Visual analysis to investigate networked learning in online forums


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Presentation from Networked Learning conference, Maastricht, April 2012. You can download the full paper at

Asynchronous dialogue, like written text, is typically both verbal and visual, with much of its meaning carried by a range of visual features, including layout and typographical elements. These aspects of forum data require analysis of the composition of the dialogue alongside its content. In the case of such composite texts, with meanings realised through different semiotic codes, visual and verbal elements interact and should be analysed as an integrated whole. This semiotic approach draws attention to the syntax of images as a source of meaning and to the structuring principles that enable viewers to make sense of the layout of text and images. These principles include salience, frames, vectors and reading paths.

This presentation demonstrates ways in which analysis that makes use of these structuring principles can increase understanding of online exchanges between learners. It takes as an exemplar a series of forum postings that were shared in the formal setting of an online course at the UK’s Open University. It shows that the construction of knowledge in an online forum is heavily reliant on visual elements of the online interaction, and that a focus on words alone does not make it clear either how this construction takes place or why it fails to take place on some occasions. Visual analysis shows that groups of learners use affordances of forum software to increase the salience of some elements of the dialogue and to increase the coherence of their discussion.

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  • Here is some of the data. We should be able to see how this learning network builds knowledge, but we run into problems
  • Some of the problems: We may lose too much of the data by focusing on the new text. Where is the unit of analysis and how can it be defined? What is the significance of the quotations? What do we do with non-standard use of punctuation eg the arrows and emoticons? In a networked learning context, we are not just interested in what people say, but in how they make the connections to others, the skills that help them to do that, how they choose to focus their attention…. Where do I ideas originate and how are they moved forward The text as text is only giving us a part of the picture – we can’t ignore the visual elements
  • What is more salient? What is less salient? How does that change, depending on context and perspective (eg if you are flipping through looking for a page, or wanting to reference it Where are the frames, the vectors and the paths?
  • Talk briefly about the data: Open University – so distance education FirstClass Groups of 5-8 undergraduates working on assessed investigations over a six-week period
  • Need to establish coherence Provide links between ideas and postings
  • Step back from this as text and look at it more visually. Which parts are more salient? Where are the frames? How many sections can you see? Where are the vectors? What is the reading path? What do you need to know in order for that to be your reading path? (eg read from top left – ignore most of header) Prompts orderly, coherent approach
  • First response, Again – step back from words Use of colour and shading 2 reading paths Engaging with Kenny Taking ideas up
  • Need to establish coherence Provide links between ideas and postings
  • Presenting different perspectives Acknowledging contributions Ordering debate – following up on points Building relationships between group members
  • Can transfer these techniques to other forms of asynchronous communication
  • Negotiating conflict Stressing unanimity Dealing with a tense situation
  • Visual analysis to investigate networked learning in online forums

    1. 1. Use of Visual AnalysisTo Investigate NetworkedLearning in Online ForumsRebecca FergusonThe Open University, UK
    2. 2. Asynchronous dialogue
    3. 3. What are we missing?“Thanks for your support.I thought the first draftwent beyond the groupsdiscussion. There wastoo much of my owninterpretation going on.”
    4. 4. Missing the visual elements
    5. 5. Visual elements can be crucial
    6. 6. Visual analysis Gunther Kress & Theo van Leeuwen Reading Images (second edition, 2006) Routledge
    7. 7. Data collection and analysisText – Originals – ImagesHow do these learners build knowledge together?
    8. 8. Creating cohesive dialogue
    9. 9. Understanding challengesNegotiating conflict
    10. 10. Help us to analyse:•Constructing arguments•Framing debate•Avoiding conflict•Comparing opinions•Prioritising ideas•Making connections•Linking non-adjacent posts•Building conversations