Teachers’ Interactions in an Online Graduate Course on Moodle: A Social Network Analysis Perspective

Meixun Zheng and Hiller Spires

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Content Analysis of Students’ Online Interaction Quality
Based on examination of the 15 discussion forums, there were a total of 1170 codes. There might be evidence of more than one phase of knowledge building within one forum post. Appearance of different phases within one post was recorded but the same phase that repeatedly appeared was counted only once. The results of the coding based on these conditions—including the percentage of each phase—are presented in Table 6.

It is evident that, although these graduate students participated actively, most of the forum posts remained in the lower phase levels in the interaction analysis model, with a majority (almost 90%) of the posts in Phase I. Most responses were compliments for others or offerings of agreement for other students’ statements. Typical responses were statements such as, “I totally agree with what you said” or “I like what you said about scaffolding.” A review of the literature shows that this is a common phenomenon. For example, Gunawardena et al. (1997) obtained similar results. Gunawardena and colleagues found that the distribution of participants’ posts, who were also graduate students, were 191, 5, 4, 2, and 4 for Phases I, II, III, IV, and V, respectively. Other studies of students’ online knowledge construction in higher education (e.g., Kanuka & Anderson, 1998; Sigala, 2003; Sing & Khine, 2006; Smith, 2009; Wang, 2005) reported similar results, with most discussion being of a sharing and comparing nature. Maor (2003) pointed out that many students do not take full advantage of learning technologies and thus information exchange is the primary practice of online learners.

Table 6

Total Number of Posts at Each IAM Phase (N= 1,170)



Number of posts



Sharing and comparing of information




Discovery and explanation of dissonance




Negotiation of meaning/Co-construction of new
ideas (e.g., proposal of possible solutions to
identified problems)




Testing/modification of newly constructed
knowledge against personal experience




Agreement statement(s)/application of newly
constructed knowledge




There were instances, however, when online discussion moved to higher levels, which could have resulted in the construction of new knowledge. For example, a few posts belonged to Phase III. It is worth noting that most of the posts in Phase III were proposals of possible solutions for identified problems. This indicates that one advantage of an online learning community is to provide opportunities for students to collaborate, which can potentially lead to co-construction of new ideas. Students’ posts also revealed that they were able to negotiate meaning and integrate new knowledge into their existing knowledge schemas. For example, in the discussion about scaffolding strategies in reading instruction in Week 3, one student said, “After I read your post, I realized that.… Now I am clear what scaffolding is…” The student stated that, because of exposure to other students’ different points of view, he had gained new understanding of the issues.

Students’ discussions also moved to Phases IV and V in Weeks 7, 8, and 12 (see Figure 2). Forum discussion posts during these weeks showed a range of higher phase levels in knowledge construction. In Week 8, for example, students’ posts developed into discussions about free writing. The following is an example of a post during this week that shows how students tested new knowledge against personal experience: “I will admit that despite the fact that I’m sure that free writing can be a very successful tool for some students, I know first-hand that it does not work for everyone. Now, just a little background on me…”

In the discussion about web-quest projects in Week 7, one student (Student A) applied new understanding and knowledge to practice. Student A could not decide which website to use for her web-quest project. Students B and C both suggested in their posts that had several unique advantages and was therefore best for the project. Student A expressed different thoughts by replying that, “I am thinking of using this website, but…since I also have some other ideas…” Finally, Student A tried the solution proposed by Students B and C, and stated that, “So, I used and now I completely agree with you all that it is really cool. I love it. I would like to play with it more.” When students were able to summarize and make statements about agreement, knowledge construction was attained.

bar chart

Figure 2. Bar chart of percentage of students' posts at each IAM phase by week.


The discussion during these several weeks indicated that, even though there was a lack of diversity in the phase levels of knowledge construction activities, higher levels of knowledge construction activities occurred in the online environment. It seems that Moodle was able to facilitate in-depth discussion and knowledge co-construction processes. Several factors could explain why the majority of discussion posts were in the lower phases in the coding schema. One reason is that students were influenced by traditional cultural norms (Sing & Khine, 2006). Students likely considered it important to maintain a friendly relationship with colleagues in the community, which explains why most posts were compliments or statements of agreement. Further, it is likely that students tended to value the opportunity to socialize with peers more than the opportunity to co-construct new knowledge. As a result, students were careful in explaining the dissonance, even though the facilitator constantly reinforced the expectation for them to post quality responses to peers. Other researchers have pointed out that a lack of time might be another factor that affects the types and levels of students’ online participation (Zhao & Rop, 2001, as cited in Sing & Khine, 2006). In order to discover disagreement and dissonance, students must spend time thinking critically about other posts and ideas. However, because most students were fulltime teachers, time became a major constraint. They had to maintain a certain degree of balance between their roles as both teachers and graduate students. Oftentimes, it may have seemed natural for them to consider accomplishing teaching tasks as more important than constructing new knowledge in their online graduate course.

Fung (2004) conducted a survey on the limiting factors of online interaction, and found that there was also “mutual influence” of other students’ participation and nature of posts. Another possible reason might be that, in an online learning environment, students may be prone to pay less attention to or respond less to peers’ ideas that are inconsistent with their existing knowledge (Kanuka & Anderson, 1998, as cited in Sigala, 2003). In addition, students’ learning styles and comfort levels with using learning technologies could also explain the phenomenon. As Wozniak and Silveira (2004) pointed out, due to students’ insufficient knowledge of learning technologies, it is sometimes difficult for them to engage in effective peer communication as they do in a traditional learning environment.



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Meridian: A K-12 School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 13, Issue 2, 2011
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