2. Research Approaches
do not know enough to arrange efficient flexible learning, especially
concerning collaborative learning using forum systems (Moore & Kearsley,
1996). This might cause students to spend their time on courses without
learning what they were promised, and teachers working hard without producing
acceptable results. It also implies that the forum systems we use are not quite
as effective as they could be.
aims of the research reported in this thesis are
review and supplement the knowledge about collaborative learning via forum
and describing factors influencing effective collaborative learning via forum
systems, and especially
the teachers´ role and behaviour and need for system support and
use this knowledge to suggest effective teacher behaviour and ICT support
I started research within the area of flexible learning, the first questions
that came to my mind were:
new possibilities do teaching and learning at a distance offer?
new problems are introduced?
best way to find out was to try. So I gave a course together with a colleague
and made a research study on it at the same time (Study A). We found, among
other things, that in this type of learning environment:
was difficult for us as teachers to activate inactive groups.
teachers´ facilitating work was hard and took a lot of time.
was possible to learn when groups collaborated through a forum system but
students were not familiar with communicating electronically.
appreciated the freedom of time and place, and the confidence we showed them to
on these results, I formulated the following questions:
it possible to support the teachers by adding functions to the forum system?
it possible to help students collaborate by giving them an introduction to
on these questions, I designed support functions to be added to the forum
system, and studied the use of these in a course. In the same course, I made an
experiment by giving an introduction to human communication to some of the
students (Study B).
study gave the following results:
was possible to support the teachers with the functions tested, but those were
maybe not ideal and more support might be helpful.
experiment did not prove any noteworthy impact from the introduction about
I decided not to continue along the line about the introduction, but to
elaborate on the teachers role and need for support. I also decided to keep the
focus on the online discussion as learning format. The resulting questions were:
can we take advantage of possibilities and reduce problems, introduced by the
use of computer-mediated communication (CMC)?
help is available from theories about learning, collaboration, and
communication, to understand processes and influencing factors?
help is available from practitioners within the field?
step was to establish a working group around the theme: Creative Teaching of
Electronic Collaborative Learning Groups. I co-chaired this group during the
conference ITiCSE'99 and it resulted in a report (Study C).
have also experimented informally with different kinds of online discussions as
components of a campus course I am responsible for. During and after the
studies, I have read literature about theories and practice within the field. I
used this knowledge to interpret results from the studies and to draw the
conclusions reported in this thesis.
between practical and theoretical studies, I have found new problems to solve
and new possible solutions to try. Integrating my own results with theories and
other researchers' results, I have synthesized the results reported in this
thesis (see Figure 2.1.) By describing this process and my findings, I hope to
stimulate other researchers and practitioners to continue the experimenting and
analysis, shaping a good environment for growing knowledge.
2.1. Flow chart illustrating the research process
have alternated between sharing the responsibility for a whole course and doing
research on courses given by others or by myself. That means that my
perspective has changed from at first having a focus on a course overview, to
studying the single discussion contributions from individual students, and from
being the observer, to experiencing being a teacher. In my interviews and
dialogue analyses, I have tried to understand what it means to be a student or
a teacher at a distance, and how the learning process is impacted by the
teachers´ behaviour and the system used.
the overall research process like this, it looks like a hermeneutic approach
(see Figure 2.2.). There is an alternation between the whole and the parts,
between pre-understanding and understanding, interpretation of meaning, the
use of "growing" as a metaphor, the integration between theory and practice
(Alvesson & Sköldberg, 1994).
my knowledge has grown during these alternations, which indicates that I have
followed a spiral going up instead of just going around in the circle.
The "hermeneutic spiral" (inspired by
Alvesson & Sköldberg, 1994, p. 174)
I did not use hermeneutical methods like source critique or text interpretation
in my studies. My approach in the single studies can be described as inductive
ethnography, largely built on observation of recorded behaviours. It is a
primarily qualitative approach, studying phenomena and action in naturalistic
environments with quantitative data collected when considered feasible and
relevant. The qualitative approach requires a close and durable contact with
the studied group or community in its natural environment, narrowing the gap
between the observer and the observed. Often, one starts with a rather wide
perspective, narrowing it as one finds interesting questions or details to
focus on. It is important to be open-minded, flexible, and not restricted by
theories or presumptions (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 1994).
qualitative methods were used in the studies. The reason was that my main goal
was to create a deep understanding of factors influencing collaborative
learning via CMC.
alternative approach would have been to compare a course given via CMC with the
same course given in a traditional setting. Another alternative or complement
could be to examine a great number of similar CMC courses and make a
statistical analysis of factors that might influence the learning process. If a
comparison between two courses should be meaningful, you have to control most
variables. In a course situation, there is a huge amount of variables, and one
of the most important is the student. It was impossible to conduct an
experiment with the same students in two courses, and very difficult to
experiment with so many students that the differences can be reliably
eliminated by random assignment to experimental and control groups. Both in the
studies reported and in the alternative approach mentioned above, it could have
been interesting to measure the knowledge, resulting from the courses. However,
the kind of knowledge aimed at here is very difficult to measure, and if you
measure, you influence the knowledge. E.g., for the course examined in Study B,
one of the knowledge goals is:
support the development of an analytical understanding and to awaken a lifelong
interest in the social aspects of computerization.
I have not tried to measure the knowledge resulting from the courses. Instead,
I have judged the implications on learning outcomes from the students'
you will find a structured description of methods used in the three studies.
of Data Collection
from relatively natural and spontaneous processes
Study A, behaviours indicating the learning and group processes were observed,
and the experiences as active teachers were noted. Produced reports and the
electronic communication, recorded automatically by the forum system, were saved.
Study B, the electronic communication was saved and the group processes were
observed, without the present author taking part in the course.
produced on request or by the researcher
Study A, the students were asked to write diaries about their learning process.
They also got three questionnaires each, and we made participant observations,
Study B, an experiment was conducted and the students got three questionnaires
each. Some students and the main teacher were interviewed.
Study C, there was a group discussion among researchers, documenting
experiences and opinions in a report.
of Data Analysis
Study A, the electronic communication during one month was analyzed.
Contributions were categorized and counted, in order to identify and compare
different communication strategies. The questionnaires contained some
quantifiable data, e.g., data about background and former experiences and these
Study B, the quantifiable data in the questionnaires were processed.
both Study A and Study B, examples of utterances and interaction were
identified that illustrate different phenomena from the point of view of
communication theory, activity theory, and theory about group processes.
to open questions in questionnaires and interviews, experiences from the
participation and observations in Study A and Study B were reported as
Study A and Study B, induction was used to generalize that some of the
conclusions might be true also concerning other courses.
Study B, student behaviour in the CMC situation were found that seemed to agree
with a corresponding behaviour in a face-to-face situation, according to a
group-process theory. Thus, it was generalized that this behaviour might be
typical also in other CMC situations.
Study A, some conclusions were drawn about the studied groups without
generalizing to other groups.
for this Thesis
conclude, this thesis is based on the following:
Previous experiences, e.g.,
my earlier work in and with industrial, public and private organization
the course "Human-Computer Interaction", in some cases given as video-mediated
lectures, and experiments with discussions via forum systems
employees and university students in traditional classroom settings.
studies about theories and practice. The theories have been of help at the
interpretation of study results. The practice have given ideas about what
to study and how problems can be solved.
The experience of giving the distance course "Spin a Web Between the School
and the World" (abreviated "Spin a Web "), and doing research on the same,
reported in Study A.
research on the course "People, Computers, and Society" (abreviated PCS),
reported in Study B
and co-conducting the working group "Creative Teaching of Electronic Collaborative
Learning Groups", reported in Study C.