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Online but off-topic: negotiating common ground in small learning groups

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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 e-mail, discussion forum, and chat transcripts of 10 small groups comprised of experienced distance learners were investigated using computer-mediated discourse analysis (CMDA), 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 students should remain in the same groups long enough to develop such strategies.

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  1. 1.

    All participant names were replaced with pseudonyms prior to the start of data analysis. The name of the course management system has also been changed. This measure was taken to ensure confidentiality of the data for the protection of human subjects. Approval was obtained from the Institutional Review Board prior to the start of the study.

  2. 2.

    Students were highly encouraged to communicate within the course system since a portion of their grade was based on team process; thus, it is believed that all communication that did take place was captured for analysis.

  3. 3.

    Further analysis of the “on-topic” conceptual moves is reported elsewhere (Paulus 2005).


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Correspondence to Trena M. Paulus.

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Paulus, T.M. Online but off-topic: negotiating common ground in small learning groups. Instr Sci 37, 227 (2009).

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  • Online discussion
  • Online learning
  • Collaborative learning
  • Distance learning
  • Common ground
  • Computer-mediated communication