Usage Patterns and Group Communication in the Virtual-U Classroom

Lucio Teles

LohnLab for Online Teaching

Simon Fraser University

Xinchun Wang

Department of Linguistics

Simon Fraser University


Online classrooms are environments that support collaboration and knowledge building (Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C., 1994; Harasim, L., 1997). These new environments are increasingly being used in higher education. Educators need to better understand the online classroom and its communication patterns to shape these environments for improved knowledge building.

In this paper we discuss collaborative interactive patterns and usage information for three university courses. Communication patterns among students and with the instructor are investigated in regard to group communication, message type, and frequency: how often student communicated, how often they accessed the online classroom and their group tasks, what type of messages they used to communicate: text only, text + hyperlinks, text + multimedia, text + hyperlinks + multimedia. Usage statistics information was also collected via the log file to determine frequency of access.

Three university courses offered entirely online were selected for data analysis: Business 362 (Introduction to Information Systems); Faculty of Arts 228 (Dance in Cyberspace), and Infoshare (Information Sharing on the Web, a four week long Continuing Studies module). There were 78 students enrolled in the three courses.

The system used to design and deliver the courses was Virtual-U, a Web-based groupware designed to support collaborative learning. Through analysis of conference transcripts, usage statistics and log files, patterns of the online classroom were identified such as frequency of communication among students, how often and when they access the online classroom, the type of messages they use to communicate, the types of online interaction, and the changing role of the instructor in the online classroom.

Data analysis

Early results show that students taking online courses can be geographically dispersed, and they access the Virtual-U classroom around the clock seven days a week. The most active day in the Virtual-U classroom is Monday.

Table 1: Number of messages by day of the week

Peak times for online classrooms, i.e. when most students are online, are 1-6 pm and at 9 pm.

Table2: Number of messages by hour of the day


Table 3: Message Type

Students and instructors communicate using not only written words but include hyperlinks and to some much smaller extent multimedia effects (pictures, diagrams, etc.) in their messages.

Although the number of messages using hyperlinks is still very small and represents less than 5% of the total messages, this could refer to a developing behaviour that may increase over the next years.

When the first entirely online courses were taught in the 1980ís, hyperlinks did not yet exist and computer networks were closed environments. With the advent of Web the possibility of including multiple references and sites into the discussion became possible. 

The results of the analysis of interaction patterns for nine conferences selected from three university courses are shown below.

Table 4: Interaction in Online Classrooms


Interaction Pattern

NRC (1)

FPA229 (2)

BUS362 (6)


Students' responses to the topics





Student to student responses





Students' questions





Instructor's response to students





Instructor's assignment/comment










Patterns of online interaction were studied for a sample of conference transcripts and it was found that most course messages are those exchanged among peers, showing a high level of interaction in the Virtual-U classrooms.


Results show that the online asynchronous classroom is open 24 hours/day, seven days a week. Students are beginning to use hyperlinks and multimedia effects in their messages. Most messages in the online classroom are contributed by students as opposed to the face-to-face classroom where the instructor lectures and has most of the "air time".

More research is needed on these emergent patterns of the online classroom and their implications for teaching and knowledge building.


Harasim, L., Calvert, T. and Groeneboer, C. (1997). Virtual-U: A Web Based System to Support Collaborative Learning. In B. Khanís, Web-Based Instruction, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Educational Technology Publications.

Hiltz, R. & Wellman, B. (1997) The virtual classroom. ACM Journal, September 1997.

Horvath, A. & Teles, L. (1997) Using the Web as a Tool to Support Student Research Tasks (Submitted to the Journal of Interactive Learning Research.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265-283.

Teles, L. & Rylands, J. (1998, forthcoming) The Infoshare Module: Using Collaborative Asynchronous Training to Improve Web Search Skills. National Research Council Newsletter.