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«A Systematic Review of Small-Group Communication in Post-Secondary Online Courses Namsook Jahng Abstract This systematic review establishes a ...»

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Jahng, N. S.

A Systematic Review of Small-Group Communication in

Post-Secondary Online Courses

Namsook Jahng


This systematic review establishes a comprehensive understanding of research trends and the

findings of current studies that focus on small-group communication in post-secondary

online courses. The review includes 18 journal articles which are categorised and

summarised on the basis of their common themes. This review finds that a majority of the

studies focus on understanding or uncovering ‘learning processes’ by conducting content analysis (CA). Further research is suggested to investigate ‘instructional design or methods’ to provide instructors with practical knowledge and ideas to enhance and assist the learning processes. Methodological issues are also discussed, including coding reliability in CA, quantitative measures for assessing collaboration, and a need for causal relational experimental studies.

Keywords: systematic review; small group; communication; online course Introduction The increasing popularity of online courses has been enabled by the rapid development of communication technology and the internet. Exponentially growing numbers of post-secondary education institutions are delivering online courses worldwide. Subsequently, there have been concerns and issues relating to the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning in online courses.

Asynchronous communication (posting messages on a discussion board or group forum spaces) is a major method of communication in online distance education courses (Rourke & Kanuka, 2009). The archives of such communication have provided precious data for researchers to examine the dynamics of teaching and learning processes (Mason, 1991). Henri (1992) described the communication transcripts as “a gold mine of information concerning the psycho-social dynamics at work among students” (p. 118) and urged researchers to analyse the communication data so instructors could use the practical results to coach and facilitate learning. In this regard, many researchers have analysed communication transcripts to uncover the teaching and learning processes in online courses (Murphy & Ciszewska-Carr, 2005).

Small-group activity is a popular instructional method to encourage collaboration in online courses along with whole-group discussion activity (Benbunan-Fich, Hiltz, & Harasim, 2005). In the literature, however, small-group collaboration is less well known than whole-group discussion activities. This literature review therefore aims to establish a comprehensive understanding of research trends and findings from empirical studies that focus on investigating Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 16(2) small-group activities by analysing communication in online courses. By using a systematic approach, this literature review will provide researchers with information about the gaps and limitations of existing research on small-group collaboration.

The review questions are:

1. What are the research foci in the studies that analysed small-group communication in online courses?

2. What are the findings of research that analysed communication during small-group activities in online courses?

Method This review employs a systematic method which is defined by explicit planning and transparent procedures so that other researchers can know what has been reviewed and how (Gough, 2004;

Gough & Rees, 2008; Chalmers, 2005). The review method follows precise, comprehensive, and step-by-step procedures for (1) searching for potentially relevant studies; (2) screening the discovered, potentially relevant studies to include only those that meet the criteria for inclusion;

(3) coding the included studies; (4) categorising/grouping the studies; (5) conducting an in-depth review; and (6) reporting the findings (Badger, Nursten, Williams, & Woodward, 2000). Details of the procedures for each step are explained in the following sub-sections.

Electronic database searching Education-related databases were searched (i.e., Education Resources Information Centre [ERIC], Education Index Full Text, Academic Search Premier, and PsycINFO) through the

EBSCO Host platform. Keywords for searching the databases were gathered for three domains:

data type, course setting, and research focus (Table 1). Keywords were located by querying the thesaurus in each electronic database. The terms were connected with “OR” and each of the domains were connected with “AND”. Through this procedure, a total of 1,083 publications were identified and transferred to RefWorks, an online citation management system.

Table 1 Domains and search terms used for electronic databases Data type Course setting Research focus bulletin board OR distan* course* OR distan* learning OR distan* participation OR relationship OR message OR post* instruction OR distan* education OR distan* program critical thinking OR quality learning OR asynchronous OR online course* OR online learning OR online OR knowledge building OR communication OR instruction OR online education OR online program achievement OR outcome OR chat* OR computer OR web-based course* OR web-based learning OR collaboration OR collaborative mediated web-based instruction OR web-based education OR learning OR interact* OR social communication OR web-based program OR electronic course* OR presence OR cognitive presence OR CMC OR text OR electronic learning OR electronic instruction OR community of practice OR post* electronic education OR electronic program OR e- membership OR group activity OR course* OR e-learning OR eLearning content analysis Screening: First and second inclusion/exclusion This phase involved four steps: (1) removing any duplicate studies that had been retrieved; (2) screening the remaining articles based on only titles and abstracts; (3) retrieving those articles that were included after the initial screening; and (4) screening the full text of those articles. A total of 301 duplicated publications were deleted from the RefWorks database system, leaving 882 items to be screened in the first inclusion/exclusion. During the initial screening process, inclusion/exclusion criteria were applied to titles and abstracts only. Because this did not constitute a thorough application of the criteria, articles for which there was insufficient Jahng, N. S.

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As shown in Table 2, the screening process was conducted according to six inclusion criteria.

Studies had to meet all of the criteria to be included in the review. The review was limited to a post-secondary level, so studies involving K–12 students were excluded. K–12 online learning is mostly referred to as ‘virtual schooling’ and is fundamentally different from post-secondary online learning in terms of its theoretical foundation and the instructional methods employed (Cavanaugh, Barbour, & Clark, 2009).

To be included, a study must have also involved analyses of text communication messages. Some studies involved multiple datasets (e.g., surveys, interviews, course marks) and written communication data. These studies were included, but quite a few studies were excluded that analysed students’ perceptions, experiences, satisfaction, or achievement scores without directly examining communication data. Many studies were also excluded because the data were not collected from purely online courses but from hybrid/blended courses (i.e., a mixed mode of face-to-face and online learning). However, a few face-to-face meetings for orientation purposes at the initial stages of a course were not considered to contravene the definition of an online course.

Other limits applied to the scope of the review include the publication type (peer-reviewed journal articles), language (English only), and the date of publication (2000–2009). In terms of research methods, the review sought to include only primary research studies; reviews and opinion or discussion papers were therefore excluded.

Coding the data Coding is the extraction of information from data. Coding guidelines were developed, containing nine categories for 24 variables: administrative information (review name, date); document information (RefWorks ID, author, year, journal name, article title); theoretical framework;

sample description (number of subjects, gender breakdown, country); course description (course format, communication tools, course subject area, course name, academic level, assessment Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 16(2) criteria, whole- small-group activity); research focus (purposes, hypotheses, questions); methods (data analysis/synthesis); results (findings/conclusions), and reviewer’s comments. The 18 articles were coded by two independent reviewers. The coding agreement rate was 92%. Any discrepancies were resolved by discussion and agreement.

Mapping the coded data Mapping is the categorisation of the 18 articles according to common themes, based on the extracted data. Four main categories were induced from the research foci (Figure 1). Subcategories were induced from research questions and findings of individual studies.

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Figure 1 Mapping the studies Results As a result of the categorisation process, it was revealed that the majority of the studies (n = 13) investigated the ‘learning process’ as revealed in communication (Figure 1). Five studies examined the effect of input variables, and three studies investigated the facilitation effect by focusing on the instructor’s role or involvement. One study examined outcomes. This section presents the findings reported in the selected studies (Table 3) and provides an overview of methodological approaches employed (Table 4).

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Input effect Identifying input variables that influence effective collaboration can provide useful information for group-forming methods and facilitating learning processes. Five studies aimed to investigate the effects of inputs on collaboration processes. Rose (2004) found that students in a structuredgroup design revealed higher levels of dialogue than did those in an open-ended group design.

Sun et al. (2008) experimented with a systematic group-forming method for better collaboration.

Individuals’ cognitive styles (Liu et al., 2008) and gender (Wang et al., 2003) were reported as non-significant factors influencing group collaboration.

Individuals’ characteristics

Liu et al. (2008) examined students’ cognitive styles (scope: internal, external, or flexible; levels:

local, global, or flexible) in relation to their participation with a total of 208 MBA students divided into groups of 4 or 5 members. Their quantitative analysis found cognitive styles did not have a significant effect on the learning achievement or overall class participation. Rather, cognitive styles had predictive power over the students’ satisfaction with their teamwork (trust and conflict management).

Sun et al. (2008) suggested a systematic group-forming method by identifying students’ attributes; that is, learning time, regions, ages, and value types (theoretical, aesthetic, social, political, and religious). To test the effectiveness and practicality of the method, the researchers compared students’ communication in 20 groups in experimental conditions with 20 randomly selected control groups. They found that the experimental groups performed better when measured by the amount of time they spent in the system, the amounts and content bytes of messages, and the rate of successful interaction, defined as “consummated communications through impulse and feedback between the message sender and the message receiver.” (p. 673) Wresch et al. (2005) examined participation trends and how a small online community accepted new participants across the course period. The trend showed a significant decrease in the average number of weekly group comments between the first and second halves of the course. When a new member joined in the middle of the course, the number of comments significantly increased.

Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 16(2) Gender Wang et al. (2003) examined gender differences in participation in synchronous communication.

Females in the study tended to continue socialising and to remain connected after the class, while males were inclined to initiate more task-related thoughts and ideas and did not stay long once the chat session was over. Nonetheless, the authors did not find any direct effect of interaction styles on levels or equality of participation, and no significant difference in frequency of postings, although females posted messages more frequently (57% of total exchanges) than the male participants (43%).

Instructional design Rose (2004) compared two types of small groups: cooperative and collaborative. Cooperative groups were designed in a structured format and had careful and frequent facilitation and monitoring of the group process. The instructor assigned students to specialist roles in each group. Collaborative groups were designed with a more open structure. Group members were not assigned to any specific roles, and the instructor monitored their discussions sporadically. In the initial period of the activity, the cooperative groups had significantly higher levels of dialogue than the collaborative groups. Communication messages were more interconnected in cooperative groups (90.68 %) than collaborative groups (81.34%) in terms of one message referring to another message by subject, topic, or name. Over time, however, the collaborative groups appeared to catch up with the cooperative groups on in-depth cognitive process as well as cohesion of messages. The author interpreted the results as indicating that more structured strategies might be efficient with short-term heterogeneous groups, but similar levels of interaction would be attained if groups have a common history and persist for more than 3 weeks.

Learning process The quality of learning was evaluated to understand the benefits and effectiveness of small-group activity in terms of students’ experiencing self-directed learning (Lee & Gibson, 2003), achieving shared understanding (Makitalo-Siegl, 2008), and realising equal levels of contribution (Curtis & Lawson, 2001). The importance of social factors was emphasised in four studies.

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