CCE Theses and Dissertations


An Investigation of Interactional Coherence in Asynchronous Learning Environments

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences


Laurie Dringus

Committee Member

Marlyn Kemper Littman

Committee Member

Steven D. Zink


Numerous studies have affirmed the value of asynchronous online communication as a learning resource. Several investigations, however, have indicated that discussions in asynchronous environments are often neither interactive nor coherent. This research sought to develop an enhanced understanding of interactional coherence in asynchronous learning environments. The study used Rhetorical Structure Theory (RST) to analyze and assess the coherence of a several asynchronous discussions.

The analysis revealed that the discussions were structurally dynamic. While RST structures resulting from static documents are acyclic tree-shaped structures, the rhetorical networks representing asynchronous threads are frequently cyclic. Thus, the analysis required a modified form of RST based on reduced constraints and restricted schemas. By this means, it was possible to create structural models of the discussions. These models were used to investigate asynchronous argumentation and topic drift and to perform a comparative analysis of multiple discussions.

The investigation found argumentation was more prevalent in some groups than others. In one group the analysis indicated the dominant mode of interaction was disagreement; in another group, argumentation was generally constructive; and in a third group, argumentation tended to be supportive and concessive. The investigation found that topic drift does not occur as a matter of chance. Participants use topic drift in order to adapt discussion to a topic of preference. As such, topics do not drift so much as they are pushed and pulled. A consequence of this process is that threads often begin with a strong research-based opening message, but descend to anecdotes and personal commentary.

The conferencing systems used for the discussions were similar in their features, but the discussions differed, particularly in their use of threading. In one group, less than half of the messages were threaded, with the remainder posted as singletons. In other groups most of the messages were in threads.

This research provides a framework and a terminology for fine-grained analysis of interactional coherence. By showing the applicability of RST to asynchronous discussion, the study has offered evidence that assessment technology could be developed for online discussions. In addition, the development of rhetorical networks as a directed graph theory for representing the semantics of asynchronous interaction could lead to new knowledge representation technologies for multi-agent collaboration systems.

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