Group project.

A comparison study of electronic brainstorming in two CMC environments

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Abstract: Second Life (SL) is an increasingly popular platform used by people with recreational, educational, as well as increasingly corporate interests. Both educators and employers have indicated certain characteristics of SL make it particularly conducive to brainstorming activities. A mixed-methods research design evaluated the difference between using SL and a standard instant messenger (IM) program for similar brainstorming tasks. Data from transcripts of four brainstorming sessions (two IM and two SL) was analyzed to evaluate the number of ideas discussed and the final number of proposed solutions to brainstorming tasks. In addition, open-ended survey questions provided further detail about each environment. Second Life use demonstrated slightly higher brainstorming productivity and was also determined to be a more casual environment, but with more distractions during the task.


Brainstorming was originated in 1953 by Osborn in his book Applied Imagination. Basically, it is a technology aiming to generate new ideas for a certain problem by a group activity. Osborn proposed that brainstorming could increase the quality and quantity of ideas generated by group members. The rules made this proposal possible are: (a) Criticism is ruled out, (b) Freewheeling is welcome, (c) Quantity is wanted, and (d) Combination and improvement are sought. However, many research results from lab experiment got the evidence for the opposite: group brainstorming generated fewer ideas than the sum individuals' brainstorming alone. Investigation had been carried on to find out the reasons for the productivity loss.

Literature shows that there are four phenomena happening in face-to-face brainstorming that affect the efficiency of generating ideas. The first is evaluation apprehension (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Gallupe, et. al. 1991). It results when group members are concerned that others in the group will be critical of their suggestions, in spite of instructions designed to minimize such concerns. The second is free riding (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Offner et. al. 1996). It occurs when individuals reduce their efforts when others in their group are performing at high levels. The third is production blocking (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Gallupe, et. al. 1991) which may inhibit the generation of ideas in various ways. Obviously, only one person at a time can talk effectively in a group. Individuals may forget ideas while waiting for others to state theirs or may decide not to state ideas similar to those of others. The last one is matching. Blocking and matching are in fact jointly responsible for the group productivity loss. Individual group members may either decrease or increase their performance to match the performance of others.

Electronic brainstorming is a group activity generating new ideas for a certain topic via computers (Dennis & Valacich, 1993; Dennis, et. al. 1996; Gallupe et al. 1992). The production loss observed in face-to-face settings is not common for electronic brainstorming in which participants face their own screen and interact with the group members on the other sides of the screen. The setup of electronic brainstorming prevents evaluation apprehension and blocking to be happening during the process since all the group members behave in a parallel pattern. Thus make it possible for participants develop their own ideas thoroughly. An additional advantage of this method is that all ideas can be archived electronically in their original form, and then retrieved later for further thought and discussion. The current project tends to compare electronic brainstorming activity in two computer-mediated-communication (CMC) environments: instant messenger (IM), like yahoo messenger, and Second Life (SL).

The communication between two or more humans who are physically apart through a modern communication medium tends to have very unique characteristics that are different from those in interpersonal communication. CMC, however, includes much wider range of human activities rather than referring to a human communication enabled through the Internet.

A great number of different definitions on CMC are possible due to the characteristic of multi-dimensional human activities with many other entities. December (1997) for example, defined the CMC as "a process of human communication via computers, involving people, situated in particular contexts, engaging in processes to shape media for a variety of purposes." In general, CMC refers to many human related activities from mere interpersonal communication to task-related one. Also CMC includes communication with mainframe computer with both synchronous and asynchronous communication (Ferris, 1997).

CMC includes many types of communications such as e-mail, video, audio or text chat (text conferencing including IM), bulletin boards, list-servs and MMOs. Researchers studied individual adoption of Instant Message finding many interesting factors (de Vos, ter Hofte, de Poot, & Instituut, 2004). Also the communication patterns with Instant Messenger among teenagers were studied (Boneva, Quinn, Kraut, Kiesler, & Shklovski, in press).

SL is a 3-D virtual world constructed entirely by its participants. Its growth in recent years has been explosive and it has been adopted in a variety of arenas including corporate, government, education, and entertainment. John Anderton, the leader of Project Fulcrum (an initiative to advance public health using new media) at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), commented about SL that "I came to see this neither a fad nor a game, but as a social movement and a glipse into the future of social interaction, learning and even being" (Weinreich, 2006).

The primary advantage identified by users is what is called presence. Thought other technologies facilitate a presence, or sorts, SL presence is markedly different. It is better at facilitating a sense of community where users do not feel alone (Lamb, 2006).

The nature of second life leads to a more relaxed environment for interaction, a characteristic held in high regard by corporate interests and academics alike. Students who have used SL for classes indicate that it stretches the imagination and grows creativity (Lamb, 2006), and faculty indicate that the ability to change the context of conversations can allow very casual environments when useful (e.g. having class in a virtual hot tub!).

Educationally, SL is increasingly popular. More than 70 universities have their own islands (Olsen, 2007). Students regularly indicate that they feel like that have gathered for an actual class. Faculties indicate that diversity increases by interacting with the different nationality, religions, and sociopolitical groups in SL (Lamb, 2006). And, collaborative 3D learning is particularly useful in teaching CAD (Keiran, 2007). Medical scenarios have been role-played in educational setting, whereby students experience the same scenes in a medical clinic from multiple perspectives (Antonacci & Modaress, 2005).

The Study

The purpose of this pilot study was to determine whether SL provided a better environment for brainstorming than standard IM software. A mixed-method design was used to examine the number of ideas discussed and the final number of proposed solutions to brainstorming tasks in SL and IM. In addition, open-ended survey questions provided further detail about each environment. Six graduate students participated in SL and IM brainstorming sessions in two groups of three; each group brainstormed once in SL and once using IM, with two tasks switched between environments, and order switched between groups (e.g. one group started with IM, the other with SL). The first task asked participants to “brainstorm the top ways ensure success as a graduate student” and the second to “brainstorm the top suggestions you have to make the SL environment better.” One researcher served as facilitator in each brainstorming session. The groups were given 20 minutes to complete each task and another 20 minutes to answer six open-ended survey questions upon completion of the two brainstorming tasks. The first group performed all activities one after the other from their respective homes during the evening. The second group performed their first task, then waited three hours before the second, and then answered the survey questions within a few hours after that. The second group was also in the same room during both brainstorming tasks.


Transcripts from the four brainstorming sessions were coded for unique ideas discussed and final proposed solutions to the brainstorming tasks. One researcher independently coded the transcripts to determine the number of ideas discussed and the proposed as answers to the task. The data from all four sessions are shown below in Table 1.

Table 1

SL versus IM Brainstorming Sessions


Group 1 – SL Task Ideas discussed 11

Solutions provided 5

Group 1 – Grad Task Ideas discussed 8

Solutions provided 5

Group 2 – SL Task Ideas discussed 14

Solutions provided 5

Group 2 – Grad Task Ideas discussed 17

Solutions provided 6

The data demonstrates that in both groups, the SL environment facilitated more ideas discussed (Group 1 11 to 8, Group 2 17 to 14). However, the number of solutions provided is nearly identical across all tasks and environments. It should also be noted that Group 2 produced more ideas than did Group 1.

In addition, survey data were analyzed for similarities across all six participants. Five indicated that SL felt more casual. Five also reported distractions in SL, with only one distraction reported for IM. Three reported that the success of the sessions was based on the task itself, not environment, and two specifically indicated IM was more successful because of the distractions in SL. Five indicated that is was easier to follow their group-mates ideas in IM (in all cases indicating that the fact the IM typing stays on the screen in an easily reviewed format was the key feature to facilitate this, whereas SL history is more difficult to work with). And, participants reported mixed feedback when asked to list difference between SL/IM and face-to-face brainstorming. SL and IM were reported as better for brainstorming because everything was recorded and archived, which enable them to concentrate better on the task than face-to-face and the propensity for face-to-face to become more social. Detrimental elements report for online brainstorming included more off-task behavior, the interference of typing, the absence of facial cues, and the difficulty in clarifying ideas as well as face-to-face.


According to our coding analysis, more ideas were generated in SL sessions. However, according to survey answers, IM session was more successful. This may highlight the difference between success (participants may have inferred this to mean “better” ideas) and statistical measures which are essentially productivity metrics (the total number of ideas considered and proposed). Another interesting disconnect is that all participants indicated that SL is more casual, but indicated IM was more successful. This directly contradicts the anecdotal evidence from SL users in corporate and educational settings that the casual environment in SL facilitates creativity. This likely has to do with our other findings that SL has multiple distractions, and that its inferior history mechanism made it less useful.

Though statistical significance cannot be determined, the trend that SL facilitates more productive (higher number of ideas) idea generation is notable and worth further research. Another interesting, but unintended, observation from the quantitative data is that the total number of ideas submitted by each group as the final answers to tasks were nearly identical (three with 5 and another with 6). This finding may indicate a cognitive capacity issue more so than environmental conditions, and would be worth comparing to the number of ideas submit in other open-ended brainstorming activities.

The current study has weaknesses that will need to be addressed in future research. First, survey results indicated that our participants were much more comfortable with IM usage. In further studies, ability or history of use statistics for both environments might be useful in mediating this confound. Also, the second group performed their task in the same room, whereas the first group was at home and in separate locations. Observationally, the first group lead a more serious discussion, and the second more casual, and susceptible to off-task behavior (e.g. laughing), though interestingly, the total quantity of ideas discussed in the second group was much higher. Finally, the topics may not have been equivalent, in that several survey results indicated a preference for one over another.


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Diehl, M., & Stroebe, W. (1987). Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: Toward the solution of a riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 497–509.

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Kieran, C. (2007). Second Life and google earth are transforming the idea of architectural collaboration. Architectural Record. Retrieve March 27, 2007 from http://archrecord.construction.com/features/digital/archives/0701dignews-2.asp

Lamb, G. (2006). At colleges, real learning in a virtual world. USA Today. Retrieved March 27, 2007 from http://www.usatoday.com/tech/gaming/2006-10-05-second-life-class_x.htm

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Individualized technology immersion assignment

If not online for education, what do online forums mean to you?

For the individual immersion project, I chose to participate in public online forums (OFs) to experience the difference in public OFs from those used in courses. This meets the course requirement of new technology and social interaction because even though the experience of lurking as guest in OFs is not new to me, it is totally new for me to really involve actively as a member of certain OF that I am interested in. Or in anther sense I was not actively involve in any public OF before. I know it sounds like "What?" But it is the fact. Actually, the experience was pretty well developed.

OFs are systems where members of the forum participate in discussion of different threads within a general common interest asynchronously. Different formats of OFs have been widely applied by different groups of people for different fields (education, commerce, hobbies, news, life). The activities in OFs can be categorized into three camps: learning (like the OFs for foreign languages study, or for any course or training program), socialization, or information sharing (like shopping OFs). The activities in one specific forum can focus on one or more camps of the three. Participants have different psychological experiences in OF discussion.

There are many different forms of OFs. People can easily see them in any OF websites, online courses, online shopping websites (such as www.ebay.com, www.circuitcity.com or www.bestbuy.com), subsections of some personal or group website (such as blogger, myspace, or wiki), or even wikipedia (I list wikipedia only because individuals can freely revise the content of certain entry in an interactive manner, but wikipedia can only qualify as a form of OF under the situation in which a strong sense of online community is not a criteria of OFs).

I have been using OFs in Angel for different courses. I am, like other students in the College of Education, a good sample for mainstream research on OF application on online education or hybrid courses that use OFs as part of the pedagogy or supportive system associated with different learning materials. But the experiences are highly structured by the instructors and are dominated by intensive responding to the assigned readings or other learning materials. There is limited freedom regard to the content because of the focus of the course.

What the scholars say?
Many researchers have shown interests in OFs. Most of the research has been focused on OFs for educative purposes for college students learning and professionals’ development. The activities studied are mainly related to learning experiences and collaboration. Many researchers use social constructive perspective to interpret the behaviors in OFs.

Successful employment of online forums can foster a knowledge building community in which desired student qualities are cultivated.
-- Qing Li. (2004)

In 1999, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reported that in the US, 58% of all post-secondary institutions offered Internet-based courses. Further, 82% reported that they had plans to increase their Internet-based offerings over the next three years. Obviously, it is safe to estimate that more than 80% of the colleges and universities in the US are now applying internet-based courses. OFs are one of the main components of any form of the online courses. Muilenburg and Berge (2000) argued that most distance courses rely on online forums. Anderson and Kanuka (1997) argued, based on their research of OF application for professional development, OF has a very good chance to be adopted “as an effective and functional means of consultation and collaborative work with professionals”.

Some good things about OFs application in courses include that OF can potentially promote problem solving, critical thinking, knowledge construction, higher order thinking (Hannafin et. al., 1999), and collaboration. In professional development, OF has the value of “enhancing networking opportunities” and “contributing to continuing education for professionals” (Anderson & Kanuka, 1997). The main communication format in OF is text. McCreary (1990) suggested that the text-based communication in OFs has the quality of exactness, organization of thought, and clear expression. Scardamalia and Bereiter (1994) argued that social interaction is the heart of collaborative knowledge-building communities. This idea can be applied in both educative and public OFs.

However, there are certain limitations for the educative application of OFs. For example, Palloff and Pratt (1999) discussed that the best size for an OF group is between five to fifteen participants. This is quite a limited number and is only applicable for learning purpose.

What are the differences in my eyes of courses OFs vs. public OFs?
Public OFs are not directed by any single authority. The content for both the topics and the discussion/response is not limited as long as they are related to the focus of the OF. Of course most of the OFs forbid any content of personal offense, politics, or pornography. Compared with OFs applied for educational purposes, there are some other differences that I have noticed of for public OFs based on my experience in this semester. This list can be extended based on different angles of observation.

  • Different structure: almost all the OFs used in courses have a facilitator (either the instructors themselves or a person who is assigned by the instructor to do so to guide the discussion). On the contrary, none of the public OFs has any form of a facilitator at any time to direct the development of discussion.
  • Different motivation: The activities on public OFs are totally voluntary for participants, including both time and energy. The participation is not required by any authority. Participants normally are driven by their personal interests or curiosity to start their membership in a certain OF and remain active in the OF. Intrinsic motivation is dominant in this situation. However, extrinsic motivation, such as getting the credits or meeting the course requirement is not uncommon for OF application in online courses.
  • Different interaction model: the threads in public OFs are always developed like this: original post (OP) (or quoted post from other sources) --> responses (content is just brief messages of either support for the OP or disagreement with the OP). Compared with public OFs, OFs integrated in courses have similar format for the model of OP --> responses. But the actual model is more accurate like this: Original opinion (OO) (could be either question or discussion of poster's opinion toward certain learning materials) --> response (answer to the question or more discussion based on the OO) --> New opinion (NO) --> response.
  • Different participants: people with similar interests from all over the country or the world form the population of different public OFs. But, there is only limited number of participants (normally classmates or cohort in an academic program, or employees from the same organization.) involved in OFs for courses.
  • Different duration: public OFs are active all the time (24/7) unless the number of participants decreases to a critical point that lead to the shutdown of the forum. On the contrary, the longest duration for OFs used in a course could be no more than one semester (about 16 weeks).
  • Different function: most of the public OFs are places where participants share information instead of opinions. But the online courses OFs are used mainly for opinion exchange and development.
  • Different dynamic: the behaviors of participants are regulated by "online police" or authorities (or moderators) formed by volunteers in the forum who have more experiences and longer history on the forum. On the contrary, the behaviors of OFs for courses are regulated by instructors.
  • Different content knowledge: in public OFs, the expertise of the participants' content knowledge varies depends on different discussion topics. But for the online courses, the instructors are always the ones who have wider and deeper knowledge for the content of the course.
  • Different communication tactics: any active public OF is an online community. There is certain climate formed by the participants and developed in to socialization tactics that any new participants need to learn and get used to. But this is not an obvious feature for any OF used in a course because the limited interaction, topics, and duration make it not possible to develop any interior communication tactics. In public OFs, participants may apply real life tactics in forming the tactics for their online community. But participants for OFs in courses do not have enough time to develop any tactics. The strict structures of OFs in courses is also a barrier in this case.

My experiences
I chose two OFs for this course assignment. An OF for Chinese cuisine and the other OF for child development/education. Both OFs are in Chinese. The OF for cuisine Chinese food has its server located in the US and maintained by Chinese here in the US. The OF for child development/education has its server located in China and is maintained by Chinese in China. I started my experience in the OF about Chinese cuisine early in this semester by accident and the OF about child development/education in the middle of the semester after I decided to focus on OF as the technology to explore for the course assignment. Before that I was thinking about online games and the software called Klipfolio. I do not like to play games for a long time and later figured out that the new technology is not just new technology, it has to do with online socialization or networking. So I decide to experience OFs. That is when I participated in the child development/education OF.

Outcome may vary depending on the purpose of participation
In my experience, the major purpose of my participation is to acquire information and to share opinions. There is actually very little socialization happening in a sense that I don't know some members through postings and responses, or that I developed a circle of acquaintance during my participating the OF. I am pretty much focusing on the content of postings on both OFs. The content of both topics is the reason why I chose these two forums to play with. I am more intrinsically motivated to know more and thus participate more. For the Chinese food forum, most participants are from the US (I can tell from their posting in which they always mention some information of their life in the US). Like most of other participants in this forum, I am interested in learning how to cook some special treat or well-known Chinese dishes including wok dishes and bakery. I am confident to say that I am a good cook. My cooking skills should be a result from my fathers cooking experiences from which I have learned a lot. But the more I can cook, the more motivated I am to learn more cooking styles and ways to cook a wider variety of Chinese dishes. That for me is a hobby. Whenever I have time to cook, I feel relaxed and happy. Don't mention people's good comments after they tasted my dishes. Anyway, I am there on the Chinese food OF for more information. For the child development/education OF, I am motivated as a father. Also I want to keep on track with education practice in China since I have the plan to at least keep my daughter on track with her Chinese correspondents. Again, I am there for information.

However, I think there could be different experience if any individual join an OF for socialization which is well admitted by many OFers. Anther point is that because of the content of different forums, the targeted population varies. And populations with different interests or background may have different purposes for joining OFs. For example, Kummervold, et. al. (2002) studied online mental health forums in Norway. They said that participants in this case perceived OF as a supplement of traditional mental health services. A clear majority on the OFs wants professionals to take an active role in the forums. The responses from the participants implied that online interaction in OFs might have “unique benefits for people suffering from mental disorders”.

Compared with OFs for courses, I found the experiences of public OFs are more casual. Because there is not tightly structured time schedule, I can participate in discussion at any time based on my convenience. There is no pressure of right or wrong about your postings. Thus there is much less pressure (at least I did not notice any) from being afraid of being criticized by other participants. I responded in a way of free writing with less structured language used. Things that make me have this casual feeling include but not limited to: online language, information sharing without fear of hard critics, and the shared interests which have the power to make one’s life more colorful and enjoyable. For languages, even though I chose Chinese based OFs for this assignment, there are widely used abbreviations in letters (representing either English words or pinyin abbreviations) such as, for English, FYI, DIY, BF/GF, OP, Cong, or for pinyin, LG/LP (husband/wife), LZ (original post), or even hybrid like 3X (thanks). The less pressure climate really makes me feel that I am learning from fun. I enjoyed both getting new information or opinions and discussing my ideas to build up the idea package for the public forums.

Extrinsic motivation
Other than the intrinsic motivations I mentioned above, there are extrinsic motivations developed from the setting of the OFs. I have been engaged in earning more points and getting to higher level of experiences – a sense of achievement. I have been thinking what is the difference between OFs and online games regarding to spending time and energy to get to higher level of the "game". Physically, participants of OFs and gamers are very similar when they spend many hours engaging in the online activities to achieve certain goals.

Culture differences
For this assignment, I only participated in Chinese forums. But there are certain commonalities shared by Chinese forums and US forums, like the pattern of interaction, the design or the structure of the OFs. But there are noticeable differences. I am still not comfortable (or communication competent?) to take part in the US public OFs. One of the main reasons is that I need to get more comfortable in talking with Americans online. This fact indicates that there may be different tactics Americans adopted from their real life to OFs that I am still not skillful enough to handle.

Sense of responsibility for accurate sources and copyright
There is an interesting finding that there is certain number of participants who are very sensitive to whom the original poster of ideas is or what is the original source of some postings. These people are active in giving the credits back to the original posters/sources. And this kind of activities get support widely from other participants. And there is a tendency that participants consciously maintain the "copyright" or "intellectual property rights"
of other participants or information sources.

Other outcome
Another outcome for me is the motivation to design my own public OF for the focus I and others are interested in based on the perception of public ideas. This interest is ignited by my experience of participating in the OFs. This helps me to develop motivation to increase my technology competency in programming skills necessary for OF development, such as php, xml or MySQL. This may, from another angle, show that OFs is a welcomed form of information source for people to share, to bond, or just have fun? At least it works for me.

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