Maintaining topic integrity in online discussions can be problematic for instructors. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of topic drift yields insight into how online classroom discussions can be effectively managed, enabling facilitators to assure conversational flow while limiting unproductive digressions. This paper presents an analysis of topic drift in asynchronous learning environments with the aim of discovering their structural dynamics and thereby showing, not only how drift may be avoided, but also how these same dynamics can be used as opportunities for topic development and revitalization. The study builds on previous research in conversational coherence and rhetorical structure to identify the dynamics of topic drift, and finds that devices such as parallel association and chained explanation are commonly employed in the asynchronous classroom, with meta-talk occurring less frequently. Moreover, the analysis suggests that topic drift does not occur as a matter of chance: participants use the devices of topic drift in order to adapt the discussion to a topic of preference. To this extent, these same devices can, in the hands of the instructor, become tools for topic management. Instructors may benefit through early recognition of topic integrity problems and through utilization of their own topic management strategies for taking adaptive action.
|Keywords:||Asycnhronous Learning Environments, Interactional Coherence, Online Learning, Rhetorical Structure Theory|
Chief Scientist, Sentar, Inc., Huntsville, USA
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