In this study we content analyzed the online discussion of several senior-high-school groups on a forum of a virtual physics laboratory in Taiwan. The goal of our research was to investigate the nature of non-course-based online discussion and to find out some useful guidelines in developing such discussion forums for learning purposes. We adapted Henri's framework and models (1992) for our analysis. The content analysis was conducted in terms of participation rate, social cues, interaction types, and cognitive and metacognitive skills. In this study, we compared the result patterns of two discussion conditions ('required' (R-) condition versus 'non-required' (NR-) condition) of a non-course-based discussion forum and investigated how the quality of message content changed in the processes of discussion. In the R-condition, participants were required to reply to the thread before they were allowed to read other messages on the forum, whereas participants in the NR-condition were not restricted to this demand. The results showed that for both conditions, the most frequently involved interaction type was 'direct response', and the most frequently used cognitive skill was 'elementary clarification'. Fewer participants of the R-condition strayed from the subject under discussion in comparison to the NR-condition. However, larger percentage of message content containing metacognitive components was found in the NR-condition. When taking the sequences of postings into account, we found that for the R-condition, the percentage of metacognitive component in the message content tended to increase in the up-third postings, whereas for the up-third postings of the NR-condition the percentage of non-cognitive components substantially increased. Overall, the results of our study indicated that the way in which participants used cognitive and metacognitive skills during the discussions was related to the discussion conditions. The initial requirement of reply fostered the use of cognitive skills, but it did not necessarily induce the use of high-level cognitive or metacognitive skills. We concluded that beside the discussion conditions the moderators' guidance would be influential in determining the quality of online discussion on a non-course-based discussion forum.
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