This paper builds upon previous studies that show that non-task related exchanges between students can have a significant impact on students enjoyment of CSCL, on creating a sense of community and learning outcomes (Abedin et al, 2011). And when CSCL is successful, such interactions can form a significant part of the discussion; Dewiyanti et al ( 2007) showed that 33% of interactions in such a CSCL environment were non-task related.
The context for the Abedin et al paper was a part-time postgraduate general management degree course offered by a large Australian university. Average age of the students was 36 years old with an average of 10 years' work experience. Amongst the online forums established for the course was a seminar room where the learning activities took place and a coffee shop to foster informal, social interaction. The latter is similar to the Staff Room that we established in our Learning Event for the same purposes.
They define on-task interactions as including instructional and learning activities, such as group learning, and pedagogical questions and answers. Non-task interactions, on the other hand, are about socialising and are not directly related to course content; eg jokes, compliments and greetings.
They developed a series of items for assessing non-task sociability and consulted researchers in the field to seek their opinion and to revise them. Based upon these, they conducted a quantitative survey of students, firstly in a pilot and then in a main study, asking their opinion and applying factor analysis to the results. They then assessed the relationship of non-task sociability to learning outcomes, which they defined as pedagogical effect, student interest and perceived learning.
The results of their analysis suggest that non-task sociability strongly affects student interest, which in turn leads to a higher willingness to participate in online discussions and to being intellectually challenged. Similarly there was a strong link to pedagogical affect.
It would be interesting for me to analyse the messages in our Staff Room to see to what extent they were task or non-task related. I suspect that, compared with the other forums in the Learning Event, the percentage of non-task was higher and may be one of the reasons why the addition of the Staff Room was perceived as being useful. As Dewiyanti et al indicate a 'CSCL environment with a higher perceived level of nontask sociability increases satisfaction of the course, bonds students together by fostering a sense of community and avoids development of a sense of isolation' (p.10, Dewiyanti et al, 2007).
Abedin, B., Daneshgar, F. & D'Ambra, J. (2011) 'Do nontask interactions matter? The relationship between nontask sociability of computer supported collaborative learning and learning outcomes', British Journal of Educational Technology, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (ONLINE - http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01181.x - accessed 15.05.2011)
Dewiyanti, S., Brand-Gruwel, S., Jochems, W. & Broers, N. J. (2007) 'Students' experiences with collaborative learning in asynchronous Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning environments'. Computers in Human Behavior, 23 (1), pp.496-514
About my research
My research was set in the context of the European Commission’s eTwinning initiative and it looked specifically at the use of eTwinning Learning Events (non-formal learning). It examined how the community influences the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse, and it considered the contribution of social aspects and online moderation.
I am very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Julie-Ann Sime from Lancaster University, and to my eTwinning soulmate, Tiina Sarisalmi, for their invaluable support. And to my examiners, Prof. Marilyn Leask from the University of Bedfordshire and Dr. Don Passey from the University of Lancaster, for their valuable advice.