Communication structures in computer-supported cooperative learning (CSCL) environments for adult learners in distance education

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Verdines, Patricia
Neuman, Delia
This qualitative study addresses the research question: What is the nature of the instructional communication process sustained by computer-supported cooperative learning (CSCL) environments for adult learners in constructivist distance education? The target audience was adult learners; the constructivist learning paradigm guided the analysis of the teaching/learning interactions and communication events. A course was selected as the unit of analysis by following a theoretical construct sampling strategy. Relevant information selected purposively from the course archive was analyzed using conversation analysis to explore the nature of the instructional communication process (the "macro" level") and content analysis to identify the types of teaching/learning interactions, the types of knowledge and the cognitive processes that occurred in the chosen environment (the "micro" level). The study develops a model that characterizes online conversations as instructional communication events, and establishes a framework for the systematic analysis of online conversations in CSCL environments. At the "macro" level of analysis, the participants' discourse in the synchronous conversations moderated by the instructional team was well-structured and composed of a set of phases - opening, instructional delivery, and closing - as in face-to-face classroom discourse research. In contrast, the unmonitored asynchronous conversations were characterized as ill-structured; only the opening phase or the instructional delivery phases were represented in the discourse. At the "micro" level, extensive and diverse types of interactions occurred in the asynchronous conversations, but fewer types were evident in the synchronous conversations, which were structured by the instructional team to limit active participation to only a few students. These findings suggest that online instructional conversations can be characterized as student-centered, teacher-centered, or a combination of both, according to the type and variety of interactions that occur among participants. The analysis also identified the types of knowledge constructed and shared by students as well as the cognitive activity represented in their discourse, which were characterized as instances of specific learning processes - such as collaborative problem solving and collaborative argumentation - and diverse learning outcomes consistent with the learning goals in the course selected in the study.