accessible to users with disabilities disabilities (e.g., Bobby-approved, text-to-speech option) C. Communication characteristics High degree of social Low degree of social presence presence Effective for communication Ineffective for communication at at interpersonal level interpersonal level Effective for communication Ineffective for communication at system at system level (e.g., level (e.g., delayed message exchanges) fast message exchanges) High degree of Low degree of expressiveness expressiveness (e.g., mood indicators) Affective communication Impersonal communication components (e.g., components (e.g., optional command-line oriented communication) toolbox for emoticons & props) Division of public vs. Lack of division of meeting rooms private space (e.g., breakout sessions) Table 2. Multiple Regression Analysis Predicting Interaction in Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Discussions Syn. Mean Syn. SD Asyn. Mean Asyn. SD F SE 8.66 8.12 4.26 4.72 -7.46 *** TASK 17.65 15.53 46.74 19.11 12.21 *** totals 26.31 22.01 51.00 20.76 5.85 *** ***P < .0001 Table 3. One-Way ANOVA Between the Mean Sentences Sent by Moderators and Participants Moderators Participants F SE Mean 9.05 3.5 11.91 ** Task Mean 24.15 6.29 36.58 *** Total Mean 33.19 9.78 28.85 *** ***p < .0001, **p < .001 Table 4. Group Performance Evaluation and Group Cohesiveness Score Perceived quality of Groups Cohesiveness group performance (n = 3) Mean SD Mean SD GROUP 1 39.67 0.82 5.98 0.86 GROUP 2 37.5 3.89 6.02 1.16 GROUP 3 38.5 2.07 5.94 0.97 GROUP 4 32.5 10.61 3.76 1.63 GROUP 5 37.0 4.08 5.53 1.18 Table 5. Mean Score of Individual Commitment and Perceived Quality of Group Performance Perceived quality of Individual Groups (n = 3) group performance Commitment GROUP 1 5.98 5.83 GROUP 2 6.02 6.64 GROUP 3 5.94 5.50 GROUP 4 3.76 6.13 GROUP 5 5.53 6.00
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C. CANDACE CHOU, UNIVERSITY OF ST. THOMAS, USA
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|Author:||Chou, C. Candace|
|Publication:||International Journal on E-Learning|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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