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The role of trust for quality argumentation in online communities of practice: evaluation of help-seeking and help-giving episodes paper

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Networked communication opportunities allow communities of professionals to share knowledge. We investigate the role of trust for quality argumentation in such communities. The participating members (N = 96) were professionals in the fields of learning, technology in museums, and open educational resources, in three online communities of practice. Long-lived communities with high and long-term information sharing and participation were chosen. An annotation scheme was developed to analyze quality of help-seeking/giving behavior in interaction data from their e-mail distribution list archives. All three communities showed high trust independent of duration of membership and passive participation, depicting a trusting predisposition between professionals despite lack of previous experience with the quality of interactions. A lot of high-quality and new information was shared, often together with opinions, which fosters trust, but information was not elaborated. Including prior knowledge during help-seeking led to better quality help-giving, possibly as a result of trust.
The role of trust for quality argumentation in online communities of
practice: evaluation of help-seeking and help-giving episodes
Abstract: Networked communication opportunities allow communities of
professionals to share knowledge. We investigate the role of trust for quality
argumentation in such communities. The participating members (N = 96) were
professionals in the fields of learning, technology in museums, and open educational
resources, in three online communities of practice. Long-lived communities with high
and long-term information sharing and participation were chosen. An annotation
scheme was developed to analyze quality of help-seeking/giving behavior in
interaction data from their e-mail distribution list archives. All three communities
showed high trust independent of duration of membership and passive participation,
depicting a trusting predisposition between professionals despite lack of previous
experience with the quality of interactions. A lot of high-quality and new information
was shared, often together with opinions, which fosters trust, but information was not
elaborated. Including prior knowledge during help-seeking led to better quality help-
giving, possibly as a result of trust.
Keywords: argumentation, trust, online communities of practice, learning and
professional development, help-seeking and help-giving
a) Trust in Online Communities of Practice, help-seeking and help-giving
New opportunities of networked communication allow large groups or communities of professionals to
collaborate and develop with extensive exchange of knowledge, opinions, and sharing of practice. They
introduce new possibilities and forms of learning and professional development, moving from individual,
formal, time- and place-bound learning to collective exchange for unrestricted informal learning. Such
changes echo social theories of argumentative learning (Andriessen, 2006; Asterhan, Schwarz, 2007), and
bring hope of putting them into practice to capitalize on these new possibilities, especially under
consideration of social aspects of learning (Lombardi, Nussbaum, & Sinatra, 2015; Authors, 2014; 2015).
However, these changes also bring about masses of arguments that are daily posted online, by unknown
posters, and hence doubt as to the quality of the information they entail and distrust to the poster
(Sassenberg & Boos, 2003). As a consequence, a lot of arguments are disqualified from further
consideration independent of their quality due to the lack of trust to the poster. Understanding the
characteristics of argumentative practice relevant to learning, like help-seeking and help-giving (Järvelä,
2011), and their relation to trust in different online communities of professionals may allow counteracting
this drawback.
Online communities of practice (CoP) are thought to establish conditions of sharing knowledge
and expertise, in analogy to live CoP (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002). Trust is a significant
predictor of the community members’ desire to exchange information and especially to receive
information (Ridings, Gefen, & Arinze, 2002). Social trust, trust between members, helps establishing a
bridge for interpersonal communication (Wu, Chen, & Chung, 2010) and fosters knowledge sharing
(Connelly & Kelloway, 2003). General factors that influence online trust are longevity of the community
and general population stability (Hanson-Smith, 2006), awareness of the identity of the others (Zhang &
Watts, 2008), duration of membership (Preece, 2000), and the perceived learning and satisfaction
(Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997). Moreover, there is evidence that help-seeking is a strategy related to self-
regulated learning (Newman, 1998) that scaffolds learner’s motivational and emotional competence, and
facilitates learning (Järvelä, 2011). However, the social environment where members exchange their
practice may influence their help-seeking/giving behavior and often is sensitive to social dilemmas
(Nistor et al., 2011; Kimmerle & Cress, 2008). The quality of help-seeking/giving relates to the credibility
of the message, e.g. objectivity in presenting information requires presenting facts instead of expressing a
mere opinion, and the combination of facts and opinions may generate more trust (Wilson, 1981). Besides
increasing trust, the deliberate elaboration of material during online argumentative interactions promotes
learning (Weinberger & Fischer, 2006).
In this study we investigate the characteristics of help-seeking/giving behavior and the levels of
trust in three communities. We analyze help-seeking/giving episodes as an instance of information
sharing most relevant to learning and professional development. We focus on content analysis of the
interactions between the members of online CoPs as a source of objective data. We look at yet unexplored
possible factors of trust like the duration of membership and passive participation, and into the relation
between trust and subjective learning in online CoPs. Our research questions are as follows:
RQ1: To what extent do duration of membership and passive participation relate to the trust levels in
online communities?
RQ2: To what extent does trust relate to subjective learning?
RQ3: What are the characteristics of help-seeking and help-giving behavior in high trust communities?
b) Methods
A multiple case study was used to investigate the trust levels of the observed communities as well as the
help-seeking/giving behavior of the involved members. The aim was to qualitatively investigate the
characteristics of the help-seeking/giving behavior in different high participative and long-term
communities. To trace active online CoP, we used the JiscMail website that enabled the access to archives
of e-mail threads of communities of professionals. We looked into three online communities of practice
(N = 96) of professionals in the fields of learning (LDHEN), technology in museums (MCG) and open
educational resources (OER) (Table 1). Two different data sources were used to enhance data credibility.
A questionnaire measured online social trust (ability, benevolence/integrity), passive participation in the
community, duration of membership, and subjective learning (Ridings, Gefen, & Arinze, 2002,
Leimeister, Ebner, & Krcmar, 2005). A coding scheme was developed for content analysis based on
studies on transcripts of online help-seeking behavior (Table 2, 3) (Hara et al, 2009; Puustinen & Rouet,
2009; Zhu, 1996) and argumentative learning (Weinberger & Fischer, 2006).
Table 1: Sample composition
Help-seeking episodes
Table 2: Help-seeking Categories and quality criteria
Information Seeking
(Zhu ,1996)
Ask for information,
High quality
Provide a problem, an
explicit request and preliminary work or
Initiation of discussion
(Zhu ,1996)
Inquire about a topic. Ask
for opinion and views
Low quality
Provide problem and request but not
preliminary work or thoughts
Table 3: Help-giving Categories and quality criteria
Criteria: Modes of help-giving
(Weinberger & Fisher,
Provide new
+ Opinion
Give information and
express thoughts and
(Hara et al., 2009)
Present the feeling of
gratitude, for example by
saying thank you
+ Link (3)
Provide information and
elaborate on the question
with the link
Raising questions
(Hara et al., 2009)
Questions raised
by the responders
information without
expressing personal
(Hara et al., 2009)
Additional information
through raising further
questions on the topic
Link (1)
Provide a link
c) Findings
The three communities showed high levels of trust with means ranging from 5.59 to 5.91 out of 7 Likert
points and maximal standard deviation of .85. A one-way ANOVA revealed no significant differences
between the three communities, F(2,91) = 1.239, p = .295, n2= .026 (H1). There was no significant
correlation between trust and duration of membership, r(92) =.028, p = .789. There was no significant
correlation between passive participation of the community and trust, r(92) =.131, p = .207 (RQ1). There
was a moderate positive correlation between trust and subjective learning, r(92) = .589, p = .000 (RQ2).
To test RQ3, we used the data from the content analysis. Externalization, that is information sharing
messages which add new information to the community, covered the largest amount of the help-giving
messages while appreciation, raising questions and clarifications followed.
Responders in the survey
There was a weak positive correlation between the quality of help-seeking and help-giving, r(62)
= .284, p = .023. The results of the content analysis on the quality help-giving messages showed a
decreasing frequency from high-quality (information plus opinion) to low-quality (link) of help-giving
messages. For each help-giving activity of the threads we added the scores of the fulfilled quality criteria
divide by 4 (the number of criteria). We compared the means of these scores corresponding to the low vs.
high quality help-seeking messages. A t-test for independent samples comparing the two means showed a
significant difference between low and high quality help-seeking in the means of the help-giving quality,
t(62) = -2,328 , p = .023, d = .5.
d) Discussion
In this study, we compared three online communities of practice organized from professionals active in
different contexts of learning. We found no evidence for the development of trust with time (duration of
membership), and for the relation of trust to the amount of involvement of a member with the
community(passive participation). It might be the case that passive participation influences quality of
information sharing (Wise, Hausknecht, & Zhao, 2014), but only active participation is crucial for trust
(Wallace, 1999). In communities of professionals, trust might be an initial predisposition as members
share a common professional identity and norms ((Mackie, Worth, & Asuncion, 1990; Zhang & Watts,
2008), and high trust might not presuppose experience with the quality of argumentative practice in the
community. Our results showed that the higher the trust, the higher the impression members have that
they learn from the interactions in the community. The relation to subjective learning may mean that trust
mediates the processing and assimilation of the shared information that leads to learning. Alternatively,
the result could mean that trust itself leads to perceived learning and overall satisfaction, similar to social
presence (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997).
The investigation our indicators of quality argumentation practice revealed large numbers of
high quality help-seeking and help-giving. The main distinction between high and low quality of help-
seeking messages was the presentation of preliminary work, thoughts or knowledge on the topic. As
expected, we found a high frequency of information sharing messages (externalizations) and larger
numbers of high quality help-giving messages which decreased respectively for lower quality messages.
The dominance of new information sharing messages in high-trust communities is consistent with theory
(social exchange theory, Roloff, 1981) and previous results (Kimmerle & Cress, 2008) that foresee trust
as a precondition of information sharing. The results on lack of elaboration (raising questions and
clarifying) also indicate this. Finally, as expected the quality of the help-giving messages increased with
the quality of the help-seeking messages and higher help-seeking quality resulted in higher help-giving
quality inside the same e-mail thread. This allows us to determine a further causal relation: the quality of
help-giving depends on the quality of help-seeking. Our findings confirmed previous results in as much as
high-quality of help-seeking, based on facts and informed opinions, seem to have affected trust (Wilson,
1981). Alleviating fear of disclosure and changing the evaluation of cost (Cabrera & Cabrera, 2002;
Kimmerle & Cress, 2008) raises the quality of help-giving, although in our case it did not lead to
elaborated responses.
e) Conclusions
The findings of this study contribute to the research on trust for quality argumentative practice in online
communities. Further studies could investigate trust in lack of common identity. Regarding help-
seeking/giving behavior, the anonymity barrier in our study does not allow to determine the direction of
causality in the relation between quality interactions and trust. Future studies can compare communities
with lower and higher trust level. More research is needed to tear apart the interdependencies between
social determinants of argumentative learning in online communities and their role for different learning
goals related to formal and informal contexts.
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