Interaction patterns in online discusssions


Ella Fu

Fu, E. L. F. (2014). Characterising the discourse patterns of collaborative knowledge building. Ph.D, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong. Get it!

Summary of finding

Online discourse in knowledge building differs from other types of discourse. It’s not really like a face to face conversation we might have over tea, nor is it like email or heated debate. What is it like?

This study first selected a few  views from a large number of Knowledge Forum databases, after an extensive selection process, and then carried out qualitative analysis of the selected views. The results are presented in three themes, which are derived from the distinctions Van Aalst made between knowledge sharing, knowledge construction, and knowledge building.

Knowledge sharing patterns

Knowledge sharing refers to different ways in which a student might enter information into the database that do not lead to the revision of ideas or problem solving; it mainly involves the sharing of one’s idea and factual knowledge. Knowledge sharing is very common, and the study found 5 patterns. Some are known well from research on classroom talk.

  • Fact oriented: A question is asked that only requires a fact, or factual information is presented. (“What is a volt?”/”The unit of voltage is a volt”.) These kinds of contributions don’t leave anything to think about for the community, and the discussion is therefore short-lived. A note that requires an explanation is more promising.
  • Cumulative: Students add ideas to an inquiry but don’t seem to be aware of what other has just said. To pretend they have read others’ ideas, they first agree the previous ideas (“I agree. Me too.”) and then share their own. So their ideas are similar and repetitive.
  • Limited interaction: In the simplest form different students respond to the same note, but they do this individually; the result looks like a star. We may get many ideas but no responses to any of them; students are talking past each other and may even be unaware of each other’s ideas. It is better to respond to a few notes at the same time, find connections between ideas, and so on. In some examples there are branches. Students may now be responding to previous notes in the same branch, but not to notes in other branches.
  • Disputational: The discussion focuses on who is right and who is wrong. (“Objection!! Does it mean …? It may not be the case.”) This kind of interaction, though having good intentions, may shut down the discussion. It is better to be more supportive in tone, even if the reader has a critical point to make.

Disputational Talk

  • Simple argumentation: This provides an argument and counterargument, but rarely has a rebuttal. Although the interaction could eventually lead to knowledge construction, it doesn’t get that far. Examples include heated debates in which each side simply states a position.
Star-shaped dialogue image

Star-shaped dialogue

Knowledge construction patterns

Knowledge construction patterns refer to different ways in which students engage in collaborative problems solving. They build upon each other’s ideas by asking questions, providing examples, introducing relevant information, and improving previous explanations. Knowledge-construction discourse can be found in classrooms whose students are getting familiar with collaborative learning. The study found two patterns.

  • Problem-centred inquiry: During a problem-solving process, students recognise the gist others’ responses. Therefore, they are able to recognise how previous responses confuse them, and to subject problematic ideas to further inquiry (“Community art can let more people to know the history of a community” | “But how can community art can do so?”). However, once the initial questions are satisfactorily addressed, the problem-solving process comes to a halt.
  • Complex argumentation: This provides not only argument and counterargument but also rebuttals. Students build upon others’ arguments and collaboratively develop a coherent argument for a position. However, students holding an opposing position would not attempt to rise above their arguments.
Knowledge building patterns

Knowledge building represents student collaborative efforts to engage in community knowledge advancement. Although an initial question is satisfactorily addressed, students persist in their efforts to produce knowledge that is useful in their classrooms. Knowledge building entails a social practice that facilitates innovation and creative ideas, and this is rarely found. The study found 2 patterns:

  • Emerging progressive inquiry: During collaborative interactions, students progressively deepen their inquiry by formulating more specific, subordinate questions to direct the knowledge advancement process. The questions are not given by teachers; they emerge from students’ understanding of what they need to know more.
  • Community advancement: It shows students’ perseverance in advancing their community’s understanding. They ask questions and provide more explanations to ensure others can follow the discussion. Students go beyond learning textbook content, and they relate the discussion to their personal experience and knowledge. They are developing their ability to use concepts as an intellectual tool for explaining their daily experiences and personal perspectives.
Distribution of patterns
Distribution of patterns table

Distribution of patterns

As the above table shows, the most common interaction patterns were characterised as knowledge sharing (73%), especially the limited interaction pattern (star-shaped) and cumulative discourse (“I agree’).

Implications for practice

This study shows that most of the interactions in these databases were knowledge sharing, and did not reach knowledge construction or knowledge building. But knowledge sharing is rather shallow discourse. Other studies that have used the knowledge building, knowledge construction, knowledge building framework have found similar distributions, although some have found more knowledge building when students were asked to reflect on the state of their online work. After having a better understanding of the characteristics of online discourse, we can some take actions to improve students’ online work. A first step for improving the discourse is for the teacher and students to be on the look-out for knowledge sharing patterns. Of course, some sharing is fine, but it is important that the discourse doesn’t stop there. Equally important is for the teacher and students to be aware how they can take their discourse to knowledge construction and knowledge building. For example, introducing rebuttals and limiting cumulative and disputational discourse can lead to complex argumentation, which is a more productive type of discourse than simple argumentation.