Since 1985 the Oregon Health Sciences University School of Nursing in Ashland has provided baccalaureate completion (RN/BS) education to geographically isolated nurses in rural southwest Oregon. The teaching strategies and technologies selected for program delivery to distance students have begun to alter our understanding of the best instructional practices to support all learners, regardless of their location. This paper describes our experience using asynchronous computer conferencing (ACC) for student discussion groups in a required undergraduate course on nursing and health policy. ACC refers to discussions that occur electronically: participants read and respond to each other's written comments at their convenience. The nature of interactions that occur in this format will be discussed along with the findings from student and faculty evaluations of ACC as a tool to promote group work.
With the current emphasis on collaborative learning in preparation for dealing with complex and ambiguous real world problems, the education and communication literature reveal great interest in computer-mediated group communication. A growing body of research provides useful insights into the nature of computermediated group interactivity and its use for cooperative learning. The core of this literature is the belief that interactivity, "the exchange of messages based on the way preceding messages are related to even earlier ones" (Rafaeli, 1988, p. Ill), is essentia] for effective group work.
Harasim (1997), studying the evolution of online course delivery since the mid 1980s, notes the following critical attributes are needed in a computer-mediated system for collaborative learning: asynchronicity, place-independence, exchanges among many-to-many, and a text-based format. She argues significant learning outcomes can occur in collaborative online courses including active learning, interactive learning, and acquisition of multiple perspectives.
Saba and Shearer (1994) have used discourse analysis to measure the extent that learning is student directed and interactive in either face-to-face or distance education. They report that as active dialogue (i.e., posing focused questions, explaining concepts, giving illustrative examples) among students increases, the presence of predetermined structure (i.e., course objectives and instructional activities) decreases. They propose that course design in computer-mediated environments should take into account when varying levels of predetermined structure and dialogue are most effective in enhancing group work. For example, student problem-solving teams may require higher structure during the initial phases of working together than later when team members have coalesced and delineated the problem of concern.
McDonald and Gibson (1998), exploring the nature of group dynamics that occur in ACC, demonstrated that ACC groups undergo similar stages for developing a cohesive and functioning group as have been found in face-to-face groups. They report that the perception of within-group affection, as measured by openness and solidarity in dialogue, was very important to ACC participants throughout their course. Interpersonal issues seem to be similar in presence and importance for online groups as they are in traditional settings.
Social presence, which refers to perceptions of participants that they are being heard and responded to by others, may be essential for the occurrence of effective online interaction. While social presence is often evaluated in face-to-face exchanges through nontext cues such as body language, facial expression, and voice tone, it can also be gauged by participants' assessment of a sense of immediacy and intimacy in group messages. Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) have found that perceived social presence is highly correlated with learner satisfaction in a computer-mediated group communication environment. They propose instructional factors such as course design, patterns of participant involvement, and faculty and student group roles are more significant than the technology medium in influencing perceptions of social presence. This notion that the nontechnologic instructional environment is more significant than the technical medium in effecting learning has been voiced by others (Erhmann, 1995; Walther, 1992).
In summary, a growing body of literature demonstrates that effective group work can occur in a technology-mediated environment. Further, the knowledge revealed in analyzing online interactions suggests instructional design strategies to enhance successful collaborative learning in both online and face-to-face environments.
When the School of Nursing received funds to test innovative methods of instruction, we decided to explore the use of ACC for small group activities in a senior level course, nursing and health policy. The primary goals of this course are for students to develop an awareness of how policy affects their practice, and to acquire knowledge and skills for influencing policy decisions. Past delivery involved 10 weekly 3-hour class meetings comprised of lectures, guest speakers, and small-group (4-6 members) case discussions. Distance students participated via 2-way interactive audio-video conferencing. Case discussions were conducted faceto-face in small groups at each course site. The case discussion process involved group responses to a series of questions culminating in a summary group report. The restructured course was scheduled for initial delivery to 82 students at 3 distance sites and the host campus site. The weekly class meetings were revised so that the lecture/guest speaker sessions alternated with group discussion sessions. The students who volunteered for the ACC experience participated in their case discussions electronically, using the school supported Electronic Information Exchange System computer conferencing software. They were excused from attending the five class meetings scheduled for in-class group work, and were expected to conduct all discussion online and to post group summary reports electronically.
Students were offered the opportunity to participate in the ACC groups 6 weeks before the term. All registered students received letters that detailed the course expectations and described the ACC groups, informing them that problems with the technology could occur and that prior familiarity with computer communications was desirable. The first 24 students responding to the letter were accepted into the ACC groups. Prior to the start of the course, these students were oriented to the technology in a 2-hour workshop, where they received extensive written support materials. Throughout the term, students had access to phone and online technology support for the software.
Students from all sites, including the host campus, volunteered for the ACC groups. None had prior experience with ACC. Interestingly, of the 24 participants, 20 (83%) were RN/BS students, who comprised 61% of the total course enrollment. Conversations with students in the ACC groups indicated that the opportunity to miss half of the scheduled class sessions was a major factor in their decision to participate.
Students participating in the ACC groups had never met or worked with each other. In an effort to introduce group members to both the technology and each other, the first online assignment involved a getacquainted activity and a contest: the first group with all members signed online received a prize. Initial online discussion included introductions, the exchange of personal information, and humor regarding the contest. Early comments revealed frustration with the software and confusion about how to discuss electronically. Students shared their solutions to common technological problems and much of the early group cohesion revolved around mastering the technology.
With few exceptions, the students logged into their discussion groups several times a week. Evidence of effective group dynamics was noted in the electronic discussions. Students became resources for each other around technology problem solving, support systems developed, and students learned from each other by sharing resources and experiences. A review of group transcripts post-course identified the following types of interactions occurred:
System Challenges. Technology-specific problem solving or venting of emotions. "M. I've gotten this far; however, they told me I am not a part of the conference and would not let me in. Also, the numbers on these things are mucho confusing."
Support Networks. Emotional and occasionally informational support for personal issues unrelated to the technology or the course requirements. "Thanks for all the healing energies you sent me. I am healing ahead of time." (Student had surgery midway through the term, and completed course on schedule by viewing videotapes and through home computer connection to her ACC group.)
Sharing Resources. Traditional and online resources related to the course* assignment. "Does anyone know what happened to the plan after it was defeated? Is Clinton still trying to put something together? I also wanted you to know where I got my information; it was published in a client update from.. .I've been trying to find out what HFMA stands for. Does anyone know? I haven't found out."
Case-Based Group Work. Providing examples to illustrate ideas, responding to each other, raising questions, providing evidence to support a position, developing group summary statements. "I have just scanned the comments made over the weekend and will format summary comments for our mutual perusal (agreement/disagreement). After we have all commented and I can make a running guess as to our consensus with minority opinions included I will submit a report to the group for any final comments.'' [Group recorder.]
Preliminary discussions reflected serial monologues and reluctance to constructively criticize others' ideas. Students appeared to enter the discussion with a specific message already formed, regardless of what others may have just written. Interactions among group members were primarily polite comments that a prior contributor had "made a good point." They seemed reluctant to question generalizations about a personal experience or belief system, to identify assumptions implicit in comments, or to evaluate the merit of resources. The faculty intervened, identifying this pattern to the groups and modeling more interactive types of responses. The faculty, never before privy to entire face-to-face group discussions while having access to full text ACC student discussions, wondered if these issues were not also occurring in the traditional live groups. Several weeks into the term, guidelines for engaging in and evaluating constructive criticism were provided to both the traditional and ACC groups.
After the course ended, all of the ACC participants responded to open-ended questions about the experience. Their comments identified a number of features suggestive of effective group interactions: (a) students believed the technology provided extensive and effective opportunities to communicate with student colleagues and the faculty; (b) students appreciated the ability to review all prior comments in a discussion; (c) students reflected more effectively on their own contributions and the contributions of othprior to responsive commenting; and (d) students sensed team collegiality, summarized by the comment: "There is a certain camaraderie that comes about and a feeling of working together and coming together with people you don't know."
The final class meeting provided evidence of this as groups met each other over interactive videoconference. There was laughter and hand waving as individuals across the four sites introduced themselves-the first opportunity many had to put faces with names.
Several students indicated that computer discussions were more time consuming than live classroom discussions. Suggestions for improving the format focused on reconfiguring course assignments to accommodate the more complex, thought-provoking discussion that occurred ordine. This recommendation has been reported by others observing the often intense nature of online discussions (R. Larison, personal communication, March, 1994). Limitations of the technology were identified, including the awkward software, technology glitches, long distance phone bills for the few students without local access dial-in, and the frustration of learning a computer conferencing system while simultaneously struggling with course content. Because of the convienence and the quality of discussion, 22 of the 24 students indicated they would take another course using ACC. Two students (1 basic and 1 RN/BS) were uncertain about repeating the format; they missed face-to-face interactions with colleagues.
The faculty was able to track both individual and group progress across the term. Overall, the quality of student comments and the shared information resources within the ACC groups was high. Electronically-posted group summaries demonstrated better application of concepts to cases than did the five group reports. Admittedly, faculty observation of group dynamics may be different between live and asynchronous groups. In traditional classrooms, the faculty member tends to enter and exit Uve groups for brief time periods across a course, gaining only a snapshot impression of group dynamics. With ACC, the faculty and students have complete information- literal transcripts-on both quality and quantity of all the students' individual entries, including the ability to review prior comments. While the faculty chose to stay in the background, access to entire discussion scripts enabled the faculty to identify ways to coach groups and to assess effectiveness of the coaching. For example, when critical reflection was demonstrated, the faculty interjected words of praise. If the discussion seemed stalled or superficial, the faculty would post a comment to encourage or direct discussion. This process also provided opportunities for role modeling disagreement with ideas rather than individuals. Since posted faculty comments are potentially intimidating, considerable attention was given to framing postings positively and constructively.
Subsequent Course Offerings
Asynchronous computer conferencing has been the only method for group case discussion for this course in subsequent offerings. Our transition to FirstClass@ Conferencing Software has shortened the technology learning curve and eliminated numerous problems encountered with Electronic Information Exchange System. We are also observing each year that entering students bring higher levels of computer literacy and access with them. Some have had prior electronic discussion experiences.
Students vary in their comfort with the electronic medium. The initial course offering allowed students to self-select into the asynchronous group. Now, all students are required to discuss cases online. Some campus-based students verbalize an initial dislike for ACC. They express annoyance at sitting together in class but discussing cases online. Interestingly, by the end of the term, most traditional students request more courses using ACC. From their initial encounter with ACC, nontraditional students are generally enthusiastic about the format. Post-course comments indicate they appreciate the convenience, the flexibility, the time to think about what they have read, and the opportunity to explore their own thoughts before responding. Several alumni report they are requesting the format when they enroll in graduate studies.
Our experiences with computermediated group communication support the literature: effective group interaction can occur in the ACC environment, and instructional factors related to design of assignments, student roles, and faculty roles influence the nature of the online experience. Two lessons in particular have emerged from this experience. First, ACC provides data on student performance that offers an opportunity to learn more about effective instruction. In this attempt to recreate the traditional classroom experience for distance learners, we did not question the specific pedagogy of the traditional Uve discussion group. We instead found a technology, ACC, to deUver the pedagogy. Reading students' online entries compeUed the facility member to question her assumptions about the nature and quaUty of dialogue occurring in both traditional (face-to-face) and asynchronous student discussion groups. A significant contribution that technology can make to pedagogy is the readily available record of student group interactions and faculty responses. These transcripts provide new opportunities to better understand effective student learning teams and teaching practices that best faciUtate collaborative learning.
Second, this experience has reinforced the conviction that academic institutions must emphasize instructional design issues over technologic beUs and whistles when developing courses and programs that use computer-mediated teaching/learning strategies. Technology is a tool to support learning, and, as such, faculty have much to learn about what and how and when tools are most effective. Unless pedagogy drives the use of technology, we may perpetuate ineffective teaching/learning behaviors, falling short of our goals to better enable our students to respond to an increasingly complex world. One of the greatest challenges for educators entering the 21st century is not in finding the best technology tool, but in finding the best pedagogic answers to the numerous learning challenges inherent in a global, informationbased society.
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