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Life history of a topic in an online discussion: a complex systems theory perspective on how one message attracts class members to create meaning collaboratively


Complex adaptive systems theory served as a framework for this qualitative study exploring the process of how meaning emerges from the collective interactions of individuals in a synchronous online discussion through their shared words about a topic. In an effort to bridge levels of analysis from the individual to the small group to the community, we analyzed how a group of students introduced, sustained, and eventually let go of one topic while participating in a classroom discussion that took place in a CSCL environment. Our purpose was to examine a single posted message’s influence not only through the responses it garnered, but also by how individuals reacted to it intellectually. Participants were eight students and their teacher in a graduate-level seminar. Data sources included the online discussion’s final transcript, screen-captured recordings of each participant’s computer screen, video recordings of participants’ actions, and observation notes. Our analyses revealed three key understandings: (a) the interdependencies of process and content are manifestations of the complex development of co-created understandings in computer-supported discussions, (b) private individual processes and particular meanings co-mingle in a social space to create publicly shared experiences, and (c) the importance of attending to the content was shown in the details of a topic’s incipience, its developing “mid-life,” and how factors conspired to its end. These findings help illustrate how co-created meaning-making experiences emerge in a system through interactions among individual agents, suggesting ways instructors may work to foster student learning in CSCL contexts.

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The authors would like to thank YangJoo Park and Yi-Jeng Chen for their help on this project.

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Correspondence to Jane S. Vogler.

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Vogler, J.S., Schallert, D.L., Jordan, M.E. et al. Life history of a topic in an online discussion: a complex systems theory perspective on how one message attracts class members to create meaning collaboratively. Intern. J. Comput.-Support. Collab. Learn 12, 173–194 (2017).

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  • Computer-supported collaborative learning
  • Complex adaptive systems
  • Online discourse
  • Meaning making