Synchronous Online Collaborations: Discussing and Solving Problems Using Virtual Tools
Udy, Joshua David
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There is currently a lack of research regarding instances when individuals use virtual tools collaboratively to solve and discuss mathematical problems synchronously online (Francis & Jacobsen, 2013). This study investigated the patterns of communication and interaction that emerged during three, synchronous, online mathematics professional development sessions wherein three fifth-grade teachers used virtual tools to solve and discuss fraction multiplication and division problems. These online sessions, which were digitally archived, highlighted participating teachers’ interactions while discussing problems solved independently and while using virtual tools and fraction manipulatives to solve problems collaboratively. Each of these sessions was analyzed using coding procedures outlined by Carspecken (1996), and this preliminary analysis was used as the primary record of data for this study. An interview protocol was designed and then used to facilitate semi-structured, one-on-one interviews with each participating teacher. Findings from the participant interviews substantiated the conclusions drawn from the analysis of the archived sessions and provided additional details about participants’ experiences in using virtual tools to solve and discuss problems attempted either independently or collaboratively. Peer reviewers and member checks were used to attend to validity and reliability. Findings were organized into three categories according to how participants communicated and interacted while 1) solving and discussing problems, 2) using virtual tools, and 3) interfacing with the course instructor while collaborating to solve problems. Findings suggest differences in communications and interactions existed when participants used online tools to represent, solve, and discuss problems collaboratively versus when they discussed work completed individually. Participants reported advantages and disadvantages to both approaches to solving and discussing problems, and their communications and interactions seemed influenced by problem difficulty level and mode of engagement. Implications of the findings of this study include designing online mathematics professional learning sessions while considering 1) the effects of asking participants to solve easy and hard problems using both independent and collaborative approaches, 2) modifications that might be required to engage a large group of participants in collaborating to solve problems using virtual tools, 3) how to minimize technological problems, and 4) the ramifications that facilitator interactions can have on groups as they collaborate to solve problems using virtual manipulations and drawings.