Visualizing and monitoring effective interactions in online collaborative groups


Online education based on small self-managing groups, with slight supervision by a professional tutor, is a strategically interesting methodology for lifelong learning. This solution may combine aspects of cost-effectiveness (reducing tutors’ work) with the demands for active and engaging learning methods based on the exchange and sharing of experiences. In such a context, how can information on collaborative attitudes and behaviour be gathered? A typical tool for online learning activities is the threaded web forum. This study proposes a methodology for assessing effective collaborative interactions within the add-on module, Forum Plus, for the Moodle learning management system (LMS). The methodology here presented is able to supply an early overview of the level of effectiveness of the collaborative group and therefore it may provide a useful instrument to guide further qualitative observations conducted directly in the web forum. Introduction The idea that knowledge is constructed (or at least encouraged) through dialogue and discussion goes back to the cognitive conflict theory (Doise & Mugny, 1984) and is one of the main concepts taken up by computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL). The underlying hypothesis is that learning in a collaborative group is essentially based upon interindividual confrontation/clashing with directly opposed standpoints, argumentations, counter-deductions, explanations and in-depth analysis that lead people to restructure their own mindsets. The theoretical framework of the CSCL approach has emphasized the role of threaded web forums. Even the basic features of this tool offer relevant and peculiar functions British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 41 No 2 2010 213–226 doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00911.x © 2009 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2009 Becta. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. enabling the development of online learning-oriented discussions. The availability of texts to be revised as well as the possibility of re-examining and reinterpreting them, allow users to connect and build ideas, refining them and stimulating deeper reflection (Calvani, 2005; Dillenbourg, 2005; Salmon, 2002). However, as widely acknowledged in literature, it has to be noted that the threaded web forum presents also some limits and dysfunctions, such as incoherence, dispersion and lack of convergence (Herring, 1999; Hewitt, 2001, 2003, 2005; Suthers, 2001). Background scenario Our idea to identify an effective interaction model capable of giving an immediate picture of the effectiveness level of a collaborative group, emerged from the need to find solutions for supporting collaborative groups management. The scenario we referred to can be summarised as follows: we are dealing with an online course addressed to adults within a formal context (eg, a master’s degree) and based on collaborative methods (eg, group project works). A rather high number of persons participated in the course for a period of about 6 months. The workgroups are formed in advance and a preliminary training period on technical subjects and relational aspects is delivered to all participants, in order to render them as autonomous as possible. The web forum represents the pivotal tool where the majority of interactions takes place. In such a context, a tutor could be in charge of supervising a number of groups (10 or more); he/she will need to have a real-time update on the progress of the groups’ work, to be able to carry out the necessary actions and to decide which group needs his/her attention. What tools could be useful for the tutor (and also for the group itself)? Which tools would allow him/her to get a rather precise idea of the collaborative effectiveness of the group’s activities? Our work started off from a research project aiming at improving the standard ‘forum’ module of Moodle Open Source LMS. During the project, we developed and released an add-on module for Moodle (see further discussion). At the same time, we worked out a theoretical model for effective collaboration and a procedure to acquire data from interactions and visualize them in a graphical way in reference to the given model. Methods for assessing effective collaborative interactions There is a wide range of literature on research methods to analyse online interactions and discussion. Quantitative methods for content analysis are the ones most widely used (for a review, see De Wever, Schellens, Valcke & Van Keer, 2006; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison & 214 British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 41 No 2 2010 © 2009 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2009 Becta. Archer, 2001). Roughly, they consist in coding single messages and statistically analysing them in order to describe their distribution frequency and identify their relationships. The social network analysis (SNA), a key technique in modern sociology and anthropology for the study of the social relationships between individuals in a community, has also been used to analyse interaction among members of a virtual community (Cho, Stefanone & Gay, 2002; De Laat, Lally, Lipponen & Simons, 2007; Garton, Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1997; Mazzoni, 2005; Reffay & Chanier, 2003). However, it seems to be scarcely suitable for a threaded web forum because of the technical features of this tool: participants in a threaded web forum do not interact by sending individual messages to each other and thus selecting the recipient, but by posting their messages in a shared and prestructured area that everyone can access. On the other hand, qualitative methods based on Conversation Analysis (CA), a research tradition that grew out of ethnomethodology (ten Have, 1999; Sacks, 1992; Schegloff, 1989) for the study of actual talk-in interaction, often lead to finding out or discovering relevant sources for case studies. Nevertheless, they require a lot of work and tutors would not have enough time to do it, especially when they are in charge of supervising a number of groups. The Forum Plus and its functionalities The Forum Plus (also named Discussion module) is an additional module for Moodle ( We developed it with the aim of enhancing the standard ‘Forum’ module with some features, mainly inspired by CSCL systems, to improve the metacognitive, monitoring and reflection capabilities of collaborative groups. The module includes three sections: 1. Forum Plus 2. Reflection Board 3. Planner

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00911.x

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@article{Calvani2010VisualizingAM, title={Visualizing and monitoring effective interactions in online collaborative groups}, author={Antonio Calvani and Antonio Fini and Marcello Molino and Maria Ranieri}, journal={BJET}, year={2010}, volume={41}, pages={213-226} }