the one where I finally publish my thesis

So it’s been in progress for a long time. A long, long time. It’s been nearly done for some time as well. I completed (and passed) my oral exam on Nov. 30, and had some additional revisions to make before the thing could be considered officially complete.

Now, it is. I present…

A Case Study Using the Community of Inquiry Framework to Analyze Online Discussions in WordPress and Blackboard in a Graduate Course1

That’s a mouthful. It’s actually a shorter title than I was using originally. What is it?


Online discussions in a graduate level education course were compared using the Community of Inquiry framework and a Classroom Community survey within a mixed methods case study with concurrent triangulation of data sources. Discussion posts were published in two separate software applications: WordPress and Blackboard. Data collected included online discussion metadata, Community of Inquiry coding of online discussion content, survey responses from students, and an interview with the instructor to identify pedagogical decisions made in the design of the course. Content analysis of the discussion archives described differences in posts published to the two platforms, as well as differences in simultaneous indications of Community of Inquiry presences over time. Five new online discussion timeline visualization methods are presented. Key findings include an emphasis on pedagogical design over software selection in facilitating rich online discussions in the context of a graduate level course, although selection of software may provide signals to participants regarding the instructor’s expectations. Recommendations for reproducing similar research, identification of areas for future research, and recommendations for practice are provided.

Yeah. So, what’s that?

Basically, I did a case study of a grad-level online course at the UofC. Online discourse was done in Blackboard and WordPress. I archived the stuff posted by students who consented to participate, and then coded their posts using a template from the Community of Inquiry framework. I then crunched the coded data, mixed with the metadata about the posts themselves, and found some interesting patterns. I had to make up some new ways to visualize the online discussion data in order to describe things the way I wanted.

I went into it thinking “blogging is going to be more awesome than LMS discussions” – I was going to try to provide some data to back that up.

I got the data, but the reason for blogging being more awesome than LMS discussions, in this case study, turned out to have little to do with the technology choice itself. The biggest factor was the pedagogical design of the course – students were given assigned writing and commenting activities in WordPress, whereas Blackboard was more of an info dump for discussions about the course itself. Also, WordPress posts and comments were graded by the instructor. Blackboard discussions, not so much. Guess where students wrote longer, more thoughtful posts.

Yeah. So that happened.

But, the methodology is still interesting. And the case study makes it clear that the design of a course and pedagogical activities are crucial in setting up meaningful online discourse.

I got to do some really interesting analysis of online discussions – combining the raw metadata with coded data about the posts themselves. Lots of cool stuff going on there.

And, I discovered just how powerful Excel pivot tables are. Seriously. Most of the heavy lifting of storing, normalizing, processing and analysing the data, as well as many of the visualizations, was done all in Excel. Seriously. Likely a blog post coming up about how I did that… I used a lot of tools, but Excel was definitely the main one. Go figure. I would not have predicted that…

  1. it’s also linked from the Projects menu on my blog, cryptically under something called “Thesis”. []

Thesis toolbox

I’m almost done. About a month to oral defence. But, here are the tools I used to gather data, process it, whip up visualizations, and write the thesis:

  • Papers (for storing the 598 papers I worked through during the process).12
  • Dropbox (for having the files available on any computer I’m using, storing revisions, and making me not freak out about backups)3
  • Noteshelf – best notebook iPad app I’ve used. Did CoI coding data in it. Tracked progress in it. Sketched visualization ideas in it. Etc…
  • SurveyMonkey (for the online survey. wish I hadn’t used it, though, because I didn’t spring for a paid license and my data was trapped)
  • a custom HTML page and CGI processor hosted by UCalgary for gathering ethics consent from participants
  • Chrome (save web page… provided the online discussion archives)
  • BBEdit (for processing the discussion archives)
  • Excel (for storing the metadata and coding data, processing the data, and generating some visualizations)4
  • Gephi (for playing with visualizing online communities – wound up dropping most of those from the thesis, though)
  • OmniGraphSketcher (for creating many of the visualizations. FANTASTIC app for playing with data visualization)
  • OmniGraffle Pro (for the concept map visualization and some supporting media)5
  • Acorn (for processing all graphics)6
  • iPhone Voice Recorder app (for recording instructor interview)
  • VLC (for playing the instructor interview slowly without going mental)
  • Word (for writing the thing)7
  • WordPress (category on my blog for running notes on journal articles)
  • likely a handful of other handy apps thrown in for good measure

The irony… my thesis basically boils down to “it’s not the tool, it’s how you use it.” And I write a “these are the tools I used” post…

  1. Used the Mac, iOS and Windows versions, synced via Dropbox (and then gave up on syncing because my library was too fracking big) []
  2. the search tool in Papers is awesome. I found stuff in it that was difficult or impossible to find elsewhere, and the library proxy support was a HUGE timesaver. []
  3. raw online discussion data didn’t go here because of ethics implications – I’d said that would only be secured on my home computer []
  4. pivot tables are magic, or science fiction. I was amazed at how easy it was to play with the data once it was all normalized into a spreadsheet. yeah, not a hardcore True Database. Whatever. Did the job. []
  5. I dabbled with Visio on Windows, but compared to OmniGraffle, it just. sucks. so. badly. []
  6. absolutely LOVE Acorn. So good. []
  7. found myself not hating spending this much time in Word. Sure, it’s not perfect, and it has its quirks, but it worked well enough… []