Jyothi, S., McAvinia, C., & Keating, J. (2012). A visualisation tool to aid exploration of students' interactions in asynchronous online communication. Computers & Education, 58(1), 30:42\. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.08.026


This paper describes a visualisation tool to aid the analysis of online communication. The tool has two purposes: first, it can be used on a day-to-day basis by teachers or forum moderators to review the development of a discussion and to support appropriate interventions. Second, the tool can support research activities since the visualisations generated provide the basis for further qualitative and quantitative analysis of online dialogue.

The visualisation software is designed to encode interaction types simply and quickly. The software was tested and then used to analyse data from a sample of forums within the Moodle VLE. The paper discusses both the method of visualisation and analysis of the online interactions as a pilot for further research analysing interaction in discussion forums.


This paper describes the design and implementation of a diagnostic tool which provides simple visual representations of the exchanges in asynchronous discussion forum threads. The visual representation is shown within a webpage, with hyperlinked nodes displaying the body text of messages posted to discussion forums. These graphical images might assist a teacher or moderator to intervene in the discussions whenever necessary, and the visual representations of online discussions can support researchers undertaking further analysis1.

Analysing asynchronous discussions in online environments

Given the importance ascribed to dialogue and CMC in educational theory, it follows that a means of reviewing and potentially analysing CMC interactions would therefore be useful to teachers and researchers, and research would benefit from an evidence base showing that online interactions had positive effects on students’ learning. However, the best ways of analysing CMC are not clear. Studies that have analysed the content of the online discussions are also limited. This may be due to the time required to perform such analyses (Hara, Bonk, & Angeli, 2000) and the lack of a reliable instrument or an analytical framework to analyse the online discussions. As Goodyear (2001) notes:

Analysing the content of networked learning discussions is a troublesome research area and several commentators have remarked on the difficulty of connecting online texts to discourse to learning. (Goodyear, cited Mehanna 2004: 283)

on assessing online discussions:

Formal assessment offers one indication of students’ learning, and online dialogue may then be argued to have supported this. However, unless the method of assessment includes the forum discussion in some way, it is not usually clear where and how learning in forums may have happened. Course feedback and evaluation mechanisms, similarly, may highlight the use of discussion forums as a useful supplement or yield examples of how students have used them, but ‘use’ cannot be equated with learning. Some researchers have instead proposed treating forum messages as qualitative data, and thereby draw on qualitative methods for analysis.

why build a tool to automate analysis/visualization of discourse?

Even for people accustomed to using qualitative methods as part of their research activities, they may be time-consuming to use in the context of evaluating learning in CMC. The methodological difficulties of analysing discussion forum data are therefore compounded by the practical constraints of time and experience. These issues have wider implications for the evidence base in e- learning: it is difficult to build up case studies of appropriate and effective use of technology to enhance learning, where practitioners lack the tools to make these studies.

Screen Shot 2011 11 19 at 1 52 35 PM

So, VIMS looks pretty awesome at this… Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a fracking thing about the tool itself…

WTF is VIMS? No project website found, but the paper describes it:

VIMS provides real-time, radial-tree visualisation of the forum interactions, realised using a combination of SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) using Perl with JavaScript. Visualisation maps are presented as interactive scalable images, viewable using most web browsers; the version described here can be seamlessly incorporated into Moodle. The technologies combined in VIMS allow the visualisation to have ‘hot spots’, on which the mouse can hover to access full details of a message. There is a continuous link between the image and the web server, implemented using AJAX, which means that the visualisation will change according as new messages are sent to the forum. An algorithm within the software depicts borders, differentiating between the threads of a discussion forum.

and the visualizations look something like:

Screen Shot 2011 11 19 at 1 58 34 PM

on the role of VIMS:

VIMS has considerable advantages as a visualisation tool. First, the discussions are shown in a systematic way, with the people starting the discussion placed at the first level. There is no on-screen clutter from message text and all threads in a discussion forum can be viewed at a glance. Navigation on-screen allows the discussion to be viewed as a whole, or for the viewer to zoom in on certain areas. One or more threads can be compared easily. This visual aid could help the instructor develop a collaborative environment, by aiding him/her to visualise the active and inactive participants, and therefore inform appropriate interventions.

It is important to acknowledge the limitations of the VIMS tool too: it is in essence a support for coding and management of the data, rather than offering in and of itself a new method for analysing that data. For such analysis, we need to consider the wider model used by Schrire or indeed to pursue existing qualitative methods. VIMS does not yet allow us a way to analyse the multi-modal nature of the student discourse in unmoderated Forums, and the inclusion of images, sounds and other media which students are now accustomed to using. This is a further area of work we need to address, but one for which the other visualisation tools described in this paper are (similarly) unsuited.

Lots of other interesting papers cited in this one. Mine it.

But, I don’t understand how VIMS doesn’t appear to have a project website or information available. Is it secret sauce?

  1. I’m wondering if this might be a useful way to display the discourse in the data I’m gathering… ↩︎