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Open, Online, Calculus Help Forums: Learning About and From a Public Conversation

van de Sande, Carla Currin (2009) Open, Online, Calculus Help Forums: Learning About and From a Public Conversation. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This study is an exploration of participation, community, and mathematical understanding in an open, online, calculus help forum. These forums, populated by members from around the world, are locations where students post queries from their coursework and receive assistance from volunteer tutors. The site under investigation has a spontaneous participation structure, meaning that any forum member can respond to a query and contribute to an ongoing discussion. From earlier work, we know that such forums foster mathematical dialogue, contain exchanges with sophisticated pedagogical moves, and exhibit a strong sense of community. In this study, we delve deeper into the functional aspects of activity (such as student positioning and pedagogical moves), the benefits that accrue from participation in tutoring as a communal activity, and the mathematical understanding that is evident in the way problems on limit and related rates are framed and solutions constructed. Based on an observational methodology, we find that the forum provides tutoring for students and support for tutors that is unique from our expectations of other learning environments, such as one-on-one tutoring and computer-based tutoring systems. Students position themselves with authority in the exchanges by making assertions and proposals of action, questioning or challenging others' proposals, and indicating when resolution has been achieved. Tutors, who generally have more experience and expertise than students, provide mathematical guidance, and, in exemplary exchanges, draw the student into making a mathematical discovery. The dedication of tutors to the forum community was evident in the presence of authentic, honest mathematical practices, in the generous provision of alternative perspectives on problems, and in the sincere correction of errors. Some student participants picked up on these aspects of community and expressed excitement and appreciation for this taste of mathematical discourse. The primary contribution of the tutors was their assistance in supporting students as they constructed productive framings for the exercises, and this was the help that students were most in need of. As a result of eavesdropping on this public conversation, we conclude that the forums are a public conversation that should be listened to by educational researchers, teachers, and designers of tutoring systems.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
van de Sande, Carla
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairLeinhardt, Gaeagaea@pitt.eduGAEA
Committee MemberYaron,
Committee MemberCarroll,
Committee MemberGreeno, James Gjimgrno@pitt.eduJIMGRNO
Committee MemberSmith, Margaret Spegs@pitt.eduPEGS
Date: 8 January 2009
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 31 July 2008
Approval Date: 8 January 2009
Submission Date: 8 August 2008
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: School of Education > Instruction and Learning
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: calculus learning; community; homework; online forums; tutorettes; tutoring
Other ID:, etd-08082008-102241
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 19:58
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:48


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