Underscoring the Social Nature of Classrooms by Examining the Amount of Virtual Talk across Online and Blended College Courses

Catherine F. Brooks [cfbrooks@email.arizona.edu], University of Arizona,
Amy M. Bippus [abippus@csulb.edu], California State University, United States of America


Online communication forums allow students to collaborate and construct understandings of course material together, but little is known about students’ discussion participation across online and blended (hybrid) classroom environments. This study begins to address this research gap by examining students’ asynchronous discussions (number and length of “initial” and “subsequent” discussion posts) that took place in three online and two blended courses offered at two different universities. Students in each of the online and blended learning environments produced over two pages (>500 words) of posts for each of three topic discussions (called “conferences” for each course), and mean word counts were compared. In this exploratory study, “course format” as a variable did not influence the amount of students’ asynchronous talk in any predictable way. Although more comparisons are needed to draw conclusive results, these preliminary findings reveal no pattern of participation across course types (i.e., online and blended) and thereby reinforce the constructive nature of classrooms as well as the importance of student place, group size, and subjectivities. We argue that students’ experiences across course formats are infused with social dynamics and relational performances that may mitigate cross-format research endeavours and also that might challenge assumptions practitioners make about classroom environmental design.

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) among students as a part of formal classroom time has become familiar part of the contemporary educational experience. Whether a course is offered completely online, in a blended (sometimes called “hybrid”) format, or in a face-to-face classroom, students interact with others via computers. Of interest for researchers and practitioners in areas such as education, sociology, and communication is how students use these online opportunities to engage with others in their classes. Indeed, scholars have emphasized the importance of student-student talk in online learning contexts (e.g., Ertmer et al., 2007), and previous studies have compared the online communicative experiences of students in different classroom formats (e.g., Rovai & Jordan, 2004; Sullivan & Pratt, 1996; Vess, 2005). However, few researchers have examined online participation across online and blended (or hybrid) environments. This study fills this gap by assessing students’ asynchronous discussions (number and length of discussion posts) stemming from teacher-posed questions across multiple online and blended courses. Specifically, this study examines college students’ discussions that took place in three online courses (one a face-to-face campus, two at a virtual institution) and two blended classes (both on a face-to-face campus). The instructor, course level (upper-division undergraduate college), and content were the same across all courses included in this analysis, but student-group size, assignment worth, and geographical location varied. Therefore, this research is preliminary in nature, but raises the possibility that a number of important factors (e.g., student group size, course location, and institutional mission) vary along with classroom format (i.e., online versus blended) and will likely influence student participation in online discussions with their peers. 

The following section begins with a discussion of the role of student-student communication in the learning process and how the availability of online environments has altered the dynamics of instructional interactions. Next, we discuss how students experiencing different course formats have varying opportunities to engage themselves in with others in their classes. In doing so, we identify the broad range of literature that begets a need for comparison of students’ discussions across online and hybrid courses. Third, we present the research question guiding this investigation and we delineate our methods by describing the course sections as well as the participants involved in this study. Ultimately, we offer our results and discuss the study limitations as well as ideas for future research. In our conclusion, we highlight the implications for teachers and administrators.

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e-learning, distance learning, distance education, online learning, higher education, DE, blended learning, MOOCs, ICT, information and communication technology, collaborative learning, internet, interaction, learning management system, LMS,

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