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Use of visual elements to support knowledge construction in asynchronous dialogue

Presentation by Rebecca Ferguson at CALRG Conference 2010. Asynchronous dialogue within online...

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Rebecca Ferguson
24 May 2010

Presentation by Rebecca Ferguson at CALRG Conference 2010.

Asynchronous dialogue within online forums appears to provide learners with the classic components of cooperation and collaboration – discussion, dialogue and community – without the traditional constraints of time and place. As responses are delayed, learners have time to reflect, to be explicit and to order content and issues. Thee software also provides an accessible record of their interaction. Despite these apparent advantages, and the growing use of asynchronous dialogue by learners and educators, it remains unclear whether a medium apparently lacking in physical cues and back channels can support learning as successfully as face-to-face talk.

In the past, analysis of asynchronous learning dialogue has focused on its words, and has paid little attention to its multimodal elements. However, in the case of composite texts, with meanings realised through different semiotic codes, Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) have demonstrated that visual and verbal elements interact, and should be analysed as an integrated whole.

The research reported here therefore examined visual and verbal elements of the online exchanges of three groups of OU psychology undergraduates as they worked together on assessed research projects over a six-week period. All the groups’ exchanges in FirstClass conferences were archived for study, from the time the groups first formed to the time they submitted their completed research. Analysis of their discourse was complemented by visual analysis, based on the set of structuring principles identified by Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) that support understanding of the layout of text and images.

This analysis showed that visual features, including layout and typographical elements, carry much of the meaning of asynchronous dialogue. Learners employ textual affordances not available in speech, including quotation, layout and typography, to organize their discussion. Together with numbering and lists, these elements allow them to connect, prioritise and develop their exchanges. Font size and style, colour and direct quotation are also used to support discussion and to enable the complex development of arguments. These affordances function as important back channels to the dialogue, wordlessly signalling reaction to the contributions of others by ignoring, highlighting or prioritizing them.

Students did not always use these back channels, despite their superficial appearance of simplicity. These devices proved more useful and less open to misinterpretation when learners were aware that where and when elements appear in a text mark them as more or less important, that contributions can be given extra weight by use of typography and layout, and that they can be marked off from each other by numbers, colours or other elements. When tutors modeled the use of these visual elements, learners were more likely to make effective use of them to construct knowledge together.

Extra content

(Crossposted notes from my blog.)

Currently works on Social Learn project, but this work is from her PhD.  About collaborative learning online - asynchronous dialogue. Cooperation, collaboration - discussion, debate and community. Study was on FirstClass (OU tool), but also as used on Flickr discussions, Twitter, Cloudworks. 

Real-world situation has more 'backchannel' communication - non-language aspects. Gestures, gaze, affect. Contention that there is less of this online.

Textual example - concrete poem, changes the form and content. (example Roger McGough 1971 '40-love'). Example of journal article analysing it - with page break in the middle of it. It's hard to talk about these things in academic contexts - the journal insists on its own format, colour, size, pagination, flow. When she writes things up, has to put text in to images to ensure it is displayed correctly.

Theoretical framework - Kress & van Leeuwen (2006) on visual analysis.

Reading paths - are widely known within the culture; can tell when it's not correct - start in top-left. Reading a Japanese Manga comic is hard if you're not acculturated to it. Similar/parallel devices in other contexts like journal articles.

Her research on extended learning online at the OU, all on First Class (now superseded by Moodle/VLE). Postings have framings, contexts - header, letter-style format, etc. 

Example - separating out ideas with framing. Some structuring not possible in face-to-face. Reply highlighting - again, online possible online to give that structure. Subtle indications about importance. 

Seems obvious to people who know how to do this - but not everyone does it well without learning. But can do complex and subtle work around authority and responsibility through quoting, complimenting, mirroring, showing empathy.

Another example of a huge discussion managed through use of colour, headings, layout.

Was talking to Moodle development team, had decided to switch off things like colour, size and so on, because not very important (!).

Many people make huge use of these, they are important.

Size matters - and colour, and layout - without them the sense is lost.


Jon Rosewell: Different students working differently on FirstClass - was it a client versus web-interface issue?

Rebecca: Could be. But was clear in different groups - if someone (usually the tutor) was modelling those behaviour, other people would tend to follow. But if nobody led, nobody did it. Also carried things over from one piece of software to another. So not entirely about the software default setup.

Ruslan: Synchronous communication - students agreeing when to come together for e.g. live voice interaction. We know that's important. Were there examples of that? Mobile, landlines?

Rebecca: Were certain times when groups came together synchronously, or tried to. Not so much phone. Did do in FirstClass, or IM - when had a time-limited decision to make, or a hard deadline. Didn't manage to get everybody together because of other demands on their time. Was all assessed collaborative work - so tutor guided them away from e.g. email - some baseline marks for participation online.

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.

Doug Clow
12:04 on 24 May 2010

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