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Article from ejc/rec Haythornthwaite, EJC/REC, Volume 13, Number 1
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 13 Number 1, 2003


SUPPORTING DISTRIBUTED RELATIONSHIPS:
RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT AND MEDIA USE IN TWO CLASSES OF INTERNET-BASED LEARNERS
*

Caroline Haythornthwaite
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Abstract. As the promise of distributed learning and work becomes reality, there is concern about what interactions to support and which technologies to provide to create viable relationships. Groups require support for work and social relations, and different kinds of interactions over time, yet there has been little in-depth examination of the exchanges and use of multiple media by distributed members; the work presented here is a beginning to this kind of exploration. This paper focuses on how two different class structures for group work and assignments affected interaction patterns over time among members of two Internet-based online classes. Social network data on relations and media use were collected at three times over a semester. Students were asked how often they collaborated on class work, exchanged information or advice about class work, socialized, and exchanged emotional support with each member of the class, and via each of the available media (Email, Webboards, Internet Relay Chat, Phone). Results suggest that the different class structures affect the basis for relationship formation: one more work oriented and the other more friendship oriented. While friendship ties influence what relations are maintained, communication frequency is associated with the strength of tie, whether that tie is based on a work or social relationship. Media use also depends on the strength of the tie and communication frequency, with more frequent communicators using more media. Which media were used conforms to a uni-dimensional scale with class mandated media used by those in weaker, less frequently maintained ties, with other media added to these by those with stronger ties.

Introduction

Our situation is this: We have brought together on the Internet a group of individuals who must work and learn together, at a distance, and through a variety of Internet-based computer communication technologies. The group consists of students, enrolled in a distance option of a graduate degree program. Some may have met face-to-face during a two-week on-campus 'boot camp'; some may have taken an online class together before; but some will know no one in the class, and will not have worked with anyone else before. Within a short time, we need to have students become familiar with the specific class conventions for communication, and familiar enough with each other to learn and complete assignments together. Moreover, we would like them to find this experience satisfying, both pedagogically and socially, so that they will continue with the program, feel able to recommend it to others, and draw from it a set of future professional colleagues with whom they may maintain long-term relationships. How do we best build and maintain such relationships?

Our particular program is the distance Master's degree option of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In a series of studies, we have been examining how students create and maintain interpersonal relations in this environment (see Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Robins & Shoemaker, 2000; Kazmer, 2000; Kazmer & Haythornthwaite, 2001), and how interpersonal connections build into personal and group-wide networks related to class activities (see Haythornthwaite, 2000, 2001). This program is one among many new, Internet-based programs that have emerged in the past few years, including initiatives by private and public institutions, and full online universities and programs as well as course by course implementations (see www.alnresearch.org, Harasim, Hiltz, Teles & Turoff, 1995; Hiltz, 1994; Beller & Orr, 1998; Gibson, 1998; Noam, 1998). We can expect more of these programs as access to and use of the Internet increases steadily: a U.S. Commerce Department report estimated that 54% of the U.S. population used the Internet in 2001, up 26% from a year earlier (Dreazen, 2002). The number of online learners is increasing along with this trend, and a recent estimate puts the expected number of U.S. distance learners in 2002 at 2.2 million, up considerably from the 710,000 in 1998 (Grimes, 2001).

This surge in Internet use for learning, as well as for work, leads to an increasing need to understand how to build and sustain learning and work relations among distributed group members. We need to know how to bootstrap interpersonal relations in time-limited groups so that they can rapidly become effective learning and work teams. Once initiated, we then need to know how to maintain relationships over the longer term. While we focus on learning and work relationships, interpersonal social relations are also needed to create supportive environments and facilitate group processes (Bruffee, 1993; McGrath, 1984; McGrath & Hollingshead, 1994). Thus we need to consider what kinds of interactions to foster and support to create viable working relationships, what types of communication media and technologies to provide, how to time and plan activities, and what levels of intimacy, friendship and instrumentality are necessary to sustain successful online relationships.

To address such questions, we draw on literature from a number of fields, including communications research on media use, management and computer science research on collaborative teams and computer-supported cooperative work, and education research on learning and computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL). This literature helps us understand what kinds of relationships to try to maintain, and how media are likely to help (or hinder) relationship development.

While a full review of this literature is beyond the scope of the current paper, some highlights are important (for more in-depth reviews of the literature in this context, see Haythornthwaite, in press, and Haythornthwaite, et al, 2000; see also Haythornthwaite, Wellman & Garton, 1998; Wellman et al, 1996). In brief, literature on work and group relations suggests that as well as paying attention to work tasks, we also need to maintain social relations to facilitate work relations (e.g., McGrath, 1984; Gabarro, 1990). Groups operate with consideration of their work tasks, but also of social tasks such as group maintenance and member support (McGrath, 1984). Group needs also change over time, with different kinds of relations important as the group progresses from initial 'getting to know you' stages, through crisis resolution, work task accomplishment, and farewells (Chidambaram & Bostrom, 1997a, 1997b; Gersick, 1989; McGrath, 1991).

The literature on communication and media use shows that a group's use of media also develops along with the group itself. As group members get to know each other, they also get to know their media and develop their own ways of using it, with norms continually emerging and reinforced by use (Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990; Poole & DeSanctis, 1990). Some caveats exist for developing relationships through computer media. Not only are the reduced cues of the largely textual online environment likely to reduce what can be conveyed (e.g., failing to convey body language, or tone of voice), it can also restrict the timing of interactions (e.g., to asynchronous connections only), and confuse the sequence of message delivery (e.g., when Email or Internet chat simultaneously carry many conversations) (Culnan & Markus, 1987; Rice, 1987). Such restrictions on interaction may slow relationship development (Walther, 1995), or lead to more uninhibited behavior with negative consequences for relationship development (e.g., including "flaming"; Lea, O'Shea, Fung & Spears, 1992; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991; see also Dibbell, 1994).

Thus, we approach our class of Internet learners knowing there are difficulties in supporting relationships online, and yet the literature on interpersonal relations indicates that building such relationships is a worthwhile goal and important to individual well-being. Indeed, we have heard from members of this distance program that essential support comes from interacting with other members of this strange, new world (Haythornthwaite et al, 2000). Both online and offline, the more people who can provide an individual with social support, the more positive the associations with happiness, mental health and well-being (Haines & Hurlbert, 1992; Hammer, 1981; van der Poel, 1993; Walker, Wasserman & Wellman, 1994; Wellman & Gulia, 1999). While some studies suggest Internet use may be alienating, drawing people away from supportive relationships (e.g., Kraut, Patterson et al, 1998; Nie, 2001; Nie & Erbring, 2000), other studies find that connecting via the Internet can be important for receiving support from others and can help decrease feelings of depression and isolation, particularly for those without local support (e.g., LaRose, Eastin & Gregg, 2001; Miyata, in press; see also the collected papers in Wellman & Haythornthwaite, in press).

Our question then is how to provide an environment that fosters the growth of interpersonal relations online. Earlier ideas predicated on media richness theory suggested that the answer for achieving successful communication via computer media entailed fitting each message to its appropriate medium (e.g., Daft, Lengel & Trevino, 1987). However, more recent work demonstrates that the 'permissiveness' (Galegher & Kraut, 1990) or 'interpretive flexibility' (Orlikowski, 1992) associated with most text-based communications media means that their use is likely to be jointly constructed to fit local needs and norms (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994). Moreover, as we become more used to a variety of media, and as research examines the use of multiple rather than single media, we also see that such norms extend to how a repertoire of media may be used to support interaction and relationships (Dennis & Valacich, 1999). Thus, we find that friends and close working pairs do not choose one medium over another, but instead choose to use more media to maintain their ties the more frequently they communicate (Haythornthwaite, 2000; Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998; Koku, Nazer & Wellman, 2001).

Returning to our particular situation, we realize that building online relationships may be delayed and/or otherwise distorted by communication via computer media. We also know that we have a time-limited group that must come together, learn, share ideas, complete assignments, and finish the course within fifteen weeks. Like other time-limited groups such as work teams, students start as a new group at the beginning of each class, bringing some existing friendships and working relationships into the group, but not with every member of the group, nor on the current class topic. Over the duration of the course they engage in task and non-task related exchanges-exchanging information and advice about class work, but also joking and gossiping. They act to maintain the group as a whole and to accomplish their work tasks, contributing individual work to the group or sub-group as well as working collaboratively with others on common projects. Moreover, they accomplish all this at a distance, meeting face-to-face, on campus only once during the semester.

Since teaching and learning in online settings is relatively new, different approaches have been taken to giving these classes, with best practices for these activities still being determined (for resources, see www.alnresearch.org). Our concern with the development of interpersonal work and learning relationships led to an overall interest in mapping first what is happening in some of these classes, focusing on who is talking to whom, about what, and via which media. We are interested in the way media support relationships and how the mix of class practices and media use create structures of interpersonal contact and relationship formation.

In particular, we have an interest in how to support group-wide collaborative learning. Key to collaborative learning is interaction and exchange among class or group members as they share experiences and jointly solve problems (Koschmann, 1996; Kaye, 1995). To create collaborative relationships, we want group members to share what information they have and to build the kind of environment that fosters such sharing, i.e., the "safe" communities described by Bruffee (1993) as important for learning. Sharing, and the acceptance of self-exposure that accompanies asking "dumb" questions, occurs when interpersonal bonds are strong. Solid working relationships are also needed when tasks must be completed jointly, as is the case for classes that include group assignments. We also want group members to add new information to the pot of ideas circulating the network, information that, as Granovetter (1973) has shown, is likely to come from individuals outside our close circle, those with whom we share a weaker tie. Thus, to foster collaborative learning as well as completion of tasks, we strive to balance tight groups of strongly tied individuals with wider information exchange among more weakly tied individuals (Haythornthwaite, in press).

Our interest also goes beyond pair-wise interactions to how these build into class structures that affect online relationships. A social network approach lets us examine the way in which pairwise interactions build into class-wide networks. Social network research looks at how exchanges of resources such as emotional support, information, advice or goods connect members of the selected population, e.g., of the members of a class. The resulting network of relational connections shows how resources circulate in the network, how communications flow from one part of the network to another, and how individuals are positioned along that communciation flow. (For further details on the social network approach, see Wasserman & Faust, 1994; Wellman & Berkowitz, 1997; for further details in the context of interpersonal relations, see Milardo & Wellman, 1992; van der Poel, 1993; Wellman, 1999).

To date, few studies have looked in detail at the types of exchanges that distributed network members engage in or at how they use multiple media to support those exchanges; the work presented here is a beginning to this kind of exploration. In this paper we examine how four work and social relations connect Friends, Non-Friends, and the class as a whole, two Internet-based distance-learning classes. The four relations were chosen to capture aspects of group processes revealed as important by previous research, including work, information and advice about work, socializing, and emotional support (see Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998). We also examine how media are used to support these relations, and how relations and media use evolve over time. The interactions and social networks of one of these classes (noted as F97 below) have been examined in detail elsewhere (Haythornthwaite, 2001). Here we concentrate on differences across two classes, looking at the way in which different approaches to class work and different mandates about media use affected communication patterns and relational maintenance among class members.

Setting and Data Collection

Students in the classes are Master's degree students who all reside at a distance from the campus offering the program, and in almost all cases, also at a distance from each other (for details on the program, see ). Students (www.leep.uiuc.edu) start the program with a 2-week on-campus session and then complete all other courses at a distance. The program began in Fall 1996. The two classes examined here are identified by the semester in which they occurred: there were 14 members of class F97 (data collected fall 1997), 13 of whom participated; and 19 members of class F98 (data collected fall 1998), 15 of whom participated.[1]

Classes are conducted through the Internet via a variety of computer media. Internet Relay  Chat (IRC) is used for 'live' lectures (synchronous sessions) with the instructor delivering their part via RealAudio and web-based presentations, and students asking questions in the public chat room, as well as "whispering" privately to each other via IRC. Audio communications as well as text posted to the main class chat room are recorded and available to students and faculty for future review. The whisper feature of IRC allows a message to be sent to other members of the chat session without it appearing in the public chat log; whispered text is not recorded. Classes typically include live lectures offered as frequently as weekly to as infrequently as only several times a semester.

Web-based bulletin boards (Webboards) are used for asynchronous discussion and homework; their use may be optional or mandatory. Class webboard postings can be seen by all students, and project webboards may be established that are available only to some members of the class. All students have university Email accounts, and access to phones, with a toll-free telephone number available for communication with the campus offices and instructors. One on-campus visit occurs mid-semester as part of the program; students come to campus for a day for each class they are taking. Classes may include both individual and group assignments, which are generally 'handed in' as web pages, Email attachments, faxes, etc.

Phone interviews were used to collect data. Members of the class were contacted three times during the fifteen week term and asked how often in the last month (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly) they had collaborated on class work (Collaborative Work), received or given information or advice about class work (Exchanging Information), socialized (Socializing), or exchanged emotional support (Emotional Support; described as support during a minor or major upset) with each member of the class. Students reported their frequency of communication with each member of class via each of the available means of communication: Webboard, IRC, Email, telephone, face-to-face meetings. [2] . Frequencies were converted to number of communications a month: 'daily' communication was converted to 20 (based on a 4 week month with communication 5 days a week), 'weekly' communication to 4, and 'monthly' to 1 (other answers, such as '3 times a week' were converted as the appropriate number of times the base rate, e.g. 3 x 4 for 12 times in the month). Answers for each separate time period were summed to produce the overall frequency of communication for the three months asked about. These responses of "how often" are not expected to be objectively accurate; frequency data should instead be considered as relative measures of communication behavior across relations, media, and time (Hartley, Brecht, Pagerly, Weeks, Chapanis, & Hoecker, 1977; Rice & Shook, 1990).

After the third data collection, students were also asked whether they considered each other member of the class to be a close friend, friend, someone they worked with only, or just another member of the class. Due to small number of reports for close friends and work-only relationships, data are combined here into two categories: Friends (based on a report of a close friend or friend relationship) and Non-friends (reports of member of the class and work with only relationships). A few other follow-up questions were asked about how they thought the class interacted, and their desire for future interaction with other class members; for discussion of results of these questions, see Haythornthwaite, 2000.

The Two Classes

Conditions were slightly different for the two classes (see Table 1) and, as will be seen below, such differences had an impact on class interactions. The primary organizational difference between the classes was that class F97 involved group projects that brought sub-groups together for the whole semester, whereas in class F98, pairs of students took on responsibility for leading class discussions, with pairings changing over the semester. Differences also emerged in media use. In F97, both IRC and the Webboard were used for class-wide interaction. In F98, the instructor decided to abandon Webboard exercises after a short period of time when the discussions became counter-productive. IRC then remained as the main medium for class-wide interaction.

Thus, in looking at the two classes, we are also looking at the impact of two formats of class interactions. The differences in assignment and co-working arrangements for classes may be considered similar to reward structures in other types of work groups, where participants are rewarded for working well with others (e.g., team bonuses) and/or for working alone (e.g., promotions). It is not the intention here to evaluate the effectiveness or appropriateness of these different configurations for learning outcomes. Instead, the emphasis is on how these different configurations affected the structure of interpersonal ties within the classes.

Table 1: Class Media Use and Assignment Structures

Class F97

IRC

        Live session weekly

Webboard

        Required, almost weekly

Assignments

        Class participation 20%; Individual Assignment 40%; Group assignment 40%

Class F98

IRC

        Live session weekly

Webboard

        Used early, but abandoned because discussion became counter-productive

Assignments

        Weekly exercises (10%) which included pairs who ran discussions intermittently across the term; Small Group Projects (3 x 10%): three collaborative assignments with the option to work in groups, but with the assignments handed in individually: Two Exams: Midterm (25%) and final (20%); Student Choice to add 5% to any of the assignments

Overall Communication Patterns

To begin getting a sense of interaction patterns in these classes, we start by looking at overall patterns of communication, examining differences between those maintaining a social, friendship relationship (Friends), and those who report a more strictly work or class oriented relationship (Non-Friends). We look first to see if indicators of offline close ties hold online so that we can see whether the same kinds of relations are important online as offline. We also look at how computer  media support these interactions to help build a picture of what media need to be provided to help support work and social relations.

In keeping with expectations for offline ties, in overall interactions Friends in both classes communicate more frequently than Non-friends (see Table 2[3]). Friends in both classes communicate more than once a day over the three one-month periods, while Non-Friends communicate only weekly (about 3-4 times a week in F97, and less that twice a week in F98). Friends also engage in more kinds of interactions; maintaining, on average, about .5 relations more than Non-Friends (Table 2).

Asking about who communicates with whom and via which media, reveals another aspect of stronger ties not usually captured when examining offline behaviors: Friends use more media with each other than Non-Friends. The effect is particularly pronounced in F98 where Non-Friends used fewer than two media to communicate (Table 2). The next two sections take a more detailed look at relations and media use in these classes.

Table 2: Overall Interaction by Class and Tie

No. of pairs

Overall frequency of communication*

Number of Relations

Number of Media

F97 Non-Friends

95

41.1

3.03

2.36

Friends

49

77.1

3.45

2.82

F98 Non-Friends

184

20.0

3.27

1.59

Friends

19

92.2

3.95

2.95

* An overall frequency of 60 equals communication approximately once a day, 12 once a week, and 3 once a month.
** Friends includes reports of a close friend or friend relationship; Non-friends include reports of member of the class and work with only relationships; F97: 3 reports of close friends, 46 of friends, 4 work with only, 91 member of class; F98: 8 reports of close friends, 11 of friends, 27 work with only, 157 member of class.

Relations

In keeping with expectations for offline ties, Friends in both classes not only communicate more frequently overall and maintain more kinds of relations, but also communicate more frequently about each relation, and are more likely to include Socializing and Emotional Support in their interactions (see Table 3, and Figure 1 below). Nearly 20% more of the Friends maintain Socializing relations than Non-Friends, and 25% more maintain Emotional Support Relations (Table 3) in both classes. One noticeable difference across classes is that Friends in F98 are 23% more likely to Exchange Information and Advice about class work, while this is almost the same for both ties in F97. As we will see throughout the results, interactions in F98 are oriented more to social relationships and F97 to work relationships, a difference that suggests online relations may be build from either base (discussed further below).

While strong friendship ties are considered to be more intimate, and therefore likely to include social and emotional support, ties can also be strong because of a close working relationship that need not be based on intimacy (Barry & Crant, 2000; Gabarro, 1990; Parks, 2000). Examining contributors to frequency of communication using a regression analysis, shows that while log frequency of communication 4 is positively associated with the number of relations maintained and the number of media used in both classes, it is only significantly associated with the presence of a friendship tie for F98 (see Table 4). This difference begins to reveal how the two organizational structures affect tie formation. Class projects for F97 meant students were involved in strong working relationships across the semester, and hence their frequency of communication is less strongly associated with Friend ties than in F98. Because of the strong focus on group projects, with groups determined based on interest in the topic rather than previous relationships, individuals who were not friends become frequent, semester-long communicators. By contrast, F98 working associations were more short lived, with changing partnerships across the semester; thus friendship ties become a more enduring basis for semester-long communication.

Table 3: Number and Percentage of Pairs and Mean Frequency of Communication by Relation and Tie

Collaborative Work

Exchanging Information


Socializing

Emotional Support

n (%)

mean

n (%)

mean

n (%)

mean

n (%)

mean

F97 Non-friends

95 (100)

15

87 (92)

17

57 (60)

11

49 (52)

6

Friends

49 (100)

25

47 (96)

35

39 (80)

14

34 (69)

10

All

144

19

134

24

96

12

83

8

F98 Non-friends

181 (98)

7

142 (77)

6

150 (82)

6

128 (70)

5

Friends

19 (100)

25

19 (100)

25

19 (100)

24

18 (95)

20

All

200

9

161

8

169

8

146

7

 

Table 4: Contributors to Frequency of Communication

F97

F98

Parameter Estimate

Standardized Estimate

Parameter Estimate

Standardized Estimate

Intercept

.74

.38

Type of Tie

Friend

ns

--

.78*

.24

Multiplexity

No. of Media

.47*

.54

.08

.08

No. of Relations

.48*

.40

.68*

.73

R2=.70* n=144 pairs

R2=.71* n=203 pairs

* p=.0001; p=.06; log frequency of communication was used.
Note: The lower association of number of media with frequency of communication for F98 may be due to the class  having fewer media to use after Webboard use was abandoned.

Media

Differences in media use are also evident between Friends and Non-Friends: Friends use more means of communication, communicate more frequently via each medium, are more likely to maintain relations via IRC, Email and Phone than Non-Friends, and communicate particularly frequently via Email (see Table 5 and Figure 2 below).

As noted above, frequently maintained relationships, whether based on friendship or not, are positively associated with the use of more media (Table 4 above). This association has also been found elsewhere: in these as well as two other classes of distance learners (Haythornthwaite, 2000), for a group of co-located academic researchers (Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998), and for a set of distributed scholars (Koku, Nazer & Wellman, 2001). This use of more media by those who communicate more frequently may occur because of a greater need (e.g., in work pairs) or desire (e.g., in close friend pairs) to communicate which leads pairs to seek out and use a variety of means of communication. Using multiple media may accommodate their schedules as well as the variety of both work and social exchanges they engage in (Dennis and Valacich, 1999; Haythornthwaite, 2000; Haythornthwaite & Wellman 1998).

In these classes, Email stands out as the medium most used by strongly tied pairs (see Table 5, and Figure 2). It connects Friend pairs in both classes considerably more frequently than Non-Friends: approximately once a day for both classes for Friends; 2.5 times a week for Non-Friends in F97, and 3 times a month for F98. The Phone was also used frequently by a small set of friends in F98.

Interview data has suggested that Friends use these media to create virtual proximity. Although not revealed in the data here, interviews indicated that members of this program make use of opportunities for synchronous communication to keep in contact with friends and to feel more 'present' in the program (see Bregman & Haythornthwaite, 2001; Haythornthwaite et al, 2000; Haythornthwaite, 2001). Although Email does not appear to be a synchronous medium, students report using it in a near synchronous fashion to communicate at times when they find others online. The routine of posting assignments to Webboards on a particular night affords them the opportunity to send an Email to others who are also likely to be online at this time. Similarly, they make use of the synchronous lecture sessions to communicate and whisper to friends via IRC (see Haythornthwaite et al, 2000).

Table 5: Number and Percentage of Pairs and Mean Frequency of Communication by Medium and Tie

Internet Relay Chat


Webboard


Email


Phone

n (%)

mean

n (%)

mean

n (%)

mean

n (%)

mean

F97 Non-Friends

72 (76)

12

95 (100)

16

37 (39)

29

12 (13)

4

Friends

41 (84)

24

49 (100)

19

26 (53)

58

11 (22)

3

All

113

16

144

17

63

41

23

4

F98 Non-Friends

159 (86)

19

46 (25)

4

38 (21)

9

12 (7)

3

Friends

19 (100)

27

5 (26)

15

14 (74)

56

4 (21)

35

All

178

20

51

5

52

22

16

11

The presence of both work and social origins for ties means that ties can be based on different relations. Are ties also similarly based on different media? Do those with weaker ties who use only one medium all use the same medium, or is the choice randomly distributed across the available media? Do media appear randomly in the repertoires of those with stronger ties, or is there a more consistent use across ties? Guttman scaling (McIver & Carmines, 1981) shows that media are not added randomly, but instead are added according to a uni-dimensional scale. There is very high conformity to a uni-dimensional scale in F97 for the ordered use of IRC, Webboard, Email and then Phone (Coefficient of Reproducibility (CR)=.99[5]). For F98, media use conforms to a uni-dimensional scale only for the ordering of IRC, Email and Phone, i.e., excluding the little used Webboard (CR=.94).[6].

The association between tie strength and number of media used, as well as the uni-dimensional scale, suggests that media use does not follow a medium-task fit, but rather a medium-tie fit (for a more detailed elaboration of this view, see Haythornthwaite, forthcoming). The media ordering shows that weaker tie connections are maintained through the one or two media mandated for class work (IRC and Webboard for F97; IRC only for F98). Email and Phone only appear in a pair's communications repertoire if they also communicate via these class media. This suggests that media use by weakly tied pairs is more opportunistic than among the more strongly tied. Such pairs make use of opportunities established by the class organizer to communicate, e.g., waiting for the opportunity of the live session to communicate via IRC or settling for Webboard interaction mandated for class work. By contrast, it appears that strongly tied pairs seek out means of communication, e.g., by branching out into Email and Phone communications (as described above), whispering during IRC sessions. These media fit with the extended needs of their tie, and as described above, also fit with their schedules.

Average Student's View

We can gain view of the average individual's experience in the class an ego-centric or personal network view by taking the number of pairs maintaining each relation, or using a medium, and dividing by the number of students in the class. This view shows how many others, on average, a student is likely to interact with and about what, as well as providing an average picture of media use. For example, on average, a student in F97 is likely to maintain Collaborative Work relations with 3 to 4 Friends (49 pairs/14 class members=3.5), and 6 to 7 Non-Friends (95/14=6.7). In both classes, students maintain Collaborative Work and Exchanging Information relations with 3 to 4 Friends and 6 to 7 Non-friends. Far fewer ties include Socializing and Emotional Support, with members of F98 having a very small set of others with whom they exchange Emotional Support. We can also see in Figure 1 (and Table 3) that while an average individuals' social network contains fewer Friends than Non-friends, they give these Friends far more of their communication attention, communicating with them more frequently overall and about each relation, as well as including emotional and social support.

For media use, in F97 we see a greater balance between Friends and Non-Friends in their communication circle, with 3 to 4 Friends and 6 to 7 Non-Friends contacted via IRC and the Webboard; 2 Friends and 3 Non-Friends via Email, with a high frequency of communication with Friends; and only one of each via Phone at a very low frequency of contact. By contrast, in F98 individuals have far more Non-Friends in their communication circle: 9-12 communicated with via each medium. However, again, the few Friends one per medium garner much more contact, and in particular via Email and Phone.

This kind of view shows that while class members spend their time maintaining frequent contact with a few close others, they also spend time maintaining wider, low frequency contact across the class as a whole. This dual pattern is an important aspect of group communication. It demonstrates that there are different demands on overall group communication, i.e., to manage contact with members of the whole class as well as more frequent, often social, contact with closer friends and work associates.

Figure 1: Average ego-centric network size and mean frequency of communication by relation.

The column base gives the number of Non-Friends (member of class or work only relationship); the column top gives the number of Friends (friend or close friend relationship). Diamonds show frequency of communication for Non-Friends; Squares indicate frequency for Friends.



Figure 2: Average ego-centric network size and mean frequency of communication by relation.

The column base gives the number of Non-Friends (member of class or work only relationship); the column top gives the number of Friends (friend or close friend relationship). Diamonds show frequency of communication for Non-Friends; Squares indicate frequency for Friends.

Whole Network Views

We turn now to looking at whole network aspects of the relations class members maintain, the media they use, and how these change over time. Because of our interest in seeing that students in these classes communicate with each other, and that information and support circulates among all students, it is important to look at the way in which the whole class is connected. One straightforward measure of connectedness is density, and it is calculated as the number of actual connections among network members divided by the number of possible connections. Highly dense networks have connections between all or nearly all members of the network, and density is near 1; sparse networks have few connections between members, and densities approach 0.

When density is high, information, support, and resources flow freely among all network members. When density is low, the routes along which resources can flow are limited. In such networks support and information may remain within cliques, or take a long time to reach all members of the network. Slow exchange of resources can be a particular problem for time-limited groups because information may not reach individuals in time for projects and deadlines. Thus, in general, we want to see a high density of interaction for our online classes. However, there is a caveat high density in a very large group may be overwhelming since contact with 90% of a 100-person network yields 90 others to communicate with, whereas it only yields 9 in a 10-person network. Because of group size differences it is always useful to bear in mind the actual the number of others in an individual's network at the same time as considering overall network density.

Relational Network Densities

In these classes, we do find high overall connectivity for each relation over the term as a whole (see Table 6), although there are quite noticeable differences over time (discussed below). Network densities for each relation are higher over the whole semester than for any one time period, a difference that is likely due to the class structures. The higher overall densities indicate that class members interacted with more others over the semester than they did in any one-time period.

This is a positive result when promoting contact and interaction with more others, e.g., when we want to increase the pot of ideas circulating the network. In both these classes, new contacts are continuing to be made over the semester. This difference is much greater for F98 than F97. Although overall densities are high for both classes, F98 densities are much lower in each time period for the work relations Collaborative Work and Exchanging Information. It is likely that the F98 class mandate to work in revolving pairings for in-class presentations, increased the number of others any individual worked with, while at the same time acting against longer-term, continuous work relationships. By contrast, the term-long group projects in F97 favored longer-term, more stable relationships, a positive condition when promoting commitment to project completion.

These different outcomes do not indicate one class was better or not at achieving its educational goals, but does show how the structuring of classes can affect information flow. In F98, a class member is more likely to have had interaction with more others, perhaps extending their access to new information (i.e., reaching more weak ties; Granovetter, 1973). In F97, class members are more likely to have maintained interaction with the same individuals, allowing the development of stronger working ties, but concentrating information flow among sub-group members. Either model may suit the requirements of the class or of other kinds of work groups. The point is that choices about group interaction and assignment structure have a direct effect on who associates with whom and for how long, and this in turn affects the structures of the class.

Relational Differences over Time

As noted above, there are noticeable differences in densities across the three time periods. Differences appear to hinge on an increase in contact during the middle period of the semester (Time 2). In both classes and for all relations, densities increase from Time 1 to Time 2, and then decrease to Time 3 (see Table 6; note that changes for F97, Collaborative Work are small). For F97, these changes in densities first increase the size of the personal network (mean ego density) by 1 to 6 others from Time 1 to Time 2, but then decrease it by 3 to 4 people from Time 2 to Time 3. This holds for Exchanging Information, Socializing, and Emotional Support, but there is less observable change for Collaborative Work since connectivity is near 100% all semester. For F98, personal networks first increase by 2 to 7 others from Time 1 to Time 2, and then decrease by 3 to 8 others from Time 2 to Time 3. The greatest decline in F98 is found for Emotional Support (see Table 6).

These temporal differences are important because they show how relationships are forming and growing (or lapsing) among class members over the semester. We can see that during Time 2, individuals in both classes interact with and call on more people than that do when they are at the beginning of their association, or at the end of it. This increase in contact during this time could be due to it being the middle of the semester, but it might also be due to some bootstrapping of relations, particularly social and emotional support relations because of the mid-semester face-to-face on-campus meeting. This is explored further next.

Table 6: Network Density by Relation and Time

F97 (n=14)

F98 (n=19)

T1

T2

T3

All

T1

T2

T3

All

Collaborative Work

Network Density

.97

.99

.95

1.0

.71

.82

.57

.92

Ego Density

12.6

12.9

12.3

13

12.7

14.7

10.2

16.5

Exchanging Information

Network Density

.88

.93

.69

.97

.44

.71

.47

.83

Ego Density

11.4

12.1

9.0

12.6

7.9

12.8

8.4

15.0

Socializing

Network Density

.56

.79

.51

.84

.57

.76

.51

.83

Ego Density

7.3

10.3

6.6

10.9

10.2

13.7

9.3

15.0

Emotional Support

Network Density

.19

.68

.32

.78

.30

.70

.26

.81

Ego Density

2.4

8.9

4.1

10.1

5.4

12.6

4.6

14.6

All Relations

Network Density

.98

1.0

.96

1.0

.78

.83

.57

.93

Ego Density

12.7

13

12.4

13

14.1

15.0

10.3

16.7

Note: A connection is said to exist between a pair if either member of the pair reports communication more than once during the time period regarding the relation. Network densities range from 0 to 1.0; a fully connected network has a density of 1.0, i.e., every person is connected to every other; network densities are calculated as the number of connections / number of possible connections ((14 x 13)/2 for F97; (19x18)/2 for F98). Ego densities give the average number of others with whom each person is in communication. The maximum is one fewer than the class enrollment (n-1, to exclude the connection of individuals with themselves): 13 for F97, and 18 for F98.

The Time 2 Effect

The higher network density in Time 2, and the later reduction in Time 3, could reflect the impact of the mid-semester on-campus session. However, it might also reflect a more general pattern of group interaction, with networks expanding during mid-term as wider exchanges are possible with now more familiar members of the network before end-of-semester deadlines approach. For F97, the on-campus session took place during Time 2, and for F98 it took place earlier in the semester, just before the Time 1 data collection. During this session all individuals come together physically on campus, making group wide communication easier. The reduction to smaller networks at Time 3 may be due to a return to distance relationships, or it may be due to students focusing on work tasks as the class moves from mid-semester open exchanges to end-of-semester task completion exchanges with interaction focused on work partners (as per Gersick, 1988, 1989). It is not possible to completely separate the effects of the on-campus session from mid-course effects in these classes. Even though the face-to-face session for F98 occurred temporally in Time 1, Time 2 increases may have been due to a near-term carry-over effect of relationships formed during this session. However, the temporal separation for F98, and the consistent finding of Time 2 effects for both classes tends to favor the mid-term effect over the face-to-face session for the increases in network density. Some further results discussed next also suggest that mid-term effects are in operation.

New Partners or Same Partners

To see whether changes were occurring over time because of communication with the same partners or because of communication with new partners, correlations were calculated between overall communication in each time period. Correlations of these communication networks show whether pairs who communicated frequently in one time period also communicated frequently in other time periods. These correlations suggest that part of the Time 2 effect reflects a change in associations among network members over time.

Correlations between networks are higher between the second and third time periods (Time 2 and Time 3: F97, r=.81; F98, r=.85) than between the first and third time periods (Time 1 and Time 3: F97, r=.72; F98, r=.76; see Table 7). Thus, in the last month of the semester, individuals are more likely to be continuing interactions with those from Time 2 rather than people they interacted with during Time 1. They are not returning to their Time 1 connections after the wider exchanges during Time 2, but instead are solidifying their Time 2 connections. This concurs with Gersick's (1988) research that finds groups set their orientation in the middle of their time together. Changes are more dramatic for F98, with correlations of .66 between Time 1 and Time 2, and .85 between Time 2 and Time 3. By contrast, class F97 begins with a stronger association between Time 1 and Time 2 interactions (.84; likely due to the project work), and this remains nearly the same from Time 2 to Time 3 (.81). Thus, members of F98 experience more of a mid-course change than do members of F97.

Table 7: Correlations Between Communication Networks at each Time Period

F97

F98

T1 vs T2

T2 vs T3

T1 vs T2

T2 vs T3

.84

.81

.66

.85

T1 vs T3

T1 vs T3

.72

.76

Note: Correlations of frequency of interaction for all relations via all media; correlations are performed using qap in ucinet (Borgatti, Everett & Freeman, 1992). With the small class sizes and routine meetings there is considerable similarity in who talks to whom and how much; the interest here is in the differences and where they occur rather than in statistical significance.

Convergence of Relations over Time

Another aspect of the solidification of network relations over time is shown by examining associations among the relational networks within time periods. Correlations of the frequency of communication by pairs show that, over the semester, there is a convergence in the relations maintained by pairs, i.e., class members do more things with the same others, and to the same extent, as the term progresses. Their personal networks narrow to focus on fewer others with whom they maintain more relations (i.e., they appear to be forming and maintaining stronger ties). However, what people do more of with each other is somewhat different for the two classes. This difference is again attributable to the structure of class activities and assignments, and shows again how such organizational choices can affect the resultant network structures.

For F97, much of the convergence occurs as teams form and work on their major class project. Members of this class narrow their exchanges to intra-team communication, including both work and affective relations in those communications (see also Haythornthwaite, 2001). While there is communication between teams, the most frequent communication occurs among team members. Over the term, those who work together (i.e., maintain the Collaborative Work relation) become the same people who exchange information and advice. This convergence is the most dramatic among the relations, with correlations of .64 in Time 1, .74 in Time 2, and .95 in Time 3 (see Table 8). Affective relations become involved also as those with whom F97 class members exchange information also become those with whom they exchange emotional support, and with whom they socialize. By the end of the term, relational exchanges are highly concentrated, with those who work together becoming the same people with whom they exchange information, socialize, and exchange emotional support.

In F98 where the organization of the class involved revolving associations, with different pairs responsible for different work across the term, we find little change in associations between Collaborative Work and Exchanging Information all term: class members interact with more or less the same pairs over the term (see Table 8). They do not develop the convergence around class work found in F97. Instead, the pattern of relational interaction suggests that the structure of class F98 arises from socially oriented connections. Those who socialize are also those who exchange emotional support, and who exchange information or advice about class work. The more that pairs engage in affective relations, the more they engage in exchanging information and advice.

These results suggest that both work and social relations can bootstrap ties. Close, enduring work relationships in F97 led students to include more intimate interactions normally associated with friendships, i.e., socializing and exchanging emotional support relations. Thus, work relations bootstrap social relations. By contrast, F98 appears to work in the opposite direction. Here socializing and emotional support relations appear to bootstrap the more instrumental relation of exchanging information and advice about class work. Thus, social relations bootstrap informational relations.

It is likely that the key to bootstrapping relations is getting people to interact and communicate. After all, we tend to like the people we know best, and we get to know best those with whom we work or socialize. Thus, we come back to the original ideas of collaborative learning that the goal is to encourage and foster communication, and to provide an environment that lets communicators feel safe about communicating.

Table 8: Correlations Between Relations Within Time Period

F97

Time 1

Time 2

Time 3

All

Collaborative Work with Exchanging Information

.64

.74

.95

.90

Collaborative Work with Socializing

.53

.55

.61

.82

Collaborative Work with Emotional Support

.72

.56

.69

.73

Exchanging Information with Socializing

.65

.41

.66

.77

Exchanging Information with Emotional Support

.42

.69

.72

.75

Socializing with Emotional Support

.45

.70

.77

.80

 

F98

Time 1

Time 2

Time 3

All

Collaborative Work with Exchanging Information

.70

.69

.78

.80

Collaborative Work with Socializing

.76

.65

.86

.83

Collaborative Work with Emotional Support

.69

.54

.64

.73

Exchanging Information with Socializing

.69

.88

.94

.90

Exchanging Information with Emotional Support

.64

.73

.79

.83

Socializing with Emotional Support

.53

.82

.76

.88

Note: Bold text highlights pairs of relations that converge over time

Media Use Networks over Time

If the key is communication, then the media we have available can also have a key role in successful interactions. How do media support communication in these classes? Does media use also change over time? We have seen that, unlike relations, over the semester as a whole, media use is quite ordered, with class-wide media used by weakly tied pairs, with more personal means of communication added onto these. Can we also see patterns in their use over time?

Network densities show that the class mandated media (IRC and Webboard for F97; IRC for F98) connect nearly all pairs. In F97, all pairs are connected at some time during the term by the Webboard (100%), followed closely by IRC (87%; see Table 9). In F98, IRC connects far more pairs than does any other medium (85%). Email, although used by fewer pairs, is used far more frequently (see Figure 2 above).

Some changes in media use over time are quite dramatic. In F97, use of IRC and Email diverges in density over time. While use of both media starts off at the same kind of density, over time IRC densities increase while Email densities decrease. A more detailed look shows that by Time 3, Email is highly oriented and restricted to team use, whereas IRC is used to and from all class members (see also Haythornthwaite, 2001).

For F98, fewer media become established. IRC supported the class, but even connections via this medium taper off during Time 3. In the same way as for F97, Email is used by those who communicate more frequently, i.e., by those with stronger ties, but Email contact also drops off in Time 3. Class F98 shows an overall drop in connectivity by Time 3, when only 57% of pairs are in contact, most likely because class requirements have turned to individual work during the last month of the semester.

For both classes media use shows two patterns: connectivity among the class as a whole, and connectivity among more strongly tied pairs. Thus, some media have emerged as mechanisms that support weak tie interaction IRC, Webboard and some for support of strong tie interaction Email, Phone. As noted above, the media that support the weak ties are the organizationally-mandated means of communication: IRC for "live" real-time class sessions, and the Webboard (for F97) for ongoing mandatory discussion. By contrast, Email and the Phone are elective media, as well as private, and are chosen by strongly tied pairs to augment their use of the more public IRC and Webboard media.

Table 9: Density by Medium, Time and Class

F97 (n=14)

F98 (n=19)

Time 1

Time 2

Time 3

All

Time 1

Time 2

Time 3

All

Webboard

Network Density

.97

1.00

.92

1.00

.24

.06

.05

.32

Ego Density

12.6

13

12

13

4.3

1.1

.9

5.8

IRC

Network Density

.41

.60

.78

.87

.67

.79

.52

.85

Ego Density

5.3

7.8

10.1

11.3

12.1

14.2

9.4

15.3

Email

Network Density

.44

.30

.24

.51

.18

.22

.14

.30

Ego Density

5.7

3.9

3.1

9.2

3.2

7.9

2.5

5.4

Phone

Network Density

.04

.12

.10

.16

.11

.02

.03

.12

Ego Density

.5

1.6

1.3

2.1

2.0

.4

.5

2.2

Face-to-Face

Network Density

.48

.48

.26

.26

Ego Density

6.2

6.2

4.7

4.7

All Media

Network Density

.98

1.00

.96

1.00

.78

.82

.57

.93

Ego Density

12.7

13

.94

13

14.0

14.8

10.3

16.7

Note: A connection is said to exist if either member of the pair reports communication more than once during the time period via the medium. Face-to-face numbers combine unscheduled and scheduled meetings (asked about separately for F97) and indicate that face-to-face interaction occurred only at the on-campus session; All Media numbers for F97 include use of group meeting software by a small subset of class members (densities Time 1=.04; Time 2=.04; Time 3=.02; All=.05).

Discussion

Examining the emergent networks of these two classes shows how different organizational mandates can lead to the formation of different class structures. This kind of information can help us understand the likely outcomes for both collaborative learning and group interaction, that result from organizational decisions and mandates about interaction and media. The students are similar in both cases yet in one class students organize around group projects and narrow their multiplex communications to their project co-workers; in the other class, using revolving pair-wise associations, communication networks form around ongoing socializing and emotional support exchanges. As noted above, this is not to say that one form is superior or more efficient for learning or group work than the other, but that the networks that do form are highly subject to the organizationally established rules of interaction.

The influence of organizational choices is also evident for the media that are used. The two patterns of media use low frequency, group-wide exchanges with the class as a whole via organizationally selected and mandated media (i.e., IRC and Webboards), and higher frequency, close tie exchanges with project team members and friends via optional media (i.e., Email, Phone) reflect the learning and task needs of the class. Wide exchanges provide access to information that is held by the class as a whole and encourages sharing of knowledge and experience, and exposure to the knowledge and opinions of others (important considerations in the tradition of collaborative learning, e.g., Bruffee, 1993; Koschmann, 1996). Where networks contain members whose experiences are different from each other, they are also more likely to provide access to new information, opinions or approaches. Lecture settings provide an arena for the receipt of information, but they also provide exposure to others group members' opinions and questions about the information being received. The ability to ask and view others' questions via IRC builds common knowledge and understanding among group members and provides individuals with the opportunity to be exposed to new information.

But beyond sharing information, class members, like members of other work groups, have tasks to complete, sometimes on their own and sometimes with others. Thus, the second type of communication and the second use of media supports task completion, either by working directly with others (as in F97) or by gaining information and advice from friends and confidants (as in F98). These stronger ties are also useful for providing the kind of emotional support needed to continue with a project, and thus it is not surprising that the Exchanging Information and Emotional Support ties tend to co-occur.

Maintaining weak ties for new and different knowledge, as well as strong ties for closer work and/or social relations, provide challenges for new participants in distributed environments as well as administrators and teachers using such systems. What structures should be put in place for such groups in order to support these dual demands? Awareness of the two types of interaction is a first step to managing these demands. Both administrators and work group participants need to be aware that both types of exchange are important and necessary for supporting collaborative exchange as well as task completion. With this awareness, it then becomes evident that one type of medium, one forum, or one computer tool is unlikely to meet requirements for both types of exchange. It also becomes evident that a technical solution alone is not sufficient. Provision of media needs to be combined with social interventions, such as opportunities for synchronous exchanges, supplementary face-to-face meetings, and organizational interventions such as implementing group wide and person-to-person communications media.

Thus, the first step in supporting such groups is to provide multiple means of accomplishing group and work interaction, with attention to the support of weak ties as well as strong ones. The second step is to be aware that administrative support is needed most for weak tie contact, since these individuals do not otherwise seek each other out for communication. Since the medium chosen for group-wide exchange is likely to be the only way many group members interact, it must be chosen appropriately to support the kinds of group-wide exchange important for the group. For collaborative learning groups this is likely to be an interactive medium through which individuals can be exposed to the knowledge of others, come to know these others, and become confident in expressing and sharing their knowledge.

The third step is provide organizational opportunities and media that support their growth into stronger ties whether their basis is in work or social relationships. Working with others, discussing with others, and socializing all help to build ties. Going hand-in-hand with these is the provision of opportunities and media for private conversation that let people get to know and work with a smaller set of others (Email, IRC whispering, non-recorded IRC sessions; synchronous sessions, face-to-face meetings). Supporting distributed groups means starting them off on their way to self-sustaining strong ties, supported through a wide array of means, methods and opportunities for communication.

*Acknowledgements: Thanks go to the individuals who gave generously of their time for this study, and to Deborah Fuoss for data collection. This work was supported by a grant from the University of Illinois Campus Research Board. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Communication Association conference, Washington, DC, May 2001.

Endnotes

[1]To compensate for the lack of full reporting from all members of the class, in examining aspects of whole networks below, data are symmetrized on the average of the report from each member of the pair (e.g., if A reports communicating with B 10 times a week, and B reports communicating 5 times a week, the frequency of communication used for A to B is 7.5). Where a class member did not respond, symmetrizing on the average may underestimate communication with those who did not participate in the study (e.g., A reports communicating with C 10 times, but C did not respond; hence the average is taken as 5). With only one participant missing from F97, symmetrizing produces results for each pairing; however, in F98, there are no data available on interaction among the 4 pairs of non-respondents. Thus, overall frequencies of interaction and densities may be underestimated for this class.

[2] Students were also asked about the use of 'other' media, and a very few students reported use of group meeting software. This use is included in overall frequencies of communication, but is not addressed on its own.

[3] Here, data are treated as independent reports from respondents, i.e., these are not compared or reconciled with reports from co-respondents (e.g. A's report of communication with B is given and not reconciled with B's report of communication with A). In examining whole networks below, data are symmetrized on the average of the report from each member of the pair as described in footnote 2.

[4]Log frequency of communication was used to correct for skewness in the monthly, weekly, daily reporting.

[5] F97: Error of 10 for 4 items and 169 responses (IRC, Webboard, Email, Phone); the fit is not as good and is outside the acceptable range when the media are ordered Webboard, IRC, Email, Phone which shows 88 errors (CR=1-(88/(4 x 169)) = .87). Guttman Coefficient of Reproducibility (CR)=1-(number of errors/(number of items x number of responses)). A CR of .90 or higher is accepted as indicating conformity to a uni-dimensional scale.

[6] F98: Error of 48 for 3 items and 247 responses (IRC, Email, Phone); use does not conform to a uni-dimensional scale when Webboard use is included (IRC, Webboard, Email, Phone: CR=.84; error of 156 for 4 items and 247 responses).

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