Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.8, 1345-1353
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1345
Online Cooperative Learning and Key Interpsychological
Mechanisms: An Exploratory Study through the Analysis of
the Discourse Content
Marly Casanova1, Ibis M. Alvarez2
1Unit of Curriculu m and Assessment, Minist r y of Education of Chile, R e g ió n d e l o s R í o s , Chile
2Educational and Developmental Psychology Department, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
Received October 3rd, 2012; revised November 5th, 2012; accepted November 19th, 2012
This research analyses the cooperative learning process in three groups applying the case study technique
in a virtual university asynchronous communication context. The exploratory study was performed within
a subject taught at a Master in e-learning programme. Based on a review of the theory and the current
status of research, we delineate the concept of virtual cooperative learning and the main interpsychologi-
cal mechanisms accounting for its effectiveness. Through a case study methodology and by means of dis-
course analysis, we identify the main interpsychological mechanisms involved in peer cooperation—po-
sitive interdependence, construction of meaning and psychosocial relations. We categorise the types of
language involved in the process of joint construction of meaning all throughout the sequence of coopera-
tive learning being studied.
Keywords: Cooperative Learning; Computer-Mediated Communication; Interactive Learning
Environments; Discourse Analysis
Online cooperative learning in asynchronous contexts offer
diverse opportunities to promote regulated behaviours that may
support joint construction of meaning (Dillenbourg, Schneider,
& Synteta, 2002). Nevertheless, teachers often comment that
student conversations in cooperative learning task can be dis-
appointing. Students, they contend, can be insufficiently focus-
ed on the content of their activity and the quality of their group
product. The scarcity of the academic content in group discus-
sions often stems from a lack of clarity on the part of students
and teachers as to what should be make (Abram et al., 2002).
To arrange for a fruitful learning environment, teachers need
to take advantage of the possibilities given by this learning
environment and to try to reduce the problems. In this sense,
the purposes of this study is to identify the main interpsycho-
logical mechanisms involved in the process of virtual coopera-
tive asynchronous communication learning by means of content
analysis of online discussion. As the result, we intend to de-
lineate discourse categories that will allow us to examine posi-
tive interdependence among group members, the construction
of meaning and the psychosocial relations among a virtual co-
operative group.
Theoretical Approach
Recently, researchers have shifted their focus to being more
interested in identifying the mediating factors and the interpsy-
chological mechanisms involved in the effectiveness of coop-
erative learning (see for example Durán & Monereo, 2005; Ho-
gan, Nastasi, & Pressley, 2000; Jonassen & Kwon, 2001; Lip-
ponen, Rahikainen, Hakkarainen, & Palonen, 2002; Van Boxtel,
Van der Linden, & Kanselaar, 2000; Volet, Summers, & Thur-
man, 2008).
There is little knowledge on this specific topic when applied
to virtual education; however, contrasti ve information from face-
to-face education on the effectiveness of cooperative le arn ing te -
chniques and the required specific processes, can prove useful
in furthering understanding of their internal dynamics in virtual
contexts (Casanova, 2008; Laurillard, 2009).
Beyond the discussion about the cooperation and collabora-
tion concepts, in the practice, both processes are referred to
active and interactive learning (Panitz, 1996). In fact, coopera-
tive learning groups rely on positive interdependence among
the constituents of the group. The students feel they can reach
their learning goals only if the rest of the group also achieve
them (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). But not all groupings are co-
operative, since the latter form can only be accomplished by
observing certain basic elements. Rusbult and Van Lange (2003)
point out that it is necessary to gain further understanding of
interdependence so as to appreciate how these processes are
transformed in communication, how motivational factors and
the concern for the welfare of another member of the group in-
tervene during the interaction, and their effects on goal accom-
The effectiveness of cooperative learning depends upon mul-
tiple conditions such as the group composition (size, age, gen-
der, heterogeneity…), the task features and the communication
media. However, these conditions are multiple and interact with
each other in such a complex way that is not possible to guar-
antee learning effects (Dillenbourg, 2002).
According with sociocultural theories, verbal interaction is
particularly essential in cognitive development and learning
(Cazden, 1988; Edwards and Mercer 1987; Mercer, 2004; Wer-
tsch, 1985). The teaching-learning process is viewed as a so-
cially organised activity in which speech processes take place
among people of different levels of command whether more or
less competent. In other words and more specifically, in coop-
erative learning tasks, language is the basic tool to collectively
understand, co-regulate, make proposals, negotiate and con-
struct meaning.
Of great value is also the research carried out on the charac-
teristics of virtual asynchronous communication (De Wever,
Schellens, Valcke, & Van Keer, 2006; Naidu & Järvelä, 2006;
Schrire, 2006) and its differences in relation to the communica-
tion established in other educational contexts, as well as the
studies performed on virtual communities, especially those ana-
lysing the process of interaction through discourse, which con-
tribute relevant theoretical and methodological elements that
can be applied in a deeper study of the virtual cooperative
learning process (e.g. Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Gunawar-
dena, Lowe, & Anderson, 1997; Han & Hill, 2007; Marcelo &
Perera, 2007).
In the virtual learning environment, the majority of educa-
tional interaction relies on the use of discourse—in many in-
stances in a written format—as a mediating instrument to con-
ceptualise reality, discuss and negotiate (e.g. Järvela & Hakki-
nen, 2002; Wegerif, 2006). In this sense, the students’ discur-
sive activity is partly responsible for their ability to achieve
higher levels of intersubjectivity and, therefore, advance to-
wards shared and ever more complex representations of the
contents and tasks of the joint activity.
From a sociocultural constructivist point of view, learning
processes in an online learning environment are described as
the construction of shared meanings, and the importance of dis-
course as a basic mediating tool for this construction is under-
lined (Hogan, Nastasi, & Pressley, 2000; Hung & Der-Thanq,
2001; Salmon, 2002). In this sense, the participants’ discursive
activity is set within the larger context of the activity.
Likewise, cooperative knowledge construction in virtual en-
vironments requires high levels of continuous interaction and
reciprocal communication between the participants, allowing
argumentation, negotiation, discussion and the joint construc-
tion of meanings (Kanuka & Anderson, 1998). Within this kind
of interaction, different interpsychological mechanisms that fa-
vour the constructive potential of the interaction between the stu-
dents may occur. Therefore, a crucial element for understanding
how knowledge is constructed has to do with what is being
done and said by all the participants (see for example Onrubia
& Engel, 2010).
Along these lines, Mercer (2000) distinguishes the types of
talk taking place in the classroom: disputative, cumulative or
exploratory. Disputative or discussion talk is characterised by
disagreement, making decisions individually, brief exchanges
consisting of statements and discussions of doubtful points or
refutations. Cumulative talk is characterised by repetitions and
confirmations, speakers build on what others have said in a
positive way, but not critically; they construct “shared knowl-
edge” by means of accumulation. With exploratory talk, how-
ever, knowledge is more openly justified and reasoning is ap-
parent in the conversation. Other students’ ideas are discussed
in a critical and constructive manner. Statements and sugges-
tions are offered for joint consideration, they must be question-
ed and defended, but discussion on doubtful points must be jus-
tified and alternative hypotheses offered.
According to Mercer (2004), the sociocultural analysis of
classroom discourse is basically geared to understanding how
language is used to think collectively and it focuses on the im-
portance of dialogue quality in educative processes. Take into
in account, this point of view; we believe the following interp-
sychological mechanisms, related with the cooperative learning
(Johnson & Johnson, 1999) are essential in order to analysis
how knowledge is constructed also in an online environment:
1) Positive interdependence among the group members in
the execution of the learning activity. Most researchers,
both in face-to-face and in virtual environments, focus on
achieving a common goal, which involves performing a
joint task or piece of work, requiring commitment and
accountability from the constituents of the group (Brewer
& Klein 2006; Chou, 2003).
2) Psychosocial relations. Many authors stress the impor-
tance of interpersonal relations and the social skills of
group members in ensuring cooperation and achieve posi-
tive effects in learning. They posit that the degree of emo-
tive bonding and social support among students has an
impact on the quality of their joint work (e.g. Garrison &
Anderson, 2003; Jermann & Dillenbourg, 2008; Perit,
Zemel, & Stahl, 2009).
3) Joint construction of meaning through language. This
involves the joint construction of knowledge, ideas and
concepts; demanding and offering explanations and argu-
ments; mutually negotiating and regulating the contribu-
tions and viewpoints in the interaction. The students’ dif-
ferent uses of language are given in sequence, which pro-
duce expositive, descriptive and argumentative texts, as
well as conclusions and summaries (e.g. Alvarez & López,
2010; Ludvigsen, 2011; Schrire, 2006).
Additionally, we take into account that written language is
the base of the communication and interaction in Computer
Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) situations where
communication is asynchronous ( Garrison, Anderson, & A rch er,
2000). Much of cited researches have focused on content ana-
lysis of the transcriptions of the online conversation in order to
investigate the quality of the interaction process in which the
students engage.
Finally, as a result of the consideration of the discourse as the
basic mediator of cooperative learning processes, we consid-
ered the possibility of explore the link between language and
the mechanisms involved in cooperative learning. In summary,
from this theoretical framework we hope to identify the forms
adopted by virtual cooperative language in relation to their es-
sential mechanisms.
The present work constitutes an exploratory research based
in a case study (Yin, 1989).
The case includes the didactic sequence based on online co-
operative activities with university students chosen lasted three
weeks. The teaching and learning process took place in a virtual
university classroom.
The learning task entailed the analysis of three cases corre-
sponding to three types of experiences observed by teaching
teams using ICT in training processes. The participants were
fifteen students divided into three cooperative learning groups,
and a consultant teacher, taking a module on planning teacher-
training processes with Information and Communication Tech-
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
nologies (ICT), worth 3 ECTS (European Credit Transfer Sys-
tem) credits, and which forms part of the Master programme in
Education and ICT (E-Learning) at the Open University of Ca-
talonia (UOC). All the students had professional qualifications
and the majority also had postgraduate education and experi-
ence as student in an online environment.
Each group was required to provide a critical evaluation of
the planning process in the in-depth study of a reference case,
so as to draw conclusions in relation to achievements, difficul-
ties, risk s and challenges brought about by the introduction of
ICT. The activity was performed by means of group discussion
for the cooperative construction of knowledge. The exchange of
opinions and evaluations, in each corresponding case, was gear-
ed to answering the question: What changes, and how, in the
teaching learning process with the introduction of ICT? The
final product was a report including a critical evaluation, which
each group sent to the teacher.
The teacher provided instructions for performing the task and
a guide for the cooperative construction of knowledge in line
with the objective set. The number of messages exchanged by
the students totalled 104: Group A, n = 36, Group B, n = 37,
and Group C, n = 31.
Categorization Unit, Coding System, Inter-Judge
An essential aspect was the selection of a unit of analysis
which different coders would be able to recognise reliably. It
entails identifying discourse categories which account for the
main interpsychological mechanisms of virtual cooperative lear-
ning. Fixed units such as words or whole messages are recog-
nised objectively, but they do not always encompass properly
the construct being investigated. However, units of meaning do
adequately delineate the construct, but can lead to a subjective
identification of the unit (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Ar-
cher, 2001).
In keeping with the research objectives, as the basic unit of
categorisation we chose the thematic unit introduced by Henri
(1992), namely a “unit of meaning,” which is similar in form to
the conventional thematic unit described by Budd, Thorp and
Donohue (1967, cited in Garrison & Anderson, 2003) as “…a
single thought unit or idea unit that conveys a single item of
information extracted from a segment of content” (p. 193).
The system of categories we developed combines the notions
of mutual exclusivity and exhaustiveness (Chi, 1997); the re-
sulting categories were informed by the theory in the first place,
but were defined situationally, according to the data we ob-
tained. Therefore, deductive and inductive analyses were com-
bined. We also took into account some previous studies finding
about analyse online discourse and interaction (Han & Hill,
2007; Hara, Bonk, & Angeli, 2000; Marcelo & Perera, 2007).
With the inductive component, from the data we generated the
categories, undergoing a process of adjustment, definition and
redefinition, which in some cases gave place to some subdivi-
sions and in some others to the creation of new categories and
the elimination or fusion of some others, until a satisfactory
system was achieved.
Thus, based on the theory and previous studies, we created a
first system of categories, grouped into three dimensions, which
correspond to the interpsychological mechanisms of virtual
cooperative learning: Psychosocial Relations, Construction of
Meaning and Positive Interdependence.
The three discussion sequences of the three groups making
up the case study were categorised using the Atlas-ti software
(version 6). New situations which could not be included in any
of the initial categories gave rise to new categories. Each new
category was defined and exemplified so that it could be prop-
erly integrated into the initial general system. Some categories
overlapping others were merged and defined more clearly. Any
categories of the initial general system not found in the data
were eliminated. The research team, made up of three research-
ers, met on many occasions to apply the category system and
perfect their definitions. Similarly, on occasions when a resear-
cher had categorised independently and there was apparent con-
fusion or similarity between the categories, we proceeded to im-
prove their definitions, merge some and eliminate others. Each
category was assigned a code, which proved highly useful for
managing the data.
Once the coding of the sequences from the three groups was
completed, we proceeded to select one of them at random, so
that it could be evaluated by two external judges. These judges
received training in the category system, both in relation to
their definitions and the dimensions adopted. In this process,
ideas were discussed on the least precise categories, some defi-
nitions were improved and others were complemented with
more examples.
A segmentation of the messages into thematic units was agreed
upon (Strijbos, Martens, Prins, & Jochems, 2006), with 216
items identified for coding, and we established what would si-
gnal agreement: general concurrence on the identification of co-
des on the same items. Each of the judges categorised indepen-
dently, taking into account that each item had to be coded into
only one category.
The reliability of the category system was tested by calculat-
ing the Kappa coefficient which corrects the possibility of agree-
ment due to chance. When this coefficient was applied by the
two external evaluators, the first one obtained .95 and the sec-
ond .91.
Results and Discussion
The principal purpose of this analysis was of identifying the
languages that reflect the presence of the interpsychological
mechanisms that favour online cooperation. As a result of this
exploratory study, 21 discourse categories were identified wh ich
are presented in Figure 1.
Next, some definitions of those categories which had a hi ghe r
frequency in the three mentioned interpsychological mecha-
nisms of cooperation will be explained with examples.
Greetings (G): Communication act performing merely a so-
cial function. It could appear at the beginning of the message or
as a sign-off, whether formally or informally. Examples:
“Hello everyone”, “Hello”, “See you”, “Yours”, “Greetings”,
Individual Accountability (IA): Meeting their responsibilities
or showing individual commitment to the execution of the joint
task. Also included in this category are the postings related to
obtaining personal commitment to the execution of the joint
learning activities. Example:
“…tonight I’ll attach the file to my posting…”
Reinforcement/Approval (RA): expresses agreement with pre-
vious postings or the content of the messages. Examples:
“…I think your work proposal is right”, “I agree with E01,
ith his views.” w
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1347
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Figure 1.
Virtual cooperative discourse categories.
Explanation/argument (EArg): Statements aimed at enhanc-
ing others’ understanding of an idea, content, concept or pro-
cedure, expressing their own viewpoint by means of opinions,
perspectives or reflections supported with arguments. It is more
elaborate than “Clarification/complementation” because it may
contain descriptions, comparisons, definitions or enumerations
of qualities or characteristics of the object or the contents of the
explanation. Included in this category are the statements aimed
at convincing others of an idea, content, proposal or procedure,
by providing evidence. This argumentation is also done to sub-
stantiate or support ideas, clarifications, explanations or pro-
posals made by other members of the group. Example:
With regards to the effectiveness of training activities, I
think that in the project of face-to-face classroom with
ICT, there are two distinctive moments in the process: a
training moment and a sensitisation moment:
Figure 2.
Percentage summary of the discourse categories.
tions (53.1). It makes sense that this is the case because in on-
line asynchronous communications it is common to find langu-
age related to establishing and maintaining these relations, such
as: greetings, thanks, reinforcements, encouragement, e xpr ess ion
of emotions; all of which contribute to the generation of social
dialogue and serve to substitute certain characteristics typical of
non-verbal communication, such as glances and gestures, which
strengthen relations among members.
Training: a training programme for teachers is established,
both in the didactic methodology of constructive, partici-
pative and meaningful learning and with the use of ICT in
the classroom. Awareness raising: by means of the proc-
ess of sensitisation and evaluation of the prototype, it can
be argued—by both students and teachers—that a change
in methodology and the use of ICT bring about an impro-
vement to learning.” Similarly we can observe certain differences between the ca-
tegories themselves inside each of these mechanisms; therefore,
in subsequent figures we will show and comment on the catego-
ries’ percentage per mechanism.
The disagreement category was not identified in Group A
and its frequency was very low in the other two groups (1 in
Group B and 2 in Group C). In Group B the category expres-
sion of affection was not identified, but in Group A it appeared
with a frequency of 11 times. In Group C all categories were
identified but with the lowest total of frequency. Psychosoci al Relation s
As commented on earlier, psychosocial relations include all
those student postings which motivate and reinforce the group
dynamics, social relations and the affective life of a Virtual Co-
operative Learning group.
We will now present the results in relation to the interpsy-
chological mechanisms in cooperative learning linked to the
categories we identified in the analysis. Figure 2 shows a per-
centage comparison between the total frequency results of the
categories of the three interpsychological mechanisms. Figure 3 shows that, within psychosocial relations, the cate-
gory with the highest percentage of frequency is greetings (40.9).
The greatest percentage corresponds to psychosocial rela-
This category also has the highest frequency (114) among all
categories. This is due to the fact that in a virtual environment
of asynchronous communication it is customary to include, in
each message, greetings and goodbyes, both formal and infor-
mal, which contributes to establishing cordial relations among
the group members.
Although lagging behind greetings by a considerable margin,
reinforcement/approval has the second highest percentage (19.4)
within psychosocial relations. It is also one of the categories
with the highest frequency (54), in relation to the rest of the
categories. In comparison to Garrison and Anderson’s (2003)
model in the social presence dimension—one of the dimen-
sions considered as a starting point for the definition of the psy-
chosocial relations categories—we find concurrence in the iden-
tification of categories expressing greetings, humour, expressions
of affection, emotions, personal circumstances and agreement,
although they are not defined in exactly the same way.
There are also marked differences in the distinction some of
these researchers make between categories, indicators, subcate-
gories and dimensions. For Garrison & Anderson (2003), social
presence corresponds to the whole dimension; the same for
Marcelo and Perera (2007), who actually call it social dimen-
sion. However, for Han and Hill (2007), social presence is an
indicator within the community category. In this same sense,
Garrison and Anderson (2003) identify expression of emotions
and resorting to humour as indicators of affection; whereas
Marcelo and Perera (2007) identify expression of emotions as a
subcategory within affection, but they do not include the hu-
mour category, which seems implicit in another category within
the same dimension, called leisure.
In our case, in line with the way we defined these categories
and the manner we presented the data analysed, we have chosen
to consider affection, expression of emotions and humour as
discourse categories which are differentiated from each other
and serve to provide valuable nuances in the effort to maintain
psychosocial relations.
Furthermore, among the eight categories associated with
psychosocial relations, we identified two that were not present
in the previously reviewed models: encouragement/cheering and
thanks (encouragement/cheering, 33 and thanks, 27). The pre-
sence and frequency of these two new categories lead us to po-
sit that within the technique of Virtual Cooperative Learning we
analysed, expressions of encouragement, cheering and thanks,
are all essential characteristics to create and maintain motiva-
tion in the group towards cooperation. The following quote
shows how a student encourages and/or cheers others within the
group to continue working jointly.
“Come on!”, “Come on! We are doing well”, “…let’s hope
we do well!”
“I sincerely thank you for your interest and motivation.”
Construction of Meanin g
The categories associated to this mechanism include those
postings related to the generation of joint knowledge. Figure 4
shows the category with the highest percentage: explanation/
argument (35.1). In terms of percentage, it is followed by the
categories reformulation/summary (19.6), questions on content/
opinion and clarification/complementation of content (14.4),
which provides a snapshot of the predominant types of dis-
course used, which include explicative and argumentative texts.
The low percentage attained by task clarification was to be ex-
Something similar can be stated about the category metacog-
nitive statements. Strictly sticking to the definition of this cate-
gory, it is not very common for students to state, throughout the
debate, whether they have learned or improved their knowledge
as a result of the interaction. These statements are more com-
mon at the end of the discussion and this is what happened in
the three groups studied, which explains why this category’s
probability of incidence is low in comparison to others such as
explanation/argument or reformulation/summary.
Justification and disagreement are also among the categories
with the lowest percentage of frequency; the lack of disagree-
ment may mean that students feel less need to justify their con-
tributions throughout the debate. The higher percentage of ex-
planation/argument may have a bearing on the low frequency
of disagreement, given that more elaborate ideas may appear
clearer and more convincing to the rest of the group.
The higher percentage of explanation/argument can be at-
Figure 3.
Percentage of psychosocial relation cat egories.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1349
Figure 4.
Percentage of constr uction of meaning categories.
tributed to the fact that written asynchronous discourse affords
more time for deliberation and the elucidation of ideas. It is less
likely for students to post unfinished or poorly developed sta-
tements and/or those only directed to clarify or complement
Positive Interdependence
This interpsychological mechanism includes those postings
that reflect the mutual dependency between the group members
in order to achieve the group goals. In the groups analysed, an
interdependence of goals was established, where each member’s
success was linked to the res t of the team’s and vice versa.
A key issue in the generation of positive interdependence is
for the group members to be held individually accountable in
the attainment of the group goal (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). In
the students’ discourse, this is clearly evidenced in the category
individual accountability, which has the highest percentage
(38.3) among the five categories linked to this mechanism. The
frequency this category has in relation to the total is the second
highest (57).
Figure 5 shows that next down in line, lagging behind by
almost 20 points, are: proposal for organisation/method (20.8)
and calls for accountability (19.5). An example of the latter is
shown in the following quote, where a student (Student 15) ap-
peals to another:
“…Please, S15, can you complete, correct or comment on
anything you deem appropriate…”
The difference between the percentage shown by the cate-
gory individual accountability (38.3) and the category call for
accountability (19.5) indicates that the frequency with which
students show their commitment to the task and goal was grea-
ter than the need to request commitment from others or make
clear the need for contributions from other members.
The category with the lowest percentage is clarification/com-
plementation of organisation. However, there are more propos-
als for organisation/method:
“…OK, mates, I suggest the following structure to organ-
ise our postings in the debate, so that we can complete the
activity happily, if you agree, let’s do it, if anybody else
has another scheme let’s discuss it soon. Relevance of the
planning strategy followed, taking into account the educa-
tional needs and the characteristics of the context where
the activity takes place, on 9th, 10th and 11th April…”
The three interpsychological mechanisms, identified by me ans
of the categorisation of the discourse in the three groups, occur
in an interlinked manner. It was apparent that psychosocial
relations and positive interdependence are essential in enabling
the joint construction of meaning, which is in turn both a me-
chanism and the main goal in a cooperative learning process.
Conclusions and Future Lines of Research
Our empirical data are from a course of three weeks, carried
out by small groups of students, making it a very short time
scale for examining the development of the discourse in peer
cooperation. However, we gained two insights from the study:
First, in this case study, by means of discourse analysis we
have identified types of discourse that can account for positive
interdependence, construction of meaning and psychosocial re-
lations, which are the mechanisms found at the basis of a coop-
erative learning process. The categories show the forms ado-
pted by language in a virtual cooperative learning situation, in
relation to their essential mech a nisms.
Although previous research was taken into account, the dis-
course categories were defined from our own research data,
which has allowed us to identify categories specific to virtual
cooperative learning, such as those related to positive interde-
pendence, which are not present in other research carried out in
a virtual context.
Second, our case study in this paper demonstrates that the
types of discourse prevailing in student interaction are those
linked to psychosocial relations, followed by those linked to
positive interdependence and to a lesser extent by those related
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Figure 5.
Percentage of positive interdependence categories.
to the construction of meaning. In this process, some types of
discourse are more powerful than others and represent the mate-
rialisation of some cognitive skills which are not always found
in the same manner, or with the same frequency, in all groups
or in all students. This leads us to ponder the need to encourage
the types of discourse which facilitate joint construction in vir-
tual cooperative learning.
In terms of the prevalence of psychosocial relations in the in-
teraction and the low frequency of discourse related to the con-
struction of meaning, our results concur with previous research
carried out in virtual contexts, which analyse asynchronous dis-
course in forums of learning communities, and which have ob-
tained the highest frequency in the social dimension and the
lowest in the cognitive dimension (Marcelo & Perera, 2007).
The social dimension seems to be essential in the creation of a
learning community reliant on cooperation and a sense of be-
longing, but beyond the interpretation of these differences it is
worth adding that, in asynchronous text-based communication,
students make up for the lack of certain aspects typical of face-
to-face communication by using a discourse favourable to so-
cial dialogue and open communication, which would explain
also their high frequency in discourse. Reinforcement or appro-
val has already been identified in a previous study in face-to-
face education, but encouragement or cheering and thanks are
characteristic of virtual cooperative learning.
These conclusions lead to a key reflection: the need to make
the group participants aware of what is expected of them: the
cognitive challenge implied by the task; the need to coordinate
their efforts interdependently; the importance of language and
communication in this process. Showing examples of the types
of language by means of which their ideas are expressed and
defended, by means of which meaning is shared and negotiated,
seem to us as a key issue to enable progress in virtual coopera-
tive learning and promote its self-regulation.
In this sense, by observing the process and the types of stu-
dent discourse, the teacher’s role may prove essential during the
interaction, both in a preparatory phase and in establishing the
initial conditions of the situation, as well as through their post-
ings throughout the process.
In the case we analysed, the teacher established the initial
conditions for the situation, providing instructions for the task
and a guideline for the development of the discussion. Although
she was available for consultation, her contributions were made
mainly at the beginning and at the end of the group interaction,
encouraging interaction in a general manner. Recognising the
mechanisms typical of cooperative learning by means of lan-
guage may enable students and teachers alike to gear their pos-
tings towards negotiation and implementation in a more effec-
tive manner, during the discussion process. This is especially
true in situations such as the one experienced by one of our
study groups, which took longer in establishing the initial con-
With regards to possible lines of research and advancement,
it seems indispensable to contrast the language categories iden-
tified in this research with those of the discourse in other prac-
tices of virtual cooperative learning, both in terms of the im-
plementation of the case study technique as well as in other ty-
pes of tasks, so as to continue advancing in the identification
and characterisation of the mechanisms underpinning its effec-
tiveness in learning. It is also worth comparing the way the in-
terpsychological mechanisms, typical of virtual cooperative lear-
ning, manifest themselves, the types of language characterising
them and the way that the construction of meaning develops.
It would also be worthwhile to contrast these results with the
analysis of other sequences in which the teaching objectives
were clearly aimed at achieving exploratory forms of discussion,
which would explicitly encourage language linked to the con-
struction of knowledge and promote negotiation and implemen-
tation of the constructed meaning, in adequate equilibrium and
respecting the students’ strategies and styles, at the beginning,
during and at the end of the process.
Our case study in this paper demonstrates that it is possible
to analyse the main interpsychological mechanisms involved in
peer cooperation can be carried out by small groups of students.
In terms of application, it is important to consider that for stu-
dents to be able to explain, argue, reformulate, summarise, jus-
tify and disagree in a constructive way, they need to show dis-
cursive skills and abilities they do not always have and are ne-
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1351
cessary to develop so as to achieve a joint construction of grea-
ter quality and more favourable to learning. Teachers and stu-
dents alike would be aware of the mechanisms accounting for
their progress and the existence of phases in the development of
a virtual cooperative learning task. Therefore, in our opinion,
there is a valid case for designing training programmes or pro-
jects which would take into account the results of this research
to train students and teachers in recognising, observing and trig-
gering the mechanisms and processes which are fundamental in
virtual cooperative learning and facilitate and optimise their ap-
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