Developing a sociocultural framework for understanding asynchronous teaching and learning dialogues

Cooper, T.; LeVoi, M.; Littleton, K.; Miell, D.; Vass, E. and Wegerif, R. (2004). Developing a sociocultural framework for understanding asynchronous teaching and learning dialogues. In: British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Sep 2004, Manchester, UK.


There is an increasing development of courses and course components taught through teaching and learning dialogues online yet there is little secure knowledge of the factors that influence the educational quality and outcomes of these dialogues. This paper explores the value of adapting analytical frameworks that have been developed to understand face to face educational dialogues to the new context of asynchronous electronic conferencing.

There are many differences at a discursive level between speech and asynchronous electronic conferencing such as the lack of non-verbal channels of communication, the possibility of multiple threads, the time lag between posting and response and the differences in turn-taking procedures. The uniqueness of electronic conferencing means that frameworks developed to analyse classroom talk cannot be applied directly. However an initial study by Littleton and Whitelock (in press) has shown that there is some value in applying the framework developed for exploring teacher student interactions in classrooms by Mercer and colleagues to asynchronous communication.

Mercer and Wegerif (e.g. Mercer, 1995; Wegerif and Mercer 1997) have developed discourse analysis methods to explore the construction of knowledge in face to face classroom interaction. These combine a close reading of the interactions to explore changes in understanding with computer-based text analysis tracking the different contexts in which key words occur. Used in conjunction with a characterisation of types of dialogue, such as ‘exploratory talk’ and with more detailed interpretative work, a text analysis of linguistic features can be used to show changes in the kind of talk being used over time.

We apply these methods to analyse data from a ‘virtual summer school’ of around 500 psychology students at the Open University. We focus on two groups of six students, 12 students in total, who were supervised working on an undergraduate psychology project. The electronic record of their online interactions with their tutors and with each other is supplemented with 30 minute telephone interviews conducted with students and tutors. Our analysis seeks firstly to explore the role the tutor plays in supporting joint meaning making and fostering a collaborative community of enquiry and secondly to understand the ways in which students collaborating on a piece of psychology project work negotiate shared understanding and support each other in the process of learning at a distance. We find that the concept of ‘exploratory talk’ taken from classroom research remains useful but needs to be significantly adapted to take into account the different kinds of intersubjectivity, ground rules and utterances found in the online context.

Littleton, K. and Whitelock, D.(in press). Guiding the creation of knowledge and understanding in a virtual learning environment. Cyberpsychology and behavior.
Mercer, N. (1995) The guided construction of knowledge. Multilingual Matters.
Wegerif, R., and N. Mercer. (1997) Using computer-based text analysis to integrate quantitative and qualitative methods in the investigation of collaborative learning. Language and Education, Vol. 11. (4): 271-287.

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