Educational Psychology & Counseling Publications and Other Works

Source Publication (e.g., journal title)

Instructional Science

Document Type


Publication Date

January 2009


There is not yet a great deal of research in formal online learning environments focusing on the seemingly “off-topic” conversations that small groups engage in as they complete learning tasks together. This study uses the theory of common ground as a framework to explore what participants are talking about when not discussing the concepts to be learned and how participants negotiate common ground in distance learning environments, including their use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools. The email, discussion forum, and chat transcripts of ten small groups comprised of experienced distance learners were investigated using computer-mediated discourse analysis, particularly attending to functional moves exchanged while completing tasks. Findings were as follows. First, groups talked more about off-topic issues such as logistics, social and technology concerns than they did the concepts to be learned. Second, they used the discussion forum more than chat or e-mail, but they did not vary much in their choice of mode for talking about particular topics. Finally, the groups established common ground through being explicitly responsive, responsible, and relational. Implications are that highly structured learning tasks should be balanced with more open-ended discussions that require less attention to logistic detail, students should be encouraged to attend to grounding strategies and should remain in the same groups long enough to develop such strategies.

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