A Pragmatic Approach to Analysing CMC Discourse

A Pragmatic Approach to Analysing CMC Discourse

Christina Howell-Richardson (King’s College, London, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-773-2.ch049
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A co-operative learning task relies on the mutual interdependence of group members to achieve their task goal. Where the task involves conceptual learning, this also involves argumentation and the development of joint frames of understanding. The main aim of this research study was to understand how postgraduate students conveyed their meanings and how they managed their group interaction in asynchronous online conferencing. The chapter explains the development and use of an analytic framework, based on Conversational Analysis and neo-Gricean theories of conversational meaning, to examine, code and describe the discourse behaviours and discourse strategies of postgraduate students when engaged in co-operative learning tasks in an asynchronous and text-based, online conferencing environment. The analysis indicates systematic patterning in the ways participants compose their messages and in their use of specific discourse strategies to manage the interaction of the group process and of the discussion of the conceptual material.
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Computer mediated communication (CMC) discussion forums in the form of a multi-party, asynchronous, text-based communications environment are now an embedded part of many Higher Education (HE) courses, and are a familiar feature of Virtual Learning Environments. Over the years a base of knowledge has been developed about the kinds of group processes that contribute to the development of online learning groups, and about the kinds of activities and task structures that support online group discussion. However, less is known about how HE students in taught online courses manage their interactions with their learning group and with the subject content through their talk.

A well-designed and carefully structured online course which creates the conditions for, but does not prescribe, certain kinds of learner interactions with each other and with the conceptual content of the subject area represents a different communications context than face-to-face or loosely (or very highly) structured discussion forums. In the latter contexts contributions often tend to be either cumulative in nature or follow a question and answer rhetorical pattern. The key features of the altered structured, educational CMC context are:

The design of the course and the online environment- the design is the architecture of the environment and so creates the conditions for certain kinds of interactions to take place between people and with respect to their engagement with the conceptual content.

  • 2.

    The process pedagogy – typically a social pedagogy or a collaborative learning pedagogy with respect to the organisation and management of the groups. In higher education contexts this often involves a sharing of the responsibility for the process management of the learning process between the course tutor and the participants on the course.

    • (1)

      The discussion as a collective text- when the transcript is perceived as a collective text this filters the rate and distribution of messaging, giving more prominence to reflection on what already exists, deliberation on the purpose and impact of one’s contribution and deliberation on one’s positioning of the contribution, in terms of both the speaker’s epistemic stance and how ideas are linked across messages.

    • (2)

      An altered learning space- the discussion forum is the point of social learning, where the Cognitive processes triggered by collaborative engagement occur (Dillenbourg 1999). Further, due to the altered physical and temporal relation of the participants to each other there is another overlapping space for individual reflection which feeds into and out from the shared dialogic space.

Learning and thinking together within this type of environment to arrive at the groups’ learning goals requires a diversity of skills. But above all else it relies on students’ use of language to co-ordinate their group process and their thinking (Mercer and Littleton 2007, Wegerif 2007). The aim of this chapter is to discuss a method developed to examine:

What discourse strategies do students use to manage their interactions and learning in a computer supported co-operative learning (CSCL) environment?



CSCL as a Context

A structured, extended CSCL course is a social and communications context with its own distinctive features. This can be broadly described along two dimensions. Firstly, through a description of what has been established about conversation management in CMC contexts. Secondly, through a description of the types of social environment created within a co-operative learning paradigm.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Speech Act: – A speech act is a technical term in Linguistics and philosophy. Austen’s early informal characterisation of a speech act is “by saying something we do something”. Three categories are commonly recognised as components of a speech act: the locution-the act of saying something, the illocution -the speaker’s intended meaning, and the perlocution - the effect (intended or otherwise) on the recipient of the speech act.

Computer-supported Collaborative Leaning (CSCL): - Computer supported collaborative learning is group-based learning. The learning takes place primarily across computer networks, but may also be mixed mode (e.g. face-to-face and online). The learning mode is collaborative as the group work interdependently to achieve a joint goal.

Conversational Implicature- A conversational implicature is the expression of an indirect meaning: in the sense that there is no literal mapping between the form of expression used and the intended (and interpreted) meaning. It refers to meanings which are conveyed in such a way that the speaker’s intendend meaning is inferred from the linguistic cues and other context cues. Conversational implicature is based in Grice’s theory of meaning, Speech Act theory and Levinson’s theory of presupposition and implicature.

Conversational Analysis: Conversational analysis is the study of talk in interaction. It describes the orderliness, structure, and sequential patterns of interactions through conversation. CA is inspired by enthnomethodology, and originated in the work of Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson.

CSCL Discourse: The talk of learning groups when engaged in a CSCL task in online asynchronous communications environment has particular features, which differ from talk in other modalities. The talk of these groups and the ways in which they express their thoughts and mange their interactions through their talk is their discourse.

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